An Exploration of Time and Memory in George Lucas’ ‘American Graffiti’

‘An Exploration of Time and Memory in George Lucas’ ‘American Graffiti” by Canaan Perry. Suggested citation below article.

George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) is a film that was made in the wake of popular American movies like Easy Rider (1969) which was about and for a young audience. After the closing of the big American film studios in the 1960s and their acquirement by corporations, a “new wave” of young film makers, many of who had just graduated from film schools on the West Coast, were given the opportunity to create motion pictures for what was seen as an economically lucrative youth audience:[1] Lucas was among this new generation of filmmakers. His second feature film, American Graffiti, was in his own words an attempt to document “cruising” culture in small town America before the supposed loss of innocence brought about by the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the proliferation of Hippie culture and British Invasion rock music.[2] The film thus functions as an impressionistic type of nostalgic, and partly reactionary, cultural memorabilia which invites its viewer to recall and witness, in filmic terms, a bygone, but apparently naïve, American generation at the crossroads of social transition. At least some of the film’s original target audience may also have been a group who, like Lucas, lived in both the late 1950s and early 1960s at the nexus of the two cultural epochs described above. In this essay I will explore how the aesthetic form of American Graffiti shapes audience perceptions of time (in terms of the past) and cultural memory. I will begin here, however with a brief critical overview of the text for the sake of establishing a context for my further discussion regarding the past and cultural memory.


American Graffiti is set in 1962 in small town U.S.A and is filmed almost exclusively at night. It is aurally accompanied by a late 1950s and early 1960s rock ‘n’ roll sound montage and also the bizarre verbal ramblings of radio Disc Jockey Wolfman Jack. The text follows the fragmented quests[3] of four male youths at the tail end of this 1950s style youth culture before the advent of America’s full involvement in the Vietnam War, the rise of new left radicalism and spread of the Hippie movement. The small town, or “neon wasteland,”[4] could be an impressionistic remake of Lucas’s own home town of Modesto. Although, as James M. Curtis notes, we do not know for certain where the narrative actually takes place only when and the setting is a sort of universal after hours “High School U.S.A.”[5] Steve Bollander (Ron Howard), last year’s class president, and the more philosophical/introspective Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) are set to leave town and go to college the next morning. They spend the film within the confines of their separate narratives deciding whether they will go or not. Steve has issues he tries to resolve with his girlfriend, head cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams) about his desire to see other people while he is away. Curt spends the night trying to find out the meaning of a blonde woman he briefly sees in a white Thunderbird who mouths through a car window that she loves him. The two other characters, tough guy John Milner (Paul le Mat) and the nerdish 17-year-old Terry Fields (Charlie Martin Smith), nicknamed the “Toad,” who are in fact going nowhere in the immediate future outside of narrative, spend the night traversing the town streets (=the cruising circuit) trying to pick up girls and flaunt their cars in a repetitive loop. Milner, who accidentally picks up a 12-year-old girl named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), is challenged to a drag race by an out of town stranger in a ’55 Chevy called Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). Within the depictional hierarchy where cars types are encoded with social standing,[6] Terry the Toad has been promoted from Vespa rider to car driver, as Steve leaves him his ‘58 Chevy to look after when he goes to college. Trying to flaunt his new social status, Toad spends the night with a girl he picks up called Debbie (Candy Clark). The film closes with Curt’s character leaving for college and Steve staying behind to be with his girlfriend who is distressed at the idea of him leaving. The visual plates at the end of the film which are composed of black and white photographs that conjure up a nostalgic image of a high school yearbook tell us that Steve becomes and insurance agent in Modesto, while Curt becomes a writer who lives in Canada. Milner dies two years later in a car accident and Terry the Toad goes missing in action while serving in Vietnam in 1965. The main females in the film, Laurie, Carol and Debbie do not receive any mention in these plates that precede the final credits of the film which underscores the male-centric nature of this text.[7] Although, Laurie and Debbie’s characters are revisited in greater detail in the sequel More American Graffiti (1979) which Lucas did not direct.

An obvious surface aesthetic in the film that helps shape an audience’s conception of the recent past is related to the settings and music which adorn the mise en scène. The first shot we see in the film, in which the opening credits roll, is of Mel’s Drive in Restaurant; a preserved 1950s style “burger joint” adorned with neon lights. This shot is aurally accompanied by Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock (1955); a song which carries with it the significance of helping to spark the 1950s rock ‘n’ roll consumer trend. These initial visual and aural frames, in combination with the music, and the majestic but darkening blue sky in the background with clouds of tinged purple, immediately inform the audience that this text will be partaking in a kind of nostalgic but fantastic time travel. The setting encourages an audience to recall a possible past life at the end an epoch before the massive cultural shifts which occurred in 1960s America. Early in the film Milner says that:

The pickin’s are really gettin’ slim. The whole strip is shrinking. Ah, you know, I remember about five years ago, take a couple of hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit. It was really something.[8]

Later when he “picks up” Carol, a Beach Boys song comes on the radio and he switches it off in disgust saying, “I don’t like that surfing shit. Rock ‘n’ roll’s being going down hill ever since Buddy Holly died.”[9] The film thus entertains a certain degree of longing for this apparently lost past. Milner’s statements seem to reflect knowledge of an impending change which his character is unable to accept. Lucas himself states that:

Like most kids who grew up in the valley I had a strong interest in cruising. When I got to college and started studying a lot of anthropology I realized that that was a uniquely American mating ritual involving automobiles. When I came up with the idea of doing the movie, it was in the ‘60s, [there]…was the Hippie culture, drugs – cruising was gone. [So,] I really felt compelled to document the whole experience of cruising and what my generation did as a way of meeting girls, and what we did in our spare time.[10]

The main thing which we can see here in Lucas’s statement regards his interest in documenting the era. Most certainly there are documentary elements inherent in the film, in particular Lucas’s choice of techniscope film stock, which is “one step up from 16mm, in terms of negative size.”[11] The utilization of this adds a certain degree of realism to the appearance of the film. Ron Howard, who is well known today as a film maker, states that techniscope is:

…wide screen, but it uses only half of the 35mm frame. The effect is all the grain and desaturation of 16mm. So in a way it has this documentary 16mm look, yet the wide screen scope.[12]

In addition to this, Lucas also allowed the actors to improvise their lines. The inclusion of these improvised performances in the final assemblage of the text leads to a few less than perfect verbal pronunciations in the actor’s performances.[13] For example, there is a scene where Debbie’s character waits in the car as Toad goes into the drug store to try and by some liquor without an identity card. As Toad walks toward the car she says “did you get it?”[14] a number of times and on the final part of the utterance she makes an obvious mistake with her pronunciation. The inclusion of these imperfect utterances has the effect of lending a certain degree of realism to the narrative and to the simplistic archetypical characters which will be discussed further below.

Yet, as he claims in the quotation above, by the time Lucas came to make this film in the early 1970s what he wished to document no longer existed which actually makes any discussion of text’s reality problematic. The consequence of this is that Lucas reconstructs a bygone era out of his own glorified memory through visuals, musical montage and perhaps some distilled cultural expectation of what the period should look like on film. In doing so, the text takes on a kind of hyperreal representation of the era rather than that of a documentary which potentially leads to an audience constructing an odd version/vision of the past. This distilled past world appears like a highly decorated and carefully assembled scrap book collage of cultural iconography and sounds. Marcel Proust notes that a voluntary recall (in this case a filmic representation) of memory can be “prolonged at will, for the voluntary memory requires no more exertion on our part than turning over the pages of a picture-book.”[15] This particular quote seems pertinent in relation to this film which utilizes aspects of cinema to construct a particular assemblage of the past that is largely visual and aural in nature.

An aspect to consider here, with regards to assemblage and the recreation of the past, relates to the cars themselves, many of which would have already been collector’s pieces by the time this movie was being made. One reviewer writing just after the film’s release notes that Lucas demonstrates a predilection (or “super cool”) for “marshalling all the hardware”[16] of the era as a means of signifying the period he is representing. These cars used for the street shots and the sites for character’s narratives in the text are all heavily waxed and polished, and appear very well cared for. Although, this could relate to the social status with which the cars are imbued with in the movie’s diegesis, it does also underscore that there is a worth that these vehicles enjoy beyond their own context and immediate use value. The shiny luster of the cars is further amplified by the overhead lighting in the dark streets where a large proportion of the movie is filmed. The automobiles glow luminously against the non-specular backdrops of the drab brick work shops that border the streets of the cruising circuit. Moreover, many of the shots in the film are taken from cameras mounted on the cars themselves or another car which is driving parallel to it. For the sake of the camera operators who could not obtain sufficient depth of field with the regular street lighting at night there are lights on the floors of the cars which point upwards[17] towards the people inside and subtly, but nonetheless oddly, illuminate the drivers during the car sequences of the film. The filmic illumination of internals and the externals of the vehicles imparts an odd hyperrealism, perhaps even surrealism to the text, as the cars come to be endowed with both a fetishized and an alien aura. The effect of this is both a romanticized notion of 1950s vehicles and also one of technological domination as the vehicles are imbued with a visually applied signification that transcends their use value as items of transportation. Walter Benjamin notes something akin to this in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), in which he states, “in photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will.”[18] This notion seems particularly relevant to the depiction of the cars in the movie as the text reveals or highlights something alien about them.[19] Furthermore the film puts the car at the forefront of this past era and gives it an historical significance beyond that of anything else. Consequently, the viewer is encouraged to see the cars as being a major signifier of the entire epoch.

Another way the text engages with and shapes an audience’s conception of time and memory is through its thematic exploration of the teenager at the dawn of adulthood just after finishing high school. In this way the text asks us to consider this moment in our own lives when we left the certainty of the school environment for the uncertainty of post-adolescence with its culturally expected shift to maturity and independence. This is much like the theme Lucas utilizes in his first feature THX-1138 where the protagonist THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), who is living in an underground, dystopic, drugged-up, totalitarian society, leaves the “ant hill” to see what is on the surface. The theme is also carried on again in Lucas’s next feature film Star Wars (1977) where farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) leaves his mundane environment to have planetary adventures. American Graffiti deploys archetypical characters to explore this particular theme and uses the fragmented narrative style to contrast some generic choices that different people may have made in their own life. Jan Dawson notes that the text is like a:

…typical evening of adolescence remembered, but also one which marks the ending of an age of innocence – one which decisions are made which will irrevocably determine the course of the characters’ adult lives. After the affectionate nostalgia comes the moment of reckoning, when we as spectators are invited to recognize that yesterday’s ephemera shape tomorrow’s destinies.[20]

When considered in this way, the film can be seen as utilizing the characters allegorically as a means of exploring the social shift between the “innocent” fifties and the tumultuous sixties. So our own experiences are drawn into the thematic concerns of the text as we are in some ways asked to consider some generic period of uncertainty with relation to our social and historical context(s).

Although, I have documented here to some extent the nostalgic strands that run through the film there are certainly threads which are difficult to describe as purely conservative. As described above, it is Curt who breaks out of the small town to go to college and later takes up the romantic role as a writer. After he goes to the Freshman Hop (=the dance or prom) Curt begins his quest to find out whether he should or should not go to college. In search of the mysterious woman he sees in the white T-Bird he eventually encounters the disc jockey Wolfman Jack at a secret radio station who tells him to “get his arse in gear…[and see] the great big beautiful world out there.”[21] It is Curt’s decision to leave and go to college that seems to be the most privileged in the text, as, he has the luck of meeting the Wolfman, whom no one else in the text’s diegesis has ever seen before. He is also granted an ethereal/spiritual type of vision in the form of the woman in the white T-Bird and addition is also given a romantic future as a writer. This is not the case for the other characters. Steve and Laurie are represented as the archetypical popular kids of the school, with Steve being class president and Laurie being the head cheerleader. At the Hop they dance together while the rest of the teenagers form a circle around them. They seem to be at the social apex of high-school. Yet, they are depicted as unhappy and bicker constantly under their breath while the other students watch on with no knowledge of their conflict as Steve says to Laurie the he “can’t believe he ever asked her out.”[22] That Steve becomes an insurance agent in small town Modesto seems to indicate to the viewer that he personally amounts to nothing of any real interest. That Milner described as wanting to be “seventeen forever”[23] dies in a car accident two years after the narrative is the text’s punishment for his inability to accept change of any sort, although, his death could also be read as an embodiment of the passing of cruising culture per se. Toad who ends up serving in Vietnam and is ultimately reported missing in action seems again to mirror Steve in his uncritical acceptance of social mores. Thus, it is Curt’s decision to leave which we, as an audience, are most encouraged to empathize with. But perhaps it is only the decision that many in an audience wish they had made at the crossroads of youth and adulthood, as, we can safely assume here that many probably ended up in the more mundane and practical trappings which Steve becomes locked into.

It has been suggested here that George Lucas’s film American Graffiti is a work that engages in the field of cultural nostalgia. In this regard, the text has some reactionary threads which lament the passing of 1950s and early 1960s cruising culture. I have also made the suggestion that the representation we are confronted with here pays some homage to realism but ultimately is an assemblage made after the era had passed and consequently is imbued with an odd, almost hyperreal depiction of the time period, in which the car is the dominant feature. I have also stated that the film personally invites us to recall aspects of our own past through the utilization of archetypical characters whose generic features allows them to be easily aligned with people and experiences we have encountered in our own lives. Finally, and despite the texts obvious deployment of nostalgia, I have also argued here that Curt who adopts difference and change is the character most privileged by the text, particularly in relation to the reactionary John Milner who is punished for his inability to grasp the unknown.


[1] For an accessible overview of this history see A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope (Gary Leva, US, Warner Bros., 2004), on THX-1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut (George Lucas, US, Warner Bros, 2004).

[2] See “Chapter 1: Genesis of the Project,” in The Making of American Graffiti.

[3] The mythological dimension s of the text are well articulated by Alice Sodowsky, Roland Sodowsky and Stephen White in “The Epic World of American Graffiti,” Journal of Popular Film, 4: 1 (1975), 47-55.

[4] Sodowsky et. al. “The Epic World of American Graffiti, 47.

[5] Curtis states that “American Graffiti has no definite milieu. We know when the action takes place, but not where. The [films promotional] posters asked, ‘Where were you in ’62?”…[and] the music remind[s] us that the time is the early sixties, that awkward transitional period in popular culture between the death of Buddy Holly in 1959 and the Beatles’ first American tour in 1964.” See “From American Graffiti to Star Wars,” Journal of Popular Culture, 13: 4, (1980), 590.

[6] Jan Dawson notes this point by stating that: “It’s the automobile which determines the hierarchy here, and the uncontested king is John Milner, driver of a ’32 custom Ford duce coupe, at 22 still patrolling high-school territory. At the bottom of the heap is Terry Fields, a 17-year-old with pimples, spectacles and an ignominious Vespa.” In “Film Reviews: American Graffiti,” Sight and Sound, 43: 2, (1974), 116.

[7] Lucas states in The Making of American Graffiti that the film was always “about these four guys,” and actor Cindy Williams states in response to this that his decision to leave the female characters out of the epilogue “smacked of the times.” See “Chapter 5: Production Stories” (Laurent Bouzereau, Universal, US, 1998) on American Graffiti: Drive-In Double Feature (Universal, US, 2003).

[8] In “Chapter 3: Mel’s Drive-In,” American Graffiti (George Lucas, Universal, US, 1973).

[9] “Chapter 16: Driving is Serious Business,” American Graffiti.

[10] In “Chapter 1,” in The Making of American Graffiti.

[11] Described by Haskell Wexler, the lighting consultant on American Graffiti, in “Chapter 4: Production Begins,” Making of American Graffiti.

[12] See “Chapter 4,” Making of American Graffiti.

[13] Described in “Chapter 5,” Making of Graffiti.

[14] In “Chapter 23: At the Liquor Store,” American Graffiti.

[15] Marcel Proust, Time Regained, trans. Andreas Mayor, (London : Chatto and Windus, 1970), pp. 231-232.

[16] Richard Combs, “Feature Films: American Graffiti,” Monthly Film Bulletin, 41: 480/491 (1974), 23.

[17] Haskell Wexler who was a lighting consultant of the film describes this and the overhead lighting employed in the street shots in “Chapter 4,” of The Making of American Graffiti.

[18] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” (accessed 24/05/07), 3.

[19] With reference to Lucas’s previous film (a dystopic science-fiction narrative entitled THX-1138 [1971]) Richard Combs argues that Lucas substitutes “the homely merchandise of the past for the electronic clutter of the future.” See “Feature Films: American Graffiti,” Monthly Film Bulletin, 23.

[20] Dawson, “Film Reviews: American Graffiti,” Sight and Sound, 16.

[21] “Chapter 43: The Wolfman,” American Graffiti.

[22] “Chapter 18: The Last Dance,” American Graffiti.

[23] “Chapter 2: You Can’t Stay 17 Forever,” American Graffiti.

Author: Canaan Perry

Suggested citation: C. Perry, ‘An Exploration of Time and Memory in George Lucas’ ‘American Graffiti’, Space Zoetrope: Commentaire Filmique, Litteraire et Culturel, Available URL: <
and-memory-in-george-lucas-american-graffiti/>, 2007.


4 thoughts on “An Exploration of Time and Memory in George Lucas’ ‘American Graffiti’”

  1. Holla! A blog named Space Zoetrope is an exciting thing! Please add a page named guestbook or something … where we can add general comments on your blog (so that these articles don’t get cluttered with distractions like the one I am keying in); by the way boss, since you are a cinephile and I am one, humbly, too, mind clicking this link which is another blog of mine? Might be you will find it interesting …

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