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Where Were You In ’62?

Friday 28 March 2014, 11:41

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

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I’m always accusing George Lucas of being a terrible director and yet I love American Graffiti. Why does this deeply nostalgic film continue to shine?

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    Comment number 1.

    Also remember that Lucas was left in charge of the post production of Jurassic Park while Spielberg started filming Schindler's List. He hardly ruined that movie either.

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    Comment number 2.

    I was about to say "most Director's rarely mess up when the subject matter is close to their heart", then I remembered Lucas usually only does work he cares about. Go figure.

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    Comment number 3.

    sorry for the incorrect apostrophe, as Dr Dave Bowman may have said "blame the computer"

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    Comment number 4.

    Mark Kermode has definitely somewhat changed his opinion about both Lucas and American Graffiti. At one point he talked about American Graffiti and while he mentioned if favourably, he also said that the only film in which Lucas really showed some directing skills was in THX 1138 (truly a fantastic sci-fi film). Seems like Mark has rewatched the film and embraces it now more warmly than before. That said, I definitely agree that American Graffiti is a great American film which seems to capture the period of time that it's set in (though I wasn't even born then) better than most similar films.

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    Comment number 5.

    If Mark doesn't like Star Wars, fine. But the fact remains that even if you hate it it is THE film that divided cinema history into two kind of BC/AD epochs and as such a landmark. Hardly the work of a poor director, in my opinion.

    I like American Graffiti, but Star Wars is the film Lucas will be remembered for.

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    Comment number 6.

    You raise some interesting points, Mark. I consider the highpoints of his career to be the film in question: 'American Graffiti,' and the criminally overlooked 'THX-1138.' Look beyond the Wookies and fedoras and you will find a filmmaker who is willing to challenge himself. If he had half the integrity that he has as a conglomerate; a business empire, then his passion for storytelling would lead him to becoming an assured and respected filmmaker. Lucas remains an enigma; a filmmaker who can not see the birds from the trees, but yet professes to be an advocate in it's evolution. He decided to bail out to Disney, only to discover that he could, and would never go the distance.

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    Comment number 7.

    George Lucas had a very bad experience with THX1138 which the studio hated and re-edited causing Lucas to say "they cut the fingers off my baby". So when he came to do American Graffiti he was conscious of making something audience friendly in order to keep the suits' at bay. On American Graffiti, he had a very small budget, two co-writers, so he clearly had to accept input from others, keep it to schedule and keep his direction tight and econmical.
    Flash forward to The phantom Menace where Lucas was so rich he could do everything on his own terms and it's quite clear that the only voice on that film belonged to George Lucas. The best argument against the 'auteur theory' is The Phantom Menace which is produced by a man who is less a director more an absolutist monarch. Plus in the intervening years Lucas fell in love with technology and forgot that directing a movie involved more than just telling Jake Lloyd "stand there". Prior to the films' release there were stories about actors only being allowed to see the pages they were shooting and that the costume and art department had log every photo taken even if the flash didn't go off, which gives a small glimpse of Lucas' neurotic control freakery.

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    Comment number 8.

    I think that Lucas’s early films, American Graffiti in particular, were his best closely followed by THX 1138.

    And yes I adored American Graffiti when first released. Great soundtrack of course, of its characters there will be one you identify with and it knowingly played (particularly with its end credits sting - John was killed by a drunk driver in 1964, Toad was reported missing in action in Vietnam in 1965 etc.) on the nostalgia for small town life just prior to the Vietnam war and the ensuing protests, counter culture, civil rights etc. that ensued.

    The first three Star Wars films were fun, elevated by the revelation in the story-ark of ‘Empire’ of Darth Vader being Luke’s father and a final showdown in ‘Return’ that didn’t rely on the hero and villain fighting to the death, but had Luke tying to save his father from himself.

    Lucas actually wrote a good story for the first SW trilogy. Something he completely forgot about when he returned for the later ones.

    As a producer he’s produced (and also written) some decent films and he founded LucasFilm. Pixar grew out of that and did Industrial Light & Magic. Not as bad a career as some would make out he's had.

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    Comment number 9.

    From memory American Graffiti was a random collection of different stories of all the characters put together. It wasn't a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but enjoyable to watch in context.

    Phantom Menace, however, really proved he didn't know what made a good film. Got better by Revenge of the Sith. Plus the continuous re-edits of Star Wars trilogy, which have added little and subtracted a lot.

    The best news for the Star Wars fan is that Lucas isn't directing the next installments. But can Abrams recreate the look and feel of Star Wars? I think he can, and I hope without Jar-Jar.

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    Comment number 10.

    It's as much a classic period piece reflecting early 1960's West Coast lifestyles,as say,a leap across the pond,and being in the middle of a union meeting with Fred Kite in "I'm All Right Jack".

    Both polar opposite's,but absolutely drip with what it was like to be leading those lives,amongst the sun and surf of California or the Management v Union times when Britain was still an industry.

    Whilst down on the opposite side of the country,Mississippi was smouldering,as the civil rights movement gathered momentum,i don't think many of the tune's on what was an outstanding soundtrack were being spun by the oppressed of Alabama.

    For me American Graffiti,was a movie that emphasised how the privileged came out to play,ignorance is bliss they say,as young americans self absorbed with image,lost track of national and international policy,drowned out by The Shangra La's.

    Now if you want to check out poor imitation's and i mean "Poor" have a delve into the comedic diluted weak as dish water sequence of the most tepid attempt at cinematic parody there is,notably the Israeli made "Lemon Popsicle"and if that isn't enough to wet your appetite the follow up "Hot Bubblegum"made in 1981..this was then backed up with six other dreadful efforts,that morphed into Confessions of a Window Cleaner collides with Carry on Girls..embarrassingly rank bad.

    As for George Lucas,if a face was made to advertise a clean shave courtesy of the best a man can get,the new Gilette Mark 2 Disposable Razor is tailor made with the adjustable six blade contoured head,programmed to avoid surface acne with the revolutionary built in micro satellite navigation device,this would have come in particularly handy during the nervous disposition he was encountering pre-Phantom Menace release...or if he needed the extra revenue after it bombed at the box office,how about taking to the Nashville Road and becoming a Kenny Rogers tribute act.

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    Comment number 11.

    We get it Kermode, you don't like Star Wars! And yet you like Twilight, hmm...

    American Graffiti is a very good film and it's success helped George make Star Wars. Anybody who has watched any of the behind scenes stuff understands why George quit film-making for a considerable time.

    He is a genius though, like JK Rowling he became TOO successful and too rich and all because of 'fantasy' stuff. The snobs don't like this see and then endeavour to try and tarnish that which is popular because THEY don't 'get' it.

    It's a shame some right-minded people go along with these vendetta's but that's another story.

    Star Wars was a bolt of lightening that showed how cinema could actually be fun again amidst the ever-so serious and tumultuous 70's. Far from ruining cinema it saved it.

    Whom are you going to trash next Kermode? Spielberg? Nolan?! Bring it on!!

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    Comment number 12.

    One of the very very few things I agree with Dr. Kermode is his dislike of Star Wars, since I too loathe it. However I do also think American Graffiti is an overrated film, as much as I wanted to like it due to the performances, setting and music, it just didn't gel with me.

    However the one thing I did enjoy was its youthful innocence. The film is set on the eve of America's involvement in the Vietnam war, and I was saddened on how this was the first dent society tried to evoke on the teenager.

    The only other film I can compare this film to is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, another film that I did not enjoy, although this was down to Ezra Miller giving an over the top performance. Perks is a great companion piece to Graffiti since both are about teenagers, and both are set in the past. Like Graffiti, Perks is also about the joys of being a teenager, and it is also set just before a social revolution that will change society, only this time it was the communications revolution of the mid 90s, a revolution that slowly over time destroyed the joys of the teenager and replaced with the miserable cynicism of the young adult.

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    Comment number 13.

    Forgive him for Phantom Menace? Steady on. OK it might be helpful to remind ourselves of all the great things George has done as a producer and innovator. But for all the great things Lucas has done (and I'd add the fine LucasArts games developers to this list), and they are numerous and indispensable, the episodes 1, 2, 3 are completely unforgivable. They are an insult to every element of good story telling, character and narrative, and are essentially three films whose net effect is to spoil the ending of the best film in the franchise.

    I am surprised that Mark has neglected to mention Howard the Duck, which Lucas produced. Although he puts it in the "for" column, many more put it in the "against". (I'm on the fence as I enjoy bits of it, but I mark it as one of the ground zeroes of special effects laden rubbish endings.)

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    Comment number 14.

    What's there to forgive anyway? Only films, don't give me this 'raped my childhood' guff either. Don't like them don't watch. I have seen far nastier and offensive material than Jar Jar blooming Binks!

    A Serbian Film - awful, nasty, malicious and pointless. Same for Kill List and Bruno was complete garbage without a pod race or light saber in sight.

    Get a grip kids!

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    Comment number 15.

    American Graffiti and THX 1138 are two great films, and then he made Star Wars, another great film, and became a massive hit. You could say then it sort of took over his life. To some people that is a good thing, To others like me can only wonder what sort of direction he would have went in if it wasn't such a success. What other subject matter would he have tackled as a director. He did though create Indiana Jones and was a creative force behind many of Spielbergs projects.

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    Comment number 16.

    The main reason American Graffiti still captivates viewers is because it is the definitive 'coming of age' tale with the theme of friendship firmly embedded at the heart of the film - something that resonates with us all.

    Over the course of one evening in 60s America, the film manages to hone in on the character's cross over from childhood into adulthood as they contemplate, not only the future, but the choices and sacrifices they will have to make.

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    Comment number 17.

    American Graffiti is a very good movie but Star Wars is a great one. Even if you didn't like it, you can't deny that Star Wars rewrote the rule book. American Graffiti merely led to Happy Days.

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    Comment number 18.

    American Graffiti is a fantastic film, not least because it's arguably the Idyllic teenage fantasy that many people wish they had. Many of the incidents in the film are also based on real incidents experienced by the teenage George Lucas, but jazzed up to make them far more exciting than the real events were (for instance the scene where the police car gets it's real axle ripped off by the rope apparently really happened... Except in real life the axle didn't rip off and the police car just stopped, rather anticlimactically). I think his mother commented to him that he'd taken the only interesting things to happen to him in five otherwise dull years of cruising cars and condensed them into two hours of excitement.

    Two things though: first, despite the film's joyfulness, Lucas had an absolute nightmare directing the film and in fact hated the entire experience of film directing, the first Star Wars film being the finally straw before he jacked film directing completely and instead hired other directors to do as he told them.

    Second, Lucas is hardly the only highly talented young director to apparently - and permanently -lose the ability to direct a good film, never for his directing mojo to return. John Carpenter lost the ability to direct a worthwhile film decades ago. The difference between them is that Lucas made so much money from the phenomenon that is Star Wars that he could indulge his every filmic whim, no matter how inane.

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    Comment number 19.

    It's a strange world, to be sure.
    Take Simon Pegg. Hates TPM and then flies the flag for the garbage that is the JJ Treks.
    Go figure.

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    Comment number 20.

    I wasn’t about in ’62, but I was just about old enough to be taken to the cinema, for the first time, to see the original Star Wars. As such, that film does have a special place in my heart, as it kick-started my love affair with cinema. Generally, I think the best of George Lucas’ work was made when he was under tight restraints in his early days. As already mentioned above, I think the Star Wars money increasingly ruined his creativity.


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Outspoken, opinionated and never lost for words, Mark is the UK's leading film critic.

This twice-weekly video blog is the place where he airs his personal views on the things that most fire him up about cinema - and invites you to give your own opinions.

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