Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind part three

Roy Neary has heard the call and correctly interpreted the message. Now all he needs to do is get to the meeting place and keep his appointment.

As Act III of Close Encounters begins, we have what I’ve come to recognize as a common Spielberg forte: a scene of a mass crowd mobilization, displayed as an American carnival. These scenes are in all his theatrically-released movies up to this point, and always link together mass mania with old-fashioned American hucksterism. In Sugarland Express the residents of small towns across Texas come out to support fugitives Lou Jean and her husband, but their enthusiastic support quickly turns into desperate celebrity worship. In Jaws the massive influx of tourists into Amity’s harbor is laced with the commerce of turning tragedy into profits with the sales of shark souvenirs and video games. Here, Spielberg cannot let a scene of mass exodus pass without having a barker right out of a Mark Twain story selling gas masks to the panicked crowd. (I note that the salesman’s dog wears a gas mask, but he himself does not bother.)

Roy Neary has broken through a number of psychological and administrative barriers to get where he’s gotten, but in Act III of Close Encounters he breaks through a number of literal barriers as well, crashing his car through fences and roadblocks to keep his appointment. This is good screenwriting, to find ways of making the mental physical, and is of course another of Spielberg’s fortes.

As the Light in the first two acts of the movie stood as a stand-in for the extra-terrestrial, here Spielberg uses Devil’s Tower as a stand-in its own self. Devil’s Tower may be interesting to look at, but let’s face it, it’s just an unusual rock formation, it’s not the throne of God (or the Devil’s Tower, for that matter). But Spielberg shoots it with such awe and majesty and mystery, he imbues it with a primal, almost mystical power unto itself, so that every time we see it in a shot we’re sure that something profound is going to happen there. Very much the same way he gave Water itself the power to make us jump out of our seats in Jaws.

Royfinds Gillian in the crowd and they, literally, head for the hills on a monomaniacal tear toward their appointment with God. Something tells me that there was once, in an earlier draft of the script or even in longer cuts of the movie, something of a romantic nature to their adventure. Roy finding a soulmate in Gillian would explain Ronnie’s jealousy of his obsession, and they give each other more than a friendly pat on the back after they’ve achieved their common goal. If there were romantic sparks between them once, they’re gone now, and it’s probably just as well. It’s one thing for Roy to abandon his family in order to meet God, it’s something else again for him to shack up with the local lonely single mother while on the road to Damascus.

Even though Spielberg has already told us that the nerve-gas in Wyoming is a hoax, he still makes it look like maybe it isn’t, and we still buy that maybe it isn’t. The US government, it seems, is willing to stage a positively enormous hoax in order to keep proof of the existence of God a government secret. (Although given the size of the military operation on display, not to mention the hundreds of scientists involved, I find it hard to believe that the government could keep quiet every single participant in the eventual proceedings. They just can’t all be getting paid enough.)

Roy and Gillian are caught and captured by some Governmental thugs and detained, leading to the Act III centerpiece of Roy talking to Lacombe and Laughlin. The movie’s two primary plot strands come together for the first time and the electricity in the scene is palpable as the two approaches to God, the artistic and the scientific, come head to head. Roy is as inarticulate as ever, sputtering with anxiety, cynicism and rage as he’s interrogated by the calm, unflappable Lacombe and Laughlin. And yet Roy, despite his confusion, already “knows” more about the message and its meaning than Lacombe and his army of scientists (not to mention his army of army guys). And of course, Lacombe senses this, which puts him in conflict with Major Walsh, the head of the military part of the operation. And in some ways they’re both right — the aliens in Close Encounters are happy to appear to all kinds of people, but Roy and only Roy is selected to join them in their spaceship.

I sometimes wonder what Lacombe’s Monday Morning plan is, and Walsh’s too. They have unapologetically assumed that the existence of God (or aliens, if you will) should be protected as a state secret — an international state secret at that. Why? Lacombe doesn’t seem like a bad guy, why isn’t he inviting everyone in the world to come to Devil’s Tower and meet God? Maj. Walsh I understand is an army guy and so is naturally secretive, paranoid and elitist, but why Lacombe? Aliens are coming, they’ve clearly stated that they want to meet everyone, and Lacombe knows that — why does he keep it a secret? Is there some part of him that is also an elitist, that feels that a thing this profoundly significant can only be known to a select few? Or is he worried that maybe the aliens aren’t friendly?

The audience of Close Encounters, of course, totally buys that the US government will be secretive and elitist because that’s just how the US government is. But Lacombe is shown heading up a UN force of scientists — why is he playing by the rules of the US government? The short answer, of course, is that it makes for better drama — Lacombe, nice guy though he may be, must have a point of view in direct opposition to that of the protagonist — if the protagonist has a vision that God is available to everyone, his antagonist must be of the point of view that God should only be available to the select few — in spite of God’s emphatic demonstration to the contrary.

The audience, of course, is also not sure the aliens arefriendly, because they abducted Barry Guiler and, let’s face it, they haven’t been exactly forthcoming about their intentions. Spielberg uses our natural fear of The Other, and our built-in understanding of science-fiction movies, to help keep us in suspense as to the aliens’ intent. He balances Wonder and Terror right up to the closing moments of the movie, keeping us on the edge of our seats, ready for things to turn ugly at any moment.

Now then: here’s an interesting flaw in the screenplay of Close Encounters: Roy and Gillian have an overwhelming desire to get to Devil’s Tower. What do they think is going to happen when they get there? Roy emphatically states that he has no clear idea of what to expect, he just knows that he has to get there, just as Major Walsh emphatically states that it’s his job to keep Roy and his tribe of artists off the mountain. Neither of them really know what’s going to happen there, and that goes for Lacombe as well. Here’s the thing: where does it say the aliens are coming to visit tonight? Roy pursues his goal with great urgency, the army defends their goal with great efficiency, the stakes are high and climb higher as night falls. Who says the aliens are coming tonight? What if they don’t? All we’ve heard about is a set of map coordinates, there was never any date mentioned, the numbers that Laughlin interprets never say “And you guys better get your ass in gear, because we’re going to be there in less than two weeks.” Indeed, if the aliens are contacting people all over the world about their arrival, why are they giving us such a short time frame to meet them? Don’t they know we have lives? We have to book airplane flights, arrange for babysitting, rent cars. Come to think of it, they’ve got seemingly unlimited resources, why can’t they have a number of different meet-n-greets in different locations around the world? I get there’s only one mothership, but surely if they can drop off a freighter in the Gobi desert they can have representatives drop by to say hi in more than one place — what kind of organization are they running?

In any case, Roy keeps pushing, determined that nothing is going to stop him from keeping his appointment with God (even though God thoughtlessly has forgotten to put a meeting time on his invitation — which is, after all, typically God-like. When he invited the Jews to the promised land, he had them wander around in the desert for forty years before finally getting around to keeping his promise. I have this image of the Old Testament God sitting around in Heaven watching TV and eating pork rinds, then suddenly jumping up and saying “Oh shit! I forgot to lead my chosen people to the promised land!”). He succeeds in leading Gillian and Larry to the mountain, but only he and Gillian make it to the other side. Larry seems to be there as a suspense device, to show that even at this late date, not everyone who is called is worthy to receive the message.

Anyway, Roy and Gillian make it over the mountain (who told Roy the big event was going to happen on the other side of the mountain?) and Act IV begins. And the curious thing about Act IV of Close Encounters is that there is very little actual drama to it. The conflicts have all been cleared away, the protagonist has made it to his appointment, and the rest of the movie is, largely, a list of increasingly cool things that happen. It’s like: “Okay, some UFOs have shown up. That’s cool, right? Well what if a whole bunch of UFOs showed up? Now how much would you pay? But wait, before you answer, what if we told you a gigantic, quarter-mile-wide UFO was going to show up? And if you act now, little aliens will come out of the big UFO!

Here’s a serious screenwriting question: what to the aliens in Close Encounters want?

This is what they do:

1. They drop off all the stuff they borrowed
2. They leave a message about where they’re going to be when they drop off the people they’ve borrowed
3. They encourage ordinary people to please come and meet them
4. They show up at the meeting place, drop off the people they’ve borrowed, then pick one guy to go off with them

Was this their plan all along? Did they only plan on taking one guy? If Gillian had accompanied Roy down to the landing strip, would she have been accepted along with him? It’s clear that the aliens turn their noses up at the “professionals” offered by Lacombe, but would they have taken the rest of the artists on the helicopter as well?

Little Barry Guiler is among the folks returned, of course, and there are few images more sacred in the Spielberg canon than a parent and child reunited — unless of course the parent is Roy and he’s abandoned his family to pursue God.

(A family reunited forms the climactic moment of so many Spielberg movies, which is why the moment in the second half of Schindler’s List where Schindler sees the body of the girl in the red coat is so shattering — there will be no reunion for this parent and child and Schindler lives in a world that doesn’t recognize Spielberg’s priorities as a storyteller. Which is one reason why Schindler’s List is such an important movie in Spielberg’s list, but we’re a long way from there yet.)

The returning of belongings and the dropping off of people implies to me that the aliens are breaking up with us, like they’ve had all they can take of our bullshit and they just want our crap out of their spaceship. They’re going home, but if we can give them one reason to think we’re nice people, maybe they’ll think we’re okay after all. That one reason, of course, turns out to be Roy.

Another thought occurs to me: maybe the aliens aren’t God after all. Maybe they’re an inter-dimensional art school looking for commercial artists to do work for posters and brochures and whatnot, and their message to the people of earth is “DRAW DEVIL’S TOWER! YOU MAY HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST!” And Roy wins first prize. Or maybe he didn’t win first prize, maybe they take him because he’s the only entrant to show up to the prize ceremony.

(Up on the ledge with Barry by her side, Gillian takes photos of the little aliens. Spielberg here is saying, I think, “don’t forget, film is an artform too, and the movie you’re watching is my own attempt to capture the divine impulse in art.”)

The obvious point is that Roy, not Lacombe, not the scientists, not the Army or Air Force or US government, not the UN or any other official body, only Roy is worthy. God chooses Roy out of everyone else to ascend into Heaven, to make it to the promised land. This is an emotional point, not a rational one, which is why Close Encounters is obviously such a personal story for Spielberg. His philosophy is that through hard work, devotion to craft, constant artistic struggle and relentless opposition to obstacles, one can make it. Roy’s devotion to building his sculpture, his intent need to “get it right,” is a corollary to Spielberg’s attention to hiscraft, and Roy’s obstinate refusal to follow orders and sneak through barriers is a corollary to Spielberg’s sneaking onto the Universal lot, pretending to be a director. Close Encounters‘s message is that through hard work, devotion to craft, insistent pursuit and a little bit of stealth, one can overcome any obstacle and be lifted up from the masses to achieve something like godhood. It’s Spielberg’s self-fulfilling prophecy, which is why Close Encounters will always be the cornerstone of his singular achievement.

hitcounter

Comments

28 Responses to “Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind part three”
  1. pjamesharvey says:

    who told Roy the big event was going to happen on the other side of the mountain?

    He knew it was going to happen at the mountain, he knew the military had a good idea what was going on there, and he saw a military helicopter transport something to the other side of the mountain. I imagine he decided to follow the chopper.

  2. gazblow says:

    Who says the aliens are coming tonight?

    I think the answer is in Lacombe’s speech where he defends the Tribe of Artists (nice, btw) so eloquently. He says something to the effect of “If these people made it this far despite all the warnings of their government and risking death, how many others are out there who haven’t made the psychic connection? They were invited!”

    Indeed, they were invited. Roy is driven by some obsession that he doesn’t understand. I think the Aliens are waiting for him. They can’t show up until he, or someone with whom they’ve made the connection, arrives. The bush doesn’t burn until Moses shows up on the mountain, right? God needs Humans as much as Humans need God.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Great post all around.

    BTW, will you be including POLTERGEIST in your Spielberg round-up? Although it’s directorial authorship is still debated (I’m pro-Steven), for completeness’s sake, I’d consider it.

  4. ndgmtlcd says:

    Of course, you realize that this isn’t a science fiction movie at all, don’t you?

    (unless you attribute jokey motives to the aliens, which is what I usually do in those kinds of flicks)

  5. dougo says:

    Speaking of receiving messages from God, have you seen Stranger Than Fiction? I just watched it for the first time. At times it felt like a post.

  6. chadu says:

    Hey, Todd…

    There’s a discussion regarding Ghostbusters in my LJ right now, and I just took a crack at figuring out why a few key scenes were ordered the way they were.

    Short form: the continuity errors in the Hire Winston/Meet Dana at the Met/Peck of the EPA/Big Twinkie/Thursday night at Spook Central sequence.

    http://chadu.livejournal.com/606282.html?thread=4336202#t4336202

    I’d love your take on my analysis.

    CU

  7. schwa242 says:

    Maybe they’re an inter-dimensional art school looking for commercial artists to do work for posters and brochures and whatnot, and their message to the people of earth is “DRAW DEVIL’S TOWER! YOU MAY HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A PROFESSIONAL ARTIST!”

    Art Test

  8. greyaenigma says:

    I’d sort of taken Roy and Jillian’s relationship as platonic, and was sort of shocked by the kiss at the end. (especially since Roy’s already got a family.) Or did I imagine that?

    I think it’s possible that for Lancombe, the Army (and dirty tricks squad) is mostly just about logistics — their primary objective is keeping people away — maybe more for the safety of the aliens, since who knows what a crowd of crazy armed locals might do when the aliens arrive. (Or, maybe the army had a few nukes there, just in case.)

    I wondered that about Larry — does that make the aliens cosmic Darwinists? Roy is selected not because he made the best Devil’s Tower, but because that trait helped him get there best. Maybe they’re picking up the best psychics after all.

    At the end of an early draft of the script (found via Google — I have a paper copy of an even earlier draft floating around somewhere) surprised me by giving explicit meaning to Jillian’s photos: the final credits were to roll over her “high definition” photos which would finally provide “indisputable proof”. Of course, with those lighting conditions and that camera, she probably couldn’t get anything of the sort, but that’s UFOs for you.

    (Also, the same script described a lot of alien children behavior, some kind of sexual, but maybe none as disturbing as the scene where they find a case of Coca-Cola, pop the tops and get high off of it.)

    • Todd says:

      I think I remember the novelization of Close Encounters having a paragraph about Gillian’s photos being the proof that would change the world. But that presumes Lacombe and his team are intending to keep this information to themselves.

      If there was once a scene that showed aliens binging on Coca-Cola, that would at least explain all the Coca-Cola signage on display in the movie.

      • greyaenigma says:

        It’s not just the Coca-Cola. There’s some surprisingly long shots of things like the McDonald’s sign, etc. I’d prefer to think that Spielberg wouldn’t use such prominent, lingering shots for product placement and was rather trying to make some statement about mass culture and Americana.

        Then again, there were Reese’s Pieces…

        • Todd says:

          The McDonald’s sign shot, I think, was intended as a visual gag, because the UFO examining it was shaped like a cheeseburger. The gag doesn’t read very clearly though, and Spielberg wisely removed it for the This Time I Mean It Edition.

    • schwa242 says:

      (Also, the same script described a lot of alien children behavior, some kind of sexual, but maybe none as disturbing as the scene where they find a case of Coca-Cola, pop the tops and get high off of it.)

      So Mac and Me was sort of an unofficial sequel?

  9. curt_holman says:

    I never thought that Roy was the only person allowed to go with the aliens. Because you see him in that red jumpsuit thing at the end, and all those other guys in red jumpsuits, I always assumed that he was allowed to accompany the human “away team,” and as the aliens’ favorite, got to go in the ship first. I figured that the rest of the away team followed him onto the mothership, but we didn’t actually see that.

    For some reason I feel the impulse to crack a “To Serve Man” joke.

    • greyaenigma says:

      It’s an ice cream recipe!!

      Roy is last in line amongst the jumpsuiters, and the aliens pull him out of line and him on board. And if the original version isn’t clear enough, the extendeded version has him standing alone in the ship as they fly away.

      Which bothered me when I first saw it — what if they leave him all alone for the next thirty years. While the aliens certainly don’t seem openly hostile, they certainly love messing with us and keeping us in the dark… OK, maybe they are God. Chariots of the Practical Jokers.

  10. Anonymous says:

    nice article/suggested answers…

    “there was never any date mentioned”

    We don’t know that. Remember, after the locating of Devil’s Tower on the giant globe, Lacombe was back on the headset listening again, trying to gather the others’ attention, and began playing the familiar “hello” sound (this was the first time he’d heard it… he was hearing it for the first time and it wasn’t the tower coordinate numbers), as if they were beginning to transmit something else, thus perhaps they then relayed even still more information indicating timetables well after the scene ends. We don’t know what else was conveyed. It’s more reasonable to assume that some more information was successfully relayed than to assume it was all lucky guesses, especially when we see the beginnings of a “phone call” from the mother ship, which obviously wasn’t concluded. The scientists knew quite a bit about what to bring along. It seems to me they deduced it from the communication, albeit would obviously require some decoding as it’s so cryptic and one-way. We needn’t have seen the scene to figure it happened. In fact, it would kill the drama if we did know what the scientists understood entirely.

    “I find it hard to believe that the government could keep quiet every single participant in the eventual proceedings”

    They didn’t have to keep them quiet forever. Just until the alien events were presumed concluded. The plan wasn’t meant to be leak-proof, nor need it be. Any leaks would appear no different than the scores of kook’s “I saw bigfoot” stories. The public didn’t have time, organization nor the internet to stop them from just getting out, taking their nagging doubts with them. Almost certainly, as soon as everyone returned, the conspiracy theories exploded, but they knew they wouldn’t have to care. It would be effectively over.

    “Was this their plan all along? Did they only plan on taking one guy? If Gillian had accompanied Roy down to the landing strip, would she have been accepted along with him?”

    I believe they would have.

    The key is the “mental implants.” Roy was the only one with the “mental implant” in the group presented. Perhaps this was their test to weed out those who haven’t demonstrated they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to be involved with them. They had no reason to be impressed with what they were obviously intelligent enough to identify as government officials.

    “what to the aliens in Close Encounters want? “

    A volunteer to take back to their world. It was my impression that the aliens were on a long-term mission to Earth (at least since the 40’s). They’ve been inhabiting this city-sized ship, perhaps orbiting just on the dark side of the moon as to be invisible, yet local, taking bits back for study, but intending to not keep any permanently. Roy was an exception as there was no coming back. It might have been a very long journey back, or perhaps there was even no going back to even their own home world, that this was a gigantic voyage to many worlds. It’s important to note the population aboard the vessel, a self-contained, mobile civilization unto itself, perhaps including many aliens to the aliens, picked up on other worlds on prior visitations. They wanted a common example with uncommon enthusiasm… and perhaps, there’s even another level to this; they were also testing for a certain brain-type; one who is predisposed to psychic and/or telepathic giftedness, which would be used for later communication mid-trip home. The mind-implant appears multipurpose indeed if you think about it.

    Which leads to this…

    “Indeed, if the aliens are contacting people all over the world about their arrival, why are they giving us such a short time frame to meet them? Don’t they know we have lives?”

    It’s not about tying up loose ends. It’s about seeking out a specific type of individual; special enough that they would drop everything to be with them, not losers who have nothing to stay for.

    “The returning of belongings and the dropping off of people implies to me that the aliens are breaking up with us”

    …or that they’re satisfied with their observations to this point, and have projected when to return for full contact, and for now it was time to go.

    It’s not a breakup. It’s a hiatus.

    Anyway, great, thoughtful article.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: nice article/suggested answers…

      I am so happy I stumbled into your fine article. You’ve got me thinking about this movie so much more deeply now, and here I thought I already had. Here it is the next day, and I can’t get your new-to-me angles off my mind. I’m seeing your article in my mashed potatoes!

      Allow me to continue…

      “Roy finds Gillian in the crowd and they, literally…”

      You’re right. That is the most far-fetched event of the entire story. But, as they say, being in a book or a film means it’s a remarkable story, a story worth telling, full of remarkable events.

      However, it might have been interference with the aliens… perhaps. Maybe their mind-implants caused them to be instinctively aware of each other’s presence. In fact, the more I think about it, the implants could give them a very Jedi-like ability, and the mind-implant are like the midi-chlorians.

      Otherwise, I’m at a loss why Roy stopped in that town at all and didn’t just blow through. It must have been an instinct.

      It also explains how Roy and Gillian knew where to go down to the square yard, not just the Tower alone. You mentioned “how did they know to go to the other side of the tower? Well, implants. It works like “The Force” in Star Wars.

      “Roy and Gillian have an overwhelming desire to get to Devil’s Tower. What do they think is going to happen when they get there?”

      As there are two levels two his actions, the conscious and the subconscious. We only hear his conscious understanding, but subconsciously he’s probably totally all-knowing of what will happen and the “having nothing to fear” is leaking over, not only with him, but the others.

      “why are they giving us such a short time frame to meet them?”

      I thought again about this. Perhaps they’ve observed our radically advancing ability to monitor them in return and our network of information is also advancing and we as a race of beings were becoming wise to them. It probably saw them initiate a sort of “secrecy aside, finish the mission and let’s go” sort of mindset.

      • Todd says:

        Re: nice article/suggested answers…

        Otherwise, I’m at a loss why Roy stopped in that town at all and didn’t just blow through.

        He may not have had a choice — it looks as though the entire population is being funneled into that one train depot.

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: nice article/suggested answers…

          “He may not have had a choice — it looks as though the entire population is being funneled into that one train depot.”

          You know, I thought about that, but I wonder why would he have gotten out of his car and wondered around the crowd for when he had the ability to get around the crowd and proceed towards the tower?

          Well, maybe the answer is simple. Maybe he just needed a bite to eat!

          I only pondered “why stop in a town desperate to escape”? It was a danger not unlike in the new War of the Worlds and get a precious car stolen.

          Interesting.