Friday, August 9, 2019

THE 9th ANNIVERSARY: More American Graffiti (1979)

                        I’ve been so busy setting up my web site (more on that in a future post) that I lost track that my ninth anniversary passed on August 4, 2019.  886 posts later, I am still enthused with this blog.  I’ve come a long way since starting it.  Originally, the idea was to review the 100 Greatest War Movies, according to Military History magazine.  It quickly morphed into an attempt to review other war movies as well.  Little did I know how many war movies there are!  I would need a second lifetime to watch just the non-sucky ones.  At this point, in the last nine years, I have watched around 700 war movies.  I am still working on my 100 Best War Movies and I am close to compiling that list.  I have seen every possible contender, with the exception of some like “Ice Cold in Alex”.

                        I like to do special movies for my anniversary posts and this one is no different.  Most people are not even aware there was a sequel to “American Graffiti”.  However, I have a special relation to this movie.  I almost got fired for showing it in my American History class.  I won’t bore you with the details.  It was a combination of a bad decision on my part and overreaction by my superiors.  Anyway, I survived and had not seen the movie since then.  It was made six years after “American Graffiti” which was probably too late to rekindle the fire.  George Lucas chose up and coming Bill Norton to write and direct the film.  The fact he made only two more films after it tells you something about his effort.  He blamed the critical drubbing he took on Lucas' hands-on approach to the production.  It was Coppola’s idea to do the movie in four intertwined threads, each in a different style.  Coppola also did some editing of the screenplay and some editing of the final product.  He shot some of the Vietnam War sequences.  The movie cost eight times more than the original, but it was only a minor box office success.  It was not the bomb that many assumed.

                        The movie opens with helicopters jockeying over Vietnam, but quickly shifts to a drag racing track on New Year’s Eve in 1964.  This places it two years after the last day of school depicted in “American Graffiti”.  The movie updates us on what is happening in the lives of the main (and some periphery) characters from the original.  Milner (Paul Le Mat) is now an official drag racer, hoping to move up to the big time.  He is visited by Steve (Ron Howard in his last credited live-action role), Laurie (Cindy Williams), Debbie (Candy Clark) and Toad (Charles Martin Smith).  Toad is about to ship out to Vietnam.  Suddenly, we are exactly one year later in Vietnam with him.  This is the first inkling that the movie is going to be nonlinear and multi-thread.  One thread covers Milner’s day at the races and his wooing of a foreign exchange student.  Toad’s thread has him doing his best to get himself out of the war.  He is a co-pilot on a chopper and Joe of the Pharaohs (Bo Hopkins) is the door gunner.  On New Years Eve, 1966, Debbie is a hippie living with her boyfriend and Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) who is now called “Rainbow”.  Harrison Ford shows up in a cameo that is discomforting because the movie feels its necessary to literally spell out that he is Falfa.  Pretty lame for a movie that tries to be intelligent.  Debbie will get involved with an acid rock band headed by Newt (Scott Glenn).  And lastly, we time jump to 1967 where Laurie and Steve are unhappily married.  This thread touches on women’s lib as Laurie wants to get a job and Steve is playing the traditional male Neanderthal.  Laurie’s brother is an anti-war protester so the movie is headed for campus and pigs beating on peaceniks. 
                        For a sequel, this movie could not be much more different from the original.  Where “American Graffiti” covered one night, this covers four days a year apart.  In the original, the arcs of the main characters intertwine in a linear narrative, in this movie the threads are not connected and are nonlinear.  Then there is the tonal shifts from sequence to sequence.  Toad’s Vietnam is filmed in grainy 16 mm. hand-held to give it a news footage feel.  Milner’s drag racing day is done wide-angle with a stationary camera.  Laurie’s day of revelation is done as an homage to the student rebellion films like “The Strawberry Statement”.  Most ambitious, and most memorable, is Debbie’s trip (get it?).  This is done in the style of the “Woodstock” documentary (and even includes Country Joe singing “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” in case you don’t get it).  It is multi-screen, sometimes very multi.  It may turn some viewers off, but I felt Debbie’s story was the most interesting to watch.  Plus, Candy Clark is very hot as a hippie chick.  Of course, I think Toad in the Nam is the most entertaining and what makes the movie clearly a war movie.  Although played mostly for laughs, it has a cynical verisimilitude to it.  For instance, Toad attempts to give himself a self-inflicted wound and instead causes his base camp to think it is under attack.  The camp reacts with extreme prejudice, including a napalm strike.  It, of course, is reported as a big victory with a large body count.  There is also a segment that involves a fragging.  There is some action, but it looks low budget and half-assed.  There’s a nice helicopter crash and Charles Martin Smith is all-in and carries the film similar to his performance in the original. 

                        Milner’s drag racing and romancing is most similar to the original film in that nothing of consequence happens.  Paul Le Mat, aware of his career trajectory (which was the opposite of the no-show Richard Dreyfuss’), puts in a good effort.  For those of you aware of Milner’s demise, foreshadowed at the end of “American Graffiti”, the movie brings poignant closure.  The Laurie story is an instructive, if simplistic, take on the anti-war movement.  Laurie plays the conservative pro-war kool-aid drinker and her brother Andy (Will Seltzer) is your stereotypical dove.   He burns his draft card.  Steve and Laurie are hipped to the scene and reconciled in the process.  This is the weakest New Year’s Eve.

                        “More American Graffiti” took a critical beating that was not justified.  While it is not able to recapture the magic of the original, it is a must-see for lovers of “American Graffiti”.  You may be frustrated with it being a misfire, but it is a chance to revisit the characters and see what happens to them.  I personally admired the gutsiness of the four different threads approach, especially Debbie’s.  And you get another wonderful soundtrack full of classic sixties hits.  If you decide to show it to your class, skip Debbie’s meeting with her strip club boss.

Harrison Ford's caneo


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