Set in 1962, the story revolves around a group of recent or soon-to-be high school graduates the night before some of them have to leave for college or make other life choices. In this nostalgic coming-of-age drama, their youthful activities also reflect an optimism* in the early years of JFK's presidency and one missing from later decades
Lots of people have sneered at the American culture of the fifties and early sixties -- examples are too numerous to mention, from opinion makers like historian David Halberstam to films like Pleasantville -- and we are supposed to believe it was a time of naivete and paranoia and injustice. Well, screw 'em. The fifties and sixties were the last time when cultural aspiration was still cool, and to someone growing up today, the difference between then and now seems huge, and unfavorable. It was an era of dreams and possibilities -- Chuck Berry and Miles Davis were reinventing music and MLK was leading the civil rights movement during the same years that the first heart surgeries were performed and von Braun was building the rockets to the moon. The average Americans depicted in Lucas' film were unaware of all the ground that was being broken, but they shared the confident attitude and restless spirit of the time.
American Graffiti is a successful tribute to an era of optimism and competitiveness which was bitchin' -- and now seems very far in the past.
For background purposes and in case you missed reading it, see this diary that I wrote in 2010 -- The Baby Boom Generation, Part I of III - The Wonder Years and, also, this one from 2004 - The Beatles, George W. Bush, and John Kerry. The seeds of the culturally turbulent 1960's were sown in the "staid" 1950's.
Optimism, resilience, perseverance, and progress are part and parcel of the American character. In the past few decades, has optimism given way to cynicism in our lives?
There is a very fine dividing line between being optimistic and acting delusional. Periodically, one hears some politicians (Ronald Reagan was famous for confusing reality with fiction) nostalgically pining for an era through rose-colored glasses when life was supposedly simpler and a citizen's role in society and social boundaries were more clearly defined. Did this period only exist in their fertile imaginations and truth was far more complicated than it was portrayed in movies? That may well have been the case.
One thing is clear about the present: the country as a whole does not seem to be as confident and optimistic about resolving many of its intractable problems. To be sure, it has faced far more daunting challenges in the past. From fighting a major civil war 150 years ago, facing two world wars, overcoming a major economic depression, and persisting through a decades-long Cold War in the 20th century, it has always emerged stronger than before. The culturally turbulent 1960's and 1970's opened many doors for minorities and other groups shut out of the societal mainstream. None of these gains came without a high level of sacrifices made by millions of Americans.
Progress is often painful and incremental. But it does happen. Will that be the case as we painstakingly work our way out of our present economic doldrums? That, obviously, remains to be seen. Many of these movies in this diary do, however, point towards reigniting that spirit of optimism sorely missing from our lives in recent years. And even if you think they don't, it is a temporary escape from the unpleasant economic realities of today.
Over the years, Hollywood movies about high school years have many common themes that persist from generation to generation
Unrequited crushes; star-crossed love; bad boys and good girls; sex, drugs, and rock and roll--for generations, these themes have dominated how teenagers are portrayed on film, to the point that they define the teenage years themselves... The sweet innocence of Bye Bye Birdie (1963) set the stage for today's High School Musical (2006) juggernaut; how Blackboard Jungle (1955)'s tough kids turned into modern-day Mean Girls (2004). The movies may have changed, but the themes are as stubborn as teenagers.
'O Captain, my Captain.' Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It's from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class, you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you're slightly more daring, O Captain, my Captain...
Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You've walked past them many times. I don't think you've really looked at them. They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. Do you hear it? (whispering in a gruff voice) Carpe. Hear it? (whispering) Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.
7. To Sir, With Love (1967):: ::
Another story about a strong-willed teacher and a rebellious inner-city class, To Sir, With Love is a coming-of-age story about troubled kids growing up in a community that expects nothing of them. As they face poverty, absent parents, racial tensions, and their approaching adulthood, their teacher imparts life-changing lessons -- and hope. link
8. Risky Business (1983)
Long before Tom Cruise became a couch-jumping Scientologist, he came to prominence in this sharp satire of privileged suburban teens. The socks-and-undies dance scene is what everyone remembers, but this Reagan-era hit isn't just another teensploitation flick. It's about the soul-crushing pressure to be perfect, and the primal urges to rebel against a manicured, pre-programmed future - even if that means turning your parents' house into a brothel. link
9. Fame (1980)
Most of us dream of fame in our younger years, whether it’s as a dancer, a singer or an actor. Well, 1980’s Fame stripped that dream raw and showed us the dark side of the struggle. Despite the lunchroom sing-alongs, the flash mobs on the streets of NYC and the thrill of discovering what you love to do (in addition to who you are) Alan Parker’s musical drama also spotlighted the grim choices some have to make to achieve fame. Both gritty and glitzy, Fame showed that its kids live a coming-of-age unlike any other, including that of the real-life students attending the actual High School of Music & Art. link
10. Grease (1978)
Still the top-grossing film musical ever, Grease may look too pure to be "pink," but listen to those lyrics (and watch John Travolta ogle Olivia Newton-John in "You're the One That I Want") and you may find yourself blushing. Beneath the karaoke-heaven soundtrack lies a story with teen pregnancy, "pussy wagons," and a TV personality trying to put an aspirin in a girl's Coke. Naughty but harmless, it's just like high school should be. link
11. Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
Would you change anything if you could relive high school? Possibly hook up with that beatnik of a guy you always wondered about? Until Chevrolet makes an actual plutonium-powered time machine, we'll have to live vicariously through this humorously goofy Francis Ford Coppola flick, in which Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) goes back in time to figure out whether pompadoured heartthrob Charlie (Nicolas Cage) is her one and only. link
12. Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Young love - especially when it's with the star of the football team - can make a girl crazy. Literally. In pre-Depression, small-town Kansas, good-girl Natalie Wood is so tortured by her sexual urges for beau Warren Beatty and conflicting pressure to be moral that she attempts suicide after a school dance and ends up in a sanitarium. It's the ultimate depiction of overwhelming first love, and - sorry, religious right - a chilling PSA against the dangers of teen abstinence. link
13. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
Ferris is a street-wise kid who knows all the tricks. Today he decides to take the day off school. When Ferris takes the day off, so must his best friends, Cameron and Sloane. Cameron is reluctantly persuaded to borrow his father's Ferrari, and together they hatch a plan to get Sloane out of class. Suspicious dean of students Ed Rooney knows all about Ferris, but can never catch him. Ferris' sister Jeanie is also frustrated that Ferris always gets away with his tricks and she doesn't. Furthermore, Ferris is an 'angel' in his parents eyes. It's Ferris' day off, he's out to enjoy himself, and he does! link
14. The Breakfast Club (1985)
Five wildly disparate students spend a Saturday doing detention in the library under the hawk-like supervision of Principal Vernon (Paul Gleeson). The jock (Emilio Estevez), the nerd (Anthony Michael Hall), the outcast (Judd Nelson), the princess (Molly Ringwald), and the basket-case (Ally Sheedy) share their stories and discover new friendships while tearing down their cliched personas. Director John Hughes' best teen film. link
A Note About the Diary Poll
If you've ever read Rod Mckuen's wonderful collection of poems, Celebrations of the Heart, you'll recall that he wrote in 'Scrub Pines'
While McKuen recalls a lost love that he perhaps should have pursued with more vigor, it is undeniable that periodically, indecisiveness inflicts us all and paralyzes our thought process. Years later, we wonder about a choice we didn't make and ask, could it be rectified? Frequently, the answer is no. And we stash away that unpleasant memory into the deep recesses of our brain and move on.
But Islands never reappear
in quite the same way
as they did at first.
I couldn't find my way
to inlet or to island
you'd never lead me.
A few questions about your high school years:
Looking back at your high school years, do you have any regrets? How were your experiences, mostly good or bad? Did you rebel against authority (teachers, administrators, counselors) or, you accepted it, however reluctantly? Were you a loner or, like most people do, gravitated towards groups? What did you excel at... academics, sports, or other extra-curricular activities? What were some of the unique, interesting, and memorable experiences you had during those years of growing up? And, finally, what aspect of high school life mirrors your life as an adult?
I could have as easily chosen any number of other movies about high school years for the diary poll. These include, among others Hoop Dreams (1994), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Stand and Deliver (1988), Donnie Darko (2001), Hoosiers (1986), Boyz N The Hood (1991), Heathers (1989), Carrie (1976), American Pie (1999), Clueless (1995), and Sixteen Candles (1984).
If your favorite movie is not listed in the diary poll, discuss it in the comments section.
For a more expanded list of movies, check out these web sites
- 50 Best High School Movies, Part I
- 50 Best High School Movies, Part II
- Top 15 Movies about High School
- The 12 Best High School Movies
- Newsweek's 'The 13 Best Movies About High School'
Don't forget to take the diary poll. Comments encouraged and welcomed.