Though it’s not often easy to pinpoint when it happens, sooner or later a fundamental line gets crossed in the gap from childhood to adulthood; it isn’t so much that the magic feels gone, but that our definition of “magical” changes from Santa bringing presents to knowing that we’ll have enough in the bank to get by.
Still, the childhood minefields of loneliness and self-acceptance may forever be an albatross for many of us, and the power of two of the most resonant cinematic portraits of childhood, Spielberg’s E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and Bergman’s FANNY & ALEXANDER, is that they both hit all of these nerves.
Francois Truffaut arguably made the most adult films about childhood, from THE 400 BLOWS to SMALL CHANGE, but the two movies from Bergman & Spielberg are interesting because they each present the fantastic alongside the mundane, which is precisely how children can view the world; kids easily have imaginary friends and adventures that adults can’t, or won’t, see.
This is a style both directors illustrate in other works (Spielberg in films ranging from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to JURASSIC PARK, Bergman in THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES), but it peaks here by having the eyes and ears taking in these unworldly sights and sounds be predominantly those of children; Alexander seeing the grim reaper feels every bit as plausible through his eyes as when Elliot first meets the extra-terrestrial guest in the shed.
Children only gradually began to take center stage in Bergman’s work, possibly because of the increasing number of children he fathered, but Spielberg’s films, from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS onward, concerned either the welfare of kids, or depicted a child-like hopefulness to life’s gray skies.
E.T. and FANNY & ALEXANDER, which both coincidentally opened in 1982, offer unique viewpoints from two sensitive directors, with very different sensibilities, taking a look at life through the guileless gaze of children.
Fittingly, the two movies draw on memories from the filmmakers’ upbringings – Bergman recalled in his autobiography how he would hide under tables and dream as Alexander does (and dreaming is something no creative person can outgrow), and Spielberg (as noted in Joseph McBride’s biography of the auteur) used Elliot’s method of warming a thermometer on a light bulb to allow him to play hooky more than once as a boy.
When he began filming FANNY & ALEXANDER, Bergman announced that it would be his final film (though he stayed active in the theatre and in television, and he didn’t quit writing), and it seemed he wanted to leave nothing out, giving himself an expansive 312 minute, four part miniseries canvas to paint on; as he had done with SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, Ingmar Bergman would later edit the miniseries into a feature length movie for foreign markets, but he always seemed more comfortable with the longer version, as the feature version (as splendid as it is) pares down some of the fantastical aspects.
In his screenplay of CRIES & WHISPERS, Bergman wrote that he felt the color of the interior of the soul was red, and that’s why that picture became drenched in scarlet hues – that’s the real landscape of that film.
Red shows up again in F&A, especially in the colors of the bedroom the titular duo share later. Is Bergman making a point on the soul of the whole family unit, and how it’s displaced by all the upheavals, but most especially how painful it is to the children?
While making his adolescent 8mm sci-fi opus FIRELIGHT (a rough draft for what later became CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), young Steven Spielberg boldly told his collaborative classmates that one day he wanted to be, “The Cecil B. DeMille of science fiction.” The scope and the success of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS more than allowed Spielberg to achieve that boyhood dream, and it is interesting that for E.T., his next work sci-fi, he turned to a far more intimate fantasy than he’d done in the previous work.
Tellingly, Spielberg delivers another portrait of another fractured family like the Nearys in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS; Elliot and his family have been so devastated by the abandonment of the husband/father in the house that they have become aliens of a very different variety to each another.
At the end of their dual masterpieces, Bergman and Spielberg have their youthful protagonists learn some harsh lessons – when E.T. leaves, Elliot learns that magic exists, and it’s heartbreaking; when the ghost of the vile stepfather slaps Alexander on the back of the head, hinting he’ll always be lurking, Alexander learns that magic exists, and it’s frightening. Though we may not live in a world of such literal magic realism, the fears and heartburns that we encounter in our youths can become a no man’s land we may spend much of our adulthoods attempting to navigate our way out of.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper