American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) and Fat City (John Huston, 1972)

American Cinema of the 1970s

by Douglas Buck May 10, 2021 6 minutes (1335 words) HD Streaming

So these two films were paired up as part of the weekly on-line course I’m taking on 70’s film… And since I’m always attracted to a seemingly incongruous double feature pairing, and hadn’t seen either in a long-time, why not?

And what a disparity was revealed.

One is pure hip-twisting Rock n’ Roll nostalgia; a romanticized yearning for a return to an idealized suburban America. The other is determinedly anti-nostalgia; an unremittingly bleak stare at the gritty world of second-rate boxing, its dysfunctional inhabitants desperate for an unlikely shot at the big time as an escape from poverty.

One ends with an on-screen credits coda, with the remainder of each character’s life summed up in a couple of sentences (of the boys that is — the girls, having little agency of their own, functioning primarily as either roadblock or helper to each boy about to step out onto his post-high school path), as if everything that follows those wonderful teenage years will never be quite as significant again. The other concludes in a low-rent all-night coffee house, with a few, final mundane words exchanged between sad, lonely characters, who started life down-on-their-luck… and have ended up pretty much back at the same.

Both are ensembles. One is loaded with an engaging plethora of fresh-faced up-and-comers about to either ascend explosively onto the Hollywood scene (like soon-to-be superstars Harrison Ford and Richard Dreyfuss, and eventual blockbuster director Ron Howard), or to find the big-time on the small screen (like Cindy “Laverne and Shirley” Williams), with others just remaining perfectly welcome character faces of that decade (like puppy-dog tough-guy Bo Hopkins and the quirky-like-Terri Garr – only far sexier — Candy Clark). The other has its own soon-to-be-star, yes (a very young Jeff Bridges as the not-very-bright, easily-led young boxer kid Ernie Munges), but is equally shared with grizzled (and woefully) under-appreciated performers delving in deep with zero ego (perhaps explaining their lack of fame recognition) – such as the always reliable (and when I say woefully under-appreciated – between his performance in this film, in Walter Hill’s brothers-all stunt-casted The Long Riders, the underrated The Travelling Executioner, the 70’s tough cop The New Centurions, the completely whacked-out The Ninth Configuration, and as the militant Sgt Stedenko who descends into hilarious pot-fiend mania in the first two Cheech and Chong movies, and, hell, even his appearance in a Sergio Martino cannibal movie?? – this guy should be as heralded as any of the greats that came out of the 70’s – he certainly is in my book!) — Stacey Keach as a washed-up, alcoholic one-time boxer, vying for a comeback we can see he’s way too broken down to ever put together (for a career that was never as big as he deludes himself into believing anyway) and the astoundingly crazed barfly played by a maniacally irrational (perhaps slightly overplaying, but only in that entirely believable sense of the worst of the rummies on Skid Row) Susan Tyrrell, and a supporting cast that ring with pure verisimilitude, including actual players from the real world of boxing (including the likes of real-life welterweight champ Curtis Cokes as perhaps the most dignified character in the entire film, interestingly not playing a boxer, but Tyrrell’s easy-going boyfriend, managing to find ways to calmly navigate her constant booze-fueled outbursts and the chaotic streets all around them) and the late great (heavily alcoholic himself at the time) Nicholas Colasanto, an actor who feels like he legitimately comes straight out of the rough life, playing the caring – if entirely enabling – trainer Ruben.

I hadn’t seen American Graffiti since it was one of those films on an endless loop on early cable television (around – gulp – forty years ago!), and while it still retains the considerable charm I remember it having (who doesn’t love that crazy-voiced radio DJ Wolfman Jack! – well.. anyone who was around forty years ago anyway), as well as is directed with impressive confidence — especially as I’d think it had to be a bit of a daunting task trying to make all those endless scenes on the ‘strip’ — in cars and in parking lots – come alive without feeling repetitive, which director George Lucas pulls off with considerable style (in fact, out of the three films he directed, all in the 70’s – sorry, I don’t know what you’d call whatever he did with those later god-awful Star Wars prequels, but it definitely wasn’t directing – more like ‘franchise maneuvering’ – I’d say “Graffiti” is his most accomplished), I can’t help at the same time but feel a certain level of disdain and resentment towards the film — and towards Lucas.

In the face of what must have felt like a world literally exploding into social turmoil – from civil rights riots, angry war protests (and very real draft possibilities), demonstrating students actually shot and killed on a campus by police, and important progressive figures, black and otherwise, being openly assassinated – life-changing events that were openly informing the suddenly conscious-expanding Hollywood cinematic works of so many of these exciting new talents arriving on the scene – Lucas (along with his buddy Stephen) instead scrubs his vision free of any sign of any of that, instead pining for some kind of soft Republican (all white) 50’s version of the world (hell, Bob Clark’s crude 80’s high school sex comedy Porky’s at least recognized race and class division as issues – in fact, I’d argue, as less accomplished and crude as it is, Porky’s is a better film than “Graffiti”, and reveals Clark as a more mature filmmaker than Lucas, who seems to prefer to be an adolescent forever – which might partially explain the odd phenomena of why he keeps sounding more and more like his muppet Yoda with each passing decade).

While his contemporaries were taking advantage, seemingly even feeling a responsibility, Lucas and Spielberg were already carving the path back to the type of audience-pandering escapist mentality blockbuster cinema that would ultimately allow the corporate studios to wrest control back by the end of the decade and more successfully infantilize the generations forever to come.

Fat City, on the other hand, took full advantage of the opportunity to speak uncompromisingly to something immediate, of its time, with its vision offering little relief for its audience (the film is amusing in one way at least — as I began to imagine it being used in a lecture for modern film studio execs as an example of all the things ‘not to do’ in a film to satisfy a mainstream audience). And, surprisingly (though maybe not so ironically), was made by a genuine old-school Hollywood filmmaking vet, one who was more likely to be a hero of the New Hollywood cineaste filmmakers than to be standing toe to toe with them (beating them at their own game, in fact, daring to make a film about the underclasses, only without a hint of the liberal elitist perspective the new kids couldn’t quite erase from their backgrounds); none other than John “The Maltese Falcon” Huston.

Not surprisingly, “Graffiti” was a huge box office hit. Critics loved it. I don’t think history has been kind to it (how many people even bring it up when 70’s films are discussed, almost ad nauseum by this point?), however. It is still enjoyable, yes, but reveals itself to be more empty and privileged in its perspectives… exactly what Hollywood would build on for the next 50 years. Fat City, on the other hand, while it may not have the most convincing fight scenes (Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull has grabbed the mantel of that particular throne, practically shaming every other boxing picture in comparison), yet it is – like Keach – an under-appreciated gem, but one that thankfully – while it may have started out lost and lonely (it tanked at the box office, but at least did secure an Academy Award for Tyrell) – has at least been slowly finding greater recognition over the years.

American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) and Fat City (John Huston, 1972)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   american cinema of the 1970s   george lucas   john huston   nostalgia