Spielberg: Amblin’

It is not generally the habit of this journal to discuss movies that no one can see, but as Amblin’ is Spielberg’s first professionally produced movie and the first flowering of his particular genius, I figured it merits some discussion here. There is no image to accompany this entry because that’s just how hard it is to see this movie — there aren’t even stills from it available on the internet.

So, for those interested, here is a description of the plot. Spoiler alert, obviously:

The protagonist of Amblin’ is a young man with a bedroll and a guitar case hitch-hiking his way through the desert to the coast. He meets up with a girl, another hitch-hiker, and they form a halting, tentative friendship. She teases him, they have an olive-pit-spitting contest, they get run off the road by an aggressive motorist and seek shelter in a storm drain.  (It’s hard to watch these scenes and not imagine the truck from Duel barreling around the corner to cream these two waifs.)  The girl offers the boy some pot and steals a kiss, and they chase each other around in the desert. They hitch a ride with some Hippies-with-a-capital-H (in a psychedelic VW van, no less), and they try to get him to take out his guitar. He refuses and the two of them get left by the side of the road (lousy hippies). They try to hitch a ride, and while plenty of motorists are happy to pick up the winsome, befreckled redhead girl, they take off like rabbits when they see there’s a guy with her.

Night falls and they make a fire. And now I feel I owe Spielberg an apology: I noted a few days ago that it wasn’t until 1993 that he was able to put a credible love scene on screen, without jokes,slapstick or juvenile attitude, but here he is, in his very first movie, doing just that. The fire is lit (so to speak), the girl takes off her shirt, the boy looks scared but desirous, he hesitantly takes off his own shirt, they kiss tenderly and zip their sleeping bags together. Even though the scene is about two adolescents having sex, the scene isn’t adolescent in its approach. Compare the above to the “love scenes” in Raiders, Temple of Doom or Always — or better yet, simply note how Spielberg tends to avoid love scenes altogether, making movies for an audience of 14-year-old boys, without anything “mushy” in them, movies for adolescents made from an eternally adolescent point of view.

(Urbaniak was shocked the other night to learn that the novel Jaws had an extensive, graphic, explicit subplot about Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife. It’s hard to imagine the movie with it, but it bothered a number of people when it first was released. So much so, I remember at least one critic inserting the subplot into the movie in his own mind, even though there isn’t a scintilla of evidence of it in the film. Try, try to imagine Jaws with Richard Dreyfuss boinking Lorraine Gary half-way through Act II. Yeesh.)

(Oh wait, it just occurred to me that there’s a love scene — a lesbian love scene, no less — in The Color Purple. And now that I think of it, it bears a strong resemblance to its counterpart in Amblin’.)

(One more parenthetical.  The campfire-leading-to-lovemaking beat returns, of course, in Jaws, and the two scenes even share a couple of the same shots.)

Anyway, morning comes and the boy and the girl get passed by many more cars, and then finally get a ride to the coast. They reach the beach and their journey is over. It’s the old road-movie dilemma: two souls are joined together by their common pursuit, and when the goal is achieved they face a dilemma — do they now stay together or go their separate ways?

That’s the girl’s question anyway. The boy seems too intoxicated with having reached his goal. He runs into the surf as the girl waits on the beach, wondering what to do next. After some hesitation, she opens his battered guitar case, only to find, surprise, no guitar. Instead, the boy has brought with him to the coast a nice shirt, a tie, a copy of an Arthur C. Clarke novel, a bottle of mouthwash and a roll of toilet paper. In other words, this boy is no hippie at all — he’s a geek, and a square. As the boy romps in the waves, the girl sighs and walks away.

Of course, it’s hard not to identify the protagonist as a Spielberg stand-in. Here it is, 1968, the height of the hippie era, and Spielberg, famously, was sneaking onto the Universal lot, in a suit and tie, in order to pose as a young executive. With an Arthur C. Clarke paperback in his pocket too, I’d bet. The boy, frightened of love, apprehensive about sex, but joyous in the face of sheer sensation, romps in the beach on his way to becoming Steven Spielberg, while the girl moves on to wherever her road takes her.

There is no dialogue in Amblin’, instead there is a kind of over-produced 60s folk-rock soundtrack. No matter — Spielberg would meet John Williams soon enough and wouldn’t need another composer again.

It is, of course, primarily a director’s reel — Spielberg showing potential employers his understanding of film language — jump cuts, dissolves, freeze frames, tracking shots, dollies, zooms, simple optical effects. Images are layered with attention to dramatic flow, so forth. There’s Truffaut all over the place — it feels very much like an extended “date” sequence from Jules et Jim. The best scenes are the ones observing simple behavior — when Spielberg tries to make a “point” he sometimes falls back on a kind of glib jokiness that would never really leave him.

It feels very 70s — and since it was made in 1968, I guess that means it was actually ahead of its time.

The DVD I had access to is a painfully degraded dupe of a dupe of an I-don’t-know-what. The transfer is so bad I can’t even tell you if the movie is in color or not.

Personally, I don’t know why Spielberg doesn’t restore this and his other pre-Sugarland movies and put them all out in a DVD box. Certainly there’s an audience for the material. What is he thinking, that if people see these youthful expressions they won’t hire him to make movies any more?



5 Responses to “Spielberg: Amblin’”
  1. curt_holman says:

    “Urbaniak was shocked the other night to learn that the novel Jaws had an extensive, graphic, explicit subplot about Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife.”

    This may be apocryphal, but I heard (I think from one of my teachers in high school) that after Peter Benchley submitted the original manuscript for Jaws, his editor asked/told him to put more sex in it, hence the gratuitous, weirdly-integrated affair subplot. I’m not sure what it adds to the plot thematically — Mrs. Brody rejects her husband for his inability to kill the shark, and pursues someone who seems more likely to do so? (Then wouldn’t Quint be a more logical lover?) I wonder if he has the same fear of water as in the movie…

    • Todd says:

      Well, since Brody’s quest for manhood forms a good deal of the story’s narrative tension, I can see how Hooper doing his wife would have thematic resonance — but I can’t imagine it in the movie.

  2. rjwhite says:

    A friend of mine once told me that he likes to imagine John Williams being kept in a suspended animation facility somewhere, extracted every couple of years. The pod hisses, the door opens, there’s a great deal of steam, then Mr. Williams wearily says, “Is it Steven or George?”

  3. thebitterguy says:

    I’d never heard of this, but it does make the name of his production company make sense.

  4. Liking what I see

    Screenwriting 101: The Protagonist

    Was the first this i read when I came here a few days ago and like what read. Now you have another loyal reader joining the ranks. Keep up the good work and I will be here on the daily.

    By the way I’m a screenwriter as well—writing a live action and animated project. Both projects are high concept. Any suggestions on writing animation, Mr. Alcott?

    Thanks for the feed back in advance!!!

    Andre W.