Tuesday, February 22, 2011
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND
(November 1977, U.S.)
For the purpose of my own sanity (and possibly yours), I'm not going to spend any time trying to make any valid distinctions between the original 1977 version of this film, the 1980 special edition or the 1997 director's edition. I don't have the patience to compare Coke with Pepsi right now. Let's just consider it one great film!
Steven Spielberg once said in an interview just before the 1994 Oscars (I think it was with Barbara Walters) that he would like to be best remembered for E.T. (1982) and SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) and it's more than possible that will be the case. For me despite all of the greatness he's achieved during his great film career, I will forever consider CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND my favorite Spielberg film; a film that was one of many that helped to define my childhood.
This classic tale of humankind's contact with UFO's and exta-terrestrials could not have been timed better. Although it was being developed and filmed before STAR WARS was ever released, George Lucas' megahit paved the way for CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and every other science fiction film that hit the screens for the next several years, including SUPERMAN (1978) and MOONRAKER (1979). Many will agree, though, that CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is a film filled with more spiritual meaning and relevance than STAR WARS. The film suggests that the human race has reached the point where it's ready to enter the community of the vast universe. While it's computer interfacing which makes the final musical conversation with the alien visitors possible, the characteristics that bring Indiana electrician Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss) to make his way to Devil's Tower, Wyoming have little to do with technical expertise or computer literacy. He's just an everyday man who been given a gift of foresight and vision. This gift will test Neary's commitment to his quest and ultimately cost him his family. In another interview Speilberg stated that he made the film when he didn't have any children, and if he were making it today, he would never have had Neary leave his family and go on the mother ship at the end of the film. There's a noteworthy theme of childhood spirituality and yearning present here, as well. Barry Guiler (played by Cary Guffey), an unfearing child who considers the UFOs and their paraphernalia as playful toys, serving as a motif for childlike innocence and openness in the face of the cosmic unknown.
Regarding the spactacular visual effects that Douglas Trumbull provides, I could probably go on forever. There are, however, two specific shots I'd like to call your attention to that have stayed with me ever since I was a kid. The first is the sequence of the first UFO contact when Jillian Guiler (played by Melinda Dillon) is running after her son Barry on the open street. While she's trying to get him to cooperate with her a spaceship turns the corner and flies over her head, causing her to bend down to her knees...
The second is at the climactic encounter at Devil's Tower when the mother ship first arrives and slowly rises behind the great mountain...
I defy you not to pause your DVD player to just focus on both of them and study how visually striking they are. They'd both make great computer screen savers!
As an interesting casting note, I should also point out that (to the best of my knowledge) CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is the only American film that legendary French film maker Francois Truffaut served as an actor. There is something very justified and poetic in that fact considering Truffaut was a tremendous influence on Spielberg's film career.
Actually, now that a little time has passed, there is something I would like to say regarding the 1980 Special Edition of this film. It involves Roy Neary finally stepping inside the great mother ship, which Columbia Pictures used as a great marketing hype to get people to return to the theaters (hey, it worked on me!). What I'm about to tell you is a totally wild and unsubstantiated theory regarding what happens to Roy inside the ship and I have no doubt that just about every other fan of this great film would likely tell me that I'm completely crazy and should go take a flying leap off of Devil's Tower! But anyway, here goes...consider the final shot inside the mother ship when we're meant to be looking up via Roy's point of vision. Suddenly, like a great falling rain, something comes showering downward, presumably toward and perhaps even on top of Roy. Cut immediately back to the scene outside the ship when all the remaining men are gathered together to watch Carlo Rambaldi's extra-terrestrial figure stand before them and offer communication. When one puts together exactly just how this moment follows the last one inside the ship, is it not at all possible that the extra-terrestrial IS Roy Neary?? Is it not possible that the so-called "rain shower" we witnessed inside the ship actually transformed Roy Neary into perhaps what he was always longing to be throughout the film...something other than what he really was? He's sacrificed his profession and his entire family to reach his destiny and fulfill his dreams, so why is it completely inconceivable that his new alien friends simply understood and accommodated him to make him one of them? Like I said, it's a highly far-fetched theory and I realize, of course, that I'm reaching for shit with this one. Still, though, it's a thought-provoking premise that I like to ponder over whenever I watch it.
There is probably so much more I could say about this meaningful and dazzling film but I risk going into what I would consider writer's overkill. What I would like to do now, though, is share something very personal with you that will clearly express the impact and meaning that Spielberg's films and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND has had on my life. In the Spring of 2007 I wrote a letter to Mr. Speilberg which I (of course) never expected to be received by or responded to by the man himself. The point of it all was for me to express cetain feelings and experiences on paper as I reached a pivotal age in my life. Until now, no one has ever read this letter (except presumably some stupid desk clerk at Amblin or Dreamworks who read the letter once and then threw it away!). Anyway, it's a pleasure to share it all with you now...
Dear Mr. Spielberg,
On May 7th of this year, I will finally reach my 40th birthday. As you yourself may appreciate, when a man reaches a milestone age such as this, he takes a moment to take some stock of where his life has been, where it is going and those who may have influenced it.
Now while I cannot, in all honesty, claim that a single person or persons have influenced my life, I am writing this letter to you in the hopes that you will take a moment to read how the films of your career have made a significant difference in my life. If you will bear with me for a moment longer, I would like to share a quick story with you.
On September 11, 2001, like many other New Yorkers, I stood on a sidewalk in Greenwich Village watching the horrors of that day unfold. What followed after were days and days of images and intense media coverage on every television channel. Finally, when I felt I could not take it any longer, I searched for something of entertainment value; something to help me forget. I came across CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND on one of the cable channels, already in progress. Before I knew it, my memory had gone back to the year 1977 when I was 10 years-old, seeing this film for the first time at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City, and first discovering what true magic was like on the movie screen. I did not seem to matter to me that I already had the film on my shelf to be watched uncut and uninterrupted. I was in front of the TV to stay, and it would not let me go.
And so, Mr. Spielberg, I would like to take this opportunity to say to you, from the sincerest part of my heart, thank you for being, perhaps, the only evidence of any real magic in this troubling and confusing world. Thank you for a body of work and cinematic achievements that have made a significant difference in my life and the way I try to keep an optimistic view of our world and the world that I will try to one day explain to my son. Perhaps it will begin when I sit down to watch E.T. with him for the very first time.
It is my sincerest hope that this letter will not only one day find you personally, but that perhaps I will one day have the privilege of meeting you in person, shaking your hand, and thanking you face to face.
Keep the magic alive. It makes a difference.
It's just too damn bad that Spielberg himself has likely never seen nor will he ever see this letter. Too damn bad, indeed!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Roy Neary: "Is that it? Is that all you're gonna ask me? Well I got a couple of thousand goddamn questions, you know. I want to speak to someone in charge. I want to lodge a complaint. You have no right to make people crazy! You think I investigate every Walter Cronkite story there is? Huh? If this is just nerve gas, how come I know everything in such detail? I've never been here before. How come I know so much? What the hell is going on around here? Who the hell are you people!?"