John Baumgartner


E.T. (1982, Spielberg)

I just came across this movie on HBO the other day and was reminded of this great moment, which is more about a shot that’s NOT there and how that effects the story telling.  (Also, the late French auteur Robert Bresson, film maker and theorist, has as much to do with today’s post as Steven.) I’d be really interested in hearing how this moment came about, whether it was the result of a production logistic or was always planned.

Robert Bresson and Spielberg Conspire

Just before this sequence, Elliot’s brother Michael, played by Robert MacNaughton, is on the run from the government people.  He manages to shake them and make it to the woods where Elliot (Henry Thomas) had last seen E.T. cobbling together his satellite “phone.”

In this clip, Michael discovers E.T. laying chalky-white in the river bed with a poor raccoon that, by the look of its deer-in-headlight performance, is just as shocked to be in a movie as he is to possibly be seeing (or eating) an extra-terrestrial.  No matter!  Michael shoos the animal and tries to cover his friend with the sheet, just as the stakes ratchet up when it’s clear the pursuers have caught up.

And here’s the surprising moment for me, which, in my mind, echos the words of Robert Bresson: ” When a sound can replace an image, cut the image. ”  

Have a look and listen (and please note the raccoon in the freeze frame below!)


Seeing this movie a couple years ago, after having not seen it in many, I actually remembered a shot of a helicopter. But as you can see, in this (and the other version), there is only the sound effect of a chopper and no visual of it.  It was such a surprise to me.  The effect of the chopper sound was so full that my brain had created its own visual memory!

Bresson had many theories in his Notes On Cinematography (“cinematography” being his generic term for cinema), and a lot of them were about sound. Here’s just a few:

      1. What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear.
      2. If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. One cannot be the same time all eye and all ear.
      3. When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer.

Case in point with today’s clip. My brain was given a sound, and it was so wrapped up in the emotion of the moment, that it totally ran with that audio. Note to self: next time you need a helicopter for your movie – maybe you can save a big rental and gas fee if you just listen to Monsieur Bresson.


  • November 9, 2011
    Jeremy Cole

    This is a really cool post. I’m fascinated by these sorts of brain/film interactions and how we can milk them for lessons about what not to show. Sometimes a simple L cut (pre lap) can change the context of a shot enough to make your brain conflate images or even invent them. I occasionally catch myself asking editors to go back to that shot of the whatever, but it turns out the shot doesn’t exist! I always walk a little taller after that 😉

  • November 25, 2011
  • March 26, 2018

    I hate ET I wanna slap that slug looking ugly bastard


Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *