Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind ★★★★★

40th Anniversary theatrical release.

If you possibly can, round up your family and friends and go see Close Encounters while it's back for a short run in theaters.

I saw it last night on a big, big screen in a theater with about six other moviegoers. It reminded me once again that "cinema" is a different art form than "movies." And it reminded me that Steven Spielberg 1975-1981 was an artist working on an altogether different level than what he's done since. This movie is so abrasive, so unconcerned about whether you like its protagonist, so chaotic, so willing to inflict long scenes of clamorous dissonance, so willing to go long stretches without substantial dialogue, so willing to layer conversations so that we have to decide on our own focal points within a scene (Was Spielberg once an Altman fan?), so strategic in the way it sets us up for the pregnant pauses and musical wonders of the conclusion... who in American filmmaking, since this version of Spielberg, has made anything like this? (No, not Villeneuve. Sorry. Arrival dreams of being half the movie that this one is.)

And, like any great art, this viewing was a new experience even though I've seen it several times. I noticed details I've never seen before, some of them sobering and some quite hilarious.

Most of all, I noticed how this film is like an outline of all that Spielberg will do in the future. Every movie is forecast here: the scene in India of Truffaut walking with a guide up above a sprawling and crowded landscape is framed just as the scene of Sallah leading Indy up to the dig in Raiders. The globe falling and rolling into the corridor is a wink about Raiders, too. Jillian fighting to avoid being loaded onto a train carries heavy echoes of Holocaust scenes that have haunted Spielberg since childhood, and those will show up in Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List. The conclusion, of course, plays like a preview for E.T.. And there's something of Roy in Catch Me If You Can.

I've never noticed just how Roy's journey, from the glimpse of The Ten Commandments to his progression from "Can you give me an answer?" to "Is this really happening?" is a personal expression of faith and doubt, of spiritual longing. This is a film about a Old Testament relationship with God, one spacious enough to have room for both righteous anger and awe. It's the story of Noah, considered a madman for building an ark. It's the story of Moses climbing the mountain for an encounter with God. It's the story of Job, losing all that he had and then encountering God in the storm.

And my longstanding frustration with the ending of the film evaporated. I came to see Roy Neary's journey very, very differently than I have before. Why have I always felt such an objection to his decision at the conclusion of the film? The movie does not, in any way, suggest that he is abandoning his family (as I thought for many years), or that he won't soon be reconnecting with them. It does not suggest that he has alienated them out of hard-heartedness. It suggests that he has been "chosen" and "called" to something for a greater good, and that he doesn't understand what's happening to him any more than anybody else. This comes through loud and clear, and I am embarrassed at how hastily I have judged him in the past.

I won't have a better time in a movie theater this year—that is almost certain.

As the six of us exited the theater, the young theater staff member assigned to clean the theater politely asked us what we thought of the movie. And then, before we could answer, he glanced at all of the empty seats and said, "I guess it wasn't very good, huh?" Danny and I responded, "Oh, it was amazing! As always. It's one of the all-time greats." He looked at us doubtfully, shrugged, and started sweeping.

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