Originally published July 6, 2015.
It’s worth nothing that there isn’t much to the act of kissing. It’s a simple exchange, low in measure of effort and utility, and typically just a subtle lean forward and a precise and synchronized placement of the lips. When you remove learned cultural symbolism, it feels almost arbitrary, as random as pressing belly buttons or foreheads together. There’s anthropological speculation that the behavior is a leftover ritual, an echo of the act of mouth-to-mouth feeding from our more primitive evolutionary phases, but even that educated estimation leaves us wondering. Whenever the first kiss occurred, it pre-dates our documented histories and shared mythologies.
Even in its modern English pronunciation, the sound is as basic as the act. Kiss. To read it aloud requires one only to lightly swell the back of the tongue to push forth the phonetic, k-sound. Ironically enough, one’s lips need not even move to say the word. And yet, it is a marker of milestones, and a permanent stamp on the mind. The first kiss gets stored in the most visited and revisited parts of our memories, and it is a facet of our most sacred of familial and amorous institutions, all of which are punctuated with a kiss.
In film, if a kiss occurs, something just happened; the plot just took a turn, two characters were just allowed love, a goodbye was finalized, a secret was revealed, an act of deception was set into motion, the kiss always symbolic of something important and immediately recognizable. Except in the case of my personal favorite movie kiss of all time, one which seems to contribute nothing to the greater story, even though it appears as though everything is happening at once.
When I first watched E.T. (and I couldn’t have been much older than four or five), I felt as though the recipient of Elliot’s first kiss was a marked target. Even if it feels as though the permitting conditions were beyond his control (we’ll speak more to that in a moment), and the physical proximity that allows the kiss is a happenstance of a chain of events that can only be described as chaotic, something between fate and righteous determination dictates that this is the classmate that Elliot will kiss.
Of course, this conclusion can only be reached through assumption, since Steven Spielberg went against even the most basic film traditions, and denied any temptation to shoehorn in an extensive sub-plot of adolescent romance (because of the epic totality of his final products, we sometimes fail to give Spielberg credit for his artistic reserve, just because the compliment feels out of place when pinned to such grand films). This short scene consists of the entirety of these characters’ onscreen relationship. In the purity of the narrative (that is, the central growth and learning of a lonely, ten-year-old boy, through an unexpected friend), it’s safe to say there is no sexual association to or in the film’s famous kiss.
But there is certainly a gendered aspect to the exchange in regards to the greater film that is nearly unavoidable. There’s a popular academic reading of E.T. as the story of a young male finding his surrogate father, and it’s difficult to refute. For starters, Elliot’s real father is never mentioned, and E.T. is a walking phallus, complete with unbecoming, shriveled skin and the ability to “extend in length.” Further, the arrangement of the concurrent scenes (E.T.’s high speed and drunken education-through-discovery, and Elliot’s frantic disruption of his class) suggests that Elliot’s kissing of his classmate is an emulation through telepathic proxy. As E.T. witnesses it curiously at Elliot’s house, Elliot is mirroring an already famous movie kiss, creating one of those gleeful knots in which a great movie recognizes the existing canon of other exceptional films, and culture builds upon culture through a recognition of a pre-existing culture.
The kiss that informs Elliot’s bold action comes from the John Ford classic The Quiet Man. In that film, Sean Thornton is played by John Wayne, the most prominent masculine archetype of the 20th Century. The recipient of Sean’s affection is Mary Kate Danahar, played by Maureen O’Hara. Of the latter performance, Martin Scorsese once explained, “The power of the woman in the motion picture is very strong and the nature of her resistance results in one of the greatest moments of all cinema.” A very basic meditation on The Quiet Man reveals that there may not be a more clearly singular and instantaneous personification of 20th Century gender dynamics in film, and one has to assume that the scene was deliberately applied by Spielberg. E.T. is coming to understand contemporary gender dynamics, and Elliot is participating in an empty performance of those same terms. Even the presentation of the choreography of motion is framed within a more clunky rendition of gendered performance in Spielberg’s version of the kiss than it originally appears through Ford’s trademark (and masterful) framing. The aesthetic itself is evidently more immature and uncertain in mimicry than its influence is in originality.
It makes sense then that all of this unfolds in a scene decorated with chirping, lively frogs, the most commonly thought of example of an animal with a metamorphic stage, which here might symbolically emphasize Elliot’s transformative reality. The height difference between Elliot and his kissing partner provides more than just the comedic effect of his having to stand on the back of another male classmate; it articulates his current developing position. But to reduce Elliot’s symbolically implied metamorphosis to an expression of his pubescent condition is to undervalue the truest greatness of E.T., which is the most cinematically magical film from one of the most cinematically magical film eras.
But if this dry psychological reading is supportable, it is also reductive. Elliot learns more than just the behavioral expectations of his gender. In fact, on the list of measurable discoveries, this is nowhere near his most important. The driving force behind all the wonderment and action in E.T. is Elliot’s realization of the sacred miracle of all life, the understanding that concern for life can and should extend beyond the boundaries of species. And he realizes it first and most clearly here, which leads to his panicked need to free these frogs from eminent death. Later, when the same urgency for life leads him to go to incredible lengths to save his new friend, it is just a more personally realized and desperate form of the same connection that he develops for these small, trapped amphibians. The entire scene is an emphatic and concentrated intermission that echoes the themes of the larger symphony of the entire feature production.
In a film built upon iconic screen imagery, the kissing climax of this scene achieves the same sort of iconographic resonance; the seemingly simple kiss is built of the same magic as all of the other now legendary scenes. Elliot’s first kiss is his excited adoption of a universally benevolent philosophy of love, one most closely related to (but not quite as limiting as) familial love, untainted by the complications of lust, and more certain and pure than more amorous passions. Elliot doesn’t just love the frogs or the girl; he loves the energy of life itself, and he realizes that passion and compassion don’t have to be dissimilar, or even separate.
Those who never sought to learn more about the movie after watching might not realize that the faceless principal who escorts Elliot from the chaos authored by his act of rebellion is played by Harrison Ford. Any child of the 1980s who reached their formative, teen years in the early 1990s might not have learned that the nameless blond girl was Erika Eleniak, who grew up to become a successful actress, a Baywatch star, and the Playboy Playmate of the Month in July of 1989. In fact, Elliot’s dramatic screen kiss is so enchanting in its elegance that it removes the need for all external context in the film, and yet the film itself is so prominent in its promise toward imaginative possibility that, to those of us who watched it as children, it still feels like the moment exists in some string of reality, as though somewhere Elliot still remembers her name (which was never ours to know), and she still remembers his.