Sunday, February 7, 2010

Steven Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

If any limits had previously been placed on Steven Spielberg, be they financial or artistic, Jaws effectively blew them out of the water. Spielberg was king of the world 20 years before Cameron snatched the title, and anything he wanted was going to be immediately greenlit by studios desperate to have this money-making juggernaut working for them. His choice of follow-up proved that, even for the man who would push American cinema further and further away from art until it became nearly impossible to find, Steven Spielberg wasn't afraid to take risks.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind playfully teases its audience with the same suspense Spielberg wielded so masterfully in his previous feature. He capitalizes on his new fame by structuring the picture as a well-paced alien invaders movie, always slightly unsettling with its paranormal activity. Yet it all proves a feint, one long misdirection leading to one of the great twist endings in cinema, and one of the few that provides emotional resonance instead of audience manipulation: what if the aliens were benevolent?

Yes, Close Encounters marks the point where Spielberg's unabashed, occasionally counterproductive optimism took root, fleshing out the barely justified sentimentality in The Sugarland Express and making a case for this story's heartfelt emotion. It cements his motifs of rocky marriages and distant fathers, and if it was at all possible for his aesthetic to improve further from the technical perfection of Jaws, Spielberg somehow gets even better with a camera.

For where Jaws demonstrated a director with total knowledge of the camera, Close Encounters shows that same director given a heap of money to apply his vision with state-of-the-art effects (which have since been cleaned up further in subsequent editions of the film -- this review covers the superior director's cut completed in 1998). Upon its release, Close Encounters of the Third Kind officially became the loudest film ever made. Its use of light is no less overwhelming: at times the screen floods with orange glows and heavenly auras, alternately terrifying and alluring. This sensory overload never blinds or deafens us to the story, however; Spielberg is not trying to distract us from a weak narrative. He's trying to make us a part of it.

He ported over Richard Dreyfuss from his last film, after the actor lobbied for the part during all the downtime of Jaws and even helped Spielberg work on the script. He brings his brilliant comic timing to the role of Roy Neary, an electrical lineman in Indiana, one of a group of people who see something strange in the sky. Before we meet him, Spielberg opens with seemingly random scenes of inexplicable occurrences: a squadron of missing WWII planes is found in pristine condition in the Sonoran Desert an air traffic controller listens as two planes nearly collide with an object without markings. In Muncie, Indiana, a young boy, Barry Guiler awakes in his room to find his toys suddenly operating and runs outside as if chasing someone only he can see as his mother Gillian (Melinda Dillon) to follow after him desperately trying to snap him out of his haze.

Meanwhile, Roy sits with his family at night, largely ignoring his kids and displaying his immaturity by attempting to bond with them only over the things he likes. He sets up a model train to crash ostensibly to teach his eldest son math and, when reminded of his promise to take the family to the movies and to play mini-golf, he launches into a futile bit of reverse psychology to convince his kids to see his childhood favorite Pinocchio. A massive power outage suddenly hits the state, and Roy heads out to investigate the problem. As he stops to check a map, bright lights appear behind him; thinking it's a car, he waves them by and goes back to his map, failing to notice that the lights suddenly rise up behind the truck. But he notices a bank of mailboxes shaking violently, and he spots a strange object in the sky before it bursts into luminescence, flooding the truck with blinding light and sending the gauges haywire. He attempts to pursue the UFO, along with the local police force, but the brilliant flier disappears into the night after leading them on a brief chase.

Soon, the already-distant Roy begins to withdraw completely from his family. He incessantly spots some odd mound in everyday objects, such as a dob of shaving cream or a pillow. He forces his family to ride out to the spot where he saw the lights, but there's no evidence of anything unusual. "I remember when we used to come to places like this just to look at each other," his wife says as she tries to rekindle whatever passion they've lost with gentle kisses. Roy returns them, but you can see in his eyes that his head is in the clouds. His behavior grows increasingly erratic, to the point that his family fears for his health, and their own. Indeed, the shot of Roy's eldest son looking on at the dinner table as his father silently crafts his mashed potatoes into the same shape that fills his thoughts, barely able to contain his tears as he watches his dad slipping away completely, is perhaps the pivotal shot in the director's career. In that one shot is the totality of his subplots of neglected children and distant fathers, and only someone who'd been as funny in the rest of the film as Dreyfuss could be so heartbreaking when he realizes his family is watching him and, on the verge of tears himself, tries to reassure them: "I guess you've noticed something a little strange with Dad. It's okay, though. I'm still Dad."

He provides little evidence to support this, however, and Ronnie can't take it anymore when she awakens to find Roy upending plants in the yard and throwing them in the house along with dirt, garbage, and even the neighbor's chicken wire. He barely acknowledges his wife's protests and offers only a brief plea as she loads the children into the car and leaves. (Dreyfuss is magnificently funny in this bit, collecting himself as his family speeds away and he finally notices his neighbors gawking at him. With utmost dignity, he re-enters his house through the kitchen window before sticking his head out to grab the step ladder and, with one final look at the gathering crowd, shuts the window and kicks up a small cloud of dirt.) With his materials, Roy constructs a ceiling-high replica of the mound he envisions, just as a report comes on the television concerning a chemical leak at Devils Tower, a rock formation that looks just like the model Roy just sculpted.

Steven Spielberg has never pursued dreams with the same veracity as, say, Terry Gilliam or Werner Herzog, but his corpus is vaguely defined (sometimes to its benefit, others its detriment) by dreams and desires. Those who experienced a close encounter are drawn, against their will, to think of Devils Tower and, if possible, to go there, but there is wonder in their eyes. They forsake the rest of the world because something about those blinking lights gave them more than just a weird case of sunburn: it gave them possibilities. Consider Roy's determination, as far as we know the first in his life, or little Barry (himself a bit alien; young Cary Guffey's body has yet to grow in proportion to his large head here) chasing merrily after that ephemeral force. Or look even to an early scene of a crowd in India who experienced an encounter as well, as they all chant the five-tone musical phrase that would define the film just as the "duh-dunn" motif defined Jaws. When asked where they learned this noise, Spielberg inserts a shot of dozens of hands all pointing upward. There's so much magic in Close Encounters that Spielberg had to drain the excess into another science fiction film.

Hell, you can spot Spielberg all over the place in this movie. Setting aside the themes and motifs that he would employ extensively over the years, various tidbits in the film pop up in later features. The shot of an initial gathering of those "touched" by the UFO spots a bright light coming over a hill, only for their fervor to die when they see that it's just a helicopter. Similar shots exist both in E.T. and A.I. (and, I believe, War of the Worlds, but I'm not sure), in those cases creating an effect of suspense and terror where we momentarily feel euphoria before realizing that the bright light was but mere mortals. Near the end, after the aliens land at Devil's Tower, a scientist panics and runs into a port-a-potty, echoing the lawyer attempting to hide from the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. The almost ludicrous size of the mother ship, as well as the basic shape of the aliens (short, long necks), would be re-worked for E.T. The shape of the smaller saucers, as well as their lighting scheme, resemble the tiny alien aircraft in the Spielberg-produced *batteries not included. There's even a possible callback to Jaws in the musical exchange between the scientists at Devil's Tower and the mother ship, which slows down after a flurry of notes as the ship plays two low notes that sound a bit like William's motif for Jaws.

Maybe that's recycling, but there's so much power to Spielberg's direction that I can't fault him for mining the picture for subsequent endeavors. Forget the effects for a moment, if you can (though let's give the effects genius Doug Trumbell credit for once again outpacing everyone else in the industry) and focus on the emotional impact and the sublime skill at work here. A scene in which Roy and Gillian, both driven to Devils Tower after seeing it on TV, meet and embrace as kindred spirits as crowds flee the supposedly toxic area is just about the greatest demonstration of the rule of thirds I've ever seen, managing to crush the two in a panicking sea of people yet making them instantly identifiable by placing them at the top-right intersection. There is subtle cheek as well, such as positioning Roy and the French scientist Lacombe (New Wave pioneer François Truffaut, whose mere presence confirms the true artistry and cinephilia in Spielberg's crowd-pleasers) in front of the mother ship as Lacombe tells the protagonist of his jealousy concerning Roy's selection to go aboard the ship. Just as he says it, one of the countless lights on the ship blazes green behind them. For all of its family drama and otherworldly elation, Close Encounters never manipulates its audience in the way that Spielberg can in his weaker moments.

It retains its power because of what's left unsaid, which is why Spielberg's original re-edit of the film is so shockingly terrible. The director, despite his massive success, did not have final cut privilege during production as Columbia Pictures then teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and needed the film out as quickly as possible. Once it became a hit and saved the studio, Spielberg asked to re-cut the film according to his vision. Columbia agreed, but asked him to insert a shot of the interior of the mother ship. Spielberg hated this caveat, and rightly so: Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film about wonder, more so than any other film in the director's career. The original cut, as well as the definitive Collector's Edition made 18 years after the first re-edit, allows us to feel that wonder because it leaves us to our own imagination.

As with Jaws, Close Encounters ends on a high note, but not necessarily a wholly happy one. Neary, who finally found a purpose in life, boards the mother ship to be with the aliens and learn from them, but in the process he's leaving his family for good (Spielberg himself said he would not have ended the film this way had he made it after the birth of his own children). Spielberg made a deal with his friend George Lucas, who struggled at the time with Star Wars' production and feared the film would tank at the box office, to trade 5% off the back-ends of each film's rentals, an agreement that certainly worked out better for Spielberg. Yet Close Encounters has aged far better than the original Star Wars, filled with equally stunning effects but bereft of the clunky dialogue that slows A New Hope down in its first two acts. Taken with Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind solidifies Spielberg's technical sizzle and forms the perfect symbiosis between script and style, and it can still make you, as it says repeatedly during the film -- borrowing from Hawks' The Thing from Another World -- "watch the skies."


  1. I can't say why completely, but one of my favorite parts of this film has always been the storyline of Jillian and her son. I've always been drawn to her son's enigmatic encounters with the aliens, and especially the scene where the aliens are hellbent on finally taking him.

    (Talk about freaking the audience out without actually showing them very much!).

    But for a great display of how good a director Spielberg is, I keep coming back to the early scene where the kid runs into the messy kitchen and presumably sees the aliens. When I watched the special features of the dvd and discovered how Spielberg got those reactions out of the kid...I was hooked. (I presume you've heard the story as to what he did).

    By the way, as a huge fan of Senior Spielbergo I'm really enjoying this series.

    Mind if I ask what prompted it?

  2. My fave part of this film is when they find the missing WW2 planes out in the desert. There is something so mysterious about it and a great way draw one into the film.

    This is an excellent look at this film which, after RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, is probably my fave Spielberg film for many of the reasons you stated so eloquently in your post.

  3. @Hatter: I just wanted to give his more recent output a second look after I turned around on A.I. and began to see the social commentary in his modern stuff, so I just decided to go and do his whole filmography while I was at it to re-evaluate childhood faves and to see what few I haven't watched.