Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Boy's Life

I remember the film quite differently. In my recollection, the doctors are villains bent on vivisection, and Elliott is betrayed by the scientist who purports to comfort him. In fact, although the hunters are framed by the conventions of the horror flick – darkness, muffled voices, torchlight, silhouettes – they simply try to find E. T., place him under quarantine for everyone's safety, and prevent his premature death. The avuncular scientist is quite sincere:
I've been wishing for this since I was ten years old. I don't want him to die. [His] being here is a miracle, Elliott. It's a miracle – and you did the best that anybody could do.
Another aspect that I did not recall: the absent father, poignantly but implausibly invoked by Elliott – "Dad would believe me!" – and now in Mexico with "Sally". ("Where's Mexico?" asks Gertie; he might as well be in outer space.)

There are various threads from the theme of abandonment winding through the film. It is tempting to look for models of fatherhood, as in the teasing scene in which Elliott weighs E. T. ("35 pounds – you're so fat!"), and, less successfully, measures his height (what to do with that retractable neck?). When she meets him, Gertie proclaims, canonically, "He's a boy!"

But E. T. doesn't need a father, and he doesn't take to Elliott's lessons in goldfish, Pez and peanuts. (It's Gertie who directs his real education, through the auspices of Speak & Spell: he is principally an autodidact.)

Perhaps, then, it's the other way around: E. T. as substitute father for Elliott? But, as a father figure, E. T. tends towards delinquency. He stays home drinking beer, slumped in front of the TV, and his psychic influence causes Elliott to misbehave.

If the theme culminates in anything – I must painfully admit – it is with the redundancy of fathers. No-one needs them: not E. T., not Elliott or his siblings, not even Mary, their mother, who seems only mildly grieved by her husband's flight. The scientist, Keys, emphatically does not become a substitute parent; his only memorable speech identifies him as a child.

The film ends with an assurance of self-sufficiency. "I'll be right here," E. T. insists, glowing finger directed at Elliott's brow – meaning that he won't be here, and he doesn't have to be. The father is dispensed with, or consumed. It doesn't matter if he never comes back.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen the film. Is it now like Lord Of The Rings, elevated into one of those things everyone ought to have endured? I've been ignoring Tolkien all these years as well.

You know those people who feel mysteriously proud of not wanting to read Ulysses even though they know nothing much about it? I try to project the same attitude about Tolkien. I was told I "ought" to read it over 20 years ago, and my resistance continues.

Anyway, when's your book coming out?

7:31 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Absolutely: everyone must watch E. T. It doesn't take as long as The Lord of the Rings which, like you, I ignored for ages, and then skimmed without enjoyment in college. And it really is sublime. My book is also much shorter than Tolkien's and will be out before the end of the year, though perhaps not much before. Thanks for asking!

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home