Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)


A case can be made that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is Spielberg’s finest. The story, a modern fairy tale about benign and superior visitors to Earth from Somewhere in the universe, shows a Hitchcockian awareness of preserving classes and culture (e.g., the Master’s wonderful movie of the 1940s capturing forever twentieth century British aristocratic ways and means, The Paradine Case [reviewed elsewhere in the present blog]). Likewise, Spielberg focuses on the speech, houses, clothes, food, fears, settings and other components of American middle class life in the 1970’s: they are magnificently preserved with an exactness that is remarkable and bespeaks an intense observation and dramatization. And in our fast-moving culture, the world of Encounters has already largely passed into its only remaining reality, memory.

Understandably, memory of lifestyle as captured in movies is all too often ignored on the Release Days of films. We then feel unreflectively that we are living in That Day’s all-around surround. The “shock of recognition” captures us in those first moments.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is memorable now because it has a brilliant memory.

Perhaps this movie has an interesting place in what some have called “The History of Consciousness.” The hero, Indiana power company field worker, Roy Neary, one of the few humans called to a rendezvous by the friendly aliens with their stunningly advanced technology–recall Neary’s modeling of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming before he learns it is to be the major meeting point of earthlings and the aliens–is far from the usual Hollywood central figure. Why? Well, after his famous close encounter at night on that Indiana back road, he says simply that he needs “to know what is going on.” He ends up more than willing to Get Out of Here, meaning that he would leave the Vale of Tears of human earthly existence, quite possibly escape the final fate of all its mortal human characters, and all this on an irresistible dare, a faith that simply by departing to another and much advanced world–knowing “what is going on”–Hobbes and his observation that human life is poor, nasty, brutish and, above all, short, might well be forgotten. Heroes of our art-stories do not typically put down human life. How many of them would do as Roy Neary does, forsake wife and kids without so much as a backward look?

I’m more than prepared to believe that such was not foremost in the minds of the principals who created Encounters. Maybe news to them? Well, after all, here is a case where hindsight is perhaps the truest sight. People make movies, then move on to new ones. They’ve already left film school behind, and besides the latest students there, as in all eras, are seeking the secrets of studio success and long-time careers. Can’t live in the past.

But Roy Neary lives in the future; or, better said, he portends such a life in a small but important way.

Entailed here is an outrageous summary of Art History. At least it can be said simply. Psychologists say that a list of three things fits our minds well; more items in a list defeat the art. So: lets divide Art History into three phases.

Shakespeare heads up the first period. The Bard accepts life in the Vale of Tears. Every mortal loses at last; there is something alien about the place in which we live. The most an artist can do is create catharsis: by facing pain and suffering, somehow we calm down about the undeniable prospect. Just about every artist in history and globally lives in Shakespeare’s creative world. Lear grows old and destroys the very things he most loves because he is ground under by aging and the rest of it. Moreover, the stormy heath is the place in which we find ourselves. It’s wise to accept it.

But in our day such seems less and less acceptable.

The second phase–Heroic Defiance–has a lonely but noble champion, seemingly someone for whom we have been waiting. Captain Ahab hasn’t any metaphysical answers, and he despises and conducts Heroic Defiance of all those malevolent forces behind stormy heaths and, really, the even worse demons such as Moby-Dick (an agent of the inimical to top all such agents) which prey seemingly inscrutably on us. Scarred from nape to sole by the metaphorical monster, Ahab goes with exhilaration to his death attacking Moby-Dick. It’s the most heroic thing that can be done then, at that historical point. The marvelous Melville places in his evil swell, the “infinite series of waves” over “the great shroud of the sea,” seas that Escher-like (in the eventual nightmare sense) endlessly circle the globe, a hellishly boring Infinity.

What to do? Heroic Defiance, that’s what!

Consider Pequod crewman Starbuck, practical Yankee businessman who at first finds Ahab’s diverted mission from the company marching orders (bring us back that lamp-lighting whale oil, won’t ye?) scandalous but who, in the last scenes, goes nobly and with intense satisfaction to his death in that last forlorn longboat done in by the Great Whale. And consider that Queequeg, the great harpooner, forsakes his life of royalty in the South Seas to chase down whales; and, more generally, when the tale opens, New Yorkers peer enthralled at the sea, even though few will ever sail upon it.

Heroic Defiance is the plausibility for Ahab and crew. There was no technology then to rival today’s. Longevity, enhanced intelligence, modern cosmology–not present, not accounted for.

But Roy Neary sees evidence of a greater technology right in front of him, in the ships of the Alien Visitors. And he senses it when the happy aliens do a little mind-control on him: especially his nagging urge to sculpt what turns out to be a scale model of Devil’s Tower, the rendezvous point for the event that will change history. Wow! That’s new stuff! Now I can discover “who I am” (ugh; but in Rome you should say what they say, at least some of the time).

But Roy is acting on faith when he leaves Trauffaut behind and boards the Mother Ship. Lots of unknowns before him.

What is the third phase of Art in this admittedly somewhat glib account? Well, here’s a stab at it: The focus of a new human experience is uninterrupted mathological wonder–a Mathematica Dramatica. Imagine an indefinite life in which, shorn of Natural Selection and its cruel and impersonal experimentation to find the “fittest,” and no longer corporeal, humans live in a forever typified by Cantorian discoveries of a variety of infinities. If shorn of Natural Selection, Roy Neary II has no cares about reproduction, self-defense, nourishment and those imperatives of naturally selected Homo sapiens. Now it is one big narrative of discovery; if Hawking can’t really be sure of what he seemed to be sure of, that is because finally physical reality is ever knowable only through some remarkable but impermanent models–a predicament to be sure!

But what is won in the suspense of discoveries in the Platonic mindscape of the Mathematica Dramatica–and the sublime “tricks” such as the Great Diagonal in the exposing of varieties of infinity–does not go away. It does not vanish in a maelstrom of competing new imperfect models. It prevails.

I did not name the third phase of Art. Lets call it Escape to Discovery.

Will Roy Neary experience a transition from the Human to the Indefinite?

Will we…

become an arrested population of Immortal Idealists?

—Free at last of imperatives of “natural selection” such as
—Social Organization,
—and especially Reproduction,
—so as each to start Living Anew in Beatific Privacy.

—Hence ever to be:
—Joyous Isolates,
—Happy Solitaires,
—Nananium Craniums,
—Space Drifters,
—Engrossed Asocials,
—Gravityless Ageless,
—Uncaged Angels,
—Exhalted Loners!

—In short:
—Independent Superminds
—in a Psycho (and Physiological) Anarchy!
—An Aesthetic State of Self

—But only to be Lonely?
—No way!
—For each of you Self-Sufficient will be eternally self-entertaining, happily vaudevillian-knacked, topping yourselves with each new personal “godthrilling” act, on your private stage in your personal theater.

—If so:
—You’ll not unravel in the Plague of Disnovel.
—You’ll not opt for Oblivion over Living.
—Instead of going extinct, you’ll have fled in soloing instinct!

Are we coming to an era of Plausible Technology for a Roy Neary II? Can we save psychology from accident? Can we discover answers to the following two questions? (You’d probably bet, No.)

–Is there a mathological realm–Ideality–which would be infinitely engrossing?

–Is it possible to reconfigure Homo sapiens to live there?

You don’t blame Neary for just taking a chance and walking into that unprecedented ship.

He might be worth keeping an eye on.