E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial [1982)

I’ve been unmercifully harsh on Steven Spielberg over the years.

But this is the first time I’ve written about one of his films.

And, of course, it doesn’t really matter what I think of this movie.

The director couldn’t care less what I think.

And that is fine.

But there is a more profound lesson in all of this.

This situation.

I know the psychology of it.

And I can trace the genesis.

So let me start by saying that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a good film.

Not great, but certainly good.

That is, of course, a statement of opinion.

That’s the nature of what I do.

As I wrote recently, I don’t like to belittle films.

In the end, it hurts me as much as anyone.

It’s simply a poisonous activity.

So I watched this blockbuster from my youth.

Tonight.

A film I hadn’t seen in a looong time.

It almost holds together as a great film.

But Spielberg seems to be the chess prodigy who can’t win a game.

He has the beginnings down.

That’s important.

And his middle game is decent.

But his final approach is a maudlin catastrophe.

Or, put another way, he gives the audience exactly what they want.

But put more precisely, he gives the audience what he THINKS they want.

There is a lot of guessing here.

The old formula ending in, “…you can’t please all of the people all the time.”

There is a lot of good filmmaking in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Some truly special scenes!

A great concept!

But some parts haven’t aged so well.

And it’s not just because the special effects seem dated.

At issue is the artfulness of Steven Spielberg.

My guess is that he’s just not a very artful fellow.

But I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So we might say, in 1982 he was still not a mature filmmaker.

That is, I think, a relatively fair statement.

This was, of course, Spielberg’s second “space” film.

Indeed, perhaps this was the watered-down, family version of Close Encounters…

And I respect Spielberg for making a family film.

But there is something profoundly grating about his mise-en-scène.

It’s not a pandering of genuine naïveté.

It’s more of a director trying to get into your wallet.

And he did.

Almost $800 million (!) at the box office.

In 1982.

That’s about $2 billion today (inflation-adjusted).

Let me make it very simple.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial goes astray the first time the bike takes flight.

And completely goes off the rails when the BMX bandits flock to the friendly skies.

But what is most excruciating is the melodramatic “hospital” scene.

Makeshift.

Henry Thomas is really good in this film.

He’s from my hometown (for Christsakes!).

But an 11-year-old boy needs some direction when he’s in a $10 million movie.

He either got bad direction at certain points, or (even worse) no direction.

Sure.

I admire Spielberg for getting in the wallets so deftly.

But poetic pickpockets will be found out sooner or later.

And E.T…., as a whole, has not aged well.

Look…Spielberg is not a bad director.

I always insult Schindler’s List.

That’s because there are some serious problems with how Mr. Jaws took on the Holocaust.

As overwrought as it is, it’s still a popcorn affair.

We will get to it eventually.

But the dead deserve a poet.

The Holocaust is not blockbuster material.

And the daft pickpocket, no matter how good his intentions, will never recuse himself from such a haul.

But more specifically…

I’m sure Spielberg’s motives for making Schindler’s List were as pure as the driven snow.

Really.

I’m not being facetious.

But he was not prepared to make such a picture.

Indeed, the picture he made is not possible.

But that is a different matter for a different day.

The Terminal is a very fine film.

E.T. is a good one.

The most troubling part is that this was Spielberg’s seventh feature-length film.

That’s really not a promising sign.

But we will give him a fair chance.

The guy has immense talent.

It just seems that his puffed-up reputation is disproportionate to the largely mediocre films he’s made.

 

-PD

Rocky [1976)

Here we have a great film.

From an actor with whom I was so lucky as to work on one occasion.

Sylvester Stallone.

It was an honor.

And yet, I didn’t really get it.

That this movie, Rocky, was so central to the American dream.

But it’s more than that.

It’s the backdrop of Philadelphia.

The streets.

The eggs.

The meat.

The iron gates you gotta kick open.

And the screenless door you gotta reach around.

It’s the machete stuck in the wall.

And the black leather jacket to hang over the handle.

The knife stabbed into the wall.

And the black fedora that hangs on it.

But most of all it is Talia Shire.

To offset the brutality of boxing.

A shy soul.

In kitty cat glasses.

It’s the pet store.

The failed jokes.

The parakeets like flying candy.

And Butkus the dog.

You know, I don’t hear so well…because I got punched too many times…taking my best shot at music.

And so I’m a bum…but I got into the arena for a good 15 years.

And those final four…when I was a contender.

When I met Sylvester Stallone.

I was standing next to greatness.

A great actor.  A great figure in film history.

We are taught to denigrate our American movies.

That they could never be as good as the French.

But the American films inspired the French.

It was Truffaut and company took Hitchcock from novelty to pantheon.

But it’s shy Talia.

Telling a story.  A real love.

Getting up in years.  And maybe she’s retarded.

Maybe he’s dumb.

But to him she’s the prettiest star.

And he perseveres.

However many rounds it takes.

Because fate has called him to one woman.

Why does he fight, she asks.

It’s a big obstacle.

For Rocky and Adrian to overcome the awkwardness of their collective insecurities.

For them to communicate.

But it’s such a beautiful story.

Pithy.  Gritty.

When Pauly throws the Thanksgiving turkey out into the alley.

It’s dysfunction.  Dysfunction everywhere.

Abusive meat packing desperation.

Always an ass pocket full of whiskey.

And just a favor to the loan shark.

I can break thumbs.

But you don’t wanna do that.

The protector.

In the world of crime, but not of the world of crime.

Poor, simple icebox.  Some cupcakes.

Never enough beer.  Anywhere.

And the genius of spectacle comes along.

Carl Weathers.  Like Clyde Drexler.

Reading The Wall Street Journal.

Like Trump…thinking big…and juxtaposing entities.

To speak to the sentimental.  Sentimental.

Because you don’t wanna be known as a whore.

It’s that reputation.  A hard lesson.

Big brother to a little sister.

You don’t wanna smoke.

Make yer teeth yellow.

Breath rotten.

But you gotta work.

To stay in this game.

Train.  Train.  Train.

And maybe you get one shot.

It all comes down to this.

Burgess Meredith like Rod Marinelli.

The wisdom of hard knock cracks.

But we like ice skating.

$10 for ten minutes.

A date.

A tip.

When you give life back to a prisoner of home.

When you give love to a lonely fighter.

Misunderstood.

Rough around the edges.

Desperation of poverty Pauly.

Makes us all a little crazy to be so trapped economically.

But God has called you to greatness.

And will you answer that call?

Can you imagine the career?

Is anything at all clear?

We only know tenacity.

Fighting till the very end.

Hospital and next day Pentagon basement.

Be an expert for your country.

So many skills needed for a nation to flourish.

Trust.

Go the distance is not just Field of Dreams (another great sporting film).

Going the distance.  Till the very end.  Tour of duty.

God, please get me back home.

We’re so close now.

You’ll have to cut me so I can see.

“When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez” and you only want to hear her say “I love you”.

And she you.

You made it.

You lost by decision.  But you proved it to yourself.

That you could go the full fifteen rounds with the best.

The best and brightest.

That you could be the shy, awkward bum to overcome.

Don’t say that.

You’re not a bum.

We want.  Need.  That positive reinforcement.

When the whole world tells us we’re losers.

You won by keeping going.  Every day.

 

-PD