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Art That Speaks to Everybody: A Father and Daughter Chat About E.T.

by Matt Zoller Seitz and Hannah Seitz
June 14, 2012 9:00 AM
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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.

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  • Jason | June 17, 2012 9:29 AMReply

    It's a real treat to read a conversation like this between the two of you. Hannah's insights are wonderful - after all, anyone who has seen a great movie saw it for the first time at some point, & it can be just as fresh & poignant as the day it was released. One little tip though: Please strike all use of "..., like," from your writing forever more. It has no place in speech & even less in writing, & it detracts from your otherwise quite intelligent voice.

  • Olivia Collette | June 14, 2012 2:32 PMReply

    I love the Seitz conversations. More please! Hannah, you are an incredibly insightful film critic. I look forward to reading your work.

  • Michael Mirasol | June 14, 2012 11:24 AMReply

    Thank you for making this Matt. E.T. is the film that resonates with me the strongest (I just teared up watching Clip #1). I saw it when I was about 8 on Betamax, and after its ending, I was utterly inconsolable. Weeping for probably 30 minutes protesting at my mom, "Why!? Why did E.T. have to go!!??"

    I have always looked forward to the day that I could show my 5-year old daughter Cate this film at some point. During my time here in Melbourne away from my family, my wife Claire showed it to her. I wish I could have been there to see and experience it with Cate. I was so happy and relieved when Claire told me that she cried and exclaimed at all the right moments. She goes back to it often as it's one of her favorite films. The circle is complete.

  • Deborah Lipp | June 14, 2012 10:56 AMReply

    Roberta and I took our little brother to see E.T. in 1982 (he was 12, we were not). When the flower died, we both cried copious tears. Then we saw each other out of the corner of our eyes crying, and kind of looked at each other and realized we were both SOBBING HYSTERICALLY over a dead flower. At which point we simultaneously burst out laughing at the absurdity and could not stop.

    We were lucky to get out of that theater alive. The other patrons just didn't see the humor.

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