By Reggie Peralta
Highlighting trailblazing films that changed the way audiences and critics viewed this most innovative art form, the upcoming Cinematic Experience series at The Frida Cinema is especially notable for bringing the original Star Wars saga to our theater for the first time ever. As much as I’m looking forward to reliving my childhood by seeing all three on the big screen, it’s the 70s sci-fi Close Encounters of the Third Kind that is capturing my words on the page. Set to close out the Cinematic Experience at the end of the month, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters trades terrifying thrills for tender emotions and awe-inspiring visuals in its story of an Indiana family man who has a close run-in with UFOs. While it might be tempting to regard it as a test run for the similarly-themed E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Spielberg aims for a more sensuous, more intellectual exploration of alien contact here, with the final product calling to mind the equally-ambitious 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This film is Spielberg’s follow up to his monster hit Jaws which he collaborated with Richard Dreyfuss, beating out Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, and Jack Nicholson, among others, for the lead role of Roy Neary, and the movie’s all the better for it. In contrast to the steely cool of McQueen or the controlled madness of Pacino and Nicholson, Dreyfuss looks and acts like the guy next door, the kind of middle-class husband or father you’d expect to have for a neighbor in the suburbs. This makes his reaction to seeing UFOs and subsequent transformation from ordinary everyman to obsessed seeker not just believable but relatable as well, with his emotional outbursts and erratic behavior courting empathy, not mockery, from the audience. Interestingly, Roy has a government counterpart in the form of Claude Lacombe, the scientist leading the investigation into the alien occurrences across the globe played by French New Wave auteur Francois Truffaut. Though his speech is largely interpreted by his assistant (a young Bob Balaban), Truffaut still exudes a gentle, genuine desire to know that mirrors Roy’s own search for the truth about his encounter with the unknown.
While it might not be quite as iconic as his work for Star Wars or Jaws, John Williams nevertheless puts out a strong, wide-ranging score that caters to the different emotional needs of whatever’s happening on-screen. Incorporating familiar Williams trademarks like swelling string sections and thrilling crescendos, the music also utilizes high-pitched reed instruments and choral singing for some of the more transcendent pieces and slower tempos and subdued bass drums for more sinister-sounding ones. The key musical element, however, is not a musical piece per se but a recurring motif throughout the film: that is, the five music tones that serve as the aliens’ greeting. Selected by Williams himself and heard in a variety of contexts and instruments, these five notes are simple in structure but imbued with a potent beauty by their central role in the movie as well as the numerous arrangements heard therein.
Another thing that makes the movie so memorable is the singularly one-of-a-kind art and production design, particularly with regard to the aliens and the way humanity tries to communicate with them. Punctuating the aliens’ darkly-hued ships with bright lights, fluorescent colors, and assorted tower-like structures, Spielberg’s depiction of UFOs is as far from retro sci-fi cliches about flying, silver saucers as his peaceful, childlike portrayal of their passengers is from inhuman invaders bearing ray guns and declaring “resistance is futile”. The aliens’ proclivity for vivid light and color also opens the door for the resplendent last 20 minutes of the film, where the lights on their ship and the light board of Lacombe’s research team flash as the two parties exchange combinations of the five tones. The result is a brilliant interplay of light and sound, to say nothing of an imaginative interpretation of first contact with intelligent life from another world.
Using everything from sprawling long shots to intimate close-ups, Spielberg demonstrates his eye for activity, capturing action and interaction in even the most mundane of scenes. The most impressive example has to be the India sequence - whose location shooting, wide shots, and hundreds of entranced extras chanting the tones recall the epic splendor of old classics like Lawrence of Arabia - but Spielberg finds much of interest in smaller-scale scenes too. One compositional technique he frequently uses is placing one or more characters (often from a side profile) in the foreground and having others (either directly facing or with their backs turned to the camera) doing something else in the background. After Roy sculpts his dinner into the image of Devil’s Tower (a recurring object of fixation after his initial UFO encounter), for instance, we get a side view of him hanging his head in shame as his son watches him, facing the camera and tears silently trickling down as his father descends into obsession. For all Spielberg’s reputation as a maker of loud, often saccharine blockbusters, it’s a quiet, heartbreakingly effective scene that earns the emotions it’s trying to convey.
Running throughout the movie is an undercurrent of wish fulfillment and childhood innocence. Roy is excited at the chance to take his kids to see Disney’s Pinocchio, one of his favorite movies as a child, but they aren’t interested at all, balking at the idea of seeing a movie “Rated G for kids”. At times (particularly after his close encounter), he seems less like the man of the house and more like another kid for his wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), to take care of: if anything, he comes across as someone who wasn’t allowed to enjoy or fully experience being a kid and, as such, has yet to integrate his inner child into his adult self. These suggestions of childhood extend to other elements of the film, such as featuring media like Looney Tunes and Sesame Street’s “Square Song” or - perhaps more saliently - Williams’ score quoting Pinocchio's “When You Wish Upon A Star” at the end. As an instrumental version of the song’s chorus rings out, Roy says goodbye to the world he always knew but was never really part of and joins the aliens on their ship, his crisis of self is over and his dream comes true.
It’s rare for a film to exhibit such unity of form, narrative, and inspiration yet Spielberg - drawing from his lifelong love of movies, fascination with alien phenomena, and own childhood - manages to craft one that does just that.
It’s rare for a film to exhibit such unity of form, narrative, and inspiration yet Spielberg - drawing from his lifelong love of movies, fascination with alien phenomena, and own childhood - manages to craft one that does just that. Between the masterful filmmaking, the touchingly resonant story, and the unforgettably engrossing aesthetics, there is more than enough to stimulate viewers’ senses and sentiments and keep them coming back for repeat viewings. It might not have the blockbuster appeal of more conventional, popular fare like Star Wars or E.T. but Close Encounters of the Third Kind reaches for something different - something more cerebral yet sentimental - and lands among the stars.
A Santa Ana native, Reggie Peralta's writing has been featured on HonorSociety.org, The Frida Cinema, and The Grindhouse Cinema Database.
You can reserve tickets for Close Encounter of the Third Kind on The Frida Cinema website!
#OffThePage is taking pitches via email and paying contributing writers. Our Arts & Culture column was initially founded by local journalist Gabriel San Román, who is now a featured writer at Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.