CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND shames modern Hollywood’s love affair with hip, snarky heroes and relentless fast cuts. Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi opus isn’t just from a different era, it has a different agenda – this isn’t a movie staying busy to hold our attention, but a film that is first and last an experience, a movie fundamentally about sights and sounds difficult to verbalize. STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS’ fraternal sci-fi twin from 1977, changed the intensity of the action film with its brilliant kineticism (as PSYCHO’s shower scene had done for the thriller genre), but Spielberg’s opus is more interested in putting us in the state of mind we find ourselves in while gazing at a dwarfing sight like the Grand Canyon.
In the medium’s infancy, movies could not speak, so filmmakers had to engross their audiences purely through visual storytelling; once sound arrived in 1927, this fell a bit by the wayside as directors (and audiences, to a degree) felt increasingly comfortable using talking heads to progress a story rather than montage. While CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is far from a silent film, its emphasis on the visual is a prime example of Hitchcock’s pet phrase “pure cinema;” Spielberg’s film is, like 2001 before it, a film simply interested in creating awe in a way no other medium can offer.
The alchemy of Spielberg’s gem can best be summed up by focusing in on, appropriately, three elements:
1. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY
Hand-held camerawork has become so fashionable since Spielberg’s 1998 SAVING PRIVATE RYAN that, in revisiting CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, it’s amazing to see a film so rooted in relentlessly precise compositions and camerawork.
Spielberg’s primary cinematographer on this film was Vilmos Zsigmond, who had brilliantly photographed Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, 1974’s THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, where the youthful director, as Douglas Brode outlined in his marvelous study THE FILMS OF STEVEN SPIELBERG, took home many lesson from Zsigmond’s rigorous approach to storytelling, emphasizing compositional storytelling and motivated camera moves over shots that simply look flashy, and utilized those techniques which resulted in a more aesthetically mature film than JAWS. Indeed, it is a telling sign of their good relationship that Zsigmond’s name is the name that rolled up first in SUGARLAND’S end credits, and their partnership reached its apex here.
Shooting in the anamorphic widescreen format can be a pain (when the format debuted in the early 1950s, Howard Hawks famously said widescreen was only good for filming crowd scenes or funerals), and what separates the men from the boys with this aspect ratio lies in creating compositions that look casual at first, but upon closer examination reveal they’ve been scrupulously composed. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS’ anamorphic camerawork joins the same compositional ranks as Robert Surtees’ work on THE GRADUATE, Freddie Young’s photography on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and indeed Zsigmond’s gritty and haunting images in THE DEER HUNTER; any single image from these films are a textbook on anamorphic photography.
An early example in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS lies in the scene where all the electronics are sparking to life in the Guiler household. The toddler Barry has run outside as the alien visitors have been making the commotion, unknown to his mother Jillian. When she awakes and begins shutting off all the stuff in her bedroom that have inexplicably turned on in the middle of the night, Spielberg & Zsigmond keep her bedroom window perfectly framed on the right hand side of the screen, which creates such suspense; we know her son is outside but not knowing what is happening nor what may soon be coming in through that window, and just one of many ways the filmmakers subtly torque up the suspense.
Later in the film, the way human figures and faces are kept in the foreground as the lights and shapes of the alien spacecraft fly around us help create a series of intimate vistas that keep this film from being much more than eye candy.
In his landmark biography of Spielberg, Joseph McBride laid bare the various production difficulties that led to many different cameramen being required to shoot additional later material, including Laszlo Kovacs and John Alonzo, all of which wound up with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS becoming (though for different reasons) a carnival of great cinematographers like Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ, but with Zsigmond’s lead, the film retained its unbelievably rich texture and landed Vilmos Zsigmond an Oscar.
2. THE PRODUCTION DESIGN
Joe Alves’ design work on the film is equally specific, using a primarily muted color palette (the term “earth tones” has probably never been used with such specificity than in this movie) for the film’s sets and locations allowing us to both believe the real world domestic settings while prepping us to be appropriately overwhelmed by the neon light show in the third act; had CLOSE ENCOUNTERS been awash with a kind of Technicolor look from the first scene, we would have been numbed by the time the mothership arrived with all of its dazzling splendor.
One interesting exception is the bright red shirt Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) wears in his first scene which already makes him stand out from the crowd long before his character becomes the first human to board the mothership.
3. THE SCORE
John Williams’ score is just phenomenal, appropriately melodic then rightfully (and frightfully) scary and atonal. Rather than giving individual motifs to characters then developing them throughout the story (as he did with such brilliant scores for STAR WARS and SUPERMAN), Williams plays a different game here; follow the way he develops the signature five note melody as the mystery of what it means is unfolded in the film. Once it is understood to be a benevolent greeting from the visitors using the universal language of music, Williams weaves it beautifully throughout the picture before building it to grand crescendo with the grand symphony of communion at the end between the two species.
The use of the choir is also used interestingly (and sparingly) throughout, brought out only as a kind of celestial calling throughout the picture to perhaps reference that the otherworldly is intruding upon the everyday, and yet again, Williams brilliantly returns and swells the choir just before Roy finally enters the mothership.
In addition to this compositional brilliance, Williams & Spielberg implemented, as John Williams told The Criterion Collection for their superb laserdisc release of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in 1990, the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s concept to associate specific colors to various notes on the musical scale; this method illustrates the communication between the people of earth and their extra-terrestrial visitors in a way that makes for not only sound logic, but also a beautiful spectacle.
McBride also quotes Spielberg as describing CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as “my vision, my hope, and philosophy,” and that is what resonates most; this is a science fiction film, of course, but its central optimistic premise about radically different beings coming to a mutual acceptance beyond words remains simply inspiring. “We Are Not Alone” said the ads for this film back in 1977, and it is this universally human hope that brings Spielberg’s sci-fi parable down to earth.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper
It is a credit to Spielberg that shot composition became central in CE3K’s storytelling. I saw this in the theater (on the recent anniversary rerelease) twice, because one…I absolutely love Truffaut in the film and two…I wanted to examine what made this seventies film still so kinetic and as if it was just produced yesterday. The care he put in to the shots gave so much information and mystery which made me want to revisit the film over and over again. I agree on all your points. I took my 10 year old son to see this for the first time and he felt it was a 2017 film, just as relevant and timely as it was back in its original release.
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Hi, Michael. I also saw this on the recent re release and had a great time (I’m not sure about the two other people who were also in the theatre); it was the second time I’d seen it in the cinema.
The first time I saw it on the big screen was 2004, and it was one of the best movie experiences I’ve had. I’d seen the film before on video and liked it, but seeing it projected was a jaw-dropping experience, and seeing the recent theatrical engagement made me write this.