Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind ★★★★½

I've seen this many times.

• People watch so much television in this: wherever you are in a domestic space, it's probably also there, an unquestioned omnipresence (that will turn sinister in Poltergeist) indiscriminately rotating through "Days of Our Lives," Budweiser commercials, The Ten Commandments, Marvin the Martian and the evening news; sometimes the footage is contrapuntal and relevant to on-screen action, but sometimes just there, gassing on. As far as I can tell from the cinematic record, people spent unprecedented amounts of time watching TV in the '70s, simply because it was there and, for a whole generation of aduls, had been since childhood: "do you want to watch some TV?" is a normal, routine question in Mark Rappaport's 1977 Local Color. Also in the same year: James Benning's 11 x 14. with its shot of a woman reading with her back pointedly to the TV, which nonetheless remains assertively on. Unlikely bedfellows, stray unlikely association, but something was in the air.

• The cut from army brass figuring out what kind of chemical threat would be terrifying enough to clear an area of 300 square miles to the Piggly Wiggly logo on a truck (followed by Coca-Cola and Baskin-Robbins vehicles) seems abrupt and pointed enough to be some kind of generic anti-consumerist broadside (what's more terrifying than a chain etc.), but also like a weird accident.

• The aliens at the end are kind of chintzy, something Spielberg knew; he tried to minimize their presence accordingly, but there's still a tacit contractual obligation to show them. They're very obviously small children hanging out in suits on a gigantic soundstage while waiting for chaos on an over-schedule/-budget production to coalesce around them. Irony: Richard Dreyfuss decides to escape the domestic hell of life with three children for life with aliens — i.e., two dozen-ish kids in suits, all of whom will make him the center of their lives from now on. Out of the pan, into the fire, etc.

• The one scene I wish had ultimately been taken out (I've only seen the final cut cobbled from the original and expanded cuts; it's the only version that circulates for rep, I believe) is Dreyfuss freaking out in the shower and Teri Garr yelling back, followed by eldest kid Brad (Shawn Bishop) losing his normally bemused cool and repeatedly screaming "crybaby!" at Dreyfuss while slamming the door. It's histrionic tough going, but it does make clear what the film would otherwise elide: that these kids carefully staying out of their fractious parents' way and making themselves inconspicuous are heavily feeling (and concealing) the strain of domestic strife, emotional wounds foregrounded in E.T. but which here have to recede out of sight if Roy Neary's ever going to make it to that spaceship with his peace of mind intact.

• Regardless of which, the scenes of his domestic hell do not seem gratuitously cartoonish, nor is his desire to get out inexplicable; it's just a tough situation for all concerned. In his first scene, the house is a mess and Roy's literally in the dark when haranguing his kids about why they should want to see Pinocchio: they have separate light sources on them, and he's effectively acting in the shadows. This is a purely visual, functional-but-not-overbearing way of conveying Dreyfuss' sense of nullity in his own house — and as soon as he steps into sharp profile light to accept a phone call, the power goes out and the entire family's in the dark. Shortly thereafter, Roy will be subject to the first of several incredibly powerful bursts of light from an alien spaceship — he's now the star.

• François Truffaut and Bob Balaban are introduced into the first scene, and — while occasionally working together — effectively don't communicate as duo until the third act has started, at which point they seem to have authentic personal rapport (an effect of Balaban actually acting as Truffaut's interpreter off-screen as well). You can imagine an entire parallel film off-screen, a buddy comedy about a cartographer and (unspecified) scientist bonding on the job while barreling towards a momentous encounter for mankind's future.

• There's a touch of anti-government paranoia in the final ascent to Devil's Tower, with planes buzzing civilians with sleeping gas and military brass running amuck, but Spielberg is barrelling forward too fast to get bogged down in Vietnam War imagery (Bringing The Terror Home) or get overly concerned about federal abuses of power — a worry tacitly embedded, one the film semi-successfully tries to smooth out.

• Despite the India and (later-added) Mongolia scenes, there's a kind of triumphant nationalism inadvertently at play: the aliens disrupted the world but must make their first significant contact with Americans, at an obscure regional point of pride no less.

• Toss-off I'd missed before: "UFOs do not represent a direct physical threat to national security. We do not support them, and we encourage you not to."