Jenny and I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind on the big screen in Santa Cruz last night, a one-night only show at the multiplex that attracted a surprisingly large crowd. For me it was a special occasion, since Close Encounters is my favorite movie of all time. I know there are better movies out there, ones that are more challenging or more provocative or more technically proficient, but Close Encounters will always hold a grip on my imagination. I saw the movie first as a kid, having been drenched by the pop culture tidal wave that was Star Wars. I was ready for more space fantasy, hurtling with lasers and adventure. What I got was something very different: the first movie that showed me how adults can be terrified and amazed by the universe, just like kids. That's the appeal of the dialogue when Roy and Jillian laugh together nervously: "It's like Halloween for grownups . . . Trick or treat!" I'd never seen adults so human and so overawed by forces beyond them.
As it turns out, Close Encounters really isn't about aliens at all. Consider how little of them that we see. Given the 70s-era limitations of the technologies available to Spielberg and his crew, one can hardly be surprised that the spaceships are merely bright lights, smoke, clouds, and a little bit of plastic. The aliens themselves are seen in short bursts, the snaps of a camera, or a creature almost hidden within dazzling luminosity. The one vast and incredible spectacle, the so-called "mother ship," resembles what would happen if you combine Las Vegas and an oil refinery. That's the money shot. But the bulk of the movie concentrates on more earthly matters, most importantly the estrangement of a middle-aged man from his family.
Yes, I admit it: I've always felt that I understand Roy Neary. He loves his family and he is satisfied by his job, but he's always felt an inescapable yearning to go to distant places, to shirk off the commitments of adulthood, to seek grand adventure. And he knows instinctively somehow that he's not meant for his time and place. Sure, Roy makes a decision that only a genuinely childish person would contemplate: he abandons his family. But even that excess of irresponsibility can seem strangely tenable from time to time. In Close Encounters we meet lots of people like Roy, adults who are unsure, imperfect, impatient, and overwhelmed by forces entirely beyond their control. And in meeting these people we come to tolerate a little of our own imperfections.
My love for Close Encounters has called forth an impressive degree of patience from my family. We see the movie about two times a year, typically on evenings that we call "Saucer Nights." That means making up a huge batch of mashed potatoes (props for my recitation of the "This means something. This is important" scene) and eating various "saucer-shaped" foods like quesadillas and cookies while watching the movie. Of course, one year I almost mirrored Roy's brand of obsession when I convinced my family to drive to Devil's Tower, Wyoming, where they show Close Encounters nightly at a nearby KOA. Once there, we filmed a shot-by-shot remake of the scene in which Roy and Jillian see the tower for the first time ("I don't believe it's real. I don't believe it's real"). No, that wasn't the point of the trip, but it was a highlight for me. We spent hours trying to mimic the camera moves, the intonation, the framing of the shots, all for less than two minutes of footage. Jenny and Vienna demonstrated unearthly kindness by putting up with this silly production, definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event.
So you can imagine how excited I was to spot Close Encounters as a coming attraction. It had been so long since I'd seen this movie on the big screen. Arriving early and getting a perfect seat, I groaned at the prospect of folks talking loudly or texting onto mobile phones since the crowd was spiked with plenty of kids who (based on their loud conversations) seemed to have stumbled into the auditorium by accident or beer-induced haze. But once the movie started, everyone fell under its spell. We all laughed together at the same jokes and jumped together at the same frights (it seemed that way at least). Every once in a while I'd peer to my left to enjoy the sight of a middle-aged woman sitting on the edge of her seat and smiling to herself. And of course it was cool to spot tiny details of set design that had eluded me on our relatively smaller screen. Imagine that, seeing something new in a movie that I've viewed at least a hundred times. It was a great night.
Driving home, Jenny and I sang that odd song that plays when Barry is awakened by aliens ("Look with care for the shape of a square!") and shared bits of Close Encounters trivia (Do you know the name of the newscaster who helped Roy make the "psychic connection"?). Jenny knows and understands much of why I love this movie. And she's the reason why I'd stay here rather than board the spaceship.
Though I'd be tempted.
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