Wednesday, January 2, 2008
THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE gets brought out for another viewing every New Year’s Eve and while other considerably better films such as THE APARTMENT have a few scenes set around the holiday it’s a little surprising there haven’t been more attempts at a film with a narrative that counts down to 12:00 AM January 1. If Thanksgiving can have PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES, then a New Year’s movie should really happen. But FOUR ROOMS hasn’t become a perennial. STRANGE DAYS is hurt by being a futuristic film set in 1999, which is now the past—also, it didn’t foresee how much it would rain in L.A. that day. And MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITTI is pretty much forgotten. Having just watched it for the first time in years, I can see why. Arriving in theaters a belated six years after the original, MORE attempts to expand the story of the original, taking us further into its decade and deeper with the characters, something Lucas would actually achieve with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. This was of course a gamble that the first film’s producer Francis Ford Coppola had already pulled off with his own sequel, THE GODFATHER PART II—another film with a New Year’s section, come to think of it. Coppola was not involved with this film, as he was mired in APOCALYPSE NOW at this point, but his wasn’t the only notable absence. Richard Dreyfuss had just won the Oscar for THE GOODBYE GIRL and declined to return to an ensemble to reprise his role as Curt Henderson. George Lucas, in the wake of STAR WARS, had sworn off directing and served as Executive Producer. It’s interesting that GRAFFITI co-writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who were beginning to make their own films at this point didn’t take over but, as Huyck himself explained in Dale Pollack’s Lucas biography “Skywalking”, “The story, when continued, is sort of sad and awful, and very painful. No way I wanted to get involved with it.” B.W.L. Norton was eventually brought on to write and direct. Several years earlier, Norton had directed CISCO PIKE, a very good movie. There are a number of stylistic elements which help make MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI at least interesting, but ultimately it isn’t a very good movie. It could possibly be considered pretty much a failure.
Presumably taking its inspiration from INTOLERANCE, the film is set in four separate time frames, specifically consecutive New Year’s Eves, going in order from 1964 to 1967. This idea is slightly constricted due to the fact that the end of the first film told us what would become of the four leads, including several tragic ends. So this film has to backtrack a little bit and it’s tempting to point out how it traces a little of the path the sixties took and how quickly things really changed, but it never feels rich enough to earn such commentary. In 1964: John Milner is involved in the stock car racing circuit. 1965: Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) in Vietnam. 1966: Terry’s former girlfriend Debby (Candy Clark) in San Francisco in the age of Haight-Ashbury. 1967: Steve and Laurie (Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) experience troubles in their marriage and get mixed up in campus riots (presumably Berkeley, but I don’t think that’s ever specified). The film follows a strict 1-2-3-4 structure with each of the storylines and never diverges from this pattern. Each of the sections is shot in a distinctive style, with Vietnam looking like 16mm newsreel footage, the Haight-Ashbury section done as split-screen psychedelia, the race-track section in widescreen Panavision and the Steve-Laurie storyline “like a commercial”, according to the original press notes. The nature of this structure feels way too constricting and means that we’re barely engaged in one before it’s one to the next. In some ways it does prefigure pacing that would be the norm for Lucas by the time we’d get to the STAR WARS prequels but in this case it simply never seems to find the appropriate rhythm.
The first film was very obviously autobiographical for its creator and seemed to compress a lifetime’s worth of cruising and chasing girls, and everything that meant to him, into two hours. The whole point of that original was that it was about how things had changed so fast, from that innocent feel of the baby boomer’s youth which ends in the sledgehammer of the final titles. Since that sledgehammer has already come down, there’s seemingly nowhere for this sequel to go and if there is, they never really figured out what that was. John Milner spends a fair chunk of screentime romancing a beautiful Icelandic blonde (Anna Bjorn, who also appeared in Allan Arkush’s underrated GET CRAZY, another rock n’ roll film set around New Years Eve) who doesn’t speak any English. Terry the Toad is stuck in a Vietnam section which plays like third-rate MASH/CATCH 22 leftovers. Mackenzie Phillips, given very little to do, returns and wanders through a few of the sections looking much older than the age she is playing. Debbie tries to convince her boyfriend to marry her and winds up hanging out with a band that plays a country-western bar. None of it resonates. None of it has much point.
A great deal of the problem is that the Dreyfuss character was so much the heart of the first film. He’s the one who spent the film searching for the unattainable blonde, he’s the one who was allowed to experience that moment of transcendence with Wolfman Jack, he’s the one who got the fadeout. And, more than the others, he’s the one who changed. Finding out that in 1973 he was living in Canada said a massive amount in one sentence and his story is the one we want to see. He’s referred to as already being in Canada early in the ’67 section, but while his absence isn’t as huge as, say, making a GODFATHER sequel without Michael Corleone, there’s a hole there which can’t be filled. It’s as if the absence of the Curt Henderson character is somehow representative of Lucas’s lack of involvement. There’s really no film without either of them. It would, however, make a very interesting double bill with Coppola’s own APOCALYPSE NOW, which opened right around the same time and a film the makers of MORE were no doubt very aware of, something very evident when a character named Lance is referred to and somebody replies, “I once knew a surfer named Lance.”
There is some pleasure in watching some of the actors who do appear, especially Candy Clark and Charles Martin Smith. Even though the material they have isn’t very strong, the fact that we never got to see some of these people in as many films as we should have, adds to some of the appeal. Paul LeMat has potentially the weightiest role, considering how his storyline has to end, but it never registers like it should mainly because the bulk of what he has to play isn’t very interesting. Ron Howard, who was probably losing interest in acting by this point, gets a “Special Appearance By” credit and has slightly less screen time than the other leads. Bo Hopkins (reprising his Joe the Pharoah character), Mary Kay Place and Scott Glenn (another APOCALYPSE connection) also have substantial roles and one bar fight has just about the loudest Wilhelm Scream I’ve ever heard. More surprisingly, Harrison Ford reprises his role as Bob Falfa, now a motorcycle cop and this has to be some sort of ringer in any “Name all the roles Harrison Ford played more than once” trivia question. Obviously, the music is pretty terrific and I can’t help but point out that the way the opening notes of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” kick off the end credits is near-identical to how it occurs at the close of I’M NOT THERE.
I can’t seem to locate it right now, but I remember a novelization which combined both films into one giant GODFATHER II-type narrative. The final scene of the book depicted the death of John Milner, having been killed in the crash with the drunk driver. If my recollections are correct, it presents Bob Falfa as actually being there, possibly a passenger in the other car, and the entire GRAFFITI saga ends with Falfa in tears over what has just happened. I don’t know if this originated from anything that was written in the script or even filmed, but it’s an end that has stuck with me, partly because of what a martyr it made the character of John Milner, but also because of how it lent such additional weight to Bob Falfa and to the actor playing him who would become such a major star. It would probably have been too much for the actual film, which can never really decide how serious it should take its serious moments and never knows how to correctly insert the comedy at the times it might be needed. Just a year later, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK would show George Lucas and his collaborators succeeding in what was failed at here. Whether it was ever possible to succeed with this particular sequel is something that we’ll never know. Right now, long after it has been forgotten by people who love the original, MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI survives as little more than a curio.