Wednesday 25 December 2013

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND - Review By Greg Klymkiw - It's been 36 Years Since I First Saw.....IT?

Aside from being a great science fiction picture, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is one of the most evocative tales of obsession ever to be etched on celluloid and as such, this is as much a review of the film as it is a reflection on my personal obsession with the picture that has not abated since I first saw it 36 years ago.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) *****
dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Roberts Blossom

Review By Greg Klymkiw

On a crisp Winnipeg winter night in December of 1977, I floated in a daze from within the warm confines of an old 2000-seat downtown picture palace and my eyes looked immediately to the Heavens.


A typically clear mid-western prairie sky presented a dazzling display of the cosmos – stars danced and twinkled above me and it was near impossible to shift my gaze from the limitless expanse of the universe and beyond. I kept watching the sky for some time in total bliss and ignorance of the sub-zero temperature that, as per usual, threatened to freeze exposed skin in less than a minute or two.

I had, of course, just seen an advance preview screening of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a motion picture of such staggering power that it seemed perfectly fitting that my first helping of its magnificence be within the cavernous expanse of this classic theatre built in 1907, its screen enveloped by a mighty proscenium, sitting in plush seats surrounded by an interior rich in ornate white Italian marble (it not only had a huge balcony, it had fucking LOGES) and bathed in a flickering light of utter magic that was, at this early stage of my life, a picture unlike anything I had ever seen before.

This one screening proved to be so epiphanous that once the picture officially opened two weeks later, I saw it on a big screen – in this same cinema – well over forty times.

I could not get enough of the picture. I needed to see it as one needs nourishment. A week could not go by that I did not feel the mysterious pull of this extraordinary movie. I was a man possessed - barely one, at that, being a mere 18-years-old.

By now, everyone knows that this classic motion picture charts the journey of everyman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) who experiences the unexplained appearance of something other-worldly and abandons his life, his job, his family – everything he holds dear – to obsessively track down the meaning behind this occurrence. In a tale steeped in Judeo-Christian resonance – from Moses to Christ – Roy makes a perilous journey, climbs Devil’s Tower and comes face-to-face with the answer to his visions until he, along with twelve apostolic “pilgrims” ascends to the Heavens, arms outstretched in what is surely the most benign crucifixion-image imaginable.

It’s quite perfect, really. Aside from the obsessive quality of the central character, the picture itself is relentless in its adherence to the basic principles of UFO-ology and a system of extraterrestrial classification as posited by the late astronomer Dr. Josef Allen Hynek – the close encounter. According to Hynek, a close encounter of the first kind is seeing unexplained phenomena, while the second kind involves hard proof of some sort of physical manifestation from what was originally witnessed and, finally, the close encounter of the third kind, contact.

Using this classification system as the basis for his screenplay, Spielberg fills in his story with a sound and compelling three-act structure – one that is so exquisitely classical and presented with such flair, that the experience of seeing the film is not only entertaining, but frankly, borders on the spiritual. This sense of spirituality is almost divine in nature and makes perfect sense considering Hynek’s own belief in the notion that a technology must exist which blends both the physical and psychic. Furthermore, it's important to note that Paul Schrader wrote the first pass of the film and though he didn't take a story credit (something he regretted almost as quickly as he agreed to it and more so in the years to follow), it feels, deep-down like a Schrader narrative - especially the combination of obsession and spirituality.

Spielberg clearly believed in both Hynek and Schrader's concerns, but his approach was, as it always is and always must be, that of a master showman imbued with the innocence and wonder of a child. This, finally, is what makes Close Encounters such a supreme entertainment – we’re engaged and dazzled, finally, by the sheer physical beauty of what Neary sees, but also, we feel and perhaps even understand what this character feels (and by extension, Spielberg).

I really don't think Richard Dreyfuss has ever been better. He's the ultimate man-child here - a kind of hulking working class version of what Kubrick's "Star Child" in 2001 might have become. Teri Garr and Melinda Dillon acquit themselves nicely, but if any performances match Dreyfuss' here, it's legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut as the UFO expert who seems as much an obsessive man-child as Dreyfuss and, of course, lest we forget the late, great character actor Roberts Blossom as the crazed old man who opines on the aliens' prowess at manning their spaceships:

"They can fly rings around the moon, but we're years ahead of them on the highway."

The movie contains several great set-pieces of wonder, but nothing in the film, and frankly nothing in MOST films can compare to the pure joy of the final third of the picture - the close encounter of the third kind. For me, perhaps the most moving element is how the universal language that binds mankind with the aliens is light and music. Can their ever be a more universal duo? Thank God for John Williams' score, the simple, melodious, almost-Satie-like dissonance that brilliantly riffs on "When You Wish Upon A Star" from Disney's Pinocchio.

It's pathetic. Just THINKING about moments from the final third of the film in tandem with Williams' score STILL makes me tear up like, in the words of Brando in Apocalypse Now, "some old grandmother".

As for the special effects - they are GORGEOUS OPTICALS courtesy of Douglas Trumbull, an astounding hand-built set in an airplane hangar and animatronics courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi. There isn't a single digital effect that can hold a candle to any of these.

Over the years, Spielberg has tinkered with various cuts of the film. After the initial theatrical release, he issued a “special edition” in 1980, which trimmed a few bits he felt needed trimming, but moronically dumped several key moments that contributed to Neary’s humanity and his relationship with his family - as well as the physical manifestation of Neary's obsession in the form of the most insane act of tossing mud, plants and trees into his family's suburban dream home in order to sculpt the image lodged in his brain, the message that he and a few other special people receive from the aliens.

This was, frankly, a mistake, but an even more egregious error in this decidedly UN-special Edition, was taking us beyond Neary’s walk onto the Mother Ship, but inside as well. This version comes close to destroying what was almost perfect. Years later, Spielberg rectified the situation by restoring the film closer to the original release, dumping most of the new footage (and thankfully, ALL of the interior Mother Ship footage). All three versions are presented on Sony’s exquisite Blu-Ray and watching them back-to-back provides an extremely rewarding look at a great artist’s process at trying to “get it” right.

Whatever you do, though, watch the 1977 version on the disc first. It offers the purest state of grace.

You see, on one level, the third version from 1998, is probably the best version of the film, but for me, it’s hard to separate myself from the slight raggedness of the 1977 version. It’s the version that first obsessed me and I feel that ultimately, even its minor flaws weirdly contribute to the picture’s enduring, obsessive quality.

Steven Spielberg is unquestionably a born filmmaker. He’s delivered some of the finest entertainments we’ll ever see in this bigger-than-life medium, but ultimately, it’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind that will probably resonate with the greatest power and longevity in the decades to follow.

After all, it comes from a special place.

It comes from the heart – that mysterious, delicate muscle that pumps lifeblood and seems, more so than the mind itself, to harbor the soul. It’s what makes great pictures and Close Encounters of the Third Kind is nothing if not great.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is currently available on Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. If you are seeing it for the first time in years and/or if you are showing to kids who've never seen it properly on FILM, on a BIG screen before - do this: Turn all phones off, make sure all the curtains are drawn so nothing from the outside seeps in, make sure ALL the lights are off, make sure nobody has anything to eat or drink before or during the film, make sure your kids have unloaded every drop of urine and every ounce of heavier materials, make it clear that there will be no breaks and that nobody will be allowed to leave the room for ANY reason and then, CRANK THE SOUND. It's the only way to fly.