The Immortal Beard: Conclusion


Well, here we are.  Over twenty-thousand words and nearly a month later, and this odyssey through the films of Steven Spielberg has reached its conclusion.  Writing these twenty-five entries certainly had its ups and downs.  There were some pieces that just seemed to write themselves, while others felt like a struggle to find something interesting and new to say beyond, “Hey, I like this movie.”  For that alone, it’s been quite a learning experience for me as a writer.  So now that we’ve reached the end, it seems appropriate to look back and take stock of what I’ve learned.

For instance, I’ve learned that  next time, pick a director who didn’t make twenty-five damn movies.

Okay, on a more serious note, thinking about and re-watching these films, the obvious theme that ties them together is family.  I’m not going to spell it out film by film, but so many of Spielberg’s protagonists are motivated by their families, either their loss or their potential loss:  Brody’s son being attacked compelling him to go after the shark; Elliot finding in E.T. an escape from his fatherless family; Celie reclaiming her sister via her letters; Indy and his dad (and son, for that matter).  Time and again, there’s the idea that a family is worth fighting to keep together.  And if you go outside the films he directed into his vast producer credits, you see this theme played out there as well, from Poltergeist all the way up to this year’s Super 8.  Given that his parents divorced when he was in his teens, it makes sense that Spielberg would embrace the idea of keeping families together in even the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Speaking of extraordinary circumstances, there’s also what I like to call “the suburban adventurer.”  Spielberg is adept at taking ordinary people and putting them in fantastic situations, be it battling sharks or chasing aliens or being stuck in an airport terminal.  Very few of his films center around people you’d call particularly well-off.  Only Empire of the Sun and Schindler’s List have protagonists I’d call outright wealthy, and both Jim and Oskar are eventually stripped of their wealth.  Most of the time, his characters are normal working class folks whose tidy little worlds are shaken up by circumstances beyond their control.  It’s the dream of any kid who grew up in a suburb and wished for something to come along and break the monotony, although I’m sure the young Spielberg would have preferred E.T. over the aliens from War of the Worlds.  Even the glaring exception to this, Indiana Jones, is a fairly boring college professor when he’s not bullwhipping his way around the world.  No matter how fantastic things get, there’s always a foundation of normalcy beneath it.  That makes it incredibly easy for the audience to identify with these characters; these aren’t perfect action heroes, they’re us.

But enough looking back, because this year Spielberg’s got two films for us to look forward to:  War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn.  Of the two, I’m less excited about Tintin, but that’s mostly due to being so excited for War Horse I can barely contain myself.  The trailer for it just achingly beautiful, and the fact that its main character is a horse gives me hope that the film will be light on the dialog and heavy on Spielberg’s trademark visuals.  As for Tintin, it’s Spielberg doing a swashbuckling adventure, and his first foray into animation (at least as a director), but I’m not a huge fan of the motion capture concept.  It seems like an unsatisfying middle ground, so real it makes you wonder why they simply didn’t go live action, but so unreal you wonder why they didn’t just go with a heightened purely animated style, especially given its comic origins.  But Spielberg has always been one to embrace new cinematic tech, and has the knack of knowing how to use it for more than just its own sake.  Getting two new Spielberg films within a week of each other is going to be one hell of a Christmas present.

I tend to think of Steven Spielberg as “my” director.  Not that I’m claiming exclusive ownership, but the peak of his hit-making coincided with the peak of my childhood and early adolescence.  So many of my memories of  me and my father involve Spielberg movies.  I grew up as a person as he grew up as a filmmaker, and I’ll always feel some sort of connection to him.  And he definitely knows how to push my buttons; he may be as manipulative as some say, but when he’s this good at it, I don’t care.  No other filmmaker has made me feel more joy and excitement, nor made me shed more tears.  Even his worst films contain moments that soar, so that even if loses his way from time to time, the promise he offers is more than worth the risk of the occasional disappointment.

Way back when I started this, I explained that the title “The Immortal Beard” referred to the similarities between Shakespeare and Spielberg in that they were the most popular storytellers of their day, both masters of their chosen artistic languages.  To me, there’s as much poetry in the dolly zoom from Jaws as there is in “To be or not to be.”  And while Spielberg may not form the core of English curricula across the country, neither was it Shakespeare’s intent to be the focus of academic study.  Both sought to weave their tales for the masses huddled in the dark and waiting to be swept away.  Our Globe today may not be as round, there may be a screen instead of a stage, and our groundlings may use cell phones, but our bard is no less immortal.


The Immortal Beard: #1 — Saving Private Ryan


The last time I saw my grandfather was Christmas 1998.  His health had been in a pretty steady decline, and during my visit I’d find myself answering the same questions I’d just answered half an hour ago.  I kind of had the feeling he knew the end wasn’t too far away.  But through it all he was still the loud, boisterous, cantankerous joker that had been such a constant presence for so many years.  So we were talking, and I mentioned that I’d seen this movie called Saving Private Ryan, and how vividly it depicted the D-Day invasion.  Suddenly his face became so very serious and his gaze became so very distant, and he said quietly, “I saw enough of that for real.  I don’t need to see it again.”

After his death, we would find out that he had seen some horrible things during his service in World War II.  In one instance, a commanding officer simply said, “We don’t have enough food to feed both you and the prisoners,” and walked away, the unsaid implication hanging in the air.  It didn’t make sense.  This was the man who always had a joke, who used to trick me and my sister into cursing when we were little just to tweak my parents, this huge jolly man who was a cross between Jackie Gleason and Clark Gable.  We never knew about his time in the war.  He never talked about it.  To learn he’d carried that darkness in him, unspoken for so many years…

Well, that’s when Saving Private Ryan became more than just a movie for me.

There’s this tendency to mythologize World War II and those who fought in it, to call it the Good War, and them the Greatest Generation.  They easily lend themselves to such leaps.  It was an event with such clearly defined villains — a genocidal dictator, an empire whose forces attacked us without warning — that it’s natural to look on those who opposed them as heroes.  But while the purpose may have been a noble one, war is still war, filled with horrors beyond imagining.  And most of the men who took part in it didn’t see themselves as heroes.  Their country called, they answered, and they did what was asked of them.  They were homesick and confused and scared.  But they still fought and bled and died in places like Kasserine and Normandy and Iwo Jima, not for the chance to come home and brag about what they’d done, but because it was their duty.  And there’s more heroism in that than in all the John Wayne flag-waving bravado you can muster.

That’s the essence of Saving Private Ryan.  That it wasn’t winning the war that made these men heroes.  It was them fighting it in the first place.

Schindler’s List used black and white cinematography to lend itself a documentary feel, to remind us of newsreel footage, our primary source of World War II images, and therefore give its images the weight of history.  Ryan eschews that; it doesn’t want us to think of our conventional impressions of the war.  It wants us to look at it in a new light, one unburdened by the somewhat sanitized safety of black and white.  And where there’s not simply black and white, there are also shades of gray, and the so-called “Good War” is revealed to be as surreal and senseless and uncaringly violent as any Vietnam or Iraq.  It just had the benefit of a more clearly defined purpose, albeit one that still ground down the men carrying it out, men for whom the purpose often became simply the next step, the next mile, the next mission.  As Capt. Miller says after the disastrous attack on the radar emplacement:

“The man means nothing to me.  It’s just a name.  But if … you know if going to Rumelle and finding him so that he can go home, if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, then that’s my mission.”

By this point, there’s so many cans of soil in Sgt. Horvath’s backpack,  the war has been narrowed down to what it takes for these men to go home.  There’s no cowardice in this; in fact, it makes it all the more courageous that they fight on.

Spielberg isn’t content to simply point out this quiet heroism though.  He uses the film’s bookends to ask if we’re capable of the same kind of courage.  Ryan asking his wife if he’s been a good man and led a good life is Spielberg asking if we, as a country, have done what Capt. Miller asked of Pvt. Ryan on that bridge in France:  have we earned it?  Have we earned what was given to us by the bravery and sacrifice of men like Miller and Ryan and the rest?   And seeing that final image of an American flag so brightly backlit by the sun that it seems faded, I can’t help but believe that Spielberg thinks we haven’t.  We’ve become a nation whose sense of pride and purpose has run away as surely as the colors on that washed-out flag.

My grandfather passed away a little less than a year after that last visit.  I didn’t visit him in the hospital; I didn’t want my last memory of him to be one of him in a bed surrounded by tubes and machines.  And by that point, I wasn’t sure he’d even remember the visit.  Later that fall, we gathered together and scattered his ashes over his favorite fishing spot and said our good-byes.  I didn’t cry, because I knew he wouldn’t have wanted me to.  We all carried on with our lives, aware there was an empty space in it, but glad to have the memories of who had once filled it.  Months later, I watched Saving Private Ryan on HBO.  By this time, we’d become aware of my grandfather’s experiences in the war,  and now I couldn’t watch a scene without wondering if he’d seen similar things, felt similar fears, made similar choices.  The film ended, and John Williams’ stately, solemn “Hymn to the Fallen” began to play over the credits.  Soon, I was sobbing, finally grieving, both for the man I knew and the parts of him I never really did.

And that’s when Saving Private Ryan went from “more than just a movie” to something much more profound.  It’s a monument to all those grandfathers who didn’t ask for glory or fame when they returned from the war, but just for the embrace of the loved ones they’d left behind.  It’s a memorial not only those who didn’t return, but to the United States that made such men possible, a country we were and could be again.  And it’s my favorite director telling me my grandfather was a hero.  As much as I love Bruce and Indy, they simply can’t compete with that.

The Immortal Beard: #2 — Raiders of the Lost Ark


We’ve come to accept Raiders of the Lost Ark as such a beloved classic that a lot of people forget just what a risky venture this seemed back in 1981.  Spielberg was still smarting from the commercial and critical sting of 1941.  George Lucas was the can’t-miss name on this project, but even still, a modern take on the old cliffhanger serials of the 30s and 40s?  With a star who had yet to prove he could make a film a hit without a Wookiee next to him?  And that title?  I remember thinking a movie about a bunch of people raiding Noah’s Ark sounded like the dumbest thing ever, like some kind of glorified Disney movie.

Cut to the early afternoon of Saturday, June 13th, 1981, and me and my dad sitting there in absolute gob-smacked amazement as we watched Spielberg, Lucas and Ford actually pull the damn thing off.

That first viewing of Raiders remains one of my favorite movie-going experiences ever, and it’s one that’s likely never to be repeated simply because they way we hear about movies has so irrevocably changed.  We didn’t have the Internet to bring us advance reviews or spy reports from the set.  There weren’t elaborate panels at Comic Con.  Media coverage didn’t feel like it was about who could reveal the most details before the film was even released.  We’d see a trailer or two in the theater, a few TV spots, and maybe tune in to see what Siskel and Ebert thought about it.  It was possible to walk into a film with almost no idea what was in store outside of the most basic plot.  Which made it a lot easier to be surprised.  And boy were we surprised by Raiders.

What set Raiders apart from the raft of pale imitators that came after it was that it wasn’t simply aping those old serials, but was coming from a place of genuine affection for them.  There’s no ironic commentary, no wink at the audience as if to say this is all pretty silly.  In a lot of ways, Raiders is a close cousin of Star Wars, outside of the obvious Lucas and Ford connections.  Both films freely and lovingly embrace an older, perhaps looked-down-upon genre, and revitalize it for a newer audience by playing it completely straight, respecting both the source of their inspiration and the audience that has come to watch.  Both hearken back to a simpler time when good was good and evil was evil, and we knew who was going to win in the end.

Probably the smartest thing they did was to jump right in and start the movie off in the middle of one of Indy’s adventures.  You’re not given time to ask any questions, you’re not inundated with backstory and set-up, you’re just thrown in and completely immersed in treacherous jungles and hidden temples.  And from the second Indy steps out of the shadows, he’s an icon.  It’s one of the greatest entrances in film history, and as nice a guy and as good an actor as Tom Selleck may be, it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Harrison Ford bringing the disheveled competence with which he inhabits Indy.  A lot’s been made of the fact that, throughout Raiders, Indy basically fails every step of the way.  Right from the get-go, he loses the idol to Belloq.  About the only thing he successfully does is rescue Marion from Toht in Nepal, and that’s pretty early on.  The rest of the way, he’s a purely reactive hero — the finale essentially consists of him closing his eyes and looking away.  But the heroism of Indy doesn’t come from his always winning; it’s from his never quitting.  Throw him down a well, drag him behind a truck, nearly drown him with a submarine, it doesn’t matter.  If he thinks he has a chance, he’ll keep fighting.  We’re sort of conditioned to love the underdog, and if anything, that’s Indy to a tee.

Even though I’ve mentioned him several times, I feel like I haven’t given John Williams enough credit  through most of these entries; he’s scored all but two of Spielberg’s films, sometimes elevating a less than stellar effort from Spielberg to watchable levels thanks to his music, and sometimes putting the film over the top into masterpiece territory with just the perfect notes.  With Raiders, Williams perhaps crafted the greatest signature tune ever (which is saying something for the man who wrote themes for Darth Vader and Superman).  The Raiders March is such an instantly evocative piece of music.  The driving sequence of notes that begin the march give it a sort of soaring quality, while the brass that joins in with the main theme is almost heraldic; appropriately so for a character who himself is a dustier, more weary version of a knight on a quest.  But Williams also knocks it out of the park with his motif for the Ark itself, a piece that, when played softly, conjures up an air of ancient mystery, but when given the full voice of the orchestra, becomes an awe-inspiring statement of divine power.

Raiders isn’t even two hours long, another one of Spielberg’s models of cinematic efficiency.  Its beats are so perfectly structured, you can almost go through and chop the film up into fifteen- or twenty-minute segments and each would play like a chapter in a serial, except we don’t have to wait a week to find out what happens.  Also efficient was the making of the film itself; Spielberg brought it in ahead of schedule and under budget, earning back a lot of trust after the sprawling, expensive mess that was the 1941 shoot.  By the end of the summer of ’81, the specter of that comic disaster was long forgotten, and so wide-spread was the appeal of Raiders that it even managed nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Spielberg’s third Best Director nomination.  A lot of geeks point to Star Wars losing to Annie Hall as their huge Oscar heartbreak, but for me, seeing Raiders lose the night to Chariots of Fire was the gut shot.  Well, at least it was for 17 years, until another bittersweet Oscar night for Spielberg and for the final film on this list.

Despite the last few paragraphs as evidence to the contrary, it’s hard for me to describe my love for this film.  It fits me like Indy’s worn leather jacket.  It’s not just a great film, it’s a time machine, both to a period in movie history I missed out on and one I got to experience first hand.  I honestly don’t think there was a better time for a film geek than that amazing run from 1977 to 1984 when so many of the giants of geek lore first strode onto movie screens across the country.  Watching Raiders, I remember weekends with my dad seeing whatever new film had come out, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes awful, but always ripe with promise in that moment between the theater lights dimming and the film beginning to roll.  While invoking the memories of their early movie-going days, Spielberg and Lucas created new memories for an entire generation.  While neither finished #1 on this list as the best Spielberg film,  Raiders and Jaws constantly dance back and forth when I think of my favorite films ever.  This time around, I think I’ll let Indy take the lead.

Tomorrow:  Earned it.

Fringe Benefits

Friends with Benefits takes the bold step of clearly outlining  what’s wrong with most romantic comedies — the drawn-out inevitability, the unbelievable endings — then following that outline step by step, saying, “Yeah,  but that’s those otherromantic comedies.”  But if you’re going to so blatantly call out the genre in which your film falls, you might want to do more than just pay lip service to how tired the tropes are in the hope that it makes the audience overlook them when you use them.  And you might want to make sure the supporting cast doesn’t completely overshadow your two leads.Not to say that Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis don’t ooze charisma in this.  They’re young, they’re sexy, they’re funny, and they obviously have great chemistry together.  It’s just that they don’t do enough to alleviate the predictability of their story.  You know from the moment of their meet-cute, with Timberlake’s Dylan seeing Kunis’ Jamie impishly perched atop a baggage return conveyor, that these two are going to end up together.  And that’s part of the problem the film has with its own premise.  These aren’t two long-time friends who commiserate over their romantic misfortunes and decide to embark on a no-strings physical relationship.  These are two strangers who have such undeniable romantic chemistry when they first  meet — Jamie spends the day touring Dylan around New York, even taking him to her personal retreat atop a skyscraper — that, even given the fact they’ve just been burned in their previous relationships, it doesn’t make sense they decide to just be friends.  It’s simply a cinematic contrivance designed to delay the inevitable, but what it really delays is the beginning of the actual plot, since we have to get all this out of the way before we can move on to the “friends with benefits” portion of the film.

So then it’s all aboard the romantic complication express, where everybody sees how perfect Jamie and Dylan are for each except, of course, Jamie and Dylan, or at least they don’t see it at the same time.  Here’s where the other problem rears its head.  For all the charm Timberlake and Kunis bring to their parts, there’s a much better movie lurking in every relationship they have except the one with each other.  There’s Dylan dealing with his Alzheimer-stricken father.  There’s Jamie dealing with her liberated, undependable mother.  And there’s Woody Harrelson, who, as Dylan’s boisterously gay friend and co-worker, flat-out steals this movie out from under everybody.  It’s not a stereotyped performance, just a man who’s incredibly confident and secure in his orientation, and Harrelson milks it for all its worth.  He’s fun and surprising and a real bright spot amid the formula.

Here’s the thing though:  when the end does roll around, and Dylan makes his big romantic gesture that he promises is much better than the one from the tawdry romantic movie Jamie loves, I smiled despite myself.  Timberlake and Kunis have enough going for them that, despite it being a conclusion they should have come to an hour ago, you’re happy to see them finally come to their senses.  Even if it means having ignored ours for a little while.

The Immortal Beard: #3 — Jaws


Whenever people ask me to explain what’s so great about widescreen, I tell this story.  For years, the only way I’d ever seen Jaws — after that first terrified theatrical viewing — was the yearly showing on ABC.  It was usually on a summer Sunday night, it was usually played up as a big event, and my butt was parked in front of the television for the duration.  My love for the film was definitely born from those network airings.  But it grew up when I got the widescreen version on VHS and saw the Indianapolis scene.  I mean really saw it.  Panned and scanned, all we’d ever seen was Robert Shaw giving that unforgettable monologue.  But watching the widescreen version and being able to see Richard Dreyfuss sitting next to him, his expression going from one of amused skepticism to one of awestruck respect as he listened, well, to paraphrase Quint, “I’ll never watch a cropped film again.”  Suddenly, Jaws was a brand new film for me, one I’d only seen part of for so many years.

And as familiar as I am with it, Jaws still feels fresh every time I watch it.  Part of it is that, for being set in the 70s, it has a timeless quality to it.  Aside from some truly awe-inspiring leisure suits on Mayor Vaughn, there’s really not a lot that firmly sets it down in the time period.  And once Quint, Brody and Hooper are out on the water, it could just as easily be 2005 as it is 1975.  So it doesn’t feel like we’re watching some old movie from thirty-five years ago, and that quality makes it so easy to become re-absorbed into the story.

But while the film isn’t simply a product of its time, a consideration of what was happening when the film was released can be pretty revealing.  Jaws debuted in June of 1975, two months after the fall of Saigon and the conclusion of the Vietnam War.  The country was less than a year removed from the resignation of President Nixon and the Watergate Scandal.  The country had just lost a war and a president and was probably at its lowest point in living memory.  In that light, it’s hard not to see Quint, Brody and Hooper as three competing versions of America, who had so recently clashed over Vietnam:  the rough-hewn, experienced elder, the steady, even-headed adult, and the brash, confident youth.  The rivalry between Quint and Hooper is particularly revealing, a clash between old and new, neither wanting to give any ground to the other.  And when they do, it’s grudgingly, either with the assistance of copious amounts of alcohol as in the dinner scene where the Indianapolis speech takes place, or when all other options seem to have run out, as when Quint finally asks Hooper just what he can do with the shark cage he brought on board.  The irony is, of course, that Quint and Hooper aren’t really all that different.  They’re both obsessed with sharks in their own way, even if they come at their obsession from different places, and they both much more at home aboard the Orca than Brody is.  But in the end, neither the brute force of Quint nor the technical prowess of Hooper wins out; it’s the staunch determination of Brody that carries the day, sticking to his guns on a sinking ship.  The two extremes of the Vietnam era fail, while the calmer middle succeeds when everything is falling apart.

There is one thing that ticks me off about Jaws, and it’s really not the film’s fault.  It’s how people just assume the entire score is nothing but unending variations of that ominous two-note motif.  As effective as that piece of music is, and as brilliantly as it’s used in the film as a musical stand-in for the shark, John Williams’ score is so much more than that.    For example, there’s a jaunty sea shanty-esque tune that accompanies the Orca as it sets out to sea, one which morphs over the course of the film from sprightly to boldly adventurous to quietly contemplative over the closing credits.  It’s an amazingly adaptable piece of music, and in a lot of ways feels like a dry run for the much more extensive use of leitmotif Williams would employ two years later for Star Wars.

Speaking of that final scene, it’s one of the best endings ever.  It’s not victorious, it’s not heroic, it’s simply two weary men who’ve endured.  The music is almost mournful, and the credits roll over Hooper and Brody struggling ashore after their ordeal, to be greeted not by a grateful crowd, but by the ominous final note of the score, a reminder that man’s victories over nature are fleeting at best.  The whole sequence is just masterfully understated, and all the more effective for it.

But I’m sort of losing the ocean for the water here.  Jaws is pretty near an absolutely perfect film, and the growth Spielberg showed between Sugarland Express and this is exponential.  It’s as if he just had to get that first feature under his belt for the full breadth of his talent to spring forth, and the film really is a tour de force for him.  It’s an achievement made all the more remarkable by the incredibly difficult shoot the film was, and all the more so by the fact that Spielberg was dealing with all of this at the relatively inexperienced age of 29.  But for all the chaos behind the scenes, the film is so assured and confident that you’d think they’d wrapped on-time and under budget.  It’s perfectly cast, and if every once in a while the mechanical shark is pretty obviously a mechanical shark, well, nobody believes that’s a real giant gorilla in the original King Kong either, but the spell still works its magic.

A month or so ago, I listed Jaws as my favorite movie of all time in one of those 30 Day Movie Challenges on Facebook.  I also mentioned that, if you asked me again a month later, I’d probably go with a different film.  And here we are, a month later, and as you can see by Jaws‘ position, that’s exactly what happened.  But Jaws will always be in contention for me.  It’s one of those rare movie experiences that is just a brimming with fun and excitement regardless of how many times you’ve seen it and how well you know what’s coming next.  It’s a horror movie with genuine humor, an adventure movie with real scares, a character drama with a giant shark in it.  It’s simply one of the best films ever made.

Tomorrow:  This?  This is history.

The Immortal Beard: #4 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind


Even at the tender and relatively uninformed age of 8, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was when I realized Steven Spielberg had “it”.  Having seen Jaws mostly through the gaps between my hands over my eyes, I wouldn’t feel the full impact of that film until years later.  But I remember sitting there watching the alien mothership ascend until it was this tiny dot of light, a dazzling exclamation point on what had come before.  I couldn’t quite process what I’d just seen, or how it was making me feel.  I knew it wasn’t the giddy joy I’d experienced a few months earlier with Star Wars; it was something deeper, something more real.  The only response I could muster was to cry at a movie for the first time without fear being the motivator.  I could find no other way to react.  Then I rubbed my eyes and looked around and hoped no one had seen me and proceeded to talk about how cool the spaceships looked.  I wasn’t quite ready to be that in touch with my emotions.

 When it all comes down to it, Close Encounters isn’t so much a film about aliens in outer space as it is about alienation here on Earth.  In UFO lore, a close encounter of the third kind is actual contact with an alien species.  But Spielberg’s also looking at the idea of contact with our own species.  One of the recurring motifs in the film is groups of strangers who would have never normally gotten together:  a group on the roadside that Roy drags his family to, hoping  for another glimpse of the UFOs; a group who gathers to hear the military attempt to explain away what they’ve seen; the huge mass of people being evacuated from the Devil’s Tower area; the smaller group in the helicopter who actually manage to make it all the way to the mysterious location that’s been haunting their visions; the wide variety of people returned to Earth by the aliens.  Even the team leading the search for the extraterrestrials is a diverse, international group.  All of these gatherings don’t happen without the possibility (or reality, in some cases) of the aliens’ presence.  While the goal of the aliens’ message appears to be that of guiding us to contact with them, they also want us to make contact with ourselves, with other people and in other ways than we would have ever thought of connecting.  For all the wonder and hope there is in the prospect of meeting someone from out there, there’s just as much wonder and hope in the close encounters waiting for us right down here.

Spielberg also presents an interesting dichotomy in the two main characters, Roy and Jillian.  While at the their core their motivations are based on the same obsession with reaching the landing site, Jillian is doing so in the hope of reforming her family, while Roy is essentially running away from his.  We’re not given much of a look into Jillian’s life outside the fact that she’s a single mother, so it’s easy to assume just what her son means to her.  And given the traumatic way in which Barry disappears — brilliantly contrasting Jillian’s terror with Barry’s seeming delight — it’s pretty believable that she would go to the lengths she does to find him again, especially once she makes the connection between the mountain in her head and Devil’s Tower.  Here’s someone for whom the possibility of meeting intelligent life from outer space pales next to the possibility of seeing her child again.

Some people try to paint Roy as unsympathetic because of the fact that he abandons his family to pursue the aliens, and it’s easy to make that interpretation.  But in a lot of ways, his family has long since abandoned him.  Even before his encounter, you can see the disconnect:  the kids don’t want to see Pinocchio, his wife barely tolerates his model train hobby, and it seems like he’s lost in the shuffle in his own home.  And then when he needs them to believe him the most, when he’s questioning his own sanity after his close encounter, they’re simply not there for him.  Even before he takes the extreme step of shoveling half his garden into the living room, the distance is growing.  And because we’ve been privy to what Roy’s seen, something that on a cosmic scale trumps mundane family life, we understand that his worldview has changed.  His reality has expanded, and while he desperately wants his family to be part of this new perception, he can’t let them hold him back from it.  So when Ronnie finally packs up the kids and leaves, it’s not that Roy is a bad husband for putting them through this.  He’s a man dealing with the impossible in the only way he knows how, without the support of anyone he loves.

And so the connection between him and Jillian.  She understands.  She knows what he’s going through.  Spielberg thankfully keeps their relationship from becoming romantic,  but you can feel the elation in Roy to be around someone who finally believes him.  When they finally part, it’s a definitive statement about their two characters:  Roy, eager to get a closer look at the UFOs descending on the landing site, says, “We can’t stay here,” while Jillian says, “I can,” because her son isn’t with her.  And they share one final moment of understanding, and Roy finally receives the validation of his desires he hasn’t had the entire film.  The fairly chaste kiss they share plays not only as a farewell, but as a sort of affirmation of the faith they had both in their beliefs and in each other.  Despite the hundreds of scientists and military personnel on hand who did their best to keep this a secret, it seems like this entire moment was for the benefit of these two ordinary people.  After all, it’s not the group of specially trained and selected subjects the aliens embrace;  it’s Roy.

There’s a great moment in the finale where Lacombe’s group manages to get the three hovering UFOs to play back the five-note sequence, and everyone thinks that’s that.  They start congratulating each other, calling it a night, with no idea that a much larger and more significant encounter is in store for them.  It’s as if the aliens are saying anything is possible once you simply start talking to each other.  And as the mothership departs and we get those classic Spielberg shots moving of awed faces set to swelling John Wiliams’ music, what we feel isn’t hope that there’s something better out there among the stars, but hope that humanity might one day deserve to have it stop by for a visit.

Tomorrow:  Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women.

The Immortal Beard: #5 — E.T.


For a while, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had a nice friendly game of box office tennis going on.  First, Spielberg took the crown of highest-grossing film of all time with Jaws in 1975.  Then Lucas grabbed it in 1977 with Star Wars.  Spielberg took it back in 1982 with E.T.  Lucas edged Star Wars ahead with the Special Edition release in 1997.  Then James Cameron came along and bought the tennis court and the game was pretty much over.  But for a time, the all-time box office Top Ten looked like a Lucas/Spielberg filmography.

E.T. wasn’t the kind of blockbuster like we see today, ones that make over $100 million in their opening weekend, blitz their way to $200 or $300 million in a week or two, and then plummet down the charts when the next big thing comes along.  E.T. opened in June of 1982, and ranked no worse than #2 in weekend box office totals all the way into October.  It didn’t drop out of the Top Ten until February of the following year, and was managing to creep back into it as late as May 1983.  I mentioned the frenzy over Jurassic Park in 1993, but while that was a sort of redemption, E.T. was a coronation.  People didn’t just think this was a great fun movie, they loved the thing.   There was genuine anger in some circles when it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Gandhi; I remember our local movie critic titling his Oscar commentary, “Hollywood Snobs Turn Oscar Into Peace Prize.”  This  adorably ugly little alien tapped into the feelings of everyone from kids to adults; we even managed to drag my grandmother to see it.  It was that most sought-after of Hollywood commodities:  the four-quadrant film, one that appeals to everybody.  And in 1982, it sure seemed like everybody went to see it.

For all the great films Spielberg has under his belt, E.T. may have the most perfectly crafted script of the lot.  The film isn’t even two hours long, and there’s not a wasted scene or bit of dialog in the thing.  There’s no time taken to explain where E.T. came from or why his ship was here.  We don’t get a detailed explanation of how his mental link with Elliot works, or exactly how his communicator functions.  There’s not a moment that doesn’t develop a character or move the story forward.  In fact, it’s such a well-built cinematic machine, you could conceivably take all the dialog out and still clearly understand what’s going on.  I’m sitting here thinking of the scenes that stick out most for me, and it’s the ones that have almost no words:  E.T.’s pursuit and abandonment; Halloween night; the bike chase; that grand, operatic finale.  Where some would take the chance to insert clunky exposition or easy jokes, Spielberg is confident enough in his visual storytelling to just let things be.  It’s remarkable.

Take for example the character of “Keys.”  For much of the film, we don’t even see his face.  He’s nothing more than a jangling set of keys on a belt, and we know he’s chasing E.T. for some reason.  All it takes is the sight of those keys and some ominous notes from John Williams for us to feel a sense of foreboding.  Yet when the character is finally revealed, his entire backstory is summed up in one line of dialog:  “Elliot, he came to me too. I’ve been wishing for this since I was 10 years old.  I don’t want him to die.”  Three simple sentences that reveal the motivation behind everything we’ve seen so far, and which deftly change a threatening presence to a friendly one, an Elliot who never found his E.T., and doesn’t want our Elliot to lose his.  Melissa Mathison easily deserves as much credit as Spielberg for just how great this film is.

What’s also great is that you could easily make a much more somber reading of this film.  We watch the end and feel all happy inside because E.T. is going home, but re-watching this a few months ago, my perception shifted a bit.  Part of the reason for the strong bond between Elliot and E.T. is that Elliot is a pretty lonely kid.  His father has left the picture, which has put a strain on the whole family.  He’s too old to play with his younger sister, and not old enough to really fit in with his older brother and his friends.  We really don’t see him with any friends of his own outside his siblings; even in school, he seems like a bit of a loner.  So the scene where he shows off all his toys to E.T., while on one hand simply the excitement of sharing things with a new friend, also comes across as a bit of a desperate happiness to finally have someone else to show these things to.  He’s bringing a blank slate into his world, someone who has no preconceptions about him, who he can make into the kind of friend he’s always wanted.  He’s also kind of possessive; it’s not hard to imagine him feeling a little jealous when he finds out his sister has been dressing E.T. up in doll’s clothes.  With all this in mind, the ending becomes even more bittersweet.  Elliot’s best, perfect friend is leaving him, just like his dad did.  But at least this time, Elliot gets to say good-bye.

For better or worse, E.T. would forever mark Spielberg’s career, the benchmark for comparison for all his films for nearly 11 years.  He himself would go on to acknowledge this when he produced Gremlins in 1984;  it’s no coincidence that when the evil Stripe emerges from a bunch of toy animals, it’s a stuffed E.T. he pushes out of the way.

Tomorrow:  Next time, try sculpture.