E.T.; Resident Evil
Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson
A radical notion: Steven Spielberg's movies are not meant for children. This week's reissue of his 1982 E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial may remind some people of a Walt Disney perennial, but such cynical thinking always misleads Spielberg's fans?and his debunkers. Their primary mistake is to take the film's premise?a boy's encounter with an alien unleashes deep-seated imaginings?as the limit of its meaning. The movie's universal fascination certainly includes children, but the full appreciation of Spielberg's imaginings?and of his filmmaking quest?requires an adult sensibility that perhaps now, 20 years later, more people ought to recognize.
E.T.'s zeitgeist popularity was the kind of phenomenon that usually happens once in a pop artist's career, but Spielberg has entranced a mass audience and revolutionized the workings of the entire film industry on several occasions: Jaws, the Indiana Jones series, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg's filmography is as full of world-historical landmarks as the Beatles' discography. Not through catering to the lowest common denominator, but because he has two extraordinary gifts: direct emotional access and absolute visual panache. Only D.W. Griffith has comparably commanded movie culture and the art form itself simultaneously. To deny this about Spielberg is to lie. Yet some people would rather pretend to themselves than reject the cynical trend of contemporary film culture by acknowledging that cinema (and Spielberg's films in particular) has a humane essence.
In the modern era, only The Godfather has been as popular and profound as E.T. (Titanic? Ha!) But E.T. never received proper commendation. In 1982 the New York Film Critics Circle gave Best Picture to Gandhi and Best Director to Sydney Pollack for Tootsie. By now, everyone knows that was arrogant ignorance. Critics, like many viewers, are unable to appreciate the precious solemnity of human experience that Spielberg found in the tale of Elliott (Henry Thomas) assuaging his loneliness. Condescension to Spielberg's art even included the great Pauline Kael?Spielberg's most astute 70s critic?who hailed E.T. by originally comparing it to the children's book The Wind in the Willows. That faint praise missed what really goes on in the film, and what's central to Spielberg's imagination. He has always been after an understanding of spiritual communication. That's the point of young earthling Elliott relating to the extraterrestrial. It can now be seen as the emotional basis of how the African slaves interacted with white American abolitionists in Amistad. Seeing E.T. again allows us to correct even the best-intended misreadings of 20 years ago, the diminutions that have become standard notions of what Spielberg's art is designed to reveal.
First, Spielberg appeals to the child (the uncorrupted viewer) in us, but transcends childishness by touching on the Divine. Think about it: Does the film's final f/x?a rainbow?belong to the vocabulary of children's fiction or does it evoke a greater message?
Spielberg's view of childhood experience has such purity and concentration that some people cannot see its artistry. (Hacks as crude as Ron Howard, Stephen Daldry and John Badham have based careers on poorly imitating Spielberg's touch.) The opposite problem occurred with A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which is as emotionally authentic as E.T., yet critics couldn't grasp how that film spoke to the human essence?that the robot David, like the real boy Elliott, embodied a distillation of human thought and spiritual aspiration.
Genre?the commercial classification of storylines?is the problem. People take their market forms literally, without interpreting them. That's also why Spielberg's movies are not for childish adults (a position for which the Village Voice's Spielbergphobia has become synonymous). The same war that the French New Wave waged 50 years ago against the denigration of American pop cinema (Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller) erupts again when one defends Spielberg's genre enhancements. Watching E.T. on the big screen?and not diminished on tv?restores the largeness of its concerns. "Why don't you grow up! Think how other people feel for a change," Michael (Robert MacNaughton) says to his little brother Elliott. It's the basis of Elliott's evolution toward sensitivity?his empathy is comically represented by the contagious yawn he communicates to E.T. (A marvelous memory of childhood for me?and for how many others?) The lessons parents hope storybooks will impart to their offspring are not different from what adults want from art. Spielberg perpetuates Griffith's noncondescending faith in how movies can instruct and nourish. Oddly, critics belittle this aspect of E.T. and would arrest Spielberg at only this kindergarten stage of development. Yes, E.T. suffices as a child's entertainment, but it reaches for more.
As his first astonishing feat, E.T. demonstrates where he came from by levitating clay balls and making them orbit in a miniature solar system. Spielberg's trope anticipates Bela Tarr's sublime rotating-people dance that begins the metaphysical parallels in Werckmeister Harmonies. Elitists will scoff at that comparison, but that's just middlebrow?and middle-aged?snobbery. Tarr evokes folk ritual with the same legitimate purpose with which Spielberg evokes childhood play?touching on fundamental behavior. Some prefer thinking Spielberg frivolous, but after The Color Purple it wasn't his sensibility that was problematic. Instead, many people's traditional movie responses went rigid at his ethnic, spiritual transformation of genre. (Though it's always worth noting that the popular audience embraced The Color Purple; only snobs balked.) A movie about black lesbians was radical in 1985?and still is. You'd think Spielberg was Reagan Incarnate given the way even liberal critics went off after him after The Color Purple. His humanism has only gotten deeper and richer, yet they deny Spielberg's art as craven sentimentality.
This perverse defensiveness presaged the Pulp Fiction era in which cynicism became the most prized movie ethos. It's currently represented by the thriller Resident Evil, a Matrix/Alien hybrid done in the peculiarly heartless style of video games (it's based on the bestselling Capcom game). This appeal to dread is no more legitimate than any other gimmick, and it's a fallacy to think it is more mature. Yet Spielberg's unfashionable agape exposes the preference for pessimism and misanthropy over truth and emotional realism. Resident Evil's director, Paul W.S. Anderson, owes his headlong pace and high-decibel sound f/x to Spielberg's rejuvenation of the action movie in Jaws, but none of these spectacular killings or Milla Jovovich's tomgirl elegance (including some emotive, erotic flashbacks) match Spielberg's exhilaration. It's really for children. Exhausting and insensitive?especially about death.
E.T. deals persuasively with loss when Elliott's friend dies. It's the only work of film art to treat resurrection since Carl Dreyer's Ordet, but it's distinguished by Spielberg's wonderment?an amplitude of passion and mystery, even in a suburban setting. ("There are no goodbyes," Michael tells Gertie.) Spielberg supercedes the haunted-house horrors of Resident Evil or bad-vibe hits like Silence of the Lambs or Seven, knowing it's naive to consider dark moods more serious than optimism and that it takes maturity to understand why. Elliott, the wise child?in the final image?is the fulfillment of that maturity. Still ponderable two decades later, Elliott's closeup conveys Spielberg's concept of human experience?an openness to belief not limited to fairytales but accessible through the greatest of the popular arts. Critics cynically misread the scene in A.I. where David prays to the Blue Fairy, probably because they are philosophically opposed to what the scene represented. The same obstinacy stymies their response to E.T.'s commingling of fairytales and sci-fi with something immanent. When Elliott insists, "This is reality!" he's asserting Faith, acting upon an answered prayer.
Elevated pop sensibility is the simple reason E.T.'s iconographic bike chases are so magnificent. They adduce the trifles of American youth in moments of existential suspense so that the taken-for-granted pleasure of a toy becomes a means of transcendence?a ride full of spirit toward the spiritual. Common childhood delight has never been more exactly portrayed than when Elliott and E.T. take flight. But to indulge the sense of escape?from suburban conformity, from the mundane?and then dismiss it denies how deeply Spielberg has gone. It forgets the intensity of one's own purest desires. That ride across the face of the moon has a psychic impact that can't be laughed away. It's powerfully wonderful. And afterward one must consider the significance of that rainbow E.T. leaves behind. A kid viewer might feel it, but you shouldn't expect him to get it.
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