Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What American Graffiti Taught Me About The 80's

Writing a blog about things that are considered “retro” obviously requires a lot of trips down Memory Lane and the nostalgia that comes with it. Not only do I think about the decades and years of my own life, but I often feed off the nostalgia surrounding decades that came before those within my lifespan. Often times these decades have had an influence on the decades of my own life, or have had an influence on me directly. Although I never lived during them, the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s have always been of interest to me, since they were my parents decades and since they seem to have a real impact of the world around us, and the way we think and perceive the world.

On Friday night after another long week drew to a close, I decided to watch American Graffiti. I’d seen the movie several times during my life and at one point my Dad had it on video cassette, and I’ve had the soundtrack on CD since I was just shy of 16. Each time I've watched the movie it's been while I was at a different age and I’ve taken something different away from it each time. As a kid under 12 it was a cool movie about old cars and good music, and as a teenager and even into my 20’s it was a movie about a group of kids just trying to have fun before heading off to college. After getting a little older though, especially this weekend, I took something totally different away from the movie. Essentially the movie, and this was probably the actual theme, was about the end of innocence even down to the year the film takes place in.

Look at a copy of the movie poster, or at the DVD cover and you will see the movie slogan “Where were you in 62’?”. Keep 1962 in mind because it's pretty important to history and the movies theme. American Graffiti came out in 1973, and was one of George Lucas’s (yes, Star Wars George Lucas) first successful screenplays and directorial jobs. As matter of fact his success with American Graffiti was what got Fox Studios to back his off-the-wall sci-fi concept Star Wars, a few years later. The big question to keep in mind is, how can a film about a period only 11 years earlier be so nostalgic, and a commercial success based on that? It's actually an easy question to answer but it requires a history lesson and a look at the film.

If you've never seen American Graffiti let me sum it up for you. It's a story about five friends, all of whom graduated high school at the beginning of summer, and are now on their way to adulthood. It's now the end of summer and for two of the characters Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Howard (Ron Howard) it's their last night in their hometown of Modesto, CA before heading off to college. Along the way we also meet their nerdy friend Terry (Charles Martin Smith), hot rod driver John (Paul Le Mat), and Howard's girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams). As the night progresses Howard and Laurie pair off for their last night together, and Curt sets off to find himself and decide whether he truly wants to head off to college the following day. In the meantime John cruises Modesto’s strip in search of a race, and Terry takes off in Howard's car to find adventure and love on his own. Essentially, it's a pretty big and life changing evening for all of them. Along the way we run into some familiar faces like Harrison Ford as a rival drag racer of John’s, Mackenzie Phillips as the innocent Carol, John’s awkward date for the evening, and 1950’s and 60’s radio icon Wolfman Jack.

The movie has fun with all five characters but it's Dreyfuss’s character of Curt the movie mostly focuses on. The evening isn't just a passing of time, but more of a journey for him as the passing hours of the evening take him from a hapless indecisive teenager into adulthood. As the evening passed he encounters friends, an old flame, a favorite high school teacher, a dream girl in a white T-bird, harmless street thugs, and Wolfman Jack all of whom help him make his final decision in the morning. All of the other characters lose innocence in different ways as well. For Howard and Laurie a (*spoiler alert) near death experience sheds their innocence. For John nearly losing a race sheds his teenage feeling of being indestructible, and Terry loses his virginity.

All of this, as mentioned before, takes place at the end of summer in what must be late August or perhaps very early September. In itself that kind of hits home the concept of growing up since we’ve all been there, walking out of our high schools for the last time in late May or early June with diploma in hand feeling like kings of the world and playing all summer. That is till late August hits and suddenly we are on our own at college, or dealing with work obligations, or in my case both at the same time. So it’s only fitting that as the last wild night of summer draws to a close for these five characters, so to does a chapter in their lives close. As I said before though another important thing to remember about this movie is the year it takes place, 1962. For anyone who lived in that era 1962, especially the summer of 1962 represented the end of an era, specifically the 1950’s. Although technically the 50’s ended on December 31st, 1959 the era itself carried on with culture, music, and dress into the early 60’s. That era would end in 1962, as the nation itself began to lose it’s 50’s innocence first with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, and then with JFK’s assassination in November of 1963. What would follow for the nation were some heavy and tumultuous times of civil unrest and the Vietnam War, only brightened here and there by our advances into space with the moon landing in 1969, and with the new form of music The Beatles would bring us in 1964. What was left of the 50’s and the era of national innocence, much like the innocence of the characters in American Graffiti died as the Summer of 1962 ended. Without mentioning the social and national upheaval to come at the end of the movie (*spoiler alert) it’s revealed that December of both 1963 and 1964 would claim the lives of two of the main characters hitting home the loss of innocence for both the characters and the nation.

So why only 11 years after the movie took place could a film be so nostalgic, and a commercial success based on that? It’s simple in the 11 years after 1962 the world had changed so much and been through so much revolution and heartache, that 1962 seemed like a lost bygone time. A heartfelt coming of age film about the loss innocence focused on that era, seemed to hit home with the “Baby-boomer” generation that had experienced it all first hand. For my parents, despite living in Chicago in 1962, many of their personal experiences in that era seemed to reflect what the characters went through and their own memories of that era, making the whole film a nostalgic call back to their younger years. For us as Gen X’rs and Millennials 11 years ago from 2017 wasn’t much of anything since 2006 wasn’t much of a year. If you were to ask us to remember back 11 years earlier in 2011 of 2010 though, the answer may be a bit different and may give us some clue as to what the Baby-boomers felt in 1973 when thinking back on 1962. For us the years of 1999 or 2000 seemed like a time of innocence, as the 90’s drew to a close with the nation's unstoppable economy, and promises of a brighter future through technology. For us the events of September 11th changed everything, and the 1990’s age of innocence died, as tumultuous times took over with terrorism threats, huge economic downturns, and war.    

So where am I going with all this? Well some weeks back The Retroist asked an interesting question on Facebook, Are we seeing a backlash against nostalgia? Have we had enough eighties pop culture?”, (be sure to check out the full Facebook post, and The Retroist podcast). I answered the post right away but it’s also been food for thought ever since, especially as I’ve been getting ready to write a few straight up nostalgia pieces myself. I will admit that there is a slight fascination with the 80’s going on right now, a lot of it coming from the direction of popular fiction such as Netflix Stranger Things, and the upcoming movie adaptation of Player One Ready. With that in mind though I will mention that in the mid to late-90’s there was also a lot of fascination with the 80’s as well. I remember a few of the larger Chicago radio stations having 80’s music hours or weekends, I remember 80’s themed parties being a regular thing, and I remember an 80’s themed restaurant and nightclub nearby that was pretty successful for a few years. Of course there were a few short lived TV shows, and a few movies of which The Wedding Singer was the best, and best well known.

So that brings me oddly back to American Graffiti. You see even though The Retroist question has been rattling around my head the past few week’s I’ve had a hard time nailing down the question of nostalgia and the 80’s until I watched American Graffiti. Since American Graffiti was a walk down Memory Lane for a lot of Baby-boomers it wouldn’t be till the late 70’s and 80’s that 50’s nostalgia hit its stride. We’d see TV shows like Happy Days, interestingly inspired by American Graffiti and casting Ron Howard to boot, and Laverne & Shirley a Happy Days spin off and again featuring American Graffiti alum Cindy Williams, as well as movies like Grease, Back to the Future, and Peggy Sue Got Married to name just a few. In the end although interest in the era would pop up a little after more than a decade after it ended, it would take a full twenty to thirty years before a full out solid interest in the era took place. It was in this period that we got reunion concerts for musical groups of the time, whole radio stations dedicated to the era, a deep and loving interest in the cars of the era, and of course last but not least the Baby-boomers began to collect all the toys of the era. For my father it was vicariously getting me to buy a Lionel 2323 Santa Fe F3, one of electric train collectors, and the 50’s most iconic toys. It wasn’t just the trains, but metal trucks and cars, original Barbies, metal robots, and all those other truly iconic things that were unsalable at resale shops and garage sales a decade previous. For many Baby-boomers the toys ultimately were a nostalgic association with childhood innocence and simpler better times of prosperity and peace.

Perhaps for us as Gen Xer’s the late 90’s fascination with the 80’s, and 1998’s The Wedding Singer was like our 1973 for Baby-boomers with American Graffiti. Instead of getting a coming of age drama, sharpened by the heartache and pain of the following 11 years, we got a goofy nostalgia filled comedy. Perhaps this is a comment of the 13 years that would lapse between 1985 and 1998, or just on our generation itself. Then again, although we may not have had the civil unrest and  Vietnam War to contend with, that 13 year period between 1985 and 1998 did have some intense moments. We dealt with the first Gulf War, and the dramatic fall of Communism which had some scary moments in itself, as well as some economic hardships towards the start of the 90’s. With all that said though much how the mid-80’s saw a huge influx of movies and entertainment based on the 50’s nearly 30 years after, perhaps we as Gen-Xer’s have reached that point with the 80’s. For instance NES, and Atari games that could one be picked up by the bushel full and flee markets and garage sales a decade ago for next to nothing, now command a bit of a price, as do old toys like those of M.A.S.K., Star Wars, and GI Joe. The 80’s have crept their way into entertainment like Stranger Things, and Player One Ready and other shows and movies are out there. Unlike the Baby-boomers though we also have instant access to the entertainment of the 80’s as services like XM, and Pandora allow us to listen to 80’s music all day, and services like Amazon Video and YouTube allow us to watch movies and TV shows of the era on a whim. In essence thanks to the internet re-immersing ourselves in that era of our childhood and innocence is far easier for us, as it is easier to share it with our children.

When I honestly look at this 50’s to 80’s comparison and then try to answer The Retroist question now, the answer suddenly seems so much clearer. So are we seeing a backlash against nostalgia, and have we had enough eighties pop culture? We live in scary times, and I hate to say it but we’ve been in them for 16 years now. There are terrorist attacks, a limited amount of civil unrest, war and the potential for war going on, and the economy hasn’t really been good in about 9 years either. So we as Gen-Xer’s are dreaming of simpler times, and for many of us that's the 80’s and yes the 90’s as well. I will admit there has been a backlash as retro gamers are criticized for flooding YouTube with too many shows, and I myself found the actual book for Player One Ready to be for too heavy with 80’s content. At the same time though we as a generation need something simpler to cling in order to maintain our sanity, and a simpler time to teach or children about so they in turn can have hope. The fact that there was fairly peaceful and prosperous time that existed for just shy of 20 years before September 11th, 2001, and that was rich in culture, music, and positive world changing ideas needs to be something we can cling to and pass on the idea of returning too. In many ways the Millennials are like their great grandparents of the Greatest Generation in the 1930’s through World War II, living through two decades of uncertainty while the generation before them tells them about simpler better times, and that they will return.

In comparison looking back to all the 50’s based movies and TV shows of the 1980’s, I really don’t think we are anywhere near that with our current 80’s fascination. I will admit however that as child and even a teen I looked back at the 50’s as being a time of perfection, and when everything was good since I was almost brainwashed by pop culture to think that way. Obviously, not everything in the 50’s was squeaky clean and good, something I learned later. So we need to be careful as a generation not to overplay the 80’s in the same way the Baby-boomers overplayed the 50’s, and brainwash our our children to the point they see the era as a time of perfection.
So yes, American Graffiti a movie niether about or even made in the 1980’s, has in fact taught me about the 1980’s and how to perceive it, thanks to the eyes of a generation previous. This is why history is so important to learn not just from books, but from the recollections, films, and music of the generation that lived through it.

Do yourself a favor and check out The Retroist, it s really great low-key podcast about nostalgia, the website is theretroist.com, and the link to his question on facebook is attached the the question itself above.            

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