Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Question your assumptions: E.T.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial has been on the business end of both extremely positive and extremely negative assumptions on my part.

Once again we will use the film's placement on my Flickchart to discuss the respect I have accorded it among all the films I've seen. But first, a little background.

E.T. has held a spot in my top 100 for some time now, but it may be the top 100 resident I've gone the longest without seeing. I believe I've seen it twice -- I can't fathom that I've only seen this landmark movie once -- but I do have a very distinct memory of a frustrated attempt at a second theatrical viewing. We were on a family trip in the summer of 1982 -- I think it was down to see some friends who had moved to Tennessee -- and we needed to kill some time one afternoon. We decided to go for a second viewing of E.T., but the screening was canceled when we were the only ones to purchase tickets. I guess it was a better bet to refund our money than to pay the projectionist's salary for two hours.

Have I seen it since then? Um, I think so?

So E.T. must have made quite an impression on me to reside in my top 100, having not seen it in 25-30 years at the very least ... right?

Actually, it didn't really. I was never as big a fan of E.T. as everyone else. I'd probably say that I loved it, but not in such a way that I've, like, ever sought it out to watch again.

So, top 100? Really?

Once I got it in my mind that E.T. was not a worthy entrant in my top 100, I started consistently driving it downward, via a combination of films jumping above it by beating other films, and by films beating it directly. It was ranked 83rd back in October (don't ask me how I know this), but now it has been driven down to 99, nearly cleared out of that hallowed ground altogether.

So now that it's almost banished from the rarified air of my top 100, I'm wondering if I've replaced an unjust bias in favor of E.T. with an unjust bias against it. Sounds like an ideal candidate for a re-watch, eh?

It got off to a bit of a rocky start, I'm afraid. I had entirely forgotten -- and was a bit taken aback by -- the fact that the movie starts on E.T. himself, not on Elliott and the other human characters. In fact, it's only after about ten minutes of the stranded alien running around the forest, being chased by a bunch of flashlights, that we even get to Elliott and his family. We should start on the character whose story it is, and I kind of think that's Elliott. Even if the movie is named after E.T., we can't really adopt his perspective, can we? The point, of course, is that the alien has an empathic relationship with humans, so we as viewers should be able to "see through his eyes" in that respect. But this seems problematic especially since the character himself was not shown during the advertising campaign for this movie, as though his appearance was being saved as a "big reveal." That the movie starts on him, and we get glimpses (though not good glimpses) of what he looks like from the fist minute of the film, seemed to make a mockery of that approach.

This carried over in the fact that there didn't seem to be any of the type of "declamatory sentences" you'd expect to set up Elliott and his family, once they do appear. If their appearance is going to be delayed for ten minutes, we need to start learning key character traits about them right away. But Elliott is a pretty indistinct protagonist from the start, taking shape more thanks to the performance of Henry Thomas than to anything in the script. In fact, from this viewing, I would argue that the film is as effective as it is precisely because the actors -- particularly the younger actors like Thomas and Drew Barrymore -- so fully bring their characters to life. Their characters do not exist on the page -- they only exist in the performances. And though the actors are there to save the characters, I still never felt 100% bonded to those characters because of the sort of shocking lack of back story for them.

Then there was the appearance of E.T. I realized with a bit of a sinking sensation that although I could not pinpoint the last time I had watched E.T., I know I did not see this version of the movie, because this was the one re-released for the 20th anniversary in 2002. That means it contained not only the infamous changing of the agents' guns to walkie talkies, but also some digital re-renderings of the alien himself. Although I'm sure Steven Spielberg would have liked us to perceive those re-renderings seamlessly, he does himself no favors by including a rather obvious digital enhancement in our very first viewing of E.T., when he is uncovered in that cornfield. I knew right away that this was not the same animatronic puppet I had seen in 1982, and I didn't like what I saw. And though I later discovered that Spielberg's digital changes were fewer than I thought -- I thought almost every close-up of E.T. had been altered, but this was not the case -- by this point I had developed an unshakable bias against the changes that definitely poisoned the rest of my viewing. I perceived digital fixes even when they weren't actually there.

We also noted some of the funny ways the film is clearly the product of another era. For one, I don't think there would ever be a joke about E.T. drinking beer and Elliott acting like he was drunk at school if this movie were made today. And my wife noted something that I did not pick up on -- that Elliott's mother leaves him home sick by himself, and on a second occasion entrusts his even younger sister to watch after herself. Ah, the 1980s.

Another funny realization: Although the fact that E.T. loves Reese's Pieces is one of his most well-known traits, the candy is never actually mentioned by name in the movie. That's funny, especially since there are actual product placements for both Coke and Coors.

These problems with the movie did not prevent me from putting myself back in the shoes of the eight-year-old me who saw this movie in 1982 -- on occasion, anyway. It wasn't a detriment to me understanding why the film is so beloved. But it did make me realize that it is not beloved by me -- nor should my Flickchart ranking reflect that it is.

Although I still recognize that the bikes levitating into the sky is a magical moment in cinema history, you can't see it again for the first time, just the same way you can't see the brontosauruses in Spielberg's Jurassic Park again for the first time. However, I'd be lying if I said I went through Sunday's viewing entirely goosebump-free.

I'm starting to wonder if carrying a film like E.T. in your heart is inextricably bound to all those repeat viewings at an impressionable age. Are movies like WarGames, Time Bandits and The Goonies really better than E.T., or do I just think of them as such because I wore out those VHS tapes, but went a quarter century between viewings of E.T.?

I suppose it's useless to determine the validity of cherishing the childhood films we cherish -- you can never examine them in a way that's removed from the influences of your own personal history. It's easier just to recognize that E.T. missed being a personal favorite of mine, and now likely never will be.

Now the question is whether I forcibly rank the movie even further down my chart, or just let nature take its course. I suppose I'll just let it sit where it is for now. E.T. likely deserves at least that much.

No comments: