Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part X: A boy's life


Spielberg introduces a generation of children to a best friend who might leave them, but would never hurt them, and they show their appreciation by giving him millions and millions and millions of dollars.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Melissa Mathison and Steven Spielberg
With Henry Thomas (Elliott), Robert McNaughton (Michael), Drew Barrymore (Gertie), Dee Wallace (Mary), Peter Coyote (The Man With the Keys), and Pat Welsh/Ben Burtt/Tamara de Treaux/Pat Bilon/Matthew DeMeritt/Caprice Roth (E.T.)

Spoiler alert: high

Long-time readers may or may not recall that I have often referred to E.T. (borrowing the tagline from John Carpenter's The Thing) as the Ultimate in Alien Terror.  Now, I'm being facetious when I say this, obviously; but I'm not being disingenuous.  I was six the only other time I watched E.T.  It was on a VHS copy my parents had thoughtfully rented, and (truth be told), I'm not even certain I watched the whole thing, because despite having weathered the face-melting of Raiders of the Lost Ark (not to mention the heart-ripping of Temple of Doom) with no issue, the sight of the portly little monster with the stubby feet wading out of the misty light of Elliott's tool shed sent me into a state of shock that I didn't recover from for weekscrying, nightmares, the works.  So, hi: I'm the giant baby who was so scared by E.T.possibly the most inoffensive and conflict-free film ever madethat I missed out on the whole phenomenon.

As we discussed in detail last time, E.T. in fact did start off as another Steven Spielberg horror picture: Night Skies, a follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this time with evil aliens.  But when Spielberg balked, Night Skies was split into two: Poltergeist, which kept the horror; and what would become the project codenamed A Boy's Life, which kept the aliens.  Columbia, which owned Close Encounters, passed on the "wimpy Walt Disney picture," and released Spielberg from his obligations to them.  Still seeking an alien movie to capitalize on Close Encounters' popularity, Columbia made Starman insteadas their executives wept, I imagine, because while they were pushing ahead with Carpenter's cosmic romance, A Boy's Life was coming to fruition over at Universal, and when it was released under the less bland title E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, it made more money than any movie ever had.

I didn't use that word, "phenomenon," on a whim: E.T. is on the short list of the most popular movies ever made.  And that puts me in a rather unique situation for a Millennial in 2016: virtually alone, I can view E.T. without any particular nostalgia.

Now, I do remain heavily biased toward the kind of early 80s filmmaking which E.T. represents, not to mention the kid's adventure genre which it didn't exactly invent, but which it nonetheless popularized the living shit out of, rendering the whole rest of the decade absolutely lousy with imitatorsa fair few of which, it should be noted, are in fact much better movies, featuring such luxuries as "stakes" and "narrative conflicts that are not wholly imagined by the film's protagonist."

So: E.T., in case it needs to be mentioned, is the story of a boy whose humdrum life in the suburbs, defined principally by the Spielbergian absence of his father, is turned upside down by his discovery of something that he can gaze upon, with equally Spielbergian wonder.

And which he also determines to be male, apparently because he didn't spy any prominent eyelashes or a pink bow on its head.  But I don't see a penis, so, frankly, I don't consider the matter settled.

To be more specific, wonderment presently arrives in the form of a pruny alien explorer, accidentally left behind on Earth when his excursion party is interrupted by a threatening mob of humans led by the faceless man with the keys, whose jangling shall serve as a motif of encroaching danger throughout the film.

Lost, our poor castaway evades capture and makes his way to civilization.  There he runs afoul of Elliott, who alone in his family suspects that there is more afoot to the mysterious tracks and strange noises in the back yard than mere coyotes.  Armed thus with his boundless imagination, as well as a bag of delicious Reese's Pieces, Elliott finally corners the alienand, because Elliott is a good-natured lad, takes him home, christens him E.T., feeds him, protects him, and (this probably shouldn't be overlooked) uses the alien's existence to justify his own, especially to his bullying older brother Michael.  Joined by their little sister Gertie, the three siblings try to figure out just what E.T. is, where he comes from, and where he needs to goquestions which take on what looks like real urgency when E.T. begins to fall ill, and Elliott, whose life force has become inexplicably intertwined with the alien, begins to suffer many of the same symptoms, too.  If that weren't bad enough, the man with the keys is still hunting for E.T., and soon, the creature and his adopted family alike shall find themselves in the government's sights.  Can E.T. and Elliott escape captureand, even if they do, can E.T. find a way to (as he puts it) "phone home"?

The short answer is "yes."

See, that synopsis is certainly accurate enough, but it attributes a lot more suspense and excitement to E.T.'s scenario than what it ultimately winds up with.  Obviously, there's no mistaking the immersive impression of danger that Spielberg conjures up with E.T.hell, there's one shot of the man with the keys standing astride a hill that might well be the most looming Goddamned thing I've ever seen in any movie.  Likewise, the penultimate result of E.T.'s failing health isnot to put to fine a point on itfucking devastating.  (And recall, I'm watching this, essentially for the first time, as a grown man.)  Yet, in less than five minutes, both of these deadly threats simply vanish right into thin air, leaving the film with nothing but a well-made but narratively-desolate chase scene, before E.T.'s parents, or co-workers, or whatever, make their return, and the film ends with its inimitably Spielbergian combination of saccharine sweetness, emotional uplift, and full-bore mystical ineffability, anchored (if it's anchored by anything) with the undeniable feeling that Elliott has finally learned the meaning of loss.

On the other hand, Spielberg (working with Melissa Mathison as the sole credited screenwriter) should probably be commended for turning the worst part of all these moviesincluding, especially, Close Encountersinto something like a strength.  Watching it, and knowing fully well that E.T. was in many ways responsible for codifying the Evil Government Subplot so endemic to 80s sci-fi, I was shocked to discover that the man with the keys turns out, from an adult perspective, to be a legitimately cool dude; his childlike inquisitiveness mirrors Elliott's more-or-less exactly, and he's not noticeably eager to start an interstellar war with a vastly more powerful alien civilization.  Meanwhile, his cabal of doctors and men in black, though shadowy, appear to have nothing but the best intentions, doing their very damnedest to revive poor E.T. as his body collapses.  You get the distinct feeling that, if Elliott had only asked them, they'd have just given E.T. a ride to his rendezvous.  (But perhaps I'm just too trusting.)

That Peter Coyote bears a certain resemblance to one William Davisbest known for getting intimate with cancer on The X-Filesis a nice ironic bonus, if (obviously) an accident of genetics and history.

It's almost obnoxious how Spielberg gets to have it both ways here.  But, then, not too many movieslet alone kid's adventure movieshave been this thoughtfully-made.  Yoking the film firmly to Elliott's perspective, Spielberg accomplishes something very special, but through a whole panoply of cheats: a refusal to show the face of any adult but Elliott's poor mother until the third act, the point at which Elliott has taken his own first steps into something like adulthood; a shot design built around the height and eyelines of the child actors; a shooting schedule that privileged script order over efficiency, in order to ease the children into the scenario; the convincing physical prop of E.T. himself, which young Drew Barrymore was tricked into believing was a real alien being; Spielberg's obvious empathy with Henry Thomas in particular, which allowed him to pull a genuinely fantastic performance out of the lad; and (lest we forget) Spielberg's apparent hatred of baby Barrymore, who was told that the alien she believed was real was also really dying.

Well, whether it entailed some terrifyingly cruel child abuse or not, Spielberg's methods got results; E.T. works because it is instilled with a child's whimsy, a child's lack of understanding, and (most importantly) a child's irrational, animal terror.  And I suppose that must be how the most harrowing moments of E.T. retain all their considerable emotional integrity, even when the script itself defuses the external conflict with a shrug while, with the same blithe attitude, it simply brings E.T. right back to life, as if it might well have been the little bastard's plan all along.

Emotionally intuitive filmmakingor, if you're not a fan, "emotionally manipulative filmmaking"has always been Spielberg's greatest gift, and emotional control is, basically, the film director's single most important job.  My own childhood experience notwithstanding, E.T. is the work of a man who knows exactly how to do his job.  The first scene is a genuine master class in dialogue-free storytelling: it is immediately clear, through the staging of the pursuit, through John Williams' nerve-wracking score, and especially through the heart-rendingly pathetic shriek that constitutes E.T.'s wordless, terrified reaction, that our visitors might be mysterious, but they mean absolutely no harm, whereas the man with the keys must be abominably villainous.  Later on, when Elliott's teacher attempts to compel him to vivisect a frog, it's blunt enough that even the stupidest child could understand exactly what Spielberg's alluding tonamely, E.T.'s own possible fatebut the genius is that Spielberg realizes that, and pushes the matter no further.  (I might admit that he goes too far with E.T.'s pursuers in full-on NASA-style spacesuits, apparently just so they can further dehumanize themselves and hence appear more monstrous to both Elliott and to us, but I cannot also deny that it still works.)

It's easy to dwell on the meaner parts of E.T., for they are, to my mind, the most memorable and the best-done; but they don't exist without the lighter parts.  The humor is wisely allowed to come naturally and subtlyE.T. is a funny movie, but only once flirts with outright comedy, when E.T. gets Elliott drunk, via telepathy.  (And while I'm not sure exactly how I feel about this scene's quality as a comedic setpiece, it reminds me viscerally just how damned square kids' movies are today.)  Anyway, the typical gag is, if not more refined ("penis-breath!"), then nonetheless a lot better-grounded in the characters and the scenarioE.T.'s attempt to "heal" Michael's Halloween costume, a fake knife which he believes has been lodged entirely through the older boy's skull, is the perfect example of this.  It is also the most laugh-out-loud funny thing I've seen in any Spielberg movie, made before or since.

Which gets us around to one of the most refreshing aspects of E.T., and surely even more refreshing still, back in '82, before E.T. had been ripped-off dozens of times: the sensawunda inherent to E.T. is founded not upon vague, Close Encounters-style promises, but concrete miracles.  E.T., of course, is one more manifestation of the Lord, our God, the undying Space Jesus: but unlike every other Space Jesus, since the Space Jesus' invention in The Day the Earth Stood Still, E.T. isn't here to lecture us.  (Hell, E.T. can barely speak at all, and it's entirely possible, and I think entirely preferable, that E.T. is himself but an alien childafter all, his expedition seemed to be mounted with all the in-depth planning of a class field trip.)

In any event, E.T.quite radicallyis not here to tell us what to do.  He's here to be our friend, heal our boo-boos, and touch our hearts.  The awe we experience at E.T.'s cosmic powersfor E.T. is, in a word, awesomeis a personal thing.  The lessons he has to teach usif anyare lessons about how to gird ourselves against the pain that life always occasions.  But above all, E.T. wants you to know that, wherever he is, you're loved.  It is therefore not too terribly hard to understand exactly why everyone loved him right back.

Score:  9/10

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