Thursday, 21 March 2013

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

Just recently, feeling at a loose end, I decided to give Close Encounters Of The Third Kind another viewing, and then realised that I had not previously written a blog post about it.

I first the saw the film as a youngster, not long after its release. I was a little overwhelmed by it, both by what appeared back then to be its emotional and philosophical sweep, and by the aspects of the plot which were beyond my comprehension, or simply went completely over my head.  In my more mature years I have come to recognise that behind this lies the secret of the enduring and universal appeal of the picture. It can induce a childlike sense of wonder and awe, but also poses some wider questions.

Another thing which always strikes me is how "timeless" the film is, in the purest sense of that word.  Leaving aside the dubious Seventies "fashions", this film feels like it could have been made now.  The subject matter is just as relevant, if not more so, particularly the mistrust of officialdom.  Public interest (and hysteria) about UFOs was particularly pronounced in the 1970s, but it is still there today, but just not as mainstream in today's fragmented media environment.

So "Close Encounters" possesses several layers, and in keeping with this there is much left to the interpretation and imagination of the viewer.  We are left to draw our own conclusions on many aspects of the plot, and the events which occur.  Some may be red herrings, but others clearly are not.  This is exemplified by the sequence in the air traffic control building. The script does not just rely on the well-worn cliches about "little green men", but introduces additional, less obvious elements which tax the intellect and have the capacity to unsettle, but which help the film to achieve the balance of maintaining both plausibility and immediacy.

Astutely, Spielberg decided to unfurl the story from both the "official" perspective and that of "ordinary" citizens. These days this sort of approach has become rather banal and hackneyed, but back in the Seventies it was still quite fresh. The scenes set in the Indiana countryside at night still have a genuine magic and eeriness about them.

Richard Dreyfuss does a great job of playing the "everyman" character Roy Neary, and of portraying the changes which he undergoes after his "close encounter".   Although I accept that the dysfunctional Neary household is an essential part of the plot, after a while the scenes of domestic "bliss" begin to get on my nerves!  Too much noise and general mayhem for my tastes, and they risk disturbing the ambience of the picture.  On the other hand, the scenes within the Guiler residence are stunning.

My other minor quibbles relate to the dialogue in the film, and my old hobby-horse of "crowd scenes".   At times the dialogue is a little messy, and difficult to discern.  Too many people speaking simultaneously, so that occasionally the main point is almost obscured.  As in 99 percent of movies of all types, the crowd scenes do not work, a prime example being that at the railway station in the aftermath of the mythical chemical leak. In fairness, these are minor drawbacks overall.

One of the most intriguing characters is that of the scientist Lacombe, played by Francois Truffaut. He is depicted as more human, altruistic and flexible than the other scientists and governmental representatives, and as such represents an interface with the general public.  Perhaps he was himself secretly contemptuousness of the secrecy and "elitism" which pervaded the official UFO investigations.  Do scientists, as idealists and searchers, have more in common with the masses than with their political masters?  Spielberg was touching on issues which exercise many minds today.

After watching the movie recently, I sought to extrapolate the story in my mind.  After the Mothership had departed, would the encounter have been publicised by the powers-that-be?  What was the ultimate fate of Roy Neary?.  It was fortunate that a sequel was not produced, as these matters can inspire much debate to this day..

The closing sequences, when aliens emerge from the ship, and Neary goes on board, never fail to inspire and uplift, making one feel glad to be alive.  Spielberg has done lots of great things since, but in many respects he has not surpassed Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

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