Hit Me With Your Best Shot is back at The Film Experience! I’m participating this season again, because I love all of you (and Nathaniel) so very much. Regular WRM updates will continue on Saturdays.
Where were you when Kennedy was shot? Even for those Americans who weren’t alive yet, the period between the end of World War II and Kennedy’s assassination, the Golden 1950s, stand as a symbol of innocence. Call them America’s teenage years, those last innocent times on the precipice of adulthood, before Camelot fell and cultural revolutions redefined America. Whether this halcyon reminiscence is accurate or not, the myth of the 1950s has become as important to the image of America as the world wars we fought and the civil rights we won. American Graffiti is a movie about myth; mythic mystery men, the personal myths we use to motivate ourselves, myths beaten, and myths unbeatable.
We use myths to define us personally and culturally, so it follows that the character in American Graffiti tasked with confronting the myths in the film would be the character whose purpose is the most undefined: Curt, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Every other character has a goal for the night: Steve chases Laurie, Terry uses Steve’s car to get laid, John is cruising the loop looking for the black car to race against. Curt, however, is aimless and car-less. Curt and Steve are supposed to fly to college the next morning, but Curt doesn’t know what he wants for the future or the present. Then, a chance encounter at a streetlight starts him on a quest:
Who is the lady in the white T-Bird? What did she say? This white T-Bird becomes Curt’s White Whale, a mystery figure who, if he could just capture, will provide him with his answers. During his journey, Curt joins and dismisses two different gangs, the respectable Elks and the hoodlum Pharoahs. He confronts the Wolfman, a radio DJ the teenagers idolize, and discovers the legend is just a man in a studio with some melted popsicles. Finally, Curt speaks to the lady in the white T-Bird, but he doesn’t learn her identity. Like every quest, the lesson ends up being in the journey, not the destination. Curt’s destination is college, not the fantasy of the White T-Bird or the comfortable confines of high school.
The Fourth of July is a time to reflect on our American stories. American Graffiti represents the 1950s not how they were, but how we remember them to be. The cars are boss, the kids are beautiful, and the right song is always on the radio.