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He says the Sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
(1977)

(SPOILERS) Interviewed on the set of Saving Private Ryan for Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s twentieth anniversary, Steven Spielberg expressed the view that it was the only film of his he looked back at that “dates me”, that falls victim to the “privileges of youth”. He alluded in part to this being down to his then passion for the UFO subject and possible interpretations thereof (“Now, I grew up”), but chiefly because of the fate of protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who leaves his family for a flight across the universe with little grey men. As a father of seven, Spielberg found this unconscionable. And you’ll get no arguments that it may not be most mature or responsible thing to do, but it’s telling that this is the most interesting choice he has given one of his characters in any of his films, and a marker of his decline as a vital filmmaking force that the one project reeking of personal investment is now one he wouldn’t go near.

Well, I say one. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was soon eclipsed by another alien project of his own devising, one he’d conceived of during filming concerning “all my imaginary friends” of childhood, but which first took form as the John Sayles’ scripted evil-ETs Night Skies, before splitting conceptually into E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialNight Skies featured a benign alien among the evil ones who forms a bond with a boy in the family – and Poltergeist. Later elements can also be found in Gremlins. In E.T., Spielberg’s longings have been boiled down to the much less transformative and much more tangible “finding a father/brother surrogate or best friend”; there’s no longer searching for cosmic answers, framed in Close Encounters’ terms as undergoing a religious experience and dropping everything to follow and/ or proselyte. There’s still the element of the mistrust of authority, but in both cases, it carries a human and trustworthy face. Spielberg doesn’t really want to threaten anybody’s core feelings or ruffle anyone’s feathers. In Close Encounters, he sides with the absentee-ing father (his father), but in E.T., he’s identifying with the abandoned son needing a surrogate. Both represent wish fulfilment of a sort. Neary is really “no different than any of the kids” suggested Spielberg.

The main difference between Close Encounters and E.T., though, one suspects, is one of osmosis. This is the closest Spielberg comes to counter-culture expression, even if it’s about ten years late. There are elements thereof in both Sugarland Express and Jaws too, the former more particularly his attempt to fashion something his peer group would deem respectable. Close Encounters goes a step further, distilling the paranoia of the post-Watergate era (“UFOs and Watergate” as the director put it) but infusing it with the sensibility of a grand showman; instead of destruction, it ends in uplift (literally). Such concerns would be long gone half a decade later; the only thing on his mind by then was being recognised by the Academy (it would take another decade).

Of course, in its protagonist’s quest for the answer to all life’s myriad questions, Close Encounters isn’t entirely devoid of the syrupy ball of sentimentality he’d wrap around later projects. The use of Pinocchio’s When You Wish Upon A Star is an unnecessary wash of gloop too far (although I quite like the underlying implication that Roy leaves his family because they’re indifferent to his veneration of early Disney movies; that sounds like a Spielberg attitude).

It’s notable that the movie might have been even more indebted to governmental paranoia, per Paul Schrader’s rejected screenplay concerning an Air Force officer who’d worked in Project Blue Book. Spielberg considered it “a terribly guilt-ridden story not really about UFOs at all”, one that came at the suggestion of Schrader’s brother Leonard: “Why don’t you do the life of Saint Paul?”. This period of development ended with Schrader yelling “If somebody’s going to represent me and the human race to get on a spaceship, I don’t want my representative to be a guy who eats all his meals at McDonald’s” and Spielberg yelling back “That’s exactly who I do want!” For his part, Schrader, not one to forget, offered that “Spielberg is a very conservative man. He probably still has the first dollar he ever made – screwed to the wall”, which may explain the director recanting his youthful lack of responsibility on Close Encounters (he isn’t alone, of course, in being critical of the generally hallowed berg; others in the ranks include producer Julia Philips and very codedly – or some might say overtly suggestively – Crispin Glover).

If it seems extraordinary that Spielberg, who elsewhere only has story credits to his name at most, could have fashioned an entire screenplay himself, his work wasn’t without abundant help. Peter Biskind devotes a few choice paragraphs to this in Easy Rider and Raging Bulls. It seems his self-styled auteur-presumptive status (not as, essentially, a ground-up guy) had begun with Jaws (“The number of times he wanted his name on the screen was an embarrassment. If he could have written ‘Hair Styled by Steven Spielberg’, he would have”).

His initial pitch was, according to Willard Katz “the worst idea I ever heard” and John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins and Jerry Belson all made contributions, the final shooting script whittled into shape by Spielberg and Belson (so go figure how the berg got the sole credit). Even then, ideas and scenes were being spit-balled throughout the production, and beyond (hence the Special Edition). Robbins said of the Spielberg draft, “Hal Barwood and I were really upset by the script, it was so full of holes, it offended me to look at this thing”. Robbins further stated “We were writing at night, big chunks of that movie. We created the story line of the kidnapping of Melinda Dillon’s little boy, Cary Guffey. He shot our script”. Robbins later did an unrewarded rewrite on E.T.

What always impresses me most about Spielberg’s 70s pictures (1941 aside) is the earthiness. Yes, there’s some of that in E.T. (“Penis breath”), but mostly it’s subsumed beneath cute. Close Encounters gives us Dreyfuss’ disintegrating domestic – with the nagging, noisy and obnoxious kids, it’s no wonder he wants out – and mental state, and doesn’t flinch from the effect on wife Teri Garr and kids seeing dad going doolally. Dreyfuss, who as is widely known, and not just because Julia Philips diligently reported it, was vacuuming up anything in his field of sight at the time, is tremendous as Neary, with just the right balance between everyman you’re going along with and someone who can comfortably take a backseat when the effects take over. Ironically, Spielberg had initially chased Steve McQueen for his lead, the very opposite of childlike.

This time round I was more struck by the (rightfully) Oscar-nominated Melinda Dillon as Jillian, though, who despite my comments regarding leaving one’s family, is the more affecting for her desperate desire to get her son back. The bond of mutual obsession shared with Roy, albeit directed from different perspectives, is affecting in the interiorised knowing it evokes when they reunite. And Spielberg fills the remaining supporting cast with interesting choices. Truffaut may have been a conceit, but he’s a conceit that works (although his impact on Philips was far greater than it is on the movie), while Bob Balaban is just perfect. You can also see Lance Henriksen and Carl Weathers in there.

The pacing also impresses – more so for the director recognising that, on initially cutting it together, “there was not enough wow in the picture”. In particular, this led to more establishing scenes (notably the F19s in the desert, and dismantling the globe to establish the visitation co-ordinates); my favourite of these is always the ship in the Gobi Desert (an impressive miniature shot fashioned for the Special Edition), and the reason I couldn’t pick the original cut as the best (however, l’m one hundred percent with Spielberg that going into the spaceship was unnecessary).

The early scenes of wonder/horror are perfectly pitched, the ethereal beauty of Trumbull’s light-show UFO effects (still never bettered, and never likely to be, in a world where CGI can’t or won’t varnish that kind of naturalistic visual) countered by the abduction of Jillian’s son. Then there’s the potentially sinister implanting of ideas leading to the tower built from mash and then clay; the alien phenomena can lead to mental instability and the upturning of conceptions (editor Michael Kahn recounts how they became so obsessed with the picture, they were desperate to get it out there before the aliens came). Spielberg sustains the picture remarkably well, given it isn’t one with a simple antagonist; he moves from mystery, to quest, to physical challenge but not in the most obvious ways; there isn’t an action scene until the scaling of Devil’s Tower.

And yes, of course, this is a simplistic interpretation of the UFO phenomena. Spielberg takes it quite literally (“This is science speculation”) rather looking at any of the other interpretations, and wisely doesn’t attempt to provide any answers (“I just want to know that it’s really happening” says Roy, which is what we get); this works for a two-hour movie, but when Chris Carter applied himself to a less benign vision for TV, obfuscating could only take him so far before audiences became tired of his deflections. And the vision is benign (“We are not alone… we have nothing to fear” as Dreyfus summed up). It’s actually a strength of the picture that it ends with very fixed and defined territory, beyond which everything else is left to the audience’s imagination (to an extent, even showing backlit aliens at the end begins to deflate the balloon, as they just can’t compete with what has been built up in the mind).

Being as it is, in part, a paranoia era movie, it’s worth mentioning some of the more conspiratorial angles surrounding Close Encounters. That it manages to be – depending on what you think and so the view you want to reinforce – either/or/and soft disclosure and disinformation, Spielberg being a pawn of the elite (his dad was in the military; but he’s not as culpable as Lucas, who is NSA…) You might even bring in Spielberg’s “alien friends” as a child in support of such an engineered argument.

But while I’m happy to ride with many such notions, I tend to become more expressly sceptical when the masterplan of Hollywood success and engineering is presented hindsight’s fait accompli (particularly with regard to Star Wars). It would mean not only knowing what would be a hit, but by association what wouldn’t be, and in Close Encounters’ case, ignoring that Columbia was near bankruptcy at the time and Spielberg’s wildly out of control project wasn’t helping any.

Added to which, his own professed doubts: “I didn’t know if I was the only person interested in UFOs. I didn’t know if anyone in America could identify with a man who gives up his entire family, including his children, perhaps never to return”. He expressed as much to Lucas, doubtful over Star Wars’ bankability: “No, no, George, this time I’ve made the esoteric science fiction movie. You’ve made the crossover one”. Its success, as Pauline Kael put it, was “a vindication of village crazies” (no one was queuing up to see Communion a decade later). Of course, their accounts could just be inflating the legend.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind definitely dates Spielberg, but it dates him by showing the potential he had as a filmmaker, potential that began to drain away from the mid-80s when he stopped trying to be the best he could at what he could do well and instead attempted to earn the critical respect of his peers. It’s a film that isn’t neat and tidy thematically, one that, unlike the same year’s Star Wars, has one foot in the era Spielberg was never really a good fit for, but which managed to rub off on him in positive ways.

Kael effused “this is a young man’s movie… and there’s not a sour thought in it”, that it was “transcendently sweet… Close Encounters is almost the opposite of Star Wars, in which a whole planet is blown up and almost nobody batted an eye”. I guess such an observation makes it ironic that I see, in retrospect, very much that era (the one that isn’t transcendently sweet) in it; I’d rather characterise the movie as one that inhabits the world of sour thoughts and rises above it, won’t be dragged down by them. 

Which essentially, for better or worse, informed the subsequent blockbuster era. Pre-Jaws, Spielberg had baulked at the picture’s commerciality: “I didn’t know who I was. I wanted to make a movie that left its mark, not at the box office, but on people’s consciousnesses. I wanted to be Antonioni, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Marty Scorsese. I wanted to be everybody but myself”. Spielberg of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has those aspirations, but melded to his actual sensibility, and it’s what makes it nigh-on the best he’s had to offer.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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