‘Big Wednesday’ revisited
In his introduction to Big Wednesday at the BFI last night, Geoff Andrew warned those new to the film that John Milius’s hymn to Southern Californian surf culture bore little resemblance to George Lucas’s portrait of the world of hot-rodding in American Graffiti. But Milius’s film gave us a similar dose of ’60s pop music in the opening section, set in 1962, which reaches its climax in a chaotic party scene. What amused me was that the records being played — “The Locomotion”, “Mama Said”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Lucille”, “The Twist”, “What’d I Say” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — represented not Californian music but the sounds of New York, Detroit, New Orleans and Philadelphia. Only with the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” — recorded in Los Angeles, with Darlene Love singing lead — were we given a hometown sound, albeit under the name of a New York group.
As we waited for Geoff’s introduction, however, the cinema’s sound system was playing the backing tracks from Pet Sounds: a perfect prelude since that album, like Big Wednesday, looks beyond the template of teenage hedonism into a more uncertain world. In fact Milius’s film reminded me of More American Graffiti, a very underrated work (directed by Bill Norton but co-written by Lucas) which followed the protagonists of the original film into the darkness of the Vietnam era. Big Wednesday was made in 1978, More American Graffiti a year later; they shared a similar perspective on the soured dream.
Milius’s film is divided into four time periods: 1962, 1965, 1968 and 1974. In the 1965 “chapter” he shows us a hilarious but poignant scene set in a selection process for the military draft, with many of those called to attend trying to evade the call-up in a variety of bizarre ways. In the next scene, as one of the three main characters prepares to go off to war, the TV news is showing the Watts riots. A dark filter is starting to obscure the California sun.
The film is entirely Milius’s creation, and in its attempts to mythologise a milieu in which he had spent much of his own youth there are certainly times when you’re reminded this this is the man who co-wrote Apocalypse Now (no distinction in my book) and directed Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. But although it’s unmistakably a story about three men — William Katt, Jan Michael Vincent and Gary Busey — doing manly stuff together, it has a sense of humour and a respectable attitude to its principal female characters, played by Patti D’Arbanville (she who was once serenaded by Cat Stevens) and Lee Purcell. It was also amusing to note the presence in minor roles of Barbara Hale — best remembered as Della Street, Perry Mason’s secretary — playing Katt’s mother, as she was in real life, and of Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly, who only a year or so later would be better known as Dallas‘s Lucy Ewing and Ray Krebbs.
The film’s surfing scenes, shot by a specialist second unit, are still sensationally compelling, making me want to go back and read William Finnegan’s brilliant Barbarian Days, a Pulitzer Prize winner last year, all over again. The BFI added to the evening’s authenticity by showing the film on their biggest screen, NFT1, in a rare original 35mm print, featuring the sudden deterioration in quality that used to signal the switch from one reel to the next in pre-digital days. The most effective music came right at the end, in the deafening roar and crash of the surf in the climactic scene, conveying the awesome kinetic energy of the ocean. All told, a terrific rediscovery.
* Big Wednesday is screened again on Friday 11 August at 8.30pm in NFT3.