The Perfect Nostalgia Of American Graffiti

I remember it years later — how the plane disappears into the blue California sky at the end of American Graffiti until there is only blue. The Beach Boys plays and the credit rolls, but the blue wraps everything up, so bright, so clear, and so melancholy.

I didn't watch movies on my computer in my freshman year at college — the Internet wasn't good enough and all the sites for streaming were awful. You stared at eye-searing orange backgrounds and your life wore away in 30 second pop up ads. So I went across the street to the library and its film section. You'd request a movie, and then you'd be assigned to a little booth in a long, low dark room. The screens were tiny, and they had little tone adjuster knobs like our old TV.

I'd never seen American Graffiti before. I figured I would've. I grew up in the Central Valley. I knew the straight roads and the small towns and the domed skies. I loved cars, too. Dreamed of horizon-chasing V8s, and I meant to see the movie that whole last summer.


It felt too poignant, I guess. It didn't seem right to watch a movie about a guy leaving behind his home in California to go off to college right before leaving behind my actual home in California to go off to college.

So I picked it out at the library some cold Fall night and watched it. Richard Dreyfuss spends the whole movie chasing after some dream woman in a white T-Bird and he never quite catches her. The plane takes off at the ending, he looks out the window and there's the T-Bird, matching pace with the plane on one of those endlessly straight two-lanes. He pauses, then the plane gets swallowed up in the blue.

I'm not quite sure what's so strong about that shot, the plane disappearing into the blue, but somehow it is nostalgia. You look down out of the plane and you see all the people you're not with, all the roads you drove past but never explored. You wonder what was down them.

I was on the wrestling team in high school and we had a meet at some little town in the middle of nowhere. Big old gym building, big old sinks and faucets in the cold locker room, big old parking lot. Walking out, the sun was setting over the trees and the bungalows and there was one car left in the lot. A dark grey late '60s Nova. Primer'd. Silhouette'd against the last light struggling against the dark violet of night creeping in.


That was in the early 2000s, so that would have been some of the last years when a car like that could've been bought and used by some high school kid. A Nova like that was one of the last great cars of its era. Of the American Graffiti era. Cheap gas, cheap design, cheap power.

I still dream about that car. I think about driving back to California on a whim one day, tracking down that town, its name I've forgotten, and rescuing that car. Driving down all the roads I never explored, tying up all the loose ends I left that summer before college.


I watched that plane disappear into the blue, and when 'All Summer Long' started to play I think my heart broke.

I'm not a hopeless nostalgic for America in the '50s or '60s. I don't romanticize a brutal, depressed time, whitewashed over the years by baby boomers. But 'All Summer Long' was the perfect song for those credits. It was the whole nervous energy of the movie. The rush of that last summer, those last weeks, hours, moments of warm night before the cold sunrise. Everyone running to grab something that's slipping through their fingers.


Sitting in the library, the glow from the screen surrounded by the rest of the room's dark, I knew what Dreyfuss knew. There is no going back. The roads I never explored are gone. The Nova I hoped to rescue was put in the junkyard the moment I took my eyes off of it. There is no way to get to that T-Bird down there.

When people talk about American Graffiti they get swept up in the symbols. That the radio stations played like that. That the cars looked like that. That the main drag looked like that. Even if any of it is true, it's missing the point.


When people talk about the ending to American Graffiti, they talk about how Dreyfuss says goodbye to all of his friends, or the life portraits of how the characters' lives play out, illustrated by formal, black and white yearbook photos.

But it's the way that plane disappears into the blue that makes the ending perfect. Every time I find myself where the blue sky opens up enough to dome out in front of me, I get the same feeling I had in that library booth. That nervous feeling that my eyes aren't big enough to see the whole sky at once. That there's something I'm missing. That there's something just out of reach that I can almost snatch. That if I had more time. If I could go back.

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As a movie of the '70s I read American Graffiti as a paean to all the kids and men that went to die in Korea and Vietnam. Curt's not going to college, he's going to his grave. It always made me really sad.