Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon
Close Encounters, if I’m honest, is a hard movie to love. A lot of the film is about Richard Dreyfuss rapidly going insane after having been the only witness in his family to three UFOs. It’s one thing to listen to him pontificate about the presence on Earth of beings from another planet; it’s quite another for him to turn every malleable substance into a great big plateau for no conceivable reason, without explanation or warning, while the family (presumably) collects unemployment and dips into savings. He and his wife (Teri Garr, who always gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop) fight constantly. His children, especially the oldest, have no way to cope with him. And after he gets on the mothership, what’s going to happen? Three kids and their single mom in the late ’70s will try to have him declared legally dead to get whatever insurance they can while he gallivants around the galaxy, communicating with color and sound. As marvelous as the fifteen minute stretch atop Devil’s Tower is, and as cool as Francois Truffaut is in this film, the increasingly absent father and the mother whose son is kidnapped by aliens don’t make for a fun viewing experience. My first thought after watching the movie was something along the lines of: “Does the communication sequence on Devil’s Tower outclass the rest of the film because it’s brilliant, or does it outclass the rest of the film because the rest of the film really isn’t so good?” The answer, weirdly enough, is probably the latter. It’s E.T., not Close Encounters, that really makes people feel some kind of way. When the dad is already gone, as he is in E.T., and the kids have to adjust, there’s more pity in the audience’s heart.
Close Encounters is perfect Spielberg in that way; you should feel more, but you can’t help but sense that the whole thing has been staged oddly. You can’t help but feel that there was more to be said about capitalism in Jurassic Park, or about the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, or about the slave trade in Amistad, a series of B+ papers that touch on the point (Amon Goeth’s cruelty, the voyage of a slave ship was monstrous synecdoche for the system) and yet the focal point of the stories are the Nazi who recognizes Jewish humanity, or the former president who intercedes for the African-Americans. One just wants to shake Spielberg real hard and say, “This is a good story! There’s a more important story literally just around the corner!”
That B+ attitude that Spielberg has, for me at least, come to define in filmmaking, works marvelously when the stakes are fairly low/fictional. So when Roy Neary leaves his family bereft of any kind of closure or support, that’s low stakes even if it’s still the equivalent of getting a sour stomach while watching the film. Low human stakes, at least, allow an audience to get into the abstract stuff that old Spielberg movies used to manage. In the ’70s and ’80s, back when Spielberg was still one of the movie brats deeply influenced by countercultural-become-mainstream filmmakers, that “abstract stuff” was a mistrust of big government, obviously informed by Watergate. Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., and even, to some extent, Indiana Jones all involve big government that covers up the truth, truth that a series of normal folks (a sheriff, a lineman, a child, a college professor) can unravel with a little perseverance.
There’s the obvious example, probably the most famous one in popular culture, of the five notes and matching colors that seem to say “Hello.” There’s the equally obvious and less feted example of how no one who has been touched by the alien presence can adequately explain to other people what’s going on; if Roy could just talk with Ronnie about what the heck is going on in his head, or if Jillian could convince her child not to run away from home to follow the little aliens around, then doubtless this would be a less grim picture. There’s the expert miscommunication that drives the people of Wyoming away from Devil’s Tower, the great ruse that Lacombe and his team come up with, from transporting their personnel in trucks labeled “Baskin Robbins” and leaving dead sheep along the highway. If there’s something the beginning of the film is really good at, it is introducing this idea of communication – whether an idea is coherent or not – to the audience generally. Most good sci-fi appreciates how difficult it can be to talk to people unlike yourselves. The most influential episode for me, thanks to its endlessly quotable dialogue, of Star Trek: The Next Generation is “Darmok.” The whole point is that Picard has no idea how to interpret the language of the Children of Tama, until, of course, he gets it. It doesn’t make any sense that a race of people could communicate without closed-class words (try it for ten minutes and see how far you get), but the point is that there’s a gap between civilizations that can only be met with improved communication. Independence Day, which of course spoofs Close Encounters, gains a new level of purpose once Bill Pullman starts to talk to the aliens at Area 51. Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, written before Orson Scott Card lost his entire bag of marbles, are very open about how being unable to communicate is potentially deadly. Contact, one of the better sci-fi novels ever, is all about talking to people you’ve never seen before and can’t comprehend. This is fertile ground, and Close Encounters, which predates all of those other examples (even though it doesn’t predate, say, 2001, which has enough communication problems of its own but that’s a different post), gets it.
To its credit – and of course a film director thinks this way and not in some tortured linguistic fashion – Close Encounters chooses to make the problem of communication one of pictures or sculptures, lights and tones. Rather than getting into a boring quagmire of decoding some alien language, the film decides it’s far more interesting to make language an artistic, musical question rather than a scientific question. The mystery of Devil’s Tower, of lights on a spaceship, of the thundering rumbles to match. Language is a mysterious entity in Close Encounters, which is fitting; that’s maybe the most realistic aspect of the movie. We are not meant to understand all of the language, but merely get the sense of what’s happening, to get a smackerel of discourse from intuition or sheer good luck.