Sunday, February 12, 2012

Blu-Ray Binges: Close Encounters of the Third Kind


Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie without a villain. Sure, you could argue the aliens, the military, or Teri Garr fit the bill, but you won't hear much of that from me. Some of their actions are certainly questionable, but as Jean Renoir would say, they all have their reasons, and everyone is reconciled at the soaring Devil's Tower Philharmonic climax (except my beloved Teri, who gets the shaft here as she did in Tootsie). What's amazing is how Spielberg makes the movie compelling anyway, sometimes by setting up temporary threats (aliens), obstacles (military), and skeptics (Garr) in the path of Roy Neary - played by a rarely-better Richard Dreyfuss - yet often through the structure of the film itself.

The parallel narratives of Close Encounters - Roy's quest to discover what the UFO encounter and his subsequent visions mean; the Franco-American scientific initiative, led by Francois Truffaut's Lacombe and Bob Balaban's Laughlin, to hold a summit with the alien visitors - dovetail beautifully, showcasing Spielberg's ability to convey the magical in the commonplace and the human in the extraordinary. I don't know how much of Paul Schrader's original concept Spielberg kept in his screenplay, but the growing possession of Roy by his visions anticipates Jesus accosted by the Holy Spirit in the Schrader-scripted Last Temptation of Christ. It's certainly in keeping with the religiosity of Schrader's own films (he has said he wanted to make Close Encounters a metaphor for the story of St. Paul), albeit with more welcome humor that is likely a product of Spielberg's sensibility.

Funny as it is to see Dreyfuss playing with his mashed potatoes and later tearing up his house, it's deeply unsettling too (more so than the horror-movie scare tactics Spielberg employs in the kidnapping of Melinda Dillon's son). Spielberg uses a dual perspective: We identify with Roy's confusion and obsession, yet we also understand why his wife and children would be concerned, upset, and want to flee. Fear is also the military's emotion of choice to drive the inhabitants of Wyoming out of the rendezvous area: one of my favorite scenes is the brainstorming session of ideas for what will scare the citizenry the most, followed by the incongruously menacing image of Higgly-Piggly and Baskin-Robbins trucks driving down the interstate. In Close Encounters, the overcoming of fear occurs through communication. It's touching to hear Truffaut struggle with English (a language he never mastered) and Balaban accommodating him in his comfort zone; it's transcendent to listen to the evolution of the musical cue that originates with the natives in Africa and mastered by the team of Lacombe and Laughlin and played by Dillon's son and ultimately bridges the communication gap between the extra-terrestrials and humanity. Overcoming fear is a key component of the film; when Roy removes his gas mask and calls the military on their bluff, it's a great moment because he's doing it as an ordinary man rather than a hero - which makes his actions all the more heroic.

I watched Close Encounters last week for the first time in years, picking up the impressive Blu-Ray set with all three versions of the film from which to choose (the1977 Theatrical Release, the misconceived 1980 Special Edition, and the mea-culpa 1998 Director's Cut). Although the movie has aged well, it reveals its age in interesting ways. One is how the teamwork between the French and Americans (an even less likely peaceful union today than people and aliens) personifies the 70s Hollywood movie-brats' tip of their hat to the French New Wave. Until the overlong climax, Close Encounters is as propulsive and tightly-edited as the best of Truffaut's or Godard's own films, remarkably free of the speechifying and unnecessary drawing out of events that has plagued Spielberg's later work. (Lincoln...I'm just dreading it.) There's a interminable sequence in War Horse, where we see a letter being written by one character, then the letter being delivered to another character, then the other character being told that he has a letter, then that character opening the letter, then that character reading the damn letter, that illustrates all the narrative plodding that Spielberg's script and Michael Kahn's editing in Close Encounters avoids.

An even more fascinating artifact of the 1970s is Roy's decision to join the aliens in their intergalactic tour, a culmination of the hippie-vagabond impulse from the decade prior. Close Encounters makes this choice not even really a choice; it feels preordained, the character's destiny (and the director's cut, like the original theatrical release, wisely leaves us outside the mothership and the Disneyland interiors of the special edition). Roy clearly loves his kids and (perhaps less so) his wife, but hints of fissure exist even before his first extra-terrestrial encounter fractures these relationships irreparably. (Disruptive and damaging as the aliens' "invitations" are, they're still easier to forgive than the outright kidnappings of the WWII pilots and Dillon's son; somehow, though, you feel inclined to let these slide too). Spielberg has said that were he to make the movie today he would not have had Roy leave his family, and while that's an understandable outlook I'm glad he's resisted the George Lucas impulse to go back and change things. ("Sorry, I'm staying" - talk about a narrative dead-end.) Close Encounters is the kind of movie Spielberg couldn't make anymore even if he tried (occasionally, he has), not just because his worldview has shifted but because it has a confidence that most of his recent output lacks. The last movie he made prior to the debacle of 1941, it may have also been the last time he wasn't afraid to fail.

7 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

...it may have also been the last time he wasn't afraid to fail.

I'm sure all directors fall into this trap. And what's interesting is that sometimes the directors who seem to start to show fear also show signs of complete overconfidence. For example, I'd be more likely to attribute the messiness of Indy IV and the worst parts of War Horse to Spielberg having too little fear, so secure in his reputation and ability to direct anything he wants that he's shut down his more critical voice.

As for Close Encounters: It's among my least favorite Spielberg films, which no one seems to be able to understand. I didn't see it for the first time in my youth, so that's probably a factor. And, yes, I find that climax to be waaaaay too long, so there's that. But for whatever reason, it never grabs me. (Not as a whole, at least. It's not as if the film is lacking some cool moments.)

Ed Howard said...

Don't let Greg see this. Heh.

Disruptive and damaging as the aliens' "invitations" are, they're still easier to forgive than the outright kidnappings of the WWII pilots and Dillon's son; somehow, though, you feel inclined to let these slide too.

I think that gets at one of the problems with the ending, which is that, after spending the whole movie vacillating between Roy's rapturous response to the aliens and the more paranoid, terrified response of a lot of other people — and justifiably terrified, as in the harrowing sequence where the aliens kidnap the kid — Spielberg finally comes down definitively on the side of Roy, portraying the aliens as benevolent and peaceful. Nobody seems to care that they were kidnapping people anymore, or to wonder what they were doing to them up there on the ships. The ending kills the mystery, even in the non-special-edition ending where Spielberg doesn't show the inside of the ship.

But I do mostly like the film anyway, and the ambiguity you mention in the scenes where Roy goes crazy — where we sympathize with him and also with his baffled family — is a big part of it.

Craig said...

Jason:

For example, I'd be more likely to attribute the messiness of Indy IV and the worst parts of War Horse to Spielberg having too little fear, so secure in his reputation and ability to direct anything he wants that he's shut down his more critical voice.

I take a different view. The worst parts of Spielberg always involve too much exposition, too much talking, an insecurity that we're not getting what he's conveying through the images. That's why I love Close Encounters. It's a movie about the difficulty of communication that communicates this theme not only visually (at which he is peerless) but also aurally through musical motifs - pretty daring, really. If Spielberg remade it today he'd be too worried we wouldn't get it. I think it's one of his very best.

Ed:

Spielberg finally comes down definitively on the side of Roy, portraying the aliens as benevolent and peaceful. Nobody seems to care that they were kidnapping people anymore, or to wonder what they were doing to them up there on the ships.

Agreed. It's problematic in retrospect, though to be honest I don't think about it too much while watching it. It's probably what Tim Burton was responding to with Mars Attacks, like most Burton movies a great idea botched in execution.

Don't let Greg see this. Heh.

This post was actually my cheeky response to that, although I agree with a lot of what he wrote. I also plan to use the word "overrated" in my writing from now on as much as possible, since other movie bloggers have been demanding the word be stricken from the English language.

Adam Zanzie said...

Damn. I'm so behind on this Blu-Ray business it's not even funny. I don't own a Blu-Ray player nor a TV that's compatible with one. This must makes me feel... old. It seems I'm in no position to upgrade :(

Staying on-topic, though, I'd probably be happy to own just about any Blu-Ray version of CEOT3K, since I pretty much enjoy all three versions equally. Okay, I lied: I like the Special Edition the best. Ambiguity be damned, I love having the opportunity to see what Roy saw in the inside of the mothership. Even if Spielberg has said he wishes he hadn't filmed that scene to begin with...

Craig said...

Adam, I remember you were a fan of the Spec-Ed. I've saved that for last after viewing the Theatrical Release and Director's Cut, both for the first time in years. I don't remember all the differences between the versions, but the Blu-Ray set contains a helpful fold-out pamphlet that charts them on three parallel lines.

Kael's review of the Special Edition is interesting (she loved the original): "The Dreyfuss character makes more sense, but you may find yourself missing some of the bits." Will have to watch and see what those bits were.

I'm fairly late to the Blu-Ray game myself. Finally got one in the Fall, followed by a widescreen TV over the holidays. A Blu-Ray player can play your regular DVDs too and you may be surprised how much better they look. Indispensable for a movie buff like yourself and they're relatively cheap nowadays, though I haven't forgotten that for a college student there's no such thing as "cheap."

Jason Bellamy said...

If Spielberg remade it today he'd be too worried we wouldn't get it.

Yeah. Shows my reading comprehension. You articulated what you meant in the piece and I just latched on to the last sentence. My bad. In that context, I think you're right.

threeguys1movie.com said...

Nice take on the film, I have not checked out the Blu-ray version but I think you have inspired me to do so. In fact I am not sure when the last time was that I watched this film.
I like your take on Spielberg both becoming to syrupy sweet (war horse) and thankfully not pulling a Lucas and rewriting history with his film.

enjoyed checking out your blog,

Adam