Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Scott's Pick - Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounter of the Third Kind: A UFO encounter in which occupants of the UFO have made some form of contact with the witness.

This method of classification was developed by astronomer and famed ufologist Dr. Josef Allen Hynek. Hynek, for the uninitiated, was a researcher with the United States Air Force’s UFO debunking project, Project Blue Book. After working for decades in this field, Dr. Hynek began to oscillate away from the official stance on UFOs, citing a plethora of credible testimony and disagreeing publicly with the Air Force’s conclusions. He became a champion for the cause of ufology, eventually forming the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) in his home city of Chicago, Illinois.

Why is this important?

The film Close Encounters of the Third Kind takes its name from Hynek’s classification system. The esteemed doctor also served as a consultant on the film, even making a cameo, albeit briefly, near the film’s conclusion at Devil’s Tower. This cameo can be seen after the craft has landed and its inhabitants revealed. As the humans stare in wonder, there’s a close-up of an older man with glasses and a beard, resting a pipe upon his lips. This man with the pipe would be Hynek.   

What this connection really does, however, is add legitimacy to this film. It tethers credibility to a phenomena presented to mainstream audiences in a time when this field was soaring off the ground, a decade when famed researchers like nuclear physicist Stanton Friedman were digging deep into research and presenting their findings to the public. This film, especially in the 1970s, was the only rallying voice to take seriously a subject matter often met with cynicism, ridicule, and flat-out denial. It was the cry and cinematic experience intended to present an alternative reality to the public, to beckon us forth onto a new level of thought.

Indeed, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a passion project of Steven Spielberg’s, one he desired to make for many years, but it’s more than just a movie about aliens. It’s a dissertation on the nature of man and a call to action to enter a new state of consciousness.

“Well, they’re not moon burns, Goddamnit!”

While the film itself is fictional, the character of Roy Neary is an every man that embodies the confusion, frustration, and emotional throes of those who have made contact with something outside what they can clearly define as reality. His plight and his dissolution with his family are representative of what some contactees endure, and they’re also representative of something more than that. Though Roy is the engine speaking towards those in society who have confronted something extraordinarily bizarre, he’s also symbolic of what happens when one’s reality, molded and solidified for decades to think along one tunnel of perception, is forcibly broken.

This is to say that the half-burnt flesh adorning his face is no mere accident. It’s the mark left by his experience, marring the skin of who he is, who he once was. This burning is our visual cue of the road he’s about to embark on, as it’s disfigured the portrait of the seemingly stereotypical working stiff we knew him to be. And as he begins to gather clues and obsess over the faint image scorching into the back of his brain, this desecration of his person reminds us that who he was has been ruined and altered, physically, until he can piece himself back together and solve this puzzle that’s broken the stereotype of his middle class existence. And his skin, indeed, heals at the end of Roy’s adventure. What it posits, though, is will we heal?

Roy’s personal voyage is the metaphorical voyage through life we all face, sooner or later, as we age and come to terms with that which dares to intrude on what we understand as reality. How it affects us, however, is optional. With regard to the other characters in the film, we don’t have to be physically marred. It’s one of the choices Spielberg seems to outline, offering us an alternative to the jarring encroachment of a new experience.

“You can come and play now.”

One of the most awe-inspiring shots of Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrives when these extraterrestrial visitors knock on the door of the Guilers, summoning the enchanted Barry Guiler to come out and play. As Barry’s toys begin to dance and jump around, the mechanical monkey pounding the cymbals as the children’s record player blares a happy little tune, we switch perspectives to the eyes of a child, relaying the same reality-shattering experience with Roy through someone whose mind hasn’t been permanently molded and defined. It is here, when Barry is summoned downstairs and sees the gaping fridge with all the food spilled out, we’re given one of the most glorious shots of this film. It’s a close-up of the boy’s face – a steady focus on his eyes and his mouth as he looks onward. At first, he’s bewildered. His mouth is frozen open as those illuminated eyes of his gaze forward. The audience is shown a few seconds of this before, within the same shot, that mouth begins to smile, and Barry’s bewilderment morphs into a playful grin open to this bizarre phenomenon.

With energetic gusto, Barry bolts out of the house, running off into the forest in search of those lights that stirred up the order of his and his mother’s domain.  As any loving parent would do, Barry’s mother chases after him, plucking him from harm’s way, burning herself in the process, and thus serving as yet another dissertation of Spielberg’s on the nature of humans. While Barry embraces this altered reality, his mother shies from it, burying herself in her duties as a parent. Yet, she is not immune to this wonder.

Before the aliens visit Barry for a second time, Jillian Guiler is shown drawing sketches of that image that haunts Roy Neary – Devil’s Tower. She tears these off her canvas paper, stuffing away the bug that’s eating at the back of her brain as she returns to her chores. But this new universe is there, calling to her, beckoning her to explore – just like it did with Roy. It’s inescapable, and as the disappearance of her child serves as the catalyst to seek out this unknown, she begins to embrace it, pairing up with Mr. Neary along the way.

“You have no right to make people crazy!”

These character archetypes prove interesting to analyze, but the truly fascinating characters didn’t make any of the three edits of the film. I’m talking, of course, of the audience, those who paid to sit down in a chair and gaze at this construction Spielberg put together. Watching the film is a journey in itself, a wondrous adventure uniquely its own within the genre of science fiction.

Ensnared by a spectacle of glowing lights we can’t explain, we’re led along a narrative that works to legitimize itself. Whether it’s the doggedness of the government researchers in pursuit of the answer to these mysteries or the element of the unknown that defies the demands to define the extraterrestrials as friends or foes, there’s a strong attempt to coerce a change in us. Spielberg has crafted a cinematic mystery that ends not in violence or betrayal or bloodshed or love or lust or any other cliché trope in cinema. He uses the magic of film to dazzle us with light, with color, and with sound. We’re called to the edge of the unknown with our leads. We’re summoned to the base of Devil’s Tower to awe at a light show set to playful music.

In the course of reaching this arrival point, we’re shown races interacting with this mystery together. Indians are seen chanting to the sky. They teach Lacombe, a French investigator, this chant to share with his colleagues within the U.N. and the U.S. military. When the UFOs cross the skies along a hilltop in Munsie, Indiana, all sorts of people are gathered together, gazing at the stars. There’s a togetherness in this adventure, a uniting that, even when the government steps in to block civilians from gathering at Devil’s Tower, cannot be stopped. People find a way, and when the inhabitants of the lights finally unveil themselves, it doesn’t matter who’s a civilian and who’s an authorized personnel.

And when we finally reach that arrival point? When we awe at the extraterrestrials and listen to the magic of the music that served as a communication point – what happens? The doorway opens, and the credits roll. Spielberg brought us here, and it’s up to us to react. To choose.

[In 1990, on a Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert segment about the “Future of the Movies”, Steven Spielberg was asked by Siskel, “I started throwing out all your films, and you say, ‘Give me this one negative. Let me hold this one.’ What occurs to you?” The director answered with:

“I think, maybe, the one image for me - you’re asking the question, I feel obligated to give you an answer, so let me give you an answer even if I take it back in my sleep tonight. Okay? I think it’s the little boy in Close Encounters opening the door and standing in the beautiful, yet awful, light, just like fire coming through the doorway.”

When pressed on what that scene meant to him, Spielberg responded with:

“We don’t know what’s out there. And yet, we should discover what’s out there. We should be afraid of not knowing, and we should take a step toward what we don’t understand.”]


Despite this film being considered a classic, a genre staple, and a personal favorite of one of America’s more prolific directors, I have never seen it, nor have I ever engaged in the enthusiastic discourse that surrounds the film. So I have fresh eyes and no expectations.

The first thing that struck me is that I’ve seen this film a thousand times before. While Spielberg’s pacing is from an older era of film where attention to detail on the part of the viewer is required, the basic structure has shown up in nearly every disaster and alien-contact film shot since. Unlike its children, however, Close Encounters does not feel rote or cookie-cutter in its form. We are introduced to all the information and characters we need to know in an unfettered manner, and we are not shown more than we need to see. What’s even better, we are not held hostage by Sci-Fi’s greatest flaw as a genre, the Information Dump.
In fact, Close Encounters is barely a Sci-Fi film, as it instead chooses to focus on the drama generated by a good family man whose entire world has shifted beneath his feet after encountering a UFO. His obsession with the unknown begins to poison every aspect of his life, costing him his job, his respectability, as well as his marriage. Once the bottom of that bag falls out, he throws everything he has left into solving the mystery of the nagging image that’s been lodged in his brain since his extraterrestrial contact. Parallel to Roy’s story is Jillian’s, a single mother whose child is abducted by the aliens. The tertiary yarn stars various government officials (Lance Henriksen cameo!) attempting to solve the mystery of just what the hell is going on, in between being baffled by the sudden appearance of a Soviet ship in the Gobi desert and US planes missing since WWII materializing in Mexico. 

If I have one gripe about this film, it is Roy’s decision to leave his family behind at the end for the aliens. His quest may have dissolved his marriage, but he is still beholden to the children he sired. They still love and need him, but are written out of the film as soon as it’s time for Roy to go on his quest. This sours the ending and Roy’s arc for me, turning a no-doubt home run into a screaming triple off the wall. Knowing what a sap Spielberg is for his own family, I can only assume his children were born after this film was made.

What stands out most about the film, for me, is the conflict between mounting tension and ramrod optimism. Roy’s obsession with the shape and his unshakable urges are reminiscent of the maddening effect Lovecraft’s Cthulu has on the dreams of people, and until the end of the film, we really have no idea what kind of aliens we are dealing with, or what they want. We know they take children and random artifacts, and dump them in absurdly inappropriate places when they are finished with them. But for all the portentous pressure-cooking that goes on, the film really isn’t all that dark, and utterly lacking in cynicism. The government is being secretive and disingenuous, but they are truly trying to solve the mystery while preventing mass panic, from the very top down to that black man at the radar terminal who looks and sounds alarmingly like Morgan Freeman. When Roy and the other vision-touched folk run afoul of the military, they get sleeping gas dropped on them, not shot. And what happens when the government’s Top Men* finally come face to face with the aliens? They reach out peacefully, and are met with equally friendly gestures, replete with a return of scientific hostages.

Citizens of the world often roll their eyes at the simplistic optimism that can be present in American creativity. And while too much Americanism might be bad for your teeth, notions such as new, wondrous things being discovered for the benefit of everyone, risk being rewarded, and endings coming up happy are comforting to me. This was a great film. A.
*Secret Raiders of the Lost Ark Reference!


When I was a child, I never committed to watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind because it looked dull for an alien movie. I craved danger, excitement and terror in the movies I consumed, all of which this appeared to lack. Now that I’m (technically) an adult, I am proud to announce that I finally sat down and watched this movie from start to finish. However, I’m not sure whether I should be worried or impressed that my instincts as a kid were correct.

Man, is this movie boring. I won’t come out and say Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a bad film, but there’s an almost inexcusable lack dramatic tension. The plot, which concerns some civilians who begin having subliminal visions after their various encounters with alien spaceships, barely goes anywhere over the course of the film’s two-plus hour running time, and the protagonists aren’t meaty enough for this to qualify as a character study.

It doesn’t help that there are no stakes in this story. Nothing is at risk. The aliens appear benign from the outset, and the film fails to truly make the audience question their motives, making it hard to worry about the outcome. Worse, the ending, despite being drawn-out, is anticlimactic. The assembled humans meet some aliens, they bond, and the protagonist flies away with them, abandoning his family while a peppy John Williams score celebrates his adventurous decision. Without established stakes, though, there is no sense of relief or catharsis or victory. The spaceship merely departs, leaving emptiness in its wake.

Now, I concede that this movie is less about plot and more about a concept—that concept being the experience of having one’s worldview shattered—but therein lies its biggest flaw: my mind, as the viewer, was not shattered by what I saw. Yes, I observed Richard Dreyfuss have a close encounter with fictional aliens, but my brain did not make the necessary leap from my reality to his. For this movie to work, you have to accept its characters’ revelations as your own, which is difficult since I’ve seen movies with fictional aliens before. This disconnect between what the characters feel and what I felt ultimately crippled the film for me.

I don’t mean to imply that this film is devoid of value, and I certainly don’t mean to detract from those whom this film moved. I think my colleagues’ reactions to and analyses of this film are totally valid. Scott's analysis suggests that this movie may have been groundbreaking at the time of its release, and I can respect that, even if I can’t say that it comes across as a groundbreaking film in the era in which I watched it. There are also other dimensions of this film to consider, and I’m not blind to them. To its credit, the film does a decent job, especially in its first half, of conveying just how earth-shattering this experience would be for its characters; having definitive proof of alien life might make us rethink our entire paradigm. The film captures a sense of wonder and majesty in its first act; one scene in particular, in which an assembly of monks chants a five-note sequence in unison, gave me chills.

Ultimately, though, the film seems blissfully unaware of how unremarkable its story is. It concludes this adventure by serenading the audience with a dull finale in which humans and aliens play musical notes at each other for what feels like an eternity while glowing spaceships twirl in the air. My mind was still not blown. Instead, I kept wondering when this self-indulgent cacophony of sound and color would end and let me get back to living my life, with its universal paradigm still firmly in place. 

Next: Year of the Dragon. Get Psyched!

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