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.
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.
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."
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.