BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) Special Edition
So there’s a first contact, probably the longest post title in Menagerie history – I couldn’t see such a snappy title getting past a 21st century marketing department. My penultimate mission to the realms of Fear And Wonder was a highly anticipated affair, if there was one film which really ignited my soul in this season it was the chance to see Spielberg’s masterpiece in the holy environs of the NFT1. Now the deployment of the word ‘masterpiece’ in this context may have ruffled some feathers out there in the cosmos, when it comes to the 30 movies since he convinced the manager of his local theatre to screen 1968’s Amblin’ the consensus descends upon Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Schindlers List or maybe even E.T. as Spielberg’s greatest single achievement, but from an auteur standpoint CE3K (the abbreviation which we will now be using for brevity’s sake) is the clearest and most absolute distillation of the Cincinnati natives entire 40 year film history. Personally speaking I also have a close connection to the film, sure I grew up with Indiana Jones, Star Wars and actually have quite a vivid memory of seeing E.T. at the cinema at the tender age of nine, but this film really got under my skin as a kid due to that symphonic sense of escape and wonder, plus of course aliens which have always been catnip to any budding genre cinephile. So finally the chance to see the mothership and Devils Tower on the big screen in all their symbolic glory couldn’t be missed, as I curiously drawn to the mysterious South Bank by a phantasmagoric parade of scintillating lights and choral music – well, it was Christmas……
Blue-collar suburban potato masher Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss in a part originally offered to Steve McQueen of all people) abandons his three kids and his perky wife (1970’s screen favourite Teri Garr) in order to fulfil his selfish curiosity and eventually bugger off to alpha centauri – thanks a million Dad you fascist. In celestial alignment with the domestic drama French linguist Dr. Lacombe (a wonderfully cast Francois Truffaut) and his translator David Laughlin (the alliterative Bob Balaban) are following a global chain of curious near supernatural appearances and visitations, slowly piecing together a cryptic message which might just be co-ordinates for an epoch announcing visitation. The casting of Truffaut is a masterstroke given his (purely platonic, this isn’t the BBC of the 1970’s) affectionate treatment of childhood throughout his cinema, infusing the piece with his jejune sense of awe and wonder amongst the largely belligerent fellow scientists. Dreyfus as a working class cheeseburger and a beer kinda guy grounds the movie with a mate-next-door sensibility, an easy audience vessel for unravelling the astral conundrum, a suburban everyman that used to be Spielberg’s screen avatar until he got caught up in the fluctuating returns of the historical yarn phase of his career in subsequent decades.
CE3K is largely remembered as an awe-inspiring intergalactic fable, in reality it has something of a horror film orbiting Vilmos Zsigmond’s angelic cinematography, a warning on obsession of a man abandoning his kin in a slow-moving suburban suicide. The mothership sized metaphor which hums at the center of the film is the seeking of something better and beyond the wearying timetable of winter shoveling of the driveway, taking the kids swimming, Superbowl Saturday and ritualistic Sunday morning sex with the missus. Roy’s rejection of his working class malaise is a pseudo-revolutionary act which salutes a submerged class-consciousness, it is rooted in the Soviet regimented iconography of the dozen potential apostles that Roy joins as the messianic thirteenth savior, all encapsulated in the religious dimensions of the exchange programme we glimpse at the end of the film – unless it’s all an elaborate harvesting of tasty ingredients for the cook-book? It’s a film about communication and epiphany, an optimistic United Nation Task Force working in tandem to achieve something on a species critical level and penetrate the star-born mystery, as on the domestic level Roy’s relationship with his family must disintegrate if he can achieve transcendence. That blasts us into the influence of original screenwriter Paul Schrader with his spiritual fingerprints all over an early iteration of the script, Steven eventually throwing him out of the airlock when they butted heads over the composition of the man who would make historical First Contact. I’m paraphrasing as usual as Schrader complained that ‘I can’t stomach this ordinary schlep guy being the emissary of our species, it’s absurd’ to which Spielberg retorted ‘No, that’s exactly who I want’…..
If memory serves that brilliant screen metaphor of communication was also Schrader’s invention, although I could be wrong. The aliens are saviors in CE3K just as in a sense they are the celestial cherubs of 2001, it was a curious shift from the metaphorical ‘othering’ vessel of the 1950’s and 1960’s where an alien was a cultural symbol of numerous fears – communism, the bomb, immigration, indoctrination – the post-war shift into the nuclear age pulsing with the prospect of global annihilation. The aliens as a mothering and evolutionary equilibrium was obliterated when the pendulum swept back to the threat with the X-Files and SF movies of the 1980’s and 1990’s (Independence Day, Predator, the Alien series, Fire In The Sky, Species, all the Body Snatchers remakes, Starship Troopers, The Faculty etc.) all with trappings of a global shadow cabal government/corporation clandestinely interfering with the fate of nations, pure fiction as we all know the CIA and NSA were simply fighting the good fight in pursuit of truth and justice, right? Although there is something of a conspiracy to protect the wider public from the epoch shattering confirmation in CE3K that we are not alone it is conducted and justified in the film as being in our civilization’s best interests, a starling Spielberg optimistic counterpoint to the brooding post-Watergate conspiracy theory movies of the era – the Pakula trilogy, Chinatown, The Conversation, Three Days Of The Condor, Blow Out and on and on…..
This is the cultural matrix, this was before the X Files and the general knowledge that each and every UFO ‘sighting’ has been a manufactured Cold War calculation, the powers that be amusingly manipulating popular culture for their own nefarious ends. Spielberg now faintly rejects the film as something a younger man could make before he had his own family, back then he was a self-confessed believer that we had and were being visited which is rather quaint in its own naïve way, although as we now know with the proliferation of cameras and recording equipment you’d think someone would have got a Grey on camera by now. Moving onto technique the pacing of the film is that of a thriller, it shifts gears breathlessly from the suburban alienation to the global trotting quest, before alighting on the final dual set-piece that set the template for modern movie blockbusters – raising the stakes with a feint ending before the gargantuan mothership stupefyingly descends from the heavens. My sincere apologies for using an idiomatic cinema scholarly term but Spielberg shoots the fuck out of this film, frequently not cutting but maneuvering material, story information and characters into the frame, a trademark technique of his throughout distinctly American, optimistic oeuvre. He also moves his camera in long takes across a left to right progressive axis, a rhythm that abjures the film with a sense of ‘witnessing’ and revelation, a pseudo-religious appraisal of events akin to a crusade or a pilgrimage, as our celestial saviors provoke a simultaneous sense of terror and glee;
This sequence is exquisite (apologies for the quality of that screen-grab but its the best I could source) and brilliantly orchestrated if you will, and this is where John Williams score comes to the forefront. The sweep and swirl of the scintillating imagery harmonizes with the visual bathing of light, a purity motif which Williams echoes with the alternating pitch of his score, moving through eerie wonder to intangible threat, the child brimming with wonder filled curiosity as our adolescent species is elevated into rhapsody during the films climactic scenes.
Finally back to the material and industrial world with some short commentary on that other phenomenon of the early 1980’s which Spielberg notoriously unleashed into the marketplace – the directors cut or much exploited Special Edition. The film was famously re-edited with additional content three years after initial release, a promise that Spielberg reluctantly acquiesced to if Columbia would pay to finish and insert his beloved SS Cotopaxi sequence which was the victim of the productions spiraling budget – the studio was in severe financial difficulties in 1980 and needed a new marketing hook to generate more filthy lucre. Bizarrely though the Special Edition is actually three minutes shorter than the original cut due to the curtailing of other scenes, even with the addition of the mothership interiors that Steven still rues to this day. It’s another arrow in the quill to spear Spielberg on his alleged adoration of money (The Transformers series, that Crystal Skull, the loathed tampering with the beloved E.T. and others) over the preservation of artistic integrity that his best mate George has similarly been crucified upon. Is this an early sighting of zeitgeist echoing lucrative movies being perverted with unnecessary and additional content? Maybe, but I’m a sucker for the extra footage which I think slightly broadens the film, and a chance to wallow in Douglas Trumbull’s serendipitous SFX genius on a wide palette is an opportunity not to be missed. Naturally they were all painstakingly crafted in-camera and through optical mattes into the frame, a craftsmanship which provokes a nostalgic appreciation of genuine physicality on the big screen – those lens flares bisecting Carlo Rambaldi’s creature designs have never looked so immaculately magical.
Jesus weeping Christ the research for this piece has taken me to some hilarious conspiracy shores, for the record these people have a tenuous grasp on reality (this one is pure gold) but I do find some of them hilarious, the cerebral contortions they to evidence their paranoid allegations are often quite remarkable. So as usual to close a brief mixture of material, the notorious Julia Philips autobiography / expose You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again has all the behind the scenes gossip you could ever need on the films production and this documentary is a fairly good, studio-mandated primer. So in the final thrust of this wonderful BFI season there is one solitary sojourn left, a film which is another masterpiece that throws a chilly intellectual shadow over the entire season, I can’t imagine a director more diametrically opposed to Spielberg on every aesthetic, ideological and geographical level than the cinematic colossus that is Andrei Tarkovsky. My final mission dossier is that CE3K celebrates evolution and the immaculate in the mundane, an optimism almost alien in its youthful celebration, Spielberg’s most perfect synthesis of his cinema of awe and wonder, the seeds of the ordinary secretly harbored in the extraordinary;