Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) - Essay


Close Encounters


Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Close Encounters of the Third Kind never actually explains its title. Truffaut's Lacombe gets close, deep in the film, when Roy presses him about his actual affiliation, his official title, screaming "Who the hell are you people?!" over and over again in that fun, Angry Dad way that Dreyfuss so completely becomes. He's so desperate that Lacombe breaks character to ask if Roy's had a "close encounter" recently, using the abbreviation that every audience member adopts and the design of the opening credits seems to accept, placing "CLOSE ENCOUNTERS" hugely above a tiny "of the third kind." And, so what? Who cares if the last half of that long, poetical looking title that looks so good typed out but maybe doesn't sound as great, or is just too cumbersome to say in casual conversation, gets some techy side-character to rattle off the definition of The First Kind, The Second Kind, then finally, The Kind at Hand. Instead it hangs out, more a thought than a sentence, more feeling than drama. It's a titular sidecar to Roy's UFO encounter, when his brief glance toward the posterior lights of an aircraft strikes him so close to his heart that it leaves him enraptured, but which he can't connect to his brain in any logical way -- practically the definition of insanity. More a dream, under your skin, known but unspeakable.

Considering this is "speculative science" written by Spielberg himself, a filmmaker who will happily ride high on cinematic vibes as long as they are grounded by explication, the movie is surprisingly jargon-free. In this freedom is its beauty. At one point a group of scientists gather into a room and try to decipher some numbers they've been receiving from outer space -- a veritable petri dish of jargon! NASA chatter ready to be born! But the actual point of the scene is to watch a group of middle-aged tie-wearing engineers tear a very expensive globe out of an office and wheel it into their control room -- an image of important men acting like children that I bet Spielberg would have wanted to see in a film when he was a kid. It's a clear joke: these guys are always so serious on screen, let them be silly for once. There's something very liberating about watching adult men do kid-things, and Spielberg taps into this over and over again. The Jurassic Park T-Rex attack climaxes with Martin Ferrero sitting on a toilet, like in the middle one of the most intense sequences of his career Spielberg couldn't resist turning it into the most ornate poop joke in Hollywood history. In different ways, entire films of his are dedicated to this adults-as-children feeling: Hook, Indiana Jones, The Adventures of Tin Tin. Roy, though, is the most emotionally resonant and heartbreakingly awful example of this. As a dad he smears shaving cream on his face, he crashes toy trains, he plans a family trip to see Pinnocchio whether they like it or not. He's like a kid who one day found himself with the powers of an adult, and he's trying his best to use them for good. After the UFO sighting, though, those powers switch inward and he becomes a man who has to act like a child. He can't help himself. He plays with his food, he throws trash in the house, he mutilates his train set with that one monolithic shape he can't get out of his brain. He makes it impossible for his wife to show her face to the neighbors, he drives his family out of their home, he abandons them, he ruins their lives. And Speilberg lets him get away with it.

Close Encounters sits neatly on the continuum of Spielberg movies in that it is consummately nice. Spielberg is a humanist and a cineast, and this is why his name is synonymous with movies for literally everyone everywhere. It's a great combination, the mastery of a form and the love of people. I can't name a mean movie he's made, or really even a movie with a distant or analytical stance from the characters. Rather, his movies always allow you a character to empathically glom onto, someone to lead you through the story as you would see it yourself, and story always comes first. His hierarchy of importance goes something like this: story over character empathy, character empathy over character depth, character depth over cinematic style, cinematic style over peripheral moments. This isn't to say he lacks style or depth, it's just that he doesn't stray from his path. The small moments always lead to the final big moment, and the style is a set and consistent emotional thread within the story, not something that explodes into a different set of rules from scene to scene. The characters are meant to be felt with, not analyzed from without. He makes his rules, he follows them, and he's nice.

It's this niceness toward Roy, this complicit acceptance of his choices and total justification of the abandonment of his family that makes Close Encounters so interesting and so emotionally difficult for me to watch. In another movie, this would have been the story of an a man's descent into insanity and the toll it takes on his family. In small ways it still is, but inherent in the emotional thrust of the movie is the assertion that Roy was right to do what he did, and we're expected to go along with it. After all, there was a UFO. He was inexplicably drawn to Devil's Mound in the middle of Wyoming, he wasn't "crazy" in the sense that he was seeing things. In one of their escalating fights about his inability to produce any evidence of his encounter, Roy shouts at Ronnie "I can't explain it!" to which she retorts, curt and beautifully loaded, "I can explain it." The entire movie is held in these lines. Ronnie's response implicates Roy not as an alcoholic, no, Spielberg is too nice for that. It simply says, you've been drunk and gotten in trouble with your friends before. We've seen this behavior and it's time to stop. Roy, of course, doesn't and when Ronnie drives away that last time we never see her again, she left with her life in shambles and Roy cosmically rewarded for pursuing his "dream." Roy arrives at Devil's Mound and is met with a gorgeous thirty minute spectacle of light and sound then sent to the heavens Jesus-style, arms out in a cross, carried onboard like the son of God as if he, not Ronnie, were sacrificed for the greater good. Even better, he is adopted into a kind of doppelganger family, sharing an innocent kiss with Melinda Dillon as Jillian, the woman who also witnessed the UFO. Ronnie is replaced without judgement or reservation from Spielberg by Jillian, a look-a-like who is linked to Roy simply by their mutual blindness, two Cyclopses meeting in a cave. Yet the movie allows Roy to be right and true, and by implication good in his actions, even though his actions are so clearly not good if only we weren't so effectively glommed onto his point of view.

Is there a literary connection between Roy's Jesus-ness and the diabolically named mesa? I don't think so. The name "Devil's Mound" well recalls the pulp serials that everyone by now knows Spielberg likes and is good at modernizing, and Roy's abduction is only religious in the sense that he finally arrives at bliss. He doesn't finally understand, he merely quells his bewilderment. From the beatific faces of the World War II pilots disembarking the space ship, we can glean that they've spent the last 30 or so years not giving a single shit about living in suspended animation on a UFO. They are completely accepting of the situation, docile yet alert, feeling present without thought and with no signs of disorientation -- practically the definition of Spielberg's ideal audience member. When Roy is carried off to live in this state in perpetuity, his Jesus arms and the bright, rapturous light don't signal to us that he is our savior, but rather that this kind of ecstatic orgasm of images is what should happen at the end of the joyous movie that Spielberg is trying to make, and what has been happening at the end of the perfect movie that's been playing on loop in his brain since he was a child. Utter elation, a boy's dream. Roy won't be in a place where he can finally communicate what's happening in his brain. No, out in space he will only feel, much the way Spielberg hopes we will only feel upon entering the movie. It would be easy to say that Roy's headed to the big movie theater in the sky. After all, the light coming out of the UFO looks an awful lot like that of the projector. And what better way to subsume the inability to communicate verbally than by setting sail on a sea of pure feeling, a preverbal communique of light, movement and sound: the building blocks of cinema. 

And so we arrive at Francois Truffaut's hands. For a movie surprisingly jargon-free, Close Encounters is also strangely drama-free, at least externally. Basically aliens come over, play some music, drop off some old passengers and pick up some new ones. Credits roll. They don't attack and they don't communicate any information per se, other than that five note tone. This is a movie about people who can't communicate with anyone around them but at the same time still reach for some way to express their connection with heavenly bodies, some way to translate that thing inside them that seems to be -- and here literally is -- beamed into their hearts from outer space. I'm sure Spielberg can relate. And how fitting that it takes Francois Truffaut to translate these celestial transmissions into something we can understand, that he should be the one to stand in front of an audience and translate the voices of a thousand people singing only with the knowledge that their voices came from heaven into music and movement, sound and vision -- practically the definition of cinema. More a dream, under your skin, known but unspeakable.