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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.

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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)

Archives: Alfred Hitchcock

Today, I’ve added to the site archives my first review of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It’s an analysis which posted earlier this year for the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, where I had the pleasure to see the master’s 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much on nitrate at the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Read my review of this interesting movie and thoughts on its screening, which was introduced by Martin Scorsese (Hugo, The Departed, New York, New York) here. I plan to add more classic film reviews this year.

Though I review movies only informally and occasionally for the blog, I plan to continue. I’m focussing on classic movie analysis, however, based on pictures I’ve seen on the big screen, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much. I enjoyed seeing an Alfred Hitchcock movie on the silver screen, of course, and I’d like to see more of his work and write more, new reviews and analyses, so let me know if you have one or two in mind you’d like me to review. As of now, my favorite Hithcock movie is 1954’s Rear Window, so I may write about this movie next. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in Hitchcock, who is with Howard Hawks and Lasse Hallstrom among my top favorite film directors, I did see and review a 2012 biographical movie about the master of suspense, which is simply titled Hitchcock, co-starring Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. Read the review here. I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s movies and many of the TV episodes. I’m also reading Hitchcock/Truffaut (I’ve seen the recent documentary, too).

I first started to take Hitchcock’s work seriously as a student of film during the 1990s while attending Professor Shoshana Milgram’s lectures and classes in Southern California and at several summer OCONs. Her work in film and literature is always deep, serious and thought-provoking. Dr. Milgram really encourages students to see his movies and think about them and she stirred me to appreciate why seeing a movie more than once can be a rich reward for the rational mind. I’ve written my reviews to be read both before and after the reader has seen the movie ever since. Today is Hitchcock’s birthday, so it strikes me as the best day to post my first review of a Hitchcock film to the backlog. I hope you enjoy reading it.


Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Movie Analysis: Empire of the Sun (1987)

On its own terms, Steven Spielberg’s epic Empire of the Sun doesn’t make an everlasting impact. The 1987 movie is too stylized and self-conscious to successfully execute a coherent theme. It is an engaging movie nonetheless.

Made as a response by the director to critics claiming he makes movies about only innocent childhoods, Empire of the Sun is best understood as a transitional and reactive film in Mr. Spielberg’s career. Every frame of this movie about a British boy’s wartime separation from his parents in Shanghai—resulting in imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp—moves with a sense of purpose, unfolding the story of one child’s trauma, loss of innocence and damaged, stunted growth. From the opening scenes’ floating coffins, children’s choir and comic books to the elegiac final picture of a drifting collection of what’s been lost and dispensed with, Empire of the Sun is somber and severe.

Introducing Christian Bale (American Psycho, Terminator Salvation, Batman Begins, Swing Kids, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) in his movie debut as a diplomat’s only child on the eve of Japan’s invasion of China, the film’s main character goes from being called James to Jamie to Jim. For two and a half hours, Bale’s boy makes a full circle with his angelic choirboy’s voice. Interestingly, this film is extremely focused on the choirboy’s view of the world and it’s interesting because the exposition leaves out what informs and contextualizes that viewpoint.

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For instance, his worship of the Japanese kamikaze, which entails a fascination with militarism which could be born of his lack of power over his own life in a foreign land where his parents are detached, is inexplicably persistent. Certainly, children become obsessed with certain things. But this kid goes out of his way at an elaborate costume party to go off on his own and play with his model airplane. The model is a Japanese zero—the kamikaze’s fighter plane used in the sneak attack that destroyed Pearl Harbor—but why this child is drawn (and encouraged) to worship it remains elusive.

In any case, the zero is what fuels Jim’s imagination, allowing Mr. Spielberg to juxtapose the horror of war with the beauty of life and love. He did this, too, in 2005’s atrocious Munich. There are echoes of several future Steven Spielberg motifs, notions and themes here: the scrap and random subsequence in war of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, the smoke, ash and nonstop death of 1994’s Schindler’s List, the pacifism and equivocation of 2011’s War Horse and Munich.

Other scenes are as warm, potent and majestic as only Steven Spielberg (Jaws, The BFG, The Sugarland Express, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Always, Bridge of Spies, Hook, Jurassic Park, Lincoln, Raiders of the Lost Ark) can produce. A thief’s slap of contemptuous envy, a promotional mural for David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind as Shanghai falls to the Japanese, learning the word ‘pragmatist’ while learning the cost of living by doing only what’s convenient in the moment, the imagined fancies of a traumatized child in captivity—all and more make Empire of the Sun immensely watchable.

But the film impresses for what’s left off the screen, too. How Jim survives imprisonment in terms of food, clothing and shelter are clear, as Jim trades on material possessions and cigarettes, however, how he relieves himself (apparently, he doesn’t) is left untold. There’s also—in retrospect, not surprisingly—very little of the Japanese in Empire of the Sun, which is based on the war memoir by J.G. Ballard, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard and produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. In fact, the imperial Japanese were voraciously mystical and religious—like today’s Communist North Koreans, they worshipped a state dictator as a deity—brutal and barbaric. But Mr. Spielberg omits any serious and lasting references to such key facts, which are crucial to grasping Japan’s empire, invasion of China and lust for war with the West.

Yet his Empire of the Sun, unlike the tribalist Schindler’s List, focuses on the individual. “You’re an American now,” a gruff but decent scoundrel (John Malkovich) tells Jim during internment, and, for all the dodging and hustling Jim does, he means it as a compliment, signalling a turning of the tide in war. This is another Steven Spielberg imprint; jaunty Americanism matched by what’s regarded as a fundamental emptiness in what makes an American—specifically, that he’s self-made, especially through trade. Empire ties this theme into its final frames.

Seeing himself in a Japanese boy he tries to save, catching a Hershey’s bar and manmade goods that fall from the sky as hallelujahs play in song (on a score by John Williams), Jim the boy finally faces reconciling what he’s been through even as he’s forced to march or die. That Jim goes from worshipping self-sacrificing Japanese to cheering self-reliant Americans doesn’t mute that he also makes himself something of an easterner who discards his possessions and begins a postwar childhood devoid of idealism. The boy’s romanticized empire marches in, gets real, and dissolves. Jim’s cherished Empire of the Sun comes to an end.

Leaving gaps while immersing the audience in the color of bomb blasts and the rising sun, Steven Spielberg counters his early movies’ benevolent intimacies with a hollow if stunning epic about the wreckage of a boy’s sense of life.

Movie Review: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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Dark, moody and subversively modern in the worst ways, yet undeniably alluring thanks to the magnetism of movie stars Jean Harlow and Charles Boyer and Adrian’s stunning gowns, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 79-minute Red-Headed Woman offers nonstop sexual suspense.

Played as comedy to smuggle its explicit sexual themes into the vibrant picture, which I saw in 35mm at the Egyptian during TCM’s Classic Film Festival, Red-Headed Woman is really more of a tragic, cautionary tale with touches of melodrama. Based upon Katharine Brush’s scandalous novel, adapted by one of H.L. Mencken’s favorite female writers (another was Ayn Rand, whose We the Living he hailed), Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman was a hit.

Like Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck—who wanted the lead in Red-Headed Woman (so did Greta Garbo, according to film scholar Cari Beauchamp, who introduced the picture), this story of a secretary using sex to gain power, money and status is astounding for its plain depiction of a woman whose self-esteem is based on objectifying herself, which is to say denying herself any authentic, reality-based estimate of her own value.

“If the barn door’s open,” Harlow’s harlot deadpans to Una Merkel’s best friend and roommate (one wonders if she’s also Harlow’s lesbian lover on the side), “what’s to keep a girl from goin’ in?” Slither on into the home of her boss businessman’s home she does, knowing that his wife (Leila Hyams) is out of town, seducing him with a conniving sense of delirious mission. As Lillian (“Lil” aka “Red”), Jean Harlow (Wife Vs. Secretary, Red Dust, Design for Living, Libeled Lady) is simply perfect. It’s not her look, as such, or beauty, that taunts boss man Bill (handsome Chester Morris) and drives him wild for sex. As with most sex-starved golddiggers, it’s her constant availability, daring desire and her radically open want for sex. He’s putty in her presence and, it’s hinted, they usually end up going at it on the floor, but every seduction is fully earned. Harlow, who purrs “Beeeeww” when she wants him to want her, pins the part in every scene.

Directed by Jack Conway with panache, Red-Headed Woman has powerful, propellant energy, and part of that emanates from the great performances but part of it also comes from the drama. A marriage is at stake and this sexual power-luster is hellbent to ruin it. Whether she succeeds, and what constitutes success, is the movie’s core. Setting every man from a “coal king” to a French chauffeur (Charles Boyer in an impressive turn) who may be her lowdown counterpart, in her crosshairs, the red-haired woman willing to prostitute herself that Bill’s father (Lewis Stone as the movie’s moral center) calls a “snake in the grass” gets exactly what she wants, it’s suggested, and probably, ultimately what she deserves.

“Do it again,” she tells a man after he slaps her to make her stop making him want to grab her and kiss her, adding with a well-timed punch of her own: “I like it.” Red-Headed Woman is an interesting portrayal of a woman of the flesh—neither endorsement nor repudiation, but stark and honest—who lets men have her so she can really let them have it. In this sense, it’s dark and cynical, an attitude that became prevalent in American culture. The hard and complex Red-Headed Woman, driven by coarse and severe delusions, breaches and titillation, at once dramatizes the slut with sex appeal and forecasts its own function as a culturally self-fulfilling prophecy.

Movie Review: So This is Paris (1926)

With his silent movie So This is Paris (1926), director Ernst Lubitsch, who had by then left Germany, directed Mary Pickford and become Warner Bros.’ first star director, delivers a true comedy of errors. The tale of two married couples, which I saw in 80 minutes at The Egyptian in 35mm during TCM’s 8th annual Classic Film Festival, with piano accompaniment and an introduction by film scholar Cari Beauchamp, is a loopy homage to the Parisian take on “love and liberty”.

It’s hilariously indulgent.

Monte Blue stars as a married man tempted to cheat on his romance novel-reading wife (Patsy Ruth Miller) with a loose woman and former flame (Lilyan Tashman) who lives across the street. But the wife plays a role in her own husband’s temptation as she’s the one who orders her husband out of the home after sexually fantasizing about the half-naked man (expressive Andre Beranger, stealing every scene) whose body catches her attention from across the way and So This is Paris carries on and on from there, singling no one out too much and letting everyone have a moment to flirt, play and be wronged. In fact, the whole movie, with a wildly eye-catching ball sequence complete with dancing the Charleston, is really about the human desire to play and let loose.

This hit for Warner Bros., which shows the early Lubitsch touch of lightness seeded with serious ideas, keeps pace and never lets up. The wife’s too lonely and wants romance to be real. The husband is stifled and misses his former flame’s sense of raucous abandon. The other couple, too, is a bit too playful for their own good and, with a traffic cop lurking, they’re bound to pay the consequences. Look for Myrna Loy as a housemaid, watch Beranger in every scene and pay particular attention to the Artist’s Ball scenes with the lively dancing. Most of all, enjoy the early American period for Ernst Lubitsch, before his other motion picture study of married life, One Hour With You, which also screened at the film festival. So this is a glimpse of the naughty, savvy, sexually-themed good humor with which he would make some of the most enduring and enriching movies ever made.