written and directed by Steven Spielberg
This movie is pretty nuts. As I said at the beginning of this entry: when I was a kid, movies made sense to me only as pure successions of events and feelings – the way a pop album seems to make a vague and misty kind of overall “sense” after you get to know it. My example there was The Empire Strikes Back, which, upon adult review, revealed mundane and rational efforts toward sense-making and reminded me how much was lost on me as a kid. Close Encounters, I find, has gone in the other direction entirely – what intuitively made color-and-sound sense to me as a kid now seems bizarre because I can get nothing else out of it – it refuses to reveal any other kind of sense. If you stop to ask why anything in this movie is happening – really, almost anything in the movie – you find yourself faced with a strange and potentially disturbing fog. All roads lead back to the senses.
I nowadays find it essentially impossible not to ask “so what am I seeing, here” about things I see in movies. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s just how grown people react to stimuli. Short of being 8 years old, I’m not sure how one is supposed to re-attain the placid state of unquestioning acceptance that the movie requires. Only an 8-year-old can comprehend the conceptual chyme of He-Man or Pokemon without concentrated effort; it comes down to the ability to ignore implications. If you ignore the implications and stick to what’s happening in front of your eyes only, Close Encounters can be experienced as a reasonable succession of related events, and to the degree that they are individually interesting to watch, it’s a fun movie. But it doesn’t add up, intellectually speaking, nor – and this is what’s weird – does it even make sense as pulp. What genre of pulp is it?
The final scene seems clearly to be saying something heartwarming about brotherhood and “we’re all in this crazy universe together; re mi do do sol = love.” And the rest of the movie leads, more or less, to that scene, but it in no way lead to that message – it’s full of other, completely contradictory stuff, like the horror scene where the sky breaks into Melinda Dillon’s house. “Come in through the door! Come in through the door!” Fun to watch but absolutely unrelated. As is the main Richard Dreyfuss story of life-discarding obsession, which our hero follows to its ultimate conclusion, stepping off the planet forever. Towards what? Something transcendentally wonderful, apparently – Verklärung of some kind, the creepiest possible prize. He’s taken into the heart of mystery without it becoming unmysterious, which might mean something to us as viewers (in that sound-and-color sense) but is simply impossible for him. The absurdity is made clear by that ridiculous extra scene they added to the 1980 version, where you get to see what it looks like inside the spaceship: Looks like the rest of Roy Neary’s life is probably going to be terrifying and incomprehensible! Follow your dreams, kids! At the climactic moment, the music blossoms into “When You Wish Upon a Star” – but who said anything about wishing? He got zapped in the head! The movie wants to be about the magic and wonder of wishing, the feeling of wishing – but not wishing FOR anything.
Maybe in its objectless sense of yearning and its completely diffused generic spirituality, the movie is an unintentional metaphor for the formless discontent in the heart of the American middle class. (Or maybe everyone in contemporary society! I only know about the American middle class.) After all, we’re meant to understand that Roy Neary has, in fact, made a wish – because he’s explicitly shown to be a middle-American everyman, so he must of course have made the vague wish that every middle-American everyman makes: to maybe be rich and famous or something, I dunno. Or, like, to cure cancer, or like, fly on a UFO, something like that. I definitely want something, but I seem to have food and shelter and a job and a family and a train set and Goofy Golf, so that can’t be it, but I swear there’s something else I want. Maybe it’s to leave my wife and kids and drive through a fence with the single mom from down the street. Whatever it is, it’s real, real important and I don’t have it yet.
The movie is the fulfillment of that exact fantasy – that SOMETHING will finally happen, and it will be glorious, and important, and mean something – in all its lack of content, and that lack of content is what disturbed me this time. The big number at the end of the movie is a musical conversation between the aliens and the people, but the people do not actually participate, nor do they know what they’re saying! The computerized keyboard somehow starts to handle our half of the dialogue for us. One of the technicians comments, “It’s the first day of school, boys!” But of course neither he nor anyone else present is learning anything, or even obliged to pay attention. Someone else asks “What are we saying to each other?” I don’t know, man! I really don’t know! It’s a sequence about the joy of communication with ABSOLUTELY NO COMMUNICATION! Right now this somehow seems deeply sad to me.
When I was in high school I came up with this thing that seemed pithy at the time, possibly because I was in high school – that Close Encounters was Old Testament to E.T.‘s New Testament. Certainly the Jesus/E.T. parallels are blatant enough – healing powers, message of love, dying to save Elliott and then being resurrected and returning to the heavens while spiritually remaining “right here” – not to mention Peter Coyote’s character being named “Dr. Pontius Pilate”*. The Close Encounters/Old Testament connection that I saw at the time was only that the aliens, like the God of Abraham, are totally unpredictable and not above shock and awe tactics in pursuit of goals that only they can fully comprehend. E.T. comes in the form of a little man, more or less, whereas these gods summon clouds and pillars of fire. But now I see a further connection – that the ominous and inscrutable character of the Old Testament God arises from the choppy synthesis of the Old Testament itself – separate stories with quite different conceptions of God all rammed together – and that Close Encounters operates the same way. What mystery it contains arises from its being a fairly addled movie.
In the bonus materials, Steven Spielberg, interviewed on the set of Saving Private Ryan (1998), clearly wants to distance himself from the younger person who made Close Encounters, and who thought it was an important movie to make. He seems about as embarrassed as one could be about such a phenomenonally successful and beloved movie. Which is to say slightly embarrassed.
It’s okay, Steve. You don’t need to be embarrassed. Nobody’s paying close attention to it and I promise I won’t try to ever again. As color and sound it’s still fun. It’s more like a music video than a movie, in some ways. All that pointless forward momentum and those empty climaxes – that’s what music is. It all quite resolutely signifies nothing and who says that can’t be satisfying?
Maybe it sounds like I say that, but I don’t. Oh wait, I sort of did up there, didn’t I. When I said that I’m not 8 years old and can’t watch it like that anymore. Yeah, but maybe I can if I’m sleepy.