Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind may very well be the best film Steven Spielberg has made to date, because it’s the purest expression of his sheer love of cinema. Spielberg was only 29 when he directed this, his third theatrical feature, and the film nearly radiates with a young man’s passion. Close Encounters provides for the viewer a nifty schematic breakdown of Spielberg in all his technical mastery and visual command; this is a movie made by a man who knows, deep in his bones, how to direct a movie, and speaking as someone who aspires to making films, the impact is nothing short of inspiring.

The film’s storyline, in basic: bizarre occurrences are being observed across the United States. Five World War 2 bombers that disappeared over the Bermuda Triangle mysteriously reappear in the middle of the desert; hundreds in New Delhi chant the same five notes, claiming that the noises came from the sky. (“He says the sun came out last night…he says it sang to him.”) In Muncie, Indiana, electrical worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss, brilliant) and single mother Gillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) both have a close encounter with…well, they don’t know quite what, but in Roy’s words, “I saw something last night that I can’t explain.” Following his encounter, Roy starts to become strangely obsessed; he begins seeing the same basic shape, something like a mountain peak, in his shaving cream, in dirt clods, even in his mashed potatoes. He can’t explain why the shape is so important to him, or what it represents; as his obsession grows, and he loses his job and stops going out, he can only helplessly tell his wife that, “This means something; this is important.”

Close Encounters is immediately distinguishable from Spielberg’s previous – and wonderful – Jaws in that it’s a far more episodic story; it doesn’t have the same kind of forward driving narrative hook that Jaws does, where there’s a clear story progression built around the idea of a super shark that has to be killed. This might be frustrating for some viewers; when I watched Close Encounters again recently with my brothers, my youngest brother told me he thought it was a little slow in parts, and I seem to dimly remember that, when I was eleven, I thought so, too. Close Encounters keeps the exact nature of its mystery – who the alien forces arriving on Earth are, what their intentions are, what the nature of Roy’s obsession is – in the dark until very late in the game; as such, I can understand how for a certain type of audience, accustomed to having a lot of things “happen” constantly, the picture might seem slow and even frustrating.

And yet look at the visuals! Close Encounters is easily Spielberg’s most carefully and beautifully directed film; every other shot or so is astounding in its creativity and imagination, making the vast majority of modern science fiction films look pale and pallid by comparison. Look, for example, at the film’s opening shot, as dim, obscured headlights approach out of a storm of dust; or the beautifully composed master shot showing the final outgrowth of Roy’s obsession in the background, Roy on the phone with his estranged wife in the middle ground, and the television set, revealing the answer to the mystery in the foreground. The sequence where the extraterrestrials kidnap Gillian’s son Barry may well be the finest piece of suspense filmmaking Spielberg’s ever done; I can’t think of another movie that makes household items like vacuum cleaners and telephones seem so menacing. Throughout, Spielberg and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond demonstrate remarkable ingenuity in their design of shots; Close Encounters is nothing if not a visual symphony.
Partial credit for that symphony must certainly go to the film’s special effects, supervised by the legendary Douglas Trumbull. When watching Close Encounters again recently, I was astonished at how well the effects in Close Encounters had aged; for my money, there is honestly not one single shot that looks “dated” or “fake”, an impressive achievement for a 1977 film about aliens visiting Earth. Spielberg, Zsigmond and Trumbull are wise to play the “Stanley Kubrick” gambit, and not show their aliens in too much detail; Close Encounters keeps the extraterrestrials a little diffuse, a little opaque, a little shadowy, and it’s much the better for it.

All of this technical mastery is well commented on, but one of the things that’s been largely forgotten about Spielberg is that, certainly in the beginning of his career, he was marvelous with actors. The performances in Close Encounters are uniformly superb, and in many cases may very well be the best things that the given performers have ever done. This is, for my money, Richard Dreyfuss’ finest hour; Roy Neary is a decent, ordinary Joe, goofy and a little bit of a lightweight (look at the way he tries clumsily to help his son with math homework), but Dreyfuss also manages to convey a surprising amount of pathos in the later sections of the film. Close Encounters can, in a weird way, be seen as something of an artistic apology, with Neary the creator whose obsession drives his family away and, in many respects, destroys his life. There’s real tragedy in the way that the Neary’s marriage shatters apart; the film’s best scene may well be the famous “shower scene”, where Roy has a final emotional breakdown. (“I don’t think I know what’s happening to me…”)
The supporting cast is also superb. Melinda Dillon manages to be moving without being mawkish, and Teri Garr nearly steals the movie as Roy’s wife, Ronnie, who probably needs to see a psychiatrist herself. (“Was it one of those Sara Lee cookies, those – those – crescent cookies?”) Francois Truffaut (yes, that Francois Truffaut) and Bob Balaban turn in fine, understated performances as the heads of the government effort to track the alien presence; they put a human face on the front of the bureaucracy. Finally, young Carey Guffey, who was only five at the time of filming, is absolutely remarkable as Gillian’s son Barry; he’s one of the most adorable and expressive kids in film history. (Watch his wonderful, spontaneous reaction when he sees the havoc the aliens have wreaked in his mother’s kitchen.)

A movie like Close Encounters couldn’t get made today – studio executives would insist that the government types plan to destroy the aliens, that the aliens themselves have a hidden agenda to destroy the world, that the whole drama end with an action scene and a lot of sturm and drang. Instead, Close Encounters climaxes with one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring endings in cinema. I’m almost always moved to tears by the climactic scenes, in the way that they suggest a world that is not beyond hope, a human race that is not beyond redemption and goodness and kindness. Unlike most science fiction, which is about blowing up bugs and monsters, Close Encounters is about the idea that, to quote Richard Dreyfuss, “not only are we not alone…but we have relatively little to fear.” I sincerely hope that if we ever do meet alien life, it is as benevolent as Spielberg’s vision of it.
Roger Ebert's Review of Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition - http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19800101/REVIEWS/1010309/1023
Glenn Erickson's "DVD Savant" Review of Close Encounters of the Third Kind -
http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s260ce3k.html
Colin Jacobson's "DVD Movie Guide" Review of Close Encounters of the Third Kind -
http://www.dvdmg.com/closeencounters30.shtml
Jim Emerson's "Scanners": CE3K 30 3.0 -
http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2007/11/ce3k.html
The poster image was found at https://plus.google.com/photos/107478559203647318857/albums/5392655325916230321/5459772143199224642.  The image of the mother's ship hanging over Devil's Tower was found at http://1morefilmblog.com/wordpress/close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-spielberg-1977/.  The image of the little boy in the doorway was found at http://spielbergfanclub.com/2012/01/making-of-close-encounters/.

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