I don’t know where to start with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The jokey open would be something about listing the defects and not having any, but then flipping it and not being able to list everything Spielberg does right because his successes are so difficult to work out, particularly in to an easy-to-read, bullet-pointed list. Spielberg makes strange narrative choices in Close Encounters–to a point of confusion regarding the main storyline of the film… is it Richard Dreyfuss and his personal involvement or is it Francois Truffaut and his official involvement? While Dreyfuss probably has more screen time, quite a bit of that time is spent in expository scenes–introducing the UFOs to the audience, showing the experience of those affected–and then the ending is mostly told from the official point of view. But it never feels funny; Spielberg slaps the two stories together and makes it work–even after, at least for the first two-thirds of the film, it becomes clear we aren’t following Dreyfuss because he’s unique in his experience or even his dedication. Instead, we’re following Dreyfuss because there’s something… I can’t resist… important about his particular experience. It’s something to take a loving family man and remove those components and make him… I don’t know the word. Sympathetic isn’t right, heroic isn’t right. If there’s a word for undeniably correct, that one would be it.
The end of the film–I find it odd it takes place over such a short period of time… the last hour takes place over a day and the first hour probably only a few weeks (something about the readiness of the international response makes it feel like it happens every day)–doesn’t exactly belong somewhere else (it’s a natural conclusion to the story) but there’s an aesthetic beauty to it, a sense of absolute wonderment, missing from the earlier encounter scenes. By the end credits shots of the ship going through space, Spielberg overflows the viewer’s imagination. He shuts it down with too much stimuli, too much possibility–to the point, one can do nothing but sit back and let the film do its work.
Part of–I guess I’ll get to it now–Spielberg’s success, in the 1970s, in his first three films, has to do with his approach to people and how they interact with other people. Sugarland, Jaws, Close Encounters–all of them are visually distinctive in how Spielberg shoots people together at home… People spend time together and, especially in Close Encounters, that time spent is more important to the character than it is to the film. Spielberg shows us people in fantastic situations who are still regular people and it endears them quite significantly. He also has that style to the scenes, deep focus, the composition of the shots, the editing. It’s craftsmanship he seems to have forgotten.
It’s also very big–Close Encounters is very big. The ideas in it are very big and here’s the big change in Spielberg, this film being the best example. Very much like Soderbergh does today, Spielberg used to play to a hypothetical audience–and in Close Encounters, he doesn’t worry about anything. And now all he does is worry….
Have I already said glib in this post? No, it’s the first time. Yay. Close Encounters is Spielberg’s best film and, while watching it, it became acutely obvious how good a filmmaker made this film. At times it reminds of Kane and–nothing specific obviously–I never, even when he’s good or great, tend of Spielberg in those artistic terms… but with Close Encounters, I certainly do.
Written and directed by Steven Spielberg; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Joe Alves; produced by Julia Phillips and Michael Phillips; released by Columbia Pictures.
Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Roy Neary), François Truffaut (Claude Lacombe), Teri Garr (Ronnie Neary), Melinda Dillon (Gillian Guiler), Bob Balaban (David Laughlin), J. Patrick McNamara (Project Leader), Warren J. Kemmerling (Wild Bill), Roberts Blossom (Farmer), Philip Dodds (Jean Claude), Cary Guffey (Barry Guiler), Shawn Bishop (Brad Neary), Adrienne Campbell (Sylvia Neary) and Justin Dreyfuss (Toby Neary).