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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: 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.

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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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