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Steven Spielberg's Amblin'

Spielberg probably didn’t vomit every morning before he went onto the set of Jurassic Park, but the story has it that he did when he made Amblin’Steven Spielberg – A Biography by Joseph McBride, page 159, as related by Donald Heitzer, assistant camera man on Amblin’.

Poster for Steven Spielberg's Amblin' (1968)

Largely a silent movie, running at 25 minutes, made and marketed for the even by late-60’s measly sum of $20.000Wikipedia says $15.000, but is unsourced. My Spielberg biography has it at $20.000, which looks to be a quote from Denis Hoffman, who put up the budget for the film. I’m guessing the film itself was $15.000 and marketing was $5000., Amblin’ is the first film the then 22-year-old Spielberg shot on 35mm. And it is a fantastic look at the pure unbridled potential that was and is Steven Spielberg.

Filming started June 6th, 1968, spent a weekend on a set at a soundstage belonging to Cinefx, a company owned by Denis Hoffman, who funded and produced the short film. Here it almost got cancelled, when Spielberg and Allen Daviau (whose work on Amblin’ is wonderful, and who went on to do E.T, Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple with Spielberg) spent three times the allotted 35mm stock. After this, it spent 8 days in the baking melting unbearable heat of the southern California desert, where unpaid crew quit left and right.

Once filming wrapped, Spielberg himself spent 6 weeks of his nights cutting the three hours of footage down to the 25 minute final piece, in a lent editing room, while listening to soundtracks on his record player.

And finally, after having it shown to Sidney Sheinberg, he got his big break in the shape of a 7-year contract for Universal, doing TV series, before finally doing Duel. Then The Sugarland Express. And then finally in 1975, Jaws.

I’m telling you this, because until recently, to see Amblin’, you would have had to either have gone to the library of a film school, where I’ve heard that they have copies abound. Or, you could pick it up on eBay in a poor VHS-quality copy priced at $20. Or finally, if you were extremely lucky, you might have seen it at one of its exceedingly rare screenings.

The good news is that someone finally got their act together, and it is now available not only on Youtube (haven’t embedded, as I think you should view it fullscreen), but also as a 350MB download! The bad news is that it looks to be the very VHS copy that has been floating around eBay. So the picture falters at times, and there’s an issue with the loudness of the audio; but it is most definitely watchable (and a huge ol’ bear-hug to whoever got this thing online!).

It’s so interesting to find these old first outings by accomplished directors, as they so often end up being a major influence on their later work; and despite all the limitations and restrictions (or perhaps because of them), it feels almost as if these are their most honest films.

Take James Cameron’s Xenogenesis for instance. Overly ambitious, techno-centric and more interested in effects and the uh-ah’s of its sci-fi setting than in bringing any kind of humanity to its characters. Fast-forward, and notice how little changed over the years, except Cameron’s understanding that to get all of this science fiction stuff he was dreaming up on to the screen, he had to be better at dealing with the human aspect.

Kind of explains the slightly stiff and by-the-numbers (though riveting) scripts he has a tendency to churn out.

With Amblin’, you have the diametric opposite. Spielberg’s first outing is all about humanity, love, feelings, innocence and all the other softness for which he has since become almost infamous. Whatever tech-lust Spielberg might have, goes on behind the lens, not in front of it. And despite moving on to do some pretty tech-heavy films (Jurassic Park for instance), he almost always keeps the human side of things front and center. Especially so in the early part of his career, which is, I’ll admit, the best.

Spielberg himself doesn’t think much of the film, calling it “a great Pepsi commercial” with as much soul and content as a piece of driftwood.”, which would explain why it hasn’t seen commercial release

And even went so far as to say that he couldn’t “look at it now. It really proved how apathetic I was during the sixties. When I look back at that film, I can easily say, ‘No wonder I didn’t go to Kent State,’ or ‘No wonder I didn’t go to Vietnam or I wasn’t protesting when all my friends were carrying signs and getting clubbed in Century City.’ I was off making movies, and Amblin’ is the slick by-product of a kid immersed up to his nose in film.”Same, page 161.

But you know, not only is Spielberg underselling himself in terms of the emotional and social ‘story’ Amblin’ is able to deliver without a single spoken word, he’s also underselling how personal the film probably is to him when it comes right down to it.

You can still sense his playfulness and light-hearted hand in all the films he did up through the 70’s and early 80’s. And I sometimes wish that he could go back and do something in that same vein again. I still love his films. But there is no doubt that the ‘films for films sake’ film maker now lives in the shadow of the socially and politically conscious film maker that has delivered some very sincere films, which, while still head and neck above most of the competition, haven’t lived up to the pinnacle of E.T., even after all these years.

Somehow it seems particularly apt that Amblin’ Entertainment’s logo is composed of the word Amblin’, his first film, and Elliot and E.T. on the bike, crossing the moon, from his, to his own admission, most personal film.

And now that Amblin’ has surfaced for all to see, the next thing to keep an eye out for it Spielberg’s own 8mm ‘making of’ footage from the shoot, allegedlySo says Daviau locked away in Spielberg’s personal vault.

PS: Spielberg currently owns the rights to Amblin’, having bought them back from Denis Hoffman in 1978. If you’re so inclined you can also have a gander and just over a minute’s worth of Escape to Nowhere (originally 40 minutes, made when he was in highschool) and about a minute Firelight (a 140 minutes precusor to Close Encounters. You can find out more on Wikipedia), both clips are unfortunately without sound.