About Scott Holleran

Author Archive | Scott Holleran

Movie Analysis: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This summer’s movies or their ads have left me unimpressed, so I was thrilled to see Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind return to movie theaters for the film’s 40th anniversary. I had seen it in theaters when I was a kid. And again in 1980 when it was re-released with new scenes. I eagerly bought tickets to see it this week at the Cinerama Dome, where it premiered in 1977. It turns out other Americans are more excited about old movies, too. Box office receipts were better for Close Encounters of the Third Kind than for at least one new major movie. I’ll do the same when Mr. Spielberg’s ET returns to movie theaters later this month and, given today’s glut of lousy and mediocre movies, I expect good returns for that, too.

Buy the Movie

Written and directed by Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Jaws, ET, Lincoln, Empire of the Sun), Close Encounters of the Third Kind packs a lot into its two hours plus running time. Mr. Spielberg is correct in his featured, pre-screening comments showing that the 1977 hit is not an example of science fiction, unless you regard life other than on earth as impossible. The broadest formulation of his theme is that we are not alone. Strictly speaking, this is also a theme of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Like that play and movie, music is fundamental to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The song “Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” suggests the first sight of alien spaceships. The classic “Chances Are” by Johnny Mathis and Budweiser’s cheery Seventies TV ad jingle, which follows a shot with a can of Bud, seed the subversion of the era’s dominant cultural ethos in favor of sweetness, benevolence and defiant, can-do Americanism. Listen for hints of composer John Williams’ distinctive 1975 Jaws theme. Of course, music is central to the movie’s plot about alien connection, communication and communion. And, if music foretells what’s to come in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it does, the director’s trademark blend of drama, suspense and terror heightens the story’s darker theme of alienation.

That said, Close Encounters of the Third Kind begins with a moving picture of two bright lights in a swirl of confusion. This is the film’s essence, which is a new, joyful, hard-earned enlightenment.

The audience is gradually immersed in a North American desert during a murky sandstorm. This symbolizes both the mystery of aliens that envelops and draws the audience into a multi-colored, musical finale and the post-counterculture era’s deep, mass confusion in the mid-1970s. “Are we the first to arrive here?” is the first spoken line of dialogue. It is an urgent question delivered seriously, insistently and repeatedly. Appropriately, there’s a Land Rover. Then, there’s a critical sequence involving Air Traffic Control which establishes the cultural context of insidious conformity, echoing skepticism. Then, the picture moves to the main midsection setting: the American Midwest. Riffing on the film’s unique integration of humor, tension and fear, a flirtatious and dangerous scene between Angie Dickinson and Earl Holliman from NBC’s Police Woman airs in the background.

Enter a young boy named Barry (Cary Guffey) and his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon) in a Muncie, Indiana, home filled with Mr. Spielberg’s pre-Poltergeist consumer goods — toy police cars, an American Airlines jet, a race car, trucks, that sort of thing, probably more toys than the typical middle class Midwestern toddler possessed, even 40 years ago, before toy shaming took hold. The scenes are an important marker. Barry’s self-starting toys represent the essence of what quality the aliens may seek in those they invite for communion: individual imagination and wonder at the world. Shifting to a government worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss before he played Pete in Mr. Spielberg’s Always; after he played Hooper in Mr. Spielberg’s Jaws) at home, another connection is made; here, too, the male is blissfully full of wonder and joy at the world — he plays with model trains, he finds good in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio — but Roy Neary’s domestic scene is more burdened than the boy’s home, where Jillian adopts a relaxed, more laissez-faire approach to parenting.

Roy represents the core conflict in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Contrary to the single-parent Indiana home, which tellingly is more conducive to the happy child, it must be noted, Roy’s nuclear family home is chaotic, filled with Mr. Spielberg’s post-Jaws family strife. Roy’s second-hander wife (Teri Garr), frankly, if you think about it, is not remotely interested in being intimate with her husband. She makes reference to their romantic past, sure. But it’s only in the context of an outing Roy intends as a moment of family unity to repeat the experience of his recent close encounter, this time sharing the wonder with his wife and kids. If Roy goes batty while obsessing after encountering an unidentified flying object (UFO), and he does in a sad subplot on the wreckage of mental illness, it’s not exactly Roy who vacates his marriage and family.

The adult’s intensely violent, invasive and invigorating encounter with an alien spaceship, again cued by twin lights, powers Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Thanks to Richard Dreyfuss (Lost in Yonkers, Whose Life is it, Anyway?, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Silent Fall, The Goodbye Girl), an outstanding actor who’s portrayed fraudulent businessman Madoff, Secretary of State Haig and Benjamin Netanyahu’s heroic brother in Israel’s 1976 ingenious raid on Arab terrorists, this insightful performance fully engages the audience in spite of its excess.

Steven Spielberg spins the tale of the detached, disaffected modern American idealist (an angry and downtrodden white male, incidentally) driven by forces beyond his control to madness, casting three Midwesterners into a generic world of Big Government conspiracy, complete with secretive helicopters, decoy trucks, faked national disasters and the United Nations. As he does, the lone individualist’s conflict gets a deeper dimension with hordes of Indians pointing to the sky, pop culture’s Marvin the Martian and Star Trek‘s USS Enterprise and an idealistic, intellectual Frenchman (perfectly cast writer, director and actor Francois Truffaut) who is the fountainhead of the impending ultimate close encounter. Truffaut’s Frenchman, Lacombe, represents the honest, diligent and scientific intellectual pursuit which accounts for the wonder and imagination of discovering the unknown. When Lacombe first faces the inconvenient, incontrovertible fact of Roy Neary’s intrusion on his plans, the philosopher-scholar asks the utility worker … if he is an artist. These two form an abiding bond for harmony.

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind — a remarkably cinematic achievement with striking photography and deft screenwriting — balances wonder with terror, too. The scenes in which Barry is seized from his mother are terrifying. The scenes in which Barry’s mother and Roy Neary attempt to reunite in a herd of frenzied humans is horrifying. As the one, matching with another one, like Liberty and Equality in Ayn Rand’s novelette, Anthem, is swept away and lost in a mob of the many that are herded and fooled by the state, they’re rounded up for an uncertain outcome. That two freethinkers escape government control in that gas-guzzling, distinctly American symbol, the station wagon, breaking down not one, not two, but three government barriers, only to face barbed wire and press (not just carry) on to demand an encounter they know they have earned, goes to the undeniably affirmative, pro-American middle class sensibility of Steven Spielberg’s early movies.

“An answer!” Roy Neary calls out when captured, detained and interrogated by the government which asks what he seeks. Daring to ask a question of his own, he rises up and demands to know: “Who the hell are you people?!?” This is an expression of the film’s American ethos in a strong, powerful and emotional turning point which demonstrates that he who gains knowledge must seize the day, rise, speak up and defy the state. This is true down to three brave strangers who venture forth to disobey the government. “I must find out what’s going on,” one character asserts at a certain point. The movie’s iconic Western landmark reflects in a window as Lacombe’s childlike eyes brighten when the three make their escape, revealing his own secretly held rebelliousness, hinting at a deeper human, and, possibly, non-human connection to come; between Roy and Jillian, between Roy and Lacombe, between child and alien.

Whatever its flaws, from the Peanuts parents-like gibberish of the alien mothership, a bombastic soundtrack and an inexcusably incongruous inclusion of a priest which almost derails the movie’s innocence, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is as indelible now as it was when it played 40 years ago. This renders Mr. Spielberg’s intention — that the movie he first imagined with an early scipt in 1973 during the peak of press coverage of President Nixon‘s Watergate scandal would depict what happens “When You Wish Upon a Star”, in his words, borrowing Jiminy Cricket’s and Walt Disney’s theme song — a success.


Reviews of Steven Spielberg Movies

Movie Review: Lincoln

Movie Review: Schindler’s List

Movie Review: War Horse

Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

Movie Review: Munich

Movie Review: Empire of the Sun (1987)

Product Review: Harry’s Razor (2017)

Fed up with the high cost of shaving and sufficiently enticed by an advertising campaign, I tried Harry’s Razor for $15 a few years ago and wrote my first product review on the blog. It was also the first time I spent money in response to an ad on Twitter, proving on both counts that I’m neither an early adopter nor a big spender.

In any case, I found value in both the buying experience and the product and ordered from Harry’s again (read my original product review here and more of my product reviews here). I wrote that I would re-order Harry’s again and did. I’ve used Harry’s ever since. I did lodge one criticism of the product and made one related suggestion: I observed that the well-designed razor blade “does not conform to that area between the upper lip and lower nose.” I further reported that “there’s no backblade or single strip as on other razor blade models.”

Buy Harry’s

I concluded with the wish that Harry’s razor blade “had a means of getting that patch under the nose.” That 2014 blog post is, oddly enough, one of my most popular posts, so it wouldn’t surprise me if someone, even someone at Harry’s, read the post and noticed my suggestion. Who knows whether my post influenced the company’s recent decision to add precisely what I suggested in its latest razor blade, which I’m happy to be using with success. That Harry’s added the feature without diminishing its quality or increasing its cost, as of this writing, is part of why I remain a satisfied customer.

In fact, I’ve also used Harry’s simple online tools for gifts and trial packages of new products and everything’s worked great so far. The packaging is still solid and simple, which I value enormously since my Harry’s comes through mail order. I strongly prefer the shave cream to the foam, because it holds more closely to the facial hair, making the shaving strokes smoother and more efficient, though I’ve used the foam, too, and it’s alright. The post-shave balm is fine in a pinch, though I still prefer my regular moisturizer after a good shave. I upgraded razors to the chrome version pictured here. I bought the shaving stand, which is perfect for my bungalow bathroom. I gave the old razor away. Now, I see some Harry’s shaving products at my hometown Wal-Mart, so I’m glad they’re growing and expanding and I hope they’re making a profit.

I know that Harry’s doesn’t take my business for granted. They’re still competitive. Indeed, on this fiery, smoky LA Sunday morning, the company offered me an incentive for referrals. If you want to try Harry’s shaving products knowing that your Harry’s Shave Plan trial saves this writer a small amount on my next order, feel free to keep me bloodlessly clean-shaven (well, much of the time) and go here.


Order Harry’s here

The Hush of Charlottesville

Buy the Book

This summer’s violent clashes, climaxing with a neo-Nazi’s recent murder of a protestor in Charlottesville, Virginia, highlight the false left-right division destroying the nation’s political discourse. A desperately needed debate over the government’s proper role has been replaced by mindless assaults, grunts and rants between warring tribes — an anonymous band of anarchists, Marxists, transgendered, Moslems, feminists and multiculturalists versus a band of Nationalist Socialists, traditionalists, Christians, racists and nativists — bringing what Leonard Peikoff subtitled his great study The Ominous Parallels, “the end of freedom in America”, closer. If you really want to know why both left and right are destroying America, read The Ominous Parallels. If you prefer the great novel, read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

First, much of the horror over what happened in Charlottesville strikes me as insincere. If you value life, you’re rightly horrified that the young woman in Charlottesville was murdered by a car driven by a Nazi. However, you were also horrified when an innocent American in Barcelona was mowed down by a vehicle driven by an Islamic terrorist days later, too. Why the glaring disparity in public expressions of horror? I think it’s because Islamic terrorist attacks murdering Americans are accepted by most Americans as common and normal. Why does a Nazi’s murder elicit outrage while a jihadist’s murder does not? Or, for conservatives, vice versa? That’s the vicious cycle; those on the left, who dominate today’s major businesses and media, deny and downplay wrongdoing on the left and among their favored tribes, such as Moslems. So do those on the right, who deny and downplay wrongdoing on the right and among their favored tribes, such as Christians. Both should consistently and persistently defend the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some on both sides do to the extent possible with mixed premises.

But, in general, those on the left and the right do not. I think this leads both to today’s deep, tense political disunity and also to the pervasive sense of sameness, the maddening status quo that Donald Trump claims to oppose (i.e., “drain the swamp”) which actually makes an anti-intellectual leader of his low caliber possible and which he, in fact, supports (see his continuation of Obama policies on ObamaCare, such as community rating and guaranteed issue, the Iran deal and, last week, more endless war with yet more troops in Afghanistan). This is my second point — that, as families and friends, conservatives and liberals, colleagues and teammates are divided over a range of issues, the state gains more power over the life of the individual. (Again, read Leonard Peikoff’s brilliant book, The Ominous Parallels, about pre-Nazi Germany to learn why). Voters for Trump and Obama may fight in the streets, forums and media threads but on fundamental issues, such as health care as a right or Snowden as a traitor, Obama and Trump loyalists agree. As they do, the government spreads more of the same.

This goes to my third point. Here, I invoke this moment in American history as the hush of Charlottesville; a kind of national silence and suppression as the public essentially stops speaking the thoughts on their minds. This is extremely dangerous. As I argued when I endorsed Starbucks‘ idea for a national discourse on race, the fragmented nation needs more speech, not less. Banning Nazis from dating apps, as OKCupid recently did, banning “hate music” from music apps, as Spotify recently did, and supporting groups that persecute the individual for exercising free speech, as Apple recently did when endorsing the Southern Poverty Law Center, which persecutes secular feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and former Islamic jihadist Maajid Nawaz for denouncing Islam on principle, discourages exercise of free speech, though certainly as private companies they have the right to such actions.

Look at what happened to the Starbucks campaign, which was attacked by both the leftists and the conservatives. Anti-Starbucks leftists and anti-Starbucks conservatives came together to denounce a free speech exercise initiative. The result is widespread silence among reasonable people who think they can’t get a decent hearing and more inflammatory speech, including by the inflammatory president (again imitating his inflammatory predecessor), and, worse, initiation of the use of force on both sides. The left, especially Communists and anarchists, has a long history of trying to destroy the U.S. government, from assassinating presidents to riots whether attacking President Truman, the Standard Oil Building or Carnegie Steel with anarchists, Puerto Rican terrorists or the Unabomber. So, too, does the right, from assassinating President Lincoln to blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City and abortion clinics with Confederates, Christian terrorists, and various misanthropes. The worst monsters in history, from Charles Manson and the Rev. Jim Jones to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, spawn from the left. But both sides seek government control and are fundamentally wrong.

Buy the Book

I do not digress. Leftist U.S. political strategy and tactics, I know firsthand and this originates with the New Left, is systemized to initiate the use of lower levels of force, such as throwing rocks at police and others they oppose, in order to provoke greater acts of force in defense or counter-offense. As we’ve seen with the vile, racist thugs of the right, followed by the president’s outrageous equivocation, the right responds to the use of force with the use of force. So, the cycle disrupts civil law and not in some benign display of civil disobedience. The use of force as a means of resolving disputes becomes more common. Judges are shot (the most recent by a rapist’s father in Ohio). A left-wing terrorist from Illinois attempts this summer to assassinate members of Congress. The assault on Dallas police, too, which murdered five police officers, is committed by a racist who’d cited Black Lives Matter and says he sought to kill white policemen.

Police, legislators and judges are crucial to the proper role and function of the United States government. At the same time, government officials such as President Trump and San Franciso’s mayor and police chief make reckless statements which exacerbate tensions, leading to more destruction of private property and bloodshed, as happened before with Obama and the first Bush. In this sense, the false left-right dichotomy is especially damaging and dangerous. Contrary to the left’s hyperbole in the aftermath of the murder at Charlottesville, however, the gravest danger lies not in the racism expressed in exercises of free speech and free association, which is relatively rare and was widely denounced. Leaving aside the deficiency of Charlottesville’s government in protecting the public and preventing the murder, the greatest danger lies in the silence that follows our deepening divisions. It precedes worse outbursts to come.

An orthodox Jew opposed to the Trump administration recently wrote about this self-imposed silence, this soft censorship, in Forward (read the essay here). Those on the right, too, undoubtedly know in a hardened, pompous and cynical culture dominated by New Left orthodoxy why one might feel compelled to go silent. But, to paraphrase the gay community’s anti-AIDS slogan, silence in this tense, national post-Charlottesville hush ultimately equals death. Conservatives and leftists alike, and, of course, those of us Objectivists and like-minded Americans for rights, reason and capitalism who are the true liberals, must speak up and strive under the most difficult circumstances to engage in rational discourse as often as possible. Going silent now, as the left and right resort to murder, masked destruction and radical plans for their respective forms of religious totalitarianism is the worse thing one can do. (For a preview of what horror may result from your silence, read religious conservatives’ anti-gay, anti-contraceptive Nashville Statement, a kind of pre-theocratic companion piece to the New Left’s Port Huron Statement — which condemns, for instance, “sexually immoral behavior” and affirms, for instance, “obedience to Christ”).

The more you exercise your absolute right to free speech — which is not a right to initiate the use of force, block traffic and violate the law — today, the less likely there’s murder, mayhem and dictatorship tomorrow. Americans must break the hush of Charlottesville and start speaking up and speaking out, especially with those with whom one disagrees. In a few weeks, as the University of California at Berkeley is scheduled to host conservative speakers on campus, the silence will be tested. If America still stands for liberty, the hush will be breached in peace with voices exercising free speech. In the meantime, to make sense of the world, as always, I urge every adult to read The Ominous Parallels and Atlas Shrugged.

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

Buy the Movie

The summer’s big hit, Wonder Woman, features a heroine and certainly has some wonderful moments, though it leaves me underwhelmed. From the start, when the main character, Diana, admits in voiceover that she “used to want to save the world” before delving into the World War 1-set story, the DC Comics-based fantasy hints at an anti-romantic theme.

While it is decidedly mixed with larger than life action, Wonder Woman lands its anti-romanticism on the mark. Girl meets boy but barely has him to lose. They go to war after an extended mythology setup, though it never gets to the roots of war. Conflict never lets up, as is often the case with comics-based pictures, the earliest of which (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor) I’ve enjoyed, though they’ve become bloated, artificial and generic. Wonder Woman is warrior Diana’s origin story, so it’s all about war.

Except that there’s not much war in Wonder Woman. Other than a beach battle, a village countersiege and two protracted military assaults, the long running time doesn’t contain the battle action one might expect. Like Xena the Warrior Princess TV series, and Wonder Woman is episodic and televisionary, it’s focused on woman at war. In this sense, because of the novelty, it’s often involving.

But the goddess-superheroine contemplates, prepares for and talks about war (superficially, I must add) more than she wages it. Diana (extremely fit and sufficiently expressive Gal Gadot as an adult) trains as a warrior thanks to her aunt (Robin Wright, A Most Wanted Man). Diana goes off to war with a downed spy pilot (Chris Pine, The Finest Hours, Into the Woods, Star Trek Beyond) to find the god of war and slay him in a subplot with a resolution that’s not hard to guess. Diana gets a London makeover, enlists, helps and surpasses Pine’s spy and his requisite band of misfits and they go off to stop World War 1’s chemical warfare. Some of the music, photography and scenery is stunning. Gadot’s natural and engaging, especially with snappy comebacks such as “I’m the man who can.” Pine’s well cast, too.

Early on, there are clues that the larger than life mythology and episodic story won’t exactly meld. After all the buildup on the elusive, warrior women’s-only island, where Diana’s queen mother (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator) rules, everyone looks fit and fabulous in their skirts, headgear and hairdos but no one appears interested in keeping up with the rest of the world, for self-defense if nothing else. Diana ages from child to young adult and, inexplicably, stops aging after that. The trip to London from the island on a sailboat looks and feels as artificial as it sounds. Being paid to deliver exactly what the boss wants is compared to slavery. It’s easier to overlook these shortcomings because the cast, including David Thewlis as a pacifist and Lucy Davis underused as a secretary named Etta, is spot on under Patty Jenkins’ direction.

Part of an entire Justice League series for Warner Bros. with at least four credited writers — all men, incidentally, not counting the character’s male creator, which I mention because much has been made about the fact that this hit movie is directed by a woman — Wonder Woman is thrilling and fun in spots, such as when Diana steps into the battlefield to lead and inspire others to charge and fight. Diana doesn’t know her own power which I think is intended as the movie’s theme. The world is lacking movies about heroes, though Snowden and Sully are good recent movies about heroes in this regard, let alone heroines. So, a movie about a goddess who fights for peace certainly has enjoyable charms. The way Pine’s spy looks at Diana after she shows her strength and innocence is a welcome twist on the comic superhero genre.

Wonder Woman is not more than that, though, and, when it introduces ideas it never addresses or resolves, such as free will and an undefined conflict between belief and whether humankind deserves to be saved, it’s as lost and fantastic as that island of primitive women somewhere out at sea. That and a mass murderer whom, it’s implied, was a victim of the patriarchy and the lack of suspense inherent to a movie with a plot climax about a world war which some people may know something about mean Wonder Woman is best viewed as another comic book-based movie which entertains with light, occasionally marvelous heroism never made realistic and with flat, bleak outcomes for man and woman alike, if you think about it.

Register for Night School

This week alone, there’s been an editorial purge at the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice announced an end to its print publication and fan favorite and self-proclaimed feminist filmmaker Joss Whedon was arguably smeared by an essay written by his ex-wife in the pages of … the San Francisco Chronicle, a trending tidbit which caused his online fan group to totally disband within hours of publication. With today’s fast-moving media developments, including the President’s Tweets, Facebook’s new video platform and LinkedIn under Microsoft, being media savvy requires study and contemplation.

Register Now

Balancing, integrating and making the best of today’s media is the focus of my fall social media course. Lessons include: fundamental features, safeguarding and managing your reputation, planning for the long term across multiple platforms, pitfalls and putting visuals into a proper context. We work through several different scenarios and, using past and current examples, role-play and practice various drills. The premise is producing media in one’s self-interest.

The 10-week course, Maximizing Social Media, runs from 6PM, Monday, September 11th through November 13th at Burbank Adult School’s San Fernando Valley campus near Bob Hope Airport. Besides basic tutorials, visual presentations, demonstrations of various sites, apps, tools and content, every student gets an opportunity to test, examine and evaluate his social media presence and production. Space is limited (and last semester’s waiting list was long), however, so it’s best to register early to reserve a seat in class.

Register Now

My writing course tends to fill up, too, and I’m planning to invite more published authors as guest lecturers this fall. Generally, Writing Boot Camp includes adult students that write for work and as screenwriters — one writer in this summer’s class came in with what he described as writer’s block and now reports on my ‘alumni’ Facebook page that he’s writing and outlining a new movie script — studio script readers, actors, comedians, studio executives, talent scouts, managers and agents as well as coaches, instructors, published authors and others.

My Writing Boot Camp begins at 6PM on Tuesday, September 12th.

The series is an immersion in the writing process as a progression in six key steps. Students read their work aloud in an analytical, encouraging and purposeful class. As the instructor, I read and examine each student’s writing, offering notes, suggestions and feedback. Additionally, each student who completes my 10-week Writing Boot Camp earns admission to my closed writing group on Facebook, a networking and productivity center for tips and leads on publishing and production and literary, entertainment industry and other opportunities, resources and related events such as the LA Times Festival of Books and TCM Classic Film Festival.

Maximizing Social Media is a relaxed, exhaustive series covering essential media brand management. Lessons include how to foster an enduring social network. Every class features visual display or demonstration, as well as opportunities for guided instruction and screenshots. Register online for Maximizing Social Media here. The 10-part Writing Boot Camp takes place this fall at the same campus.


Register for Writing Boot Camp

Register for Maximizing Social Media