E.T. is rated PG and Steven Spielberg reportedly had to reloop some dialogue in post-production and add two uses of the word “shit” to prevent the dreaded G-rating. A G would have scared away the too-cool allowance-hoarders who made E.T. the all-time box office champion for 12 years.
My tape of E.T. has Jiffy commercials and the kitschy neon logo for the CBS Sunday night movie interspersed, but is otherwise the original theatrical version, with both shits intact. It also has that classic scene with the young boy, Elliot, and his older brother. His older brother is teasing him about his discovery of something in the shed: “Maybe it was an elf or a leprechaun, Elliot?”
“No, it wasn’t anything like that, penis-breath!”
This line, which perfectly captures the rhythm of children’s speech, will be excised from the theatrical print for next spring’s re-release. Also missing from the re-release will be the line about a Halloween trick-or-treater looking “like a terrorist.” And in the iconic scene when Elliot, E.T., et al. are fleeing on bicycles, the authorities’ rifles and guns will be digitally replaced by walkie-talkies (why not make a few bucks and have them sipping Fresca?). Although the unexpurgated E.T. was suitable for TV in 1987, it is not suitable for theaters now, even with the suggestion of parental guidance.
There is this idea among people who make great movies that these masterpieces can somehow be improved. Like all movies, these great ones were made under undue amounts of stress, there were heartbreaking compromises between director and studio, the script was tragically trimmed to get the running time within the realm of marketability. (When Titanic opened in December of 1997, the running time was listed as 2:78 instead of 3:18. People, apparently, were fooled.) Filmmakers ruefully remember the havoc of making the great movie, how if only they had a little more time or a little more money, they could have got it just right.
In the late 1980s, there was a proliferation of videos with the label “director’s cut” embossed across the front, like a “confidential” stamp. Mostly, however, these were just unrated versions; they included a few extra coital thrusts or lingered too long on a gunshot wound.
In the 1990s, when the VHS format was challenged, first by laserdiscs and then by DVDs, many directors took it as an opportunity to expand the scope of their revision. We are still living in this period of reflexive directors’ remorse today.
It is through the wonders of CGI that Elliot’s mouth will be made to look like it’s not pronouncing the classic put-down “penis-breath.” Instead, the pixels will be maneuvered to show the young actor, Henry Thomas, mouthing some substitute juvenile barb that Spielberg, who is now a parent, thinks will stem another tide of potty-mouthin’ E.T. acolytes.
What makes film such a powerful medium is that it combines the randomness of a performance (the camera performs, the actors perform, the production designer performs) with the indelibility of the final print. The problem with computer technology, besides allowing these tin-britched anal retentives to bleach E.T. of any distressing theme, is that it diminishes the performative aspect of movies. In Sean Penn’s recent movie The Pledge, Robin Wright Penn was digitally given a gap tooth in post-production. Every move, every twitch, is perfectly calculated. No longer do actors interact with the special effects—they are the special effects.
With computer technology that allows filmmakers to do virtually anything with the picture, there is no longer any intercessory divide between imagination and possibility. George Lucas made Star Wars: Episode I with two hundred more special effects shots than any movie in history. The result is a strange, unliving world that more resembles a Dutch landscape painting than a real galaxy far, far away.
The charm of the first Star Wars movies was the murkiness of these new worlds and the inability of the camera to do justice to them—there was so much that seemed just outside the frame. These movies were not spectacular, but palpable. The cantina scene in the original Star Wars is beloved not for its marvelous vistas, but for its seediness and its character and its suggestion of colliding worlds and species. The bicycles-across-the-moon scene in E.T. has a magical simplicity. Now filmmakers have the power to cram anything they want into the frame. Imagine how Spielberg could have ruined that scene with today’s special effects (basketcam could have given you E.T.’s perspective, midflight).
E.T., like all great movies, works on its own terms, as art, but it’s also a historical document reflecting the times in which it was made. Rejigging these movies to be inoffensive to a new legion of fans ruins them: It desecrates the art and eliminates the history. Why not take all that racism out of Mark Twain? Huckleberry Finn: Special Edition.
This spring, when I see E.T. in theaters for the first time in my life, I will be reminded of the “penis-breath” line, no matter what Elliot decides to call his older brother this time around. And I will return to my dorm room in this, my last year of college, recall the CBS broadcast fondly and reach for the Jiffy.
Couper Samuelson ’02 is a history and literature and French studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.