Michael, Elliott’s Older Brother

My older boys watched Steven Spielberg’s E.T. with me. It was an experiment of mine to see how they might appreciate the movie completely out of cultural context, meaning, when I was nine years old, the bicycle silhouetted against the moon was iconic; we lived and breathed E.T. for years, knew all the tropes, memorized most of the dialogue, collected the E.T. stuffed toys, played the terrible Atari video game, and so forth. As far as my investigations could gather, Tom and Jack hadn’t even heard of E.T. They were tabulae rasae.

Therefore, I was surprised by my own reactions. First of all, as a critic, I was surprised by how many stories are being told, and, moreover, how the main story was told so subtly. For a kids’ movie, Spielberg took an enormous risk with symbolism and framing cues (if you know what I mean). In other words, there was no cabbie explaining the plot to the lowest common denominator in the audience, practically ruining the mystery and imagination. Do we have kids’ movies told so subtly nowadays? My impression is no, but I’d love to see something to contrast the thick stream of broadly told kiddie adventure movies loosely tied to minor character attributes such as loyalty, honor, friendship, or whatever tertiary trait we might want to see develop in ourselves or our children.

Secondly, as a real grown-up with kids of my own, I was struck by the spectacular emotional arc. The man-cave got awfully dusty. The movie is about separation, most importantly, about severance of the home and family. “Dad” is a major character in the movie because he’s not there; he ran away to Mexico with Sally, and this fact drives so much of the movie’s symbolism, character development, theme, etc. Elliot mercilessly pushes this point home near the beginning of the film, driving it deep into Mom’s broken heart.

Are we even allowed to tell stories like this anymore? Divorce was practically a brand-new feature of the American middle class, and it was at that time viewed as entirely and selfishly self-centered, especially with children involved, and we hadn’t yet rationalized away the immense pain created, which yields to rage. I have these memories (perhaps I’ve shared elsewhere) of riding skateboard in brand new residential subdivisions, such as were featured in the movie, talking with my friends about our parents’ divorces. The emotional wreckage was a seed planted to blossom later. How does divorce rank lately? Because we are enraptured by solipsisnormativity, crimes against home and family have been marginalized, so I don’t know that E.T. could have been told today.

Michael, Elliott’s older brother, owns the movie. Naturally he is overshadowed by the puppet and the marvelous performance of Henry Thomas as Elliott, but the story hinges on his own yearning for a father figure, someone who might teach him how to be a man. Spielberg cues us to think to this effect now and again, mostly in the numerous scenes of his mustering up manhood in defense of his mother, but later, more subtly, in the care and protection of E.T., the newest, most vulnerable member of the family, perhaps a father figure himself, though cast in weakness. At the end, Michael, a new man, has gathered to himself a vindication that he has reunited the family around his own courage.

E.T. says to him, “Thank you.”

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Rehabilitating Neville Chamberlain

After Neville Chamberlain died of bowel cancer in November of 1940, Winston Churchill mourned him privately, “Whatever shall I do without poor Neville? I was relying on him to look after the Home Front for me.”

I think it is oft-assumed that Churchill and Chamberlain were vituperative in their antipathy toward each other. Indeed, nothing can be further from the truth. They saw the Nazi threat differently and understood history differently to the extent that one or the other of them would eventually prevail, but neither of them saw the other as a political foe, not in the sense that one should have power and the other should not. It was the magnanimity of Chamberlain that gave us Churchill to lead the Allies against Hitler; Chamberlain, when he went to King George VI to tender his resignation, stepped over the more senior politician, the more popular and more obvious candidate for Prime Minister, Lord Halifax (who was not pressing his claim to the ministry), suggesting Winston Churchill instead.

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We also have the picture and the quote: “Peace in our time,” a signed document, assurances from Hitler that England and Germany would never wage war against each other. On the night of the British declaration of war against Germany, of course, Hitler sent a well-planned and well-rehearsed air raid against London. We, the beneficiaries of almost 80 years of hindsight, shake our heads with the epithet on our lips, “You idiot, how could you have ever trusted Hitler?”

The photograph, however, was taken with too narrow a field of focus to capture the enormous British zeitgeist. Chamberlain was received by England from the Munich meeting with near-universal acclaim. Note: this was after Hitler had taken the Rhineland, had absorbed Austria, had taken the Sudetenland, and had massed on the Polish border. The people cheered in the streets, a veritable sea of people, so that a nine mile journey took Chamberlain an hour and a half. The press lauded him as a hero. King George VI even wrote him a letter congratulating him on the preservation of the Empire.

A few individuals dared act contrarily, most notably Duff Cooper, who resigned as First Lord of the Admiralty, and, of course, Churchill.

Whence this national fantasy? How does history judge so harshly and so easily while those who were present almost unanimously praised him? Even the most friendly historical treatments of Chamberlain note that his reckoning of Hitler was utterly fatuous. All those cheers for so fatuous a gesture.

Any rehabilitation attempt must not seek to defend Chamberlain in an empty context, that of a leader with a set of beliefs, principles, and assumptions about the world with all the evidence laid out before him as so many archaeological artifacts. Instead, his own people, those who approved so tumultuously of his beliefs, principles, and assumptions, must be acknowledged as the sea driving him inevitably into the shoal water of history.

Who knows the ship of state is driven so by the imaginations of her own people?