Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of posts dispatched on Sundays called #ThrowbackSunday. Sunday is a day of reflection and respite. Many of these pieces were written in the past and are reflections on art, life, and cultures. Some may in the form of prose and others in the form of poetry. I hope you enjoy, and I hope I stay on track with this clever idea.
A reflection paper written on March 19, 2002, for a film class I took in my final semester at the College of the Holy Cross. Formatting is bit wonky, just bear with me.
I thought it appropriate to cover one of my favorite movies from my childhood, E.T., since it is coming back into the limelight with its re-release in the theaters beginning Friday March 22nd.
I always enjoyed the scenes in E.T. by Steven Spielberg when Mike, the older brother and Gert, the younger sister, played by Drew Barrymore meet E.T. for the first time. Both parties are skeptical and scared and Elliot is able to relate to both, allowing everyone to feel more at ease. Elliot acts as an intermediary of sorts. Elliot does not treat E.T. like the grand scientific find that he is, but instead like an intellectual, feeling creature, in other words, like a human. To Elliot, E.T. is not an alien, nor an extra-terrestrial. In 1982 and in the years that followed, entering a variety of different pre-schools and not fitting in and then ultimately going to kindergarten in 1986, I was feeling a bit alienated myself. I do not know when I first saw the movie, probably after the original release year, though I remember going to the theater to see it and then to MacDonald’s afterward. Then I received the copy of the film I have now in 1988 and watched it on and off until junior high, when I stopped watching it altogether. The movie made me cry, during these junior high years, another time of alienation. This was especially true of those early scenes where Elliot is kind enough to show E.T. around his room, revealing the mundane objects he encounters in everyday life, like his action figures, food, the Pez candy dispenser and his pet fish (I could only bear to watch these scenes, this time around. How am I going to make it through the re-release?). I yearned for interaction like that, someone to take me into the world and show me around so I felt more comfortable within my own skin. I dreamt about a friend like Elliot because he was so kind to someone so different. This is a definitive part of his character. I believe that is because within his own family, Elliot is rather misunderstood. The middle child, he establishes himself as the black sheep, saying he saw a “goblin” outside and reminding his mother of their father’s departure to Mexico, in the early scenes of the film. The feeling of comfort around Elliot and the understanding that E.T. is not a threat, that is felt by the viewer in these scenes, can be derived purely through the lighting, visual effects and cinematography of the film.
You can really feel the warmth of Elliot’s room when E.T. and Elliot are home alone. As if on a rainy day, the room is lit just enough, but dark enough creating a cozy warmth. The only artificial light sources are the small, one-bulb lamps, Elliot has near his bed and on his desk. The walls, yellow, provide a brightness and warmth that changes with the differing scenes that take place within it. The feeling changes from scene to scene, when Elliot and E.T. are alone to when Mike and Gert join them. Elliot must tell someone about his new discovery. He chooses his older brother, Mike, the first one home after school. Elliot can trust him not to tell his mother. Elliot also has the power to convert a skeptic. Therefore the line Elliot forces, Mike to repeat, “You have absolute power,” has an even more profound meaning for the character development of Elliot. He emerges as the strongest of the three children. All the while the camera pans as they move into Elliot’s room. The camera then stays at eye level perspective of Mike, its focus, changing from Mike’s head, taking up most of the screen, then to Elliot and E.T., from the slightly taller perspective of the older brother. The shot then cuts to another camera from the lower perspective of Elliot and E.T, looking at Mike, doe eyed in shock at what is before his eyes after he has turned around: an alien. Quickly this slow scene picks up pace, when younger sister Gert comes running into the room childishly yelling, “Elliot I made something for you.” The camera catches her at the left corner of the screen as she runs through the shot, stops and screams. The light in the room is more intense and much brighter, further enhanced by the brightly painted walls. The light feels very natural, not artificial, like an incandescent bulb. It is as revealing as the scene, which reveals E.T. to the children. Now the pace comes to feverish pitch, Elliot’s screaming “Stop, stop” and E.T. reacts by screaming and his neck extends up and then down, his eyes bugging out just like Gert’s. Meanwhile, the shot cuts to Mike who knocks over the bookshelves, jumping back in fear. Just when things can not get any worse, their mother calls from downstairs, she is coming to check on the supposedly sick Elliot. Everyone is quickly whisked into the closet, a warm, orange light calmly, gradually warms and slows the scene down a bit. Mike’s hands cover Gert’s screams. Elliot and their mother are outside in Elliot’s room, while the camera is in the closet with Mike and Gert as if it were another child, looking out, hoping the closet door is not opened. The suspense mounts as the children are able to see out through the slats of the closet and their mother and Elliot are unable to see in. Elliot then joins them in the closet and the noise level is already cut in half from what is was moments ago, as is the lighting. The brightest light, a small single bulb again resides behind E.T. while the rest of the closet is bathed in an orange glow from the shades of the light from above. E.T. is backed into the corner surrounded by stuffed animals. The eyes of the children are as large as those of E.T. proving that both parties are innocent and curious about the situation in which they find themselves. All of them are scared and frozen in space. The light in the closet is even warmer, not so illuminatingly bright. This light is incandescent, artificial wanting to hide the truth. The camera focuses in on Gert as she timidly walks toward E.T., soon Gert takes up most of the screen with a brother on each side. The camera seems to be shooting from E.T.’s perspective, as there is a slight angle upward as it films Gert’s approach. E.T. thus is shorter than Gert. All stand together and gain each other’s trust. The camera cuts to E.T. from Gert’s and Elliot’s perspective and back and finally rests on E.T. again. In this final shot of the sequence, the light in the closet seems to darken more as E.T.’s eyes are illuminated echoing the earlier scene with Elliot outside with his flashlight waiting for the supposed “goblin” to reappear in the shed. The white, white light of the illuminated eyes looks like a pair of glasses, framing the eyes. Innocent, E.T.’s eyes and those of the children are no longer. Through images alone, Spielberg is able to prove to the audience that these three children and they; the audience, are no longer alone.
Slowly the relationships that began here will evolve into something beautiful, happy and at times comic. Even more difficult to watch are the scenes where E.T.’s spaceship returns to Earth and he must leave this small “family” that has nurtured him during his visit. These moments of skepticism and fear are at the cornerstones of all the relationships a human embarks on when we first meet new and different people (or alien for that matter) for the first time. E.T. is a movie that shows these fears to be normal and can be overcome through love and understanding of others differences. Once they are overcome, the possibilities for the relationship are out of this world.