A Boy’s Life: The Age of Steven Spielberg
Published on June 28th, 2012 | by Hans Staats2
With “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Poltergeist” (Tobe Hooper, 1982), and “E.T.” (1982), Steven Spielberg established himself as the preeminent auteur of American childhood and the rightful heir to Walt Disney. The Summer of 1982 could very well be renamed the Summer of Steven Spielberg thanks to the June 4th release of “Poltergeist,” followed by “E.T.” on June 11th. Within a single week, it was as if Spielberg had forever changed the course of Hollywood cinema, popular culture, and the image and imagination of the American child. Russ Fischer of Slashfilm writes:
In E.T., I found the first character with whom I could strongly identify. That’s significant because, at the time, the existence of such a thing had never even occurred to me. Nearly ten, already entranced by LucasFilm productions, I was excited to see this new movie about a stranded alien. I got more than I expected. The intensity of Steven Spielberg’s stylized storytelling, and his faceless, shadowy authority figures, were nearly overwhelming. But in Elliott I found a near-mirror image: small, almost an outsider in a California suburb, dug into a burrow of a room that was a riot of Star Wars toys and space imagery. I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, but I thought I was Elliott.
Spielberg’s decision to focus on the friendship between Elliot (Henry Thomas) and E.T. is a loving homage to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, who first appeared in “The Little White Bird,” Barrie’s 1902 novel for adults. And Spielberg would return to the Peter Pan mythos with “Hook” (1991), starring Robin Williams as Peter and Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook. But “E.T.,” in particular the iconic moonlit silhouette of Elliott and E.T. flying above the Northern California redwoods, is one of the most striking and lasting images of childhood adventure, innocence, and vulnerability in film history. It is also a stunningly intertextual example of Spielberg’s fluency in children’s literature and the pivotal role that children have played in the history and culture of modern cinema. Add to that the music of John Williams and the visual effects of Industrial Light & Magic, and you have a film that rightfully belongs within a select group of movies that focus on the representation and concept of childhood in the Western hemisphere: “The Kid” (Charles Chaplin, 1921), “Angels with Dirty Faces” (Michael Curtiz, 1938), “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941), “Meet Me in St. Louis” (Vincente Minnelli, 1944), “Bicycle Thieves” (“Ladri di biciclette”; Vittorio De Sica, 1948), “The Fallen Idol” (Carol Reed, 1948), “Los Olvidados” (Luis Buñuel, 1951), “Shane” (George Stevens, 1953), “The Night of the Hunter” (Charles Laughton, 1955), “The 400 Blows” (“Les quatre cents coups”; François Truffaut, 1959), “Fanny and Alexander” (Ingmar Bergman, 1982), “Stand by Me” (Rob Reiner, 1986), “River’s Edge” (Tim Hunter, 1986), and “Radio Days” (Woody Allen, 1987).
Watching “E.T.” at The Alamo Ritz, I was struck by how the child’s sense of magic, wonder, and dread, especially for Elliott and E.T., depends to a large extent upon Dee Wallace’s performance as Elliott’s mother Mary. A single mother struggling to hold her family together, while at the same time “adopting” E.T. and fending off the U.S. Government, Mary is a wonderfully resilient and spontaneous character. Her joie de vivre provides a buoyancy and stability that is crucial to the unfolding drama and emotional impact of “E.T.” Being a father myself, I was horrified at the chaos and disorder that four children, including E.T., generate over the course of a single day, especially when your extraterrestrial has had one too many cans of Coors beer. Watching Mary return home after work to discover her kitchen in ruins, and then receive a call from Elliott’s school informing her that her ten-year-old son is inebriated (thanks to his psychic link with E.T.), I was amazed by Mary’s grace under pressure. I would wager that the sensitivity and skillful execution of this scene (Spielberg and his editor Carol Littleton present a masterful bit of parallel editing between E.T. watching John Wayne and Maureen O’Sullivan in “The Quiet Man” [John Ford, 1952] and Elliott fighting to liberate the frogs in his dissection class) is indicative of Spielberg’s own childhood memories of his parents’ divorce in 1960.
In his program notes, Zack Carlson writes:
Why did we EVER love E.T.? When he fist showed up in the cornfield, he scared the hell out of us. Then later, when he was sick in that creek bed, he made us cry like little sissy babies. Plus he looks like something that fell off of Danny DeVito. But something about that gnarled little spud spoke to every tenderhearted moviegoer in the country, filling us with an interplanetary sense of love and wonder.
“E.T.” has attained a mythic status within cinema. We talk about the movie today as if it is the air that we breathe or the water that we drink. And I must admit, watching the film this time I was moved in a way that I had not experienced before. In 1982 I was a boy, and today I am a husband and a father. Zack Carlson is more right than I would like to admit, when Elliot and E.T. flew into the air in Elliott’s bike I cried like a little sissy baby. I realized that I was in love with the magic of film once again. Filmed under the cover name “A Boy’s Life” in order to protect the plot of his film from being plagiarized, Spielberg described E.T. as “a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore.” “E.T.,” I have come to realize, is a myth in the truest sense of the word. It is a fable that we return to and re-imagine over and over again. It is a story of formation and a spiritual education. But most of all it is a vision of a boy’s life.