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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“Suicide is Painless” (Theme from the 1970 Robert Altman film M*A*S*H)

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At some point, I’m going to write an essay on Robert Altman’s classic 1970 film “M*A*S*H” and how much this movie has meant to me over the years. It’s a film that seems even more shocking and subversive these days than it did when it first came out over 40 years ago. But the story behind the theme song “Suicide is Painless” is so damn interesting, it demands its own essay. Most people know the melody, as it played over the opening and closing credits of the TV show. But for those people who don’t know that the movie exists are usually genuinely shocked to hear that the theme actually has lyrics. Marilyn Manson once said that this is the most depressing song ever written. The lyrics are pretty despairing … but director Robert Altman would’ve probably said “Are you f–king kidding me?!?” to such sentiments.

The following story below is a summary of several anecdotes related in the positively amazing oral history / biography of director Robert Altman “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography” by Mitchell Zuckoff. (What?!? You don’t have a copy of this amazing book ?!?)

The impetus for writing the song came from a scene in the middle of the film where a dentist character, a legendary cocksman of the medical unit, finds himself impotent when he hooks up with a woman and concludes that he’s gay. As a result, he wants to commit suicide. His friends think this is utterly ridiculous and treat the dentist’s desire to kill himself with absurd humor. They hold a “last supper” that’s framed in the same way as Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting. Altman thought there was too much “dead air” in the scene and that it needed a song. Per Altman, “It’s got to be the stupidest song ever written.” The composer, Johnny Mandel, said “Well, we can do stupid.” Altman said “There’s too much stuff in this 45-year old brain of mine. I can’t get anything nearly as stupid as I need. But all is not lost. I have this kid who is a total idiot. He’ll run through this thing like a dose of salts.” Altman’s son Michael (who was reportedly 14 years old at the time) was asked by his father to write the lyrics and he wrote the lyrics in approximately 10 minutes. Altman’s son wrote some chords … Mandel added some others … and the song was a done deal.

For Michael’s trouble, he was paid $500 and 50% of the song. A few years after the movie came out, the TV series “M*A*S*H” came out and he got a check for $26. Then he received a second check for $130. And then the show went into syndication and Michael received a check for $26,000. And after all was said and done, Michael earned $2 million over the years for writing an allegedly really stupid song in just 10 minutes. To put this into perspective, his father Robert only received $75,000 for directing the movie … with no royalties or profits.  Keep in mind that the movie “M*A*S*H” is considered one of the greatest film comedies ever made, was ranked #54 in the American Film Institute’s poll of the greatest American films ever made, was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry,won the Palme D’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, and grossed the equivalent of $475 million in 2013 dollars.

Michael admitted that he squandered most of the money, failed to pay taxes because he was young and not money savvy, and then got into a lot of trouble with the IRS. Eventually, Michael had to declare bankruptcy and his father Robert bought the song for $30,000. So his father (and his estate) wound up with future royalties after the fact.

After several years, Michael admitted that he blames himself entirely for what happened and while that he’s written other songs, no others have been recorded or released. He advised by his standards, he never liked the song or was that impressed with it.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” (2004) dir. Alexandra Cassevetes

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Z Channel was a Los Angeles-based cable-TV movie channel that was active during the 1970s and 1980s. What made Z Channel different from HBO, Showtime, and other popular movie channels at the time was their eclectic programming and willingness to show films no one else was showing on television, cable or otherwise. The programmer, a man by the name of Jerry Harvey, was a hardcore cinephile and was diligent about tracking down the most obscure cinematic gems.  His intelligence, intensity, and diligence impressed (and sometimes annoyed) a lot of filmmakers, studio executives, and other creative types in Hollywood.

Z Channel was incredibly popular with the creative community in Hollywood.  Harvey was so well-respected, he was able to get the rights to show Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” during the 1977 Oscar season (while it was still in many theaters) which arguably led to its multiple Oscar nominations and wins.  He also championed Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” which also led to its critical resurgence and subsequent Oscar nominations in 1986.  However, Harvey’s most important legacy was the promotion of the so-called “director’s cut” and “letterboxing,” which preserved the widescreen composition of films for viewing on non-widescreen TVs.  In 1983, he showed the original director’s cut version of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a film many considered a notorious flop, but a film that Harvey felt was a great film undermined by studio tinkering and the director’s own insecurity after the original director’s cut was severely criticized.  This led to premiering Bernardo Bertolucci’s 5 1/2 hour European (and in America, X-rated) director’s cut of his classic “1900,” as well as the European cut of Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece “The Leopard.”

Despite the professional respect he won by many in the creative community, Harvey was a very, very troubled man.  He eventually shot and killed his second wife, before committing suicide in 1988.

“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” is a great documentary not only about Z Channel and the early days of cable TV, but of Harvey himself.  It was directed by John Cassevetes’ daughter Alexandra Cassevetes and contains interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman, Paul Verhoeven, Vilmos Zsigmond, Henry Jaglom, Jacqueline Bisset, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, Theresa Russell, James Woods, Penelope Spheeris and many, many other directors, screenwriters, and actors who testify about the importance and influence of Z Channel.

While a lot of it is sad, the documentary is an orgy for film buffs, with lots of great clips and interviews.  This is one of my desert island films.

“The Big Lebowski” (1998) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

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I’m a day late, but not a buck short on this 15th anniversary greeting for one of the greatest cult movies of the last 25 years. “The Big Lebowski” was the Coen Brothers’ follow-up to the the critically-acclaimed, multiple-award winning “Fargo” from 1996. Having loved “Fargo,” I went to see “The Big Lebowski” on its opening weekend in 1998.

My initial reaction? I enjoyed some parts of it, but ultimately thought this was a kind of “f–k you” film they made after the success of “Fargo.” There were just so many weird parts that (at first) didn’t seem to fit together that I concluded that this was a film that was going to be repository of every weird and cool idea that the Coen Brothers had, but weren’t able to put into their other movies.

It wasn’t until I watched it again a few years later that I (finally) got what made “The Big Lebowski” one of the best films the Coens ever had any involvement with. The film is not a mere depository for strange ideas. It’s a wonderful take on Raymond Chandler L.A. detective noir, only instead of a a cynical detective with a secret heart of gold as the hero, we get an aging, overweight stoner who just wants his damn rug back, man. I don’t know why this second viewing struck me more funny than the first, but it did. And I laugh more and more each time I see it. This would make a great double-bill with Robert Altman’s piss-take on Raymond Chandler “The Long Goodbye.”

“The Big Lebowski” arguably contains Jeff Bridges’ best-ever performance as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, John Goodman’s best-ever performance as Jeff’s gun-crazed bowling partner Walter, and a host of other stellar supporting performances by Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tara Reid.

The scene here is Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski’s porno film fantasy based on his love of bowling and his general dudeness. Nothing too salacious here, but probably not safe for work. The Dude abides!

“Short Cuts” (1993) dir. Robert Altman

My favorite film of 1993 (aside from Tony Scott’s Quentin Tarantino-scripted “True Romance), was Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts.”  “Short Cuts” is a devastating 3 hour-plus epic about the damaged lives of multiple souls in the “City of Angels,” circa 1993.   The movie complies several short stories by Raymond Carver and intersects the stories, so that the characters of each story interact with each other at various times for various reasons.  It shows the randomness of life and how all of our actions (no matter how small) can have an impact on the world around us.   Seeing it during a not-so-great point in my life, the film hit me like a brick to the face and I was shaken for days.  This is not to say the film lacks humor.  The movie is oftentimes hysterically funny, albeit in a very dark way.  It also features brilliant performances by a diverse, all-star cast, including Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Fred Ward, Tom Waits, Anne Archer, Madeline Stowe, Jack Lemmon, Andie McDowell, Lily Tomlin, Lili Taylor, Frances McDormand, Buck Henry, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, and several others.

“Short Cuts” was Altman’s ultra-ambitious follow-up to his 1992 comeback film “The Player.”  However, unlike “The Player,” “Short Cuts” didn’t fare too well at the box office.  Despite this, “Short Cuts” was on many Top 10 lists and Altman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director.   While I enjoy “The Player,” “Short Cuts” is a far better film and its influence has grown tremendously over the years and its format about multiple characters/stories intersecting has resulted in some great films (P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia”) and not-so-great (Paul Haggis’s “Crash”).  An underrated masterpiece and my all-time favorite Robert Altman film.

“Brewster McCloud” (1970) dir. Robert Altman

Like the Coen Brothers’ 1998 classic “The Big Lebowski,”  Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud” is one of those films where you feel the filmmaker had a million different weird ideas that they always wanted to put into a film, but were inhibited due to budgetary, narrative, or time constraints.  When said filmmaker achieves some success and they can do anything they want, they throw all these weird ideas into one sort-of “f–k you” film, knowing they’ll never get another chance to be this far out again.

Like “Lebowski,” when you first see “McCloud,” at best, you may chuckle a little bit, but wonder how it all fits together.  At worst, you’ll roll your eyes and groan at the self-indulgence.  But if you give it a chance and watch it again … and again … the film will grow on you … big time.  And then you’ll really start to groove on the weird humor and characters.

In this case, “Brewster McCloud” was Altman’s first film after the blockbuster success of “M*A*S*H”.  I remember seeing this in a film class I took as an undergraduate and my friends and I left the auditorium scratching our heads and wondering “What the f–k was that?”  However, it was so twisted, weird, and funny, that I rented it on VHS when I came home on break and would pick it up over the years when I couldn’t find anything else to watch.   Watching it again recently, it actually seems ballsier and less politically correct than I remember many years ago.  This is a wonderfully rude, nasty, misanthropic comedy with probably the most tasteless final joke / line in a film … ever.  Seriously, it’s literally the last line in the film after the credits and it will either make you groan in disgust or laugh hysterically.   Dave says check it out.

As a bonus, check out screenwriter Larry Karaszewski’s (“The People v. Larry Flynt,” “Ed Wood”) commentary on the film from Trailers from Hell.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntcM7Plwha0

“He Needs Me” – Shelley Duvall / Harry Nilsson / Jon Brion (from the 1980 film “Popeye” dir. Robert Altman and the 2002 film “Punch-Drunk Love” dir. PT Anderson)

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“He Needs Me” was originally composed for Robert Altman’s 1980 musical version of “Popeye.” The film is hit or miss, but the scene where Duvall’s Olive Oyl sings this lovely song to Robin Williams’s Popeye is definitely the highlight of the film.

Cut to 2002. Altman acolyte and heir P.T. Anderson is putting together “Punch Drunk Love,” his follow-up to the brilliant “Magnolia.” “Punch Drunk Love” is a wonderfully bizarre, disturbing, and moving love story that plays like Sam Peckinpah directing “When Harry Met Sally.” Anderson appropriated “He Needs Me” (with the assistance of his frequent music composer Jon Brion) for a pivotal scene where Adam Sandler (in a rare, but terrific dramatic role) flies to Hawaii to woo Emily Watson’s character. It was a great choice.By the way, if you haven’t seen “Punch Drunk Love,” please do yourself a favor and see it. It’s not your typical love story, but it’s funny, disturbing, and life-affirming all at the same time. The scene where Sandler’s character forcefully confronts the criminal who’s been ruining his one chance at happiness with the line: “I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine” always brings a lump to my throat. A great scene from a great film.

3. “Boogie Nights” (1997) dir. P.T. Anderson

Number 3 on Dave’s Strange World’s all-time favorite films is P.T. Anderson’s magnificent epic film the L.A. porn industry between 1977 and 1984. It still amazes me to think that Anderson was only 27 when he made this film, because it exudes an artistic confidence that is rare in most films, let alone by young filmmakers making their 2nd feature.

“Boogie Nights” combines the delirious rock-n-roll rhythms of Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” the successful juggling of multiple quirky, memorable characters / storylines (ala Robert Altman), and “Wouldn’t it be really f–kin’ cool if I tried this?” sense of danger / bravado of Tarantino. Like “Goodfellas,” it’s a 2.5 hour film that feels like its half its length. Anderson has gone on to make other brilliant films (“Magnolia,” “Punch Drunk Love,” “There Will be Blood”), but none of them are quite as breathtaking as “Boogie Nights.”

The scene here is the bravura sequence near the end of the film where Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler character (his success as a porn actor squandered on cocaine addiction), along with his pals (played by John C. Reilly and Thomas Jane) makes a desperate attempt to rip off a drug dealer. The scene is based on the infamous Wonderland murders from 1981 that involved John Holmes. Anderson’s use of 80s pop music in this scene is extraordinary … especially the use of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” which takes on a deeper meaning, because the song is about the loss of innocence and it’s an ironic and sad counterpoint to the characters in this scene, who are long past that stage.  The character with the firecrackers was a steal (with permission) from Robert Downey Sr.’s abrasively funny 1969 satire “Putney Swope.”

Because this scene involves substance abuse, graphic violence, and bad language, not safe for work or little ones.

“It Don’t Worry Me” from “Nashville” dir. Robert Altman

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The ending to director Robert Altman’s funny, brutal, bone-chilling satire from 1975, “Nashville,” one the greatest movies of all time. The scene starts right after the assassination of a Loretta Lynn-inspired Country singer and a wannabe singer played by Barbara Harris is given the mic to restore order and peace in the wake of a horrific tragedy. Some critics have opined that this scene is a cynical statement on celebrity, but I see it as something more profound. When tragedies happen, whether they be celebrity assassinations (i.e. John Lennon) or something substantially more catastrophic (9/11), people need hope. People need to know that things are going to be OK. It’s too easy to sneer and snicker that the world is a horrible place, that humans are horrible motherfu–ers who only look after themselves. The notion and belief that there is a better way is way ballsier, in my mind. If you feel this is a Pollyanna-esque view, I disagree and feel sorry for you. Making the decision to believe in something is not a fool’s errand. If you’ve done your homework and take a stand, it’s the most courageous thing you can do.