Tuesday, August 07, 2007
DAY 7: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
As I have mentioned previously in this project, light is very important to Steven Spielberg. It provides life, it provides heat, it provides sustenance. Light is one of the most central motifs to Spielberg’s canon and Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the most “light-centric” film the director has ever made. For the first time in his career Spielberg associates light with enlightenment, with attainment of knowledge and truth, with an almost miraculous spritual experience (like Augustine’s beautific vision). Close Encounters establishes Spielberg as an ultimately metaphysical filmmaker and his story resembles a twentieth century Pilgrim’s Progress, the journey of an ordinary fellow (another Spielbergian “everyman”) to reach the highest level of consciousness he possibly can and his willingness to sacrifice everything he knows and is familiar with in pursuit of that dream.
The origin of Close Encounters finds itself partly in the meteor shower experience Spielberg and his father shared in his youth (the image of a shooting star making an appearance in this film as it did in Jaws and as it will later in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) but primarily the genesis of Close Encounters can be found in the two-and-a-half hour amateur movie Firelight Steven made as a teenager (Firelight even had a sequence where a UFO pursues a character while driving a car). Spielberg had been interested in making the film for several years but nobody would give him a meeting. With the undeniable success of Jaws, Spielberg was now finally able to make any film he wanted and so, with the help of the husband-wife producing team Julia and Michael Phillips at Columbia, Spielberg embarked on what would eventually become his most personal project up until that time (and one of the few movies he’s ever written as well as directed). Funding the film was a tremendous risk for Columbia as the studio was on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite the odds of Spielberg's next film following in the footsteps of Jaws and being another big hit (rather than being left in it's--pardon the expression--wake) Columbia was betting the future of its company on this one film. As John Milius noted: "It will either be the best Columbia film or it will be the last Columbia film."
Close Encounters of the Third Kind tells two parallel stories that at various points interact with one another: the first, and main one, is that of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) a middle-class suburban husband and father whose entire life is overturned when he experiences a “close encounter” with alien life. The second is that of the scientists who try to ascertain the nature and intent of the aliens and hopefully establish contact with them. Both stories eventually converge at the film’s climax, a sublime sequence in which the humans and the aliens connect in a dazzling display of lights and sound. The movie ends with the character of Roy boarding the mother ship and being whisked away to the heavens by his new friends. The film was positively received upon its initial release (performing well at the box office and receiving good reviews from critics) but Spielberg himself wasn’t completely satisfied with the product and had wished that he had at least two more months to complete it. After approaching Columbia and asking if he could shoot some more footage to complete his initial vision for the film, the studio agreed to give him the money if he would “give them something to hang a campaign on” by showing the inside of the mother ship (its interior never having been glimpsed in the original version). Spielberg agreed, a decision he always regretted, and eventually a second version (dubbed the “special edition”) of Close Encounters was released to theatres. This version had a few more shots and scenes (including a spectacular sequence where an ocean tanker is found in the middle of the Gobi Desert) and excised a large portion of the middle act focusing on the decline of Roy’s home life. In actuality, though, there are no less than three different versions of Close Encounters: the original theatrical cut, the special edition and the “ultimate” edition that has found its home on DVD. This final version is the one with which Spielberg is most satisfied. It retains all of the new footage not seen in the theatrical version (save the unnecessary peek inside the mother ship at the end of the film) and restores all of Roy’s family scenes that were absent in the special edition. This one is, in my opinion, the best version of the film and so it is the one that I will discussing here.
Close Encounters begins with what has now become a familiar Spielberg opening: credits appearing over an all-black screen in silence. As the titles roll the silence gradually becomes a series of eerie, abstract musical sounds (music being a very important component in this film, arguably more important than any other Spielberg movie).
When the credits finish, the music continues to build to a dramatic climax and then, in an abrupt--almost violent--cut the entire screen is subsumed with light. In an instant the frame has gone from being consumed with darkness (all black) to being filled with illumination (all white). It is revealed to be a swirling sandstorm in the middle of a desert in Medias Res. A title card informs us of the place and the time: “present day”. A jeep drives into shot and a group of scientists, led by the French-speaking Lacombe (acclaimed French “New Wave” director, and huge influence on Spielberg, Francois Truffaut) and his cartographer/interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) proceed to interview witnesses as they discover a series of abandoned, though remarkably well-preserved and still functioning, World War II fighter planes that were reported missing thirty years earlier. Sitting alone on the porch of a wooden shack, an old man—one side of his face badly burnt—is consulted by the scientists and he mumbles something about the sun coming out into the dead of night and singing to him. They don’t know what to make of all this but the stage has now been set for an intriguing story that will stimulate the curiosity of both the characters and us the audience. We are about to be led on a voyage of discovery that will end in the certainty that “we are not alone.”
This opening scene also re-establishes that significant Spielbergian theme which, though it has been relatively minor in previous films (with the exception of Sugarland Express), becomes extremely prominent and relevant in Close Encounters: communication. In the opening scene alone, we have a conversation comprised of three different languages (French, English and Spanish) being spoken simultaneously and translated/interpreted into each other. It can get very confusing at times and yet genuine communication and understanding seems to be occurring. Throughout the film, there are numerous cases of breakdown in communication (such as between Roy and his family) as well several examples of achievement in it. The now famous finale where the aliens and the humans talk to each other through making music (via vibrantly bright colors) with their electronic machines* is a marvelous visualization of this communication idea. Here is a story where the technology helps to accomplish it rather than hinder it (a la the police radio in Sugarland). Close Encounters takes Spielberg's interest in communication to a whole new level. This time, it is encompassing not only different groups of people, countries and cultures but is taking place across vast distances between radically different "kinds" of beings from different worlds.
*NOTE: Spielberg has often said that he has no clue as to the origin of the idea to have the humans and the aliens using computers to make music and talk to each other, but in the same 1999 Inside the Actor's Studio interview I mentioned in an earlier post, James Lipton, despite "not wanting to make too much of this," pointed out that Spielberg's father was a computer expert and his mother was a musician. Spielberg's genuinely giddy response is delightful to watch.
In the following scene Spielberg teases us with even more evidence of alien existence as air traffic controllers at a military base communicate with two pilots who get "buzzed" by a UFO. What makes the scene extraordinary is that it all takes place inside the control room with only the brief sounds of the alien spaceship and the words used by the eyewitnesses to describe it ("striking colors, brilliant lights," etc) being heard over the radio. The scene is deliberately low-key, methodical and emotionless. It has a very realistic feel to it (Spielberg actually used real air traffic controllers) and, as author Donald R. Mott says, it reflects "Spielberg's fascination with 'professonals,' scientists and authority figures presented as objectively cold and calculating types. It also establishes how unorthodox incidents are handled by professionals: intently pursued, looked upon skeptically and, finally, largely ignored... Indeed, after the two pilots both decline to file a report on the incident the whole matter, routinely handled, is dropped."
Throughout the film, Spielberg repeatedly cuts back to the investigative efforts of the scientists as the nature of the encounters progresses. In fact, the title of the film comes from Dr. J. Allen Hyneck, a government debunker who worked for "Project Blue Book" but eventually became a "believer." A close encounter of the first kind is simply a sighting, a close encounter of the second kind is physical evidence of alien activity and a close encounter of the third kind is actual contact. The scenes are sometimes humorous or whimsical in nature (as when the scientists roll a giant globe down the hallway to find the coordinates of the visitation site or when Laughin and Lacombe visit an Eastern country and find a mass of people chanting the now famous five-note phrase, composed by John Williams to represent the aliens' greeting, and when asked where these sounds come from all fingers enthusiastically point skyward). While Spielberg felt that the state didn't really get a fair shake in Sugarland, here it is portrayed in a much better light (though still somewhat suspicious as it does conspire to lie to the public and keep ordinary citizens away from the designated place of contact) with the scientists shown as being intelligent and thorough but still retaining somewhat of that childlike quality that allows them to see the aliens not simply as potential threats but as providing an opportunity for us to learn something.
This connection to a childlike state of wonder and curiosity is a major theme not only in Close Encounters but throughout all Spielberg's movies and is captured in no better image, often hailed as the siganture shot in Spielberg's career, than the moment when the toddler Barry (Cary Guffey) fearlessly opens the door to all the light and sound outside that terrifies his mother Gillian (Melinda Dillon). As I have pointed out before, Spielberg is known for being a good director of children (coaxing natural performances from them) and for having the child characters in his films behaving not like "mini-adults" but like actual real-life children. A lot of this is due to Spielberg's own attitude towards kids. He does not see them as a "lesser" or "inferior" class of human beings. He respects them and treats them like he would a peer. He does not talk down or condescend to them, though he does perhaps "trick" them occasionally into giving him the kind of reactions he needs on screen. Close Encounters has some wonderful behind-the-scenes stories of Spielberg iliciting certain reactions from the young Cary by having members of his crew dress up as clowns and gorillas and leap out of huge cardboard boxes. There is also a great anecdote about Spielberg standing at the top of a tall ladder slowly unwrapping a gift for Cary while the camera was running (so that he is seen to be gazing upward with anticipation, licking his lips, etc) and eventually pulling out a small fire engine. At one point Cary actually cried "Toys!" and Spielberg liked the sincere response so much that he put it in the movie. Spielberg ended up almost always printing the first take of Cary in these shots (which earned the boy the nickname "one-take Cary") and the resulting moments on film are priceless.
Spielberg's identification with children, however, has also been the source of much criticism. Because of his regard for the openness to a world of possibilities that kids have, he has been accused of elevating the mind/outlook of a child to a "state of grace," to valuing a child's perspective over the skeptical, cynical or "educated" viewpoint of a grown-up. Consequently, many people say Spielberg infantilizes his audiences. As with a number of criticisms directed as Spielberg, there is legitimacy to this and in some films it becomes more pronounced than in others, but there can also be a balance between the two perspectives; they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Spielberg can, and has, managed over time to see the world both through the innocent and hopeful eyes of a child while still understanding and respecting the more mature and sophisticated ideas/concepts of an adult. It is possible to retain one without losing the other and I think Spielberg (much like Truffaut, another filmmaker known for his understanding of, respect for and association with children) is perhaps one of the prime examples of that.
Childlike tendencies are also heavily reflected in the film's main character of Roy Neary who, even before the alien visitation, seems sorely dissatisfied with his home life: preferring to play with the staple Spielbergian model train set or take his kids to go see Pinocchio than spend time with his wife (Teri Garr) or even do his own job (which, interestingly, is for the power company, continuing the "light" theme). Once again, the subject of family dysfunction comes to the fore in the domestic scenes and, while quite funny, they are far from idyllic. Roy's wife, for example, is portrayed as the stereotypical housewife/mother more concerned with her furniture, outfits and social status in the community than in looking beyond her immediate circumstances to learn whether there is anything more to life. As the movie goes on and Roy's obsession tears the family apart, the scenes grow less funny and more painful, clearly coming from the life of someone who experienced the kind of discord seen on screen. It is interesting to note that despite Spielberg's animosity towards his father at that time in his life (having not yet reconciled with him) Roy is depicted in a very sympathetic light.
After several bizarre episodes (the most memorable of which is probably Roy's molding a mountain out of a pile of mashed potatoes) Roy's family finally leaves him. Roy then uses the living room to build an immense sculpture of the shape that has been coming into his head since his encounter. When it fails to provide him with the closure he needs, he calls his wife on the phone, much like Dennis Weaver in Duel, and tries to reconcile with her (resurrecting the theme of communication again) but the conversation clearly does not end well. At the moment that he hangs up Roy catches a television broadcast of a tragedy that occurred near Devil's Tower in Wyoming, which resulted in the evacuation of the area, and realizes that that is where he needs to go to find "an answer." Once again, the film's religious metaphors become apparent. Devil's Tower becomes like a modern-day Sinai where Roy must make a pilgrimage to "meet God" (it's interesting to note that the Cecil B. Demille film The Ten Commandnments played on a TV set in the background of an earlier scene).
Along the way, Roy meets up with Melinda Dillon (whom he had previously met after almost accidentally running over young Barry with his truck). She also saw the broadcast and has made her way to the mountain as well. In her case, though, she is not as interested in finding the truth as she is in retrieving her son who has abducted earlier in the film (in an incredibly suspenseful sequence reminiscent of the attack on the house in Hitchcock's Birds). Together Roy and Gillian become an almost "alternate" family to the one that Roy left behind and their mission to reach the tower (and in Gillian's case regain her child) parallels the journey undertaken by the young couple in Sugarland Express.
Much has been written about the climax of the film, a twenty-minute masterpiece of a sequence wherein the aliens and the humans finally make contact. It is probably the film's signature set piece: a marvelous choreography of lights, sound and music. The aliens--some played, significantly, by little children and others actually puppets--are strikingly backlit giving them an ethereal, effervescent quality as the emotions reach operatic heights at that point in the story. Williams even employs a choir of voices in the music score and manages to weave the now familiar five-note theme into an immense symphonic tapestry (even cleverly incorporating the melody to "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Disney's Pinocchio into it). It adds greatly to the spiritual magnitude of this encounter making it feel very much like a divine visitation. If there is a more beautiful depiction of a religious "conversion-like" epiphane on film other than the one at the end of Close Encounters than I don't know what it is (As Pauline Kael wrote in her very favorable review: "God is up there in a crystal-chadelier spaceship and He likes us."). In the end, the aliens are revealed to be friendly (a phenomenon that in and of itself makes Close Encounters a distinct take on alien civilizations since they were almost always portrayed as hostile throughout the 50's and 60's), Roy is taken onboard the ship, Gillian is reunited with her boy and all is right with the world. Once again, Spielberg finds his happy ending and, once again, he earns it.
In the continuum of Spielberg's career, Close Encounters is significant for a number of reasons. Naturally the visual effects have to be commented on. Spielberg, having been mostly unfamiliar with the world of special affects (aside from the mechanical shark in Jaws), hired Douglas Trumball, one of the effects supervisor on Kubrick's 2001, to make the spaceships not only appear realistic but look unlike anything previously seen on the big screen. Close Encounters came about at a time when the nature of cinematic special effects was changing. Spielberg's friend and colleague George Lucas was about to re-write the manual entirely with his first Star Wars film (also released in '77). These were not only new special effects, these were new "kinds" of special effects that proved highly influential to other filmmakers and which hold up extremely well today. Starting with Close Encounters, Spielberg would be regarded as a "special effects director", a double-edged perception if there ever was one.
Close Encounters also marks Spielberg's first collaboration with an artist who would become almost as important a filmmaking partner as John Williams: Academy Award-winning editor Michael Kahn (who would go on to cut all of Spielberg’s feature films with the exception of E.T.). Spielberg and Kahn, like Spielberg and Williams, would enjoy a very fruitful and very friendly working relationship, each one bringing out the best in the other. One thing that can be said in Spielberg’s favor is the loyalty he has to his friends and co-workers. When Spielberg finds someone he likes and works well with, he sticks with that person, choosing to surround himself with his own sort of filmmaking “family” made up not simply of “yes” men but of fellow talented artists who challenge and stimulate him as well as inspire and support him.
Close Encounters is not quite the "perfect" film that Jaws is (again, struggling with an episodic nature) but is much more ambitious and, as we have seen, far more personal of a statement by Spielberg. In the words of Pauline Kael: "Great films are rarely perfect films." If one were to define art as that which is expressed personally by the artist, then Close Encounters would mark Spielberg’s true beginnings as an artist and not just as a craftsman. Spielberg has said that for the early part of his career, he had difficulty allowing himself to be seen in his work, so he relied quite a bit on technique. He wanted to be John Ford, he wanted to be Frank Capra, he wanted to be Alfred Hitchcock. He wanted to be anybody but himself. Although, obviously, a filmmaker’s personality can’t help but come through in his/her work (just as we have seen Spielberg’s own ideas, themes, doubts and fears be present in his previous films) Close Encounters does seem to represent Spielberg’s growing comfort with allowing himself to show through in his films and in that regard alone it is a significant work. Interestingly, Close Encounters is also one of the few films that Spielberg has said “dates” him. When he looks back on it now he sees his idealism, his naivete, his innocence. He has said that he could never make a film today about someone who pushes his family away in pursuit of an obsession. “It was one of the advantages of youth.” Spielberg may not be the same man he was in 1977 (and that is neither a good or bad thing) but who we was at that particular point in his life did help him produce a superb work of art and one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made.
TOMORROW: It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad war!