Close Encounter of The Third Kind (1977): Sci-Fi, Spielberg, and Truffaut

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Close Encounters is built on a mystery and Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws starts off in a jarring fashion challenging us to stay with him. Because he quickly throws us into the action and suggests this is a sci-fi tale on a global scale.

Bob Balaban, a cartographer-turned-French translator, speaks for all of us trying to figure out what’s going on, yelling out against whirring old WWII fighter engines, “I don’t understand!” Two lines of juxtaposed dialogue are all we need. The planes were reported missing in 1945. But they look brand new! It takes a moment to tease out the dramatic situation, but there we are. The question is how did this happen? As this is a Spielberg creation, we must point our gaze heavenward or more precisely to the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Francois Truffaut somehow feels like a special piece of casting. The Nouvelle Vague director and hero of Spielberg is cast as Lacombe, a French scientist leading a surprisingly cooperative international team.

It’s not simply because this is the only film he acted in that he didn’t also direct. It has to do with his temperament and the subject matter. There’s something serene and utterly profound about Truffaut. He’s deeply human and engaged and yet feels implacable even as everyone else — the Americans especially — seem frantic and harried. He’s a calming force in a literal maelstrom.

Because Spielberg immediately sets the picture up as not only a national but a global storyline with implications for the entire world. It’s not just higher-ups and government officials covertly working on the issue. Extraterrestrial life would mean potential hysteria, especially for the common man. In this regard, he introduces a few stand-ins.

One is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). He loves to tinker, isn’t a particularly devoted father or husband, and he’s a staunch believer his kiddos should grow up with the quality entertainment he had as a kid like Pinocchio, instead of vacuous putt-putt games.

If we are to be honest, Dreyfuss can be a perfectly genial hero in something like American Graffiti or even Jaws, but within this narrative, reflected by his family life, he often comes off whiny and obnoxious, and it hurts his rapport with the audience.

In this particular instance, there’s some difficulty in feeling a true human connection with him even as we are drawn and fascinated by what forces he might have witnessed because that is the million-dollar mystery propelling the picture and keeping humanity agog with visions of UFOs and the great unknown of outer space.

Yes, we are planted in the 70s so if you want to blame his wife (Terri Garr) for not being a particular understanding or his children for being exasperating you can, but today it just makes him out to be a selfish dolt. This isn’t the same whimsy of some of his cinematic predecessors; it just feels like immaturity.

Sadly, without a substantial protagonist, a Hollywood blockbuster like this can feel intermittently detached and impersonal. It’s not based on lack of effort by the director or the actor. We simply don’t like the man.

It’s much more agreeable to stick with the sci-fi elements because this is where the film really has its deepest successes. Special effects hardly feel like a detriment. They are simple, practical casting just enough a spell to hold up. But they are not there to do all the heavy lifting.

The first encounter happens when Roy is driving down a country road in his truck only to be ambushed by the most spellbinding sight he’s ever witnessed in his life. It’s greater than any Aurora Borealis and sends his car into a state of zero gravity. The only indication he has after the fact of what he’s just seen is a burning sunburn across the side of his face.

From that point on Roy is doggedly firm in his resolve. It’s almost a primordial urge. He has to see the beautiful lights again, he has to understand them, he needs everyone to appreciate them as much as he does.

One person who does is a single mother, Jillian Guiller, whose little boy Barry has some transcendental encounters in the evening hours, drawn to forces outside of himself — the same forces pulling Roy to something unnameable. In fact, they are the same forces Lacombe is so intent on learning more about. It leads his team traipsing around Mexico, India, Mongolia, etc. all on the trail of this great unexplainable mystery.

For Roy, unadulterated obsession sets in. He can’t get the image out of his head. His wife is frightened. His kids think he’s crazy, and they have every right to. He drags all the family out to stare at the sky. He loses his job. He starts shoveling dirt through the kitchen window with the whole neighborhood watching the spectacle.

With his wife driving off in a tizzy, trying to rescue her family from a maniacal husband who needs mental health, he goes back inside. They fail to see the final destination, the symbol so many people have subconsciously remembered. It’s a clue of where our story must travel.

That leads us to a family road trip — at least one my family took while I was in high school. One of the stops was Devil’s Tower, christened the first National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. Like Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest — which I coincidentally saw on the same vacation — Devil’s Tower is an iconic American symbol. Natural and still somehow mystifying even otherwordly. The perfect seat for our finale.

It’s a mesmerizing experience sitting atop Devil’s Tower taking in the bright lights, the musical patterns of communication putting John Williams’ talents to the best possible use. Though it would be lying to say it didn’t verge on monotony in patches, at its very best, Spielberg has an unabashed appreciation for the wide-eyed spectacle and his stroke of genius is taking a very concrete relic and making it so integral to this encounter.

There’s something totem-like, it is a monolith in its own right, and suggests something as ancient as time itself. His other choice is to make the creatures on the other end the most amiable beings imaginable. Years of watching The Thing from Another World and Body Snatchers taught a different paradigm, but Spielberg is an optimist at heart. It shows through and through as the story is carried away by the exponential magic of the final climactic moments.

In many regards, it is a taste. For those still capable of awe where special effects or time or comprehension don’t get in the way of enjoyment, those final moments can indeed be spellbinding. It’s true their trance-like grip reached out to me. The only regret is some of the momentary distractions leading us on this road. It takes a whole lot of roadblocks and digressions to finally get us to our close encounter.

There’s something else nagging inside me. Dreyfuss fulfilled his unerring obsession like an angelic pioneer sent off to the great unknown. He reached the apex as he conceived it. There is nothing more for him to do. Still, one must wonder how exactly are the wife and kids doing at his sister-in-laws? It seems Spielberg has conveniently left the problematic issues of earth behind for the extraterrestrial. Too bad we are not afforded the same luxury.

4/5 Stars

 

Note: I viewed the Director’s Cut although there is also the previous theatrical cut and the special edition featuring an extended “mothership” scene.

The Conversation (1974)

6d644-theconversationDirected by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, this film begins with a commonplace conversation between a young man and woman in the relatively busy Union Square in San Francisco. As they make their way around their words seem of little importance and yet unbeknownst to them they are being followed and recorded. 

The mastermind behind it all is the surveillance expert Harry Caul who uses his know-how and a small team to track their words from a van.  As a professional and a highly respected member of his field, Caul is guarded and he tries not to concern himself with the reasons behind his surveillance. However, as he works his magic in his private lab space, Caul finally does become affected when he picks up on bits and pieces of the conversation. It deeply troubles him and he continually plays the tapes back. 

Because of his concern, Caul holds out on giving the tapes to the assistant of the Director, the man who commissioned the job. The aide pressures him more and more and then finally Caul finds the tapes are stolen. Fearing that the couple is in grave danger, Caul takes the room right next to theirs, but unfortunately despite his best efforts, his fears seem to be confirmed. After searching the empty room Caul goes to confront the Director only to find that things are not as they seem and Caul is the only one who realizes it. The disillusioned man is then threatened over the phone and informed that now the shoe is on the other foot and he is under constant surveillance. Little did he know the implications of the conversation… 

Gene Hackman may have played more memorable characters like Popeye Doyle, Lex Luthor, or even Norman Dale in the Hoosiers, however, I am not sure if he played a more complex character than Harry Caul. He is a detached man who has no telephone, tells white lies about his birthday, has multiple locks on his door, keeps his equipment caged and he has no significant relationships. The other side of him loves the saxophone and is a devout Catholic. He is no hero and not what we would normally call a villain. He is Harry Caul a lonely, confused human who has tendencies for good but still constantly struggles to reconcile that with his career. Above all, The Conversation is a thought-provoking psychological thriller which gives the audience lots to mull over.
 
4.5/5 Stars

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Directed by Mel Brooks and starring Gene Wilder with Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Teri Garr, this comedy films parodies old horror films like the original Frankenstein. However, it also functions as a drama in its own right much like the original Frankenstein films. Wilder is a professor and the grandson of Victor Frankenstein. The thing is, he wants nothing to do with his infamous relative, even going so far as pronouncing his name differently. However, when he inherits the family estate he must face his ancestry head on. There temptation takes over and he begins to build a creature of his very own, with horrifyingly funny results. This film has memorable moments including “Putting on the Ritz” and the Inspector’s arm. I still cannot believe that Feldman’s eyes get that big either! Wow. Wilder plays well off his Creature and Garr and Cloris Leachman both have important roles in Mel Brooks’ comedy.

4/5 Stars

Tootsie (1982)

7425a-tootsie_impStarring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Terri Garr, and BIll Murray, this comedy film follows a fiery actor as he tries to find work. Despite his skill, no one wants to work with Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) and so he masquerades as a woman to get a job on a soap. However, soon he gets so caught up in his role as Dorothy, he cannot get himself out. His character is so popular on the soap that she is renewed forcing Dorsey to endure it even longer. Then he finds himself befriending a shy actress on the soap (Lange) while he starts neglecting another actress friend (Garr). Along the way he has many awkward moments and romantic entanglements. The worst of these comes when he must reveal who he is (only his roommate and agent know). At first it causes pain but ultimately honesty is the way to go. This film was reminiscent of screwball comedies and it had some very hilarious moments. I have to say Hoffman pulled it off.

4/5 Stars