Monday, August 8, 2011

Close Encounters of the Third Kind


Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind perfectly captures the fear and the fascination that the unknown holds for humanity. The film focuses on the utility worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who's sent out into a remote country area to investigate a rash of mysterious power outages and instead comes into close contact with inexplicable sights that seemingly could only be alien ships. From that point on, Roy becomes obsessed with what he saw and felt, obsessed with getting answers, some explanation for his bizarre experience. The film is about the possibility of alien life coming to Earth, but more than that it's about the larger search for meaning, for understanding, the desire to make some sense of life, the universe and everything.

Spielberg is well-suited to capturing the mingled wonder, fear and confusion that characterize the film's complex mix of emotions and tones. Although Spielberg opens with a scene in which the French scientist Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) tracks the signs of the aliens' arrival on Earth, and returns to Lacombe at intervals throughout the film, the real substance of this movie is the effect of such unusual events on ordinary people. When Roy first encounters the alien ships, he's driving along on a deserted, pitch-black country road, lost and struggling with maps to try to find out where he is. Behind him, a set of lights pulls up in the window behind his head, and he gestures for them to pass by; they do, as a car impatiently goes around his truck. The next time some lights pull up behind him, Roy similarly waves them on and returns to his maps, so that only the audience sees that the lights go up, revealing a distinctly un-car-like shape hovering behind Roy. Spielberg's visual playfulness makes moments like this even more potent: witty, awe-inspiring, surreal and yet also somehow ordinary, the extraordinary seeping into the prosaic without warning, upturning all expectations and altering even one's basic presumptions about the way things work.

Roy's experience is indirect — mailboxes vibrate, all the metal in his truck is pulled momentarily up into the air by an electromagnetic force, and a bright light shines down on him, burning his face as he cranes his neck out of the truck's window to bask in its blistering beauty — but he'll soon see even more startling sights. Spielberg's presentation of the alien spacecraft is just as casually awesome, showing these hovering ships surrounded by halos of light, speeding down highways in convoys, turning whimsical circles in the air, trailed by a small ball of red light that seems to be scurrying to keep up with the larger ships. The imagery is spectacular but also grounded, suggesting that there's some kind of order and purpose to the ships' configurations and actions, even if it's a purpose that's obscure to those who witness these events.


Roy, along with fellow witness Jillian (Melinda Dillon), begins to get visions of a mountain that seems to have some importance to the aliens, but his family, especially his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr), is unsympathetic to his increasing obsession. Roy loses his job and begins spending his nights with fellow obsessives and curiosity-seekers, hoping to see something again, to get some confirmation that he wasn't just crazy. Nevertheless, there's more than a little humor in Spielberg's portrayal of Roy, who totally loses touch with ordinary day-to-day life in the aftermath of his "close encounter." At one point, Roy, finally having a clear vision of the mountain image he's been trying to capture, begins gathering plants and dirt and bricks from his yard, throwing them through the window into his house, as his distraught wife tries to stop him. He's oblivious, so caught up in his own excitement that he can't understand why no one else shares his thirst for answers. Later, after he's constructed a massive sculpture of the mountain in his living room, he looks out the window, his face covered in clay and grime, the mountain towering over his shoulder, and looks around at the beautiful sunny day outside. His wife and kids are gone, and his neighbors are playing and enjoying the day, puttering around in their gardens and playing with their children, and the contrast between inside the house and outside emphasizes the total disconnection that Roy feels. He's seen something he doesn't understand, and now he only wants, or needs, to know more, to make sense of it all.

At other times, Spielberg plays this confrontation between humanity and the aliens as a horror movie, as when the ships surround Jillian's house. She struggles to close everything off, to keep the aliens out, and Spielberg shoots the sequence as horror, emphasizing Jillian's fear, even while her son Barry is as excited and curious as Roy is. The boy opens the front door as his mother desperately struggles to close off the house, and outside the open field around their home has been transformed into a glowing orange landscape, alien and strange, infused with the light of the ships hovering above. In another shot, Spielberg shoots down a chimney as Jillian fumbles around inside, trying to close the flue; the point-of-view shot suggests that an alien is scurrying down the chimney towards her as her hand blindly flails about for the lever. Perhaps the most chilling image, though, is the shot of screws turning themselves, rising out of a floor grating and falling out to loosen the grate.

The film does such a good job of evoking complicated, contradictory emotions about the aliens that the ending, in which Spielberg finally reveals the aliens as a benevolent presence (one even smiles at Lacombe), can only be a disappointment. The film is about the unknown, about mystery and awe and the struggle to understand, and the final confrontation between the humans and the aliens preserves this sense of wonder and uncertainty right up until the moment when the aliens are revealed as the typical large-headed humanoid creatures that we've so often imagined them to be in popular representations. When the humans try to communicate with the aliens by using a musical language — not fully understanding what's being said except that some kind of back-and-forth communication is happening — that's beautiful and mysterious. The aliens, in their rubber costumes, obviously fake even when they're shot through a haze of light obviously intended to maintain some distance and mystery, are a bit of a letdown in comparison to the unsettling, wondrous effects that came before. Still, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a powerful, deeply affecting film that shares its protagonist's sense of gape-mouthed fascination with the prospect of life beyond Earth.

10 comments:

Greg said...

I've always loved this film and, like you, it's always been the very end that brings a minor letdown. I think the film is so well done nothing at the end can totally destroy it so the letdown is light, to be sure, but palpable nonetheless.

I've always had my own fantasy ending for it. Basically, it's this: After the music is done and there's silence, the moment comes when the door opens. It's a tremendous moment and I would've shown that door open, caught a brief but tantalizing glimpse of a shadow from inside, closed in on Roy Neary's face, stunned and silence, music reaches same crescendo as at beginning of film and - cut to black. Credits.

Oh, how I wish it had ended that way. But whatever, great movie anyway. One of Spielberg's best.

Ed Howard said...

I agree, the rest of the movie so consistently captures that sense of mystery and awe that the ending is just a small letdown, one that wouldn't even be worth commenting on if the rest of the movie weren't so great. I like your ending better, that's what I had in mind: something that preserves the mystery and doesn't just offer up exactly what we expect of aliens in movies. A real encounter with alien life, if something like that ever happens, is something that we can't imagine, that's so beyond our experience that all we can fall back on in visualizing it are pulp tropes like little green men. Spielberg did a good job of suggesting just how alien such an experience would be with all the musical communication, that's really disconcerting and beautiful and strange. The aliens themselves could only be a disappointment after all this buildup.

Interestingly, Spielberg, influenced by the studio's demands, went even further in this direction for the subsequent director's cut, showing the inside of the alien ship. A step in the wrong direction, for sure.

J.D. said...

Of course it all depends on which version of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS you are watching. I think most of us can agree that the bit inside the alien ship was a letdown and most prefer the shot of Neary going in the craft and that's it. I actually don't mind seeing the aliens and their contact with humanity. There is still a sense of awe and John Williams' music certainly enhances this vibe. But I do love the build-up to this. Esp. the early scenes in Indiana. The mood and atmosphere of those night time scenes are unreal and instantly take me back to my childhood. Amazing stuff.

DavidEhrenstein said...

A key Spielberg film -- with an incredibly wonderful score by John Williams (the finale REALLY soars). But I prefer A.I.

Ed Howard said...

J.D., I was writing about and watching the original theatrical cut. I'm not too interested in Spielberg and Lucas' endless revisions of their previous works, which always seem to be taking steps in the wrong direction by "updating" the visual tech and glossing over certain details (like the infamous erased guns in E.T., a laughable act of self-censorship). Spielberg revisited Close Encounters closer to its original release than usual, but the impulse seems to be the same.

I agree that the best scenes are the early ones in which the extraterrestrial events intrude upon this very prosaic American small town. Lovely mood-setting and sense of place.

David, agreed on the soaring Williams score, which is just perfectly suited to this movie. Not a big fan of A.I. but I haven't seen it since its release so maybe my opinion would improve now. This film certainly holds up really well.

MovieMan0283 said...

I've always had a strong connection to this movie, since I was a little kid, and it's one of my favorite Spielbergs. I remember once, when I was far from home and feeling it, being able to see the film screened at a campground - at Devil's Tower! It was quite an experience, one I've never forgotten.

What's funny is that, in that context, this film about an alien encounter, a journey into the unknown, was quite comforting - and that gets to the crux of Spielberg, who is able to give us both the mystery and the familiarity, an excitement but of a very innocent kind. Some people can't forgive him for this (indeed, your post is well-timed as I just got into a heated debate over the director's merits via e-mail with a fellow cinephile) but I've always felt this vision has a place in cinema.

And, as you point out, he does it so well! The film is full of bravura cinematic moments, not just for their own sake but tying in to the greater film of the unknown and the familiar existing in a rich dialectic. As with E.T., at times the alien seems domesticated but at others the domesticated is made to seem alien - seen with new and curious eyes.

I remember Close Encounters not just for the light beams and giant mountains made of mud but for the Budweiser ads, the whining about Goofy Golf, and the kid smashing his little sister's dolls in the background (Spielberg in his early years was an Altmanesque master of casual background detail). A couple observations I think get to the heart of his appeal - Richard Dreyfuss said, after observing the director at work on the CE3K set, that Spielberg could direct an entire epic film about the minutia of American suburbia, so fascinated was he with it (to me a refreshing quality, given how often the suburbs are portrayed in a flat, one-dimensional way). And Peter Greenaway said, either quoting someone or as his own observation - I can't remember which, that Godard and Spielberg both make home movies in their own way. Maybe that's why those 2 very different filmmakers may be my favorites.

Oh, and as for the finale, it always worked for me though you raise an interesting point. I think the revised footage (not sure if it was added for the re-release or if it was just a last-minute addition to the actual film) of "Puck" the weird little puppet-alien is inhuman enough to seem truly extraterrestrial. Plus, the film preserves the biggest mystery of its story - not what the aliens look like, but what their world looks like, what their life is like, in other words what's in store for Dreyfuss when he takes off.

But J.D.'s ending is pretty cool nonetheless. I'm sure it wouldn't have flown for audiences though, no pun intended.

Ed Howard said...

that gets to the crux of Spielberg, who is able to give us both the mystery and the familiarity, an excitement but of a very innocent kind.

I think that really is the crux of Spielberg's appeal, as well as perhaps one of his limitations, at least in some films. He has an essentially upbeat vision of the world, I think, even when he's exploring darker topics, and that creates some of the deep-seated tension in his work, including here. There are some almost-horror sequences here that are pretty jarring when considered against the generally pretty rosy tone of it, especially in the ending depiction of the aliens. That smiling alien always make chuckle.

But this optimism is a big part of why Spielberg is so good at capturing the pleasures of family and suburbia, why he has such a feel for awe-inspiring moments like when Roy first sees the spaceships whizzing along the highway.

Adam Zanzie said...

Nice review, Ed. I love how Close Encounters so skillfully balances those moods of awe and horror. For a long time into the movie, we're not entirely sure what type of sci-fi film we're watching. Jillian seems afraid of the aliens from the very beginning because she's a single mother; Roy has the luxury of being obsessed with them at first, because he's always away from home. I much prefer the Special Edition as well as Spielberg's Director's Cut to the original theatrical version, since they both contain that harsh, vital sequence of the Neary family screaming at each other that wasn't present in the original cut. That scene shows you just how badly Neary's obsessions have hurt his family, and I suspect there's something autobiographical about it: Spielberg's sisters have talked about how that scene reminded them of their childhood, when their parents would always fight at home prior to their divorce. So even if CEOT3K, in terms of 70's Spielberg, may not be quite as perfectly-constructed as Jaws, it's for sure a more personal effort.

I know Paul Schrader has complained that Spielberg wouldn't accept his draft of the screenplay; Schrader would have made Roy a doped-out loner who makes a kind of spiritual, zeitgeist-like contact with the aliens. That might have made an interesting movie on its own, but then again perhaps one of the reasons why the film has aged so well is because Roy is more of a naive everyman -- like Dennis Weaver in Duel -- thus explaining why so many audiences identified with the character.

One thing:

...the ending, in which Spielberg finally reveals the aliens as a benevolent presence (one even smiles at Lacombe), can only be a disappointment... the aliens are revealed as the typical large-headed humanoid creatures that we've so often imagined them to be in popular representations. When the humans try to communicate with the aliens by using a musical language — not fully understanding what's being said except that some kind of back-and-forth communication is happening — that's beautiful and mysterious.

See, this is where I focus on the time period in which the film was made. The aliens, as you say, look rather conventional, but I wouldn't necessarily say they're anticlimatic. The film is, after all, about close encounters of the third kind; i.e., making physical contact with the aliens. While Spielberg probably would have designed them differently today, his more conventional design of them back in the 70's reflects his own idealism and infatuation with 50's-style aliens at the time (Spielberg has admitted that his strong belief in aliens has diminished somewhat due to the noticable lack of flying saucer sightings in recent years). He builds the suspense of the moment nicely, too. The first time to mothership opens, it releases the human captives (and that dog that slides down the ramp). Then that praying mantis figure appears, followed by the aliens. It's a powerful moment even when knowing in hindsight that the aliens won't look very original.

The reveal of the aliens also gives us that wonderful moment of Lacombe giving the musical hand signal to one of the aliens: the smile on Truffaut's face in that instant is downright lovable. It's no surprise that Jean Renoir waxed so poetically about Close Encounters (and, surprisingly, Spielberg as a director) in a letter he wrote to Truffaut after the film's release: "It is a very good film, and I regret it was not made in France... the author is a poet. In the south of France one would say he is a bit of a fada. He brings to mind the exact meaning of this word in Provence: the village fada is the one possessed by the fairies."

Ed Howard said...

For a long time into the movie, we're not entirely sure what type of sci-fi film we're watching.

That's very true. I really like that aspect of it, too, how it shows different people reacting in very different ways, and the aesthetics of the film change to reflect that character's perceptions. Roy is intrigued and awed by the aliens, so his scenes are often tinged with shivery wonder, whereas Jillian fears the aliens (quite rightly, really, since they do take her son), so her scenes play out like a horror movie.

I'm glad you pointed out the family disfunction theme running through Roy's story, though I think that comes through perfectly clearly in the theatrical version, especially in the scene where his wife leaves. In a lot of Spielberg's other films, his anxiety about family is resolved in very rosy, optimistic visions of family contentment. Here, he's working out that anxiety much more directly by showing the disintegration of a family in response to one member's single-minded obsession with concerns that stretch far beyond the bounds of family.

MovieMan0283 said...

Adam, thanks for the Renoir quote - I'd never heard it before. That's great.