Saturday, August 11, 2007

DAY 11: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Dear E.T.,

I love you and want you to come to my house on Christmas Day and spend the night with me in case I get scared. E.T. I love you.

Love,
Heidi
(
Letters to E.T., 1983)


While shooting Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Francois Truffaut had the opportunity to observe Steven Spielberg’s direction of the five-year-old Cary Guffey. A well-known admirer of children himself, Truffaut later remarked to Steven “I see how you are with that boy. You need to make a film for and about children.” It would be another five years before Spielberg would direct the movie that the famed French filmmaker advised him to make. “In my heart,” Spielberg has confessed “E.T. is dedicated to Truffaut,” and indeed it is not difficult to see the parallels between E.T. and the film Spielberg and Truffaut worked on together (the themes of family, youth and innocence; a story involving alien visitors coming to earth and interacting/communicating with humans, etc) in addition to which, E.T.’s final shot is very reminiscent of the classic closing image of Trauffaut’s semi-autobiographical 400 Blows. Besides being Spielberg’s “love letter” to Truffaut, E.T. would also prove to be a landmark film in the history of cinema and in the life/career of Spielberg himself, the culmination of years of perfecting the craft of storytelling combined with his own growing sense of using cinema as a means of intimate artistic expression. To this day Spielberg regards E.T. as his most personal work and, along with Schindler’s List, one of the two movies that he’d most like to be remembered for.

The genesis of E.T. the “movie” began during the filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Spielberg would sometimes chat with his associate Kathleen Kennedy and Harrison’s Ford’s then girlfriend Melissa Mathison, two women who eventually became the producer and writer of the film respectively, about his idea for a story of an alien visitor who befriends a young boy. Both women became enamored with the project and work was begun on it as Spielberg’s next film. The genesis of the “idea” for E.T., however, dates back much earlier to when Spielberg was a lonely young boy dealing with the divorce of his parents. Desiring companionship of some kind in order to fill the empty “void” in his life, Spielberg imagined what it would be like if an alien creature came down and became his friend. Thus, E.T. had his humble beginnings.*

*Note: There has been some discussion over the fact that legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray previously planned to do a film with a premise similar to E.T. Though he was unable to get funding for it, he had completed a script before ultimately abandoning the project. Though Spielberg has denied even knowing about it, some folks have nevertheless presumed that Spielberg’s real inspiration for E.T. began with the idea (which by then had circulated around Hollywood) conceived by Satyajit Ray. Despite the fact that this accusation is pure conjecture, very few people seem to acknowledge that there is very little in the oeuvre of Satyajit Ray to indicate an enterprise of this nature whereas there is overwhelming evidence, from films of his youth and other childhood stories (told both by Spielberg and by other people who knew him at the time), demonstrating Spielberg’s long-standing fascination and intense affection for the subject. I don’t doubt that Ray wanted to make a film about an alien befriending a boy, and that E.T. might even bear striking resemblance to Ray’s story, but I think this is really just a case of two great minds thinking alike independently.

Before shooting could begin on E.T., though, much work had to be done in the pre-production department, starting with the casting. Since the main characters in the film were children, Spielberg had to find three very good child actors. More than any previous film, E.T. would thoroughly test Spielberg’s ability to direct children. In the central role of Elliott, the lonely ten-year-old who befriends the alien visitor (and Spielberg’s main alter-ego in the story), Spielberg cast Henry Thomas, a boy with virtually no previous acting experience but remarkable instincts and, most important of all, an active imagination. As his overbearing teenage brother Michael, Spielberg cast the more experienced Robert McNaughton and in the part of Elliott’s younger sister Gertie, Spielberg used a girl who was originally considered for Poltergeist, the precociously sweet and adorably cherub-faced Drew Barrymore of the prestigious Barrymore family. In the supportive, but no less important, roles of the adults Spielberg relied on his practice of casting whom he thought worked best regardless of their star status or bankability at the box office. Having admired her performance in Joe Dante’s The Howling, Spielberg put Dee Wallace Stone into the role of the abandoned, but once again typically Spielbergian protective, mother Mary and in the role of the head scientist searching for E.T, Spielberg cast the dignified, but still childlike-at-heart, Peter Coyote.

The film’s most important character, however, could not be cast. He had to be created from scratch. Spielberg knew that in order for the story to work, E.T. had to be a completely believable being. Just as he had brought “life” to inanimate objects previously in Duel, Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg would now have to make an audience believe that it was a thinking, feeling, breathing, living creature (surpassing even the subtlety and expressiveness seen in the Yoda character in Lucas’ Empire Strikes Back). Given the state of technology at the time, it was a hugely ambitious endeavor. To help him accomplish it Spielberg hired fifty-seven-year old Italian sculptor, builder and artist Carlo Rimbaldi. Working from Spielberg’s design ideas and incorporating elements from a variety of sources (including Albert Einstein, Carl Sandburg and a human infant), Rimbaldi fashioned a creature that was both sad and hopeful, unattractive and yet loveable, inanimate and yet very much alive.

Deciding to rely on more than just animatronics (which required a team of about a dozen crew members to operate) Spielberg also, in several shots of E.T. waddling about, used an actor with no legs in a suit and for shots of E.T.’s hands, a thirty-year-old professional mime named Caprice Rothe wore special gloves. One result of this situation that was purely accidental but nonetheless marvelously effective was that Rothe, nervous about working on a Spielberg movie, drank a lot of coffee and then couldn't stop her hands from shaking as she tried to perform. Terrified that Spielberg woulds fire her, Rothe was stunned to learn the director actually loved it. “Things are new to E.T. so he is cautious,” he said. Finally, to do the voice of E.T. Spielberg had actress Debra Winger contribute but the majority of E.T.’s words was provided by an unknown sixty-five-year-old Marin County housewife named Pat Welsh. To this day, though, when I watch E.T., unlike Gremlins where I can recognize Howie Mandel in the mouth of Gizmo, I don’t hear anyone’s voice other than E.T.’s. In fact, although I can’t very well avoid seeing Debra Winger in things, I’ve deliberately tried to never, ever hear Pat Welsh in any other context (interviews or whatever). If you can tell me who is really speaking in which shot, then (as Roger Ebert said about Kermit riding a bicycle in the first Muppet Movie) you are much less of a romantic than I am. I prefer to think that E.T. simply spoke for himself.

Like Close Encounters and Poltergiest, E.T. returns Spielberg to the world of suburbia. Once again, the setting provides Spielberg an opportunity to work in an environment that is familiar to him but also connect the story with the majority of Americans who go to the movies. The neighborhoods of E.T., though striking in resemblance to the residential areas of Western states like California, Oregon or Arizona, is also effectively non-descript in nature and could easily be at home in just about any state in the U.S. (or even any country in the world). Spielberg knew that the more it seemed the events of E.T. could take place anywhere, the better chance it had to resonating with more people. Fortunately, to keep the film from having a small or claustrophobic feel to it (Spielberg wanted it to be intimate and yet epic at the same time) he had at his disposal, once again, the composing talents of John Williams who could “open the film up” to a degree that no previous of his score had. Indeed, although the events involved a relatively small number of people and occur in a very confined area, the music makes it feel at times like the fate of the world is at stake and the emotional (as well as physical) destinies of the characters are dependant upon the outcome. It is one of Williams’ most passionate, most heartfelt, most rousing and most beautiful scores.

Working again with his Amblin’ cameraman Allen Daviau (by now an established cinematographer) Spielberg shot E.T. in 50 days for a budget of around $10 million. It does not surprise me at all to learn that everyone who worked on the movie had a great time (with folks even dressing up on Halloween; Spielberg as a bag lady). Although by this point in his career he had grown accustomed to using storyboards--and although about forty percent of the movie had been sketched out ahead of time--Spielberg did not want the film to have a calculated “coldness” (the kind he was accused of having in Raiders) about it but rather a genuine sincerity and spontaneity. Thus, Spielberg decided to approach the film strictly on a scene-by-scene basis. “I always think five shots ahead. On this film, I couldn’t.” Spielberg has said. He also shot E.T. (for the first time in his career) in perfect continuity. This practice allowed him to see the story unfolding in front of his eyes and also helped make the performances of the children all the more real and believable. Since they each knew where they were emotionally in the scene before (i.e. the day before), they were not performing so much as they were simply “reacting” to the available stimuli. Nowhere in the film is this more apparent than in the section where the scientists have taken over the warm, safe environment of the house and turned it into a frigid, sterile atmosphere. In the scene where E.T. has expired and the doctors (played by actual physicians) work feverishly to revive him, little Drew Barrymore couldn’t stop crying even after the cameras had finished rolling. Spielberg has been quoted as saying: “We were bordering on child abuse at that point.”

In E.T. Spielberg’s themes of family dysfunction and divorce are at their most overt and, simultaneously, their most profound. And yet, while they are very specific in nature thay are also incredibly broad and universal in appeal. In fact, the theme of divorce/separation is really just a facet of a film that is about connection/togetherness and communication in general. As the events of the film unfold it is seen very clearly in the actions/words of the characters as well as in the external events that occur. It should be noted that, like Close Encounters, there is more than one version of E.T.: the original theatrical cut and the twentieth anniversary re-release version which features digitally enhanced visual effects (primarily on the facial expressions/movements of E.T.), the addition of two scenes initially cut from the film and the removal of several elements about which Spielberg was never happy, the most infamous of which would be the replacement of the guns used by the humans in the film’s climax with walkie-talkies. Both versions are available on DVD but for the purposes of this project I will examine only the original version.


E.T. opens, in typical Spielberg fashion, on a black screen. Eerie abstract musical sounds are heard as the main titles appear. When the credits end, the first shot is a beautiful, starry night sky overlooking a forest. We cut to a spaceship resting quietly on the ground and dissolve to images of a group of creatures gathering plant specimens. Although the creatures are shrouded in darkness, they are obviously not of this world. The fact that they are botanists, though, is important. These aliens are interested in the study of life in whatever form it may take. They are fascinated in their environment. They are “connected” to everything around them. These creatures are also extremely timid. When an owl hoots, every of one of them stops and their hearts glow a bright red (the color red, again, being a Spielberg staple). The heart is an indicator of extreme emotion, be it fear, joy, etc. It is also a sort of visual symbol of the alien’s connectedness to each other. When one of the creatures wanders off, it is called to by one of its fellows back at the ship, the glowing organ serving as a sort of “beacon” representing a telepathic exchange (revisiting Spielberg’s theme of communication).

The creature’s activity is interrupted when a truck pulls up and a group of men step out. The lone wandering creature fearfully hides in a clump of bushes as the men search the area and examine maps with their flashlights. These actions clearly reveal the men to be, like the scientists in Close Encounters, working for the state in an attempt to find the aliens. How they knew to look for them there is never revealed nor is it really important. Spielberg establishes the logic and reality of the situation without needing to go into any expository dialogue or backstory. Like the map room sequence in Raiders, the situation is relayed entirely through the use of images and music. Although Spielberg never shows the men’s faces (a practice he adopts through most of the film; the mother is the only grown-up we really see until the film’s final act, the movie being shot almost entirely from a child’s viewpoint) Spielberg’s camera does follow one scientist in particular. His name is never given but he is identified by a pair of keys that hang sinisterly from his belt. Throughout this whole opening sequence it is important to note that very little of anything is actually seen (the creatures, the people, etc). So much of the information is hidden in shadow or just off-camera and yet Spielberg is able to communicate very clearly what is going on to even the youngest and most unsophisticated viewer. It is pure cinema.

When the frightened creature can wait no longer he darts away screaming with the scientists in hot pursuit. He arrives at the ship but he is too late. The ship has taken off leaving him behind. The abandoned creature, whom we will later come to know as E.T., is now alone. The connectedness between him and the rest of his race has been severed. The scene ends on a sad note with E.T. making his way down the hill. Incidentally, throughout this article I will refer to E.T. as a "he" because the characters in the movie do, as did Spielberg at the time of filming. Since making E.T. Spielberg has said that the creature has no sex, that E.T. is essentially a “plant. E.T. is a botanical garden unto himself... or herself." It’s an intriguing idea but I think it’s just a case of Spielberg trying to please everyone again (since he admits his reason for saying this is because he gets “a lot of letters about E.T.” being a male).

In the following scenes we are introduced to the other major character in the film, Elliott (his last name is never mentioned in the film but the novelization reveals it to be “Taylor,” thus giving Elliot the same initials as his soon-to-be alien friend). Like the typical Spielberg “everyman,” Elliott is an average, ordinary American boy, wanting to participate in Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games with his older brother Michael and his friends, just starting to notice girls in school, etc. Elliott is also very lonely and seeking some sort of companionship. In this regard he very much resembles the young Spielberg, except that Elliott is also a very modern (for the 80’s anyway) kid, playing video games and using language a baby-boomer would have gotten smacked in the face for. Elliott is also, like the rest of his family, dealing with the painful reality of a divorce. The absent father (whose name we never learn, face we never see and voice we never hear) is simultaneously the least important and most influential presence in the film. Like the deceased titular character in Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, he affects everyone in the movie through his absence. In a subsequent dinner scene (after having glimpsed E.T. for a split second) Elliott mentions that his “dad would believe him.” Given that the personality of the father is never made explicit aside from the fact that he is currently “in Mexico with Sally” (in all likelihood a much younger woman than the one he left behind), it is difficult to accept this as little more than a child’s desire to believe in a fantasy that doesn’t exist. When the mother excuses herself from the table to go cry without letting the kids see her and Michael threatens to kill Elliott because he doesn’t think of anyone but himself, it becomes clear that this family is really struggling. They may love each other but none of them knows how to deal with this new and frightening experience they have found themselves in.

Eventually, in spite of the fear he has for this unknown “thing” that has come into his life, Elliott bravely decides to seek it out (like the young Barry in Close Encounters) and finds that E.T. is just as scared of him as he is of it. Elliott brings E.T. into his house and in the scene where we see the alien creature clearly for the first time, establishes a “connection” that will not only be personal and emotional in nature but psychological and spiritual as well. E.T. starts to mimic Elliott, which amuses the young boy. In doing so he demonstrates that Elliott is the one through whom he has decided to experience this whole new world of sensations. Just as E.T. was connected to his own race and to his surrounding plant life (as is seen in his ability to resurrect a pot of dying flowers later) so E.T. will be connected to Elliott in a very real and very tangible way.

In yet another anecdote taken from Spielberg’s childhood, Elliott decides to fake sick by putting his thermometer against a light bulb while his siblings go to school and his mother goes to work. This allows him to spend the entire day with E.T. during which he shows him his action figures (Star Wars ones as it turns out), his toy cars, his peanut bank, his goldfish and (in an obvious reference to Jaws) his mechanical shark toy. In trying to communicate with E.T. Elliott first uses speech but this proves unsuccessful. Shortly thereafter, though, Elliott will learn that E.T. communicates in a much more powerful way. As Elliott frantically grabs food out of the fridge to feed to his guest, E.T. explores Elliott’s room finding an umbrella and accidentally opening it. Elliott screams in shock and surprise at the same moment that E.T. does but, unlike E.T., Elliott doesn’t know why is screaming. He rubs his heart and gazes up in surprise at the fact that he has just felt something that did not come from him. Elliott starts to understand that his feelings and E.T.’s feelings are going to be linked in a very significant way from this point on.

After Michael and Gertie come home from school, Elliott introduces them to E.T. (in a hysterical scene that involves a lot of screaming) and Spielberg utilizes an image that he would become heavily associated with: characters gazing at something offscreen in wonderment. Spielberg has employed this image in his movies so much that it has made him the victim of numerous jokes and criticisms (even his good friend Richard Dreyfus has affectionately stated that the title of the book he will never write is “Steven, Have They Figured Out What I’m Looking Up in Awe At Yet?”). While some people might find this trademark Spielbergian shot shallow, heavy-handed and/or manipulative, I happen to think it is indicative of everything that is right with Spielberg’s approach to moviemaking. Despite the argument that Spielberg focuses more on spectacle and special effects than on actual substance, I find his instinct to point the camera so often at people (aside from which I think it earns him a place among some of the great portraitists of cinema, such as Pasolini) reveals him ultimately as a “humanist” director, an artist whose stories are concerned primarily with human nature and the human condition. It also goes very much along with what I have mentioned previously about Spielberg’s under-appreciated ability to trust his audiences to think for themselves and not to always tell them what/how to think.


“Every actor has his or her own way of seeing and sometimes I often find it interesting to watch people thinking. I miss that in movies today: that they don’t show people who think. I like watching people thinking and that invites us into their thought process. That’s like a magnet. Once a character spends a little time not, you know, running his lines but just thinking, it draws us into the curiosity of ‘What are they thinking about?’ And, once again, it respects us. It allows us into the filmmaking process, to become participants in the story and not just observers.” --Steven Spielberg

After determining that this creature is, in fact, an alien from outer space, Elliott expresses dismay at not knowing what to do with it. Eventually Elliott has to go to school (where a faceless teacher instructs his class to dissect frogs) and leave E.T. at home. In what has now become a classic comic bit (actually conceived by Robert Zemeckis), the mother almost discovers E.T. in the closet where he is hiding among stuffed animals. E.T. then explores the house finding the refrigerator and downing several cans of beer. Because of the telepathic link between the two of them, Elliott feels the effects of it at school in a hilarious sequence that provides Spielberg yet another opportunity to engage in some more in-jokes by including scenes from two of his favorite films: This Island Earth and John Ford's The Quiet Man, which Spielberg actually recreates a scene from with children).

Upon returning home, Elliott discovers not only that his sister has dressed E.T. up in girl clothes (like her own private living doll), but that E.T. has learned to talk (something gertie takes credit for) and after exhibiting a series of toys and mechanical devices he gathered together earlier that day, E.T. utters the now legendary line: “E.T. phone home.” Elliott realizes that E.T. has found a way to contact his family telling them he is okay and to come pick him up. Incidentally, some have criticized the film for the utter absurdity of the notion that a super-powerful communication device could be made from common household items. Aside from the fact that one could make the argument the machine was built by an alien intelligence (who “sees” things differently than a human does), I always feel like responding to such criticisms by saying: “Tell me, what’s it like to have NO imagination at all? I wouldn’t know myself.” To view the events of E.T. with a doubtful skepticism rather than an openness to possibilities (seeing the enormous potential contained within the mundane rather than simply the limitations) is to not understand nor appreciate the spirit of Spielberg’s cinema, his intent to return cynical, “educated” adults to a period of their lives when the world was filled not with a collection of things that couldn’t be done but that could.

As Elliott and Michael search through the garage that night looking for more electronic apparatuses to help E.T. create his radar machine, the themes of connection and separation are again touched upon. First, in a very subtle manner that is rarely noticed by people and then in a far more explicit manner. At the beginning of the scene, the scientists—getting closer and closer to discovering the whereabouts of E.T.—are patrolling the neighborhood in a van listening in on the conversations taking place in people’s houses. Not only is the communication theme revisited in the situation but in one of the exchanges broadcast over the headset, a woman can very briefly be heard saying: “Fine, let’s just put a smile on our face and try to get through the evening. That’s all I want to do.” The element of divorce is thus re-introduced into the story and shown to exist not only in the lives of Elliott’s and E.T.’s familes, but as being ever-present everywhere. Whoever the anonymous woman was talking to in that house, it is clear that they are headed toward their own separation. Subsequenty, Elliott and Michael discover their dad’s old shirt and begin to reminisce about the good times they used to have at sports events. Michael says: “We’ll do that again, Elliott,” to which Elliott responds with a skeptical, “Yeah, sure.”

Before constructing the machine, Elliott and E.T. overhear the mother reading the story of Peter Pan to Gertie. It is the part of the story where Tinkerbell is dying and Peter’s belief in fairies (along with the belief of the reader) help bring her back. As Gertie’s mom is read the story, Elliott injures himself on a buzzsaw blade and holds up his bleeding finger saying “Ouch.” E.T. re-iterates the word, extends his lit finger (again, Spielberg’s fascination with light), touches Elliott’s finger and heals him. This scene is noteworthy for several reasons. First off, Peter Pan was already a character that Spielberg was often compared to in his unwillingness to grow up, to engage only in childish pursuits (later in his career Spielberg would produce his own variation on the Peter Pan story with Hook). Secondly, the passage of the book being read foreshadows what will happen later in the movie when E.T. himself will be brought back from death. Some have criticized the moment of resurrection as a “cheat,” a surprise that comes out of nowhere and left totally unexplained, but—-in addition to it being an event that any astute filmgoer should have seen coming on the basis of scenes like this—-one need look no further than the very themes of the film (togetherness and separation) to understand why it happens and how it is possible. The sequences ends with E.T. using his telekinetic powers to put the machine together. As he does so, Michael comments on how E.T.’s breathing doesn’t sound so good. The camera shows the potted flower plant, which we know was “brought back” from sickness by E.T.’s will, as looking unhealthy again. E.T. is also dying.

After a few funny scenes involving E.T. and the boys dressed up for Halloween (where yet another Star Wars-themed joke is featured; this time emphasized by the inclusion of John Williams’ “Yoda theme” on the film’s soundtrack), Elliott and E.T. ride out to a spot in the forest where they will set up the communicator. When they reach a point where they can ride the bike no longer and Elliott says they have to walk, E.T. suddenly takes control of the bike, rolls it toward a cliff and in a moment where Williams’ music soars to operatic heights for the first time in the film, the bike starts to fly. At first, Elliott is scared shouting “Not so high!” but soon his fear turns to elation as he lets out a terrific yell. At this point the audience, hopefully, shares that same sense of jubilation. They might not be shouting verbally but their hearts ought to be shouting inside just as loud as Elliott is. It is also in this scene that what is probably the most memorable shot in the film (and one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema, right up there with Harold Lloyd hanging off the clock in Safety Last) appears: the bike flying across the face of the full moon. As Elliott approaches the ground he whispers: “Don’t crash, please.” But, alas, both Elliott and E.T. crash-land in a very clumsy manner. Thus, Spielberg ends the sequence with a laugh.


After the communicator operates for several hours, and E.T.’s family still hasn’t returned, E.T. touches his heart and says the word he learned earlier for pain (“Ouch.”) indicating that he is hurt that they have not come back to pick him up. Elliott tries to comfort him by promising to take care of him. “We could grow up together, E.T.” he says. E.T. wipes a tear from Elliott’s cheek and tenderly touches his face. He even smiles at Elliott as if to show that he is touched Elliott cares about him enough to want to keep him around and also to put Elliott’s fears and concerns at ease somehow.

The following morning E.T. is gone. Elliott returns home where his mother has been worried sick about him (calling a police officer in to investigate). When he learns that E.T. is not there he pleads with Mike to go find him. Mike hops on his bike and rides out to the forest where he discovers a pale, withered E.T. lying motionless by a river. Apparently water is somewhat of a regenerative element for E.T.; this was established in a scene which took place in a bathroom but which was eventually cut from the film’s final version (though it was restored for the 2002 special edition). Back at the house, Michael decides to let their mother in on the secret and what she at first thinks is a joke, slowly turns to an awareness that it is real and it horrifies her. When the door is opened and E.T. sees her, he reaches out and calls her by the same name he’s heard the children use (“Mom.”). Although the mother has, throughout the film, demonstrated a very childlike spirit (clapping along with Gertie at the Peter Pan story, dressing up for Halloween herself, etc), at this moment she very much becomes the adult, seeing only the danger and fear in the situation. She immediately tells Michael to grab Gertie and take her downstairs. She picks up Elliott and pulls him away from a screaming E.T. When they reach the front door they are shocked to discover someone in a spacesuit forcing his way into the home. Soon, men in spacesuits are entering from every direction (even the window). I don't mind telling you that this sequence used to scare the utter crap out of me when I was a kid. Certainly there’s the freaky aspect of it, but mostly I think it was because it was so bizarre, so foreign, so (pardon the expression) "alien" to me). I didn’t understand why they were entering the house in space suits. Now, of course, it makes total sense. They weren’t deliberately trying to scare the family, they just didn’t want to expose the alien to any more germs than they had to (they read H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds). They were actually trying to help the situation, not hurt it. During this sequence there is another Spielberg hallmark: the model train set starts running by itself.

In the following scenes, the identity of “Keys” is finally seen in the face of Peter Coyote and in a nice bit of Speilbergian optimism, he is revealed not to be an antagonistic or hostile person (indeed there are no real "bad" guys in the movie). Although he's a grown-up he is just as much a child at as the three main characters having never lost his own sense of wonder and enchantment. As he talks to Elliott, for example, telling him that this is something he has been wishing for since he was ten years old, we realize that he is essentially the future incarnation of Elliott’s present self. The camera even shows Elliott reflected over Coyote’s face in the plastic mask. The two of them are linked, connected (much like the animated Wile E. “Coyote” character and Clovis Poplin were in the very similar shot in Sugarland Express). As the scientists question the kids Michael reveals the exact nature of Elliott’s and E.T.’s relationship: “He communicates through Elliott,” he says. Once again, the “educated” enquiring grown-up assumes an intellectual connection and posits: “Elliott thinks its thoughts,” to which Michael responds: “No, Elliott feels his feelings.” This emphasis of emotion over intellect is another common Spielbergian trait. Something can be known to be true because it is felt to be true, even it cannot be adequately articulated in the mind.

Eventually E.T. starts to slip away. Again, because the film was shot in sequence the children's reactions to the loss are genuine and heartbreaking. Why precisely E.T. finally dies is never made clear (some have speculated it was prolonged exposure to Earth’s atmosphere), but I believe, once again, that we need only look to the prominent themes of E.T. for our answer. If E.T. truly is connected to his “people” in the way that the story seems to suggest (they all share a common consciousness), then it makes sense that he be reliant upon them for the sustaining of his own existence. E.T. is not a self-sufficient, independent being. His life is contingent on being close to his family. The longer he is away from them, the more he fades away.

After E.T. dies and Elliott has a moment to talk to his lifeless body, he says: “You must be dead because I don’t know what to feel. I can’t feel anything anymore.” The connection between E.T. and Elliott has now been severed. Just as Elliott lost a father, now he has lost a best friend. Finally, Elliott express the precise nature of the connection they shared when he mutters: “E.T., I love you.” (the three little words that I have long felt are the most difficult for any movie to earn the right to use; this film definitely does). Elliott turns to walk away but notices the flowers growing healthy again. He rushes back to the coffin, opens it and an excited E.T. exclaims: “E.T., phone home!” Realizing that the very reason E.T. has returned from the dead is because the connection between him and his own people has been restored (they must have got the message and are already on their way) Elliott asks: “Does this mean they’re coming?” to which E.T. replies: “Yes.” Elliott literally jumps for joy.

The penultimate scene is one of the most thrilling climaxes I have ever seen in a movie. With the knowledge that their friend is actually alive, Elliott and Michael steal the van containing E.T. and drive to a children’s park where Mike’s friends await with their bicycles. The look on their faces when they see E.T. is priceless because they seem to demonstrate in their expressions that, without even having to be told what’s really going on or why they are doing what they’re doing, they “get” it and they’re willing to help. The boys lead the authorities on an elaborate chase through the streets of their neighborhood but also inbetween the houses, down the hills, through backyards, etc. The mobility of their bikes allows them to escape through places that the adults, in their huge vehicles, cannot follow. Again, it is a case of the children's ability to see more possibilities that surround them than to limit themselves to the “correct" paths they must follow to arrive at their destination. For a brief moment the boys think they have eluded their pursuers but they quickly learn that they are trapped. As a roadblock is erected up ahead Spielberg employs the same quick-cut to a close-up on Elliott’s face that he did in Duel. It is the height of tension and suspense at the last second before the eventual salvation. In the next instant, all of the bikes start to fly (as John Williams’ music soars once again) and the boys escape their captors. I swear, if there is a purer cinematic expression of sheer joy and elation than the moment when those bikes leave the ground, I don’t know what it is.


After the boys fly across that common Spielbergian symbol for light and life (the sun) and land in the forest by the communicator (this time, however, nobody crashes; it is a perfect landing for all) one of the most emotional farewells ever put on celluloid commences (I know I've used a lot of hyperbole in this essay and I'm sorry about that). It begins with a wonderful brief moment that beautifully captures the conflicting emotions of this sequence. Elliott is looking up at the landing lights of E.T.’s spaceship as it descends toward them. At first, he is smiling and it is clear what he is thinking. They did it. They accomplished their goal. They’ve reunited E.T. with his family. Rather quickly, though, Elliott’s expression changes. The smile fades and gets replaced by a look of sadness. It is also clear what he is thinking now. This means that E.T. is going away and he will never see him again. All of this happens in just a few seconds but the acting of Henry Thomas speaks volumes.

Both Michael and Gertie say their goodbyes and as Elliott approaches his fiend to say his goodbye, E.T. says “Come.” inviting Elliott to come with him. E.T. does not wish to be separated from his friend. Elliott regretfully replies with “Stay.” It is in this moment that the main difference between E.T. and Close Encounters gets manifested. As much as he might want to go, Elliott is basically saying that his home is here, his family is here, this is where he belongs. Staying behind is not the decision that Roy Neary made and it shows Spielberg’s growing maturity and sense of priorities in his own life. E.T. and Elliott embrace for a long time, knowing it will be their last time, and in one final gesture of wisdom, E.T. points at Elliott’s head with his lit finger and says: “I’ll be right here.”

Essentially E.T. is saying that although they will be separated physically, they will always be together in mind and in spirit. As long as they each remember the other, they will carry the other with them wherever they go. They have shared a connection far too special and potent for any possible distance to ever undo. These parting words is probably more than Elliott ever got from his own father (it should also probably be mentioned that by this point in the movie, whenever I watch it, I am totally gone; blubbering like a little girl). Elliot speaks the final word in the screenplay “Bye,” (interestingly the last line of dialogue spoken in Close Encounters as well), E.T. gets on the ship and it takes off leaving a rainbow behind in the sky. In fact, the colorful illusion is one of many different religious iconographic images used throughout the film.

There has been talk about E.T. as a sort of “Christ-like” figure (he came from above, he could heal people, he stayed for a period for time with a “mother” named Mary, he was hunted by the authorities, he died, he was resurrected, he ascended back into the heavens, etc). Although a lot of it could be coincidental, it seems pretty clear to me that Spielberg, like he did in Close Encounters, relies on a lot of deliberate religious ideas and symbols in the telling of the story (certainly the poster contains an overt reference to Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of God’s hand reaching out to Adam’s hand). One moment in the film where E.T. looks particularly Messianic though—-to the point that I’m inclined to think it’s probably not accidental—-is when the back of the van opens up and E.T. stands there, his arms outstretched, with the white sheet draped over him such that it resembles a robe. At any rate, Spielberg decides to end not on the spectacular shot of the rainbow but on the close-up of Elliott’s face, proving once again that no matter how many special effects Spielberg may use, his films are ultimately about people. His being labelled as a mere “special effects director” is inaccurate and unfair.


Like a lot of people my age (I’m 31), E.T. and the Star Wars series were seminal films of my generation. Although I am unsure as to whether or not it was the first Spielberg film I ever saw (that might’ve been Raiders) it was certainly a monumental film in the development of my love for cinema. And yet, when I watch it now (unlike much of Star Wars), it holds far more significance than simply nostalgia. In fact, I think the film (like a fine wine) has actually gotten better with age. It means more to me now as an adult than it ever did as a kid. I see things in it that I never saw when I was young. I not only understand it more but I find it infinitely more complex, funny, deep and emotionally satisfying. It’s become a bit of a cliché to say this film is for the “child in all of us,” because (although it is clearly a film for and about children) I think E.T. film is for everyone, from age 4 to 94. I’ve done my best here to try and make it clear why I (also having come from a broken home) think E.T. is a masterpiece; the most financially successful, culturally significant and universally accessible art film ever created (because if there is one thing I am convinced of it’s that E.T. is a work of art) and, after Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s greatest film. What Spielberg was able to accomplish with E.T. was extraordinary. Through a story about connection, he was able to connect with people all across the world and turn the movie into another cinematic phenomenon. E.T. became the highest-gorssing film of all time in 1982 but it was more than just an "event" movie like Jaws or Star Wars. E.T. was a beloved film. It stirred people's souls and that is a rare thing to occur on such a grand scale.

Not everyone shares that perspective of course. Many people have found the film to be very sentimental (with even Lucas confessing it was a little “saccharine” for his taste), dripping with “sugary sweetness” and thereby causing them to resist the extreme highs and lows of the experience because they feel it is too manipulative. Well, certainly an unnecessary degree of sentimentality is a big stumbling block for Spielberg (and something he himself has acknowledged) but, as with a lot of things, it’s a sliding scale. One person’s genuine emotion is another person’s manipulated sentimentality. An important thing I think for people to remember is that a) cinema is by its very nature a manipulative medium and b) sentimentality is not in itself a bad thing. If one feels any sort of sentiment about anything than one is, by definition, being sentimental and Spielberg certainly knows how to evoke a visceral emotional response in an audience that is willing to submit to where he wants to take them. I find that a lot of the time blaming Spielberg for being “too sentimental” is like blaming Hitchcock for being “too suspenseful” or the Marx brothers for being “too funny.” Sentimentality is the vernacular in which Spielberg often likes to work and consequently he chose to tell this particular story in a very sentimental vein. This is not something he has ever denied. It is not something he is ashamed of (nor should he be I think). Spielberg tends to feel things very strongly and in finding the ability to “put himself out there” in his work in a way that he is comfortable doing, he managed to bring a lot of people along with him, people who also happen to feel things very strongly.

In spite of the passion of my opinions, I hope it's obvious that I don't think less of those who dislike the movie. I went through a period where I didn’t care for it either (when I was a teenager I was too “cool” to like E.T.) and I can understand people who feel it crosses a line of sentimentality. I would never want to bully anybody into liking E.T. (nor would I ever say that someone is devoid of humanity or has “ice” in their veins because they feel nothing when watching it) but neither do I care for the implication that just because I am one of the millions of people who happen to be very moved by the film, that I am somehow a mindless sheep, a deluded fool not sophisticated enough to realize when he’s been “played like a piano” or whatever. To the people that might make this elitist claim, I tend to want to respond in kind with my own personal brand of elitism that asserts I would rather be a "foolish" believer, a sensitive soul, romantic at heart able to see the good in something than a hardened cynic blinded to the immense riches and rewards right in front of them if they would only have the humility and willingness to “open themselves up” to it. I do hope that for such individuals there is something (perhaps even a film) that brings them a comparable degree of joy, sadness and just general affirmation of what they hold dear. I hope there’s something in their lives that they cherish as much as I cherish E.T. because if so, they’re very lucky people.




TOMORROW: “Zoning” out

27 comments:

Austintation said...

Absolutely perfect.

Joe Valdez said...

Great article, Damian. I was unaware of any of the behind the scenes facts about this film.

Unlike you, have never heard of anyone from our generation admitting this was a seminal film of their childhood. Star Wars, Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark definitely, but never E.T., at least not the guys.

I don't care what anyone else says, I think this is a beautiful film. Perfectly cast. Small in scale. Really funny. The story has a lot of thought and pathos in it. Yeah it's sentimental but for anyone expecting an alien who goes on a killing spree, John Carpenter released a great version of that a couple of weeks later.

I also find it hilarious whenever George Lucas elects to become a critic and declare someone else's movie as not that great.

Erin said...

Grrr.... I just wrote you an immensely long comment and blogger ate it. I may turn it into a blog post on my own blog instead. Suffice it to say, for the moment: great essay! :)

Adam Ross said...

I actually didn't care much for E.T. as a child, but after seeing it a couple years ago for the first time in about 15 years, I found myself "blubbering" like you at the end. Spielberg may be more adept at making children laugh than adults -- I remember when my first grade class watched E.T., the beer scene was about the funniest thing we had ever seen.

Watching it again recently, I thought the opening shot of lights approaching on the hill was a nod toward 1953's "Invaders From Mars," where the alien craft lands on a similar location. Here's a shot of it I found:

http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/images/96hill.jpg

dwhite10701 said...

I saw this movie when I was ten years old. I started crying when E.T. died, and I looked around to make sure my friends didn't see me crying. They were all crying too. My friend's older brother, who was around 17-18, brought us to the movie. He was the toughest guy I knew, always getting into fights and into trouble, and to tell the truth, he scared the hell out of me. I was stunned to see that he was crying harder than all of us. Whenever I think of E.T., I can see his face in that theater just covered in tears.

I have two little girls, a toddler and an infant. This movie is at the top of the list of the movies I can't wait to show them.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think you skipped a bit of its genesis. The project was originally developed as Night Skies, a darker film with multiple aliens. It was scripted by John Sayles. And Rick Baker was hired to create the aliens. However, once Spielberg shifted his vision to E.T., he and Baker had a falling out, which resulted in them not working together for years -- and since, Baker has only worked on Spielberg-produced films.

Memo2Self said...

I saw this movie at a sneak preview in NYC two weeks before it opened -- an audience of 1200 or so (the old Bay Cinema on Second Avenue). One of the great experiences of my entire moviegoing life is being in the midst of 1200 people screaming "UP! UP!! UP!!!" when those bikes were heading towards that roadblock, and the tremendous explosion of exhiliration when they ascended.

They passed out "I Saw E.T." buttons at the screening (I still have mine), and for the next two weeks when I wore it around the city I was constantly asked about the movie. (Later, Reverend Jim was seen wearing one in "Taxi," and, of course, the implication was that he literally DID see him.)

odienator said...

Damian, this is a great article full of the right mixture of information, detail and emotion. I felt more reading your words than I did watching E.T. I wish I'd seen the movie through your eyes.

I seem to have fonder memories of other people's reactions to E.T. than my own. My favorite is my younger brother's, because it perfectly encapsulated how I felt about E.T. when I saw it opening day at the grand opening of the Loews Meadow Six in Secaucus, NJ. My brother was watching E.T. on video, and without warning, he projectile vomited. He was eating a bowl of Mr. T cereal at the time. He'd later tell me that "E.T.'s fingers were so disgusting I got sick." I can't look at E.T. without seeing my brother's Exorcist imitation, or being reminded that Mr. T had a cereal. ("I pity the fool who eats my cereal!")

I saw E.T. two weeks before I graduated grammar school. (Interestingly enough, I saw Poltergeist, which had opened the week before E.T., the night I graduated.) I absolutely hated it. There wasn't a single moment in it I enjoyed. It left me cold. And E.T. was everywhere in 1982, which made me hate it even more.

My cousins, with whom I was always attending movies, went back to see E.T. at least 20 times, which meant I stayed home from the movies a lot in 1982. It played at the Loews Jersey for almost a year. My schoolmates said the novelization was better, so I read it and hated it even more than the movie (though I recall it was a tad more risque).

On the 20th anniversary of E.T., a theater in NYC ran a screening. As with so many other things I've done in this life, I went because of a woman I was seeing. I knew it was one of her favorite movies, which is why I kept quiet and agreed when she suggested we go.

I expected the worst, but when the movie was over, I was impressed with how well crafted it was, something I couldn't notice at 12. I still found it unbearably saccharine and manipulative, but I couldn't deny how well it held together and how lovingly it was made. I wrote a review of it, which was a schizophrenic B-. I could never love E.T., but I learned to respect it.

As for my brother, I took him to Universal Studios in the early 90's, and we rode the E.T. ride. I made sure we did it before he ate.

cinebeats said...

I really dislike this film, but you make a good defense of it.

I will say that my problem with Spielberg's sentimentality in this film and others that followed is that he forces it down your throat in place of story and natural character development. Sure the movies sweet and we the audience get that, but he seems to want to add 10 cups of sugar to the saccharine Kool-Aid he's selling. The movie bothers me because I feel that he thinks that his audience is too stupid too understand anything but over-the-top sentimentality. It's as if he won't go low-key not because he can't, but because he thinks his audience won't be able to “feel” anything unless it's presented to us in cookie cutter shapes... dipped in sugar. He's a perpetual panderer.

With that said, I'm not a Spielberg hater believe it or not and I look forward to reading your thoughts on my favorite Spielberg film which you haven't reviewed yet.

Cinephile said...

Damian--
Another great essay in what (unsurprisingly) is turning into a fabulous series. I adore this film-- I saw it when I was nine, and probably saw it three or four more times that summer. It disappeared from my life until it was broadcast on tv nine years later; by then, I was a typically pretentious 18-year old college student, but I still blubbered (to use your great word) as I watched the finale, which I think speaks volumes about Spielberg's craftsmanship. Like you, I consider it his masterpiece, just above Jaws in my ranking of his films (btw, as great as it is, Schindler's List wouldn't even make my top five-- in terms of WWII films, I much prefer Empire of The Sun). Was it Pauline Kael (who also adored the film) who said it was like a Jean Renoir movie? In any case, that's what I think of it now-- a film of immense emotional grace and visual sponteneity, a humanist working at the height of his powers.

Speaking of French directors-- since i liked your essay so much, I hate to be a pedant, but-- at the beginning of your essay, you note that Truffaut had "passed on" by the time of E.T., but he actually didn't die until 1984. One of my favorite anecdotes, in fact, comes from Joseph McBride's Spielberg bio, where he tells the story of interviewing Truffaut, and telling the New Wave icon that Spielberg was finally making the movie "about the keeds" that Truffaut had been encouraging; when McBride told him this "keeds" movie would also involve a space alien, Truffaut laughed uproriously.

Damian said...

Thanks, all. Along with Schindler's List this was the post I was most nervous about writing. I wasn't sure how it was going to be received, but it seems like even those people who are not the biggest fans of the movie have found something in the article to respond to and/or respect.

Anonymous:

I was actually aware of the various changes the project went through in the conceptual process, and even thought about going into it more, but ultimately this is a project about the finished products and not the "making of" them. I certainly wanted to make mention of how these films came to be but the truth is that a whole book could be written about this movie and still not do it complete justice. I figured the brief remarks I made about its genesis was sufficient for my purposes.

Cinephile:

Oops. I don't know how I missed that. I remember looking up the date of Truffaut's death before writing the piece. Somehow I guess I got confused. Lord knows I've been reading a lot of information about these movies. I am certainly more than capable of making a mistake. Anyway, thanks for pointing it out. It has already been corrected.

Cinephile said...

Damian-- hey, no problem, and I hope I wasn't too much of a busybody in pointing it out (I also just wanted to share that anecdote, which I love for the way it reveals both men's friendship and good humor). And I also want to second all the folks who've praised you for the massive amount of research and passion you've put into this project-- it's truly impressive, deeply enjoyable and a real addition to the discussions about Spielberg. Thanks again for doing it!

I also can't wait to see what you say about Twilight Zone: The Movie, a film I have a lot of qualms about, but which I am sure your essay will illuminate for me.

Anonymous said...

"I also can't wait to see what you say about Twilight Zone: The Movie..."

You mean "The Vic Morrow Snuff Film?"

Emma said...

Beautiful write-up.

This was a movie that I grew up watching, and I love the story and its message of how friends may leave, but friendships last forever. A truly beautiful movie.

Jeffrey said...

One thing not mentioned here that will keep cropping up is not so much the impact of Spielberg being a 'child of divorce' on so much of the man's work, but the fact that he wasn't a *child* per se, at all.

Spielberg was well into his teens when his parents made their split, and while I'm sure it was a long time coming it's telling that his alter ego in ET is not the age-appropriate Michael, but Elliott. Michael is equal parts socially preoccupied teenager and nascent mensch, with a keen sense of protectiveness of the emotional wounds of his family. Elliott is far more solipsistic - perfectly understandable at his age, though one wonders at Spielberg's need to somewhat infantilize his own experience.

Where this really pays off down the line is with CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, a film whose protagonist has a reaction to his parents' divorce out of all proportion to his age and reasonable emotional maturity - faced with it, he runs away from home on the spot. Where it becomes fascinating is in Abagnale's next impulse - to hide in the adult world, playing dress up under constant threat of exposure for what he is - a very clever child.

Sure it's a true story, but continually Spielberg is most attracted to those true tales that allow him to express facets of his own experience. Spielberg is the most helplessly self-revealing mainstream filmmaker I can think of, and it's threads like this throughout his formidable body of work that make it so rewarding and rich. He's no less an auteur then any of his more critically-approved contemporaries.

-Jeffrey Allen Rydell

Dan Coyle said...

Your article caused me to think about the movie while I was mowing the lawn (yep, that's what I do when I mow: critique film).

What's stuck with me throughout the past 25 years, is that first image of the Government guys marching up the hill, in construction hats and white suits. I found it scary when I was 5, and in a way, it's still scary. Sure, the first half of the film is pretty good, but I always sort of preferred the claustrophobic inversion of the alien invasion, where the humans are the scary ones, and perhaps my inner child was a libertarian, because what right does the government have to tear up the place and run tests on poor 'lil E.T.? It really is Spielberg working full blast with his talents.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Damian: I disocvered Elliot's neighborhood one day a few years ago while visiting a friend up in the Seven Hills area above Tujunga, CA. Imagine the chill I got when I went up a small hill and, over the crest, looked out on Los Angeles with the same point of view as that seen in the movie. Cool!

By the way, I recognize that E.T. is manipulative as hell, and oh, how I did get sick of hearing about it after a while that summer of 1982. But it's hard to deny how good it is in so many ways too.

sherbear94546 said...

Who played the voice of E.T. I can't find who did it?

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Hi, I wanted to add something regarding the Ray controversy you mention. I agree that the whole thing is pure speculation and nothing definitive can be said about it. However, I think you are slightly wrong when you say "there is very little in the oeuvre of Satyajit Ray to indicate an enterprise of this nature". This is perhaps true regarding his film making oeuvre, where he of course was limited by funds available. But Ray was an avid writer of short stories for children and Young adults. He wrote many science fiction stories laced with his particular brand of humanism.

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