Film Seizure #250 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Our 250th episode of Film Seizure is here. To celebrate, we’re talking about one of the greatest pure science fiction films ever – Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

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One comment

  1. Great pick for the 250th. 243 or so episodes ago, I would not have put any money on this being your choice, even if I’d seen it on a list.

    These effects are 100% 1977. Look at 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, and you can safely say that Trumbull’s effects defy enhancement. And as much as talking about Douglas Trumbull means talking about the quality of his images, how well he achieved his goal of not having to cut away from them too quickly before we see the strings, but allowing us to gaze, and having that gaze rewarded… his work in this movie is more a feat of composition, even directing. He understood sound, movement and drama as well as he did imagery, even if he spent more time more on the latter. Functionally, he’s the co-director of almost every scene with effects.

    Jason, you’re comment “…but they can see it!” about the scientists confronting this previous unknown, unbelieved thing is spot-on. That’s a big thing with this picture; it’s about dealing with paradigm shifts. What do you do when the thing you believed didn’t even exist shows up? Spielberg’s overused slow truck in on an awestruck face begins here with Melinda Dillon after the 3.1 ships whiz by her on the high hills of Muncie. Her child was just lost for hours – terrifying for a parent – then almost hit by a truck, but then this thing happened, no hiding, no sneaking in the clouds, but three full on UFOs paraded by, 10 feet in front of her. Her entire worldview just got blasted – for the better. That’s that shot, that’s that moment. Most of the people in this movie are being told, “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…”

    Here’s something fun, Siskel & Ebert in ’77:

    It sounds like you guys (at least Jason) watched the 1977 cut, since you saw Neary’s workplace and Carl Weathers. That’s smart with this movie. In later editions, they cut so much of Roy interacting with other people, his visit to work, the press conference, and some things when he enters Wyoming, where he’s really out of place feel more like early scenes in Amity in Jaws than they did in later cuts. There’s a feeling of people. In the ’77, he’s a normal guy who gradually isolates. We go into work with him, but later don’t even hear the firing while he stares at his pillow. It’s there, then there’s less of it, so that when he’s building his big Devil’s Tower on his train table and looks out his window at a normal neighborhood Saturday, it hits that he’s become disconnected from that. In later cuts, he’s already more of an outsider from the start, therefore less negatively affected by his early encounter, which is an important part of the story.

    My biggest problem with the three other cuts, especially the 1999 Director’s Edition, is the retaining of the bathroom scene. Spielberg left it out in 1977 for being unnecessary and “too intense.” For the Special Edition in 1980, its placement was motivated by the misguided removal of all of the dirt tossing. He does the potatoes, angrily tosses clay at his little model, add in the bathroom shouty scene, then he wakes up the next day ready to give it all up, rips off the top, close in on his face as he has his realization – cut to Ronnie driving away. It not only didn’t work like it was supposed to, it also felt shockingly out of place, even in that version movie. I was a little more put off when it was kept in the Director’s Cut. The family’s concern and Ronnie’s anger were already present, even before the dirt tossing, which was back in, and it added nothing to explaining her taking his family away from him. In the ’77 cut, it’s already there in how she questions him when he loses his job, and her turning point is at the kitchen table. That scene has the “Don’t show them your top” energy, which carries the weight of how far she has gone. It’s in the tears of the oldest son at that table, and his yelling at Roy during the dirt tossing. (Oh, and Jason? He builds his Devil’s Tower inside instead of outside because it’s Indiana. In three days it’s going to rain, or somebody’s going to pee on it or something.)

    Spielberg was onto something with his “too intense,” but it was more than that. It’s not just extraneous, but weird. Ronnie isn’t understandably concerned and upset, she’s hysterical. Roy isn’t plagued by obsession; he’s pathetic. What he’s doing makes no sense – and not in a good way. What his son is doing makes no sense. As I wrote above, in the ’77, we saw him pull away, or pulled away, from others, and not really noticing that until she was gone. He doesn’t see it, but she does get that about him, that his family currently don’t matter to him in some ways that they should. Seeing her shrill removes some of that, because it’s generic shrill, a little more “women get hysterical” than the specific things Garr was already doing. In only this scene, he’s not someone whose obsession is taking over, which is the what whole first 2/3 of this movie is about; he’s just an infantile, bad dad. That makes it the only part of the film that disconnects me from Roy. Everything else he does, I can get, even if I see the costs, or maybe wrongs, of it. I understand distraction due to wonder, and myopia, and not being able to prove the seemingly absurd things you’ve experienced. I don’t get showering in clothes in a semi-fetal position at 2am. Nothing in this movie leads to that oddness, and the funny moment when he notices his Timex is out of place too, cute though it is, because he’s actually not losing his mind in this film. We don’t know the mechanics of what’s happening to him, but we know the source of it is 100% real. His impulses, however hard to articulate, are concretely there for him. He’s lucid and sane.

    But not here. It’s the only place in the film where he loses respect (of the audience). We don’t need to momentarily see him from her eyes when we already have in better ways. We still need to stay with him, even to understand at least a little of his wonder that she’s driving off, while we get her side of it too. That helps us remain with his perspective as the narrative drive.

    That one scene is the main reason I only watch the ’77. It feels wrong in every version in which it has been placed, more wrong than the inside of the Mother Ship (which was so-so at best, not awful, just not as worthy as it should have been – some machines move and spray light, no real beings, no ‘human’ sense of welcome – it was just off, I guess, great music, though!) It’s the only tonally off, fully mean-spirited, scene in the film, and I’ve never not hated it. I think Spielberg kept it in to punish the Roy character for how he now sees the end of the film, as a family abandonment, about which I agree with Dreyfuss today – he’s crazy. At best that’s only a possibility, and if you’re not going to think about those much, Steve, you should give the story and character some benefit of the doubt.

    If you DO think about it … My family had long talks about this movie after we all saw it in ’77 and ’80 – what happened next. We did not think they would just leave for another 30 years. The aliens have shown up to introduce themselves, not to play knock-a-door-run, “Hello, I must be going.” For them to pop in and say, “Hiya! We DO exist, and your whole worldview just got shattered, and we seem to like each other – BIYEEE!” doesn’t make a lot of sense. After a great, big, well-lit introduction to the people of the Earth, and giving them some language keys to work on, why would they leave for another whole generation?

    It’s reasonable to think that they’d give someone they had selected, and who came aboard due to invitation rather than abduction, a nice ride in nearby space, and a meet & greet with their people and ways, and then they would return soon, even more publicly, having given the Dark Side of the Moon team time to share what happened with the rest of the world. They’d filmed it, after all. They recorded the conversation. There were a *lot* of people there – this was not going to remain a secret even if they’d want it to, which it’s unlikely they even would after that meeting. Roy would come back to a world that no longer disbelieves, and his family having realized that he wasn’t crazy, however reasonable it had been to think otherwise. He’d probably be a pretty big deal, the public go-between between Earth and the aliens for a while.

    Chuck, I think they wouldn’t leave someone behind yet because they’re still learning how to deal with us. I mean, they went from decades of sneaking and snooping around, to taking people and things, and are now returning what they took, but it’s a little clumsy: they don’t know where to return planes and ships, they time-shifted Craig, Harry Ward and his WWII flying friends, all things they seem to be trying to put right as they ramp up to making less aggressive, more communicative contact here and there, leaving clues for a meeting spot, and finally revealing themselves to Earth. They just picked up Barry (and possibly some others) and brought him back soon, and at his same age relative to his mother. Gillian wasn’t a grandma’s age when her son was returned. They appear to have learned from their earlier pick-ups, so they’re doing day trips, or week trips at the moment, and returning what they took sooner. So, for example, they know their environment doesn’t kill humans, but for them, what if, you know, …there aren’t bears on their spaceship, but there could be bears in Wyoming, and what’s one of these wirey guys going to do against a bear? Sing hello? So they left behind their language. They have Roy, to communicate with on the intuitive level to which he responds so well, and Earth has their language to figure out.

    This is all why I was always mystified when Spielberg characterized Roy as a guy who abandons his family. “No, she left him” is correct, even when her actions are 100$ understandable. Later, he’s on the phone doing the “I’ll do whatever it takes” thing with her, right in front of his big mountain. Someone in the military being sent overseas is not ‘abandoning his or her family’, and he didn’t even emotionally leave them behind, he just got involuntarily caught up in something, and had a psychologically forced mission. It mystified Dreyfuss too, who recently said he thought that Steven was just wrong about that, not too seriously, like a throwdown, but it was his view.

    Like Barry, Roy is going for a bit, not forever. I always thought he was probably back a few weeks later, returning to a carefully informed world, sort of a superstar, and I’m sure his family had reevaluated his past crazy. That fits one of the biggest elements of this film’s final quarter, validation: We were right, and isn’t it great. Even if Roy was ultimately going back to the aliens’ home world, I don’t think that has to be in the immediate. It might be down the road (for him and family possibly), but for now, pick up Roy, learn to communicate with him more than just intuitively, which is already working in spades with this guy, give the human greeters a little time to spread the news and learn some lingo, then show up like the opening of ‘V’, with Roy as their interpreter. After a nice, long time together, take some passengers to the home world, a student exchange, and yeah, there would be some time-shift issues then.

    All of this is just to deactivate distractions. They’re good questions, but we don’t have to stop thinking at the answer which once again teaches us the cynical worldview, “Yeah, this movie feels great, but it is about a guy abandoning his family! I’m an adult.” Think again, because not much in the film but the timing of the end credits supports that, and instead we’re back to what the movie has always been, “Wouldn’t this be wonderful!” A contemporary review I can no longer find online, by a city critic known for his unsentimentality, ended with his describing some rough looking guy leaving his screening and telling his freiend, “Man, I just feel good!” and the writer ending his review by reluctantly agreeing. It’s an emotional experience whose purity is worth defending.

    In the days where this wasn’t yet played over and over on TV, when only rich people had VCRs and rural people had cable, my time between viewings was huge: 1977 in the theater, the Special Edition in 1980 at a drive-in, and the Everything Version in November of 1981 on ABC TV (where I audio taped it), then nothing for a long time. Then as a teenager, I went into a video store with a friend, who ran into another old friend, so I excused myself to the large screen TV back room, where the last 45 minutes of this movie had just started, and fortunately my friends visited for that long. I was spellbound, moved, all of it such a surprise given that I certainly already knew the film. But I hadn’t experienced it in so long. I felt good. I loved life.

    I carried that feeling with me, potently, for DAYS after that, and that is a rare accomplishment.

    Liked by 1 person

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