Monday, December 14, 2009

E.T. Analysis Part 5 – The Dinner Table Scene and End of Act I

(SPOILERS: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

I left off my scene-by-scene analysis of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) with the scene where Elliot first sees E.T. The next scene is Elliot going up into the woods to search for the alien where he tosses Reese’s Pieces candy about as a lure. This candy will become an important object with multiple payoffs through the rest of this sequence. At the end of the scene Elliot spots Keys looking for clues in the grass. Elliot hides from him, and then sneaks away. Instinctively he understands that Keys is potentially dangerous.

Next we have the dinner table scene. I want to spend some time on this scene because I think it’s excellent. In terms of its story purpose this is a purely expository scene. The plot doesn’t advance at all here but we learn important information and set up concepts that will be used later in the movie. Yet the scene is one of the most memorable in the early part of the movie – a rarity for a scene of exposition!

Let’s look at what the scene accomplishes:

1) It advertises Halloween. The kids talk about what costumes they’re going to wear. Halloween will be the backdrop for a major arc of action in the middle of the movie. This reference subtly points us toward upcoming events, helping grease the forward momentum of the story. Also, since the audience has been told Halloween is approaching, when the kids use their costumes to sneak E.T. out of the house it doesn’t feel too “convenient.” If there was no mention of Halloween until that scene, the timing might feel a little coincidental. I’m sure this was entirely intentional on the part of Ms. Mathison.

2) It sets up the family backstory. In this scene we learn that Mary has recently been divorced and their father has a new girlfriend. This is handled beautifully in subtext. When Elliot protests that his father would believe him about seeing an alien, Mary suggests he call his father. Elliot says he can’t because dad is in Mexico “with Sally.” Mary tries to change the subject to hide her pain, but in the end of the scene says, “he hates Mexico.” Michael gets mad at Elliot for hurting their Mom’s feelings. Without ever using the words “divorce” or “girlfriend” we completely understand the family history.

3) It establishes the danger. When Mary tells Elliot that if he sees the creature again he should call her and they’ll get someone to take it away Elliot protests that they’ll do a lobotomy or something on it. This spells out why Elliot later hides E.T. and what the danger is if they’re caught. We’re establishing the fear part of the hope-and-fear equation.

4) It introduces Gertie. She mostly just repeats what other people say, adding in a little comic relief. By showing her so unsophisticated and childish, she doesn’t threaten Elliot’s standing as our most sympathetic character.

5) The “penis breath” line. Instead of getting mad, Mary laughs. More insight into her character.

What’s the key to achieving all this exposition in an interesting scene? It seems to me the answer is conflict. It’s not new conflict – the heart of the scene is Elliot protesting again that he’s seen something amazing and nobody believing him.

But this conflict is used to motivate the expository dialogue. The Halloween discussion is first but leads nicely into this topic when Michael teases Elliot by suggesting he go as a goblin. This conflict causes the absent father to come up and gives Elliot reason to express his fear of contacting the authorities. Everything is said to justify arguments about what Elliot has seen and whether it’s real rather than characters simply saying things to inform the audience.

Think about the bad version of this scene. Mary would start crying at the table, Michael would ask what’s wrong, and Mary would say she’s learned her ex-husband went on vacation with his new girlfriend. I see that kind of on-the-nose, unmotivated dialogue in tons of bad scripts.

After this scene we have E.T. finding Elliot staked out in the back yard in the middle of the night. E.T. brings a handful of Reese’s pieces, which is their first point of connection. (Paying off that candy!) Elliot lures E.T. up into his room where they begin to communicate when E.T. mimics Elliot’s movements. Finally both get tired and fall asleep. This mirroring hints at the impending psychic connection.

This is followed by a reminder of the threat. We see Keys and his compatriots searching in the woods with lights and beeping machinery. Keys finds a stash of Reese’s pieces. The movie is really making use of that candy. This kind of planting and payoff early in the movie builds audience trust that what they're seeing is important and will come into play later.

Next we have the scene where Elliot fakes being sick to stay home from school. We get some nice planting in this scene. We see Michael back the car out of the garage and accidentally skid past the end of the driveway. Michael’s poor driving skills will be paid off in Act Three when he has to drive the van.

Once Elliot is left alone with E.T., he begins to show the alien his world. We are also introduced to things like the hiding place in the closet among the stuffed animals and how easily E.T. is scared (when the dog tries to come into the room). When Elliot goes down to get some food for E.T., he tells him “I’ll be right here,” a line that will be echoed in the finale. Notice how much is planted in these early scenes. Planting and paying off objects, ideas and dialogue helps tie the movie together.

Finally the act ends when E.T. scares himself by opening the umbrella and that causes Elliot to jump downstairs at the refrigerator where he drops the milk. We realize that the boy and the alien share a psychic connection. Their fates are now intertwined. It is the point of no return. Elliot must help E.T. or suffer the consequences. And I think it is important to note that this moment is conveyed visually, through behavior, not through some kind of expository dialogue such as, “I feel like I’m psychically connected to this little alien.”

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