Monday, October 16, 2017

CANON OF FILM: "CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND"

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

Director/Screenplay: Steven Spielberg



"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is an accomplishment is tension-building and then, pulling off an ending that actually matched the amount of tension we had. The first part of that, is tough, the second part is damn-near impossible. "Close Encounters...," kinda unfairly gets ranked as that, other sci-fi film Spielberg did after "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial", and hell, I might rank it third and put "Minority Report" above both of them some days, but it doesn't play like a sci-fi film. It plays more like a conspiracy theory thriller, an Altermanesque multi-narrative with divergent parts, that if you give them more than one thought outside of the context of the movie... half of the characters and their behaviors become horrifying. 

The reason for that, is that the film is investigatory in nature. It's about not really about aliens but the emotion feeling one has, when, something comes around that's just so strange and new and enlightening, that moment where you suddenly realized, this means, that this is important. It's the search for that moment, one that, we might easily be able to try to get our kids to have, with movies and toys and whatnot, but is so much more difficult to have as an adult. It helps that Spielberg, worked backwards when writing the screenplay, writing the ending and then backed up 'til he figured out how to get his characters there. This is really smart, too many writers try to figure out the problem before they figure out a solution, finding the end game first and working backwards, takes something that would otherwise be thrilling, and makes it, well, magical. 

Of course, nobody has had a lighter touch and a firmer grip on our inner child that Spielberg has over the year, although, nobody knew that at the time. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was only his third feature, (Not counting the TV movie, "Duel") after "The Sugarland Express" and "Jaws". He was the young hotshot wunderkind who had taken over Hollywood in a few short years but one of his fascinations was aliens, and in the age before handheld cameras were widely available, UFO and UFO sightings were more apart of the modern scientific lexicon than they were the rantings of conspiracy theorists today. Spielberg captures that wonder of something being out there, beyond us, in a way that few directors ever could. 

This film followers numerous people, first, official world governments who have receive a strange message apparently from outer space, made up of musical notes, which is convenient so we can have the great John Williams’s music not only work score, but also play the parts of the aliens, and help make their musical message loud and clear. (Well, music, mixed with light and mathematics) Also there seems to be a small group of people who have intuitively find themselves on some kind of alien wavelength and can see signs out of such bizarre objects as a dish of mash potatoes made out to be like Devil’s Tower. Jillian (Oscar-nominee Melinda Dillon)  plays one of these intuitives, who believe her child has been had a close encounter experience, only to have nobody believe her,   while Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is the more memorable a seemingly childlike 30something who has almost no interest in his wife and kids, because he's more fascinated by the images he sees seemingly everywhere, like a message that's coming into him from The Great Beyond, that he just can't quite interpret. The representative of the military, as they seek out explanations for the incidents, is lead by a French Government scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut, in a rare acting appearance outside of his own directorial works) along with his English language assisting Laughlin (Bob Balaban). I know a lot of film people who are really fascinated by Truffaut's appearance in the movie, to me. It is cool, and out of nowhere really, but honestly he's one of the last things I think about when thinking about the movie. 

What I think about is the buildup; it's one of those movies where, we know a bunch of stuff is happening and we're heading somewhere, but other than that, we don't know where we're going and it can be frustrating, even knowing the brilliance and grandiose nature of the ending, complete with special effects by the great Douglas Trumball himself. That's why I've put off writing on "Close Encounters..." for so long, of all of Spielberg's great movies, this is one that doesn't go down easy and requires the most work to buy into. It's completely worth it, mind you, but I don't necessarily know I'm in the hands of a master while watching it. This is one of those films where strange things occur all over that if looked at the correct way makes the audience feel must be connected to something all-powerful. Old long-lost WWII fighter planes, suddenly reemerging in perfect shape, but no sign of the pilot. An old cargo ship suddenly found, in the middle of the Gobi Desert of all things. Appliances going haywire, lights flickering on and off without reason, and of course, there's the more personal close encounters the characters experience.I always feel myself more concerned and worried; I'm hopeful this thing's gonna pan out, but it's more complex than that, maybe unnecessarily so. I think most people have that reaction too, they probably admire it's greatness more than appreciate it itself. 

Of course, had anybody's name other than Steven Spielberg's name been on it, I doubt that would be the problem. For anybody else, this is easily there greatest cinematic accomplishment; it barely scrapes the surface of Spielberg's best, and hell, even in the year it came out, it was second to "Star Wars" in the public's mind in terms of the greatest sci-fi spectacle. Spielberg wasn't even necessarily happy with it, releasing a special edition just a couple years afterwards, a different edit with some new scenes added that were shot afterwards, and there's a later edition later, that combines the two edits into what's probably the best version of the film. No matter the version, it's an amazing spectacle to behold. A visual masterpiece, that like the humans and the aliens that are trying to contact each other, takes some interpreting, patience and trust to understand what they're trying to communicate, and that what they're saying is worth listening to. 
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