Thursday, March 3, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part VI: No he's not! My daddy is an astronaut!


Spielberg, for the only time in his career, wrote a script all by himself, and from that script he directed a film composed, apparently, from his innermost fantasies, without ever checking with anyone else to see if what he'd made was entirely coherent.  And yet the outcome was somehow one of his single most financially successful movies.  Indeed, it must be one of the strangest blockbusters you'll ever see.

1977, 1980, or 1998, depending
Written and directed by Steven Spielberg
With Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Jillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (David Laughlin), and Francois Truffaut (Claude Lacombe)

Spoiler alert: severe

It seems right to have waited till the sixth installment of our retrospective to actually talk about Steven Spielberg as a human being, who had a human life and a human childhood—and, oh yes, human parents—rather than as some filmmaking deity who simply appeared in a bolt of light one day at Universal Studios, whereupon he began to edit things most majestically, even though nobody could quite remember ever actually hiring him.  (And yet this is not a completely inaccurate description of how Spielberg got his crucial first gig.  Remember, kids: network and be a total prick!  I'm sure that, in 2016, you won't be hauled off in irons, and you too can begin your career with a colorful story.)

Young Steven was born in Cincinatti, Ohio, in 1946, but he spent his real formative years in Phoenix, Arizona, where his parents moved in 1953.  Spielberg, you may have heard, is Jewish; and Phoenix, as you may or may not know, is not exactly Squirrel Hill; add in the fact that he was kind of a nerd, and you have a recipe for alienation and a certain degree of isolation.  It might well be that this was why he found amateur filmmaking such a solace, since it provided him a social scene that, firstly, wasn't direly uncool, and secondly, gave him a chance to experience a certain measure of control over his own life.  See, Steven's real problem wasn't with his peers, but the divorce his parents went through, which led to his separation from his dad, a rift that wasn't healed for many years.  In the meantime, Steven grew to manhood, went to college for almost a whole day, and dropped out, first to make TV shows, then TV movies, then Sugarland Express, then Jaws.  The rest is pretty much history, and it's a history that's been practically defined by the absence of the man named Arnold Spielberg.

This fatherless void has (quite infamously) found its way into just about every movie Steven ever made, either as the surrogate parental figure who serves as a patriarchal ideal (or, occasionally, a matriarchal ideal), or as the son (but it is always a son) who has to come to terms with a distant parent, or—in this one special instance—of the father himself, whom we presently learn actually hates his family, and just can't wait to put a few light years' distance between them.

What I'm still trying to figure out here is whether, in 1977, Spielberg knew that the prime mover of his parents' divorce was in fact his mom, and therefore if Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a kind of allegorical rapprochement with his dad; or (more likely) that it's the expression of about a decade and a half's worth of fantasy regarding the way he wished his dad had exited his life—namely, on a mysterious mission given to him by a supernatural force amounting to an inscrutable, omnipotent God.  Close Encounters, you see, must be Spielberg's single most childlike movie, and that says an awful lot, when we're talking about the man whose early filmography is practically coextensive with the dreamworld of a whole generation of American kids.

It is, anyway, obviously Spielberg's most personal film: in part the story of a marriage falling right to pieces for no easily discernable reason, Close Encounters plays like the reconstruction of what young Spielberg experienced when his parents fought and he stuffed towels under his door to muffle out the screaming.  Between the scene that introduces us to our protagonist and the scene where the protagonist is left alone—and discounting the quasi-intrusive black-ops subplot—Close Encounters' middle act is essentially one solid hour of domestic combat, barely papered over by half-hearted attempts at reconciliation and tenderness.  And honestly the film works better if you treat it as the story of a man literally going insane—which, for both good and ill, is a reading Close Encounters frankly encourages.

The plot: things are afoot all over the world as we enter Close Encounters, which in fact begins three times, and on the third try, we meet Roy Neary, electrical lineman and father of three, who's been awakened in the middle of the night for an emergency job.  Something strange and terrifying has invaded little Muncie, Indiana, and when Roy takes notice of all the brilliant flying lights darting through the sky, he's struck with wonder, and gives fevered chase.  At the end of it, he meets Jillian, who has also followed the visitors.  Together, they witness the lights turn upward, and speed into space.

Hurrying home and waking his family, in the hope that they can share in his mystifying experience, he drags them out to the same place, but they see nothing, and the cleavage of the family unit begins in earnest—although the fact that Roy got a bad sunburn on just half of his face, in the dead middle of the night, seems to concern his wife Ronnie in such a minimal way that you're tricked into rooting against her, as Roy becomes increasingly obsessed (but justifiably obsessed) with what those lights in the sky actually were.  Yet you start to take her side again, once Roy begins making strange connections that seem to be leading him somewhere far away—although precisely where it is he needs to go, he simply cannot say.

Things get worse, the ultimate break occurring in the film's second most famous scene, when Roy shovels half a ton of soil and shrubbery into their kitchen window in order to build a giant dirt model of the thing he keeps seeing in his head.  In the process, he comes off as so unhinged and dangerous that it's frankly unbelievable that no one, especially Ronnie, ever called the cops.  But this shall be the last we see of the unimportant members of the Neary family, and it's very possible that Roy never so much as mentions them again for the whole remainder of the film.  And so, with the role of female lead thus opened, Roy teams up with Jillian (who, in the meantime, has had her own son stolen by the visitors).  After realizing that what his visions have been telling him is to go to Devil's Tower in Wyoming, the two make their way through a phony chemical weapons crisis and a panicked evacuation, and—at last—discover the meaning of the compulsion that has consumed them.

(It bears mentioning here that Close Encounters has been tinkered with an enormous amount since its initial release in 1977.  The first time came in 1980, when Spielberg made a deal with Columbia to let him recut the film and shoot new scenes for a theatrical re-release, labeled a Special Edition; but Columbia was only willing to let him do this in exchange for adding another special effects sequence that revealed even more about the mystery Roy had been chasing this whole time.  Spielberg grit his teeth and agreed to Columbia's terms.  But in 1998 he finally got the opportunity to recut the film his way, jettisoning the pretty but content-free final sequence he'd been cajoled into adding, but keeping most of the other new scenes, while rearranging several others.  This review is based primarily upon that 1998 Director's Cut.)

Anyway, for a movie rejiggered and reissued so many times, it's strange that Close Encounters does not deeply reward rewatches.  It was hailed at the time as a magnificent, even mystical cinematic experience—a sensation I myself recall from my youth, even though I must've only seen the thing on VHS—but every time I see it today, the very things that made it so enigmatic and trippy now wind up seeming glossed over and even arbitrary, while the more prosaic secrets of Close Encounter's plot are telegraphed so loudly that I have to wonder where the still-lingering impression of subtlety and mystery actually came from in the first place.  (I have serious doubts, in particular, about the numerous cutaways to the U.N. team that's handling the clandestine first contact with the alien visitors, for even when I know intellectually that the beautiful and powerful ending scene cannot exist without leaving Roy Neary's perspective, they basically explain what's happening long before our guy ever figures it out.)

Finally, it's striking that—despite the testimony of those three block paragraphs that recite the tale, and despite Spielberg keeping everything moving quickly enough you barely notice—when watching the Director's Cut which one assumes is Spielberg's final statement on the matter, one realizes that only four or five things actually happen in the whole (rather long) movie, and that half of them don't make any sense.

Which is, obviously, the point, given the unabashedly spiritual bent of the film.  But it does Close Encounters few favors when its grandest moments can be boiled down to the following sentence: an asshole father puts his faith in a group of asshole aliens, and they leave Earth to go be assholes together forever.  And the aliens of Close Encounters are enormous assholes by any reasonable metric, notwithstanding their tendency to move in mysterious ways: they steal a woman's child with no explanation, then give him back with even less; they have displaced hundreds of people dozens of years in time by taking them on a relativistic thrill ride, essentially destroying their lives; and however they did what they did to poor Roy, they have scarred his psyche and broken his family, although in Roy's case it's not like he liked them very much anyway.  And maybe it's just that a decade plus of X-Files episodes have made me paranoid, but you can scarcely begin to construct a workably ethical set of motivations for the aliens.  Indeed, you can barely begin to construct any set of motivations for them at all.

This hurts Close Encounters more than its proponents will ever admit: it is very good that Spielberg demurs on any explanation, for this is what the film is all about, and maybe you can argue Roy answered the aliens' call of his own volition (although the men of Flight 19 and the crew of the Cotopaxi certainly did no such thing), but you're still left with as troublesome a narrative as the director's ever delivered—and this is the man who helmed Temple of DoomClose Encounters hovers right on the edge of grievous misogyny: in its broadest strokes, it is a wish-fulfillment fantasy about leaving behind the mundane boredom inherent to fucking one's shrewish wife and raising one's ungrateful children, in order to explore a limitless cosmos alongside magical beings.  And thus it is only Spielberg's childlike sense of enthusiasm—that word again, "childlike"—that could ever possibly save it.

But it does save it, and although it would be very unfair to withhold Spielberg all the credit he deserves for turning his intimate pain into the distressing scenes of the Neary family's breakdown, and for reintroducing scenes that make Ronnie Neary somewhat less of a moronic bitch, the basic thrust of Close Encounters—and the reason it made Jaws-style money—remains the same in every cut.  It is the blinding optimism of the film that gives it its power, for within the sweep of that irrepressibly Spielbergian sensawunda, nothing else really matters.  An effects extravaganza, Close Encounters is filled with beautiful and still-convincing work by the wizard of 2001, Douglas Trumbull; without it all of Spielberg's grasping for transcendence would completely fail, but obviously it doesn't fail the slightest bit.  And Close Encounters is driven not by visuals alone, but by that instantly-iconic five-note greeting, conjured up by John Williams and used as the motif of the ineffable throughout the picture, culminating in the most excellent interstellar jam session of all time.

And since Close Encounters cemented the Spielberg-Williams partnership, if you were to credit the film with nothing else, there's still that.

What can I say?  If it works for you, it works; it works for me, and I know that for many it was a genuinely sacred experience.  Spielberg gets carried away with pure emotion, and pure cinema, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind—but because he's the master of both these things, he carries us right with him, to the place that's brightness, and understanding, and unconditional love.  It's ironic, really.

Score:  8/10

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