Movie of the Week 4/28/14: Close Encounters of the Third KindPosted: May 5, 2014
Steven Spielberg is often denigrated by film buffs as being overly sentimental, and for contributing to the fall of film by helping to pioneer summer blockbusters. This has already been frustrating for me, because my childhood enjoyment of his adventure films has carried over fully into my educated adulthood, and it sucks to see a filmmaker I appreciate so much be dismissed so easily. In my mind Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a perfect refutation of both those perspectives, and a reminder of what big-budget filmmaking used to be about. It shows a different side of Spielberg that I thought Shiran should see, and also lets her see one of her favorite filmmakers in a different light as well.
Besides not having much in the way of “action scenes” the way we know them now- there’s the one pseudo-chase scene early on, and the scramble up the mountain in the end- Close Encounters of the Third Kind really stands out as being a low-key character story wrapped around a mystery, that just happens to have a major effects sequence in the end. Spielberg constantly shifts perspectives between the Nearys (Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr), the Gullers (Melinda Dillon and Cary Guffey) and Lacombe and Laughlin (Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban) and does so effortlessly, with all three narratives slowly merging together and painting a full picture of the world around the alien arrival.
Throughout all three storylines Spielberg has multiple elements in play, all of which work beautifully on their own but which really compliment each other as a whole. On the most surface level, it’s a mystery story leading up to completely peaceful contact with aliens, which shows a still-rare optimism about the nature of the greater universe. But building off that is a greater meditation on faith and belief in something beyond yourself; by the end of the movie, it’s hard not to see the parallels between Roy Neary’s struggle understanding his visions and someone wanting to understand God’s plan. However, I think the deepest-seeded (and at the same time, kind of the most obvious) element of Close Encounters is the angry voice of a kid still struggling to understand why his dad left.
One of the most recognizable themes of Spielberg’s career has been the irresponsible father, an emotional beat that stems from Spielberg’s own father leaving the family. But while almost all of Spielberg’s movies feature the father figure coming to terms with his problems, Close Encounters directly features the father leaving his family. In my mind, this is Spielberg trying to understand what could possibly drive someone away from something as precious as his family, and as a result depicts the dissolution of a family with sometimes brutal honesty. It’s not that Roy is a bad guy, or that Ronnie is a particularly unsympathetic woman; it’s clear that they are just on two different wavelengths, and that whether either of them wants it or not they are on the way to separation. It’s sad, and real, and not at all undermined by any forced sentiment (though again, I don’t think Spielberg’s usual sentimentality is particularly unearned, it’s just a choice he frequently makes).
Besides all of that narrative depth, there are plenty of other terrific pieces here, from the all-time great practical effects work, John Williams’ score and the surprisingly sweet excitement of the first communication with the aliens. But one of the best elements is something I’m sure Shiran will want to address, so without further ado:
I’ve been dying for Brendan to show me Close Encounters of the Third Kind, partially because it was a big gap in my Spielberg knowledge and it looked really good but mostly because, well, FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT PLAYING A SCIENTIST. Truffaut is more than one of my favorite directors — he’s one of my favorite figures in film history, period, and I was really excited to see what he’d bring to a Spielberg movie. Truffaut’s character generates a huge amount of sincerity and optimism that reverberates throughout the movie, and his sense of pure open excitement at making a connection with the aliens comes to define the film’s point-of-view. I think Lacombe would be my favorite part of the film even if I had no idea who Truffaut even was. But from a film history context, his presence draws a lot of really flattering parallels for Spielberg, ones that I think Brendan would appreciate. Truffaut helped spearhead of the most progressive and experimental eras in film history, and yet his movies were incredibly sincere and sometimes unapologetically sentimental. Sound familiar? I’m sure Spielberg was surprised to hear Truffaut agree to be in this big Hollywood feature, but from the vantage point of Truffaut’s career and perspective it makes perfect, wonderful sense. Where his personal experience veered towards microbudgets and working outside of traditional studio infrastructure, Truffaut was the number-one champion of his generation’s Spielberg, a hugely successful Hollywood director dismissed by many contemporary critics as little more than a manipulative audience pleaser: Alfred Hitchcock. I love Francois Truffaut for his unbridled enthusiasm for all things cinema, and I loved this movie for channelling that enthusiasm perfectly.
And with all of that being said, I’m looking forward to a step into the French New Wave next week. Join us for that massive change of pace soon!