November 26, 1977 [Close Encounters of the Third Kind]

Jerry refuses to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind--on principle: He disdains a movie that asks people to search elsewhere for hope and fulfillment, rather than in their own lives. This is also the guy who’d rather listen to Yes than Bruce Springsteen--“Why eat hamburger when I can have a steak?” A nice guy, but suffering from a blind spot: Someone who thinks Siddartha is one of the best books of the 20th century has a funny idea of what makes for a good steak.

Now, I like Yes--went with my Close Encounters-hating friend to see them tell Tales from Topographic Oceans--and have read with great pleasure Hesse’s book about the Buddha--but I also could not take my eyes away from Close Encounters, from that first moment when Spielberg jumpstarts us with a burst of light and music, to the gumball/pinball spaceships, the unfolding mystery in Roy Neary’s head--Richard Dreyfuss once more in deep waters with Spielberg (and this time the boat’s plenty big)--and Melinda Dillon’s panicked mom, and the little boy who runs toward the monster like a kid on Christmas morning bolting down the stairs--and even François Truffaut showing up, the strangest visitor of all, a gentle reminder that Jerry is wrong, that this is a story about finding something in one’s life, down deep where indefinite shapes elude our grasp--unless we’re scary lucky, and they take definite shape, in mashed potatoes or charcoal sketches--or gigantic science fair projects, big papier-mâché mountains in the living room. It was dismaying to see Neary fly away from everyone, little by little, to outer space--the kind of upheaval only reckless hope can fix, with or without special effects.

I won’t argue with my friend; I can only record my own hypnosis, not wanting the picture to end, wanting its humor and terror, joy and wonder to go on for just a little more, just a while longer, like a kid who doesn’t want to go to sleep.


  1. With few exceptions, I hate Spielberg movies ... not big on science fiction and special effects, either. But this one is a near perfect movie. And like in that other near perfect movie, Shane, in the end our hero won't come back.

  2. Ned, the Shane comparison is nice; I read somewhere a criticism that Neary abandons his family a bit too easily; but the code hero sacrifices everything to remain true. It's just that Neary is alien-brain-wave compelled to leave them, to change into an explorer.

    I won't argue with your Spielberg-hatred. I sharply disagree, although I recognize his flaws.

    As for FX, for me the movies themselves are a "special effect"; it just depends on what you do with them--or in them. But you're on safe ground: Aristotle places "spectacle" on the bottom of the list of elements of tragedy.

  3. I think Teri Garr's brand of dry humor (and the reality she - and Spielberg's staging - bring to the breakup scene) adds a lot to the movie, giving it an adult complexity alongside the childlike wonder. Like all of Spielberg's early masterpieces, this one is both a Melies-like flight of the imagination and a Lumiere-like fondness for domestic observation (there's an Altmanesque quality to the overlapping dialogue and a fondness for cramming the frame with little details to give a sense of "offscreen reality" - I think these qualities are fundamental to my admiration for this filmmaker, not just now but in childhood as well, the way he mixes the everyday with the supernatural and celebrates both equally).

  4. God bless Teri Garr! I can still hear her incredulous "Whats" as Roy jabbers.

    "Close Encounters" and "E.T." seem to be occurring at the same time, MovieMan, in the same everyday world. And yes, the Lumieres loved that world--but even their "Demolition of a Wall" was transformed by projectionists (so the story goes) who would run it backward, to the delight of audiences. When my dad would show home movies, he'd include the single Popeye cartoon we owned, run it, then run it backwards. My sister and I always howled at the moment when Popeye would vomit his spinach back into the can, then seal it. Not quite supernatural, but close enough.


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