Looming over my city of Evanston, Illinois is Northwestern University, home of the Wildcats, alma mater of David Schwimmer, Kathryn Hahn, and real American lunatics like Rod Blagojevich and Rahm Emanuel. When I was a child, my parents signed me up for extracurricular classes here on the weekends; college professors actually taught us school kids about everything from physics to economics to politics.
It was a dream. I’d spend my Saturdays getting to walk on campus with the big kids and quench my relentless thirst for knowledge. After class, my parents would pick me up and we’d go to the food court, and I would get Pizza Hut and tell them what I’d learned.
University was a place to aspire to, learning was precious, and exciting, pizza was salty and good. These are things I knew when I was eight years old. When I went to college in New York, I learned other things, as one does. Cities are a good place to be young, and carrying four bags of groceries up and down four sets of subway stairs in two boroughs is totally normal.
I learned about drama, literature, physics, and international relations too. But mostly, I learned how to be a human being. I learned this from my classmates, some of my teachers, and the city itself. I don’t think I needed University to learn these things, but it was a blessing to have been given a cocoon in which to learn them. I learned how to have a girlfriend, and what love feels like, what heartbreak feels like, and how not to break up with someone. I learned how to rely on myself to seek medical care if I needed it, and to buy furniture, and to rent a storage unit. I learned other things too.
I’m not sure there is anything more achingly lovely than an eighteen year old tasting freedom for the first time, striking out on their own. I couldn’t see it in myself at the time, I was too busy experiencing it, but now I see it in you, my neighbors. Though I’m not sure you’re being given the freedom to be achingly lovely.
While riding my bike through the Northwestern campus on what must have been the first day of class, Fall 2021, I passed a long line of students wearing masks, outdoors, waiting to enter some building, or a residence hall. It wasn’t clear, but it was striking.
Young, healthy, presumably vaccinated, masked bodies standing in single file down a sad stretch of sidewalk at the end and the beginning of another sad year. It occurred to me as I passed them, and continued to pass them, loaded up with books, loaded up with bags, full of eager energy, that I was heartbroken for them, and furious. It occurred to me that what has been perpetrated on their generation, ten plus years removed from mine, is fucked up and outrageous.
Dear students, when the pandemic first emerged, I callously mocked the people who said that it was criminal to interrupt your developing years. I figured it was the price we all had to pay, and that you’d get over it, that you were young and therefore durable. I was wrong. I am ashamed and I am sorry. You are more precious than that. You have things to learn, ineffable things that cannot be delayed, and cannot be replaced. Some of those things are so deep, so essential, that in the process of learning them you may even find yourself confronted—on some wonderfully drunken walk home—with the question of whether we are here for a purpose, or whether we are all alone?
I watched E.T. again recently. Have you seen it? I can’t be sure since some of you don’t know Hendrix and think The Doors are 3 Doors Down. Every generations’ cultural touchstones rotate, much to the chagrin of the ones who came before. E.T. is my favorite Spielberg film, and it might be my favorite film of all. It’s achingly lovely. It concerns a young California family recovering from divorce, and especially a young man named Elliot, a middle child looking for something, maybe love. In the film he gets it in the form of a visitor from the stars, a creature that he comes to call E.T.
E.T. and Elliot form a supernatural bond, like brothers, like those kinds of brothers bonded by fate. The bond is so strong that towards the end of the film, when E.T. takes ill, too many days out of his natural atmosphere, Elliot begins dying at his side.
The film is a masterpiece in every way. Is there a filmmaker besides Spielberg who could make an animatronic, clearly synthetic alien a creature of such deep pathos and wit? For the film major, the film would be worth watching if only to learn how to stage a scene, how to light a room, and how to time a joke. But, it’s more than that.
E.T. is a deeply humanist film. It’s about an alien, but there is no moment that is not filled with that irrepressible human shortcoming, earnestness. The film carries no hint of robotic glibness or sterile snobbery, the currency of our age. It’s messy, it’s silly, it’s bursting with love. In short, it is a movie profoundly for us. You see this in the face of the actor playing Elliot’s older brother, Michael, the first time he sees the creature. Spielberg sets him up as the cool, sarcastic older brother, but the expression of wonder he wears is that of a child.
The humans in the film love each other a great deal too. The film showcases the importance and magic of the love of siblings, of mothers, and of friends. It reminds us that teenagers can still be amazed, that it’s ok to smile like an idiot. And ok to allow a film to make you smile thus. It reminds us that miracles are real, and also fragile. When E.T. loses his pulse, the doctors begin administering all manner of emergency treatment, hoping to revive him through human means. Elliot, his condition improving every second E.T. comes closer to death, their bond fraying, weeps and screams, “You’re killing him!”
And indeed, the medicines of man, the brutality of the defibrillator, cannot save the spaceman. When we think he has gone, the fragility of miracles takes an alien face. But the film is not a tragedy. It is, in the Greek or Shakespearian sense, a comedy. And I’ve always wept more at the end of Twelfth Night than Lear.
Every time I watch E.T. I spend the last twenty minutes sobbing like a child. Good, healthy, hopeful tears. Why do men cry at their weddings when the bride walks up the aisle? What is more beautiful than hope?
Elliot goes in to say his final goodbye to E.T. only to realize that he’s still alive, that his brethren have arrived in their ship to take him away, and that has revived him. Before the men in suits who like to poke and prod and measure can return to seal E.T. away for the “good of humankind” or something like that, Elliot and his brother Michael devise a plan to get E.T. home. What follows is one of the most inspiring and also, funny, chase scenes in cinema history. Every time, at the same moments, I laugh through my tears.
Michael, who has never driven a car forward, drives the van carrying E.T. and Elliot away from the hundreds of men in suits, and masks, and personal protective equipment to meet up with their buddies in a nearby park. The boys are there ready for action, with bikes for everyone and a basket for E.T. They outrun the police, and “government” cars for a few streets and towards the forest, where E.T. is to be picked up. If they succeed, E.T. will live, a free alien. If they fail, he’ll be some bureaucrats’ science experiment, and likely dead. At the penultimate moment, when it looks like hope is lost, E.T. uses his otherworldly powers and the bikes take flight, over the men with shotguns, over the streets, and over the sun. Coupled with the soaring score, it is the moment in cinema that makes me feel most like a child, full of wonder, willing to believe in the idea that goodness can prevail. It gets me every time.
What those final minutes reflected back to me this viewing, this year is a lesson more necessary, more vital to the future of each and every one of you, and to the human race than any other I can think of. The goodness of life cannot come from deference to law and bureaucrats, to protocol and mandates, to men and women, keys of authority jingling, in suits. It cannot. That is not to say that we should strive for anarchy. Hardly. The system, the experts, the worship of “fact” aren’t inherently bad. They do not inherently prevent you from living in goodness. But when we allow them to become gods, we are doomed.
Whether Steven Spielberg intended to or not, he made the greatest sequence in cinema history dedicated to the notion that the love in your heart and the truths you hold dear are worth risking the ire of the powerful; that if you’re willing to ride past the men in suits, whom you know to be full of bad intentions, you might even take flight.
As I watched the teenagers of E.T. flying past the sun, I wept for their bravery, and their fraternity, but I also wept for you, my shiny young neighbors. We, this nation, have raised you obeisant. The generation that “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out” (and the slightly younger punks) raised you with none of their same rebelliousness, nor with the faith and humility of their parents. So what did they give you instead? Obey, and you’ll be rewarded. The life of the West is sweet and full of delicious cherries for those willing to shut up, shut down, and lean in. Shut up. Shut down. Lean in.
They have now allowed you to live for nearly two years in a bizzarro universe, in which you continue to attend to your studies while sequestered at home, or worse, in a Soviet style dorm where even exercise is rationed and monitored. It made sense for a little while, the unknown is powerful and sometimes meant to be feared. And there is still much to be known about this deeply mysterious pathogen, and perhaps feared. But one way or another, many if not most of you have already been exposed, and you will continue to be exposed throughout your adult life. It is unavoidable that there will be COVID-related challenges, and that you, and I, and your younger siblings will have to face them, adults all. The question that grips me is: what kind of adults will you be?
The answer is contingent on what madness we impress upon you now, what dreams are deferred, and what you will do to prevent their deferral. As of now, the madness is deafening. You are returning to campuses under absurd new restrictions. Even with three doses of vaccine required for everyone, you are going back to remote learning.
Why? Why are you being treated this way? For whom? The panic is not for you, the injunctions are not for your benefit, and the increasing farce of it all begins to tug at the threads of legitimacy. Countries including Belgium, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and France aren’t allowing those under thirty to receive Moderna anymore, but you can’t invite that beauty from History of Science to your room for a drink.
Those same elders who have raised you obeisant, obedient, who have given every ounce of themselves to the largess of “leaning in”, they want to protect themselves. The now obedient ones want to protect themselves so as to have many more years here, following orders, sipping “hard earned” nectar of whatever variety. They want to protect themselves, and they want to obey, as obedience is safety and safety can only be attained through the new gods. And because they care about you, in some dark, backwards way, they want you to obey, to protect yourselves by protecting them, even though protection seems harder and harder to achieve.
I don’t know what would have happened to Michael and Elliot and their friends today. I don’t know what the price is for riding your bike over the sun and past tyranny to help a friend get home, that he might live. I imagine the penalty might be extremely severe. After all, that friend would have been invaluable to the gods of science that run our government and for twenty-two months now, our world. Cutting open his alien flesh would have given them years of funding, prizes, and opportunities to “improve” our species. Surely the price for his freedom would be pain.
But, when I think about what it means to me to be human, to have been given the gift of free will—and better than that love, and from that, hope—I think I’d be proud to sit in some dark cell beside Elliot, both of us smiling ironically at the secret knowledge only we might possess. The knowledge of freedom, and the far away adventures of our friend who lives there. Watch E.T. Kiss someone. Ride your bike as high as you can.