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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Man Who Fell to Earth: Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is celebrating its 30th anniversary.  And regardless of whatever official commendations are there to further canonize Steven Spielberg’s warm suburban love story between a lost alien and a lonely middle child, my increasing devotion to it is of such a personal nature that I have to wonder if this film, of all films, is the central one in my life. This is not to call it the best, though it warrants consideration for such “list” accolades as any other masterpiece, being one of the 1980s’ great American films alongside Raging Bull, Blue Velvet, and Hannah and Her Sisters, but I mean central, that spark of solar conception around which everything has since grown and now orbits – as both a movie goer and a human being. Has any other movie influenced my attitudes and memories so much? Even my sense of family room afternoons as a child is colored in the same hazy glowing beams of Allen Daviau’s E.T. cinematography, and the suburban sprawl of Spielberg’s California is recognized as my sprawl in Richfield, Minnesota.

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Encountering it now, I can hardly contain myself emotionally, as if I were experiencing my deepest and youngest self, the moment of becoming a conscious human being.  After all, it was during the film’s release, the summer of 1982, that I had the earliest memories of being in a dark movie theater, clapping my hands over my ears and eyes for fear of what was projected above (my primary response to E.T., I think, wasn’t comfort, but great fear). Memories were achieving a degree of cohesiveness, fragmented moments like sounds and clicks becoming words, then coming together to make complete sentences, sensations morphing into thought. Working in accordance with the iconography I was seeing in the Catholic Church, Spielberg was working out my own mythological or religious system, or pattern by which I psychologically interpreted things. In retrospect one can easily see the parallels between E.T. and myth, of miracles, peace, and resurrection; but I also remember the two most horrifying and indelible visual impressions that haunted me at that time, obsessing me almost morbidly: one was Christ crucified; the other was E.T., pale and sprawled out on the floor, near death. Did E.T. do to me what E.T. did for Elliott (Henry Thomas), and what Christ – like other archetypal heroes – did for all humanity, where I was unwittingly bound to it, as if I were an extension of it?

E.T. is a fairy tale of connection, resurrection, and departure, of the relationship between thought and feeling, reality and fantasy.  I had similar sensations with Moonrise Kingdom this summer, another fairy tale that, in Wes Anderson’s words, is a memory of a childhood fantasy. Spielberg and Anderson skillfully wove meditations of an adolescent frontier under colonial attack from the featureless practicalities of adulthood, the sprawl of development (I feel the same thing in my favorite music album of recent years, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs). Watching him as a child, Spielberg had me looking out into the cosmos and the future; as an adult, Anderson turned me around to gaze back at beach-shore monuments that time would swallow. The emotional depths of both of these perfect little fairy tales of youth direct to something beyond logical steps of catharsis, instead hitting a nerve of awe. They are intimate and local stories harboring a cosmos, one encapsulating a Redeemer myth and the other the Great Deluge, where a broken family – like a species in the schisms of Nature – is healed and illuminated, if perhaps only temporarily. We also saw this in Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild this year, another Flood myth existing less in the context of post-Katrina New Orleans than the boundless cosmos of a young girl’s interaction with Nature. There too, the adult world, sophisticated and technological civilization, almost deliberately evokes E.T. with faceless men in sterile white suits, the resources of their logic canceling out magic.

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As different as Spielberg and Anderson may be stylistically, a generation apart and appealing to different moviegoers, the effect that both of their films have on me is a reminder of their mutual place as two great architects of childhood attachment and loss. They’re both children of divorce, as I am, and in both of their cases the parents split when the directors were teenagers.  As filmmakers of their respective generations, they are positioned culturally in a way that relates to their movies. The paternal reliability of American life was obliterated by Vietnam and Watergate, and picturesque calm was prey to an uncertain chaos, much like Amity being terrorized by the cthonian beast in Jaws.  After the unveiled curtains of corruption in his ‘70s peers, the despair and loneliness in The Godfather, Chinatown, The Conversation, The Fury, and Taxi Driver, Spielberg – and George Lucas – channeled a need for re-established order and escape, like with the friendly aliens of cosmic reassurance in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Chief Brody’s killing of the shark in Jaws, and Indiana Jones, with the help of God’s wrath, melting some evil Nazi flesh in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though not a political conservative, one could say he filled the same need that Reagan did for a lot of people, and like with Reagan, we could say that role was, on the whole, for the worse (not necessarily applied to Spielberg as an artist, but in terms of where Hollywood went, with Spielberg becoming an institution of grand-scale escapist moviemaking).

Wes Anderson, likewise, grew out of the ‘90s “lost generation” of filmmakers, the children of the ‘70s New Wave revolutions and the Un-Greatest Generation. He is Telemachus. Like Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell, Wes Anderson is privileged but dysfunctional, pained in his search for a father beyond a biological father, like Stephen finds Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses or Hans Castorp caught between Settembrini, Naphta, and Peeperkorn in Mann’s The Magic Mountain.  The affectations of style, target to so much criticism and derided as “whimsy” or indulgent, point to a need to affirm one’s own sense of self in a crowded house, while also paying tribute to the past so as to find some kind of spiritual family, like Antoine Doinel reverently plagiarizes Balzac in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Truffaut is unsurprisingly a huge influence on both Spielberg and Anderson).  In the excesses of our post-modern culture, where everything is a reference to something else – and so any gesture is muted and hollow – Anderson is looking for the stability of a meaningful framework, a temporal context, not cheap quirks.  In Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom, families are spread apart, broken, uncommunicative, full of resentment, and unreliable.  Moonrise, with two adolescent protagonists whose appearances recall Bud Cort in Harold and Maude and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, and set in 1965, just before the ascendancy of the “New Hollywood” (and cultural disillusionment), is a love letter to a time before the Flood. The “Cuckoo Song” playing during its unbelievably executed conclusion references the passing of summer months as autumn begins, and the private treasures of the past have to fly away, much like Spielberg’s E.T. on his spaceship, and memories undergoing erosion through time.

E.T. has the spirit of a silent film, images generating emotional reactions that fly above language.  The dialogue scenes, the first of which occurs about eight minutes in, often have the lightness of improvisation, sometimes bearing the quality of the director’s hero and Close Encounters costar Francois Truffaut and his films about children, something that is markedly lacking in his later films about innocence. Gestures, glances, and movements communicate enough to us, and while many stories are a little too overt with their messages, E.T. often wordlessly gets to its theme of good will.  It absorbs through images and touches the heart, with sentiments that evolve into language and are bridged to the head.

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Few films may engender a simple notion of compassion as this one, as sympathy exudes from it like the glowing red orbs inside the extra-terrestrials. Tellingly, the first we see of E.T. is his fingers in close-up, pulling a branch, the hand looking like a Peace sign. In the director’s own words, E.T. is essentially “an emissary of Peace,” and so a figure in opposition to the tough talk of Reagan’s Cold War.  We even see a character wearing a “No Nukes” t-shirt. I think it’s ironic that the other big movie of 1982, and the victor over E.T. at the Academy Awards, was Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, and yet the epic historical film pales in comparison in its theme of compassion to the alien love story.

Though there is no violence in E.T., or even a “villain,” there are subtexts of aggression throughout.  The film begins very frighteningly, with darkness, smoke, shadows, and unseen creatures leaving sign of themselves through the hollow brush or a swing set. The mood is that of a malevolent horror film, just as it’s a dystopian science fiction world when the top secret government officials, led by “Keys” (Peter Coyote), capture E.T. and begin to run tests on him. The world of families is warm and affluent, but marked with aggression. In the household of Elliott’s family, we see it immediately as the older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) has his friends over for a Dungeons & Dragons-type of role playing game, with players in an alternative universe of fantasy rolling dice for power and dominance. Elliott is picked on by the other boys, some of whom grab knives when they investigate the strange sounds outside (“Put the knives away,” the mother, Mary (Dee Wallace), instructs them, though they don’t listen). When Elliott hurts his mother’s feelings by mentioning how their father is in Mexico with his new lover, Michael says, “I’m going to kill you.”  To keep little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) silent about the newly discovered E.T., her doll is threatened with dismemberment (with Elliott mimicking classic bloodsucker Count Dracula).  Showing E.T. his toys, Elliott demonstrates how, with his Star Wars action figures, “you can have wars,” and shows off two fictional characters shooting and killing each other. As peaceable and sheltered as Spielberg’s suburbs are, it is a world of murder and power, where, so Elliott shows, “the fish eat the fish food, the shark eats the fish, and no one eats the shark.” Relationships are undercut by hurled insults like, famously, “penis breath,” or a schoolyard joke where the alien’s home is suggested as “your anus, get it? Your anus!”

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This is the horror underlying nature. Alien invaders are also interpreted as dangerous, like with the arcade game Space Invaders, which is referenced on a t-shirt, or the action figures from Star Wars. In Elliott’s science class we see a historical chart of history, and the ominous warning of “extinction,” relating to the species that couldn’t adapt. Certainly, the pain that Mary feels regarding her broken marriage has to do with being an older woman losing time to her responsibilities as her husband is with someone who is presumably younger and more available. When the science teacher, a faceless emissary of necessity and awful truths of what underlies nature, passes out cotton swabs to poison to dozens of frogs for dissection, he says, “They won’t feel anything. They won’t be hurt,” but you can’t help but think the science project isn’t, for Spielberg, somewhat analog to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Civilization buffers the reality and horror of loss and death, as we see Michael’s Halloween costume, a fake knife piercing his head. We discern that his earlier costume idea was a “terrorist,” a line that was eliminated from Spielberg’s 2002 DVD re-release of E.T., in addition to walkie-talkies taking the place of shot-guns carried by federal agents during the climactic chase. Thankfully, Spielberg has listened to his audience and restored the original 1982 cut (and eradicating the superfluous CGI shots of E.T.), which also re-establishes the subtext of violence that underlies the film’s power as a document about peace and love in a lonely and cruel universe.

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The author in less dignified, if more innocent, days.

E.T. and his species are, according to Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison, plants.  He’s an earthy creature, moist and brown, transparent when his heart glows, and attached to nature. When E.T. takes a plant from the ground, he’s careful to get it by the roots, holding it like a nurturing caretaker. He looks up reverently at the great trees around him, and a cut to a rabbit nearby reinforces a kind of one-ness with the environment.  E.T. alludes to a Christ figure, another “man who fell to earth” (I’ve always found it neat that Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ has a few shots modeled on Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, along with David Bowie as Pontias Pilate, associating God-as-Man to alien being), bringing a message of peace, eventually dying, resurrecting, and ascending back to the heavens after instructing us all to “Be Good” (meanwhile, Elliott falling asleep before E.T. disappears in the woods clearly echoes Gethsemane). He is also the Buddha, a spiritual wanderer who loves and liberates all living things, psychically freeing the doomed frogs in Elliott’s science class.  The construction of the alien’s grace owes much to Mathison, a Buddhist who also wrote the screenplay for Scorsese’s Dali Lama biopic Kundun.  E.T. is a heart and he loves, Elliott’s “ouch” becoming his “ouch.” He sympathizes with the Other, and heals. E.T. is a commercial work of art sincerely interested in the idea of kindness.

But there’s a lot of hunger in E.T., and this gets back to the cruel and base necessities of the world, of dog-eat-dog (or shark-eat-fish), of prosperity as victory, of rabid consumption. The film is replete with the idea of eating: the pizza that plays alongside the Dungeons and Dragons game (and is accidentally dropped by Elliott when he hears mysterious sounds in the shed); the trail of Reese’s Pieces Elliott leaves for E.T.; the shark eating the fish; and finally E.T.’s attempt to eat a Hot Wheels toy car (cars denoting excessive guzzling as much as anything).  We see both Elliott and E.T. raid the refrigerator, picking through the health food to find something tasty, E.T. acquiring a fondness for Coors beer – of which he drinks too much.

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Consuming mass quantities: "E.T." raids the fridge and has a Coors.Add caption

Is that what happened with E.T. in culture? The film is an easy target for criticism because how it was, along with Star Wars, so successful in its tie-in marketing. Whatever its Zen meditations, you could say that the pajamas, dolls, Halloween costumes, and Reese’s dispensers sold on a mass scale were good fodder for “ugly Americans.” That’s why it’s important to watch the film not as a spectacle but as an earnest and observant drama about suburban life, because I think Spielberg is cluing us into the concept of “too-muchness,” be it the enormous drive way at Elliott’s home or the alien’s appetite (“Is he a pig? He sure eats like one,” Gertie says while E.T. chows down). Industry is part of E.T.’s design, as we see those tall trees, on which E.T. looked in awe during the opening minutes, cut down and laying lifelessly on the ground later, when Elliott and E.T. bike into the wilderness so that the Speak’n Spell “phone home” device can be constructed. Industry is the outlay of the sprawl, as what we see is land bought and under development, the human world encroaching on the forest. The Dungeons and Dragons conversation at the beginning mentions money, and though there’s no “winning” at life like in role-playing, we hear “money helps.

Industry, the heart, and the mind were key motifs in one of the first science fiction films, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, where we’re told, “The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!’ This is probably the story of Spielberg’s career, as he’s known as the great manipulator, pulling emotional chords like a puppet master and provoking his audience to move in accordance to his wishes. Sometimes, like with E.T. and its masterful dialectical opponent A.I., where Kubrickian skepticism is married to Spielbergian poignancy, it is remarkable. E.T. is filled with sentiment, but doesn’t feel sentimental, and the manipulations of A.I. present the filmmaker allowing his own dissection and deconstruction by way of his elder guide Kubrick, like Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) leads on the loving mecha David (Haley Joel Osment). I am tremendously affected by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as Dr. Henry Jones (Sean Connery) grabs Indiana (Harrison Ford), whom he thought dead, and exclaims, “I thought I lost you, boy!” before capturing his restraint and steady poise again. Other times, like in Spielberg’s Oscar-baiting historical dramas – The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich - excellent as they may be in some cases, the maneuvers, aided by composer John Williams, are potent but more transparent: “I could have done more,” “Give us free,” “Earn this,” and so on. Maybe E.T. and A.I. are aided by their stature as fairy tales or metaphors, though that excuse certainly doesn’t work for Hook, the director’s 1991 Peter Pan misfire.

Transference of cinematic images as memory: "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" (2001)

The newest Spielberg film is Lincoln, coming out in a few weeks time, where the broken family is a divided nation, and the struggling father, Abraham Lincoln, has to brilliantly maneuver the passing of legislation to ensure legal rights for Americans of all races, and end the bloodiest of wars in a nation’s history. Already, Spielberg’s detractors are out for blood and waiting for him to make a hagiographic and treacly historical spectacle. But Lincoln is an appropriate subject for Spielberg not only as another addition to his list of struggling fathers to harness chaos (Lincoln may be linked then to Chief Brody from Jaws) or as another film about race relations and war, always fascinating for him as they are. But it was Lincoln who, like Spielberg, entreated his audience, the American people, to his side through emotions. Historian Roy Blount Jr. paraphrases Lincoln, “In order to ‘win a man to your cause,’ you must first reach his heart, ‘the great high road to his reason.’” Not surprisingly, the film Lincoln has a subtext of social performance, of the “legal” and “official” stepping on the stage as representatives of human motivations and beliefs. Written by Tony Kushner, it is a collision of myth, history, and individuals understanding that they are participating in the ceaseless construction of myth, of stories and parables, of a drama or history book. Language lays out who we are, and also how we are. A person’s worth tragically – or victoriously – amounts to words, words, words, much like the names typed onto Schindler’s list.

E.T. doesn’t talk when we first meet him. He purrs and bleats like a house pet, his eyes and hands searching around curiously for information. He learns by connecting to objects with his eyes and hands. It’s through looking that he and Elliott become linked emotionally, the same way that moviegoers are unwittingly linked to a film they’re watching. The first moment when Elliott and E.T. come face to face in a field, the screams of the alien are mirrored by Elliott’s shriek, and Spielberg cuts to various angles around the child as if the totality of the film’s matrix were absorbing him. Later on, after E.T. has followed Elliott’s trail of candy, we finally see the two of them together in the same shot, the creature’s placid face lit and revealed. E.T. is tired, Elliott is tired. Later, E.T. is surprised by an opening umbrella, which makes Elliott surprised in the other room. “Elliott thinks his thoughts,” posits a scientist examining the two,  as they  both are afflicted with deathly illness. “No,” Michael corrects. “Elliott feels his feelings.”  In this friendship, the lonely boy understands feeling, something Michael earlier chided him for lacking after Elliott brought up their father’s alternative romantic relationship in the presence of Mary. “Why don’t you grow up? Think how other people feel for a change.” Feelings denote a kind of sentience, a being-ness, indicated by how the science teacher justifies to the schoolchildren the legitimacy of killing frogs for dissection because “they won’t feel anything.” But Elliott looks at the doomed creature through the glass jar and senses something. At the same time, E.T. watches television and reads comic strips, feeling something – and then constructing a plan.

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The scene of E.T. watching The Quiet Man, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, feels like the film’s central set-piece, the eye-of-the-duck so to speak. E.T. stares in amazement at Wayne grabbing Maureen O’Hara, bringing her close and kissing her. At the same time, with the sound of Elliott’s classroom replaced by the ferocious wind of The Quiet Man, Elliott is compelled to repeat what E.T. is seeing, taking a beautiful girl and planting his own classic movie kiss, before the science teacher grabs him and takes him away to be punished for releasing the doomed amphibians. It’s a beautiful statement on the communicative effect of cinema, demonstrating how affecting our emotions affects the development of our thoughts, of language. For it’s soon after this scene that E.T. evolves the power to form and imitate words, taking cue from Gertie and Big Bird on Sesame Street (another reason not to vote for Mitt Romney: Big Bird taught E.T. how to talk!)  The recognition of the letter “b” leads to Gertie’s encouragement, “Good!” And so E.T. learns to relay the great message of the film, “Be good.”

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Soon after, E.T. is literally clothed by civilization, wearing a dress, hat, and wig, repeating his name (“E.T., E.T., E.T.!”) and Elliott’s, and finally pointing out, via a comic strip, his plan to “phone home.” It’s not accidental that the main tool he uses for his phoning contraption is a Texas Instruments Speak’n Spell, an educational toy popular in the 1980s for the development of language skills (specifically spelling). Sight leads to feeling, leads to understanding, leads to language and thought. Critics of Spielberg are wrong to say that E.T. is only there because of its appeal to the emotions (the implication being this is how you take advantage of people, infantilizing them, and dumbing them down – and yes, Spielberg isn’t wholly not guilty either). As the film bridges alien and human, it also links feeling to intellect. While E.T.’s words in the film are first evidently based on repeating what he’s heard others tell him, after his heart-glowing resurrection we hear him directly answer a question. “Does this mean they’re coming?” Elliott asks, regarding E.T.’s fellow space travelers. “Yes,” the alien replies. In the final scene, E.T. offers “thank you” to Michael, tells Gertie to “be good,” and repeats a line Elliott told him when they first met. In an early scene, Elliott pointed at his chest, saying “I’ll be right here,” before leaving E.T. in his room for a moment.  But in the closing minutes of their relationship, E.T. says those words – “I’ll be right here” – and points at Elliott’s head.

The link of sight to emotion and then to truth/action is elsewhere in Spielberg’s histories, such as Schindler’s List, when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) follows a young Jewish girl in red during the liquidation of a Jewish ghetto; he recognizes the girl’s corpse later on, compelling him to free his doomed Jewish workers.  In Lincoln, we notice young Tad Lincoln obsessing over photographs of slaves, their backs scarred from floggings and their prices for purchase beneath them. From such morbid images, he is stirred to ask questions of the black servants in the White House (“Were you whipped?”), about their personal histories, something which will drive forward the dialectical course of racial relations, of injustice in conflict with activism and freedom, in the future. For Spielberg, cinema is sentiment and truth sewn together. In his world, we come together and watch, falling in love with imaginary friends, an image wondrously displayed as Elliott caresses a purring E.T. while they listen to Mary tell a Peter Pan story to Gertie, spying through the blinds.

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As when I write about any classic film, I indulgently really often talk about myself, there’s a final note on my personal relationship to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, pertaining to how I imagine this film influenced my relationship to my domestic pets over the years. E.T. is, as I mentioned, akin to a house-pet in how he purrs. At the time of the picture’s release, I have my first memories of being attached to pets, like a cat named Muffin, with whom I would lie and stare at for sustained periods, not really saying anything, but repeatedly murmuring wordless noises (I was three. Give me a break). E.T. is very much a movie about pets, even if its titular character is a form of advanced intelligence with his own home in a galaxy far, far away. We anthropomorphize animals, giving them human traits and thoughts that they probably don’t possess, to make them more familiar to us (just as we give our dolls characteristics, which makes the shot of E.T. hiding amongst Gertie’s stuffed animal collection significant, or Gertie’s devotion to her threatened favorite doll). Even if they’re dim-witted, it’s natural to think that cats and dogs actually know more than we do. But they don’t have language, and so they have no kind of thought structure similar to ours. Still, we make them one of us. It’s charming that Spielberg and Mathison name the dog in Elliott’s family “Harvey,” a nod to the giant bunny befriended by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s film (at one time going to be remade by Spielberg with Tom Hanks). The dog is a sort of double for the alien, and the two are confused for each other when Elliott’s explores the strange noises in the shed.  At the end of the picture, it’s Harvey who gives E.T. the final farewell, a wordless one, before turning back to his human family.

So in a way, our pets are imaginary friends like E.T., with shorter life spans ensuring that they have to go away before we’re fully grown up or fully grown old and ready to shuffle down our own mortal coils. They’re vulnerable and dependent on us, helpless with a true innocence, lacking malice (even the villainous shark in Jaws is just hungry, its cruelty only a human projection; Quint’s monologue of the USS Indianapolis, about the ship that delivered the atomic bomb, is very ironic, given the damage the monsters of god inflict is insignificant when compared to what humans do to each other). Elliott’s kindness and openness to E.T. is the same care one has for a pet, and with Spielberg’s message of kindness, it reminds me of Milan Kundera’s words from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as the novel’s two principle characters deal with the cancer of a dog who has been with them throughout their entire relationship. He writes, “True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which is deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.”  Though we might say Spielberg at times epitomizes the homo sentimentalis “kitsch” that Kundera derides, I take this to heart when hearing Keys’ words to Elliott in the governmental hospital, when he expresses how glad he is that Elliott was the first person E.T. met.

Another cat who’s been close to me, Fefu, has been sick this past week, and it’s not been easy evaluating my memories of E.T. along with its images while understanding the mortality of my special little friend, who’s been with me these last six years. E.T.’s purring is her purring, and I’d do anything I could to keep her safe, happy, and healthy. But Spielberg’s film is also consoling for these tremors, I feel, addressing the turmoil – and necessity – of attachment before entropy and death sets in. Moonrise Kingdom was also strikingly filled with animals, whether performed by children in a Benjamin Britten opera of Noah’s Ark, or the several cats populating the house of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand (one of whom comes along with the young girl who escapes into the wilderness). As Anderson’s camera tracks through the house of sleepy felines in 1965, one realizes that all of these creatures are now long passed away, like the birds from the “Cuckoo Song,” or the protagonists’ innocence. Anderson and Spielberg entreat us to cherish the creatures over whom we hold “dominion,” the wordless but breathing ornaments of memory who provoke the most basic and essential sympathy, worth more than money. Whatever power people have in their realms and conquests over the sprawl, in families and communities, these two films, one 30 and blooming in its age while the other is a glowing infant, are viewfinders to what makes existence both precious and mysterious.

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