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How Long Has It Been Since You've Seen "Close Encounters"?

Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind turns 34 this month. On a whim recently we put in the 30th anniversary edition Blu-Ray* and gave it a spin. I hadn't seen the movie since I was a kid and my memory of it was hilariously incomplete and childlike.

a production sketch shown on the special edition DVD

I remembered, for example, the oft repeated five musical notes that always made me nostalgic for that old light-up Hasbro game "Simon Says" and I remembered all the glowing lights and alien children at the end. My third most vivid memory was Richard Dreyfuss's mashed potato replica of Devil's Tower in Wyoming (a shape to which all the characters are drawn). Strangely I had zero recall of the far more narratively pronounced massive sculpture he builds inside of his house of the exact same structure. Funny the things you remember. The mashed potatoes must have stuck in my child brain because little kids play with their food but they're fully aware that adults aren't supposed to.

To my great astonishment, given decades of familiarity with Spielberg films, the movie is miraculously open ended. It's also open sided and open fronted which is to say that there are dozens of emotional entry points and next to nothing in the way of force-feeding or exposition. You can feel whatever you want to feel about it all the way through without the director telling you how you should be feeling (aside from free-form "wonder" which he expects and earns) or explaining any of those feelings away. In short, were his filmography a bookshelf, this would a lonely inkblot nestled between dozens of how-to instructional textbooks. 

Oscar History and 70s Nostalgia after the jump

The movie begins with a hilariously wrong "present day" tag considering that it's a goldmine of 1970s history from the clothes to the hairdos to the way people use to actually look at three dimensional globes when considering travel or world events (I miss those!) and how breakthroughs in personal knowledge were once the result of painstaking research or happenstance rather than Google searches. My favorite scene bar none is the long unbroken shot (nearly two minutes!) when you're all but begging Richard Dreyfuss to glance towards his television and realize what the image he's obsessed with actually means; there's no way for him to know otherwise.

At one point during the movie a worker bee bent over to a machine and began reading and I literally had NO idea what I was looking at. The Boyfriend, who is younger than I am, guessed that it might have been a precursor to the fax machine. The fax machine! A precursor to something that is already starting to feel ancient. Close Encounters is only 34 years old and yet we've come so far technologically that I watched it with the childlike wonder we used to reserve for dinosaurs. How fast the world has spun since the internet was born.

So it felt more than a little bittersweet when Spielberg, on the special features, talked about his increased cynicism about alien life. It is a truth that once everyone had camcorders and then phones with cameras -- which should have made photographic evidence of alien visitations easier to snag -- UFO sightings dropped. 

Spielberg also talks quite candidly about his errors in judgment. In the first special edition released in the 80s he added a scene showing you the inside of the alien spacecraft which he did to appease Columbia studio heads and to secure more money for other filming. He later removed it.

The first thing i did was excise Richard inside the ship. I really really felt that the inside of that mothership was the exclusive property of the imagination of audience's everywhere. I should never have gone there."

This moment could only have occured in Spring 1978: Mark Hamill congratulates Richard Dreyfuss during the Oscar ceremony!The documentary on the disc also has a brief bit about how rushed he was in completing the film since Columbia wanted it for a November release in 1977. Spielberg was mystified that they kept it in limited release for 6 weeks before going wide.

Only Oscar fanatics would think of it in this way but that basically means it was one of those pictures, the kind the studios torture audiences outside of NY and LA with using those long drawn out platforms for gold. Spielberg never mentions the Oscars during this "rush" conversation but it was all I could think about ... they wanted it in November for the holiday dollars and for Oscar eligibility obviously! If you're curious Close Encounters went on to 8 Oscar nominations, the second highest tally for a film that didn't receive a Best Picture nomination. It took home one special non-competitive Oscar (sound editing before there was a category) and a win for cinematography (the great Vilmos Zsigmond) which was the only statue it managed to snag in that Oscar gobbling battle between Star Wars and Annie Hall. Though if you'd like, you can claim two Oscars since Richard Dreyfuss's historic win for The Goodbye Girl (he was the youngest Best Actor winner ever at the time) can't possibly have been hurt by his crazed sculpting in this classic.

* BFCA members were sent dozens of special editions of classic films for a Blu-Ray award this summer so I have several more at my disposable if there's any interest in more posts like this one. Let the comment count be the judge.

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    Response: King Standifer
    Really enjoyed this article post. Much obliged.

Reader Comments (12)


November 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteralways in threes

Close Encounters is one of Spielberg's greatest accomplishments and it makes me sad that this is precisely the type of movie he could never make today - not to great effect anyway. Spielberg's childlike wonder was what made his early films so magical. This is definitely the greatest "what if" aliens existed film ever made. It's a shame that Spielberg now doubts what he used to believe deep down in his bones. The climax of the film and its ending are so powerful I was moved to tears when i recently re-watched this. Such a great movie. It was better than any film nominated that year for best picture.

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSean

I haven't watched this since it came out - and I was a child then too - but I vividly remember how it fueled my imagination for months. Now I wonder why I haven't thought of revisiting it, these days the sci-fi scene is soooo dry. If I remember well there was another movie in that era in the same vein - Hangar 18 was it? Also, there was a so called documentary about the autopsy of of a dead alien, something related to Roswell, or was that long after that? I'm afraid that if I google it I will spend the rest of my day reading about it ;-)

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

I watched it some time in the last year. One of my favorite Spielberg movies. It's a few years older than I am, but now that I'm getting older (cough cough) I value Close Encounters and E.T as much for the time capsule quality as for the stories, etc. Was struck all over again by the efficiency of Spielberg's storytelling here. I remembered the first hour or so of the movie as being pretty slow and drawn out, and it's quite the opposite - the movie is a masterpiece of briskly accumulating events and details, and the arrangement of all these moving pieces is really kind of breathtaking to behold. It almost makes me want to bemoan how far mainstream filmmaking has regresssed since the 70s, but then I remember that comparing anyone to peak level Spielberg is just flat out unfair.

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I grew up with this movie (saw this before Jaws), especially because my dad was a big nerd. This movie is probably why I I ate a lot of mashed potatoes back then.

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

You nailed the appeal of it, N! Just watched it a few months ago for the first time in ages and was stunned by how elliptical it is. It doesn't force feed a "problem" for the main character that gets "solved" by the end. It drops us in the middle and lets us piece together what he needs and what he gets through the accumulation of details and actions. So many beautiful loose ends...

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

Loose it certainly is, too a fault in my opinion. From what I remember things just kind of happen without any narrative thrust. Not a fan.

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDean

Good to read the piece. You generally don't write much about Spielberg's classics.

I watched it again this year, on Blu-ray - the final director's cut. It was astonishing, rapturous, chilling. Pure cinematic bliss.

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

I'm a huge fan of Spielberg, but this is one of very few of his films I haven't re-visited in a while. I saw it once on Tv a few years ago and I remember I thought the ending was a thing of beauty, as well as the majestic score by John Williams (if you want to give the film a third Oscar, Williams did win that year for Star Wars, but I'll bet this was taken into consideration). I also love Spielberg at his boyhood wonder best, especially with E.T. (a movie I can watch over and over again and not get tired of it) so I think I should give this another go, maybe a purchase (I did purchase Jaws a little while ago for another look and still think it's fantastic, and I also purchased Saving Private Ryan to yry and finally see it all the way through, I wound up very impressed with it). The thing I feel Spielberg does better than anyone is pacing, which is why I am rarely bored with any of his films, and there are certain films of his that when I'm away from them for a while I'll start believing the hype and thinking maybe they're not as good as I thought they were, but then I'll watch them again and be drawn into the film one more time (that happened to me with E.T. a few times, and also with Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can and A.I: and even a bunch of non-Spíelberg films). In my book, he has a very impressive track record!!!

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

Gustavo -- i know! I was in the mood to watch it the other day and thought "this never happens. i better do a Spielberg!"

Richter -- watchability i will definitely hand to him.

Roark -- well said.

November 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Here's what I think: Far from magical, this is Spielberg's darkest movie aside from Schindler's. Effectively, we're watching Richard Dreyfuss go completely bleeping bonkers and have his life destroyed around him, all because he might meet an alien. The critics who wanted him to win for The Goodbye Girl at the time instead of this were completely crazy because he's really scarily effective. And wonder?...try disgust at this shockingly hatable Spielberg protagonist. The ending scene is beautiful and the ending makes perfect sense but I scratch my head at what Spielberg would want the ending to be now (the lead character not deciding to get on the spaceship), which would quickly turn this, ultimately, hopeful movie into a sci-fi Bicycle Thieves. Which would make me completely hate the movie because, as I mentioned, I hate the character on a moral level, even if the character is well written.

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Such a great movie and one with too few visual effects to be made on such a scale today.

November 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

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