12 June 2012

I'LL BE RIGHT HERE

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial premiered in North America on 11 June, 1982, and was initially meant to be a smallish personal project (for a big-budget sci-fi picture) that would give director Steven Spielberg a chance to recuperate from the hectic production of the previous year's Raiders of the Last Ark. It ended up devouring the Zeitgeist whole, holding the record as highest-grossing film of all time for almost a decade and remaining, after two re-releases, the most financially successful movie in the career of the most financially successful film director in modern Hollywood. We could try and puzzle out why this should have proved to be the case, or we could just assume the obvious and allow that it probably has something to do with E.T. being one of the most exquisitely manipulative films ever made, the kind of bullying and manipulative movie that tells you exactly how to feel at every moment, wraps it all up with a final scene that is among the most aggressively heartbreaking ever put on cinema screens.

For these reasons, E.T. has been frequently criticised as being criminally sentimental, and it is frequently used as the big stick of choice to beat Spielberg around for being a cloying, calculating purveyor of canned emotions and readily-digested experiences (certainly, is the film of his career most forthright in its desire to make the viewer cry). I've never understood this impulse. Ever. It seems to me that it's operating from a fundamentally broken assumption, which is that being manipulative is somehow a bad, ignoble thing for a filmmaker to be. That's simply not true at all: all movies are inherently and necessarily manipulative, because all movies, like all art, are ultimately trying to provoke a response in us, the audience. The most ascetic, disaffected French art film is still manipulative in its particular way. The thing about Spielberg, then, isn't that he's manipulative and other directors aren't; it's that he is the best at it. But let us concede to the anti-Spielberg contingent, that he dictates how we should feel, rather than creating a space for us to feel however we will. I will not seek to change the mind of those who resent him for this any more than I expect to have my own mind changed: and every single time I've watched E.T. in the last 27 years, the last scene has left me sobbing like my entire family just died, so I like to think that I get the better end of the deal.

(Regardless of all this, as easy as it is to slag on Spielberg's films for being too emotionally simple and haranguing, it's not quite fair to do the same to Spielberg the man, who does not necessarily know what he does; in interviews, he strikes me as being uniquely unaware of why his movies work the way they do, which perhaps explains the reason that e.g. Jurassic Park is such a pale echo of Jaws - the earlier film was largely an accident, and the latter film found the director thinking too much about what he was doing, and sucking out some energy from his movie along the way).

But enough of this, on to the movie.

E.T. is routinely cited as being, by a fairly huge margin, Spielberg's most personal project (the script is credited to Melissa Mathison alone, but it is widely stated that the director was the prime mover on the story), reflecting his childhood in a California suburb, his feelings of emotional abandonment by a distant father and the inconsistent relationship with his mother that resulted, and his escape into fantasy; which for the director meant making movies from a young age, and for his onscreen alter-ego, Elliott (Henry Thomas), means living through an actual for-real fantasy story. For this is a fantasy, really, despite its superficial science fiction trappings, and despite how much we would all love to be able to plug it in the hole marked "spiritual sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind". Certainly, there are many, many points of similarity between the two films, a number of places where E.T. seems to be in a deliberate conversation with CE3K, either because of things they do the same - like, for instance, scenes where electric toys spontaneously start operating - and things they conspicuously do differently - among the very first shots of E.T. takes us inside an alien spacecraft, something very obviously missing from the theatrical cut of CE3K and present in a widely-disliked addition to a 1980 re-release.

But where CE3K is pretty unambiguously sci-fi both in its human story (the wonder of finding that we are not alone in the universe) and in its trappings (the bulk of the film is concerned in one way or another with how. practically, communication can happen between two species that evolved on different planets), E.T. uses its extra-terrestrial visitor as a metaphor at best; there aren't any real attempts at creating a consistent, logically grounded alien, and what matters most about him (or it) is not that he has a spaceship but that he has a connection to Elliott that is best described as magical.

And, too, the human element of the film is infinitely more domestic than not: the drama of the film, as everybody has known for a great many years, comes from a 10-year-old boy who is absolutely not coping well at all with his parents' impending divorce, who has no friends his own age and whose attempts to socialise with his older brother and his buddies are consistently ineffective (Elliott's very first line, tellingly, is whining about wanting to play with the teenagers). It is, as some of its working titles indicate, a sci-fi gloss on the old "boy and a dog" stories, and since E.T. is more intelligent than even the most well-trained hunting dog out of a Disney picture, the dynamic on display is far closer to friendship than the master/pet relationship of its generic precursors.

That's all there is too it, really: a scared, lonely suburban kid gets an awesome new friend who teaches him how to be brave and strong. Everything about the film - every performance, every fantasy/sci-fi setpiece, the way it's edited, the way it's scored, and very definitely the way it's shot - is dedicated to reinforcing that central situation. Perhaps oddly, given Spielberg's reputation as the sentimental family-friendly movie maker to end them all, E.T. is really his only straight-up children's film (though from a time when words like "shit" and "penis breath" could be found in children's movies); Empire of the Sun is about a child and uses many of the same visual cues in establishing that fact, but it is fundamentally a film from an adult perspective, aimed at children. E.T. is a director taking childhood face-on, treating it with intense gravity and respect - famously, Spielberg framed the vast majority of shots to be at Thomas's level, meaning that the various adults in the movie are crowded out or forced to the background, and nearly every time this pattern is broken, it represents a significant and upsetting loss of power for the protagonist. It is, after all, a working-through of emotional scars that stuck with the director for years afterwards (I am not the first, nor the hundredth, nor the thousandth to point out that emotionally unavailable fathers and/or newfound father surrogates can be found in virtually every single Spielberg film), and was thus undoubtedly a grave and serious topic for him. And this is, I think, what is frequently left out when E.T. gets slagged for presenting such a polished, romantic, swoony picture of friendship with an alien and flying bikes: the first half-hour makes childhood look like a staggeringly awful time.

Now, there are many ways that the filmmaker plays his game of exploring how friendship can save a lonely boy: the cinematography, including not just the condensed POV but also the overwhelmingly beautiful shots of sunsets and moonscapes that communicate in no uncertain terms just how enchanting this new friend is for Elliott, and for us (that's another thing that I think excuses the sentimental excess of the movie: we are, after all, not supposed to be identifying with the adults, not even Dee Wallace's gloriously tight, pained work as Elliott's mom, but with Elliott himself, and 10-year-olds are, as you may have forgotten, given to more excessive, splashy emotions than grown-ups), his absolutely flawless mustering of performances from child actors - Thomas and six-year-old Drew Barrymore, I have always thought, give the two empirically finest performances in the movie, owing I suppose to some amount of innate talent, and also to how cunningly they are toyed with by Spielberg, a genius at tricking children into giving great performances - a magnificent puppet playing the title creature, designed by Carlo Rambaldi to look ugly as all hell, and not even all that expressive (he's not a patch on Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back, two years earlier), and yet there's something about how compact it is, and how warm the perpetually half-lidded eyes are, that makes the puppet extremely inviting and companionable.

But the most important thing is John Williams's score; Williams, of course, being the emotional backbone to most of Spielberg's movies, this is not that much of a surprise, but outside of maybe - maybe - Schindler's List, I cannot think of another movie with Williams music where he does so much of the heavy lifting. It's not even one of his best jobs, taken across the board: there's an awful lot of Raiders in it that he wasn't able to shake off. But my God, when it clicks! The film ends with a quarter-hour symphonic piece that was composed to a rough cut, after which Spielberg and editor Carol Littleton re-cut the movie around the music, a rare process that pays enormous dividends, for the last quarter hour is an extraordinary accomplishment of matching adventurous melodies to the film's best action and then walloping the viewer up the head with a soaring, knee-weakening motif that is half-triumphant and half-mournful, in the final moments. Hell, I'll even give him a huge amount of credit for the music that opens the end credits: it is one of the two primary themes representing the Elliott/E.T. relationship (the "intimate friends" one, not the "magical alien" one), played on solo piano - one of the vanishingly few examples of that instrument taking the lead in Williams's entire career, and coming as it does after we've theoretically just had a good cry, it's a perfect arrangement to allow us a moment of self-reflection, finding our center again.

While that's all well and good, it's not even the most fascinating part of the score: the movie cleaves into two parts, the first of which is mostly just idling around as Elliott gets to know E.T. and realise that he still can feel love, the second of which covers the last 36 hours of their time together and involves most of the actual plot. It's in the second half that all of the sweeping, violin-heavy Williams-esque themes present themselves in full: while in the first half, when the movie is still assembling itself dramatically, Williams only uses snatches of melodies, relying more on mood music than actual, identifiable tunes. Sonically, he is reinforcing the general shape of Elliott's emotional arc in the film, in which a general in-the-now sense of aimlessness is replaced with direction and focus, and the sometimes chipper, sometimes melancholy noodling about that Williams plays with in the first half is one of the most unconventional things he did prior to his full-on jump into structuralist experimentation in the 2000s, starting with A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Though I imagine it was the blistering "I am going to make you cry now" strings of the finale that won him the Oscar.

Spielberg and Williams and sad little boys; that's what cinematic magic is made of. I find that I haven't made a big enough point about just how brilliant I actually think E.T. is: I regard it, in fact, as the second-best film of the director's career, after the flawless machine that is Jaws, and undoubtedly one of the greatest American films of the 1980s. Not because it is perfect: it is, in many crucial ways, the clumsiest of the four masterpieces Spielberg directed at the onset of his career from 1975 to 1982 (after E.T., he launched into a rocky few years attempting to distance himself from the slick Hollywood showman persona that those selfsame masterpieces had saddled him with; they being, unfortunately, a hell of a lot of fun to watch in addition to being extraordinarily well-crafted cinema). But it just oozes feeling, and the intensity of purpose that is almost tangible in every frame makes it all the richer, emotionally (it is, I would say unquestionably, the most sincere movie in Spielberg's canon, not even Schindler's List can touch it). If it were so damn trivial to make emotionally roiling movies like this, I think we'd probably see more of them; instead, E.T. is a once-in-a-generation kind of movie that mixes flashy spectacle and thick human feeling and does both of them with care and skill and resounding success.

6 comments:

Caleb Wimble said...

I need to revisit this film. I have not for some time because, frankly, my childhood emotional associations of E.T. are all a strange tangle of dread, disgust, and distrust of the narrative's intentions. I cannot say why for any particular reason, though I do think a part of it may be due to the extreme discomfort I always felt with the intensely broken portrayal of Elliott's family life at the outset of the film, and the ways it may have reflected some deep fears I had at the time of my own family's internal structure and especially of my relationship with my troubled relationship with my siblings (the argument culminating in the "penis breath" epithet was always one of the most painful in my memory).

Far from finding these portrayals of Spielberg's own youth resonate, for a kid like me they were more mortifying than comforting. My lingering impressions of E.T., which I have not seen in over a decade, are not a cloying sentimentality but of existential dread and a pervading wrongness to the proceedings that I have never quite been able to shake off. Needless to say, it was not one of my favorite flicks at the time; far and above my most disliked of Spielberg's work, actually, and ten-year-old me would have picked the fantastic escapism and familial wholeness of Hook for viewing over E.T. any day of the week.

Odd Jungian stuff, now that I've taken a few seconds to psychoanalyze my feelings on the film, and it's probably high time I gave it a second chance as an adult.

Mark said...

I must confess that your second paragraph here boxes me in pretty neatly. This film leaves me simultaneously resentful of how stridently Spielberg has dictated my emotional responses and amazed by how masterfully he has done just that. I will grant the man that--his filmography is all over the map in terms of my personal tastes, but I can't say I've ever walked away from one just saying "Meh."

KingKubrick said...

I have to agree with Caleb Wimble; my only childhood memories of E.T. are it giving me intense nightmares. My young self found the part were E.T. rises from the dead very, very disturbing.

When I revisited the film I considered it a well designed piece of entertainment but I was underwhelmed. I'm firmly in the anti-spielberg contingent and find his films the worse kind of cloying treacle (except for the action adventure cinema, which is what he should have stuck to exclusively). However, I am going to break the vow I made never to watch a Spielberg in theatre again after the disastrous Minority Report because I must see Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. I still wish they chose Spielberg's non-union Mexican equivalent, Senior Spielbergo to direct.

Tim said...

Not that I think anyone here has misinterpreted me, but I'm concerned that I wasn't as clear as I might have been: I'm certainly not trying to bully anybody into liking Spielberg. Really, I just wanted to admit to my biases: I have a tremendous, tremendous respect for the man's skills (which, on the level of pure technique, I believe to be as good as any other living American filmmaker, regardless of his storytelling weaknesses), and I'm not in a position to "bridge" to people who severely hate his work. Of whom there are many, and many of them are very smart.

It's long been fascinating to me that a director who is on the one hand so blandly commercial and audience-friendly causes such polarising opinions among cinephiles.

Anyway, I want to specifically latch on to Caleb's observation that there's something desperately uncomfortable and distressing about parts of the movie: yes, definitely, and that is certainly part of why I love it. I have a long history of preferring children's movies that are more dangerous than comforting.

And to Zev: I feel like a dam burst in terms of classic Spielberg reviews here: as recently as December, nothing earlier than A.I., and then three in less than six months. I probably won't do a dedicated retrospective - no real desire to revisit 1941 or The Lost World or The Terminal in print - but Schindler's List is one that's highly likely to show up sometime or another.

StephenM said...

This is a good review of a great movie (I'm firmly in the pro-Spielberg camp myself, and I suggest anyone curious about good Spielberg criticism should Reverse Shot's complete retrospective).

Just two quibbles: 1. E.T. isn't Spielberg's only kid film: Hook is a good deal more child-friendly than it, and the recent Adventures of Tintin counts too.

2. I've always found Spielberg a very warm, intelligent, and articulate presence in interviews, which I suspect has greatly contributed to his celebrity. While he rarely analyzes his films in detail, this has always struck me as more of an old-school, John Ford/Howard Hawks type of straightforwardness about craft without making any outspoken pretensions to art, rather than a lack of insight or personal reflection. He's certainly a more emotional than an intellectual filmmaker, but I guess everyone knows that already.

The.Watcher said...

I belong in that camp which criticizes Spielberg for being overly manipulative. And while I agree with you insofar as all movies are, by their nature, manipulative, something about the way in which this particular director does it raises an alarming amount of red flags in my psyche.

I guess it's just so blatant and obvious that it's off-putting to me, almost like I defiantly close my mind to his films on principle, in a "you wanna make me cry? Fuck you" kind of way. It's unintentional and done subconsciously, but nevertheless it's how I feel and, therefore, I'm unable to enjoy most of his movies.

Indiana Jones (the first 3), Jurassic Park 1, Jaws and movies of that nature I'm fine with, since they're more oriented on providing thrills and not so laser-focused on being as sentimental as possible.