(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, sure, Steven Spielberg already had a few shorts and even a feature length 8mm movie under his belt as a kid 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.
From the start, we see in Spielberg’s shot compositions that he’s thinking on a much bigger, grander scale than his simple little story would suggest or even call for, while still keeping the tone funny and personal – and doing it all with no dialogue. Out of the gate, the young auteur displays a capacity to not only maintain character and intimacy within a broader visual ambition; he actually uses cinematic scope to capture character and intimacy. Suffice it to say, Spielberg was already making as good or better a film than most 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 contract.
And why wouldn’t he? Watching Amblin’ even now, it’s clear that this upstart prodigy doesn’t need to be taught anything. He just needs to be given 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 (complete with a wide emotional range, from the comic to the romantic to the pogniant, and even with cultural commentary), is that it’s far from conventional yet entirely accessible. That’s an exciting combo for a studio head.
Specifically with Amblin’, Spielberg showed that he could capture the zeitgeist of his generation while doing it with an assured grasp of timeless cinematic language and beauty. More broadly, it shows the potential to take creative risks that can still pay off with audiences. There’s no denying that Spielberg has lived up to that promise.
Wonderfully shot and with a keen eye, Amblin’ doesn’t yet boast the first appearance of any signature Spielberg visuals. Or if it comes close it’s in the stark silhouettes, a motif not specific to Spielberg certainly but one he’s employed – beautifully, even magically – over the years, 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 development and 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.