Although the film presents a simpler, more unified picture of the world, it is not one without problems. One main dilemma seems to be Curt's indecision on whether to leave his hometown for college, as his friend Steve plans to do as well. He complains that he needs more time before making this decision, and his fear of the unknown future resonates because of the time period the film is set; hindsight tells the viewer that Vietnam and the Kennedy assassination are just around the corner. The eventual loss of idealism is reflected by Curt now denying his former goal to shake hands with the President, and he comments that he has grown up since then. The impossibility of living in the past is detailed by Curt's lonely trip through the empty school halls where he tries his old locker but can no longer get into it; that time has passed, and he can no longer experience his former high school days. He gets unclear messages from a guy who went to college for one semester but decided he wasn't "the competitive type" and returned to work in the high school, symbolically never escaping this training ground for real life. Curt appears to embrace the security of this decision and seems ready to stay, but the guy tells him to go out and experience life.
Throughout Curt's narrative thread runs the elusive white T-bird and the beautiful girl inside, perhaps a symbol of the idealized past which he can never quite catch up to. Like Fitzgerald's Gatsby, he will never be able to track down this perfect vision because it is of his own creation; the various reports he hears of her threaten to destroy her enigmatic quality, but they manage to conflict and cancel each other out. Curt eventually does leave for college, and as he looks down to see the white T-bird driving below him, there is a sense that he has realized the illusory nature of this object and has rejected it in favor of unknown experiences held by the future. It seems that the exciting events Curt went through with the fairly harmless Pharaoh gang members have given him the confidence to leave Modesto behind. In this situation, like his leaving home, he had undoubtedly feared the worst, yet everything turned out well. The generational conflicts between young and old are displayed in a scene where Curt sides with his hood 'friends' over the guys that run the arcade and treat him with kindness. But even the Pharaoh leader is shown to be a pretty good guy, and he eventually tries to get Curt to join their ranks and to come back tomorrow, memorably telling him "Rome wasn't burned in a night." But the call of the "big, beautiful world out there", as Wolfgang Jack puts it, becomes too strong for Curt and he leaves his hometown behind, the only one of the four to successfully do so.
Ironically, Steve, who has been attempting to combat Curt's wavering, winds up staying behind in Modesto. His ties with Laurie are too strong, and when she almost dies in the car wreck, Steve realizes he is not ready to leave her behind for the college life. Because of his proposed leaving, it initially appears that Laurie is the more dependent of the two, but their discussion at the dance reveals her to be the instigator in their relationship with Steve more in the passive role. Even straight-laced Steve relishes the chance to mock a school figure who no longer has any authority over him, a quick scene that illustrates some of the newfound power one feels after graduating from high school. Nevertheless, Steve is probably the least likable of the lead characters, partly because of his blandness and partly because of the way he treats Laurie, telling her he needs something to remember her by and disregarding her feelings. He is treated with some irony such as when he tells Laurie that what he wants is not in this town, and the end titles belie this statement. But he is there to comfort her and to oblige her request after the nearly catastrophic race when she is in hysterics repeating, "don't leave me, don't leave me…"
The oldest of the lead characters, racer John Milner is also probably the most interesting. Initially, he seems the most likely to break out of the complacent, adolescent lifestyle the characters are leading as he becomes angry at the thought of reliving old memories at the school. John states that he's not going anywhere (off to college) like the others, but something in his statement suggests that he wants that to be different. He pessimistically senses that things will be changing for the worse, conveyed by his downbeat attitude and through his comments about the state of rock 'n' roll going downhill. The ghostly scene of he and Carol walking through the car graveyard (somewhat similar to Fred Derry's scene in The Best Years of Our Lives) also foreshadows not only his own fate, but also the death of their lifestyle and social structure. Milner is bold enough to fight off the guys beating up on Terry, but he is not "stupid" like Falfa who runs the red light during their first encounter, and whose recklessness (further echoed by the skull hanging from his rearview mirror) will later result in the climactic accident. Numerous people comment to John about how he's the fastest in the valley and how it has been that way for a long time, and although he takes pride in this accomplishment, he begins to seem a little weary of it as well. After the contest with Falfa, Milner begins to doubt if he's the best anymore, and it seems that he will finally give up the racing and move on to other things. However, Terry begins talking in grandiose terms about his accomplishment and generally how 'cool' he is, and John is drawn back into his own powerful self-image. He is unable to shake off this illusion of his greatness and scared perhaps to give up his established persona, even though he realizes it may end in his death. He may also be fearful of trying something of greater consequence at which he may not be the best. It's a quietly powerful moment when he concedes to his own illusory, mythic status and says, "Okay, Toad, we'll take 'em all. We'll take 'em."
Terry "the Toad" represents the typical movie nerd, and his primary function in the film seems to be to provide comedy, at which he is frequently successful, and often to be the butt of jokes. Scenes of little consequence involve him in a minor accident and with a high-pressure car salesman, perhaps a symbol of capitalism going out of control. His lowly status is raised a few notches by Steve letting him borrow his car, and the camera seems to relish shots of this diminutive guy in the cockpit of such a huge automobile. It does allow him to pick up Debbie, who is so gullible it seems she may be just playing along with Terry's lines. Yet she strongly stands up to a threatening guy at the drive-in restaurant, while Terry backs down at the threat of a "knuckle sandwich". It seems strange given his fear at being in the wooded area at night that Terry would later sign up for combat in the jungles of Vietnam. But perhaps his night with Debbie and the subsequent Milner race showed him that doing outrageous things, even if it means getting beat up or sick (or killed in war), is the way to gain respect.
All of these characters and segments are united by the huge selection of music from this time period, presided over by Wolfman Jack, that permeates the film and often comments on the action. The cinematography, which is sometimes attributed to Haskell Wexler, beautifully captures the nightlife of Modesto with streetlights gleaming off the shiny, fetishized automobiles cruising up and down the avenue. Even better is the dawn photography of the final car race which provides a beautiful backdrop for the climactic events and can also represent the dawning on the characters of what they will do with their lives. It is arguable whether the ending titles help or hurt the picture: they do provide a contrast of the carefree past with the more troubling future, but they also kill some of the mystique around the picture and unnecessarily close events that could have been left more open-ended. Perhaps the film's powerful nostalgic mood makes one want to believe that things could continue to be as they once were, if only in the movies.
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