Movie Night With Urbaniak: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

There are movies and there are movies.

I’m a Spielberg fan. I’ve been a Spielberg fan for a long time.

How long have I been a Spielberg fan? I’ll tell you how long I’ve been a Spielberg fan, smart guy. When Duel came on the television machine in 1971 and I was ten years old, I remember I wanted to watch it because it was directed by the guy who had made a Columbo episode I really enjoyed (which IMDb tells me was broadcast a mere two weeks earlier.)

I loved Jaws, it changed my life, no doubt about it, but my confidence in Spielberg as the leading director of his generation was already well in place in my mind by the time Close Encounters opened in theaters, Christmas 1977.

I was, at that point, a 16-year-old usher who had just gotten a job working at what had once been a vaudeville house in the suburbs of Chicago. The first movie during my tenure there was Close Encounters, so I was blessed to see this movie thirty or more times in its initial run, with a crowd every night, and it never got old, never wore out its welcome, never seemed like anything less than an event. A symphony.

The truck on the lonesome highway, the police-car chase, the perfectly-observed scenes of casual suburban squalor, the attack on the country house, these are scenes I would race to the theater to watch over and over, marveling at them anew each time. I’ll tell you: I knew from the first that Close Encounters was great cinema, but somehow it’s never felt to me like Close Encounters was “show business.” I always felt, from the very beginning, and this goes for a lot of Spielberg’s movies, that I was watching something that transcended “show business,” that I was in the hands of a true believer. It hit me relatively early on that Close Encounters was a deeply religious movie, and the notion of godlike, benign extraterrestrials showing up and extending an innocent, questioning hand of greeting to our horribly wrong-headed world was one I found hugely seductive and almost unbearably moving.

God calls, and Roy Neary answers. God calls many people, but only Roy Neary has what it takes to push through all the bullshit in the world, the trappings of his stupid bullshit suburban family life, the chains of work, reputation and normality. Only Roy Neary has what it takes to answer the call, leave his life, make it through all the barriers that this awful world puts in his way (the government, who has also heard God’s call, desperately desires to exclusively control the discourse between humanity and the deity) and step up to the altar to be received into heaven. It’s a profound statement of faith, fortitude and perseverance.

I have no idea how it plays now. I’ve watched it so many times it barely feels like a narrative tome any more, it flows so naturally and so effortlessly. I can see the craft and care put into it, but I also still get utterly lost in its most powerful scenes. One day, when I show it to my children, will they see the same movie I saw at 16? Or will they look at the clunky 70s special effects, the gritty 70s-realism acting and production design, the low-key, humanistic story line and be all like “o-kay, Dad, whatever you say, is it okay if we go upstairs and watch Transformers III again?” Will they have to wait until they learn a little something about film history before they will be affected by its rhythms, its layers of references, the purity of its soul?


  and I watched it tonight over a bottle of pretty good wine and it was a blast. The air-traffic-controller scene toward the beginning of the movie, a scene that would be cut from any other movie today, stuck out for us immediately. I’ve always loved the scene and found it terrifically exciting, especially for a scene involving none of the principle characters, no special effects, and no on-screen confrontations. It’s a scene about a bunch of professionals talking on radios and yet somehow the tension is palpable. The acting in it is not only some of the best in the movie but some of the best in Spielberg’s canon. In a lot of ways, as Urbaniak mentioned, it’s hard to imagine Spielberg today directing that scene. It’s like a scene from All the President’s Men or something, all subtlety and nuance, the performances deriving their power from what the characters are not saying, not what they are saying. And the voice work of the radio voices could not be better.

Someone, I can’t remember who, once asked, regarding the opening scene, “Why doesn’t the UFO investigation team wait for the sandstorm to end before they go out into the field?” And it’s a good example of the pure cinema of this movie. The UFO investigators go out into the Mexican desert in the middle of a sandstorm because it makes a better scene — it creates pressure and urgency. These guys aren’t just investigating UFOs, they’re investigating UFOs in the middle of a sandstorm, which means they have to shout and cough and gaze in wonderment at things that appear mysteriously out of the sandstorm.

Compare this scene with the “Mongolia” scene shot for the otherwise-useless “Special Edition” from 1980. The Mexico scene in the original is weird, mysterious and deeply unsettling, the Mongolia scene is jokey, obvious, shot and cut in a completely different style, closer to an Indiana Jones movie in tone than Close Encounters. I like the idea of the scene but, basically, I can find no shot in the “Special Edition” that improves my understanding of Close Encounters and it gave me great heart to realize that Spielberg had expunged most of it for the current edition on the racks.

Now that I am sufficiently removed from Midwestern suburban life of the 1970s, I gaze upon the production design of Close Encounters with something approaching awe. The hell with the UFOs, I want to know who was responsible for the astonishing set-dressing of Roy Neary’s house. You can tell that Roy has gotten his “one room” to decorate, it’s the one with the milk crates stacked against the wall for shelving and the hobby crap piled up everywhere. But what about the rest of the house? All the tschotchkes and bric-a-brac, the Walter Keene painting over the piano, the ceramic chicken on the “good china” shelves, who picked all that out? Ronnie? She’s 30 years old, she picked out all that crap? How did she ever have the time? The house is full of crap, the stupid prints hanging in the bedroom, the ungodly wallpaper, the Snoopy poster in the boy’s bedroom, the mismatched glassware, the milk carton on the table at dinnertime, the casual blurring of personal boundaries, everything is absolutely godawful, everything is absolutely accurate, and everything is mounted with such great love and understanding of those characters and their world, and, best of all, it’s never pointed at by Spielberg. Spielberg never holds up these suburbanites as ridiculous, he loves these people and wants to capture their world with all the detail he can muster.

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21 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
  1. ndgmtlcd says:

    It’s a deeply religious movie all right. Spielberg believes in cinema, just like Francois Truffaut.

  2. Ronnie Neary maybe didn’t, but Teri Garr did take some responsibility for some of the set dressing of the Neary house, according to Bob Balaban’s wonderful diary of the filming of CE3K.

    Now, having read Garr’s autobiography, I understand even more why i must have been a kick for her, an LA showbiz creature her whole life, down to early childhood years, to get into being Ronnie Neary (she would go into department stores in Alabama, where hey were filming, and pretend to be shopping for a bedroom set, and so forth).

  3. teamwak says:

    One of my all time favourites. I would probably chose this over any of his other pre 90’s stuff, although my love for Dr Jones knows no bounds!

    I always loved the imagery. The ship in the desert was always a most vivid one. The panicking locals and flustered goverenent types gave it a real sense of the unknown. Great stuff.

  4. craigjclark says:

    There are a handful of Spielberg movies that never get old for me. Close Encounters is one of them and it’s long been one of my favorites, coming close on the heels of Jaws and Raiders. I’ve only ever seen it on television, but even on the small screen its power is undeniable.

    I’d be curious to see what you and Mr. Urbaniak make of 1941. I know what its reputation is, but it would make a good object lesson — the golden boy steps on a banana peel and lands on his ass.

    • Todd says:

      I’d be curious to see what you and Mr. Urbaniak make of 1941.

      I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch it again until a decent DVD transfer is released. The one that’s out now is quite atrocious. It honestly looks like someone pointed a video camera at a TV playing a crappy home-made VHS copy of the movie.

      • craigjclark says:

        The other problem with the DVD that’s out now is it’s the horribly distended cut, which reinstates lots of subplots that were left out of or cut way down in the original theatrical release for a reason.

        • Todd says:

          Yeah, that’s all we need — a long, unfunny, awkwardly paced version of a movie that was flawed to begin with. Plus more humiliation of Toshiro Mifune — I can’t imagine what it was like for him to watch that movie after having his career.

          • craigjclark says:

            The way I look at it, Mifune was one of the few actors who was able to escape the film with his dignity intact. Robert Stack and maybe Warren Oates are the other two.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’m aware of the order in which the films came out. I was talking about my order of preference. Jaws and Raiders will always top my list and Close Encounters is a close third.

  6. popebuck1 says:

    I turned 9 in 1977, and even though for everyone else that was the year “Star Wars changed everything,” I was all about Close Encounters. And I still am.

    I was too young (and, frankly, too scared) to see Jaws, and I didn’t see Duel or Sugarland Express until many years later, so Close Encounters was the movie that introduced me to Spielberg. And I’ve loved him ever since.

    I even retain a perverse fondness for large chunks of 1941 – yeah, overall it doesn’t hold together, but some of the set pieces (like the dance contest/brawl, or the Hollywood Boulevard dogfight) are just dazzling. And bloated as it is, it’s still certainly got more charm, energy, and inspiration than later schlock like Hook or Always. Spielberg still comes off as a boy allowed to play with “the greatest toy train set ever” (to steal Orson Welles’ words), and his enthusiasm carries the film.

  7. Not quite sure when I first saw CE3K, but I know I loved it more than Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong, SW was great, but CE3K meant something. So much so, that in 2005, when Alamo Drafthouse was doing it’s Rolling Roadshow, and they decided to stop at Devil’s Tower, WY to show CE3K, I knew I had to be there. I did what it took. I went – and to see the film on a huge screen in front of the Tower was nothing less than breath-taking. The void the tower left in the star-studded sky was immense, and a little scary to be honest. At one point, an airplane went across the sky and disappeared behind the Tower, I don’t think I was the only one to breathe a sigh of relief when it emerged from the other side.

    As for the movie? Oh my. I love the scene when Ronny decides to leave. That was a family I could relate to. Arguing. Messy. Real.

    Anyway. Love your posts Todd.

    Thanks for the post, I too, cannot wait to share this, and so many other FILMS with my children (when I get me some…)


  8. greyaenigma says:

    One day, when I show it to my children, will they see the same movie I saw at 16? Or will they look at the clunky 70s special effects, the gritty 70s-realism acting and production design, the low-key, humanistic story line and be all like “o-kay, Dad, whatever you say, is it okay if we go upstairs and watch Transformers III again?”

    I can’t blame them. For all the clunkiness and stupud stuff in the first two movies, Transformers 3 was amazing.

    I’ve been curious about how we can’t ever experience stuff like Close Encounters again — not only do we remember the scenes, spoilin the novelty, but also future cinema influenced by it. Nor do we live in the times it’s produced in. It makes me a little sad that I’ll never have a chance to experience some great movies myself, even if I have the chance to see them, just because such a large part of what made it great is lost across time.

    But now I’m regretting that this isn’t one of the DVDs I brought with me this week.

    • greyaenigma says:

      I’m officially predictable.

      Re-reading this thread, I was on the verge of making the Transformers III joke again before realizing I’ve made it eight months ago.

      On the upside, I did buy the new CE3K. Maybe I’ll watch that one tonight.

  9. First, hi there, I added you after reading your hysterical post about Stardust’s poster linked from Neil Gaiman’s blog. I hope you don’t mind…

    I, too, have had a love affair with Steven Spielberg ever since I was a child. However, our love of his movies reflects our ages. When I was just a little girl, maybe 3 years old, I remember hearing the Jaws theme reverberating through our small house from the old TV in the wooden frame. It would shake me to the core, and I would slink along the hallway wall like I was balancing on the ledge of a building to sneak a peek at the opening footage… of that eretheral underwater movement coupled with the frightening, pulsing music. I watched, transfixed in the hallway, hidden and unseen by my parents whose backs were turned to me. I couldn’t stand its frightening effects, yet I was drawn to it with wide, naive eyes. Spielberg has that effect on us.

    When I was ten, a blessed and perfect age for not having grown out of dinosaurs and still enjoying being a kid, Jurassic Park was released. I will never forget the first time I saw that Brachiosaurus walk onto the screen. I suppose it’s similar to us as we are older and observe some great natural landscape for the first time; the breath is taken away, these tears fill our eyes we thought we’d grown too old to summon. Jurassic Park was a miracle to me. Still today, those dinosaurs are undated to time. The movie was filled with a magic that cannot be described, except that it was perfect; it was perfect for me, at least, at that time in my life. I was at the age where I was still a kid, but I had learned to appreciate real magic when I saw it.

    • Todd says:

      All are welcome here at What Does the Protagonist Want.

      My reaction to the brachiosaurus is exactly the same as yours. Spielberg has a downright eerie ability to drill right down into the cerebral cortex of an audience and put on screen images so powerful as to be instantly iconic and beyond rational analysis.

      A discussion of Jurassic Park can be found under my “Spielberg” tag, found to the left of this entry.

  10. mcbrennan says:

    I saw Close Encounters Of The Third Kind for the first time in the back of a Chevy El Camino at a drive-in theatre in west Omaha. It was maybe five, six months after it came out, and I was deeply affected by it. The Nearys’ house looked exactly like my life (substituting a trailer for the house, of course), and I desperately wanted the thing Roy Neary had–the “call”, I guess. The higher meaning in a life that even at that age already seemed like an endless, humiliating pointlessness. I wanted to know God, know something was out there better than the lousy adults I knew. I wanted to be the special person who would hear the call and answer it and somehow be found worthy. And while my willowy-alien starship-ride has apparently been unavoidably detained, I have to say that Roy Neary/Spielberg example, that true-believer thing has continued to guide my outlook, my sense of self, of purpose, however delusional that may be.

    As a movie (rather than a religious experience), I have a very dificult time stepping back and analyzing its construction. I’m very attached to the 70s-realism acting style as well as the sheer amount of room Spielberg gives his actors/characters to breathe and evolve organically. I know the 70s weren’t the dawn of the cinema or anything, but the beats feel so natural, so un-mechanical. Movies now, I literally cannot think of a recent movie where I didn’t feel the beats were being pulled along by a rigid, relentless chain attached to some kind of demographic marketing biofeedback computer, syncopated to the heartbeat of something not entirely human and certainly not benevolent. With Close Encounters some of those Dreyfus beats almost play differently to me every time I watch them, like jazz. There’s room in the equation for the viewer to feel and reason and be moved and changed along with the characters. Even Spielberg himself rarely seems as confident in his gifts now as he did then, as willing to let things breathe, to let the ramifications (and emotional consequences) of the action build, rather than just throw on more action. The air traffic controller scene isn’t tangential, it’s vital, it shows not only the massive global scale of the “event” but it’s so informative about human nature and “the call”. I think we’re almost meant to identify with the pilots–say “no, under those circumstances I wouldn’t report it either”–so that Roy’s response, his YES when everyone else around says “um, no, I really don’t think so”, is that much more striking. That scene’s a challenge to us: who are you going to be? What’s truth worth to you? In the mid-70s, when idealism and truth were taking a daily public beating, it was an incredibly ballsy challenge. And it works a lot better than Ronnie’s understandable but annoying resistance to the mystery (which she later got to rehash in Oh, God! and about 30 other things…)

    “pressure and urgency” is going on a post-it above my screenwriting computer along with Urbaniak’s famous post-People’s Choice remark: “more compressed”.

  11. mr_noy says:

    In a lot of ways, as Urbaniak mentioned, it’s hard to imagine Spielberg today directing that scene.

    Spielberg has said that he probably couldn’t direct this movie today, at least not with that ending. At the time he was (I believe) single and childless. Now as a married man and the father of a large family Spielberg said he would find it difficult to identify with Roy now. While Roy leaves his old life behind to embark on something far, far more important he does, in essence, abandon his family; something Spielberg says he couldn’t even contemplate today.

    • gazblow says:

      So it’s true: children kill your dreams and crush your spirit.

    • Todd says:

      I was thinking more of the dry, underplayed, totally un-cute direction of the actors in the air-traffic-controller scenes, but yeah, from a family point of view, Spielberg would make the opposite movie today, a movie about a man contacted by space aliens who runs as far as he can in the opposite direction in order to keep his family safe and together.

      Oh wait, he already made that movie and titled it War of the Worlds.