The Long Goodbye

The suburban tract houses in Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial are bathed in pools of butterscotch light. Cinematographer Allen Daviau turns the bunk-bed clip lamps of neighborhood kids into sources of heavenly ablution; even the backyard bug zappers give off a glow. In one house on the block, containing a family of Eleanor Rigby lonelyhearts, the steam that rises from the sink--as Mom (Dee Wallace) and then her son Elliott (Henry Thomas) do the dishes--has the otherworldly softness of the portals to kingdom come.

But all is not soft and sleepy under that amber light. Mom is haunted by the fact that Dad is "in Mexico with Sally," leaving her to pay the pizza guy and refill the fridge (with items other than her own health food, or so the kids hope). Eight-year-old Gertie (Drew Barrymore) has no friends save for a large collection of dolls. And Elliott, too young and slight even to join in the Dungeons & Dragons games of his older brother (Robert MacNaughton), keeps looking out the window--waiting to connect with something. Of course, as in a dream, that something arrives: a mythic creature that exceeds all expectations.

A sorrow beyond words: Henry Thomas and friend in 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial'
Courtesy of ILM
A sorrow beyond words: Henry Thomas and friend in 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial'

Could young audiences attending the new, digitally spiffed-up 20th-anniversary re-release of E.T. possibly imagine the rapture that greeted the film when it first appeared in the summer of 1982? E.T. was the only movie my then-65-year-old grandfather had seen in 20 years; I recall him being uncharacteristically prostrate with tears. Indeed, viewers of every age left the theater with their torsos shuddering, their bodies convulsed in spasms of primal emotion. E.T. really was, as it was touted, "the story that touched the world"--unlike later, bigger hits such as Titanic and Spielberg's own Jurassic Park, which were merely the stories sold to the world.

My theory in the Eighties--and I'm sticking with it now--is that our nation had an enormous amount of grieving left to do. In '82 the tens of thousands of American servicemen and -women killed in the Vietnam War still remained--officially, and, by extension, in the "public imagination"--largely unmourned. And the painful thought of friends or relatives lost in Vietnam, exiled forever from home, unbeknownst to us...well, this grief without resolution simply ached. And so it made perfect sense that a movie about a benign creature who's lost, who seeks to find home, who's persecuted to death by faceless, military badge-wearing torturers, would have everything to do with our collective experience of trauma--and whatever other subjective, individual grief that viewers might bring with them to the theater. Among Spielberg's countless masterstrokes was inventing a story that performs cathartic therapy on every imaginable audience.

In recent years, Spielberg's nonpareil command of the melodramatic form--a gift he shares only with Charles Dickens and D.W. Griffith--has incited all manner of abuse, from director Jean-Luc Godard to the cartoonist Art Spiegelman and the critic J. Hoberman. But what the rerelease of E.T. proves definitively is that, far from being the gladhanding Prozac peddler his foes have accused him of being, Spielberg is in fact the cinema's consummate poet of grief and loss. His five masterpieces--The Sugarland Express (1974), E.T., The Color Purple (1985), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), and, above all, Schindler's List (1993)--might be anthologized under the title that Peter Handke gave to one of his novels: A Sorrow Beyond Words. Far from providing recuperation, Spielberg dangles us over an almost infinite abyss, allowing us to re-experience feelings of separation that we have suppressed since early childhood. There's no consolation prize in Spielberg's universe, save for the lyric-narcotic beauty of the ghost worlds he creates.

To wit: Is there a sweeter, more poignant scene of disconnection than the one in which Elliott, overjoyed at the harmlessness of his new alien friend, shows him a bedroom full of pop-cultural dandruff--his Star Wars action figures and empty Coke cans? Spielberg wisely keeps the focus in this scene on E.T.'s old, sad eyes: The creature can see the love and excitement that he's eliciting in this lonely boy, and he knows from the get-go that it is not to be--that an anguishing separation will eventually take place. Mirroring the wild mood swings of a person in mourning, E.T. careens between exquisite, delicate bits of comic business and melodramatic climaxes so painful that they leave you feeling wrung out. The film is truly sui generis: I can't think of another that might remotely be classified as "a children's comedy shot through with awe." Is there a single moment, for example, in the works of those oft-acclaimed humanists Jonathan Demme and Jim Jarmusch that begins to equal Spielberg's crosscutting between E.T. at home--drunk on cans of Coors, watching John Wayne clutch Maureen O'Hara on the afternoon matinee--and Elliott, telepathically connected at school, reenacting the same scene with a tall girl in his class, stepping on the school bully to reach her lips?

The very role of E.T. in the family's life--part pet, part sage, part baby that requires care--suggests an unconscious amalgam of all the "imaginary friend" possibilities that a lonely child might create. E.T. fulfills those possibilities, then takes them away with his absence; hence, the movie paints a universal picture of the wistfulness of childhood's end, one that hits sensitive psychic territory from Surinam to Sioux City. (An entire review could be devoted to the work of composer John Williams, whose fusion of two disparate scores--a Bernard Herrmann suspense routine and a harp- and bassoon-laden elegy for the two friends--is so integral to the power of the movie that the rerelease print might have billed it as "A Steven Spielberg and John Williams Film.")

Spielberg works in an ideologically discredited manner: He gets the audience to laugh when he wants them to laugh, and to cry when he wants them to cry. (Apparently some people choose to experience Dickens and Griffith purely out of political interest.) What makes the man an artist--what makes him not, in other words, "a latter-day Walt Disney," as his friend Martin Scorsese once described him--is his insistence on our experiencing primal emotions without disposing of them. At the end of E.T., Elliott, like the middle-aged NASA type (Peter Coyote) who was the creature's last childhood host, is left alone again after his friend goes home, holding nothing but the feeling of bittersweet loss. Absence and yearning are the fuel of Spielberg's art; in that spirit, his fans might already fear that the director will never again make another film as offhandedly tender, as modestly scaled, as playful in its melancholy as E.T.

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