I wrote for the daily publication of JSTOR.org about Walter Murch and the sonic aspects of George Lucas’ American Graffiti in advance of the movie’s 50th anniversary, which comes ’round this coming August. (This article was published on Tuesday, at daily.jstor.org, a day after Pitchfork published my review of Oval’s superb new album, Romantiq — so, it’s been a pretty fun week.)
One great thing about writing for JSTOR is that any articles I cite are automatically de-paywalled, and this slate of articles (listed at the bottom of the piece) includes an excellent interview Michael Jarrett did with Murch many years ago. My editor at JSTOR even put together a Spotify playlist of tracks from the movie, though of course those versions don’t include the spatial processing that Murch employed.
Here are the first two paragraphs of my article, which is titled “The Sonic Triumph of American Graffiti”:
Almost a half century ago, American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas, hit the big screen. Sandwiched between the quiet THX 1138 (1971) and the blockbuster Star Wars (1977), Lucas’s second feature peered back a decade earlier, taking place at the tail end of the summer of 1962. The movie is filled with images of an era already experienced as bygone — roller-skating diner waitresses, souped-up jalopies cruising the streets — and, just as critically, with its sounds. The latter were accomplished thanks largely to Walter Murch (“Sound Montage and Re-recording,” the opening credits state opaquely), who helped revolutionize the role of sound in film. Age thirty at the time of its release, Murch had just completed similar work on The Godfather, directed by American Graffiti producer Francis Ford Coppola, and would soon move on to Coppola’s The Conversation. Born and raised in New York City, Murch fell in with the California movie mavericks during graduate school at USC.
Nearly twenty years after American Graffiti’s release, literary critic Fredric Jameson, in 1991, singled it out as a central example of what he termed “nostalgia films,” citing it as nothing less than the “inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse.” The movie’s fiftieth anniversary — this August — provides an opportunity to look back, just as Lucas’s movie itself did.
You can read the full article (no paywall) at daily.jstor.org.
One thing I didn’t get into in the JSTOR article is the difference between “diegetic” and “non-diegetic” sound. Something I wrestle with when writing about concepts is how to best employ the language that has developed to encapsulate those concepts. Sometimes it helps to just write about the concepts, because language intended to clarify can, in fact, obfuscate. I felt that focusing on “worldizing” (see the article for an explanation), a word that is central to my piece, let me do just that: focus. Now I can back up a bit and note that “diegetic” sound is, in essence, sound that happens as if it was emitted on or just off-screen, whereas “non-diegetic” sound is sound that is apart from what happens on-screen. Movie (and television) sound is often at its best when the difference between the “diegetic” sound and the “non-diegetic” sound is blurred. This is the case throughout American Graffiti when the editor moves between a Platonic ideal of a song (pristine as a movie theater or living room TV might allow) and the way that song would sound in the context of the scene where it is playing, say on an AM radio just as Ron Howard’s Steve Bolander and Cindy Williams’ Laurie Henderson are about to make out.
One gauge of how remarkable the role of sound was in the film is how unprepared film criticism was, at the time, to note let alone analyze its sonic components. Michael Dempsey’s review in Film Quarterly at the time barely mentions the music, except as part of the overall setting.
And three more notes, not related to sound:
- There is so much Star Wars (or proto–Star Wars) in American Graffiti, the film George Lucas completed just prior to Star Wars (or what we now call Star Wars: A New Hope). In particular, there is a scene with Williams’ Henderson sitting next to Harrison Ford where their bickering (goody two-shoes versus rake) is a blueprint for what would constitute the relationship between Princess Leia and Han Solo. And such influence would continue for decades. There’s a moment between Paul Le Mat’s John Milner and Mackenzie Phillips’ Carol when Milner gives Carol the exact sort of thing that, in the TV series The Mandalorian, Din Djarin gives Grogu (colloquially “Baby Yoda”). Also, the scene I mention in the article where Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt Henderson sabotages a police car has been replicated in Star Wars.
- While I identified many of the actors from the film in the JSTOR article, I couldn’t find a natural way to note that the idealized blonde woman in the Thunderbird is, in fact, Suzanne Somers. Like so many actors in the film, she went on to fame, but unlike many there was nothing retro about where she was headed, nor did the character she play in the film really connect with the wonderfully goofy Chrissy Snow she would, for lack of a better word, embody on the sitcom Three’s Company. But that is her.
- To this day, I experience cognitive dissonance when I look at the above poster that the late Mort Drucker drew for the film because, unlike his work in Mad, it’s completely un-ironic. It’s not a parody. It’s straightforward, though his wit is still evident.
Sorry those last few notes are off-topic, sound-wise, but they’re fun and I wanted to share them. As with so much writing, the material that didn’t make the published article was longer than the article itself.