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25 Years Ago - The Best Genre Year Ever, Part I: Nordling Remembers E.T.!!

I was twelve years old in 1982. Man, that’s a great age when you’re movie-crazy. Keep in mind, I’d been weaned on a pretty remarkable run of films, things like JAWS and THE EXORCIST and HALLOWEEN and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and TIME BANDITS and SUPERMAN II and THE SHINING and MAD MAX 2 aka THE MOTHERFUCKIN’ ROAD WARRIOR and a li’l number called STAR WARS and another li’l number called RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. To see these movies in first run... to be in the audience as we all saw them for the very first time, as we laughed and cheered and freaked out and how unbelievably GREAT everything was... to get the full impact of them... I had a charmed childhood. It was a glorious time to be an audience, like movies were expressly being made for me. I had seen many R-rated films before 1982, particularly on cable, but I was a master of negotiating my way into a theatrical viewing of any R-rated movie I was interested in. Seriously. I was like Robert Preston in THE MUSIC MAN. I could sell it. Admittedly, it was always easier to talk my parents into an R-rated action film than to talk them into an R-rated comedy. There was something about the subversive humor of the day that really set my dad on edge, and I had to work my way around him to see ANIMAL HOUSE or THE BLUES BROTHERS or BLAZING SADDLES or UP IN SMOKE. I’m sorry, dad. As an adult, all I can say to you is forbidden fruit tastes twice as nice. I did see them. And I think they may have corrupted me exactly as much as you were afraid they would. 1982 was one of the first years where I was tracking all the films I was most desperate to see. I had discovered STARLOG a few years earlier, and the more I read it, the more excited I got about the potential of films. As I read early reports on stuff, I got crazy about what they might be. For example, I was a big fan of Robert E. Howard, and I loved the CONAN stories. I had scoured used bookstores for cheap paperback editions of his books and libraries, and I had read pretty much his entire body of work. When I walked into a theater and saw the gorgeous painted poster for CONAN THE BARBARIAN for the first time, it was like getting punched in the face. It was consciousness-expanding. That film went from being something I didn’t know existed to something that I had to see in order to continue living. I went from ignorant to rabid in one swift blow to the skull. I had to negotiate to see it, too. I had an advantage because my mom was a big reader of SF and fantasy, and a lot of the time, she wanted to see the films as much as I did, so I was able to convince her by telling her how good it would be before I ever brought up the issue of the rating. In the case of CONAN, I fucked up my chances by telling my mom that THE SWORD & THE SORCERER, which came out a few months earlier, was “pretty much the same thing.” We went to that one, and by the time Richard Lynch rips himself open in order to let Richard Moll walk out of the ruined pieces of his body, my mom had decided there was no way in hell I was going to CONAN. I proposed a deal, since CONAN was coming out right around my twelfth birthday. We worked on the terms for a while, but finally the deal was settled: if I made only A’s and B’s on my report card, I’d be able to take my friends with me to see CONAN for my birthday party. I don’t think there was another single semester where I did quite that well in school in my entire career as a student. As the summer wore on, I think I just wore my parents down, asking to see one R-rated title after another. I also spent part of the summer with my grandmother, who barely paid attention to ratings. That was a huge help, since I was able to convince her that PORKY’S was about Warner Brothers cartoons and THE THING was “sort of like E.T.”, strategies that paid off in some of the most memorable theatrical experiences of the year for me. Recently, I’ve found myself struggling not to be disillusioned with the state of genre filmmaking. Horror, for example, is growing more anemic with every remake and every PG-13. Sci-fi is practically an allergen to the studios. So how do we fix that? I think the first thing we do is we look back at a year where people were getting it right. And, no, I don’t think the answer is simple imitation, but more an understanding of why that whole year seemed so special to those of us who were there when it happened. To that end, I’ve been talking with AICN contributors over the last few weeks and recruiting them to help me write a series of articles about the films that knocked us on our collective asses that year, and what we’ll be publishing are more than just reviews. Instead, we’re going to talk about what it was like that year, when you could go to a theater and walk from one screen to the next seeing BLADE RUNNER and E.T. and DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID and THE THING and STAR TREK II and POLTERGEIST and CREEPSHOW and 48 HRS. and TRON, just to name a few. Maybe we’ll stir some memories in some of the guys making genre films right now, and maybe... just maybe... we’ll remember how high we’re allowed to aim and stop just phoning it in as an industry. If nothing else, we’ll have some fun in the process. Since I was 12 years old, I’m going to pick 12 movies that I think really defined the year, 12 movies that pushed me as a viewer in ways that I don’t think I’ve ever been pushed in any other way. These aren’t ranked in any order, though. I can’t tell you which one of these films has influenced me the most, because they’re all part of this incredible adrenaline blast to the jugular that was 1982. I’m not going to review all 12 myself. I wanted to try to get a wide range of reactions to share with you, so I asked some of the other contributors here at AICN to take a shot at some of these titles. First up today, I’m going to run a piece on the film that was the biggest box-office hit of all time by the end of that year, the quiet little movie that ended up completely dominating the cinema landscape. I remember how unassuming the ads for the film were. Universal managed to keep E.T. completely out of the press before the movie came out, and there was next to nothing known about it. “Less is more” turned out to be the best possible strategy, and word of mouth turned out to be the best sales tool they could have hoped for. But don’t take my word for it. Check out what our very own Nordling has to say about it:

"I've been wishing for this since I was ten years old." If you came here looking for a critical breakdown of Steven Spielberg's E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, you're not going to get it. Sure, I'll talk about what works, and I may even rant a little bit about the 2002 re-release. But this film is too ingrained into my childhood. It's too much a part of me. Everyone has that sacrosanct film, that one movie that really nails him or her. E.T. is that for me. "We're in the middle, Elliott. You can't just join any universe in the middle." Before I get into it, some background. I was 12 years old in 1982. I guess once you're not 12 anymore you stop officially being a child and become an adolescent or whatever. Maybe it was the last year of my childhood. I'll definitely say it was the purest. It was the greatest movie summer ever. POLTERGEIST. KHAN. BLADE RUNNER. THE THING. You know the drill. That summer helped make me into the movie geek I am today. These were the years after EMPIRE. It seemed a millennium since that film, and the Great Question was still unanswered. We had the figures, we had the toy lightsabers, and we played every possible scenario in our backyards. Do you remember that? Do you remember playing? The kids on my street - Scott, T-Boy, Little Kris, our token girl Tracy (who we would sneak kisses from time to time), Stevie Cook, and myself - were unabashed movie freaks. It was easy back then. Video hadn't really taken off yet, not in our neighborhood where VCRs were still a luxury item. The last summer, 1981, we went every single weekend to see RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. That's just what you did. Talk to any thirty-something and remind them. You'll see. Instead of the Internet, we had a magazine called STARLOG. I read it religiously, probably like my dad's generation read Forry Ackerman's FAMOUS MONSTERS. I read it gleaning every piece of science fiction movie news I could. And I remember in the fall of 1981 reading it and learning that Steven Spielberg was making another science fiction film. They didn't know the title, but the working title was A BOY'S LIFE. Spielberg was being very secretive about the film, not revealing many details. "Just swear the most excellent promise you can make." Now, even at 12, I knew who Spielberg was. JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, RAIDERS, of course. I even liked 1941. I didn't understand what they meant by it being a flop except that it didn't make as much money as the others. JAWS, especially, was a major event for me. I was 5, and my family (and when I mean family, I mean parents, uncles, aunts, cousins the works. We must have had 20+ people in the theater that day) saw it opening weekend, as my family loved to fish and JAWS is the ultimate fishing story. I remember asking my dad to let me know when the scary part came. It's to his credit he didn't. "Can't he just beam up?" "This is reality, Greg." Our weekends during that summer of 1982 consisted of either going to movies or begging our parents to drop us off at the movies. Back then, we saw movies in herds. Whole city blocks of kids would all go together as our parents' orchestrated minivans for the child migration. Back then, kids as young as 6 or 7 would be dropped off with the older 12 or 13 year-olds watching out for them. I was one of the older kids so I kept an eye out. We didn't go to the movies to hang out or to be out of our parents' hair, although I'm sure they appreciated the away time. We came to be enthralled, transported, entertained. Sure, we'd sneak into some of the R movies. I remember sneaking into THE THING just as the fat guy's chest opened up and ate the doctor's hands. I quickly turned around and didn't see the rest until a year later on cable. Chickenshit me. So, summer 1982. Steven Spielberg has a new movie out, and I would be damned if I was going to miss it, and certainly wasn't going without my friends. So we all got into Scott's dad's Suburban, and headed out to Northline Mall Cinemas. "We're here. We are here. Where are you from?" A starfield. A single flute. The pan down, and we realize we aren't on some alien world, or in outer outer outer space. We are home. And then we see the Ship, like a Christmas ornament, settled onto the green earth. Then we see them. The little creatures, lovingly tending to and wandering amongst the plants. And the story begins. I am not a child of divorce. At the time, my home was, as far as I could tell, a happy one. Elliott's one-parent world was as alien to me as E.T. was. Only one of my close friends had even grew up with it, which has to be some sort of statistical anomaly, but there it is. I did understand Elliott's sense of loneliness. I had my friends, and I knew how much I loved them, and what it would mean for me to lose them. The kids played D & D. That endeared me to the movie right away. Those kids were us. Me and my friends, hanging out at each other's houses, eating pizza, drinking Dr. Pepper, and killing goblins and orcs and dragons. I make no apologies for being a geek. It's who I am. In fact, it's sort of a litmus test of mine. You probably won't get into my inner circle if you can't identify with me in that respect. To make that connection, to be with people who truly get you, who truly have your back, that's a rare thing, no matter what the movies say. And so Elliott goes out to pick up the pizza, and makes that connection. Even if the connection comes from several million lightyears away. "Because, um, grownups can't see him. Only little kids can see him." "Give me a break." Here's something about E.T., and only a few, few other movies... it gets childhood intrinsically, so completely RIGHT. High praise indeed for Melissa Mathison's script, which has the cadence and the smart-assery that is inherent in every kid. Childhood is messy and joyful, dangerous and crude. Everything is truly an adventure, and nothing is certain. The kids cuss, like I certainly did. They ride their bikes recklessly, just one skid or sharp turn away from slamming into the pavement and serious injury. There is a sense of danger every day. And when you're a kid, you LOVE it. There's nothing, absolutely nothing, like waking up a summer's day and having no idea what the day will bring. Spielberg nailed that. When he replaced the guns with walkie-talkies in 2002's re-release, I wasn't so upset about the fact that he altered his classic movie so much as I was that he completely took out the sense of danger that as children we thrived upon, and enjoyed, and ultimately learned from. Are the guns inappropriate? Of course they are. That's why it works. Those kids were afraid for their lives. Wasn't it glorious? To be the hero? To genuinely risk something? Kids understand that, better than people realize. And, so we watched, and so we were thrilled. We weren't talked down to, or patronized. And we loved it. You can show me the wires, the models, the clay, the drawings, the CGI, and I still think E.T. is real. It's interesting to me how the kids were surrounded by all of the tech every day and still absolutely believed that he was real. The set was almost like playtime, and E.T. reaches an intimacy that none of Spielberg's later films ever quite reached. The relationships felt real and lived in, and the home life was genuine. Later, when the government tarps the house, it feels like a violation of everything we held dear. "Here he is!" "Here's who?" "The man from the moon, but I think you killed him already." It's fascinating to me now how Spielberg got such great performances out of the children. I watched the making-of doc on the DVD set and saw how Steven and Henry communicated, and how open everyone was to not just saying the lines but genuinely feeling them. Watching Spielberg give direction to Thomas as he said goodbye to E.T. was a little like seeing the wizard behind the curtain, but instead of decreasing my admiration for his work it increased it. He showed and still shows a great affinity for actors and it impressed me that he's not just a technical director but a very humanistic one as well. And what can be said about John Williams' score? It's simply beautiful, written at the height of his powers. The last 15 minutes of the film are practically an opera. E.T. wouldn't have nearly the same effect without it. Another minor rant - the CGI in the 2002 version. Okay, they made the face more expressive. I'm cool with that. But some of the CGI is used to fill in the places where our imaginations did just fine. I didn't need to see E.T. running in the forest - the light did that just fine. And I wondered what, exactly, I was seeing. The sense of wonderment at E.T., not being able to see what he was clearly, sparked the imagination, and too many films today insist on showing rather than being subtle and clever and letting our minds fill in the blanks. Sure, it looks great. But it stopped being mysterious. The added scenes in the film were nice, but again, they fill in the blanks that my mind didn't need filled. The original film is a lean, perfect thing. No offense, Mr. Spielberg, but I really don't watch the 2002 version very much. I watch the original, and I keep that sense of wonder. "Is he dead, momma?" "I think so, sweetheart." "Can we wish for him to come back?" "Uh-huh." "I wish." "I wish too." And so, as E.T. sickens and dies, for the first time ever in a movie (but certainly not the last), I cried. And I'm not talking about squinting out a couple of tears from the sides of my eyes. I flat-out bawled. It was probably the first time I was ever hit with any kind of loss, even if it was just a movie. Behind me, two girls started laughing, presumably at me. I was pretty loud. And that's when my friend Scott turned around and calmly said, "Shut up, or we'll all beat the living shit out of you." He gave them a pretty hard stare. And they clammed up. Not a peep. And then Scott turned to me, smiled, and handed me a Kleenex. And when the film ended, and E.T. home, the six of us walked out into the afternoon sun, where Scott's dad was waiting. It was a beautiful, perfect day, and I loved my friends so, so much. I've lost track of them over the years, but I still remember that day, and how it really made a difference in my life. And you know what? That's not even the best time I saw E.T. "I'll believe in you all my life. Every day." A couple of weeks after, my mom throws a Tupperware party at the house. My sister's in high school at the time, it's a Friday night, so she's out and about. So, promptly, she kicks my dad and I out of the house. Now, it's funny - I get my love of movies from my parents, but in different ways. My mom just loves the whole movie-going process. She loves going out to dinner, and seeing a great movie. My dad, however, loved movies differently. He loved great character studies, and a lot of the films of the 1970s. His favorite movie at the time was ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. He loved ALIEN, and he wasn't a sci-fi kind of guy. "Truck drivers in space!" He loved the real people aspect of it. So I feel like I got some of his sensibilities from him when it came to movies. That night, we go to get some burgers at my uncle's hamburger joint, Roznovsky's, and decide to go to a movie. "E.T.!" I exclaim. "Haven't you seen that?" he asks. "Yeah, but you haven't! I wanna see it again." So we go. And as E.T. sickens and dies, the flood starts again. Can't help it. Even now, play E.T. in front of me, and I'll cry. It's damn near Pavlovian. And then I turn to my dad, and I see something amazing. "You must be dead, because... I don't know how to feel. I can't feel anything anymore. Have you gone someplace else now?" You have to understand something about my dad. He was a big man. He worked in oil fields as a draftsman. In my world, he was John Charlie Steve McQueen Bronson Wayne. Toughest guy in the world. When he came to school for report card day the other kids would do a double-take and ask me later, "THAT'S your dad?" I'd nod and say, "Yeah. Tough, ain't he?" And so it came as something of a shock to see him sobbing, tear-tracks on each side of his face, as he watches this little rubber suit die on screen. He was profoundly moved by this children's film. And my dad, at that moment, ceased to be The Great Impenetrable in my life, and became a living, breathing person. It was a major paradigm shift for me, and it radically changed my relationship with him. We talked more. I wasn't so afraid of him. I found I had so such more in common with him than I thought. It was wonderful. In 1983, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer, which four years later spread to his bones. He died July 15th, 1987. E.T. was the last movie I saw with him, just him and me, by ourselves. Sure, the family went to other movies, but it was the last time my dad and I went together. It might have been the last time we did anything together, just him and me. I can't really remember. But when you're 12, and the whole world is ahead of you, you just can't recognize those times when they happen. "Come." "Stay." "Ouch." It's really difficult for me to judge Steven Spielberg too harshly. A lot of people talk down on him as a filmmaker, saying he's too sentimental, his films have easy answers, that he's too populist. They say that like it's a bad thing. But in 1982, he brought me closer to my friends and family in a way that really hasn't happened since, not with a movie. Not like that. I chase that feeling every time I sit down to a movie, in my darkened church, waiting, hoping for the emotions to come. Sitting there in the dark, with the people I love, knowing that they got your back, that they get you, that you have so much in common with them, even if it's just watching a little alien creature leave his friend to go home. Knowing that it may be the last time. When it comes to E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, I can't be critical. It is an integral part of who I am and why I am that way. And I am very proud to have been chosen by Ain't It Cool News to write this for their ongoing 10th Anniversary celebration. Thanks so much, Harry and Drew. E.T. is the most important film to have ever happened to me, and I will cherish it and share it with my family for years to come. "I'll be right here." Alan "Nordling" Cerny

As Nordling said, this is the last big series of articles I plan to run as part of our 10th anniversary. I’m going to publish at least one a week for the next couple of months, and as we watch this summer take shape, and as the rest of the year plays out, I hope you guys enjoy taking a look back a full quarter-century to a moment when this fiendish movie addiction that’s had me and all of my friends and co-contributors hooked for most of our lives really seemed to deliver something special each and every time we went to the theater. I believe it can happen again, too. That’s the whole reason I continue to write for AICN. I want another summer like this one, a summer that will inspire the next generation of writers and directors and fans. It’s our obligation to pass this love of film along to others, and a challenge I hope someday I can meet.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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