American Film as Cultural History

The only major difference between modern America and any other culture with regards to our cultural storytelling is in the way in which we tell these stories. While, traditionally, important cultural values were upheld through oral story telling and, among societies with high literacy rates, through the printed word, the technological innovations of modern American society have changed the way in which we disseminate information as a culture (and, it follows, how we disseminate important cultural information like these stories). Indeed, amongst all the debates of the past several decades over the makeup of the Western cultural canon, it now appears that the body of information most widely shared by Americans is the canon of pop culture. However, this change in form does not really change the cultural functions which such stories hold, only where one looks to find them. Indeed, within this new shared body of cultural knowledge there remain a number of recurrent cultural themes (among them a remembrance of a nostalgic past and a recurrent tale of people coming of age) that are now most often presented through the use of modern audio-visual media.

One of the most common ways in which these stories are retold in modern America is through the medium of the feature film. Indeed, perhaps no other modern day media mirrors past techniques of retelling cultural stories as well as the movies, which must, usually in about two hours, manage to tell some type of a story. Some movies are more successful at this than others while some, those which are especially good at telling cultural stories that people want to hear (which resonate with them on a deeper cultural level, often by resurrecting certain important themes) become cultural icons themselves. Indeed, when a film (especially one which portrays some aspect of American life or retells an important story) achieves a certain level of popularity the society as a whole has gone a long way toward validating the particular vision of American life which the film makers have offered. Moreover, as a result of this cultural validation movies which achieve such iconic status ought rightly be considered a valid object of study that can reveal important information about the culture from which they are drawn.

One such film which has become a cultural icon and therefore, I would argue, has been validated as a piece of cultural history is American Graffiti. First released in 1973, American Graffiti is the 39th highest grossing film in history and was named one of the 100 best films of all time by the American Film Institute. It received multiple Academy Award nominations including Best Director and Best Picture and has been released multiple times both in theaters and on video. However, the true cultural weight of the movie cannot be reflected or understood by looking strictly at numbers or awards. American Graffiti is widely regarded by movie buffs, film critics, and students of American culture as the prototypical historical coming of age film with which all others are to be compared. This high degree of cultural status also validates the film's position as a window on cultural history. This is the rationale behind its inclusion on this site as on of two historical coming of age movies which are to be taken as pieces of cultural history and used as a means of gleaning information about the cultures of the early 1960's when it is set, the early 1970's which produced it, and the period since then which has seen it take its place as a cultural icon. By comparing this film with Dazed and Confused a movie produced in the early 1990's about coming of age in the mid 1970's we can hopefully shed some light on the deeper cultural changes which have taken place in America in the last forty years. Though Dazed and Confused has not yet achieved the level of a cultural icon, is so structurally similar to its more famous peer (and so often compared to it by film scholars as respected as Roger Ebert) that the two can legitimately be compared. Moreover, the fact that Dazed and Confused is a kind of icon among 1990's youth culture but has not risen to iconic status among the broader (read, adult) culture as a whole helps to make this comparison even more fruitful. This difference in popular statuses (which can be read largely as a generational difference) combined with the fact that both movies function similarly but are produced (and set) in different periods can hopefully help shed much light on the underlying culture (and the changes which its has undergone) of modern America.

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Cultural Stories
The Historical
Coming of Age Genre
Dazed and
Nostalgia and
Time and Memory
American Film as
Cultural History
Rites of
History and