BFI Spielberg Season – E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) & Kathleen Kennedy Q&A
What’s E.T. short for? Well, all vegetarian arbocultural aligned carbon based species from the Andromeda quadrant suffer from high gravitational stress on their exo-skeletons, leading to a diminuation of their biological massing and limbic structure – that’s what they’re short for. Short was not the adjective for my interest in the news of my beloved BFI embarking on an unexpected Steven Spielberg season, my eyebrows raised in expectant wonder after the June brochure peeked through my letterbox like a celestial beam of god-light piercing through the clouds. Sure we’ve sailed the high seas of Amity and made clandestine incursions into Devil’s Tower, but there have always been some irritating voids in my appreciation of one of the most recognisable and successful visual storytellers of all time. I grew up with Spielberg, to the Menagerie he’s as important a figure as Carpenter or Kubrick in initiating my passion for all things cinema, and I distinctly remember seeing E.T. at the cinema in what I confidently assert as the first film I ever remember seeing. My initial scope of the programme left me a little disappointed however, as almost all of the screenings were to be of digital variety, and although I’m no purist I would have strongly preferred to see this archival treasure in their originally rendered format. This position changed with the announcement of two special guests for one of most successful and cultural resonant films, a post screening Q&A with none other than uber-producer and recently anointed Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, hosted by none other than Edgar ‘Don’t call me Ant-Man’ Wright. Kennedy is currently domiciled in London due to the production of the latest instalment of a rather popular Space Opera saga, so some enterprising souls evidently had the insight to invite her along to participate in the celebration of her key collaborator, mapping back to her first ever full producers credit back in the canyons of 1981.
I’m confidently asserting that you’ve all seen what when adjusted for inflation remains the fourth most successful film of all time, a global phenomenon that struck a chord across cultures and age groups, the tale of a little boy making friends with an abandoned alien in a quiet suburb of California. It was rare for SF to expand into these social environments at the time, and even rarer for the intraspecies interloper to be a force for benevolence and good, complete with Christian regenerative powers, arising from the dead with a sacred, translucent beating heart. To set the tine I’ll just open up with the assertion that this is one of the greatest blockbusters of all time, for me CE3K will always be Spielberg’s masterpiece, but E.T. is perhaps more proficient in its simple and more direct manipulation of emotion, manipulating humour, pathos and anxiety like an empathic engineer. Narratively it is expertly paced, invoking the requisite shards of Spielbergian otherworldly wonder through the discovery and initial adoption of the little fella, through the constant closing presence of the adult world of the inquisitive government, cycling – quite literally – through to the third act action chase and hanky obliterating transcendence. The cast are perfect, Henry Thomas immediately sells it as a good hearted and lonely kid who is missing his recently departed Dad, while his sister Drew Barrymore charms as an adorable little tyke whom could have easily collapsed into saccharine cuteness. As for Carlo Rambaldi’s creature yes it doesn’t always convince in some of the close-ups, but he was one of the great designers of the pre-CGI period, and considering how long the camera lingers on the crushed frog entity it mostly passes the believability threshold.
As all we cinephiles know Spielberg deliberately staged and shot the film from a childs eye view to unconsciously push the viewers back to their infant state, the adult world seeming bigger and more remote to their immediate concerns and interests. With the exception of Eliot’s mother the only adults in the film (until the last twenty minutes) are framed only from the chest down, with no speaking parts or dialogue exchanges. This near invisible technique provokes a direct umbilical link to Eliot, his siblings and friends, their world and concerns receive the elite amount of attention, miles away from the wider confusion and complications of the grown-ups concerns. Allen Daviau celestial photography, incongruously situated in the suburbs of Reagnite America also suggests a holy communion descending from the stars, while Spielberg’s other trump card is having the confidence with long dialogue free sequences, telling the story through images, cutting and sound which (Wall-E excepted) is a world away from the modern blockbuster bludgeoning of pixelated mayhem and ugly character driven exposition. I was considering seeing this before the Kennedy Q&A was announced, but when I learned it was a digital print my enthusiasm waned a little, but in pinprick, gleaming resolution the film still exhales its energy and sheer enthusiasm, while perhaps highlighting some of the deficiencies in some of the early matte work of the creatures spaceship arrival and departure. Hell, Steven even throws in a elongated bloody reverse zoom to introduce us to the great yawning planes of suburbia, again putting us in the creatures head as this strange, yawning chasm stretches away to the horizon. Steve gets a lot of stick for being sentimental and cloying in his films which isn’t an inaccurate criticism, but when he’s on fire and in full engagement with the material the lightning shatters through his pictures, and this was a deeply personal film for him after he intensified the emphasis on the suburban setting and divorce backdrop to Melinda Matheson’s script. Oh, and I should mention that this was the original cut, where the cops have shotguns not digitally replaced walkie-talkies, much to the ire of purists when the film was re-released in 2002.
A lot of genre commentators still bitterly blame the film for yet another milestone in the erosion of Hollywood into blockbuster tedium, citing the infestation of the Ewoks, Short Round and other cute buffoonish sidekicks degrading these tales with a juvenile Ja-Ja Binks ju-ju. The most obvious casualty of this ire is still Carpenter’s deeply nihilistic The Thing which opened to frozen receipts within a few weeks of E.T.’s global seizure, played for over a year in theatres across the world and poisoning the intellectual well against alien others as anything other than kind, misunderstood friends. Maybe so. But E.T.’s universal appeal lies in its craft and an almost hypocritical humanity, even the ominous government are finally revealed as caring bureaucrats rather than Watergate era assassins, and I think cinema is a broad enough church to encompass dark and uncompromising horrors alongside exquisitely crafted stories that brim with humanist and emotional crescendos. Maybe I’m applying some nostalgic, rose-tinted glasses which I think my generation tends to lavish on the likes of other fondly remembered texts of our 1980’s youth, as I’m sure more recent film fans would find some of E.T. as literal big-eyed, heart on sleeve histrionics. The symbiotic textures and in particular the analogue SFX are quite dated, the latter all in-camera and executed through animatronics and puppeteers alongside some fairly primitive matte and compositing work, which are features we can also broadly apply to other worshipped cultural favorites of the era – Ghostbusters (funny but hardly revolutionary), Gremlins (subversive yet diluted), Back To The Future (exhilarating and amusing), Poltergeist (it has its memorable moments) and The Goonies which I’m sorry is just not a good movie at all, kid demographic dimensions or otherwise. But Minty I hear you cry, where is the commentary on the likes of Raiders or Temple Of Doom to round out that litany, given that Kathleen Kennedy was the producer on all of these epoch defining projects, well, OK, except for Ghostbusters? Well, let’s just say that we just might be returning to the South Bank for a second bite of the Spielberg season, so watch this space for more cracking of bullwhips, fedora helmed imperialist archaeological theft and loosely nauseous orientalism than you can shake a lost ark of the covenant at…..
The Q&A was a rather spritely affair, all too short as these events always are, ably hosted by Edgar Wright whose enthusiasm and evident research made my heart swell with glee. It’s amusing to consider that this was Kennedy’s first official role of full producer, following her start in the industry as production assistant to John Milieus, where her mere proximity to the likes of George Lucas and Spielberg in the same building led to professional connections, with trust seeding the furtive beginnings of one of the most successful producer CV’s of the last thirty or so years. She was a fun, relaxed and as you’d imagine a skilled orator, treating the audience to numerous insights and titbits into the film and subsequent project genesis and evolution. A couple of anecdotes stood out. Firstly, she recalled how she and her kids would carpool with Spielberg and his offspring from time to time, and during the ride to school Steven would treat them to stories he had imagined, something akin to a talking book during the drive, including leaving characters and situations on knife-edge cliffhangers when the kids had to decant for lessons – suffice to say they always looked forward to his being the designated driver for that days education and groaned if anyone else was on the schedule. The second was more of the method, of how Spielberg blocks and shoots a scene. She recalled the arrangement of the flying-wing sequence in Raiders, how she observed Spielberg as he calmly walked around the location for a few minutes, examining the environment from numerous angles and perspectives before confidently turning to her and asserting ‘right, I’ve got it, there will be about 150 cuts’ after he had assembled the sequence completely in his head – here is how that exercise finally materialized.
The discussion moved through the insane production schedules when movies such as this were written, filmed, assembled and released to the market in an astounding twelve months, an efficient operation which Kennedy revealed made they quite unpopular with colleagues in Hollywood as the executives awoke to the fact that long, expensive, three-year development cycles may not necessarily remain the norm – no doubt this also contributed to the opinion that these products are the ‘McDonalds’ of the industry, packaged and digested as swiftly digested but unnourishing treats. The all too brief session wrapped with the inevitable and insufferable rumors of a sequel, with Kathleen as adamant as ever that it will never fucking happen, certainly while Spielberg draws breath. He continues to maintain that he has absolutely no interest in ever returning to the material despite the spectacularly lucrative offers to do so, including turning down stage and side media productions, as the story is finished and there is nothing more to say. Just scanning the screen as the crowd around me sobbed through the credits was quite a revelation, identifying a few names behind the camera whom have forged careers. Firstly the likes of Ben Burtt rang a bell in the sound department, as one of the technical genius behind old and new testament Star Wars sound design he was probably working on this and Empire at the same time, and he’s still working on Episode X as we speak. I was also amused to see Robert Elswit credited as camera operator, a talent whom has gone on to photograph every P.T Anderson film except The Master, and 2014’s nocturnal media maelstrom Nightcrawler. The final word and my ultimate takeaway of this session was John Williams contribution which I think we can judge as Spielberg’s most critical and essential colleague throughout his career. Watching the film and absorbing the musical cues and beats, and hearing from Kennedy how Williams and Spielberg work almost instinctively together through screening semi-cut sequences with discussions of tempo and mood results in the magic we can see on screen, arguably the most successful collaboration of musician and muse since Hitchcock broke up with Herrman back in the early 1960’s. In the wake of the spectacularly depressing events of last week – I know its hyperbole to be so dramatic but as the fallout is starting to coalesce I am genuinely considering emigration as my long term career in Local Government is now in dire peril – it was quite soothing to withdraw into the warm safety blanket of one’s youth, of revisiting the first film I ever remember seeing at the cinema which was as wonderful and exhilarating as I remember those many years ago. So forgive me for making you potentially weep but what else could I possibly close this with, hell it even destroys you in Spanish;