Tuesday, April 24, 2007

California Graffiti

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.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Alice McGrath's 90th Birthday Bash

I drove to Camarillo this weekend to celebrate Alice McGrath's 90th birthday with hundreds of her closest friends. Among other things, Alice was the executive secretary for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee in the 1940s (Carey McWilliams was the national chair.) In that case, 12 youths, mostly Latinos, were convicted of homicide after a biased trial. The conviction was overturned on appeal in what became a landmark case. That success was the first major victory for the Latino community in Los Angeles, and McWilliams later regarded it as the beginning of the Chicano movement.

As for the wingding itself, we met at the UFCW local, and the co-sponsors were the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) and the Center for Constitutional Rights. There were a dozen or so speakers, I would guess, including Warren Olney and many prominent judges, lawyers, and politicians. The speeches were very moving, none more so than Alice's. She compared her kind of activism to housework--something that must be done continually if we expect good results, not something that leads to a one-time "victory." Thinking of it that way prevents illusions, she said, and therefore disillusionment. What a great event--a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.

Many books, including American Prophet, discuss the Sleepy Lagoon case and Alice's work. But there's also an American Experience documentary called Zoot Suit Riots that I show in the California Culture class at San Francisco State. Alice doesn't like it because it purports to finally solve the murder, but it covers both Sleepy Lagoon and the Zoot Suit Riots pretty well in one hour.