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American Graffiti: Special Edition (Blu-ray Review)

30 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 5/31/11
$19.98 DVD, $26.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers.

The young George Lucas loved automotive cruising so much that he even had a coulda-been-fatality to show for it, complete with local newspaper clippings of his car’s pile-up. Then he went off to study anthropology in college, where he made the link between “mating rituals” and the idea of driving around at night looking for early ‘60s women that he no doubt hoped were just as souped-up (a keen concept). As the screen’s definitive nostalgia piece of its day, Graffiti seemed both anthropological and archeological even in Vietnam/Watergate 1973, so you imagine how otherworldly it looks as we speak when gasoline is topping four bucks a gallon and people are starting to censor how much and where they drive.

With occasional halo-ing that reflects how I recall it looking in theaters plus an old-school 2.0 soundtrack, I love Universal’s new Blu-ray edition. Lucas was going for a documentary feel, and shooting in Techniscope was a good start. Forever cheapjack, that widescreen process used less film and thus created more grain — one step up from 16mm, as is noted in this release’s outstanding “making of” documentary carried over from the standard “Collector’s Edition” DVD. Techniscope wasn’t used for major productions but was occasionally employed on sleepers that evolved into jewels: Alfie, Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, several Sergio Leone Westerns, Don Siegel’s Madigan. If you wanted your movie to have a rough look, it could sometimes be a plus.

Despite a budget that didn’t even allow for off-camera chairs to rest a cast that usually had to work all night, Lucas managed to wangle Francis Ford Coppola (then in his early Godfather glory) as producer, Haskell Wexler as “visual consultant” and Walter Murch for “sound montage” — which would have been a full bushel of legends even with David O. Selznick purse strings. Again, Blu-ray serves the movie’s sensual subtleties well: bright colors coming through the nighttime grain of early a.m. shooting and a Murch sound design that took the place of a musical score the picture couldn’t afford once Lucas & Co. shelled out for the oldies soundtrack that plays wall-to-wall.

Yet this isn’t one of those movies we see today where pop recordings “buy” the emotion. Instead, the constant radio din is a way of conveying a place and time — reminding me of those famous stories you hear old Brooklyn Dodgers fans tell of how you could walk down the street past open windows and never miss a pitch because everyone was listening to the game. My favorite moment here of weaving the music into the whole comes when an impossibly young-looking Richard Dreyfuss (shanghaied for a couple hours into the great Bo Hopkins’ hoody “Pharaohs” gang) sets up the comic wreckage of a police car as a nearby passing train and the Del-Vikings’ Dot recording of “Come Go with Me” compete for our ears.

The movie’s casting, as everyone knows, was perfect: Dreyfuss, Ron(ny) Howard, Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith, Oscar-nominated Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Hopkins, Suzanne Somers, a then-unknown Harrison Ford and disc jockey Wolfman Jack as himself. The high-school or recently post-grad characters were “types” that Lucas and his co-writers (Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz) had known. Interestingly, there are no jocks unless you count Le Mat’s road racer — who also, as we see in one scene, can handle his fists.

Beyond a picture-in-picture feature where Lucas comments on the action, Laurent Bouzereau’s 78-minute documentary is one of the best behind-the-scenes looks ever. Capturing every aspect of production, it features every acting principal except for Hopkins and Wolfman (who died in 1995) – plus Lucas, Coppola, Wexler, Murch, Huyck and Katz. It also tells of hapless Universal “suits” who didn’t even “get” the picture after a preview that got a through-the-roof reception and still wanted to do major tinkering. Whereupon, Coppola told them that they should get down on their knees and thank Lucas for what he had given them.

Which was, on a 27- or 28-day shooting schedule, one of the most profitable dollar-for-dollar movies in history atop spectacular reviews. Even so, the studio gave Graffiti an ankle-deep initial release that was semi-regional in nature. Having heard the buzz, I was lucky enough to be in Denver in summer 1973, and was able to corral friends into going with me to see it — well before it even got to Washington, D.C., where I was living. The movie’s knowing but unforced innocence was a wonderful antidote to the Nixon Justice Department, which I think is one of many reasons it so took off at the box office. I remember how appalled my core group of 50 moviegoing buddies of both sexes was at the time when The Sting took the ‘73 Oscar over un-nominated Mean Streets and nominated Graffiti, both clearly superior films. I still feel the same way, which need not be construed as a knock on Newman, Redford and their gang.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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