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Review: How American Graffiti's Diner Forever Changed Film

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Courtesy Universal Studios Home Entertainment

eaterclassicsweek_black.0.jpgBefore how many scenes in how many scripts are the words "[Setting: A diner]" written like a small ancestral shrine above the threshold? There are, perhaps, too many to count, for the diner in American cinema is the restaurant whitespace of a meaningless existence — our meaningless existence — against whose blankness we rage as we pour endless streams of sugar into a bitter black brew. Plus, a side of fries.

There can be no argument that, second-for-35mm-second, the prologue of Pulp Fiction is the best diner scene ever. Yes, a marble-mouthed Brit does most of the talking. Yes, technically, it's a coffee shop, not a diner. And yes, anomalously, it ends with a stick-up and the best salvo of unexpected profanity since Winnebago Man. Most scenes just end with the pie. But those four odd minutes stand on the shoulders of giants, and one in particular: George Lucas's American Graffiti. Lucas's 1973 masterpiece established the diner as the archetypal American backdrop. Hitchcock had Mt. Rushmore. Lucas and everyone else since then — from Levinson to Tarantino — has had formica, neon, and naugahyde.

George Lucas on the set, 1973. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Though obfuscated, the entirety of the film is latent in its title. American Graffiti was made at the tail-end of the Vietnam War but set in 1962, in Lucas's hometown of Modesto, California. Chronologically, it's the sixties but culturally, it's still a world of candied tones, cherry Cokes, and big-finned Impalas. (The real sixties began in 1965.) That's the "America" of American Graffiti. And what of the graffiti? In its original sense, graffiti were illicit inscriptions on ancient walls. Found in the Roman catacombs and Pompeii, they were scratched-out unofficial messages. Though early messages were mostly "For a Good Time Call Restitutus" variety, in contemporary graffiti the meaning is found less in what is written, but in the impulse to write it. Graffiti is our irrepressible urge toward expression, and through expression, existence. That's the "Graffiti" of American Graffiti.

Part of the melancholy joy in watching the film now is how today's old male actors were once young bucks. Ron Howard is Steve Bolander, a wispy beanpole square. Richard Dreyfuss is a foxy boxy kid named Curt Henderson. Harrison Ford is a drag-racing cowboy named Bob Falfa. There are others who didn't quite make it to be leading men. Charles Martin Smith was a great geek named Terry the Toad, but now, he directs movies like Dolphin Tale. Paul Le Mat nailed it as charismatic drag racer John, but his career fizzled out after. Their IMDB pages and Wikipedia entries destroy me, the same sadness that arises when driving by a lonesome interstate diner whose prime has passed, whose booths, once filled with yutes, now silently sit shiva. Hall and Oates sang it best — don't they always? — in "Abandoned Luncheonette": "Then they were old, their lives wasted away / Month to month, year to year / They all run together / Time measured by the peeling of paint on the luncheonette wall."

Actors Bo Hopkins, Beau Gentry, and Richard Dreyfuss. Photo: Universal Pictures/Getty Images

AG's plot, such as it is, unfolds on a summer night before Steve and Curt head East for college. We've all had those long summer nights in late adolescence, though ours probably involved less cruising the Strip in beautiful cars (by '73 that culture had waned, but in '62, cruising was what one did). Much as the later film Diner — and the later later show Seinfeld — were technically about nothing, so too does American Graffiti ramble and cruise. The story isn't in the story, but in what we do when there isn't one.

American Graffiti's story isn't in the "story," but in what we do when there isn't one.

Curt dithers about leaving for school and falls in love with a mysterious blonde inamorata he sees driving a white Thunderbird (she's played by Suzanne Somers of Thighmaster fame). Steve is kinda a dick to his girlfriend, Laurie (the tremendous Cindy Williams), in exactly the way many kids going off to school are. Hot rodding John inadvertently picks up a tween, and Terry has the night of his life with a blonde named Debbie Dunham (a role which earned Candy Clark an Academy nomination). There are a few events that transpire — a drag race gone wrong, the world's best cameo by Wolfman Jack, a strangely angst-free destruction of government property — but the bulk of the action takes place either in the cab of John's hot-rodded up '32 Ford Deuce Coupe or at Mel's Drive-In, also called Burger City, a real drive-in chain founded in San Francisco.

This wasn't Mel's first cameo in a major film. There's a hilarious scene in 1967's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? in which Spencer Tracy is befuddled by the extensive ice cream list. "Daiquiri Ice? Honeycomb Candy? Cocoa Coconut? Jamoca Almond Fudge? Mocha Jamoca? Peanut Butter and Jelly? Cinnamon Banana Mint?," asks the roller girl. "Fresh Oregon Boysenberry Sherbet?"

Photo: Universal Pictures/Getty Image

But in Lucas's film, what comes out of the diner's kitchen is just an excuse to hang out in the booth or in the front seat of a boss ride. Surprisingly little food is actually consumed in American Graffiti. Steve mopes over a Coke alone, slowly pouring salt on an empty table. (Not cool, Steve.) Terry the Toad does make a substantial order — a double Chubby Chuck, a Mexicali Chili Barb, two orders of French fries, and two cherry Cokes" — but drives away before it's delivered. (Not cool, Toad.) Burgers, milkshakes, fries, cheeseburgers, cherry Cokes, and bottomless cups of coffee appear, but are literally filler. They hold, like the actions of Steve, Curt, and John, little inherent value or meaning in themselves, but are nonetheless necessary. They exist because not existing isn't an option.

Tellingly, the most important food of the film isn't ordered at the diner. It's a popsicle (as in "as cool as a popsicle") that's proffered to Curt by DJ Wolfman Jack, the film's "Wizard of Oz" and a whiff of real deal hep (that's the old-school term for "hipster"). "Hey, have a popsicle," he says, "the icebox broke down and they're melting all over the place." That's both the gag, the magic, and the heart of the film. Life is a popsicle. It's going to melt one way or another. The Wolfman keeps on pushing popsicles on the hapless Curt, who eschews them. Pearls before swine, popsicles before youth.

Had it not been for Lucas, Mel's Drive-In might have blinkered out of existence.

By 1973, the year of American Graffiti's release, the Mel's franchise had fallen on hard times. The drive-in fad had passed, but hadn't been dead long enough to be resurrected as nostalgia. Had it not been for Lucas, Mel's Drive-In might have blinkered out of existence. Looking back on it now, those diners and drive-ins (but not dives, because that particular holy trinity has been permanently bespoiled by Guy Fieri) were all as magnificent as Mel's — though magnificent, perhaps, is not the mot juste. They were extraordinarily ordinary. It's just that once their Golden Age has passed, looking back from '73 or '94 or now, we can recognize how extraordinary they really were. Thank god, diners then didn't have to contend with our bludgeoningly self-aware times. For diners, like teens, suffer from excessive knowledge of self.

That's why there is perhaps no better place to be, for a teen, than a diner on a hot night. With its fluorescent light and plate glass, the diner is a chrysalis within which cresting adolescents can wait out their transformation. Lucas didn't invent the diner as waiting room — Edward Hopper had painted Nighthawks 30 years earlier. But he did intrinsically tie the diner to an all-American adolescence, with its aimless hours of boredom, empty but necessary gestures, and its lonely neon sign, blinking hopefully in the night.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars