[Editor’s note: The following is an iChat between Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz and his daughter Hannah, a film student, about Steven Spielberg’s E.T., which was released 30 years ago this week. It is the most recent installment in a series of dialogues about popular culture; earlier pieces discussed Cinderella, Fantasia and Harry Potter vs. Star Wars.]
Matt Zoller Seitz: Do you remember the first time you saw E.T.? Wasn’t it during the 2002 rerelease when you were not quite five?
Hannah Seitz: I don’t remember seeing it for the first time at all. But I do remember that when I saw it for the second time a couple of years later, I had no memory of the scenes where the government interferes and E.T. is dying. Was that because I was so traumatized during those scenes the first time?
Matt: Maybe you blocked it out?
Hannah: Maybe. Do you remember me not wanting to watch it at that point? In my mind there was a blank spot between the point where E.T. and Elliott are in the bathroom and the mom comes in, and then the part when Elliot sees E.T. come back to life.
Matt: I don’t remember your not wanting to watch that part of the movie when you saw it for the first time, but I do remember you bursting into tears during the scene where the older brother finds the pasty, sickly E.T. lying in that drainage ditch. You were fine up to that point.
I am always a bit surprised by the length and intensity of all the medical stuff near the end. Steven Spielberg really twists the knife. It’s like the scene in Dumbo where Dumbo goes to visit his mother in the iron cage. Or the “death” of the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Stanley Kubrick used to say that he didn’t like Disney movies because he thought they were cruel to children, and I don’t think he was necessarily wrong in that description. But fairy tales are often cruel, or unrelenting, and we do want to feel things very intensely when we experience art. Some excess seems forgivable when a work is really, really cooking, in the way that E.T. cooks all the way through. It’s operatic or symphonic. It’s so powerful that it gives me the kind of feeling that I think you’re supposed to feel in church, but that I never felt there.
Hannah: I haven’t seen E.T. in a while, and this was the first time I really watched it as a film. I always knew it was a great story, but the lighting in the movie and the music really did give it a symphonic feel.
I also noticed an insane amount of religious or spiritual-like imagery. I know the most famous one is when E.T. comes out of the truck wearing the robe with his heart glowing in his chest, but I noticed a lot more shots than that one.
Matt: Such as?
Hannah: One of my favorites is when the brother and the sister first meet E.T. and they’re in the closet. They’re all kind of peering at him. There’s even something in the background that looks like a stained glass window. Then it cuts to E.T., and he’s encircled by a bunch of stuffed animals that look like they could be his disciples or something.
Matt: I hadn’t even thought of those images in that way, but you’re right.
That closet, which is really E.T.’s sanctuary or home, is a sacred place, part womb and part cave of contemplation. It’s almost a geographical metaphor for what happens when Eliott invites him into his life. There is nothing more intimate than inviting somebody you don’t really know into your room. And since Eliott’s closet is the place where all the toys are stored, the symbol of the childhood innocence that Eliott is still clinging to, it’s as if the boy is inviting the alien right into the center of his personality, into the deepest place.
When the devout try to bring somebody into their faith, they often couch it in terms of an invitation. Invite God into your life, let Christ into your heart: that kind of language. Spielberg and Melissa Mathison, who wrote the screenplay, are brilliant at encoding that into the images.
Hannah: I love that scene where E.T. is listening to Elliott’s mom reading Peter Pan to Gertie. E.T. is a great character because it’s easy to look at him as a figure of wisdom, considering he’s super-intelligent. But he’s also very childlike, in the sense that’s he’s very curious and forms attachments easily.
I think that’s one of the beautiful things about Elliott’s connection with E.T. When Elliott first meets E.T., he doesn’t immediately think of him as a higher, more intelligent species that needs to be studied, like the scientists and government workers do. As soon as he meets E.T. he begins to show E.T. around, and he doesn’t immediately question what E.T. is or where he came from. And when Elliott does inquire about E.T. and what he’s capable of, he does so in a very innocent and non-pushy way.
Matt: Spielberg is a humanist filmmaker, one of the greats, and you can see that come through in the way that he depicts the meeting of different cultures or even species. E.T. and Eliott’s relationship is founded on open-mindedness and mutual trust and empathy—as Michael tells one of the researchers near the end, it’s not that Elliott thinks what E.T. thinks, it’s that he feels what he feels—and that’s why they have such a strong and pure friendship, so strong that you can’t even classify it.
At various points E.T. is like a mentor to Elliott, the dad that he recently lost to divorce, a friend, an older brother, a younger brother, and a pet. And towards the end, when the full extent of his power is made visible, he becomes angelic or supernatural. And at every point Elliott goes with the flow and accepts wherever the relationship is going. The reverse is also true, of course. Both characters change in relation to one another depending on what’s happening in the story.
Communication might be the most important theme in Spielberg’s filmography. Close Encounters, E.T., Amistad, Munich, pretty much every one of his films contains one or more scenes of different beings learning to speak to each other, and discovering they aren’t as different as they thought.
Hannah: The idea that E.T. has a power that allows him and Elliott to feel each other’s feelings is very metaphorical of friendship. In the beginning of the movie, Elliot makes the mother cry by saying his father is in Mexico with some woman named Sally. Michael says, “Dammit, why don’t you just grow up! Think about how other people feel for a change.” When E.T. comes along, Elliot is really forced to grow up by feeling E.T.’s emotions. He has a deep mutual connection with him, and towards the end it’s clear that Elliott has matured a great deal, and made sacrifices as a result of being so connected to E.T.
Matt: Yes. There’s a wisdom in the boy’s face during that final shot that wasn’t there at the start of the film, and all the changes have come about organically, as a result of his living through these extraordinary events.
Hannah: I also love how it portrays the government workers. Although they are the antagonists, the movie doesn’t necessarily portray them as evil people who only want to harm E.T. They are, after all, trying to keep him alive. They aren’t coldhearted people. They just don’t understand how E.T. functions, like Elliot and his siblings do. In a way, their ignorance is really what drives their role as antagonists.
Matt: That’s true.
Hannah: It always sort of gets to me when Keys is talking to Elliott at the end and he says, “He came to me too, Elliott. I’ve been wishing for this since I was nine years old.”
Matt: As you read more about film history you may eventually come across articles about Spielberg that were written in the ’70s and ’80s when he first became a cultural force. He was described as being culturally very conservative for a young Baby Boomer, and in some ways that’s true. But the optimistic way he depicts human understanding, and cosmic understanding, is very much in tune with hippie values. He’s a lot more countercultural in his worldview than some of the overtly counterculture filmmakers. He really believes people can make up their minds to be good, to do the right thing, to overcome ignorance and build bridges, that war and violence is rarely necessary, and so forth. All the stuff that modern popular culture tells us is for suckers, Spielberg actually believes in. And I like that about him.
Are there any particular things you noticed about the tone or style of the movie, the way it moved and looked, that spoke to you?
Hannah: The lighting. Every shot in Elliot’s house was lit in a way that represented the content of the scene. A lot of the lighting felt very eerie, or sometimes kind of quiet and lonely.
But it didn’t make itself too obvious. The house still felt very real and homelike, no matter what the lighting was. I think the house itself was also one of the best features of the movie. Like you said, it was sort of a temple to innocence and childhood, which was a very magical environment for E.T. to be in. Also the layout of the house felt real and comfortable, not like most Hollywood movies where homes are well furnished and spotless.
Matt: With whom did you identifying with when you watched the movie this time? I ask because when I re-watch movies I’ve seen many times, my point of view changes.
When I was a kid I used to identify with Elliott, then after a certain point I started to feel more of a connection with other characters, probably because I was maturing. I went through a phase where I would imagine what this experience must have been like for E.T. This time, though, I thought about Mary, the mom. The way she was always emotionally wrung-out and kind of distracted really spoke to me as a single parent. When you’re in that situation it’s completely plausible that an alien could be walking around behind you in a bathrobe and you wouldn’t notice.
And this time I was with Michael, too. The moment where he goes into Elliott’s closet and curls up in a corner looking at all the toys and stuffed animals destroyed me.
Hannah: I can’t really say whom I connected to. I’m really bad at answering that question. I’m really not the type of viewer who connects to the characters.
Matt: What kind of viewer are you?
Hannah: I don’t know. I don’t really connect to characters, like, throughout an entire movie. When I do feel emotionally connected, it sort of just jumps out at me in a particular moment or scene.
I’m a film student now, and although I don’t like to admit it because of my high school freshman finicky-ness about the future and careers and such, filmmaking or writing may possibly (emphasis on possibly) be something I want to do with my life. When I write, I usually write about realistic characters and situations, and I would say I’m pretty good in that field. So it was a weird experience watching this movie last night, because after it was finished and I had soaked it all in, I just felt this weird surge of jealousy. Art is made to affect and speak to people, and generally when it does so, the audience is limited, be it by age, ethnicity, gender, etc. I think it’s one of the most amazing things in the world when you can create a piece of art that speaks to everybody. E.T. really is a timeless movie that you can enjoy when you’re a little kid and appreciate just as much when you’re on your last legs. It’s really an incredible thing to be able to make something like that.