Saturday, May 30, 2020

Extra-Terrestrial Empathy

As much as I love Steven Spielberg, I think he sort of peaked with E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982. He’s made many great films since (Catch Me If You Can, The Adventures of Tintin, and Munich are particular favorites) but as expertly crafted as those films are, they still follow very traditional narrative models. Compared to the rest of his career (except maybe Close Encounters of the Third Kind) E.T. is more akin to an experimental film.

Jurassic Park, for example, can be followed while you are checking e-mails on your phone. There are so many characters explaining everything. Explaining cloning, explaining dinosaur behavior, explaining chaos theory. There is no such explanation in E.T. To watch it while distracted is to miss a substantial portion of the narrative because this is a story being told through Cinema.

The connection between Elliott and E.T. is all about intuition. There is no Vulcan Mind Meld to explain their link. Though E.T. eventually learns to speak English, the foundation of their relationship is pre-verbal. So too is our relationship with the film and characters. That opening scene of E.T. being left behind is the movie teaching us how to watch it.

It conditions us to empathize with this little puppet just like Elliott will several minutes later. We observe and we intuit. Before long we have formed a bond with both E.T. and Elliott. This is that "empathy machine" Roger Ebert famously spoke of, working at full speed. And the meta element is not lost on the filmmakers.

During the famous dissection scene where Elliott forms a bond with the frogs, E.T. is pointedly forming a bond with a television screen. E.T. becomes a medium, channeling the images and emotions of John Ford’s The Quiet Man to Elliott while Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison are channeling their emotions to the audience. It's masterful. And then there’s that final act!

Here everything is working in perfect concert with everything else. The photography, the editing, the performances, and of course John Williams’ gorgeous score are all amplifying each other. By this point in the narrative, even the distracted adults and crass teenagers have been returned to the emotionally naked state of childhood where you are incapable of hiding anything from anyone. The same goes for the audience. Not only is this film an empathy machine, it is also a time machine.

Watch it with your little one(s) and enjoy spending some time as peers.

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