What Makes “American Graffiti” Such a Beloved Picture of Nostalgia for the 1950s?


George Lucas made American Graffiti in 1973. Its appeal through the years comes from its wild sense of nostalgia that transported people to a simpler time in their lives. Though it feels like a film about the 1950s, it takes place in 1962, a year just over a decade before its release. In 2015, it’s hard to imagine a film set in 2004 as striking powerful chords of nostalgia, but the way people remember the past isn’t so much defined by the calendar as the events that fell within. Where American Graffiti sits is right on the edge of one of the greatest shifts in politics, culture, and turbulence in America’s history. The 1960s would come to change everything about American life, so much so that by 1973 the days of the early ‘60s felt a lot more distant than a decade. People changed, attitudes changed, and culture changed.

The film’s tagline is “Where were you in ‘62?” While that question is literal, it also asks where you were in terms of self. “Who were you in ‘62?” or “What were you in ‘62?” would be equally appropriate inquiries, with answers that would almost certainly differ from ‘73.

The Society for U.S. Intellectual History writes, “Together, John, Terry, Steve, and Curt’s fates underscore the lost innocence that is at the heart of American Graffiti. Modesto in 1962 is presented as a time when conflicts were local and manageable and challenges could be met and conquered. What was to come would not be so simple.”

American Graffiti is a farewell to the post-WWII American Dream and the “innocence” that defined the 1950s. It’s a coming-of-age story about a bunch of kids making big decisions and discoveries about their lives, completely unaware of the way the world would soon change in a scale much grander than their individual concerns. By 1973, the counterculture of the 60s had mostly worn off. Many New Hollywood films reflected the damaged image of American culture.

“‘I came up with the idea of doing the movie in the (late) 1960s, during the hippie culture. Cruising was gone,” Lucas says in the TV documentary The Making of American Graffiti (1998). ‘I felt compelled to sort of document the experience of cruising and what my generation did as a way of meeting girls, what we did in our spare time. I wanted to document the end of an era, document how things change through life passages and to parallel that with what was going on in the United States at that time.’”

In the film, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is teased about his great life ambition of leaving Modesto and shaking hands with President Kennedy. 1973 audiences know he likely didn’t get to fulfill that goal, as Kennedy was assassinated the next year. Over the next few years, the Vietnam War ramped up and took the lives of thousands of young Americans. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X were killed. Hard drugs were commonplace. The early ‘70s brought Kent State and Attica and economic stagflation. And when American Graffiti was released, Watergate had blown open and the Nixon presidency was in shambles. The country’s self-image was, to say the least, complicated. In this regard, American Graffiti becomes less a romanticized vision of the fifties but a mourning of America’s loss of innocence.

Back to the Fifties, a book by Michael Dwyer, says, “The political upheaval of the sixties, and the dominant themes of the cinematic output of the New Hollywood, were in many ways oriented toward uncovering the injustices and inauthenticities at the heart of the American experience, and debunking the values commonly associated with the fifties. Yet, the sense of “innocence” may have less to do with an idealized social and moral order and more with recognizing 1962 as a moment when the fantasy of innocence was traumatically, but necessarily, shattered.”

American Graffiti featured an expansive (and expensive) diegetic soundtrack of pop culture highlights from the 1950s and early ‘60s, so poignant in its presence and presentation that the songs in the background help define the emotions of the characters and their social attitude. The music isn’t just kitsch or novelty, it’s the way teens of the time defined themselves. It was the score to daily life. As Roger Ebert wrote, “A character in the movie only realizes his car, parked nearby, has been stolen when he hears the music stop: He didn’t hear the car being driven away.” The film contains an abundance of poodle skirts and girls dressed like bobby soxers, and a lazy street-cruising attitude where anything is possible for people with the right set of wheels sets the tone. Parents are nowhere to be seen. Authority in general is largely absent. The film captures the mentality of its subjects so perfectly that it establishes a generation gap between the 15 year-old Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) and the 22 year-old John (Paul Le Mat). A distinct understanding of culture is necessary to pull that off, as is an understanding of how short-lived it would be.

The strength of American Graffiti is that it builds this nostalgic image, for the most part, without addressing the changes that are soon to come head-on. It doesn’t need to tell us what happens in America in the ‘60s—nobody forgot. The innocence of its characters are preserved through their naivety. But despite its generally upbeat attitude, it doesn’t completely fail to acknowledge the troubled fates of American youth that followed. The film ends with title cards indicating the outcomes of its four central boys: John dies two years later in a car accident seemingly through no fault of his own, Terry (Charlie Martin Smith) goes MIA in Vietnam and is presumed dead, Steve (Ron Howard) skips college and stays in town to become an insurance salesman, and Curt is a writer in Canada, implying he is also a draft dodger.

These fates are mostly sad - two deaths, one squashed ambition, and one forced into expatriation (the happiest ending of the bunch). It becomes a bit of a bummer at the end of an emotionally upbeat picture, but maintains the accuracy of cultural reality it spends its runtime representing. The world these kids inhabit, like Wolfman Jack’s popsicles, is melting.