Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind part two

Close Encounters has a slightly unconventional, slightly lopsided structure. It has four acts: its first act is less than 30 minutes long, its second is a kind-of long 48 minutes, its third act is a swift, action-packed 20 minutes and its fourth act is a stately, processional 30 minutes. When Spielberg released his ill-advised “Special Edition” in 1980, he compensated for lengthening Act IV by shortening Act II. As a result, he cut out some of the best scenes in the movie, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg as to why the Special Edition was a very bad idea, but more on that later.

In Act I, layabout-everyman Roy Neary receives a message from God. In Act II, he will strive to interpret that message. His struggle to understand God’s message will cause him to lose his job and his family. Unable to find satisfaction in the assurances of the US government (who are struggling with their own interpretation of the message), Roy turns, as many do, to the realm of artistic expression. He tries to express divine will through the artistic impulse, and in many ways Act II of Close Encounters is a metaphor for the life of an artist — The Agony and the Ecstasy with flying saucers.

But first, Roy goes back to the mountain road to try to re-create his initial encounter. He brings his camera, which he barely knows how to work. If he’s going to have another encounter with God, by gum he’s going to record it this time.

Of course, that’s exactly what Lacombe and his team are doing in India. While Roy and his kind struggle to understand divine will through drawing and painting and sculpture, Lacombe has a formidable team of scientists on his side. Who will win? Science has numbers on its side, as science will, but when Lacombe is confronted by the artworks of the contactees in Act III he immediately understands that science can only list and quantify the divine, it cannot understand. “They belong here more than we,” he says of the contactees at Devil’s Tower (although the casual viewer would be forgiven for thinking the line is “Zey belong in Mozambique”).

Roy’s Gap widens evermore throughout Close Encounters, which is one reason why it’s such compelling storytelling. Every time he thinks he’s on the road to understanding what’s going on, the script throws another curve at him. When he (and we) think the UFOs are coming back to the mountain road, Spielberg brings in US government helicopters instead and the mystery becomes bigger.

(Historical cinema note: helicopters in 1970s American movies are always metaphors for US government bullying and omnipotence. This stems from Americans seeing helicopters almost solely through the eye of their use in the Vietnam war. If you were a filmmaker in the 1970s and you wanted to show a populace beaten into submission by the government, you put a hovering helicopter in the top of the frame. I am not making this up. Helicopters have a more neutral symbolic role in movies today — perhaps they were taken down a peg by Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down.)

45:50 — In case we’re getting too used to the Wonder of the UFOs, Spielberg here inserts one of the most terrifying scenes in his oeuvre, the abduction of Barry Guiler. This scene is probably the only reason why I haven’t shown Close Encounters to my own son yet. And again, there’s an Old Testament/New Testament dichotomy at work here. God wants to contact us, but He also seems to demand sacrifice as well. He takes Gillian’s child, an action that seems unthinkably evil and cruel to her, the understanding of which will drive the remainder of Gillian’s narrative. Gillian goes to Devil’s Tower in Act III not to “meet God” but to find out what happened to Barry. Just as Roy is motivated to try to understand God’s Wonder (LACOMBE: “Mr. Neary, what do you want?” ROY: “An answer! That’s not crazy, is it?”) Gillian is motivated to make sense of God’s Terror — what kind of God would take her child from her? The answer, of course, is a Spielberg kind of God, a God who only appears to be Old Testament, but is at heart New Testament. Mother and child are reunited at the end of Close Encounters, and Spielberg seems to be saying with the release of all the abducted that we will all be united in the afterworld (“Step into the light,” says the midget lady in Poltergeist, “everyone is waiting for you in the light.”)

(And let me take this moment to just say: Cary Guffey — best performance by a three-year-old ever. EVER.)

(And as long as I’m here, let me admit that I’m not quite sure about the ultimate beneficence of the aliens in Close Encounters. Sure, they bring back all the people they’ve kidnapped, but how is that even remotely okay? What the heck are the abducted folks from WWII supposed to do in 1977, after 35 years in a UFO? This is not a healthy situation for them. Where are the lawyers on the Dark Side of the Moon?)

For those still unsure of the God metaphor at work in Close Encounters, let me remind you of the “government conspiracy” scene where we are first told of the landing site — Devil’s Tower. Major Walsh brushes aside all his colleagues suggestions and says “I need something so scary it will rid the area of every living Christian soul.” Now, this is Wyoming we’re talking about after all, so Major Walsh is probably within his bounds to guess that “every living Christian soul” would include everybody, but the “Christian” remark on top of the visual of “Devil’s Tower” on the map is too much to ignore, and again points to Spielberg’s two-handed Wonder/Terror approach in his narrative. He wants to keep us guessing right to the very end — are the aliens here to enlighten us or wipe us off the face of the earth?

Back in Muncie, Roy is in the grip of an obsession. He sees this mysterious vision everywhere he looks. Any artist out there reading this will know this experience, being in the grip of a vision and the weird looks one gets from one’s family and friends when one is pursuing the articulation of that vision. “This means something, this is important” is the best Roy can come up with to defend his mashed-potato sculpture as his son cries and his wife goes crazy. And this scene is parodied so often because for an artist it’s a daily occurrence, having to defend one’s unfinished drawing/sculpture/collage/website/blog entry against the stares and accusations of ones peers. Roy is struggling to express the divine, which is all any artist is trying to do, and Act II of Close Encounters would work as a free-standing narrative about the life of an artist whether is was about UFOs or not.

Roy, caught in the grip of his vision, struggles and struggles, not quite getting it right. He doesn’t want his life to fall apart, he didn’t ask to be chosen, he didn’t want this message, but he’s received it and he has to figure out what it means. He rails against God, throwing clay up at the sky (let’s not forget what man is made from after all) in revolt. He has a rip-roaring fight with his family in the middle of the night and collapses in exhaustion, on the brink of losing his faith.

He wakes up in front of his unfinished Galatea. His young daughter is watching cartoons on TV and in the morning light, all of this looks silly. Again, man, I’ve been there. All the struggle, all the rage and bitterness and desire to express, suddenly looking pointless and childish in the face of daily reality. Roy smiles and starts taking everything down. And maybe, in a way, we’re with him — we’ve seen his family torn apart by this nonsense, why should he keep pushing on with this obsession if it’s so unwilling to give up its secrets? How is it worth it? Roy has no abducted child to pursue, he only has this vision — who would care, who would know if he just gave up pursuing it?

But then, ah, the breakthrough comes and, in what has to be one of the most powerful, personal, nakedly emotional scenes of all Spielberg’s work, Roy’s vision suddenly snaps into focus and he knows what he has to do. Close Encounters is Spielberg’s most personal movie because it’s about art’s ability to express the divine. His protagonists, Roy and Lacombe, attack the problem of the divine from the artistic and scientific angles respectively — and what is the art of motion pictures but a wedding of art and science? Who is Steven Spielberg if not the wedding of Art and Science? Who else has made such a career for himself from of producing such profoundly emotional experiences out of the most carefully planned, calculated, scientifically calibrated work? Only Walt Disney achieved more, and even he had long stretches of “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing” in between artistic breakthroughs. This is the reason Spielberg has become the most successful, the most lauded artist in the history of his medium, and if you had told me he would end up so in December of 1977 I would have answered with a resounding “duh.”

Still not convinced of the God metaphor yet? When Roy has finished his masterpiece and is arguing on the phone with Ronnie, a commercial for Budweiser appears on the TV. “Here comes the king, here comes the big Number 1,” goes the jingle. “The king is coming, let’s heed the call.” Which is, of course, what the whole movie has been about up to this point. The very next thing we see on the TV is the news report about Devil’s Tower.

Roy, true to his nature, still doubts his vision. He’s finished his masterwork but he still doesn’t know what it means (and once again, man, I’ve been there). He looks out his window and sees the harmless activity of everyday suburbia and again feels stupid. When the final clue clicks into place, he’s still trying to work out things with Ronnie. Once he sees the image of Devil’s Tower on TV, his artistic life is over — now he’s achieved his goal and is ready to move decisively into action.



14 Responses to “Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Third Kind part two”
  1. dougo says:

    Helicopters have a more neutral symbolic role in movies today — perhaps they were taken down a peg by Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down.

    Magnum PI. You can’t be afraid of helicopters if they’re being flown by TC! (A Viet Nam vet, incidentally.)

    • dougo says:

      Actually, even before that was M*A*S*H. Choppers bring casualties to be healed, not oppression.

      • dougo says:

        On second thought, they were still a symbol of dread in M*A*S*H. And, in a way, government oppression (of the Koreans). So, nevermind.

  2. chrispiers says:

    Crud, I should have done research, but I rented the Special Edition. I was too young when it originally came out and it’s always been one that I meant to get around to seeing. I finally rented it a few months back but I guess I should have picked up the original. I’ll have to get that one and see what the difference is.

  3. dougo says:

    the abduction of Barry Guiler. This scene is probably the only reason why I haven’t shown Close Encounters to my own son yet.

    I was 7 when I saw this movie, and I didn’t find that scene terrifying. If anything, I was rooting for the kid to go see the aliens and have an adventure. But I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see that part of the movie.

    • Anonymous says:

      Agreed totally.

      I believe this scene is the reason I love the movie so much to this day. I was 9 when I saw it, and as a parent it might be terrifying, but as a kid, we can sense the fearlessness of Barry and that the mom is just not letting him go play. It was a strange feeling though (I remember it well). I felt sorry for the mom, not the kid. I couldn’t articulate the feeling as well as I can now, but on reflection, it was a necessary pain for the kid to have the experience the longed for, a sort of leap into freedom. I instinctively knew the kid wasn’t in danger.

      I might seem abusive to some here, but I’ve already shown the film to my 6 year old daughter, and she obviously, OBVIOUSLY took the scene in the same way. She was spellbound and riveted, but not afraid. When I little, I used to call it “the UFO movie” and now she calls it “the movie with they boy flying in the UFO.”

      Mind you, she’s easily terrified by images on movies, and it’s very hard to anticipate with her what will trigger it. So, if there was anything scary about this film, it would have scared her.

      I’d suggest Todd not only show his child this movie, but as quickly as possible. It seems molded to fit into a passing window of a child’s wonder perfectly and never leave them as they grow. But, if they’re too old, and their childlike wonder fades in a certain way, the opportunity is lost. It’s better to gamble with it being scary than it being less youthfully wonderful.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Actor’s Studio

    For those of us following along (and perhaps the author if he hasn’t seen it), I present the 2-Hour Steven Spielberg episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio:

    Part 1: http://www.dailymotion.com/relevance/search/actors%2Bstudio/video/xjqe5_spielberg-actors-studio-12_dating

    Part 2: http://www.dailymotion.com/relevance/search/actors%2Bstudio/video/xk2wj_spielberg-actors-studio-22_news

    It’s probably the most insightful episode of the show I’ve ever watched, touching on almost all of his films. There’s a wonderful moment when they’re discussing Close Encounters that I won’t spoil, but I urge everyone to watch.

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    “(And as long as I’m here, let me admit that I’m not quite sure about the ultimate beneficence of the aliens in Close Encounters. Sure, they bring back all the people they’ve kidnapped, but how is that even remotely okay? What the heck are the abducted folks from WWII supposed to do in 1977, after 35 years in a UFO? This is not a healthy situation for them. Where are the lawyers on the Dark Side of the Moon?)”

    The gods/aliens got rid of all their lawyers a long time ago. Their judges were dealt with in the same way. Their business is a business of emotion, not reason.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Interesting indeed…

    …if we can take the God metaphor further, might it be possible that the aliens are meant to be taken as our creator? It would explain a lot. It was a check-up visit, perhaps one of many worlds they seeded. It would explain their flippancy concerning redepositing their abductees (oh, they’re fine. We made ’em, didn’t we? It’s not like they aged or something. What more do they have a right to want from us?)

    Also, to reinforce your God metaphor, look at the pose of the mother alien… a crucifix?

  7. Anonymous says:


    I’ve thought more on this topic as well. This was very compelling, and frankly I’ve been pondering it as if I’ve seen a brand new movie. I’ve come up with some other God-metaphors.

    I forgot that Roy was in a crucifix pose as well when entering the ship.

    Also, all the dead farm animals on the road give a sort of an Old Testament animal sacrifice feel. Also, their drive through them brings the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” feeling.

    Also, the dead “dove”. Sort of makes Roy’s “Noah’s” mission appear lost.

    This is mind-blowing. I’ve never seen the movie in this light at all. I’m both impressed with the film and your interpreting it and grateful of your presenting it here.

    I’ll be thinking about this a long time.