Spielberg: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Well, Spielbeard season is underway, and we now have retros on The Sugarland Express, Duel and of course, Jaws. Funny to try and think back to a time when the ‘berg was known and defined (for anyone who even knew of him at all), as the Shark guy. No E.T. no Raiders, no Color Purple, no Schindler’s List, Private Ryan or Minority Report. Nothing, not even an actual honest to goodness beard! Nope, Spielberg was the shark guy, and the shark guy was about to give us a movie about UFO’s. A movie that together with Star Wars; spearheaded a major revival of science fiction as a go genre. A film that somehow managed to capture the mood of the times regarding UFO mania, and simultaneously present it in a wonderfully benign, and agreeable if somewhat naive and childlike way. Finally; it was a movie that sported one of the craziest ‘that’ll never fly’ titles you can think of in big budget filmland.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind – hmmm… doesn’t exactly skip joyfully off the tongue does it?

Naturally, seeing as how I was six years old in 1977, I have no real solid memory of what it must have been like to hear that lengthy title for the first time. Especially coming from the ‘Duel‘ and ‘Jaws‘ guy. As children, I guess we readily accept stuff like that, and subjectively, it’s just always been the title of the movie (if you see what I mean?). Odd or clunky titles also have a habit of soaking into our collective unconscious more and more as the years tick past, and we forget how awkward they are. Stop for a moment and be objective, and suddenly it becomes the slightly meaningless gob-full it really is. No wonder everybody (including the movie posters, that put the ‘Of The Third Kind’ so small you could barely see it), shortened it to just Close Encounters most of the time.

This retrospective will focus on the original 1977 movie in general, but I will include a section on the Special Edition (1980) version also, which is a significant ‘event’ in the movie’s lore and must be covered with a little depth too.

Here we go then. I hope you enjoy my ramblings and musings on this most wonderful movie.

The movie follows three main story arcs that converge along the way towards a spectacular climax:

Firstly, we follow a government funded, militarily supported, scientific investigatory group headed up by French scientist Claude Lacombe (played by a wonderfully gentle and serene François Truffaut). Lacombe is aided by translator and cartographer David Laughlin (Bob Balaban also on top form), they generally travel around to different parts of the world to check out all manner of crazy inexplicable things, and piece together various clues and messages left by the aliens.

Secondly, we have our main protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). Family man and Joe ordinary from Muncie, Indiana who, after an amazing UFO experience while out in his truck; becomes increasingly obsessed with the aliens, to the detriment and breakdown of his relationship with his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) and three young children. More on that later.

Finally you have Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), also an eye witness from Muncie, and also obsessed with the UFOs. She is a single mum who’s four year old son Barry (Cary Guffey) is abducted by the visitors; setting her on a journey to find him (more on that too).

Roy and Jillian share a common and increasingly unique bond and eventually find each other again in Wyoming after being drawn there inexplicably by TV images of Devil’s Tower. They decide to travel together to the landmark, which we discover is the location picked by the aliens to conduct the first official contact and communication exchange with humankind. Roy finds his destiny here, and Jillian finds her son. The movie ends with Roy being picked by the aliens to begin a fantastic journey into space as some kind of ambassador of the human species.

Phew!! So much for not doing a synopsis.

Ok, so let’s get one thing straight, this movie is flippin’ wonderful. All the principal cast members are top floor good, and really only the incredibly talented and funny Teri Garr is written out too early and underused (in my opinion of course).

Although fundamentally, this is Neary’s story – I have to concede that for me, especially now as an adult; it is the Lacombe and Laughlin pairing that interests me most. Truffaut and Balaban partnering up in such a complimentary way. I really wanted to see more of their journey, particularly on a personal level as well as the science and discovery stuff. I also have to say, I would like to have seen more of Jillian’s arc too. That’s not to say that the Neary story is not great. It is, and Dreyfuss and Garr make an interestingly nuanced and funny pair. However, if the film fails anywhere; it is in the writing of Neary’s story and development.

So what’s wrong with the Neary story? Well, it’s very simple and can be summed up like this:

He has a wife and three young children, yet he seemingly quite easily abandons them (possibly forever) in order to get on the Mothership with the aliens and embark on an indefinite cruise round the galaxy.

I guarantee that most of the young guys out there who don’t have wives and kids yet will be going “yeah…and? What’s wrong with that? She took the kids and split” – Yet, to anyone (like myself) who has a wife and young children, this act of Neary’s to leave Earth with the aliens doesn’t sit well. What’s more, the Neary character has been written as a compassionate and responsible family man, not a selfish arsehole. This means, that his act of abandoning his wife and kids, is actually something that a man like Neary would never do, despite the marital issues he has caused between them due to his obsession with the UFO’s earlier in the movie.

Put it this way. Neary is losing the plot right? He’s building a 1/100 scale model of Devil’s Tower (although at this stage, he doesn’t know it’s Devil’s Tower) in his living room, and acting completely nuts. He is pulling up his neighbour’s chicken wire, and dumping his trash can and god knows what else into his living room through a small side window. It is absolutely correct, that in the face of all this bananas behaviour; Ronnie would stick the kids in the car and take off to her mothers.

Now, apart from a phone call, that ends with Ronnie hanging up on Roy (she’s still pissed with him after all), The man never again troubles himself with the whereabouts of his wife and kids. In fact, once he sees the TV image of Devil’s Tower, it’s go go go and all of a sudden we are like 1200 miles and four states away with him in Wyoming, talking to a ‘blink and you’ll miss me’ army officer played by Apollo Creed himself, Carl Weathers. From there of course Roy ends up leaving the entire planet, stopping briefly to have a romantic kiss with Jillian. Wife? What wife? Kids? Meh, didn’t like them anyway……see what i mean?

Spielberg himself has expressed regret about this aspect of Neary’s story, and puts it down to him having been a very young man with no children at the time he wrote the movie. Bless the beard, for it will bring you knowledge.

Watching it for the purposes of this retro was the first time I’ve seen it since becoming a father myself, and although I had long felt a twinge of unease about Neary’s abandonment issue; this time it was so much more glaringly obvious, and I found it a little more difficult to connect and invest with him because of it.

The only way you can look at Roy’s actions as justifiable in any way, is to consider him a on some kind of messianic, higher purpose quest for enlightenment etc. leaving the matters of the flesh and heart behind, and embarking on an extended spiritual and universal awakening etc. – This is not implicit in the narrative though, and it seems obvious that Spielberg just didn’t think it was important to tie up better.

Ok, while I’m on the demerit side of the ledger, there is another thing that has only occurred with this latest viewing of the movie, never thought about it before:

Spielberg deliberately sets out to draw the aliens as benign, wise, and good intentioned. Like the film itself, they are supposed to carry a noble agenda. This is fine, and works well until you think of things like this:

Jillian’s son Barry, although unafraid of the aliens; is still forcibly abducted by them (through the cat-flap), after a particularly upsetting and harrowing ordeal for his mother. Why? Why take him? And why put Jillian through the ringer like that? I know he comes back out of the ship at the end, but she doesn’t know they will willingly give him back, and what would have happened to little Barry if she hadn’t made it that far? From her perspective, they may not seem quite so benevolent.

Also, when all the flight 19 guys (pilots) start bewildering their way out of the Mothership, they haven’t aged a day, yet 30 some odd years had passed since they ‘disappeared’. What does this mean? Have these fly-boys spent 30 odd years on the Mothership, and somehow not aged? Or is it only a short time (subjectively) for them, since they were abducted? Either way, the aliens have effectively ballsed up all these guys entire lives, as their young wives and babies will now be aged and middle aged respectively by now, and everything they knew is either dead and gone or changed radically – How the hell, do you adjust to that? Thanks boys, way to go.

Basically, what I’m saying is that although we all buy into the notion that the aliens are benevolent and peace-loving, they do go in for quite a bit of skin burning, abduction and life wrecking. It doesn’t pay to look at any movie too closely, as you will always see the cracks and the glue holding it all together. Close Encounters is no different in that respect.

Right that’s enough of that, let’s move on.

Steven Spielberg is a genius, of this I am certain. Close Encounters treads a magnificent line and balances the wonder and awe of a child with the legitimate and believable sensibilities of an adult. Some say this movie was a sort of ‘proto’ E.T., A sort of trial run or introduction to a certain set of ideals later exploited in that film. It certainly gave birth to the idea for E.T. and the influences and connections are clear. One thing does strike me as being fundamentally and diametrically opposed between the two movies though and it is this:

E.T. Is unashamedly a kids film, but one that adults can definitely enjoy and engage with.

Close Encounters on the other hand is very much a film for adults, but happily one that children can also enjoy and engage with (my six year old self certainly did). It’s a very good trick to be able to pull off, whichever way round you do it. Close Encounters does it amazingly well.

This is why the movie is (and always has been) a multi-repeat viewing experience for me, yet I’ve never even owned E.T. In any format, and to this day, have not seen the ‘Lucas’… sorry ‘Anniversary’ version the ‘berg did a while back.

The Special Edition (1980)

So let’s just have a little talk about the Special Edition of the movie. At this stage, here in 2011 many people may well have forgotten that Close Encounters got a second full cinema release three years after its original run. Even now, this is a strange and unusual thing to happen. We’re all used to the occasional Director’s Cut of a movie, and of course the very common ‘Extended’ or ‘Uncut’ versions of movies appearing on the DVD/Blu-Ray release (yawn). We also see the rarer cinema re-jig edition (think the recent Avatar director’s cut). But this was different. Whereas these ‘special editions’ were extended cuts that mainly just restored scenes nixed from the original theatrical cut, (usually for running time or pacing reasons). Close Encounters special edition actually had its own $1.5million production budget and contained new scenes shot especially for it.

It’s generally well known (among fans of the film), that the original cut of the movie was rushed out in late ’77 to make sure Columbia’s balance sheet for that year looked better than it actually was, and possibly saving the studio from financial ruin and collapse. Spielberg pressured into delivering a movie he wasn’t entirely finished or happy with. (so far, so Lucas). Once it was a massive box office success, and Columbia had raked some pennies back into the bank, the ‘berg was granted a budget to go back and fix up the movie how he wanted. This included cuts and trims to existing scenes, as well as adding whole other scenes throughout (like the excellent Cotopaxi scene). Much of the work was too subtle for the average punter to notice of course, and the movie actually ended up a little shorter than the original.

Inevitably there was a price to pay, a deal with the devil so to speak. In this case, Columbia only granted Spielberg his doubloons on the proviso that he give us all something really spectacular that many younger viewers (but not me) of the original film might have secretly wished for. This of course was to go inside the mothership with Neary at the end. It turns out that Spielberg always hated having to do that, and was never happy with it, but the deal was made and the deed was done. So it was then that the special edition hit cinemas in 1980, sold to us on this promise of showing us ‘more’ (I actually remember the whole ‘more!’ ad campaign). The Mothership interior scenes indeed wowed us all just enough to make seeing the film again so soon worthwhile. It obviously worked on me, as I remember successfully petitioning my uncle Brian to take us to see it). Ultimately (and with the benefit of time, adulthood and a greater appreciation of what makes great films great), I am in agreement with most of my peers and the beard himself that Close Encounters is better without the Mothership interior; spectacular though it was. Spielberg’s 1997 ultimate re-cut version finally presented the best elements of both versions (keeping Cotopaxi for instance and deleting the extended Mothership business). I’m lucky enough to own the 2007 30th Anniversary Blu-Ray edition which contains all three official versions of the movie. I trust this will be the end of it. On balance I think the 1997 final cut is the best, but there are some lovely bits of business in the original that I’m sorry got cut.

Note: For the purposes of this retrospective, I decided to watch the original 1977 cut (obviously), and it was a real eye opener in so much as it made me realise how many scenes, dialogue lines or shots that had become part of the furniture for me over the years, were not in the original cut. Much of this more subtle business, I think has become really key and in a way; I missed its absence now, watching the original.

Music – John Williams

As a child, I was very musically engaged, and responded significantly to many different forms, including symphonic film scores. Star Wars was probably the earliest score to hit the bullseye, but Close Encounters, and Superman were hot on its heels. Jaws hit my radar once I saw it on TV, and ET and Raiders also scored. Bit of a John Williams fan then! Yes, I guess so. Williams was certainly the first film score composer that I knew by name and got into, although Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Ennio Morricone and Basil Poledouris soon followed. The Close Encounters score impressed right from the off, although as a child; it was the more obvious and bombastic Star Wars, and Superman themes that dominated. However, Williams’ score for Close Encounters is what a philosopher might describe as a ‘higher pleasure’, and has a maturity and confident credibility about it, that impresses. For me, it has been one of those scores that has steadily become more and more of a favourite for me as I’ve got older.

From beginning to end, it’s an amazing and wonderful score. Its themes ranging from being almost orgasmically majestic in places, to fantastically mysterious in others and is consistent and very effective. A lot of people derided it for incorporating a well known motif from ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ into its fabric, but it’s never bothered me. I’ve never really understood why that particular device causes people so much consternation. It’s never bothered me at all and I think it works very very well throughout.

Any piece of music that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and bring a tear to the eye is a work of purest genius. It’s genius to be able to do that to the human body, because it’s autonomic, you’re not in control of it. It’s something the music is doing to you, making your body react like that. It is a singular power.

Any mention of the music of Close Encounters of course, must mention a certain little 5 note motif. This now famous and culturally significant musical figure is woven into the movie incredibly cleverly. By the end of the film, it is very well established, having been featured multiple times in different contexts and forms. This means that once the actual climax of the film occurs and the credits are rolling, the most magnificent and majestic of the film’s themes occurs and again centres around the 5 note motif, but this time cushioned and flavoured by a wonderful and uplifting chord progression. It’s so stirring, and for me; indescribably beautiful.

Watching the movie again was a consummate pleasure, it’s still a work of genius despite my aforementioned points regarding the alien’s and Neary’s moral compasses etc. and is a noble and satisfying way to spend a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

Right then, it’s time to crank up the Blu-Ray and Fat TV and watch the other two versions of the movie. See you all in 5 or 6 hours!

Ben Pegley

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