Thursday, November 3, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.2: Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. Next, his 1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Grade: 98 (A)





After Jaws made Spielberg the hottest new director on the market, he was given the chance to do whatever he wanted. Some of the projects offered to him would no doubt have been interesting (Superman). Others were clearly go-nowhere endeavors (Jaws 2). Given creative control, Spielberg chose to make one of his most personal films. The result, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is a story of a man dissatisfied with his place in the world, looking for something more, and fighting personal and political forces to belong to something extraordinary.

Strange things are going on in the world. A group of American planes missing since World War II are found in a Mexican desert. French scientist Claude Lacombe (legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut), interpreter/mapmaker David Laughlin (producer Bob Balaban), and others are befuddled that there’s no trace of the pilots near the planes, and that the only man who saw the events has developed a strange sunburn on one side of his face. He claims that the sun came to him and “sang to him”. In India, Lacombe and Laughlin find a village singing five tones given to them from the sky. In Indianapolis, a near-collision with an unidentified flying object confuses local air-traffic controllers.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, electrical lineman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) experiences a “close encounter” of his own, develops a similar sunburn to that of the man in Mexico, and becomes obsessed with the UFOs and a strange, mountain-like image that appears in his head. His behavior frightens his wife (Teri Garr) and children and exacerbates their already troubled home life. Roy eventually meets up with fellow UFO sighter Jillian (Melinda Dillon), whose three-year-old son Barry was abducted by the strange crafts.

Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws has many of the same influences; there are multiple Howard Hawks style “men on an adventure” storylines. One has Lacombe and Laughlin searching for logical answers to what’s behind these strange occurrences. A second features Jillian’s search for her son. A third is Roy’s search for both an explanation behind the bizarre phenomena and for something beyond his plain existence. This time, however, the non-human force is not the antagonist, but a catalyst for their journeys. Instead, Roy’s greatest obstacles are his family (whose need for his support clash with his newfound purpose in life) and the government that lies about the UFOs’ existence.

There’s also Hitchcockian suspense in the film. When Roy and Jillian climb up the Devil’s Tower mountian and evase of the military, the scene evokes Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. More notably, Barry’s abduction from Jillian’s home is one of the most frightening scenes Spielberg ever directed; taking a cue from Jaws, the aliens and spaceships are never shown. The brilliant, glowing lights and strange phenomena surrounding their approach are enough to signify that something horrifying is going to happen.


Close Encounters’ most notable influences are new, however. Spielberg borrows from Stanley Kubrick’s films (most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey) in his introduction of strange objects that figure into later developments, in this case Roy and Jillian’s vision of a mountain-like shape. The spectacular UFO sightings are also 2001-influenced, but Spielberg’s sci-fi film is a much warmer one. Close Encounters plays like 2001 by way of classic Disney films (Pinocchio is frequently referenced). Roy is obsessed with these strange sightings, but his obsession is one of child-like wonder and awe (perfectly played by a never-better Dreyfuss). When the aliens finally touch down and communicate with their human counterparts, it is revealed that these are not malevolent monsters but beings just as curious about the possibility of intelligent life as humans are. This “science-speculation”, as a young Spielberg called it, is a blend of pie-eyed wonder and intellectual curiosity that defines many of Spielberg’s finest films.

Like Jaws, the Spielberg of Close Encounters has a mistrust of authority. Lacombe and Laughlin are intellectuals searching for an answer, but their immediate superiors in the U.S. government and military go to extreme lengths to protect national security (Watergate-era paranoia informs the shaky authority-civilian relationship). They deny the existence of the UFOs to people like Roy. When they learn where the aliens want to meet them, at the Devil’s Tower mountain in Wyoming, they claim that there is toxic gas in the area. When civilians contacted by the aliens come anyway, they detain them, and when Roy and Jillian make a break for Devil’s Tower, the military uses a form of tear gas to try to stop them. That Lacombe and Laughlin, two scientific experts, believe the aliens contacted them for a reason and that they belong there doesn’t matter. In trying to keep complicated matters as neat and tidy as possible, the men in charge make an ungodly mess.

Close Encounters features one of Spielberg’s most morally hazy protagonists. Where Jillian’s obsession with the UFOs is secondary to her fear for her son and Lacombe/Laughlin want nothing more than to understand, Roy’s obsession interferes with his responsibility to his family. Even before the aliens arrive, Roy is not a very good father: he is often short with his children, and his attention to them and to his wife is questionable, at best. He often seems more like a child than his children (he wants to see Pinocchio and is hurt by their disinterest in the film), and his wife’s frustration and fear of him is completely understandable. Spielberg’s use of overlapping dialogue in scenes involving technical jargon is strong, but it is much more central in the domestic disputes between Dreyfuss and Garr. These adults are at completely different maturity levels, and they feud about the Roy’s responsibility; three normal children caught in middle, (usually) trying not to displease mom and dad. By the end of the film, Roy has completely left his family behind in pursuit of the otherworldly beings who have contacted him.

But Roy’s dissatisfaction with his home life is understandable. Here is a man who followed the American Dream, got a job, and settled down with a wife and kids. Is this all there is? He doesn’t know who he is or how he matters, his boss treats him terribly, and his family doesn’t understand his plight. Now he has finally found something that gives his life direction: a light from the heavens, complete with instructions (however obscure) to Devil’s Tower (a Mount Sinai for the film’s purposes). It just happens that these instructions interfere with his responsibilities. Spielberg doesn’t judge Roy or his mistakes; in addition to being just as speculative and dissatisfied with everyday life as Roy, Spielberg was a child of divorce, and his love fathers shines through any sense of abandonment.

Much has been said about Spielberg’s fruitful collaborations with composer John Williams, but few have been as successful as the score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Williams was nominated for two Oscars in 1977, one for Close Encounters, and one for his rousing work for Star Wars. While few could complain about his win for the latter, his more complex score for Spielberg’s film is arguably the more impressive achievement. The score is at first atonal, strange, even frightening. It accompanies the initially confusing appearances of spaceships, long-missing vehicles, and the breakdown of household appliances. The famous five-tone theme is foreign and confounding. As the film progresses to the finale, the music becomes magical, wondrous, and full of optimism, and the five-tone theme becomes more inviting: something great is around the corner.


Boy, is there ever. The film culminates in a grand 30-minute finale in which the alien mothership touches down. The five-tone theme is used to establish a basic form of communication between the species. Is it clear what everything “said” means? No. But a basic message gets through: “Hello. You are not alone. There’s something more than this”. In 1977, near the end of a decade fraught with worry, mistrust, and strife, that message was comforting. It is comforting now. Whether that can be interpreted as religious or scientific, the idea of life outside the mundane is as central to humanity as any other. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg’s gives a possible answer to whether or not there’s something more.

NOTE: There are three versions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind: the original 1977 version, the 1980 Special Edition with extra family arguments and a peek inside the mothership, and the 1998 Director’s Cut that kept man of the second edition’s additions but wisely excised the mothership sequence in favor of allowing the viewers to rely on their imagination. While all three versions have their virtues, the 1998 version is the strongest.

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