Saturday, 23 June 2012

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind": the wonder of a man-child.

Steven Spielberg, 1977, USA

I remember going caravan camping with my father when I was 12 and finding inside, on a shelf, a book called “Alien Encounter” by Flanna Devin. I remember most clearly deciding that it was about time that I started to read adult book, to abandon the kid stuff and start seeing what big books dense with prose were like. Also, I was besotted with the alien encounter idea. The cover had a spaceship flying through the great void, but that had nothing to do with the story within, a tale of an encounter that changes a small American town. It was one of those books you would always find in the bargain bins, along with a lot of crap horror, but which often bore great cover art. Anyhow, extraterrestrials making creepy visits occupied much of the same fear-space in my head as cemetery ghosts and attic monsters. I recall that UFOs were big in the Seventies, and that carried over in my thoughts when I was an adolescent in the eighties. Much of my sense of what alien visitations would be like was rendered in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. It certainly felt like the culmination of many anxieties and expectations of the UFO generation.
Having produced one of the greatest suspense-horror-adventure films of all time in “Jaws”... well, let’s add “Duel” in there and make it two ... Steven Spielberg turned his attention to science fiction with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. He imagined alien encounters as a series of dazzling light shows and a touch of meeting the angels. For the most part, “Close Encounters” provides a wonderful realisation of the UFO enthusiast’s dream, delivering a number of set-pieces that reach a sense of the genuinely awe-inspiring. It’s uneven, but it’s pace is deliberate, delivering encounters early but still holding back until the first act transcends itself with the abduction of a small boy: his house seems to be under siege by lights, bringing his toys alive, seemingly taking the house apart by its screws to get to him. It is certainly one of greatest cinematic alien abductions in cinema, effortlessly combining childish wonder and audience terror. Indeed “wonder” itself seems to be the very subject matter and certainly one of Spielberg’s abiding themes (and somewhat tediously too).
The curious thing about Close Encounters it that its protagonist, Rob Neary, is one of those All-American All-Annoying Man-Child characters, part clown, part asshole, selfish, tediously goofball, and Dreyfuss also plays him like a Robin Williams knock-off. That is probably not the intention, but Neary is a bad, self-centred and immature father from the start when he can’t be bothered to stop tinkering with his train set to help his eldest child with his homework. Spielberg says:

I think in casting “Close Encounters”, what I was really looking for were actors who were still closer to their own memories of their own childhoods. Richard Dreyfuss was a bigger kid than the children he was raising in his suburban house.

Spielberg is probably thinking that a child’s-eye is the eye of wonder, which probably makes him the perfect Hollywood wunderkind, but the net effect is imagining American Suburban families as immature and easily distracted by shiny objects. This just does not cohere with the moment where all the scientists and specialists and whomever, when faced with the mothership, simply stop what they are doing, barely remember to do their jobs and simply stand in true awe, and the audience does much the same: what we are doing is connecting with our adult sense of wonder. That is: we are not being infantalised; awe is not solely the domain of the child. When anointed with the vision of Devil’s Tower, Neary-Dreyfuss – the kind of whacky guy who drives against the traffic with maps in front of the windscreen, because, you know, he's obsessed! – character flaws go into overdrive, reaching its nadir in the embarrassing comedy sequence where he starts throwing plants and bricks through his kitchen window and fighting the trashman for trash bins. He drives his family away and has no attachment to them to make him think twice about, in the end, joining the aliens.

He’s lost his job, alienated his wife, and spooked his kids, yet he can’t bring himself to care about any of it – not since the universe slipped in through the car window. [1]

says Eric Hynes. But actually he is a one-note character that just gets worse. Since he starts out with little interest in paying attention to family matters and, it seems, adult concerns, the summons and pilgrimage to the mothership looks like a calling for all emotionally stunted adults, especially the man-child characters that dominate the American mainstream and sit-coms, to leave those responsibilities aside and join child-like aliens to head to the stars. The adults are left behind to clean up the mess and go back to work. However, Neary’s cracking-up does provide one splendid moment of domestic breakdown which feels quintessentially Spielberg, a scene that momentarily matches all the special effects around it: Neary is at the dinner table making his mashed/creamed potato into the likeness of “Devil’s Tower” and the family just look back of him and start crying with a kind of abstract despair and a realisation, surely, that he has deserted them in some way. It is the one moment of true emotional effect before Neary’s behaviour becomes a dumping ground for slapstick and man-child narcissism.
The Special Edition of “Close Encounters” – one of at least three varying versions –provides the film with one of those Spielberg sentimental touches that ruins almost all his films, making them one half brilliant and one half ridiculous. In this revised edition, Dreyfus walks into the spaceship and both the light show and orchestra goes into overdrive. Spielberg later realised that we should never really see inside the ship, as that ought to be all up to the audience imagination: something eerie still remains by not seeing, not only promises of unknowable wonder. But worse, as John Williams whips his string section into ecstasy, he also drops in a motif from “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Indeed, the way to imagine a fantastic and benign alien contact is to throw in a tribute to Disney. Such crassness breaks the spell.

But let’s leave the Special Edition aside.

The final thirty minutes is a fantastic prolonged set-piece of wonder and revelation on top of more wonder and light-shows. It is quite a feat, leaving narrative to one side to show what the visual medium can do. The other remarkable achievement of Spielberg’s film is in “producing a seventies-set drama so devoid of cynicism.” [2] Indeed. However unrealistically the scenario may play out, it probably is a splendid indulgence to see an alien encounter rendered so benignly without the military rushing in to shoot up anything vaguely un-American; or, indeed, to rush forward and immediately throw the people who come out of the mothership into horrifying decontamination process and post-abduction tests (or maybe they do, but in the film’s world it seems unlikely). Considering that a key part of the authorities cover-up strategy is to use ideas such as contaminated air, the ignoring of the possibility of alien viruses is somewhat disingenuous,  (indeed, what should we make of the toddler that was abducted simply being taken out from under the noses of the scientists to simply pop back home?).
But no matter: the "Close Encounters"  opening visions are unnerving and thrilling and the prolonged finale is jaw-dropping, so side-stepping concerns about aggressive aliens and the fall-out from the encounter is part of the delight of this encounter. And, seemingly despite itself, its sense of wonder is not really so juvenile. It's looking upwards and being amazed and scared and back again, and that is not totally the domain of the child.



MrJeffery said...

amazing film! i'm always drawn in whenever it's on tv.

Anonymous said...


I enjoyed your review. I don't neccessarly agree with some points, but it was enjoyable to read.

I may seem to be nit-picking, but I was wondering if you could change the wording of one thing in your review?

The mountain in Close Encounters is not called "Devil's Mountain." It's proper name is--- reffered as such in the film, and in real life--- Devils Tower.....without an apostrophe.

It is a small point, but I wanted to bring it to your attention. Since this is my second favorite film of all time, I noticed this mistake right away. This is not a critique on your opinions or review, just a mistake of a proper name.


Buck Theorem said...

And thank you for reading and alerting me to my error - amended now!