It hit me about five years ago that the source of my Spielberg animosity was Spielberg disillusionment, and that the essence of this began with my turnaround on Close Encounters of the The Kind, which I loved and worshipped when I first saw it in 1977. And yet I can no longer stand to watch it. The basic lesson (which also applies to many of the films of John Ford from the late ’40s on) is that sentiment doesn’t age well. Here’s how I put it on 11.19.07:
“A 30th anniversary, 3-disc, triple-dip Close Encounters of the Third Kind DVD came out on 11.13. It’s a Blade Runner-style package with the original ’77 version, that awful extra-footage, inside-the-mother-ship version that came out in ’80, and the director’s cut that came out in ’98 or thereabouts. Reading about it reminded me to never, ever see this film again.
“I’ll always love the opening seconds of Steven Spielberg‘s once-legendary film, which I saw on opening day at Manhattan’s Zeigfeld theatre on 11.16.77. (I wasn’t a journalist or even a New Yorker at that stage — I took the train in from Connecticut that morning.) I still get chills thinking about that black-screen silence as the main credits fade in and out. And then John Williams‘ organish space-music creeps in faintly, and then a bit more…slowly building, louder and louder. And then that huge orchestral CRASH! at the exact split second that the screen turns the color of warm desert sand, and we’re in the Sonoran desert looking for those pristine WW II planes without the pilots.
“That was probably Spielberg’s finest creative wow-stroke ever. He never delivered a more thrilling moment after that, and sometimes I think it may have been all downhill from then on**, even during the unfolding of Close Encounters itself.
“In my entire filmgoing life I have never experienced such a radical transformational arc — emotional ecstasy when I was young, aesthetic revulsion when I got older. No other film or filmmaker (except for Ford and Frank Capra) has brought this out in me.
“I saw CE3K three times during the initial run, but when I saw it again on laser disc in the early ’90s I began to realize how consistently irritating and assaultive it is from beginning to end. There are so many moments that are either stylistically affected or irritating or impossible to swallow, I’m starting to conclude that there isn’t a single scene in that film that doesn’t offend in some way. I could write 100 pages on all the things that irk me about Close Encounters. I can’t watch it now without gritting my teeth.
“The bottom line is that everything about that film that seemed delightful or stunning or even breathtaking in ’77 (excepting those first few seconds and the mothership arrival at the end) now makes me want to jump out the window.
“My CE3 pet peeves, in no particular order:
“The way Bob Balaban wails to no one in particular during the Sonoran desert scene, “What’s happening? I don’t understaaahhhhnd!”
“That stupid mechanical monkey with the cymbals.
“The way those little screws on the floor heating vent unscrew themselves.
“The way the electricity comes back on in Muncie, Indiana, at the same moment that those three small UFOs drones disappear in the heavens. Ludicrous.
“The way those Indian guys all point heavenward at the the exact same moment when they’re asked where the sounds came from.
“Melinda Dillon stumbling around in the dark and going “Bahahahhahhree!”
“That older couple standing by the roadside with inexplicable beatific expressions, as if they’re regular UFO fans and they’ve come out for their nightly entertainment.
“That idiotic invisible poison gas scare around Devil’s Tower.
“That awful actor playing that senior Army officer who denies that the poison-gas evacuation a charade.
“The mule-like resistance of Teri Garr‘s character to believe even a little bit in Richard Dreyfuss‘s sightings.
“The awe-struck expressions of all those government guys as they stare at the mother ship under the shadow of Devil’s Tower. They all turn into four year-olds with those goo-goo, gah-gah eyes.
“The worst element of all is the way Spielberg has all those guys who are supposed to board the mother ship wearing the same red jumpsuits and sunglasses and acting like total expression-less robots. Why? No integrated or explained reason is offered whatsoever. Spielberg is just amused by the idea of them looking and acting that way.
“The bottom line is that CE3K is one unlikely, implausible, baldly manipulative cheap-seats move after another. Spielberg knows how to get you — he’s always been good at that — but there’s rarely anything under the “get.”
“The ending of No Country for Old Men is obviously irritating to some, but the thematic echoes and undercurrents from the last scene stay with you like some kind of sad back-porch symphony. Spielberg’s films have almost never accomplished anything close to this. I’m not sure they have even once.
“Has anyone tried watching the ‘little girl in red’ scene in Schindler’s List lately? I love most of that 1993 film, but this scene gets a little bit worse every time.”
February 2013 Update: Two or three weeks ago I ordered the new Bluray of Ford’s The Quiet Mann, mainly because of Ford’s splended sense of visual balance and because I wanted to savor the colors. It arrived during my time in Sundance/Santa Barbara but I haven’t watched it since I got home. Why? Because as beautiful as I know it will be, I know I’m going to be subjected to so much nauseating Irish blarney that my head will come close to exploding.
** Obviously Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Dom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Schinder’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln are very fine films, but he never delivered another single “moment” that was quite as thrilling or transportational as that music-crescendo crash at the start of CE3K.