Spielberg: Twilight Zone: The Movie: “Kick the Can”

First, I’d like to thank Mr. Spielberg for giving the opportunity to create a journal entry that contains three colons in thesubject heading.

Steven Spielberg’s artistic development, in his first decade on movie screens, started softly with The Sugarland Express, exploded in the megaton blast of Jaws, soared to incredible heights with Close Encounters, stumbled momentarily with 1941, then finished up with an incredible one-two-three punch of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist and E.T. That decade alone would have been enough career for just about anyone, but us Spielberg watchers knew that the best was yet to come. I remember seeing E.T. for the third or fourth time and thinking “Oh my God, when this guy is 50 years old he’s going to be awesome.” And I’m pleased to report that this came to pass.

Spielberg’s first decade of phenomenal artistic development climaxed with a stunning culmination of style and intent — the “Spielberg style” came to define commercial American moviemaking in the next decade and beyond. In his second decade, Spielberg stretched boundaries, investigated new areas of development, took some daring chances and made great strides as a storyteller.

But first he directed “Kick the Can,” his contribution to the omnibus Twilight Zone: The Movie.

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? The problem with “Kick the Can,” unsurprisingly, begins here. Who is the protagonist of this short? The plot is: Kindly old Mr. Bloom comes to an old folks home and Teaches Folks A Lesson. The protagonists of a story like this would most effectively be the ensemble of elderly folks who are confronted with Mr. Bloom. What to make of the mysterious outsider who sees things differently from the status quo, who uses magic and wry irony to show us the error of our ways?

But none of the ensemble of “Kick the Can” is developed in any kind of interesting way. Each character is a stereotype for quick reading — the kvetching Jew, the faded romantic, the bitter loner, et cetera. They are thoroughly uninteresting, and Spielberg shoots them with unflattering lenses and lighting, turning them into cartoon characters. The only character Spielberg seems to be interested in is Mr. Bloom, who arrives with a twinkle in his eye and mischief up his sleeve. We are on the outside of the ensemble, on the side of the magician, looking down at the status quo, giggling with giddy joy at the mischievous lesson we’re about to teach the poor benighted folks who don’t know any better.

And so Bloom becomes the protagonist of “Kick the Can.” This is like making Peter Pan the protagonist of Peter Pan (which Spielberg would, of course, eventually figure out a way to do). More to the point, it’s like making E.T. the protagonist of E.T.

Why is this a bad thing? Dramatically, it instantly evaporates a great deal of dramatic tension. We know Mr. Bloom is magic and we can see that the ensemble is a bunch of easily-manipulated sheep, so as an audience all we can do is sit and wait for the magic to happen. Mr. Bloom comes to the old folks home, creates a desire in the minds of the ensemble, then caters to that desire, then points out with leaden earnestness the futility of the desire. Essentially, he comes to the old folks home, says “You know what you people need? You need to be tricked.” And the ensemble says “Say, you know? We do need to be tricked. Trick us.” And so Mr. Bloom tricks them and says “Now look at how foolish you look, falling for my trick. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” The intent is to instill a warm glow of magic, but the result is curdled and smug, demonstrating not the power of magic but the power of manipulation.

And so it occurs to me that, just as E.T. symbolizes Spielberg’s artistic talent, Bloom is a stand-in for Spielberg himself. Looked at this way, “Kick the Can” makes perfect sense — Spielberg sees himself as a magic wanderer, a trickster who arrives on a scene where everyone’s sitting around staring at each other and masterfully manipulates the crowd into a state of wonder and awe, makes them realize some profound truth or other, then moves on to the next unsuspecting bunch of rubes. It’s a movie very pleased with itself, which I suppose makes it a good adaptation of Rod Serling, who similarly had a dim view of society (and his audience) as children in need of a lesson.



17 Responses to “Spielberg: Twilight Zone: The Movie: “Kick the Can””
  1. planettom says:

    E.T. as protagonist: I always wondered about that sequel novel that William Kotzwinkle wrote, E.T.: THE BOOK OF THE GREEN PLANET.

    I imagine E.T. retired to his homeworld mansion, sullenly dreaming of Earth and Elliot, and snorting mountains of Reese’s Pieces on his dining room table ala Scarface.


    • Todd says:

      E.T. would have been so much more awesome if Elliott, when his mom discovered an alien in the bathroom, had said “Say hello to my little friend.”

      “On Earth, first you get the Reese’s Pieces, then you get the little boy, then you get the scientists.”

      • urbaniak says:

        E.T. would have been so much more awesome if Elliott, when his mom discovered an alien in the bathroom, had said “Say hello to my little friend.”

        And if E.T. then made a play for Elliot’s mom behind his back.

        • Todd says:

          And sat in the tub watching a show about flamingos, muttering “Go, Pelican!” And then got drunk at a fancy restaurant and shouted to everyone ‘SAY GOOD NIGHT TO THE BAD GUY!”

          • urbaniak says:

            Fuck Gaspar Gomez! And fuck the fuckin’ Diaz brothers! Fuck ’em all! I bury those cockroaches!

          • urbaniak says:

            That piece of shit up there I never liked, I never trusted. For all I know he’s the guy who set me up and got my buddy Angel Fernandez killed. But that’s history. I’m here, he’s not. You wanna go with me, say it. You don’t, make your move, hodedor!

  2. curt_holman says:

    ‘Kick the Can’ perfectly anticipates ‘Amazing Stories,’ which always seemed to embody the same flaws you talk about here. (Except for Brad Bird’s ‘Family Dog’ episode.)

    I loved George Miller’s adaptation of “Nightmare at 30,000 (?) Feet,” though.

    • craigjclark says:

      It’s 20,000 Feet, and yes, that is the best segment in the whole film, followed closely by Joe Dante’s deliriously gonzo take on It’s a Good Life.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Spielberg sees himself as a magic wanderer, a trickster who arrives on a scene where everyone’s sitting around staring at each other and masterfully manipulates the crowd into a state of wonder and awe, makes them realize some profound truth or other, then moves on to the next unsuspecting bunch of rubes.

    Well, he should see himself that way, since that sums up his career.


  4. pirateman says:

    Wanna see something REALLY scary?

    Yeah, I agree with this… I loved Amazing Stories as a kid, but a lot of them don’t hold up as well these days.

    In other news; what’s you’re icon all about?

    • Todd says:

      Re: Wanna see something REALLY scary?

      You’re the first to ever ask. It’s a painting I did a few years ago. You can see it and others like it here.

  5. strangemuses says:

    Spielberg’s version of ‘Kick the Can’ left me cold for the very reason you cite here. Let’s watch the Magic Dude manipulate a bunch of old folks into realizing that it’s stupid for them to want to recapture their youth. It’s been ages since I’ve seen the original Twilight Zone episode so perhaps I remember it being better than it was, but I remember it as being far more ‘magical’ and sinister than Spielberg’s remake.

    So far as Spielberg’s talent for manipulating the audience is concerned, for me nothing tops E.T. I’d been an avowed Spielberg fan until I saw E.T., but that movie was so calculatingly manipulative that it threw me right out of the story. By the end of it, when most of rest of the audience was getting all weepy, I was just disappointed. It felt to me that Spielberg had sacrified story in favor of forced sentimentality. It was Spielberg as Mr. Bloom, magically manipulating the audience into regaining their childlike Sense of Wonder!!OMG!! at any cost.

  6. popebuck1 says:

    I remember the original “Twilight Zone” episode, and it’s so, so much better. Mainly because of the ending, which is downright haunting. The old people transform into children, as in the movie, but they don’t change back – instead, the new children run, laughing, off into the night, never to be heard from again. They have been touched by the gods and are forever changed, and the lone holdout is left behind, to be forever haunted by what might have been. Now that’s MEATY.

    I love Spielberg to death, but… it takes a particularly pedestrian kind of imagination to transform that into “Let’s all learn a preachy lesson about thinking young.”

  7. craigjclark says:

    The interesting thing (at least to me) about this is if the helicopter accident hadn’t happened during the shooting of John Landis’s segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie (which was done months in advance of the others), Spielberg probably would have gone ahead with his updating of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which would have fit in perfectly with his “dark streak,” starting with Poltergeist and continuing with Temple of Doom, Gremlins, The Goonies and so forth. Maybe “Kick the Can” feels tossed off because it was literally a last-minute switch from the episode Spielberg really wanted to remake.

    • Todd says:

      It certainly feels rushed and half-hearted. I would have liked to see Spielberg do a suspense thriller instead of a sentimental comedy. Sentimental he’s got down, comedy isn’t as good a fit for him. But suspense is in his blood, and it would have built to an action climax, and that’s where he lives.