Steven Spielberg’s “Amblin” (1968)

When I first decided that I wanted to make films for a living (which was at the tender young age of eleven), I immediately began to dream about one day moving to Los Angeles to pursue that career.  I knew that I’d have to go to film school, and had heard that the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California was the best in the country. Naturally, that meant that I would go there.  For the next seven years, all my filmmaking efforts, as well as my school performance, were aimed towards the singular goal of getting into USC.  Of course, you can imagine my crushing disappointment when that rejection letter came in the mail one sunny spring day.  As fate would have it, I was destined for a detour in Boston to study film at Emerson College before moving to the balmy climes of southern California.  It’s impossible to tell whether a USC education would have had a different impact on my still-budding career, but funnily enough, next year I’ll be marrying a Trojan, so in a way I still get to have my cake and eat it too.

I say all this because in those dark days following the USC rejection, I had one bright, shining beacon of hope to guide me onward: the knowledge that director Steven Spielberg, inarguably the most successful filmmaker of all time, had been rejected from USC too (twice!).  By virtue of his association with high-profile USC alumni like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, many people simply assume that Spielberg had gone there as well.  Instead, he attended California State University at Long Beach and dropped out altogether after his sophomore year (he later finished his degree in 2002).  I was reassured in the notion that, if he could accomplish all that he has without the aid of a USC education or family connections to the industry, then surely so could I.

Of course, Spielberg experienced his own trials and tribulations to get where he is today.  During his late teens and early twenties, Spielberg was desperate to break into the movie business any way he could.  Rather famously, he took a tour of the Universal lot and ditched the tram halfway through, wandering around for hours and making friends with various people who then allowed him to sneak back onto the lot whenever he pleased.  This bold move on his part would indirectly lead to him getting an audience with Universal VP of television of production, Sid Sheinberg—a story that I’ll get into a little later.

All this sneaky stuff would be for naught if Spielberg had nothing to show for his own talents.  Obviously, he couldn’t show his amateur home movies (except maybe 1964’s FIRELIGHT) and still be taken seriously.  To that end, he began writing a short script about a young man and woman discovering each other and themselves on a hitchhiking trip to California. Spielberg met an aspiring producer named Denis Hoffman who was looking to fund a film, and they decided to begin work on what would eventually become Spielberg’s first 35mm short: AMBLIN’ (1968)

Presented completely without dialogue for the entire duration of its 25-minute running time, AMBLIN’ is a light-hearted romp through the Joshua tree-dotted landscapes of the Mojave Desert.  Actor Richard Levin plays the unnamed young man, and Pamela McMyler plays his free-spirited female companion.  As they work together to hitch a ride to the coast, the woman coaxes the man into several rites of passage—like smoking pot and having sex in a sleeping bag, to name a few.  All the while, the man carefully guards his guitar case, which only makes the woman more curious to find out what’s inside.

Shooting on a budget of $15,000 with a crew of college kids, Spielberg nevertheless makes the film feel professional and polished.  Together with cinematographer Allen Daviau, Spielberg employs a blown-out aesthetic and sun-bleached color palette.  He resourcefully creates a grand sense of scale by composing his characters as lone figures against the expansive desert landscape (an effect somewhat dampened by the format’s limiting 4:3 aspect ratio).  Spielberg’s camerawork is youthful and energetic to match the tone of story, using dolly shots, rack zooms, and handheld takes that evoke the experimental style of the New Hollywood movement with which Spielberg would later become associated with (a movement that itself was directly influenced by the bold cinematic transgressions of the French New Wave).

Michael Lloyd contributed the film’s score, which plays from end to end in place of dialogue.  Lloyd’s work takes on a boppy, travelling vibe that sounds a lot like the easy-going folk/hippie rock of its day.  The folk-y/western theme song that plays over the opening credits is performed by a band called October Country, which conveniently happened to be one of the acts that producer Hoffman was managing at the time.

Spielberg knew he was making a career game-changer, even if his disgruntled, unpaid crew didn’t.  He was so nervous during production that he reportedly puked every day before showing up on set.  Despite the adverse conditions of the shoot, Spielberg came out with a finished film that he could use as a calling card.  This may not seem like that big of an accomplishment in today’s democratic age of filmmaking, where everyone has a short to their credit. But in 1968, the sheer cost of film stock meant that the pool of successful short film directors was pretty thin.  Spielberg had a leg up over the countless mob of LA wannabes simply by virtue of having something to show.

This is where the aforementioned Universal connection comes into play.  After spending a summer getting to know various people on the Universal lot, a copy of AMBLIN’ found its way into the office of television VP Sid Sheinberg.  Sheinberg was so impressed by the film that he signed the young Spielberg to a seven-year TV-directing contract.  With that, the ambitious 22-year-old filmmaker had officially become a paid director.  Achieving his dreams came at a cost, however—Spielberg had to drop out of college and put his education on hold.  Real-world directing would be his film school now.

AMBLIN’ continued playing an influential role in Spielberg’s career by giving him the name for his first big production company, Amblin’ Entertainment.  Amblin’ Entertainment has gone on to become one of the most iconic shingles in cinematic history—every kid who grew up watching movies in the 90’s has that logo (featuring the classic E.T. bicycling against the moon imagery) seared into their memory.

For the film that launched the biggest career in the game, AMBLIN’ has been surprisingly neglected.  Judging by the stream available on Youtube, it hasn’t been officially released since the days of VHS.  The well-worn copy available online has warped the presentation to a far-from-pristine state.  Given the extensive number of film restorations that Universal has been commissioning for its centennial celebration, it strikes me as odd that they wouldn’t preserve the debut work of its most valuable director.  Perhaps Criterion will come to its rescue if it ever decides to give one of its coveted spine numbers to a Spielberg film.

For a film that’s now more than 40 years old, AMBLIN’ comes off as very dated due to its focus on late 60’s youth culture.  Its poor visual presentation doesn’t help either.  However, it is still a fascinating document by the world’s most successful filmmaker at the shaky beginnings of his career.  A far cry from the big-budget blockbuster spectacles that would make his name, AMBLIN’ is a quiet, intimate story with themes of discovery and innocence against the wider world—themes that would come to define Spielberg’s style and chart the course of his career.

AMBLIN’ is currently available in its entirety via the Youtube embed above.

Credits:

Producer: Denis Hoffman

Writer: Steven Spielberg

Director of Photography: Allen Daviau

Editor: Steven Spielberg

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