Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A Second Encounter With Close Encounters

Writing about Super 8 , more than watching it, made me want to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the second time (heheh).  

Close Encounters was one of those films that passed me by in my childhood and I never really had a strong urge to watch it as time passed. I always loved Spielberg, but somehow Close Encounters never really felt like one of his films I  HAD to see; until I actually HAD to see it, for research purposes. Had I known Francois Truffaut was in it I probably would have watched it a sooner.

The first time I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind I wasn’t that impressed with it. I loved the visual side of it. However, I tend to feel that when all my focus is on the cinematography, extraordinary as it may be, it probably means nothing else left an impression and that it covers up for other flaws. For its problems, Super 8 still manages to have something that echoed Close Encounters to me in a more positive way than I remembered.

The main problem with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. for me, is Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss). He is probably one of the worst main characters in a film. Both times I watched the film I wished that it would have been Claude Lacombe’s (Francois Truffaut) film, or even Barry Guiler’s (Cary Guffey), the cutest child in a film EVER! 

Right from the start Roy Neary is quite intolerable, not that I can blame him, his wife and kids are also quite dreadful. He is childish, but not in the cute way that Pete Sandich (also Richard Dreyfuss) from Always is, but in a spoiled brat kind of way. He doesn’t seem to care about or love his wife and kids that much, even before he starts obsessing over aliens. I couldn’t see why I should take any interest in his obsession; Roy was too selfish to take any interest in mine. I may be old school, but as much as I love good looking films, if I lose interest in the lead character or characters usually I would lose my interest in the film, good looking or not. 

I underlined usually because something different, rare and very cinematic happened when I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the second time. I still didn’t particularly care, perhaps even less this time, about Roy and I was still quite disappointed by his character’s non development, but suddenly the film as a whole revealed itself as a beautiful art work with captivating sights and sounds, which made Roy’s unbearable character redundant[1].

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind people have encounters (of a third kind I guess) with some aliens. In the Spielberg spirit it is all full of love, understanding and acceptance. The aliens are not here to destroy us, and shockingly the human race does not want to experiment on the aliens. All both sides want to do is say hello to each other and communicate. And so communication, more accurately language, have become the most interesting aspect of the film and eventually upstaged dreary Roy.

Language appears in the films in many forms. Right from the start Lacombe needs an interpreter from French to English and then from Spanish to English to French. More languages follow as the film goes on to explore sighting of the aliens in India.

But, the most important language is, of course, the language used by the aliens. Made out of five notes in the positive and uplifting major scale, reassures us of the aliens' good intention, because even aliens understand that using a major scale means “We come in peace”. The music is not the only aspect of this language, it is visual as well. Lacombe connects the series of notes with hand signs used to teach music to deaf children.
This concept of language reaches its climax in the breathtaking final scene, in which the aliens and humans are having a beautiful conversation through music and lights. This is of course a very  amorous metaphor to the language of films.

The cinematic language has another, more subtle manifestation in the film, and in my opinion even more wonderful than that scene. It is the truly unique cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who makes light in to magic.

The cinematography of Close Encounters is actually quite simple, but it tells a lot of the story with nothing but lights, before any special effects kick in. 

Similarly to Jaws, in which the shark is not shown, but rather insinuated to for the better part of the film, so the aliens in Close Encounters can't be seen until the end of the film. However, their presence is dramatic all through the film and epitomized through lights for the most part of the film.

The first time Roy encounters the aliens, when he is in his car is all done by the movement of light from behind him to above him. Barry's abduction is also told to the viewers through different lights and light changes. It excites me just how much is being told through simple light changes. It is quite simply what a film does; tells a story using the language of lights and sound.

And so, Roy Neary becomes this big person sitting in front of you at the cinema, partially blocking the screen. You can see there is a beautiful film up on the scree, but you need to stretch your neck to look beyond that person obstructing your view, and you can find that magical thing called cinema. 

Bye Roy, don't let the spaceship door hit you on the way to space

[1] Potentially Avatar could have created a similar feeling but failed. I shall write another post about that.


  1. מפגשים מהסוג השלישי היה הטריגר לאהבת הקולנוע שלי. כילד בכיתה ג' הוא הרעיד את עולמי. מאז ראיתי אותי אינספור פעמים וסביר להניח שאם היית שואלת אותי עד לפני כמה שנים הוא היה מקבל את התואר הסרט האהוב עליי מכל. מבחינתי זה סרט שיותר מכל מדבר על היות הקולנוע שפה בינלאומית, כי בעוד שכולם זקוקים למתורגמנים, אור ומוסיקה מדברים לכולם. ומה כולם עושים בסרט הזה אם לא להתגודד בקבוצות בחשיכה ולצפות באור ובמוסיקה. לגבי נירי - אני מאוד אוהב אותו. אני רואה אותו כמי שיש בתוכו תשוקה אמיתית ליצירתיות אבל הוא מוכנע על ידי החברה שמצפה ממנו להשריץ ילדים ולחיות בפרברים. והנה, בסוף הסרט, בעזרתו של במאי הקולנוע שהיה ממבשרי הגל החדש של הקולנוע, אבל גם קולנוען מאוד רומנטי, הוא נוטש בצעד חריף ונועז את משפחתו על מנת להגשים את עצמו. הסרט מצולם נפלא, המוסיקה יוצאת מן הכלל ויותר מכל, שפילברג נמצא פה, לדעתי, בשיאו כבמאי כשהוא מצליח לברוח מכל המכשולים האפשריים וליצור סרט שהוא גם מרגש, גם מסעיר, גם עצוב, גם שמח. יצירת מופת אמיתית. אבל זו רק דעתי :)

  2. Good morning Guy and I'm very happy to see you here.

    I absolutely agree with you about everything apart from Neary. There are 2 reasons why I don't see Neary the way do and one of them is completely my own personal life experience. I find it hard to relate to someone who is a "suppressed artists." It might be the way I was brought up or simply the way I am. I just feel that blaming your situation or environment of suppressing your creativity is somewhat sad and lame. Since he doesn't seem to love his family that much to begin with I don't understand why he went ahead and had them? Yes there is that reminiscing moment in which his wife remembers how they used to be romantic, but it is her memory not his. I also find it hard to believe that Spielberg has ever been in a position where he felt that way, his current wife possibly, but not him. But that just my own feeling and fair enough there are people out there who can relate.

    However on a less personal note, I don't really feel that there is enough in the film to make me feel his frustration in the first place. Yes his kids are noisy and his wife is too, but from that to feeling he can't express himself... it's a stretch. Also I think a film about and artist trap inside a family man is a different film than what Close Encounters is about. Maybe that's why this part of the film isn't handled, in my own humble opinion, so well.

    Nevertheless, as I said, I agree with what you said about the film itself. All that is not Neary is a very beautiful, exciting, naive in a good way and breathtaking.