A 30th anniversary, 3-disc, triple-dip Close Encounters of the Third Kind DVD came out on 11.13. It’s a Blade Runner package in that it has 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 — plainly but ominously. And then John Williams‘ organish space-music sounding 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. 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.
I saw it 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. 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.
That stupid mechanical monkey with the cymbals. The way those little screws on the floor heating vent unscrew themselves. The way those Indian guys all point heavenward at the the exact same moment when they’re asked where the sounds came from. “Bahahahhahhree!” That idiotic invisible poison gas scare around Devil’s Tower. That awful actor playing that senior Army officer who denies it’s a charade. The way the electricity comes back on in Muncie, Indiana, at the same moment that those three small UFOs drones disappear in the heavens. The mule-like resistance of Teri Garr‘s character to believe even a little bit in Richard Dreyfuss‘s sightings. It’s one unlikely, implausible, baldly manipulative crap move after another.
If only Spielberg had the talent to blend his fertile imaginings with a semblance of half-believable realism…but he doesn’t. Or didn’t back then.
The worst element of all is the way Spielberg has those guys who are supposed to board the mother ship wearing the same red jumpsuits and sunglasses and acting like total robots. Why? No reason. Spielberg just liked the idea of them looking and acting that way. This is a prime example of why his considerable gifts don’t overcome the fact that he’s a hack. He knows how to get you but there’s never 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.