[Originally published in Film Comment, February 1983]
People in Steven Spielberg films live in the right places: movies can’t help happening to them. It isn’t necessary to range as far as, say, Peru, where the right mountain had been patiently waiting to emerge from the Paramount crest at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Your house will do. Indeed, it will do better.
Remember the house where Barry Guiler and his mother lived in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Not just what it looked like (Forties bungalow gone to seed behind a screen porch) but where it sat. On an unkempt lawn merging into field and wood; the house itself slightly left of center-frame, with some middle-distant trees at right to keep the eye from straying; a valley slope behind, unremarkable until you noticed that the cloudscape above had bestirred and reshaped itself to create a second, forced-perspective valley in the sky—a trough that an extraterrestrial craft just had to slide down, to collect one lucky little boy and take him for a celestial joyride. Movie landscape as poetic imperative.
No DeMillean, Ten Commandments–type clouds roil in Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. The auspicious spectacle of CE3K‘s otherworldly arrivals is replaced here with disarming simplicity: a gentle downward slant across the night sky, with no lights save stars, no visible spacecraft, nothing to orient the sense of “down” but the bottom of the screen and the fact that the movement is being registered by the eye of an earthbound filmwatcher. The tops of fir trees penetrate the bottom of the frame, feathery and just a cozy whisper of shade darker than the night itself. They confirm the locus of the action and reassure us. This is Earth. This is the right place.
That’s the first shot of the movie. The second at once bears out its logic and subtly contradicts our generic expectations. There’s a spacecraft after all, but one that hardly squares with the vitaminized swooping or sky-filling mass of previous Spielberg spaceships. In size and appearance it suggests a big brother to the Christmas ornaments that might be hung on the surrounding firs, though given the season—several days shy of Halloween—its resemblance to a jack-o’-lantern is more immediately apt. Nor can the habitué of the Spielberg universe suppress yet another resemblance: grinning with backlight, the serrations of the jack-o’-lantern’s “mouth” evoke a nonpredatory, cartoon version of Jaws’ “Bruce.”
Still, the most striking thing about the spacecraft in the second shot of the film is that we do not see it land. It’s simply present, congenially embraced by a forest clearing, its plentiful lights rhyming with the glow of an American town spreading out from the upper-left corner of the frame. The shot-progression is perfectly coherent: the downward drift of the opening shot was actually completed, a distinct rest achieved, before the cut to shot two; and there’s no strain in assuming that the spaceship participated in the movement described by our own eyes. At the same time, that movement was too clean, too abstract, to suggest a complete point-of-view identification with an extraterrestrial peering through the most pristine of ports; even within the context of a fairy-tale narrative, the shot is a kind of cinematic wish-fantasy. The exquisite conjoining and disjuncture of these two brief shots establish the tensions that will inform the rest of the film.
Spielberg’s depiction of the E.T.s’ emergence into the world stresses the benignity of their visitation. The creatures are first discovered by a camera slowly circling the spacecraft, peering through foreground branches. The vegetation is all astir, partly from the breeze, partly from the interplanetary dwarfs’ bustling about, and partly, it almost seems, from an agreeable excitement communicated among all the living things present. Our first clear exrraterrestrial sighting is of an E.T. semi-silhouetted within the door of the ship, while immediately in front of the lens two tassel-like fingers reach up to pluck at an evergreen branch.
The titular E.T. is first seen in longshot, waddling rapt through the most Edenic forest stand since the pastoral heyday of D.W. Griffith. The trees tower above him, but there isn’t a hint of terror in the scale of things. Spielberg cuts to a traveling POV, two giant trunks that run out of ceiling before they run out of height. Here the points-of-view of viewer and visitant incontestably merge: we are privileged to see a tree, to encounter the Idea of Tree, as if we’d never seen one before; and to know (regardless of whatever else we think we “know”) that these trees don’t come to a stop x feet above the mist into which they disappear, but provide a spiritual connection between two realms of existence.
Spielberg goes delightfully and definitively further in asserting E.T.’s kinship with a particular species of the imagination. The creature comes to the edge of the forest, and also of a hill; some brush obstructs his vision of what lies beyond. He moves forward, leans to bend the shrubbery aside, and—marvelous neck that he’s supplied with—he cranes. The city glimpsed in the corner of an earlier shot now comes clearly into view. At this moment E.T. becomes identified with the very principle of movie movement (and, incidentally, E.T. vindicates the cheerfully wasteful, $500,000 preview shot for 1941!).
Such identification is entirely in order, for movie classicism lies at the heart of the film’s extraordinary purity and power. Geographically, E.T. covers a more limited terrain than any other big-screen feature of Spielberg’s (except its brilliant, underrated flipside companion Poltergeist, which Tobe Hooper directed under Spielberg’s aegis), but it maps that terrain with gratifying lucidity. Elliott (Henry Thomas), E.T.’s Earthside soulmate-to-be, is kept out of the older kids’ Dungeons and Dragons game with a condescending “You can’t join just any universe in the middle!” The movie not only disputes that (this is said a mere moment after E.T., left behind by the hastily departing spacecraft, has involuntarily joined this world): it also demonstrates that we can rediscover our own universe “in the middle” through sensitive mise-en-scène.
A pointed, yet also inconspicuous, instance of this occurs when Elliott introduces his new acquaintance into his home. First encountered in the backyard as a Halloween “goblin,” E.T. has been lured back from the forest with the proffer of M&M candies. (Yes, they’re really Reese’s Pieces, but childhood associations die hard.) Leaving pile after pile of these in his wake, Elliott entices E.T. into his house, up the stairs, and along the corridor to his bedroom. The boy—and Spielberg’s camera—observes from inside the room as the creature’s long, articulate fingers extend into the doorframe to gather up the latest offering. Then Elliott turns and crosses the room to his desk (to turn on a lamp, I think); the camera pans with him, perfectly naturally, and in doing so discloses the long, cluttered playtable that lies between desk and door. Elliott immediately turns and resumes his previous vantage, whereupon he and we discover that the doorframe, in which we might have expected E.T. to be standing, is empty. Is E.T. still lingering outside, out of sight? Out of sight yes, outside no. For suddenly E.T.’s fingers reappear above the opposite edge of the playtable, and we hear his clucks and murmurs of delight as he gropes his messily exploratory way among Elliott’s treasures.
This is a wonderful passage. Not only does Spielberg manage to continue developing the characterization of E.T. while still delaying the moment we finally can see him clearly in closeup and normal light. He also scrupulously respects the terms by which we know E.T. so far-the fingers; the offscreen chuckles that may be involuntary sound, may be shaped language—and the terms in which we know Elliott’s own world. The normal, functional follow of his camera maps a zone new to us as well as to E.T. (Elliott’s table) and then, in its return pass, the camera “inadvertently” discovers that that terrain has already been annexed by the narrative and imaginatively utilized.
This fusion of the documentary and the imaginative is so beguiling that the unthinkable becomes possible. The way Spielberg looks at contemporary suburbia, we can believe that his children might actually grow up as nostalgic about their childhood home as, well, people who grew up pre-tickytacky. Spielberg retains the ability to visualize the world as a child does—and that’s not meant as a goopy platitude, but as a precise observation. The director gets the angles that can render the mundane monumental without disfiguring or falsifying it. He gets the kind of “shots” one frames to valorize one’s childhood (and adult?) itinerary.
Elliott just walking up his driveway after doing business with the pizza-delivery truck; Elliott and later his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) mounting up and cycling out of the garage to conquer the world—these are lyrical and also astutely comic moments when the most everyday architecture becomes a heroic frame and the close-plotted constructions of a tract neighborhood loom with the telephoto grandeur of mountain backdrops.
Even when Spielberg does crowd falsification, the deviations are so charmingly cinematic we want to embrace them, too: the backyard cornfield, mist, and Halloween moon that mute the sense of suburban blight encroaching on nature; and a high-angle view of a rusticated, fence-wrapped bend of road that Elliott bikes along as he leaves his town behind—a bit of highway engineering as improbable and as thrillingly right as the Albert Whitlock roadway where an intoxicated Roger Thornhill is set up to buy the farm in North by Northwest.
Mostly, Spielberg transforms the mundane simply by virtue of how he sees it—like E.T. himself. If movie classicism, the purest manifestation of a pop-cultural medium, validates E.T., E.T. also returns the favor. At once exploring his new environment and pondering how to get back to his old one, E.T. tinkers with a learning toy and a TV remote control while also perusing a Buck Rogers strip in the comix. As it happens, Buck has built himself a Rube Goldberg gizmo to “phone home” from a hostile planet; E.T. cannot yet make out the words in the comic strip, but presumably he reads the graphic depiction of sonar waves as clearly as any Earthling. Meanwhile, a TV commercial urges Bell Telephone customers to reach out and touch someone.
E.T. adds up his cues and sets to work. He uses everything that happens to him; even an umbrella that pops open and terrifies him finds its way into the “home phone” he ultimately assembles to contact his own kind across the stars. Indeed, E.T.’s device, with its ingenious amalgamation of so many incidental household props, amounts to nothing less than a funky variation on the grand theme of CE3K, wherein a musical chord, flashing lights, hand gestures, a mathematical formula, and the patterns of celestial shapes dancing in space all became the physical-metaphysical cue for the close encounter between biologically alien, spiritually attuned species.
Spielberg everywhere hints at both the readiness of humankind to imaginatively embrace such possibilities, and the cozy overfamiliarity, the cultural conditioning, that militates against making the sublime connection. How appropriate, with respect to both levels of possibility, that the kids going outside to chase the goblin they don’t believe in, accompany and comment on their own mission by chanting the “deedle-deedle, deedle-deedle” theme from The Twilight Zone. Of course, the kids are willing to admit the reality of what they find before the adults are—though the youngest, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), properly rejects the sappy “Only little kids can see him” with a weary “Give me a break!”
Still, Mary (Dee Wallace), the big kid of a suddenly-single parent, literally can’t see him, can’t see that she’s got an “extra kid” in her household, even when the beer-besotted E.T. shuffles and belches about the kitchen behind her. (Spielberg is more generous than many reviews have given him credit for about taking the curse off this adult obtuseness—especially through his excellent taste in not-conventionally-beautiful leading ladies, here Wallace and in Poltergeist the enchanting JoBeth Williams. Even “Keys” [Peter Coyote], the long-faceless leader of the sinister posse seeking the extraterrestrial, begins to be disclosed as basically an all-right guy when, like E.T.’s, his fingers dip tentatively into frame to pick up an M&M from the forest floor and we hear his contented munching offscreen. )
Finally, Spielberg is committed to the rediscovery of community rather than us-against-them fragmentation. Elliort’s telepathic communion with the extraterrestrial, privileged and unique as it may be, is in service of a just rebuke his brother hurls at him early in the film: “Why don’t you grow up? Think how other people feel for a change.” Michael himself manages to participate in this process, to the extent that he literally gets into E.T.’s space—a closet hidey-hole—as a touching response to the visitor’s own close encounter with death in the penultimate reel.
In both E.T. and Poltergeist, Spielberg develops a running commentary on closets as sectors of special childhood experience: in Poltergeist, as that nightmare zone so fearfully adjacent to one’s safe and solitary bed; in E.T., as a private den impervious to adult eyes and apprehension. (The director makes especially shrewd use of a rose window in Elliott’s closet; it always seems backed by suffusing light, whether seen from within by day or glimpsed from outside, at night, as a reassuring landmark while the dark forms of strangers prowl the brush.) Michael occupies E.T.’s accustomed resting-place as a gesture of both self-consolation and instinctive faith—as though his being there could reinforce E.T.’s fading life, his ability to survive by sustaining a geographic presence on the premises.
E.T. would appreciate the gesture. He clearly believes in collaboration. At least one normally discerning critic has complained that, given E.T.’s demonstrable ability to make bicycles fly late in the film, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have zoomed back to the safety of the spaceship when menaced by Keys’ marauders, rather than scurrying on ineffectual legs through brush and bramble. E.T. undeniably misses that boat, but this criticism also misses a crucial point. We never do have any reason to believe that E.T. himself can fly. What he can do is to exert his extraterrestrial powers on objects.
When E.T. first manifests this ability, suspending several bright-colored balls in the air of Elliott’s room, in approximation of the configuration of his own solar system, he does so to certify his profound relationship with all creatures great and small in having, and cherishing, a “home.” His later coups—while riding the handlebars of Elliott’s bicycle—represent the same sort of inspired extension of inherent, logical function he practices on the homely this-and-that which composes his interstellar phone. Spielberg shows elsewhere in the movie that, even without extraterrestrial intervention, boys’ bicycles can go places the most souped-up government automobiles cannot. E.T. just takes that idea and flies with it.
It’s worth noting, too, that E.T., though he comes from heaven and possesses a seriocomic variation on the divine Digit in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting, is scarcely infallible. When he and Elliott embark on their maiden voyage over the treetops, all is rosv, bur their eventual touchdown leaves something to be desired: Elliott, E.T., and bike end up spilled in the bushes. But E.T., here as elsewhere, learns from experience, and when he and his vigilante bikers arrive at the same spot later on, five sets of wheels return to earth with breathless ease.
It’s a small thing; Spielberg doesn’t dote on it. But watching that second landing, I found myself recalling another movie, some 63 years older: D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919). In that exemplary masterpiece, Griffith uses a similar, and similarly understated, figure of style to comment on the growth and progress of Susie’s lifelong beau William (Robert Harron). As a schoolboy, William takes his leave of Susie at her gate and makes an ungainly run at the fence before his own house across the road; he hits it with his belly and succeeds in flopping over into his yard as more or less intended. Later, after finding an anonymous bequest (Susie’s doing) in his mailbox, he rushes to bring home the news that he will now be able to go to college; this time he manages to leap up onto the fence, teeter precariously, and then complete the transit in something approaching a self-determined style. Of course, he would never have made it without Susie’s help.
Steven Spielberg may never have sat down and studied the films of D.W. Griffith. He may not be aware that, for instance, the transformation of Elliott’s family home from collection of safety zones and personal shrines to an antiseptic-white, violated desert recapitulates the environmental progression of so many Griffith classics, or that Elliott’s and E.T.’s space-defying, cinematically exultant spiritual union echoes such a psychic-cinematic bond as the one that links Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess before they have even met in Way Down East (1920). Whether Spielberg ever thought of Griffith while conceiving and shooting E.T. is really of no consequence. But the classical vision, the clarity and directness, the fusion of luminous, utterly straightforward form and world-opening meaning is of a kind.
Whatever sociological editorializing is read into it and its phenomenal popularity, no matter how distressingly E.T. is merchandized and Pac-Man–ized, E.T. the movie sustains and deserves its success because it reinvents the radiant simplicity of film’s own still-radiant beginnings. Surely Griffith would applaud, and recognize as the realization of his most essential impulse, one of the very last images of Spielberg’s movie: the heart made visible through the closing of a shutter.
Film Comment, February 1983
Copyright © 1983 by Richard T. Jameson