So we watched American Graffiti last night in the California Culture class. Glad I added it. I mostly wanted to get at the nostalgia that looked so attractive in the 1970s. I also wanted to get back to the Central Valley, which we hadn't visited since we left the Joads there in dire straits. But I soon realized that American Graffiti also gives full expression to a key aspect of the California Dream.
I'm not proposing a specific definition of the California Dream, by the way. For one thing, dreams are always a little beneath or beyond consciousness. And as Beth Tudor once noted, the California Dream may just be the American Dream with better weather. But any discussion of the California version has to include the opportunity for self-invention (economic, physical, and spiritual), mobility, technology, the landscape, etc.
Under the mobility category, cars loom large. In many ways, California invented car culture, including the drive-in. Do you think it's an accident that McDonalds started in Southern California? I didn't think so.
No major American film is more devoted to the automobile than American Graffiti. Yes, there are humans in this film, but cars play the leading roles. They're literally the vehicles for significant action. The characters eat, talk, fight, party, compete, rebel, make out, and grow up in them. For the guys, cars make a public identity possible. Cars drive the plot, too; in scene after scene, they are groomed, critiqued, ticketed, defaced, bequeathed, sabotaged, scrapped, stolen, totaled, etc. And the drag race at the end provides the climax. Harrison Ford--or rather, his Chevy--gets its comeuppance. It was black and had a skull hanging from the rearview mirror, so it's just as well.
By the way, when my daughters and I saw George Lucas at the bookstore a few weeks ago, we also saw him pull out of the parking lot. Fanatical readers of this blog will want to know, so I'm here to tell you ... Yes, he's riding good.