All children are ungrateful at one time.
Perhaps it was my tenth or maybe my eleventh birthday. On this birthday I had to deal with two disappointments. Firstly the man who gave me the present decided to go for the gag of wrapping something that was very small so it looked big. You unwrapped a box, and then another smaller box, and then a big envelope, and then a dozen other layers of papers until you arrived at a tiny handwritten piece of paper that said: “Bike Voucher.” A voucher for a bike? That’s got to be pretty awesome right? Well here was my second disappointment. What I got was a second hand, hand me down that looked like this:
What I wanted looked like this:
I never had a BMX. It’s hard to put into words how much I wanted one when I was ten. I had a book about them, a proper book with hundreds of pages that listed all the different types of bike, and all the accessories you could put on them. The best section of the book though was on BMX bike tracks, and all the different kinds of jumps and features these tracks could have. I spent hours making up tracks in my head or on pieces of paper. Of course I wasn’t alone, there was even a movie (BMX Bandits), and all of a sudden councils around NZ found themselves under pressure to build things called BMX tracks. I suppose that most of these old tracks have been converted into skate parks. One of the reasons councils in New Zealand came under pressure to dig up their sports grounds, and the reason I so desperately wanted a BMX, was an American movie about an alien stranded on Earth.
Seeing E.T. again for the first time since I was 9 or 10 I was surprised to find how good it is. Twenty-five years of Spielberg’s other movies made me think it mightn’t be. Spielberg often proves he can tell a good story, but the Spielberg style is so uninteresting and smooth now that it’s really quite a jolt to see him trying in E.T. Most of the way through E.T. there is this slightly detached, uneasy view of suburbia, this feeling that all the internal spaces are dark, pressed in and filled with junk, and that there is a whole world of adults out there who are faceless, and relentless and cold. Spielberg always got how cool American toys and junk was, but he also got that if you change the camera angle a little all that junk seems eerie and cold and can make you feel lonely.
But that’s what I notice now: what did E.T. mean to me in 1982? It was a good story, and I can remember being gripped by it, but for a ten year old boy in New Zealand watching E.T. was like being pressed against the glass of a toy store window wanting to get in.
Let’s just think about all the delectable, exotic treats paraded before the eyes of New Zealand children in the first thirty minutes of the movie:
- Pizza. NZ definitely did not have home delivered pizza in 1982, and I feel pretty confident in saying that it either didn’t have pizza, or had only just got it. When pizza did arrive in New Zealand it was like a specialty product that only Pizza Hut could make, and you had to go to their purpose built stores with the funny roofs (and collect their Return of the Jedi tie-in plastic Coke cups). Of course the kids in E.T. also had milk in cartons, cans of Coke in the fridge, and M&Ms (that apparently weren’t M&Ms, but everyone thought they were). In short, American kids had a whole load of exotic, crappy food to eat that wasn’t in New Zealand.
- Dungeons and Dragons. Role-playing games were going to become a very important part of my free time, but I feel like when I saw E.T. I had only very vaguely heard about them. I am probably going to talk about this a great deal elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here.
- Eliot’s toys. When Eliot is showing E.T. his Stars Wars action figures he shows characters mainly from the bar scene in Star Wars. I get that this is funny because he is showing an alien other aliens, but at the time I saw this movie I wasn’t laughing at the joke I was ardently desiring the toys. I ended up with a small pile of them, but I always wanted more. Of course there is also the talking toy and the wardrobe full of soft toys. It goes without saying that the talking toy seemed incredible, like some dazzling insight into the future, but even the soft toys looked different, they had that glossy, synthetic plushness that was so unlike the worn, woollen teddy bear you grew up with.
- Video games. Eliot’s older brother Michael is wearing a Space Invaders T-shirt, and in passing he mentions getting a high score on some game. Again, a topic for a whole other post, but we are in a time when Space Invaders and Pac Man were insanely popular and cool. What kid didn’t want to play these games?
And, of course:
- BMX bikes.
If you look at the list above we are not talking about the USA really inventing anything, we are talking about them making everything that already existed cooler. Milk in bottles? Pah! Let’s put it in a carton. Bicycles with bells and plain brown leather seats? The BMX! Board games, musty teddy bears and little toy soldiers? How about video games, and soft toys and action figures with little laser guns?
Watching E.T again I feel like we are watching the mostly British water withdraw from the beaches of New Zealand before the tidal wave of American pop culture comes crashing down on rows of enthusiastic children crowding the shores. The British movies of 1982 were Gandhi and Chariots of Fire, both movies that I saw that year and really liked. One is sort of about the end of the British Empire, and the other is nostalgic and elegiac. American movies from this era seem to completely lack these elements of looking back. If they look to the past they look to that part that is a boys own adventure, the past when the British Empire was brash, expansive and stomped assertively on the little (brown) guy. The British got She and King Solomon’s Mines one hundred years earlier as an expression of their unreflective, brash imperialism, and the Americans now had Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone, and Top Gun as an expression of theirs.
Which kid would want the old bike with the parcel carrier and little wavy flag on the back, when they had seen the BMX through the shop glass window? Out with the built to last classics, and in with the glossy newness of America.