One Too Many: More American Graffiti (1979)

Written by Allan Mott

For folks of my generation, George Lucas’ 1973 hit movie American Graffiti is regarded mostly as the film that allowed him to move on to Star Wars, where shit got real and all of our favourite toys and bed sheets were finally allowed to happen. But for those who came before us it was a genuinely important film—their first real chance to indulge in the nostalgia that is the birthright of every generation (did anyone else watch that Lifetime Saved by the Bell movie?).

This was even more significant than it is now because, in 1973, technology did not allow people instant access to the memories of their youth. For the most part, they existed as exactly that—memories that had to be inspired by certain specific sights and sounds to be recreated, rather than brought back immediately to life via a quick trip to YouTube or Google.

We can probably thank Star Wars for the existence of More American Graffiti, the 1979 sequel that many people have no idea even exists and which isn’t very well thought of by those who are aware of it.

Which explains why American Graffiti was so huge when it came out and led to the creation of TVs Happy Days, which arguably had an even more significant impact on popular culture than the film that inspired it (and from which it purloined a post-Andy Griffith, pre-journeyman-auteur Ron Howard).

But we can probably thank Star Wars for the existence of More American Graffiti, the 1979 sequel that many people have no idea even exists and which isn’t very well thought of by those who are aware of it (it currently has a rating of 5.2/10 on IMDB). To ride the wave of Lucas’ third film’s mega-success, Universal decided to re-release American Graffiti into theatres in 1978 (a common pre-home video tactic) and the resulting box office clearly justified another trip to the nostalgia well.

Except Lucas was too busy working on the sequel to his second zeitgeist-changing hit to devote himself personally to the sequel to his first zeitgeist-changing hit, so a filmmaker with only one forgotten film and a cult TV movie to his credit was tasked with the challenge.

And it was definitely a challenge that B. W. L. Norton (or Bill L. Norton, as he would later be credited in his following work) faced. Not only was there the daunting prospect of attempting to recreate another filmmaker’s success, but there was also the fact that the first film had already famously ended by telling the audience what happened to its four main male characters and none of their fates lent themselves well to light-hearted entertainment.

Going in he (and everyone else) knew that Paul Le Mat’s John was killed by a drunk driver in 1964, Charles Martin Smith’s Terry would go missing while serving in Vietnam, Richard Dreyfus’ Curt would dodge the draft and become a writer in Canada, and Ron Howard’s Steve would—most chillingly—become an insurance salesman.

How, then, could he craft a screenplay that featured every character while also acknowledging their respective fates? Rather ingeniously, it turns out.

I first learned about the film’s existence when I saw a commercial for an upcoming TV airing when I was around 11 or 12. Already a major film buff, I was taken aback by the fact that I hadn’t been aware of it until that exact moment. I wasn’t able to watch it at the time (and I suspect if I had I would have discovered what I believe has to be a major reason for its obscurity), but the fact that I hadn’t heard of it before definitely coloured my perception of it. If they made a sequel to a film as well-known as American Graffiti and I didn’t know it even existed, it had to be reeeeealllllllly bad.

Sometimes I am wrong about these things.

Having just watched More American Graffiti, I can appreciate intellectually why it failed to satisfy contemporary audiences and faded into obscurity, but as it went on I couldn’t help but conclude that it got a very raw deal—for as much as it gets wrong, it gets so many more things right and turns out to be a very entertaining, well-made, and emotionally satisfying experience in its own right.

Perhaps it’s my distance from the original (I haven’t seen it in a decade and have always regarded it specifically as an artifact of my parents’ era—making the experience of watching it much more anthropological than anything else) or just my own inherent contrariness, but I found myself laughing and smiling throughout this strange film, which isn’t strong enough to work as a stand-alone rediscovery, but proves to be a fascinating example of an imaginative attempt to overcome some Herculean narrative hurdles.

The way Norton solved the problem he faced at the outset was to abandon the original film’s “one day in the life” multi-character structure and expand it to the same day (New Year’s to be exact) over the course of four different years in the same decade.

Each character (with Candy Clark’s Debbie subbing in for Curt, since by the time the film was made Dreyfus had won the Oscar for The Goodbye Girl and starred in Jaws and was way above this sort of thing) gets their own year and mini-narrative within the film. And, since the various scenes are edited non-linearly, Norton helps us keep track of which year we’re in by changing the ratio of the image, as well as employing other camera tricks.

John gets 1964 (which makes sense since he’s dead after that) and his New Year’s Day is spent at the racetrack, where he meets a gorgeous foreigner (former Miss Iceland and future mob-informant, Anna Bjorn) and overcomes a major setback to stick one over on the big-time racing crew who thinks he’s too small potatoes to join their ranks. It’s a not-completely convincing romantic interlude (it’s hard to accept that two people who literally can’t talk to each other would develop such strong feelings so quickly, and while his lust makes sense in the face of her beauty, her reciprocating that affection is definitely an only-in-the-movies phenomenon), but it still manages to earn an affecting poignancy based largely on our knowledge of what is to come.

This dark humour plays well today, but I can definitely see how it might upset audiences in 1979 who were barely ready for the existential horror of Apocalypse Now, much less an outright parody of it as presented here.

Terry’s story occurs a year later and focuses on his attempts to get the hell out of active duty. The tenor of his section is best exemplified by the opening scene that features him trying to figure out the best way to shoot himself in the arm, only to inadvertently cause a massive jungle bombing raid in the process. This dark humour plays well today, but I can definitely see how it might upset audiences in 1979 who were barely ready for the existential horror of Apocalypse Now, much less an outright parody of it as presented here. Shot in a full-screen ratio to replicate the news footage of the period, it’s hard not to think of the TV version of M*A*S*H in these scenes, which I suspect might have also further alienated contemporary viewers.

Debbie’s story is set in 1967. With Terry now missing in Vietnam, she has become a full-on flower child who lives in a commune and works as a topless dancer to help support her musician boyfriend, Lance. When he’s arrested for pot possession (by Harrison Ford’s formerly-drag-race-happy Bob Falfa in a very effective uncredited cameo), she scrambles to earn bail money (eventually agreeing to dance with a snake per her club owner’s request), only to have him betray her when she attempts to get him hired by a local band led by a surprisingly dreamy Scott Glenn.

This section is presented almost entirely in split-screen with multiple images in the frame, which meant it would have been largely incomprehensible in the TV version I mentioned above. In this age of widescreen TVs, this isn’t an issue and is really fun to watch (with the exception of some sped-up moments that are just a bit too cartoonish for their own good), but for about 25 years after its release this quarter of the film would have presented a challenge to even the most sympathetic of TV viewers.

And, finally, Steve and Laurie (Cindy Williams) are given 1968, which finds their marriage in trouble over his adamant refusal to let her get a job. She leaves him to look after their twins and—via her activist brother—ends up in a Kent State-style demonstration that leads to her and Steve’s political awakening when they find themselves victims of police brutality. This sequence in particular reminded me of similar work the late Michael Ritchie was doing in the 70s, particular Smile and The Bad News Bears. While Norton is a lot more facile than Ritchie, the tone of affectionate satire presented here proves effective when it’s hit in the face by the brutal reality of physical violence.

This last sequence also proves to be the most blatant purveyor of the film’s strong sense of anti-authoritarianism, which is chiefly responsible for the film’s unique balance of darkness and light. The stories themselves are broadly comic and simplistic, but they all feature a deeply cynical centre that belies the candy-coated surface. At times, I wasn’t sure if this was as effective as I wanted it to be, but then—when the film ended with the same epilogues as the first (adding only the previously neglected fates of Debbie and Laurie)—I found myself overwhelmed with emotion and burst into tears.

Taken together, the American Graffiti series suggests that you can’t ever know the whole story. You can’t judge a person based on the events of a single day or a short description of where life has taken them. By repeating the epilogues, Norton shows how much they don’t tell us. In Lucas’ film they were a downbeat shock of reality after a colourful festival of happy/bittersweet memories—as memorable as that night was, it ultimately led only to death, isolation and servitude. But here instead the exact same words are hopeful and joyous, because now we know there’s so much more to the story.

More American Graffiti is an imperfect film whose strange mixture of late 70s cynicism and early-80s optimism alienated its core audience who likely didn’t even want the film to exist in the first place. But seen today with fresh eyes, there’s a lot here to take in and admire, both technically and thematically. Saddled with perhaps one of the most perfunctory sequel titles of all time, it transcends its obstacles to become something that is completely familiar, but which we’ve never really seen before.

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