Spielberg’s Suburban Animism

So, it’s been eight months since my last post. In that time I managed to finish writing my dissertation, complete a barrage of revisions, defend the thesis in a three-hour inquisition, pass the defense, graduate, and accept a teaching and research fellowship that will take my wife and I to Los Angeles for at least two years. It’s all a bit surreal to think that my doctoral project is finally over.

Four hundred and fifty three pages later, the result is “Sound from Start to Finish: Professional Style and Practice in Modern Hollywood Sound Production.” Count me among those who were floored at its eventual length — for some reason I have a tendency to under-estimate word counts and page lengths with my writing.

What is most amazing about these past eight months is that everything to do with this research project reached a level of intensity that I had not experienced before. I’m still processing it all. But completing the project definitely felt more anti-climactic than exultant. After a prolonged period of not knowing how the project would be received by the thesis committee, or how much time any revisions would take to complete, or if the defense recommendations would interfere with my post-doctoral appointment, everything actually…worked out well.

Thick ThesisIn the coming weeks and months I’m aiming to return to this blog with some frequency to hammer out some new ideas and describe the monumental task of moving from Toronto to L.A. and working within the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.

To start, I thought I’d share some ideas on the nature of Steven Spielberg’s “suburban animism” that I tried to describe in an article I wrote a few years ago that I never published. After seeing Super 8, and reading Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece on the nostalgic glare of J.J. Abrams’ film, I thought this might be a good opportunity to explore some of the fine-grained features of Spielberg’s early sound style as evidenced in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Poltergeist (yes, I know Tobe Hooper directed this one, but we can all see Spielberg’s fingerprints on it).

In 1991, Spielberg was asked to provide an image from one of his films that typified his visual style. Indelible as it is enigmatic, Spielberg chose the moment in Close Encounters where little Barry Guiler is caught in the doorway between his home and that “beautiful but awful” outer light. The dichotomous relationship between the familiar image of the family home and that of the unfamiliar alien presence serves to spotlight the significance and simplicity of this moment in the film; it also reflects the prevailing notion of suburban disruption in the filmmaker’s work. Arguably, however, the extent to which we can study Spielberg’s style by focusing on this “master image” is limited, as it does not account for the sound that accompanies and surrounds it. Sound defines the domestic setting of the scene. It introduces the familiar noise of a family home, while disrupting it with an unfamiliar, alien presence that reverberates in both the aural and visual spaces.

Within the boundaries of Spielberg’s early works, the domestic melodrama finds a home amidst the fantastic. Unlike its generic antecedents, the science-fiction films by Spielberg offer a rich, textured, and ambivalent notion of the American suburb. Part domestic bliss, part domestic nightmare, these films are often transgeneric models that blend elements of horror, sci-fi, and family melodrama into a cohesive whole. What can be termed Spielberg’s “fantastic” cinema, the defining feature of this generic model is his attention to to the functionality of the contemporary American family (or, as it were, the 1970s family): how domestic space is divided, sewn, and often torn apart by familial tension. Spielberg’s domestic scene is painted with few frills; instead, his portraits of suburbia are eerily plain and realistic.

In their biography of the director, Donald Mott and Cheryl McAllister Saunders note, “Spielberg’s characters are usually suburban types very much like the suburban moviegoers sitting in the shopping mall theaters watching them.” Noting the important connection between Spielberg and his middle-class roots, biographer Joseph McBride amusingly suggests, “It is possible to imagine John Ford never having seen Monument Valley, or Martin Scorsese never having walked New York’s mean streets, and it is equally impossible to imagine Steven Spielberg never having grown up in suburbia.”

Described by Tom O’Brien as “suburban animism,” Spielberg’s early sci-fi films personify the everyday. The realities that govern a middle-class experience are paramount in Spielberg’s world. O’Brien writes:

Watch Spielberg’s pizzas, watch his toys, dolls and train sets. In E.T. watch his use of Coors beer and Pez candies. On one level, this mass of details explains part of the appeal of his films — the lovingly nostalgic recreation of American life, particularly suburban life, that engages viewer sympathy, tickles humor, and establishes credibility for the weird events about to happen. On another level, however, these physical, almost palpable recreations of the material world are not the antithesis to Spielberg’s interest in the uncanny; rather, their intensity explains it.

Bridging the gap between genres, Spielberg introduces the supernatural and extraterrestrial into domestic, suburban settings. Put another way, the fantastic finds its way to the homes of Roy Neary and Barry Guiler, Elliot, and Carol Anne.

As if connected by a common narrative thread, Close Encounters focuses on the disintegration of the traditional family unit, while E.T. and Poltergeist reflect, expand, and comment on the results of this breakdown. As Roy Neary boards the mother ship to be born again, to re-discover his life’s purpose, his wife and three children are left to clean up after him and to go on without him. In E.T., Elliot is without a father, and watches as his two siblings and mother learn to cope with the abandonment. Indeed, E.T. begins where Close Encounters ends, with a family in disarray, and a child without a father. In Poltergeist, the scenario is taken even further. Vivian Sobchack has suggested that signs of paternal failure are visible in the “ethically lax, real-estate salesman Dad whose willful ignorance of the ground of his business practice jeopardizes his children.” While Steve and Diane Freeling are seemingly happily married, their home becomes the site of a haunting, which results in their youngest daughter being kidnapped by evil spirits. The disappearance of Carol Anne fuels the Spielberg thematic of familial separation and subsequent disorder and division.

More generally, all three films exhibit a distinct suburban animism that resonates not only visually but, more importantly, sonically. The Spielberg suburban thematic has often been discussed in visual terms, as evidenced by this review of E.T. and Poltergeist by Vincent Canby:

The Spielberg films are distinguished from most other American films with which they might be compared by the richness of their gently satiric social detail. The gallant youngsters…do not live in some unlocated American Never-Never-Land but in California, in an all-too-real real estate development. The houses, which look not as if they’d been built but laid by a giant hen, come equipped with every possible kitchen gadget, hot tubs, suspended staircases, and walls that are probably paper-thin. The kids eat dreadfully over-sweetened cold cereals and waffles defrosted in toasters, and they sleep in beds that are often full of potato chips. They play with remote control toys, drink colas that rot their teeth even as they’re being straightened, and they go to sleep to the hum of television sets that are no longer being watched.

Canby’s review, while rich in visual description, only hints at the sound of Spielberg’s suburbia. The director’s objets d’art crackle with a palpable sense of realism and temporal immediacy. They are the sounds of the domestic landscape: the multi-layered conversations among family members, the noise of electronic toys, and the distant but familiar sounds of dogs barking and garbage cans rolling in the street.


What is more, Spielberg’s characters listen. As they all learn to communicate with each other and the fantastic, the aural environments provide a rich canvas of sounds, noises, voices, and musical tones that provide a modicum of meaning to the supernatural and other-worldly events.

Disembodied Voices

The home itself takes on a living, corporeal identity in each of these films. The first time we enter the Neary home in Close Encounters, Roy is framed in close-up, seated at a living room table with his train set, attempting to help his oldest son with a math problem. While their dialogue dominates the sound track, a flurry of background noise is distinctly audible. One child causes the destruction of a playpen, another cries for attention, and Roy’s wife carries on a conversation with her husband with or without his participation. Beyond this sonic dynamism, the noise of toys being broken and the murmur of a distant television compete to be heard. The juxtaposition that emerges here is that of an uncluttered frame — a two-shot close-up — that is accompanied by a cluttered and overwrought sound track. Occasionally, Spielberg fulfills the sound hermeneutic, revealing the multiple sources of these sounds. When the sounds are revealed, the anamorphic widescreen frame takes on an expansive but claustrophobic quality thanks, in part, to Spielberg’s deep focus compositions. In this way, everything is in focus and everything speaks.

Furthermore, the sound track emphasizes important narrative points through variation, including dissipation. Roy is often framed in isolation from his family in order to advance the notion that he is no longer a pat of the household. At a dinner scene, he stares at his plate while his wife and children carry on different conversations. Framed on Roy’s face, the sound track compensates to fill in the rest of the scene. The resultant flow of sound surrounds Roy in his domestic space: his daughter vies for attention by repeating “There’s a fly in my mashed potatoes,” against the clattery noise of silverware. Mesmerized by the mound of potatoes, Roy begins to sculpt a mountainous shape from the food on his plate. Soon the sound of the family dissipates, as if on cue to signal the moment of his realization. The silence is marked by several shots of his wife and children, staring at him, bewildered and frightened.

Similarly, in E.T., Elliot struggles to be heard at the dinner table as he must compete with the common household sounds. Again, Spielberg chooses to framed Elliot in a medium close-up, which de-clutters the image but stacks the sound track with the sound of rattling dishes, a radio, and the dialog of teens playing Dungeons and Dragons. These sounds prevent Elliot from informing the family of his discovery of E.T. He is only able to assert control over the ambient sounds by dominating it: he screams “Listen!” Silence then follows, as Elliot finally receives everyone’s attention. Finally, in Poltergeist, while the children eat breakfast, an array of foreground and background noise is silenced when Robbie’s milk glass breaks (presumably) on its own.

The acousmatic appropriation of domestic phenomena is best explained by the presence of television in the home. Incorporating the work of theorists Raymond Williams and John Ellis in his study of television sound, Rick Altman posits an intriguing notion that he calls “household flow.” Altman contends that television consists of a continuous sonic flow that spreads from room to room to communicate its message. Essentially an aural medium, television “must organize itself in such a way as to harmonize with the household flow on which it depends…at the same time, renewed emphasis is laid on the message-carrying ability of the sound track, which alone remains in contact with the audience for fully half of the time that the set is on.” Therefore, in terms of this idea of household flow, television is dependent on the sound track to transit meaning and information. It is possible, then, for a television to communicate without having anyone watch it. Even when there is nothing on TV, its static signal beams through the home, uninterrupted, as in the opening scene of Poltergeist.

E.T. 3

Conceived as a wandering acousmetre, household flow is as pervasive as it is invasive in Spielberg’s suburban thematic. The television is ever-present in his domestic spaces. If it is not placed within the visual space, then its sound can be heard throughout the home as an omnipresent character. Some critics have noted that its presence assists in creating a viable suburban realism, however, this serves as its most obvious purpose. In most instances, the television communicates cultural details that reflect the generic heritage of the three films. In Close Encounters, Roy is awakened one morning by the sounds of a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Marvin the Martian; in E.T. and Poltergeist, television becomes a receptacle for old Hollywood fantasy films, including This Island Earth (alien visitors) and A Guy Named Joe (the spirit world).

The television in Poltergeist takes on more of an ambivalent status. The television set itself is the portal through which Carol Anne is abducted. After this point, she communicates with her family solely through sound. Her family can hear her on the other side, but are unable to see her.

Poltergeist tv

Carried outside the home, acousmatic (or, disembodied voices) find a place among adult characters. In E.T., adults and figures of authority are shot in characteristic fashion by Spielberg: waist-down compositions that hide faces, or ones bathed in shadow. Recalling the child-views of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, Spielberg limits the physical view of adults onscreen, while allowing them to retain their voices offscreen. The scene in Elliot’s science classroom is Spielberg’s most overt attempt to avoid showing the teacher’s face.

Certainly, acousmatic sounds serve a further purpose in these films, one that concerns the degree to which characters listen. Hearing sound is as much an audience activity as it is one for major characters. For instance, we listen as attentively for Carol Anne as Steven and Diane do.

“First Day of School” – A Lesson in Communication

The cluttered suburban soundscape that governs Spielberg’s animism often prevents the main characters from successfully communicating with each other and with those who seek to disrupt the familial structure. Overlapping voices compete with foreground and background noises. In her study of dialog in classical Hollywood films, Sarah Kozloff articulates the notion of verbal excess by situating it within a temporal framework. She argues that the 1970s brought an awareness of documentary realism to Hollywood, resulting in the adoption of an aesthetic she calls “verbal wallpaper.” Characteristic of urban dramas such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Kozloff insists that the sound track transmits the sonorous richness of a city street or a restaurant dining room: “a proportion of dialogue in every film serves primarily as a representation of ordinary conversational activities.”

E.T. 2

The effect of the “verbal wallpaper” technique on Spielberg’s works is pretty clear. However, Spielberg also assuages any sonorous excess by setting up two different strategies to simplify the sound space and allow his characters the ability to communicate. The first strategy echoes Spielberg’s general distrust of adult authority by having his adolescent characters speak in simple, colloquial, and often endearing terms. During Elliot’s first morning with E.T. in his room, he shows the alien an array of action figures and toys that help Elliot describe many facets of human life. Just read (or listen) to Elliot’s monologue:

Do you talk? You know, talk? Me human. Boy. Elliot. Ell-i-ot. Coke, see. We drink it. It’s, uh, it’s a drink. You know, food. These are toys. These little men. This is Greedo. And then this is Hammerhead. See, this is Walrusman. And then this is Snaggletooth. And this is Lando Calrissian. See. And this is Boba Fett. And look, they can even have wars. Look at this. (Simulates ray-gun noises) And look, fish. Fish eat the fish food and the shark eats the fish. But nobody eats the shark. See, this is Pez. Candy. See, you eat it. You put the candy in here and then when you lift up the head, candy comes out and you can eat it. You want some? This is a peanut, you eat it. But you can’t eat this one, ’cause this is fake. This is money. See, we put the money in the peanut. You see, bank. Seee. And then, this is a car. This is what we get around in. See, car. (E.T. begins to chew on the toy car) Hey! Hey! Wait a second! No! You don’t eat em. Are you hungry? I’m hungry. Stay. Stay. I’ll be right here.

Elliot’s simple lesson cuts directly to the heart of the matter without unnecessary disruption or confusion. When the two say goodbye at the end of the film, E.T. tells Elliot, “I’ll be right here,” mirroring the lesson Elliot taught him their first morning together. During the course of the film, E.T. and Elliot communicate with rather simple speech: “ouch” represents both physical and heartfelt pain; Elliot asks E.T. to “stay,” while E.T. replies “home.”

In Poltergeist, Steve and Diane must learn to communicate with Carol Anne with stern verbal efficiency. Diane must compose herself to instruct her daughter to stay out of the light.

Close Encounters offers the clearest example of the desire and search for effective means of communication between people and interplanetary beings. The film posits the extraordinary challenge of communicating without resorting to conversational, verbal logic. Since the acousmatic voice resists clarity and yields an excess of noise, Spielberg suggests that language itself must be redefined in order for interaction to be productive. Charlene Engel writes:

Close Encounters is about language: verbal, electronic, and musical — communication and its limitations, language and its possibilities; and it is about the ineffable things which are beyond speech or imaging — things having to do with emotion and yearning, things touching upon the spiritual and the supernatural.

Engel goes further by suggestingt hat the extraterrestrials have come to Earth not to inhabit the planet, but rather to “see if humans are capable of rapidly learning to communicate in an abstract language of light and sound.”

Importantly, Lacombe is initially baffled by the meaning of the vocal chant sung by the Indians. By contrast, the five-note musical pattern is harmonious and immediate. John Williams has stated the genesis for the five notes resulted from Spielberg’s request for a musical signal rather than a melody. A melody, according to Williams, would require too much time to state, while a signal or short phrase would connote the immediacy of a doorbell chime: “we’re here.” Lacombe’s inability to fully articulate the meaning o the signal is based, in part, on the fact that the first time the tones are heard, they are enunciated by human voice. The voice — as I have suggested — has the ability to disrupt, hide, and confuse. In response, Lacombe translates the vocal harmony into a visual sign system. Lacombe adopts the sign language system designed by Zoltan Kodaly that was meant to aid deaf children in understanding music. During a meeting with government and UN officials, Lacombe demonstrates the Kodaly method: first, the vocal rendition is played on tape recorder, then Lacombe performs the hand gestures that accompany each note, and finally the signal is translated into electronic pulses. Click this link for a full clip of this sequence.

During the climactic conversation sequence at the end of the film, the acousmatic sounds of the suburban home and government authority dull to a whisper as one engineer says to another, “It’s the first day of school.” Indeed, as E.T. learns to communicate with simple eloquence, so too do the scientists in Close Encounters. As music and image coalesce in one epiphanous moment, the struggle for communication is overcome: Lacombe extends his hand and greets the extraterrestrial with the Kodaly hand gestures. Synchronized with Lacombe’s gestures, the five notes are played non-diegetically, thus sewing Williams’ score to the diegesis.


Similarly, in Poltergeist, the rescue of Carol Anne unfolds in a dizzying display of diffused light and orchestral bombast: Jerry Goldsmith’s score score fluctuates between ethereal opulence and a gentle lullaby motif by Carol Anne. Also, in E.T., the final reel is joined to Williams’ score. In fact, the light on Elliot’s finger illuminates to a dramatic brass cue, adding one more connection between music and image. E.T. tells Elliot, “I’ll be right here,” a symbol of Elliot’s teaching and a reminder that even the most complex of emotions can be expressed with remarkable clarity through simple words and music.

Parting Notes

The domestic landscapes of these three films are visually denoted by the rows of semi-built homes in E.T. and Poltergeist, and the crowded living room in Close Encounters. But more so, Spielberg’s suburban animism is denoted through the sounds of his domestic spaces. These soundscapes are often cluttered, descriptive, and dynamic; they are also excessive and claustrophobic. Spielberg’s suburban ambivalence reveals a common tension in all three films: as characters attempt to overcome the cluttered nature of their environments, the search for communication becomes paramount. In order for this goal to be achieved, the world of noise is ultimately replaced with a simpler method. Dense, speech-laden environments are replaced with rudimentary, simplistic dialog between characters. Additionally, dialog is abandoned altogether in the climaxes of all three films in favor of a musical language that expresses triumph over the confines of the family home.

Just as Spielberg offered as “master image” little Barry Guiler opening his front door the unknown, we may add as “master sound” the noisy living rooms in Close Encounters and E.T. and the droning presence of television in Poltergeist. Maybe it’s the interplay of music and image. In its suburban familiarity, Spielberg’s master sound may exist in our own homes at this very moment.

Master Image

1 Comment

  1. Rick says:

    Glad you’re back! Way to go on getting your thesis finished. Welcome to Los Angeles! (I’m a recent grad of USC.) Loved the article as it touched on topics and notions I had not considered. I took a class on the style of Spielberg in Fall 2009, though sound was not anything we focus on in detail as you did. The suburban element in his films was definitely raised and I like how you incorporated the sound of suburbia as a “real” thing, adding to the familiarity of characters and events in Spielberg’s work.

    In this sense, it seems as sound is a character, one that’s always around us in our day to day lives. We hear the TV, dishes clanking and footsteps marching and we know we’re home. I don’t E.T. would resonate as much if not for this quality. We need to know it can happen to us and using everyday sounds aids in the suspension of disbelief.

    Conversely, I took a class about horror/sci-fi/fantasy and the professor did give a rundown about the sound design in The Exorcist, most notably the opening of the film, what with the cacophonous crashing of sounds. I guess that requires “odd” sounds or those we’re not too familiar with to enhance the “unknown” element behind every horror film.

    But, would everyday, suburban sounds create a greater uneasiness or would it get lost in the wash? Carpenter’s “Halloween” comes to mind, given it’s suburban setting; though his suburbia is not a detailed as Spielberg’s.

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