Reflections on watching Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” 32 years after its 1982 relase

My 10-year old son watched an episode of the “The Goldbergs” this week where the lead child character watches “E.T.” in a movie theater for some untold multiple time.  As a result, my son asked if we could watch this tonight.  I watched it with him.  Here are my thoughts …

1.  This film still packs an emotional wallop.  I still found myself tearing up on multiple occasions, even though I’ve seen “E.T.” several times over the years.  Many people deride director Steven Spielberg as being “manipulative.”  I cry “bulls–t” on that.  Why is being called “manipulative” a bad thing for a film director?  Because the filmmaker made you feel an actual emotion?  Because you felt something in a film involving something fantastical instead of something “real”?  I realize there’s enough rancid and depressing “real” s–t in this world to make you feel agony 50x over.  But why is getting emotionally involved in something less than “real” a bad thing?  This is what’s called “drama” and sometimes, it’s OK to be involved in a drama that has faint resemblance to reality. Especially when it’s done well.

2. The composer John Williams deserves at least 50 percent credit for the artistic success of the film.  Not to deride Spielberg’s talent, but that score is one of the most emotional scores ever recorded.  This is music that can raise your spirits to the highest highs and then completely devastate you at the drop of a hat.  Williams has recorded many great and classic scores for filmmakers as diverse as Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone.  His score for “E.T.” is arguably his best because it’s such an integral part of the film’s power.

3. I realize I’m going to catch a lot of s–t from cinephiles for saying this … but the unspoken influence on “E.T” may be … Robert Altman.  OK, I realize if Robert Altman directed this film, there would be 30 additional major characters and the extra-terrestrial part of the story would be reduced to a subplot … but stay with me here.   During significant parts of this film (especially during the first half), there is an emphasis on naturalistic dialogue (helped by brilliant editing and sound design) that isn’t always in the foreground.  You can hear what’s being said, but it’s way more subtle than a modern day filmmaker attacking similar material would allow.  Assisting this are brilliant … extremely real … performances by Henry Thomas, Robert McNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, and every other child actor in this film.  Watching them interact together, you feel like you’re watching a real family interacting amongst each other and their friends.

4. For a special-effects central film from over 30 years ago, “E.T” holds up really well.  Ignoring the obvious clothing and set design cues from 1981-82, the non-CGI effects hold up much better than many CGI-heavy films from the 1990s.  Yes there are a few opticals that look out-of-date, but I’ll take those opticals over bad CGI any day.  Why?  Because you can do a lot with camera placement, editing, blocking, dialogue, set design, model building, and acting to make whatever limitations you have in special effects seem non-significant.  Spielberg assembled a talented crew and the result is remarkable and believable.

5. Spielberg was a bit of closet hipster here. Not only can you here Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” in the background while the boys are playing Dungeons & Dragons, Elliott’s brother Michael sings the lyrics from Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen” when he comes home from school and is looking through the fridge.

6.The final scene (shown above) is still amazing for its emotional intensity.

7. I realize hipsters claim “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are Spielberg’s greatest films, but as great as those films are, “E.T.” is still the king.

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“Heaven Help Us” (1985) dir. Michael Dinner, scr. Charles Purpura

One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve come across recently on HBO On Demand is seeing “Heaven Help Us” again for the first time since 1985.  This was a film that was promoted as a crass “Porky’s”-style teen sex comedy back in the day, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s an extremely funny, sometimes raunchy, but also frequently poignant look at a group of teenagers in Catholic high school in Brooklyn back in the mid-1960s.  The cast includes Andrew McCarthy, John Heard, Donald Sutherland, Wallace Shawn, a pre-“Entourage” and “Platoon” Kevin Dillon, a VERY young Patrick Dempsey, Stephen Geoffreys, Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson’s voice), and Mary Stuart Masterson in one of her first roles.  This is far from a perfect film, but it’s so damn good and much better than its critical and popular reception back in the day.  It’s weird to imagine this was considered disposable teen trash back in the day, because it’s not only better than most teen films released in the last several years, but much better than a lot of mainstream films released in the last 30 years.   Seriously, this is a sleeper that’s worth rediscovering.  The attached scene here is a school Brother, hilariously played by Wallace Shawn, delivering a stern lecture before a high school dance.  And yes, I still have more than a little crush on Mary Stuart Masterson’s character even 30 years later. Dave says check it out!

“Physical (You’re So)” – Adam & The Ants

I first heard this as a bonus track on Nine Inch Nails’ pulverizing 1992 EP “Broken.”  I thought this was an original and found out much later it was actually a cover of an Adam & The Ants song.  I checked out the Ants’ version, fully expecting it to be in the same mode of their other music:  upbeat, percussion-heavy pop.  All I can is that I was WAAAAY off-base in my assumption.  Adam & The Ants must have been listening to Killing Joke and Public Image Ltd. back in the day, because this is really, really heavy and intense.  In fact, it almost sounds like … you guessed it … Nine Inch Nails, but nearly 10 years before Nine Inch Nails.

“Dirt” – Spider Heart

Just discovered this incredible new band today, Spider Heart from San Francisco.  They could best be described as a cross between early Wire, the Stooges, Jane’s Addiction, Black Sabbath, and the Nymphs.  But even that description falls far short.  There are few bands that can be described as true originals and Spider Heart is one of them.   Lead singer May Black has been described as a cross between Iggy Pop and Janis Joplin and damn if that’s not an accurate assessment.  Except I would also throw Inger Lorre, Courtney Love, and Darby Crash into that mix.  This is authentically dangerous and thrilling music and if you like what you hear, do yourself a favor and check out their awesome EP “Dirt” available on iTunes and Google Play.  And of course, you can also enjoy them on Dave’s Strange Radio!

Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974) dir. Martin Scorsese

This is an incredibly intense scene from Martin Scorsese’s 1974 follow-up to “Mean Streets,” the proto-feminist “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”  The recently widowed Alice, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, discovers that the man she has hooked up with (played by Harvey Keitel) is married with a child.  Keitel’s character then appears and unleashes a very scary side to his personality that Alice has not seen before.  Even though there’s not a lot of bad language per se, the intensity of this scene is shocking for a then PG-rated film.  Seriously, this entire scene is extraordinarily weird and disturbing for a mainstream film, but then again, that was Hollywood in the 1970s.  Burstyn earned an Oscar for her performance in “Alice,” which while well-deserved, probably should have earned it for “The Exorcist” or “Requiem for a Dream.” Still, a great performance and an amazing look at how ballsy mainstream American cinema once was.