Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twenty-Six

#26 — Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
In 1990, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert took a break from flinging their thumbs around in judgment and created a television special called The Future of the Movies which included lengthy interviews with Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. At one point, Spielberg was asked to name the single shot from all his movies that exemplified who he was as a filmmaker, the one image that could be pulled out and held up to convey the defining characteristics of his artistic philosophy, temperament and vision. It seems a nearly impossible task (Scorsese demurred on the same question so a compromise was reached in which he named a single shot from Raging Bull), but Spielberg had a good answer at the ready: the moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when the young boy played by Cary Guffey opens the front door of his house to look out at the maelstrom of golden light that signaled the space aliens that drove the plot were closing in on the rural home.

I don’t recall Spielberg’s specific reasoning, but it surely had something to do with the offhand, childlike daring required to open that door in the first place and the reward of something astonishing on the other side. At least, I suspect those are the qualities that most would name in trying to define that makes that a quintessential Spielberg shot. I think that’s true enough, but it also misses the greater point, the contradictory tone of menace to those shiny lights. The vivid hue that washes in from outside is beautiful, but it also signals danger. Their warm radiance will scorch and leave a mark. His prior film, Jaws, may have redefined the parameters and large goals of the movie business with its slickness and style, but all those pleased crowds didn’t change its fundamental identity as a film about a monstrous creature from the deep that spends its timing biting humans into small pieces. It is first and foremost a horror film. Just ask the Kintner boy.

And Close Encounters, despite its final message of interstellar benevolence, is primarily about dread and obsession. The mundane suburban dad played by Richard Dreyfuss, a character that is arguably the clearest surrogate for Spielberg himself among the director’s many works, is driven beyond distraction by his initial glancing interaction with the aliens, basically beckoned forward to meet them by a strange image in his head, a flattop mountain with deep lines running down it as if the whole thing has been shaped by a rake. His single-minded behavior pushes his family away, and the only solace he can find is with the other wandering souls who have been reshaped by their fervent belief in these UFOs.

A major part of the greatness of the film is its fiercely empathetic depiction of the ways in which the solitude of personal conviction to a singular cause, event or activity is both a reward and a tragedy. The only time in his career that Spielberg was listed as the sole screenwriter (although no fewer than four others have their uncredited fingerprints on the script) is fittingly probably his most personal film. Not only does it represent the part of him that never stopped watching the skies, but in its unreserved appreciation for those who stand outside of the norm, committing to notions and hopes too fanciful to believe. Like a kid growing up in Arizona who spent his time immersed in the world of movies, somehow certain he’d join the ranks of John Ford and Howard Hawks someday. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a gripping demonstration that opening those mysterious doors that lead to an exciting but unsettled future can be worrisome and scary, but it’s just as likely to be splendidly gratifying.

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