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When I first saw American Graffiti back in high school, it stood a very short generation removed from me in 1981 and seemed entirely plausible to its 1962 coming of age setting. But watching it last night on my DVD, I couldn’t help but wondering if the so called California Strip actually existed and served as the focal point for this generation in search of itself.
Of course, the coming of age themes of the George Lucas 1973 film are universal and still relevant. What value should a young man or woman put on the “hick town” they’ve grown up in as they face the unknown world in front of them. “Why should you go in search of a home, when you’ve had a home your whole life,” asks the young Ron Howard, as he waivers back and forth between embarking for an east coast college and staying put at state college.
Sorry, I have a Girlfriend at Home
The analogy also applies to the love that he must leave behind, while the sexual freedom and adventure of college exerts a pull that cannot be denied or ignored. “We’re both grown up, so seeing other people will only strengthen our relationship,” he nonchalantly spins his own version of the old story to the pre Laverne and Shirley, Cindy Williams.
Reacting in kind, Williams forces the future Happy Days star and acclaimed director to truly face the gravity of this crossroad. In other words, Harrison Ford replaces him behind the wheel to drive home the point and the excessive speed signals the expediency for our not so little Opie.
At the same time, Richard Dreyfuss represents the unencumbered kid who must carefully weigh the chance to thoroughly expand his horizons against the value of staying connected to all he’s ever known at home. Hot Rodder and Valley lifer John Milner, played by Paul Le Mat, sums up the burgeoning intellectual’s predicament in a down home form. “No matter what they teach you at college or whatever you go on to do in this life, you’re still going to be a punk kid," he instructs Dreyfuss long before he was in dire need of a bigger boat.
Don’t know if you’re Coming or Going
A stunning blonde, played by Suzanne Somers, who alluringly mouths him the words, “I love you,” from her evasive T-Bird symbolizes the whirlwind of ambiguity each faces at the precipice.
Three’s Company or not, the strip is the vehicle that heightens the drama and hopping into your mansion of glory – Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry provide the ever present opening line at each signal change and down shift to high gear.
How could it actually be? Did this ever really happen or was cruising the strip a manufactured exaggeration of what coming of age was actually like. I have no idea. Still so simple, so pure – you can’t help feel sympathy for the bland Facebook pokes and Tinder slides that kickoff a crush in today’s disconnected and fragmented world.
The innocence also seems more a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Cigarettes, soda and speed providing the indulgent barrier between teenagers and their adult overlords. How these characters would welcome such a gap in co-existing with their kids and grandchildren today.
But with vast change just ahead on the landscape, this final night on the strip must play out with the sunrise and leaves the same doubts and hopes our futures faced on the day we finally had to confront it.
Spun on a turn table and RPMs in the red – what a way to go and probably exactly the way it happened.