‘American Graffiti’ and my coming of age

I find it impossible to believe that “American Graffiti” has been out for 40 years. It’s even harder for me to believe that I first saw it 40 years ago. Then a week later I saw it a second time, followed by a third viewing the next week.

It’s easy to say, “of course he saw it three weeks in a row, he’s always been into cars,” and there are a lot of great cars in the movie. But in truth, cars had relatively little to do with it or, possibly everything to do with it, because I didn’t have a driver’s license.

Back in 1973 and 1974 I was a sophomore in high school. And although I turned 16 in the late fall of ’73, in New Jersey — unless you qualified for a farm license — you couldn’t get your permit until your 17th birthday. To complicate matters, I went to school 30 minutes from home and had a girlfriend who lived a further 10 minutes away. So if the two of us wanted to have a date on the weekend we had to be dropped off in downtown Princeton.  That’s where the car, or lack thereof, came in.

Although there was a mall not too far away, malls weren’t really on our social horizon yet. They were so new that it just didn’t occur to us to hang out there, the way kids do now. Plus it was even farther for my Dad to drive me. But I digress.

Back in the early 1970s Princeton had two movie theaters — neither a multiplex — and a bunch of restaurants. We could grab a bite to eat and walk around, but if you were young and fancied yourself in something resembling love, a dark theater with comfortable seats was preferable to walking around town for three hours. In theory, we had a choice of two movies on any given weekend, but if one theater happened to be playing R- or X-rated films, we had only one option open to us. Hence, when “American Graffiti” was held over, so were we.

Even in the 1970s I was an imported car sort of kid, largely because my folks drove imports and there were a lot of foreign car dealers and importers in New Jersey. But still, the cars in the movie were great. Although the hero cars were John Milner’s 1932 Ford coupe hot rod, Steve Bolander’s 1958 Chevrolet and Bob Falfa’s wicked 1955 Chevy Bel Air, not to mention the 1956 T-Bird of the phantom blonde, there were plenty of imported cars scattered through the movie, beginning with a Citroën 2CV, a couple of Beetles, a ’56 Mercedes, a Morris Minor and an Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite, although if you blink you miss that one. There were plenty of customs, 1940 Fords, and all kinds of American cars and trucks from the 1940s through the early 1950s, and the great thing is not all of them are pristine show cars. There were dents and dirt on the cars used as set dressing and that made the movie seem all the more real.

But in truth, “American Graffiti” isn’t about cars at all. It’s a classic coming of age movie. In one very long night a group of recent high school graduates discover what’s important: friends, family and their futures. It was also a movie that showcased many actors who had not yet made it big, including Richard Dreyfuss, Mackenzie Phillips and Harrison Ford.

For me it was also a coming of age experience. I was new to my high school, 16 and seeing my first steady girlfriend. I was also chomping at the bit to get my driver’s license, although I’d already been driving on private property for years. In those Saturday nights in Princeton, I learned to socialize, love and identify cars.

Recently I saw the movie again for the first time in years. And though I’ve seen it more than half-a-dozen times, I still saw details I missed in the past, though I’ve still not seen the MGA coupe that I’m told is hidden somewhere in the movie.  And no, Bob Falfa’s car was not leading when it crashed.

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