Spielberg Film-by-Film: Amblin’ (1968)

Amblin - poster

First in a series

Steven Spielberg is certainly the best known movie director in history and arguably the finest (it’s an argument worth having – his name is frequently used as a generic for “director.”) He directed his first movie at 12, a homemade 8-mm featuring a Lionel train wreck. In 1963, when Spielberg was 16, his father contributed $500 so he could make a 140-minute film called Firelight; it showed one evening in a local cinema and recovered its budget. A middling student, Spielberg parlayed an unpaid college internship at Universal Studios into a seven-year television directing contract, making him the youngest director to be signed to a long-term deal with a Hollywood studio.

The film that caught Universal’s attention was Amblin’, a 26-minute short that cost $15,000 to make. It was shot in 1968, when Spielberg was 21, and is considered his first 35-mm film. (Its title would later become the name of his production company.) Spielberg wrote, directed, and edited the film; it contains recognizable hallmarks (technical and thematic) – someone who didn’t know it was Spielberg’s would probably say it was influenced by him.

A young man (Richard Levin) carrying a guitar case is hitchhiking in the desert, without success. He meets a young woman (Pamela McMyler – the prototype for innumerable Spielberg heroines thereafter) and they continue on together. There is no dialogue – the film is essentially a silent movie, scored with acoustic guitar and keyboard. (The jaunty music feels more dated than the photography or the editing – it seems influenced by Simon & Garfunkel’s work on The Graduate, which came out the previous year.) Despite the lack of dialogue, Spielberg and his actors make everything clear, packing comedy, romance and a bit of mystery into its brisk running time.

Spielberg’s facility with tracking shots is already evident here, with several tricky camera moves coming across as deceptively simple. (After you’ve seen them you might pause to wonder how he pulled off the choreography.) One scene depicts the couple in silhouette, smoking a joint. Spielberg’s cinematic representation of their high is among the more unusual sequences I’ve seen from him – at one point the live action melts into what looks like rotoscope animation. Later, when they make love, all we see is a long (extremely sexy) kiss and then a zipper closing on their sleeping bag; the zipper becomes the road’s centerline in the next shot.

Little is wasted in a film that seems to be about nothing at all. The looks exchanged by the actors, their relative positions in the frame at various points, their increasing separation as they approach the end of their journey; all of these tell the story without a single word. (Spielberg perfectly executes the dramatist’s mantra Show, Don’t Tell.) The end is lovely – destination reached, the contents of the mysterious guitar case finally revealed, and a decision. I found myself unexpectedly moved as I re-evaluated everything that had gone before. A surprising, enjoyable film.

Next: Night Gallery – Eyes (1969)