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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“Milius” (2013) dir. Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson

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Today, John Milius is probably most famous for being the inspiration for John Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” But Milius was arguably the first of the so-called “Hollywood Brats” of the 1970s to score big in Hollywood. Milius went to USC film school at the same time George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and Randall Kleiser (“Grease”) did and became one of the most in-demand screenwriters during the 1970s. His larger-than-life, gun-toting, right-leaning persona startled, but also fascinated many aspiring talents of the period, including Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. Milius has been credited for creating the “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?” line from “Dirty Harry.” But he’s probably most famous for penning the script for Francis Ford Coppla’s legendary 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now.”

Milius also became famous for directing the cult surfing film “Big Wednesday” as well as the box-office hits “Conan the Barbarian” and “Red Dawn.” However, despite the box-office success of “Red Dawn,” the film arguably also led to a reversal of fortune in Hollywood due to “Dawn’s” right-wing political leanings (the film’s political stigma alienated many in Hollywood). Coupled with an accountant friend who looted Milius’s vast earnings, Milius was eventually reduced to asking for a staff writing position on the HBO show “Deadwood” in order to pay for his son’s law school. “Deadwood” producer David Milch gave Milius the money and was shocked when Milius paid the entire amount back. Milius had a comeback of sorts creating the HBO series “Rome,” but then had another setback in 2010 when he suffered a stroke. Milius has fought valiantly back and was able to regain his mind and his writing abilities which he hopes to realize with his long-gestating “Genghis Khan” project.

Regardless of where you stand politically, “Milius” is one hell of a documentary about a true Hollywood character and survivor. The fact that so many famous people agreed to be interviewed for this documentary (including Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader, Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, George Hamilton, and many others) only demonstrates how much love and respect he has generated over the years. The one common denominator everyone praises is Milius’s gift for storytelling, which apparently hasn’t been destroyed by his stroke. Directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson do a splendid job of telling one of the most fascinating true Hollywood stories you’ll ever see. It’s now available for viewing on Amazon Prime.

You can also hear an interview with Figueroa on the excellent “Projection Booth” podcast:

http://www.projection-booth.com/audio/Epx31-Milius.mp3

Best Moviegoing Memories of the Naro Expanded Cinema, Norfolk, VA

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During my review of the documentary “The Rep,” I mentioned that some of my favorite moviegoing memories from my youth and young adulthood took place at the Naro Expanded Cinema, a repertory theater in Norfolk, VA. I thought I would recount a few of them here:

1. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick
The very first film I saw at the Naro. After having been to the Naro several times, my Mom took my brother and me to see this revival of “2001” in a 70mm 6-track stereo print during the summer of 1981. At the time, I was weaned on “Star Wars,” so I wasn’t as impressed with “2001” as I would become in later years. But I still remember being impressed with the realism Kubrick conveyed in this vision of space travel. Fortunately, I got to see it several years later in another 70mm revival in Washington D.C. when I was more ready for it and was … finally … bowled over.

2. “North by Northwest” (1959) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Another one my Mom dragged me to because she thought it would be good for me. Initially, being 12-years old or so, I groaned over seeing an “older” unrated film that would have no profanity, nudity or graphic violence. These reservations were instantly dispelled once I realized how much fun this movie was … one that combined action, suspense, comedy, and … yes … sex in a brilliantly sophisticated package. To this day, Eva Marie Saint’s character is still one of the smartiest, sexiest, most complex action heroines of all time. And Cary Grant … as Robert Evans once said, Grant had more grace walking backwards than everyone else had walking forwards.

3. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) dir. Steven Spielberg
I had already seen this multiple times before seeing it at the Naro on a double-bill with “Poltergeist” during the summer of 1983. But … what I remember the most is the glorious stereo soundtrack that the Naro properly showcased. When Indy cracked his whip in the streets of Cairo, I heard the sound of the whip start behind my head, carry through the speakers surrounding the sides, and then exploding upfront. The single most impressive display of filmic sound design I’ve ever experienced. Thanks, Naro!

4. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) dir. Jim Sharman
The Naro was THE best place to see “Rocky Horror” because back when I first saw it around 1985 or so, the theater owners allowed the audience to go absolutely bats–t crazy. The only rule was that you couldn’t throw anything at the screen. Otherwise, anything went. I’ve since heard things have changed, but that’s OK. Seriously, you don’t want to trash such a wonderful place to see a movie … but it was really really fun.  Especially on Halloween.

5. “Stop Making Sense” (1984) dir. Jonathan Demme
This classic concert film featuring the Talking Heads was nice to see on a huge screen with a booming, bass heavy sound. What was especially cool was the fact that so many people in the audience were taken with the music that they started dancing in front of the screen … which prompted the film to stop until people sat down. This happened at least 8-9 times before the film could finally end.

6. “Suburbia” (1983) dir. Penelope Spheeris
One of the best moviegoing memories from my youth was seeing Penelope Spheeris’s punk melodrama “Suburbia’ in a packed midnight screening at the Naro in 1985 (with an audience full of mohawks and trenchcoats) with a good friend of mine and my friend’s Dad, who attended the screening with us since me and my friend were not legally able to drive.  The audience went completely nuts at the beginning of the film, when the wild dog attacks a toddler (one of the worst mannequin substitutes I’ve ever seen in any idiom), which isn’t funny, but kind of is in the context of the film and the audience.  My friend’s Dad (who, at the time, was roughly about my age now) took the film in stride, enjoyed himself, and later compared the film to “Rebel Without a Cause” on the ride home, which he highly recommended to us.  While I later saw “Rebel” and thought it a much superior film, I have a really soft spot in my heart for “Suburbia.”

7. “Blue Velvet” (1986) dir. David Lynch

I was fortunate enough to see “Blue Velvet” on its original theatrical run when I was one of three paying customers in the audience.  I’m so grateful for this particular experience, because I was able to accept Lynch’s vision the way it was originally intended … an unironic (but not unfunny), highly disturbing nightmare.  When I saw it at the Naro a few months later, the place was packed.  Unfortunately, it was packed with hipsters already predisposed to laugh at everything.  While I remember having a great time that night when I saw it in a packed theater, in retrospect, I also remember being a little pissed that they were treating it all as a big joke.  Again, the film is not unfunny … but it’s not a smug post-modern jokefest.  That night I learned that there’s a danger in thinking you’re smarter than the material you’re watching … especially before you’ve actually seen it.

8.  “Husbands and Wives” (1992) dir. Woody Allen

I remember seeing this at the Naro in early 1993 during a particularly dark period in my life as the second half of a double-bill with another film I don’t remember.  I distinctly remember the Allen film hitting me right between the eyes.  Yes, I remember laughing a lot, but I also remember being completely shattered at the end of it.  One of the most brutally cynical views of marriage and relationships ever created.  It’s no wonder this was filmed and edited during the height of Allen’s and Mia Farrow’s relationship “issues.” I think I skipped the invitation to have a beer after the film that night.

9. “Pink Flamingoes” (1972) dir. John Waters
The very last film I saw at the Naro … and I saw this during the film’s 25th anniversary revival in 1997.  I had seen the film more than a few times on video before and while I thought it was funny, I thought other Waters films (specifically, “Female Trouble” and “Polyester”) were much better.  However, seeing “Pink Flamingoes” in a theater brought a new dimension that I had never considered before … collective embarrassment.   Seeing this film with a paying audience on a huge screen made a lot of “Flamingo’s” notorious scenes seem way dirtier … and funnier.   One of the few times I remember actually convulsing in embarrassed laughter during a theater screening … while turning several shades of red.  Seriously, that s–t hurt!  But it was a lot of fun!

“People Who Died” – The Jim Caroll Band

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From the terrific 1980 album “Catholic Boy,” this is the late Jim Carroll’s most (in)famous song. I remember a DJ once saying that not many know what this song is, but every time he played it, it would get more calls into the station wanting to know what the song was and who did it than anything else he plaeyd. It is … in my 8-year old son’s immortal words … pretty “epic.” This is one of those songs that should have been a huge hit, but wasn’t. Granted, the lyrics are really f–king grim. But the song is so damn catchy! It shows up frequently on Sirius First Wave, FYI.

Jaw-dropping trivia note: This song was featured in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.” It’s not particularly prominent, but it’s definitely there when the boys are playing Dungeons and Dragons near the beginning of the film. That … along with the lyrics for Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen” casually uttered by Elliott’s brother in the scene where he’s raiding the refrigerator … points to the fact that Spielberg may be more of a hipster than most people typically give him credit for.

“Cruising” (1980) dir. William Friedkin

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One of the most controversial films ever released by a major Hollywood studio (in this case, United Artists), “Cruising” was definitely the wrong film at the wrong time. Released in 1980, the film is about a detective, played by Al Pacino, who goes undercover into the gay leather S&M subculture to find a killer who is stalking and killing people who are part of the scene. As the film progresses, Pacino’s character becomes more distraught and disturbed by what he’s finding. Pacino’s character is not only discovering things about himself he doesn’t want to admit, but he may also be losing his sanity in the process.

OK, based on the above description, my plot description reads like some retro gay-panic cautionary tale penned by someone like Jerry Falwell. Given the fact that in 1980, there were very few films with positive gay role models, it’s easy to see why gay people were outraged by this film.

However, after over 30 years of a much more diverse representation of the homosexual community in media, the complexities of this film are more apparent and it can now be viewed a lot more objectively.  I don’t believe this film is saying that anyone who hangs around homosexuals will suddenly become gay and insane.  “Cruising” is a character study of one man, who was probably not stable to begin with, being overwhelmed by what he’s supposed to investigate.  If you watch carefully, Pacino provides many clues to his character’s internal demons early on, without explicitly calling them out.  That is the work of a fine actor.

“Cruising” contains one of Al Pacino’s best acting performances and it was right before “Scarface” turned him into one of cinema’s most overbaked hams.  This is not to say Pacino delivered a bad performance in “Scarface” or in other films since then.   It’s just that this is one of the last times Pacino didn’t chew the scenery.  From what I understand, Pacino has refused to discuss this film at all.

Director William Friedkin has never been one to shy away from troubling material or to leave audiences feeling uneasy when they leave the theater. Even his most popular films “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” don’t have tidy conclusions. “Cruising” is no different. While it’s understandable why someone may not like “Cruising,” the film shouldn’t be dismissed as the homophobic (or homophilic) garbage the critics of the time alleged.  The film is brilliantly directed and edited.  The sound design alone (where you can hear leather and chains throughout the entire film) is enough to be very unnerving.  There’s also an overwhelming sense of dread that permeates the film.  Had it been released in the mid-1980s or beyond, everyone would say the film was a metaphor for AIDS.

The film also contains some excellent supporting performances from Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Joe Spinnell, Don Scardino, Powers Boothe, and Mike Starr.  It also has one of the first punk soundtracks on a major studio film, featuring songs by Mink DeVille, the Germs, and Rough Trade.  Jack Nitzsche does another fine and effectively creepy score.

If you’re curious about “Cruising,” be warned that the film contains some very disturbing graphic violence.  In addition, the film does very explicitly show the gay leather S&M underworld of the late 1970s.  It barely squeaked by with an R-rating in the permissive late 1970s and I’m sure it would have a hard time now.

“Cruising” also inspired James Franco’s recent film called “Interior. Leather Bar.”  Co-directed by Franco and Travis Mathews, the film attempts to chronicle the explicit footage that was cut of “Cruising” and has been subsequently lost.  It’s telling that a major Hollywood star being involved in a film like this gets no more than a shrug these days.  Especially when he’s the lead in an upcoming hyper-expensive Disney fantasy film.

Probably the most bizarre footnote is that Steven Spielberg was attached to direct “Cruising” at one point in the early 1970s.

“Louis C.K. IS Lincoln” – SNL (2012)

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/directors-cut-lincoln/1422712/

I don’t know, but SNL keeps hitting it out of the park this season.  If you’re a fan of Louis C.K. or his show “Louie” at all, this is one of the most inspired mash-ups I’ve ever seen.  Beyond totally f–king funny!  I will let this clip speak for itself.