Not Rated (but with some adult content)
(brief partial nudity; brief marijuana use)
Released: December 18, 1968
Runtime: 26 minutes
Director (and Writer): Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Levin, Pamela McMyler
Available on YouTube (click here), and below.
This is the one that started it all.
Okay, maybe not the one.
As a boy, Steven Spielberg had already notched a few short films and even a feature length 8mm movie under his belt while growing up in suburban California, but it was Amblin’ – an independently financed 26-minute short that was made when Spielberg was 20 years old, marking his first work to be professionally produced on 35mm – that launched Spielberg from obscurity to a studio contract.
And movie history.
Playing like some “distant cousin” companion piece to The Graduate but with a sincere spirit rather than a sardonic one (and shot six months after that seminal film’s release), Amblin’ tells the carefree story of two young drifters – one male, one female – as they meet and then, well, amble down a California desert road, walking away from responsibility and toward nothing in particular.
Visually, Spielberg was already thinking big. His shot compositions are on a much bigger, grander scale here than what his simple little story might suggest or even call for, but that scope never dwarfs or sacrifices the funny and personal tone.
And by ditching dialogue entirely, Spielberg showcases his fluency of film language.
Out of the gate, the young auteur displays a capacity to maintain character and intimacy within a broader visual ambition. He actually uses cinematic scope to capture character and intimacy. In less than a half-hour, Spielberg was already making as good or better a film than many of his professional counterparts of the time.
It’s no surprise, then, that based on Amblin’ alone, Universal Studios exec Sid Sheinberg signed Spielberg to a long-term deal, making Steven the youngest person to ever be given such a substantial contract.
And why wouldn’t he have? Watching Amblin’ even now, it’s clear that this upstart prodigy didn’t need to be taught anything. He just needed money and good material.
The brilliance of Amblin’ — which is as much a free-form Beatles/Monkees-esque plotless jaunt as it is a specific and precise filmmaking vision — is that it’s far from conventional yet entirely accessible, complete with a wide emotional range (from the comic to the romantic to the poignant) and even with cultural commentary. That’s an exciting combo for a studio head.
With Amblin’, Spielberg not only showcased his cinematic chops; he proved that he could capture the zeitgeist of his generation while doing it with an assured grasp of timeless cinematic language and beauty.
More broadly, Amblin’ shows Spielberg’s potential to take big creative risks that can still pay off with audiences. There’s no denying that he has lived up to that promise.
Wonderfully shot and with a keen eye, Amblin’ doesn’t necessarily boast the first appearance of any signature Spielberg visuals, but if it comes close it’s in the stark silhouettes. It’s not a motif that’s specific to Spielberg, obviously, but it’s certainly one that he’s employed over the years – beautifully, even magically – including here.
- Spielberg’s Director of Photography for Amblin’ – a fellow filmmaking student – was Allen Daviau. Though they parted ways for nearly 15 years, Daviau and Spielberg would reunite for three of Steven’s films in the 1980s: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, and Empire Of The Sun. Daviau would also shoot the two best-looking films of director Barry Levinson’s career: Avalon and Bugsy.
- When Spielberg formed his own production company, he named it Amblin Entertainment. The first film to brandish the Amblin Logo – which is the iconic image of Elliott and E.T. bicycling past the moon – was Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple. Amblin Entertainment continues and thrives to this day.