Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Class: American Graffiti

Classic California Caesar Salad
Open-Faced Meat Loaf Sandwich w/Brown Mushroom Gravy
French Fries
Homemade Ketchup
Bourbon-Root Beer & Vanilla Swirl Ice Cream w/The Great American Apple Pie

So what's been going on? Where've I been? Well.... just over a month ago I woke up with a herniated disc which basically crippled me in my right leg. But such is life. I was bedridden and on painkillers and ice packs for weeks. Got me one of them epidural steroid shots. And poco a poco I began to get better. Especially awesome has been the acupuncture treatments which have really helped get rid of the pain and inflammation. I also caught up on a bunch of films, though I had to spend almost all of South by Southwest in bed (I did manage to get out to see 5 films and highly recommend the Muscle Shoals documentary). So that's where I've been.

I hobbled over to teach class and I think some adrenalin kicked in because I was fully able to stand for the hour's worth of lecture. I was all prepared to have to sit on a stool, but I managed just fine. Great group and everything went without a hitch.

Now here we are at part one of "The 70's Looks Back at the 50's" double bill and I'm going to start out with a little rant about something Lucas has said in relation to this movie.

"You know, this little generation of free love, do drugs, and drop out – everything when I was growing up was very different. I mean I grew in the kind of 50's and just when I got out of high school it switched in 1962 to this other world which was all through college, which didn't have anything to do with that. Everything was very topsy-turvy. But a lot of the people, and this was 10 years later in 1972, people were saying, 'Gee, it's great not to be so cool, it's great to be nervous about asking a girl to go to bed with you and stuff, 'cause that's the way I feel.' Only you're not supposed to feel that way and you don't really have to feel that way now. But going back to the way it was, I think helped a lot of people get their bearings again with their feelings and their normal sensibilities about the way the world worked."

If you view this clip, Lucas seems very dismissive of the 60's. I kind of understand why - he's 18 in 1962, when the movie takes place there's this massive cultural shift. Lucas was a bit too young to be a greaser in the 50's and he's not interested in being hippie in the 60's. He comes to Los Angeles after being Mr. Cool Guy with his hot racing car, and as he said, "At USC, the girls from the dorms all gave a wide berth to film students because they were supposed to be weird.” I would disagree with his belief and suggest that because of the sexual revolution of the 1960's, more people had more freedom to hook up and hang out without all the elaborate rituals of the 1950's which to me seemed much more dependent on status (or perceived "coolness") than in the 1960's. I suppose if Lucas could just get those hippie girls a shower and into a poodle skirt, he'd be happy - which, in some ways, thanks to the success of this film, he did.

While I really love this movie for many reasons, I have also long blamed it for the big nostalgia craze (read: white-washing) of the 1950's which began when the movie was first released. (Sha Na Na played Woodstock in 1967, but they didn't get their TV show until 1977. Happy Days hit airwaves in 1974, capitalizing on the success of American Graffiti). I'm sorry if I may offend you, but I credit at least some of this "family/traditional values" nonsense talk you hear, that nostalgia for something which never really existed in the first place, to the influence of this film which promoted certain misconceptions of the past.

What Lucas wound up creating with American Graffiti, was basically a new phenomenon, a kind of cultural nostalgia which had not existed before (yes, there was a small retro 1920's thing that actually happened in the 50's where people yearned for a less uptight culture - see Some Like It Hot as an example) - but nothing to this extent. Not to say the 1950's was all bad - some of the pop culture as in the fashions and being able to access the music of the period (first from the American Graffiti soundtrack which then led to more reissues and more musical discoveries) - but the more dangerous nostalgia for the oppressive social and political ideologies of the 1950's began a blow back against the social and political changes the 60's had brought on when it was released in 1974.

"I grew up on rock 'n' roll," Lucas said, "and I saw a great shift in rock 'n' roll in the early '60s when the British invasion came and the old innocent rock 'n' roll that came out of the blues was being distilled and moved into different directions. So, when I wrote the film, I would play the music and I'd select a piece of music for each scene."

"Innocent rock 'n'roll?" To whom? Dear George, the term "rock 'n' roll" actually refers to, um, the sexual act. The only innocents were the naive then, and the revisionists later. This is the kind of revisionism and dangerous fake nostalgia I'm talking about. Rock 'n' roll was a dangerous thing, and especially back then. Here's a little rock 'n' roll history....

1959: Link Wray’s instrumental classic “Rumble” is banned from radio stations across the country – even though it has no lyrics. The title of the song is thought to be suggestive of teenage gang violence. When Wray performs on American Bandstand, Dick Clark introduces him but doesn’t say the title of the song.

1962 - New York Bishop Burke forbids Catholic school students from dancing to “The Twist.” Burke considers R&B music, and its associated dances, to be lewd and un-Christian.

(I did say this was a rant above.) Speaking of rock 'n' roll, when you look at the list of songs on the American Graffiti soundtrack, very few of them were being played on most radios in 1962. Twenty-one of the songs were originally released between 1960-1964, twenty from 1953-1959. The two songs included that are actually from 1962 are Surfin' Safari (The Beach Boys) and Green Onions (Booker T & The MG's). That's it. It was specialty dance songs that were hot that year - as noted above, The Twist (Chubby Checker), and The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), Mashed Potato Time (Dee Dee Sharp), Wah-Watusi (The Orions), and lots of other variations on the Twist (Peppermint Twist, Twistin' the Night Away, etc). What I'm suggesting is that when Lucas was listening to that music even then, he was being nostalgic for an already almost bygone era.

For some context, the people I knew who grew up in Burlingame (which is about 90 minutes west of Modesto, just south of San Francisco) at the same time were listening to something completely different in 1962. I'm talking folk and bluegrass music. The American folk revival was in full swing in 1962, the San Francisco-based Kingston Trio were at their peak and Peter, Paul & Mary had hits with Lemon Tree & If I Had a Hammer that year. My friends moved to San Francisco a year or two later, and soon started rock bands like the Grateful Dead and such. Remember 1963 is when the Beatles arrive and Bob Dylan first hits and everything changes (part two of this double bill will get into that - stay tuned). Just something to keep in mind as you watch the film. This will, I think, make some more sense to you when I discuss Lucas' pre-film life below.

But taking a step back, the film is fantastic. Great music, great script, great acting. Okay, enough ranting, let's get to it.... American Graffiti is available for purchase or streaming @ Amazon.


"Listen, it's early in the morning. Now, I can't really talk for the Wolfman. But I think if he was here he'd tell you to get your ass in gear. Now, no offense to your home town here, but this place ain't exactly the hub of the universe, if you know what I mean. And well – I'll tell you this much – the Wolfman does come in here now and then, with tapes, to check up on me, you know, and when I hear the stories he got about the places he goes. Hell, here I sit while there's a big beautiful world out there, don't ya know. Wolfman comes in last time talking about some exotic jungle country, handing me cigars he says was rolled on the naked thighs of brown beauties. The Wolfman been everywhere and he seen everything. He's got so many stories, so many memories. And here I sit sucking on Popsicles."

Okay, so let's start here... “Modesto was a small town, and there were only a couple of theaters. When I went to the movies, I really didn't pay much attention. I was usually going to look for girls or goof off," recalled George Lucas. As he has said, at various moments in his youth he embodied each of the male characters in American Graffiti, starting out as Terry the Toad. "I think everybody sort of starts out as Terry the Toad."

So movies weren't a big deal for him. There was only one thing Lucas really cared about then - cars. In 1959, he was 15 and could start driving. "I grew up working in a foreign car service. I wanted to be a race driver, and I was a mechanic through most of high school. To me, cars were my life. That's what I thought I was gonna end up doing was being a mechanic and racing cars the rest of my life," he admitted. And so now, "I went from [Terry] to being John [Milner]; I had a hot car, and I raced around a lot," he added elsewhere.

But that life came to end on June 12, 1962 when he had a serious crash with his little hot car "and almost got myself killed, and I spent a lot of time in the hospital," he recalled. "While I was in the hospital, I became much more academic-minded. I had been working as a mechanic, and I decided to give up cars and go to junior college, try to get my grades back. So for the next two years, while I was at junior college, I more or less was Curt [Henderson]. I was thinking about leaving town, and I had a lot more perspective on things."

Now instead of Wolfman Jack giving him advice like Curt, it was a guy he had met while hanging out at car races. Lucas enjoyed taking pictures and even shooting 8mm film of races and met another fellow enthusiast, cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Wexler not only encouraged young George to pursue filmmaking as a career, but also helped him get into the University of Southern California.

When I finally decided I was going to be a filmmaker, all my friends thought I was crazy. I lost a lot of face because for hot rodders the idea of going into film was really a goofy idea. And that was in the early 60's. Nobody went into film at that time," he explained. "In a way movies replaced my love for cars.... After my accident, I knew I couldn't continue with that, and I was sort of floundering for something. And so when I finally discovered film, I really fell madly in love with it, ate it, and slept it 24 hours a day. There was no going back after that.”

Well, actually, after getting his bachelor's degree in 1967, he tried joining the Air Force, to avoid being drafted into the Army (it was the height of the Vietnam War, remember) but was turned down because of all his speeding tickets. Then he got out of being drafted into the war when his physical showed he had diabetes and the Army rejected him. Lucas returned to USC to get his master's and began working as an assistant editor under Verna Fields (whom he later hired to edit American Graffiti). He entered a few of his short films into a national student film festival and won prizes in three categories: his documentary about a disc jockey (as noted below), The Emperor, won an honorable mention in the documentary category, another short 6.18.67, won best experimental film, and his science fiction short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB took the best dramatic short prize (the best animated film went to fellow student John Milius' short, which Lucas had edited!). From there he won a scholarship with Warner Bros. That first day, Lucas wandered around the lot and found himself on the set of a musical, Finnian's Rainbow, which was being directed by another hot film school graduate, Francis Ford Coppola.

"You always feel uncomfortable when there's a stranger watching you, so I went up and asked him who he was," Coppola recalled. And so began their lifelong friendship. Coppola took "the kid," as he began to call Lucas, under his wing and made him his assistant. Supposedly, it was Coppola who told Lucas to grow a beard because "people respected a bearded man more." Coppola was so impressed with Lucas that he pushed Warners into giving Lucas the money to turn his short THX 1138 into a feature film, which wasn't well received when it hit the theaters.

"I realized after THX that people don't care about how the country's being ruined," he said at the time of American Graffiti's release. "All that movie did was to make people more pessimistic, more depressed, and less willing to get involved in trying to make the world better." And, he added, "After I finished THX, I was considered a cold, weird director, a science-fiction sort of guy who carried a calculator. And I'm not like that at all." (Hmmmm....?)

So what happened next, depending on the interview, is that either Lucas decided to make a more uplifting movie, or that Francis Coppola told him: "'Why don't you do a regular movie?' Because THX was pretty out there for a theatrical film. Francis said, 'You can do a regular movie. Why don't you do a comedy? Why don't you do something that is really accessible to people?' And so American Graffiti was the closest thing I could think of to an accessible movie."

"Cruising was gone. I really felt compelled to document the whole experience of cruising and what my generation used as a way of meeting girls and what we did in our spare time," Lucas said. "How you go from being a student into the real world. You leave your hometown, you leave your family, you leave everything behind, and you go off on your own. And, parallel that with what was going on in the United States at that time in terms of the loss of innocence, getting into the Vietnam War, the advent of British rock. You know, generally issues that centered around the idea of change."

"I had always liked the idea of Fellini's film I Vitelloni, which is kind of the same issue about growing up and about taking responsibility and moving out of the house and that whole trauma," he added elsewhere. "It was one of the themes of my first movie THX and I wanted to expand on it."

So Lucas sought out his USC friends Willard Huyck and (his wife) Gloria Katz. "We had all gone to high school at the same time, and I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. So, that was a cruising culture too," said Huyck. "We thought about friends of ours and what the various stories might be. Then we started outlining. We put a lot of cards up on a bulletin board. We wrote – I think we wrote a 15-page treatment."

With the treatment in hand, Lucas found no one was interested. Finally, with the last of his money from THX, he flew to Cannes and got himself a meeting with United Artists' president David Picker. Picker said, according to Lucas, "I read the story treatment. It sort of makes sense to me. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give $10,000 to write the script." So Lucas called up Huyck & Katz announcing he had the money for them to write the script and figured they could have it done post-haste. But the duo were in the middle of making their hallucinatory cult horror film, Messiah of Evil, which Huyck was directing, and told Lucas they weren't available. So he hired future screenwriting "guru" Richard Walter.

Why didn't Lucas just write the script himself? "I'm really quite lazy and I hate to write," he admitted. When Lucas returned to Los Angeles, he gave Walter the 10g's. And when Walter returned with the script... Lucas hated it. So now, "I had no script. I had to turn something in to United Artists. So I sat down, and I started from scratch. I wrote a new script based on the story treatment that Bill and Gloria and I had worked out. I finished it in three weeks, turned it over to United Artists. They hated it." So they backed out.

When Lucas wrote his draft of the script, he recalled, "I had a big rock-and-roll record library from when I was in high school. I kept everything I had. So I used it. I would pick a song and say, 'Okay, this is the song that is this scene,' and I would write the scene to that song." And he noted in the script which songs went with each scene. So the music was to serve as a sort of Greek chorus to the movie right from the start.

He shopped it all over town, but, as Lucas recalled, "They said it was not about anything, there was no story, you couldn't intercut four different stories and they weren't related to each other. They said that was impossible. They said you couldn't put that much music in a movie, you can't just have a music track through the whole thing. There were a lot of issues that were controversial at the time that kept it from being made. So for two years I struggled to get it off the ground and get it made. And finally I got a studio [Universal] to approve the project, they liked the script and they wanted me to do it, but they need a 'name' to go with it. Francis [Coppola] had come back from after doing The Godfather and said, 'I'll stand up and be the producer on it.' And then I panicked and realized I needed a better script and [went back to Huyck & Katz] to rewrite it and make it work."

Huyck & Katz were willing and able to work on it now and resolved one thing that really nagged at Lucas, the Steve and Laurie characters, which he never felt he had a handle on who they were and what their story was. They also brought in their own experiences.

"A lot of the stuff with Rick Dreyfuss [Curt] and the teacher, the English teacher, when Rick is trying to figure out whether he really should leave town and so forth, those were things that happened to me," Huyck said. "Candy Clark's [character is] based on people we knew. You know, there were always girls like that."

"Cindy [William's character] is based on sort of girls from that period, that era in time," added Katz, "and her feelings about the Ronnie Howard character. The Ronnie Howard character is the big man on campus, that type of high school hero, but who's kind of limited in many ways, is based on people we went to school with."

"The title, American Graffiti, was George's inspiration, and he never doubted it," noted Coppola. "We were getting lots of pressure from Universal or whoever the other people were that were involved in marketing. Basically, people didn't know what graffiti meant necessarily. 'They would think it's a movie about feet,' I remember someone telling me.... We all suggested stupid names. But it was George. I have to hand it to George. He said, 'The name is American Graffiti, and that's it.' "

The next big hurdle was casting. There weren't really any big teen actors at the time to carry the film, so Lucas and his casting people reached out all across the country. "Basically, I cast the movie by doing a lot of hard work. I cast it for six months. I saw thousands of kids," Lucas recalled. "I'd see everyone for about five minutes. Talk to 'em for a few minutes. Then I'd make out a list of the ones I thought had potential."

Ron Howard remembered his first meeting with Lucas. "When I went in to the audition with George, it was just a five-minute meeting. I told him I was planning to go to USC as a film student. We talked about that a little bit. Then I said, 'Now, look, I don't want to do damage to my hopes here, because I'd like to be considered for the movie, but I can't sing.' He said, 'What difference does that make?' I said, 'Well, my agent told me it's a musical.' He said, 'Well, it is. It is a musical.' I said, 'Well, I can't sing.' He said, 'It doesn't matter that you can't sing.' That was the interview, this very cryptic sort of conclusion."

"What I do remember is that there were readings," said Richard Dreyfuss, "then there were more readings, then there were more readings, and then George brought potential groups together."

Candy Clark, who was modeling in New York, was recommended by Jack Nicholson. "It took place in the '50s, so I thought, 'This time I'm gonna dress up and I'm going to go in costume. They're gonna see me and think I'm perfect for the part,'" Clark recalled. "So I get to the appointment, and I meet George Lucas. He talks to me for a brief moment, and then I'm dismissed. And then as I leave, I thought, 'I blew it.' You know? 'I blew it. I'm the only one here dressed up like this, and I blew it. I look like I'm so desperate for a job. They'll never hire me now.'

Harrison Ford admitted, "When I first spoke to [casting director] Fred Roos and then later to George Lucas about American Graffiti, I was in the middle of a very successful carpentry career." They had to convince him to take one more shot on acting. "The most significant thing about this picture for me was that it was the first time I played a role that was large enough that that role's importance to the overall success of the film was significant."

"After having read the script, I decided that I wanted to play any part but the part of Laurie," said Cindy Williams. "But that is the part George wanted me for. And I said, 'But Laurie is no fun to play. The other two girls – that's where the fun is. Debbie. That's the part I want.' So, I at first said no.... Francis Coppola called me on the phone and said, 'Cindy, you wanna do this movie, because it's really going to be something,' which was the second time I heard that [her agent also told her she should take the role] - and so I did."

While the part had been written with a fictional Wolfman Jack-like character, Francis Coppola had met him once and told Lucas he thought they might be able to get him for the movie. Williard Hyuck recalled, "George called and said, 'I think we can talk Wolfman into doing it, but if you would visit him at the station. The station happened to be about three blocks from where we were living, so we drove to visit Wolfman. lt was exactly like in the movie where Rick visits Wolfman. He was on the air, and we came in and gave him the scene. When he read it, he was so moved. He said, 'This is wonderful. I'm dying to do this.' So, for me, it was like meeting an icon. I mean we had grown up with Wolfman Jack. Then we drove three blocks back home."

When the rest of the casting was finally complete, it was time to move up to Northern California and start shooting. The plan was to shoot 27 nights in San Rafael, in Marin County just north of San Francisco. "We shot one [night] in San Rafael," recalled Lucas. "I come in [to the production office] the next day to go to work at 4:00 in the afternoon, and the first thing I get is, 'We have a problem. The City of San Rafael called, and they're throwing the contract out. They don't want us here, so we can't shoot in San Rafael.' So I jumped in the car, and we drove down to Petaluma, which is about 20 minutes from there.... The whole film was actually shot in Petaluma. Though San Rafael did let us come back one day and shoot a montage of just cars cruising. Most of the generic cruising shots were shot on that day." (Actually, the scenes at and in front of Mel's Drive-In were shot at their location in San Francisco.)

The other thing that happened in the first few days was that Lucas realized that he wasn't getting the look he needed. Shooting at night can be very tricky. He decided to ask the best director of photography he knew, the guy who talked him into making movies in the first place, Haskell Wexler. Wexler was between pictures, but had a busy schedule of television commercials he was making. Nevertheless, he answered the call.

"So I went up every night. Got the plane. Actually, a couple of times they helicoptered me in from Sausalito," Wexler recalled. "So I worked until the sun came up, and then I went back to LA." Then he'd work all day in LA and fly back up north.

"He did that for almost five weeks," Lucas said. "It was just an incredible gesture, and he did a fantastic job. The movie looked exactly the way I wanted it to look – very much like a carnival.... I wanted the film to look sort of like a Sam Katzman beach-party movie, all yellow and red and orange. And Haskell figured out how to do it. He devised what he calls 'jukebox lighting.'

It was a particularly grueling shoot. "We'd start at 9 at night and end at 5 in the morning," Lucas explained. "[W]hen the sun came up, that was the end of the ballgame. We couldn't get one more shot. It was very hard on the crew. Nobody gets any sleep, so everybody's cranky. And it was very cold – like 40 degrees. We had to shoot it in 28 days, and sometimes we'd do as many as 30 setups in one night. So we had a horrendous problem.”

But the actors learned how to cope with the odd hours by having as much fun as they could. As Harrison Ford noted, "The whole cast was required to be on location for the entire period of the shoot, which left the people who weren't working any particular night hanging around the hotel at night with little to do... which led to some of the legendary partying."

"Cindy and Ronnie and Richard and Charlie and I and Mackenzie kind of ganged together. Then there was the other ones, Paul and Harrison, were like the Hell's Angels of the group. They were causing trouble, and we were gossiping about 'em," Candy Clark remembered. "We all had to share the same trailer.... We all got pretty cozy that way, seeing everyone in underwear half the time."

Now one afternoon, Paul Le Mat, a professional boxer at the time, was goofing on the ultra-serious Richard Dreyfuss and wound up tossing him into the hotel swimming pool as a joke, but it left Dreyfuss with a black eye when he hit his head at the shallow end. "That night he had to shoot the scene where he's inducted into the Pharaohs and he had a black eye," recalled Cindy Williams. "I had some pancake makeup. So we kind of put it under Richard's eye. And l looked for it when I saw the movie, and if you know it's there, you can kind of see his black eye."

Charles Martin Smith recalled having to learn how to drive a Vespa in a half-hour before they shot his scene. "My plan, because I was supposed to do something funny on the entrance. That was what was called for in the script. I thought I would ride it in, bump it up over a curb, put the thing into third and let the clutch out so it would jerk. And I thought that would be funny. I got ready. They stopped traffic on Van Ness in San Francisco, 'cause it was right in the middle of downtown. They had this big crane and everything. It was this huge deal. So I came in. I finally got the Vespa in, came around, bumped up over the curb – it wasn't all that good a bump, I wasn't that happy with it – and I couldn't get it into third. So I just left it in first and let the clutch out, hoping it would stall. But instead, it took off. So this thing scoots forward this way with me still hanging on to it, bangs into a trash thing that was there and then finally stalls and dies. If you look at the movie, I stand there for a minute thinking somebody's gonna say 'cut,' right? Because this was a mistake. This wasn't supposed to happen. And I'm waiting. I don't hear George saying 'cut.' So I figure – good theater trained actor – keep acting."

Lucas was going for a documentary feel and wanted everything to look real. So he encouraged them to make mistakes. He often would have the actors do a take several times until they messed up and would use that take.

"When the water balloon hit me in the face," remembered Mackenzie Phillips. "I was supposed to be angry. But I couldn't. I was laughing through the anger. It just really worked, because it's such a bizarre thing to have a water – first of all, the water balloon was supposed to hit here and the water go on my face. But it hit me square in the face. In rehearsal, we had been told the balloon would hit here and the water would go on your face. That didn't happen. It hit me square in the face. I was just taken aback. I remember trying to be angry, but I couldn't help but laugh. That's what they used."

The finale with the car crashing and everyone going home wound up being mostly improvised.

Now there are several "in jokes" peppered throughout the movie I want to point out, such as John Milner's license plate is THX-138 (for Lucas' previous film THX-1138), and the marquee at the movie theater is playing Francis Coppola's film Dementia 13 (his first big movie which was released in 1963).

So now off to editing... "When we cut the whole thing together, it was a three-hour movie," Lucas said. "So obviously, I couldn't release a three-hour movie. lt took another six months for me to get the film cut down to be the 100 minutes that it finally ended up being, or get it to be, as good as it was in the original three-hour version."

"[B]ecause I had music completely through the movie, and the music was treated more like a sound effect than it was like a traditional score," he continued. "I used the absence of music and sound effects to create the drama. Normally what you do is use the music to create the drama and the sound effects to create the realism. I used the music to create the realism and the sound effects to create the drama."

For example, "The scene where Toad and Debbie are walking along the canal," explained sound designer/editor Walter Murch, and another old USC buddy of Lucas', "what you hear on the soundtrack is a concoction of creaky sounds from a eucalyptus grove in the wind, perhaps the howling of a wolf. Coming up underneath that is a heartbeat sound right at the climatic moment when Toad suddenly thinks that he's lost Debbie to the goat killer. At that point, all of these scary sounds go away."

When he thought he was done, Lucas had a screening at the studio. Coppola remembered that one of the Universal executives came over to him, shaking his head, muttering that there's was a lot of work yet to be done with it. "I just couldn't believe that he didn't see what he had," Coppola recalled. "George was cowering in the background, you know, because he didn't want to get in the middle of this. I remember telling the guy, 'If Universal doesn't want the picture, I'll buy the picture today for what you have in it.' And I remember telling him, 'You should get on your knees and thank this young man for what he's done for your career.'"

"[S]lowly – but slowly we showed it to people, we kept having screenings." Months and months of screenings, Lucas recalled. "Every time somebody from the studio or marketing or video or somebody wanted to see it, we'd always pack the house. We'd get all the secretaries, assistants, and everybody at the studio we could get, we'd invite everybody. So we never let anybody see the film by themselves, we'd always have like 100 people. Then word would get out as these people would see the film that this was a great film, and eventually the word of mouth actually managed to get it so the film wasn't released as a TV movie, which was what the studio wanted to do, but instead as a feature."

American Graffiti went on to become one of the most profitable movies ever made. The film won the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy, with Paul Le Mat getting the Best Newcomer award. It was also nominated for Oscars in the Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Film Editing categories. Candy Clark also got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

I'll end with this quote I love from Lucas when the first was first released: “In a way the film was made so my father won't think those were wasted years [meaning his teenage years cruising the drag in his hot rod]. I can say I was doing research, though I didn't know it at the time.”


"I was always very interested in the relationship between teenagers and radio," said George Lucas, "and when I was at USC, I made a documentary about a disc jockey. The idea behind it was radio as fantasy. For teenagers, the person closest to them is a fantasy character. That's the disc jockey. It's like younger kids who have make-believe friends. A lot of teenagers have a make-believe friend in a disc jockey, but he's much more real because he talks to them, he jokes around. Especially a really excellent disc jockey like Wolfman Jack. He's part of the family. You listen to him every day, you're very close to him, you share your most intimate moments with him.

When we were cruising, we could get Wolfman Jack from Tijuana. He was a really mystical character, I'll tell you. He was wild, he had these crazy phone calls, and he drifted out of nowhere. And it was an outlaw station. He was an outlaw, which of course made him extremely attractive to kids.

If you're about the same age as I, you are lucky enough to have grown up in a golden era of the radio disc jockey. While I wasn't aware XERB or one of the other stations that snuck up through our border from Mexico, I did grow up in New York where I was exposed to some of the great Top 40 DJ's of that time. My formative years were spent on WABC-AM with Cousin Brucie, Harry Harrison, Ron Lundy, Dan Ingram, and Chuck Leonard. (And special mention to Murray the K on WINS.) Then I graduated to WNEW-FM in my adolescence with Scott Muni, Jonathan Schwartz, Rosko, and Allison Steele "The Night Bird." (Also honorable mention to Richard (Dick) Neer on WLIR-FM and Vin Scelsa on WPLJ-FM.) Then there were other characters like Jean Shepherd on WOR-AM (see my A Christmas Story post for more on Shep) and Bob Fass on WBAI. But nowadays. The disc jockey was, as Lucas noted, your friend. These folks turned me on to not just music, but all sorts of ideas and concepts that helped form me. So much of this tradition is gone. Sure you can listen to anything you want at any time and some computer algorithm will figure out what you want to hear, but that relationship between the listener and the disc jockey is for the most part gone to history.

(A quick side note, speaking of DJ's, the part of the English teacher in American Graffiti was played by then local San Francisco FM jock Terry McGovern - also infamous for his Star Trek tribute song, Beam Me Up, Scotty!)

To put this again in some "reality-based" context, compared to the "nostalgic reality" American Graffiti, it was only in 1962 that the Brooklyn, NY-born Robert Weston Smith began to develop his Wolfman Jack persona while working at a country radio station in Shreveport, LA. So it wouldn't have been until at least 1963, when Lucas could have heard the Wolfman via XERF-AM while cruising in Modesto, CA. That radio station was so powerful, it could be heard in parts of the Soviet Union, it's been said. And it wasn't until 1966 that he switched to XERB which was broadcasting from Rosarito Beach in Baja California, Mexico, though he was actually recording his show in Los Angeles.

"I used to cut school and hang out at a couple of different radio stations," the Wolfman said. "I was a real pain... until someone gave me a job as a gofer. I did a lot of running around, bringing deejays hamburgers and stuff like that. But at the same time, I learned from some of the biggest jocks in the business. One of the deejays I worked with, Alan Freed, would come on the air as 'Moondog,' with animal growls and wolf howls and rattling chains. Another animal-type jock was 'The Hound,' in Buffalo.... That's where the whole 'Wolfman Jack' thing came from. I began emulating their styles and, eventually, I developed a style of my own. But when I tried to get on the air myself, no American station would hire me. They wouldn't accept my gig; they didn't want to take the chance. So I took the chance myself and went on Mexican radio."

According to Wikipedia, the first time Wolfman Jack appeared on film was in the "A Session With..." 1969 collection of skits by San Francisco-based improv troupe, The Committee, which also co-starred a former improv teacher of mine, the amazing Gary Goodrow. (Sorry, just had to name drop and toss that in.)

After the success of American Graffiti, the Wolfman hosted the rock music variety show The Midnight Special from 1973 to 1982. He also starred in his own variety show The Wolfman Jack Show during 1978-79. He also kept doing his "oldies" radio shows out of KDAY in Los Angeles, then back under the border at XTRA, out of Baja.

According to the LA Times, there are 18 recorded songs in which he is "immortalized," ranging from "Clap for the Wolfman" by the Guess Who, to "Living on the Highway" by Freddie King, to "Wolfman Jack" by Todd Rundgren.

The Wolfman died in 1995, at the age of 57 of a heart attack, shortly after completed a book tour for his autobiography.


Pretty much the only thing we see eaten in the movie are burgers, but I didn't feel like just fixing burgers, so I turned to the menu of Mel's Drive-In in San Francisco which is featured in the film (though it's supposed to be in Modesto). Now the history of Mel's Drive-In, or should I say Mel's Drive-Ins, is a bit convoluted, but I shall try.

The original Mel's Drive-In (not to be confused with Mel's Diner) opened in 1947 in San Francisco. The owner Mel Weiss became so successful, he opened several restaurants around Northern California by the mid-1950's. In 1963, a year after the movie is set, the San Francisco location became the focus of civil rights protests in the city against businesses that had discriminatory practices against minorities. Mel's was a smart move for the protesters since Weiss' business partner Harold Dobbs was running for Mayor. Dobbs lost the election and the restaurant became one of the first in San Francisco to actively recruit Black servers.

Then in 1972, Weiss sold the chain to Foster's Freeze chain just about when American Graffiti was looking to shoot. By this time, the place was pretty run down. According to the film's co-producer Gary Kurtz: "It was in terrible shape," he said. "We had to repair the neon in the signs and repair the light bulbs and paint it."

A few years later, the restaurant finally closed for good. Then in the 1980's, (as far as the information I found explains) Mel Weiss' two sons separately opened new Mel's Drive-Ins. The San Francisco and Los Angeles area locations are part of the “Mel's Drive-In” chain, while those in Northern and Central California and Reno are part of the “Original Mel's” chain. Both have similar menus serving breakfasts, burgers, and such.

So I thought for you blog readers, I'd let you make your own burgers if you want but give you something awesome to put on it. This is a great homemade ketchup recipe that will maybe make you give up your manufactured version. I would also send you to visit my A Fish Called Wanda post where I previously posted my recipe for French fries.

Now the history of ketchup also falls into that mystery of history category as there is no definitive thread that gets us to what we know today as ketchup and even the genesis of the word itself is up for debate. (I'll send you to the book Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment, by Andrew F. Smith, and click on page 4 to read about the etymological mysteries.)

Further, I highly recommend reading this entire article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled "The Ketchup Conundrum," but here is just a brief and fascinating (at least I find it so) excerpt.

But what we know today as ketchup emerged out of a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in late-nineteenth century condiments. Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, came to believe that benzoates were not safe, and the result was an argument that split the the ketchup world in half. On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science. The dominant nineteenth-century ketchups were thin and watery, in part because they were made from unripe tomatoes, which are low in the complex carbohydrates known as pectin, which add body to a sauce. But what if you made ketchup from ripe tomatoes, giving it the density it needed to resist degradation? Nineteenth-century ketchups had a strong tomato taste, with just a light vinegar touch. The renegades argued that by greatly increasing the amount of vinegar, in effect protecting the tomatoes by pickling them, they were making a superior ketchup: safer, purer, and better tasting. They offered a money-back guarantee in the event of spoilage. They charged more for their product, convinced that the public would pay more for a better ketchup, and they were right. The benzoate ketchups disappeared. The leader of the renegade band was an entrepreneur out of Pittsburgh named Henry J. Heinz.

"There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.... When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter.... What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz's ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?"


And just for the fun of it, just the other day this was in the news: Giant, 42,000 Pound Ketchup Spill Creates Massive Traffic Jam in Nevada. "I have red everywhere on the highway," said Sgt. Janay Sherven with the Nevada Highway Patrol. "No bodies, no people, just ketchup."

As always... cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Homemade Ketchup
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Yield: 1 Quart

3 1/4 pounds Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, roasted, peeled and chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
3/4 cup cider vinegar
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 whole clove
1 large bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

Add all ingredients except tomato paste to large pot. Bring to boil for 3-5 minutes, then reduce to simmer for about 40 minutes. In the last 5 minutes, add tomato paste.

Remove bay leaves. In batches, if necessary, pour ketchup into blender and puree.

Then pour through thin mesh strainer to get rid of skins. Cool to room temperature.

Pour into jar or bottle and refrigerate. It will keep for a month or two.

LINKS: - Petaluma's Salute to American Graffiti
Kip's American Graffiti Blog
Jeff's All Graffiti, All the Time Blog
Hidden Treasure: Lost Photos From the Set of American Graffiti, By Fred Benenson @ Wired
American Graffiti Appreciation, by Michael Sragow @ Salon
Haskell Wexler's Blog
Wolfman Jack Online Museum

American Graffiti DVD/Streaming/Blu-Ray
American Graffiti OST CD/MP3
George Lucas: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers), edited by Sally Kline
George Lucas (A & E Biography), by Dana White

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