Happy Birthday to Roy Neary and Co., Close Encounters turns 35

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Thirty five years ago today, Steven Spielberg’s jaw dropping b-movie classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was released in theaters. No one knew what the hell a close encounter was, but they quickly learned as they watched Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) and Gillian (Melinda Dillon) search frantically the kidnapped little Barry (Cary Guffey), culminating in the stunning 30 minute light and sound finale, affectionately known as “the light show”.

Since I started making stupid all-time lists (not all that long ago because they’re really stupid), there have been two mainstays at the top: #1, Fanny and Alexander, and #2, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Numbers 3-10 have fluxed wildly depending on the mood I was in when I wrote the list out, but #1 and 2 have remained the same. They’re not films that seem to have that much in common on their face, but they share similar themes of family and abandonment, and are both just slightly left of reality as we know it. Close Encounters has its aliens, Fanny and Alexander has its ghosts and mysticism. Of all of the great films that have been made and that I’ve seen in my life, I’ve always found it funny that a TV movie and a B movie are at the top of the heap for me, but it’s been persistent. Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player is never far behind in the list (#3 right now), and I’ve always loved Criterion’s description of it, that Truffaut was drunk on the possibilities of cinema.

The same idea goes for Close Encounters. Just off of the impossible success of Jaws, Spielberg had the backing and leeway to be drunk on the possibilities of B cinema. As it ended up, he was more the puppet master of the film than its director. It’s an incredibly manipulative film (especially playing out the scares and scary light of kidnapping of a cute little kid), but its manipulative in the best way possible. This week in THR’s writer’s roundtable, Michael Haneke rightly cited the Auschwitz gas/shower scene in Schindler’s List as being unbearably manipulative in the worst possible way, but, perhaps because there is less at stake in Close Encounters, Speilberg’s manipulation comes off more as a gentle nudge in the right direction for the maximum amount of experience than anything else. It’s perfectly acceptable to manipulate in B cinema. Sleight of hand, and devious editing and blocking are part of the experience. The goal is to thrill you and sometimes the suspension of disbelief needs to be stretched to the point right before it breaks before you can achieve that.

Stretching the bands of the suspension of disbelief is Spielberg’s real talent in the filmmaking world. Even though he’s had them snap on him (1941, for example), they’ve snapped remarkably few times for a man who has been making high end blockbusters for 40 years. Guy’s like Michael Bay and Paul W.S. Anderson don’t even bother with playing with the suspension of disbelief. You just have to ignore the ridiculousness in their films. If you don’t, then fuck you. Whereas you walk out of the theater or turn off the DVD really feel like E.T. or T-Rex exist out there somewhere. It makes Spielberg’s films, especially the ones made before 1985, easy to appreciate wholly without any reservations.

Bob Balaban is another great story of the film. Literally, through the publication of the diary he kept during shooting, Spielberg, Truffaut & Me, that chronicles his experiences with the film: from panicking about not actually knowing the French he said he did, the uncomfortable stay in India, and being the bearded one constantly getting mistaken for Dreyfus, who was often standing next to him, clean shaven and thus invisible.

In producer Julia Phillips’ bridge-burning autobiography, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in the Town Again, stories of the film are dished as well. She speculates about whether Truffaut’s hearing aide was just for show so he could escape conversations, and the real childlike nature of Spielberg when a kiss she gives him outside of the Alabama zeppelin hangar where “the big set” was housed embarrasses him so much.

George Lucas was so afraid that Star Wars would not gross anything and he’s be ruined, he traded Spielberg 2 1/2 points on Star Wars for 2 1/2 points on Close Encounters. Lucas has probably done pretty well off of those points with Close Encounters‘ $300+M gross, but not as well as Speilberg did on Star Wars‘ $1+b gross over the years. Somewhat surprisingly, Spielberg took his name out of contention to direct the new Star Wars film being written by Michael Arndt. After Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, maybe they needed a long break from working together.

With each new viewing the film only grows in my mind, especially for its masterly special effects, done by a team led by effects whiz Douglas Trumbull, not to mention the fact that almost everything is a set (designed by Joe Alves), including the dark side of the moon, which had to be built in a zeppelin factory, and even extended out of the bay door with duvetyne, the blue screen of the day: practical, easy to optically “paint” over. Today it would have been a green screen and digital paint, as would every one of the space ships. No one would have wondered, “how did they do that?” But 35 years later, I still sit with wonder for this film.

We’ll just pretend the 1980 special edition never happened.

Super 8 – JJ Abrams (2011)

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Spoilers.

“Nostalgia, I hate it!” raves a disgusted Nat (Walter Matthau) in Herb Gardner’s superb 1996 film I’m Not Rappaport. “The dread disease of old people, kills more of us than heart failure!” It is, despite constantly indulging in it throughout the film, the worst thing he can possibly thing of, aside from being shipped off on the Siberian Express to a nursing home. So what is it about this extended generation — the one born around Woodstock, but before Woodstock II — that embraces nostalgia so readily and easily?

I’m guilty of it myself (for I liked this film, and the last nostalgia trip I saw, Paul), but I find that guilt a curious thing. For one, I don’t feel especially guilty about it. I enjoy these little trips down the entertainment memory lane, where everything bad could be set aside and cleared right out of your headspace for Star Wars, or a few issues of Daredevil. Was this generation coddled too much, made too afraid of the real world and its real problems? I’m sure that’s partly it, but I think it’s also partly that some of the real world problems and pressures are a lot tougher now, and things move a lot faster now that it did in the past.

In JJ Abrams’ sci-fi thriller homage to Lord High God Steven Spielberg, Super 8, budding filmmakers Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Joe (Joel Courtney) actually have to wait three days to get the film from their super 8 zombie movie processed to see just how much of the train wreck their cracked lens actually captured.

Three days! And that’s the rush job. Can you imagine that now, in this plug-and-play right now digital world? But wait they did, and rewarded for that wait they were. They caught quite a lot, it turns out.

It is just cinematic happenstance that brings Charles and Joe, and few of their friends to the train station on the outskirts of their little Ohio town one night. They are there to shoot the new dramatic scenes Charles has written to flesh his short film out, where the story’s detective, Martin (Gabriel Basso), is begged to leave the zombie infested town by his wife, Alice (Elle Fanning). The eternal search for production value has led them there, where they end up filming — really, fleeing for their lives from — a train wreck caused, seemingly on purpose, by one of their teachers at the middle school. By the time they finally see their film they and find out what terror has escaped from an overturned car in the accident, it has cast a shadow over the town, and the military do whatever they need to do to try and stop it.

The military has always played a somewhat enigmatic role in Spielberg films. He never succumbed to the paranoia of the 1970s like his peers did. The few times he has, like in War of the Worlds it felt flat and distinctly un-Spielbergian. The military in his films always had something of a redeeming factor, too, whether it be an internal redemption, such as Keys (Peter Coyote) in E.T., or an external one, like Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and Laughlin (Bob Balaban) in Close Encounters. In Super 8, the military is just plain evil, ready to kill, determined to get their way at any cost, even if that cost is the entire town of Lilian, Ohio. It’s a strange disconnect in the ability to read an audience that exists between Abrams and his mentor, where he was trying to cross Close Encounters with The Goonies and E.T., he ended up just adding children to Cloverfield.

Abrams has gotten recent praise, though, for his promotional strategy of not showing the “monster”, after initially taking quite a lot of heat for it. The problem with his strategy is not that he didn’t show the monster, but by saying he wasn’t going to show it, he gave the false impression that this was really a monster movie. It is, sure, but it also isn’t. It’s more that it happens to have a monster in it, and if you take it solely as a monster movie it fails miserably. It offers few scares, nor is it original in concept, design or action.

The meat of the film is about the somewhat complex interpersonal relationships that develop between friends over time, and how easily they are uprooted in unexpected ways when new elements are injected.

The new elements in Super 8 are both the addition of a hierarchy into the group of friends making of their short film, as well as the introduction of member into their group: Alice. Alice is pretty, smart, a surprisingly great actress and just enough of a tomboy. In short, she is the girl everyone falls for, regardless of standing in the new friendship hierarchy. Falling for a girl at that age puts you in such a tumultuous state that its hard to recognize that the kid next to you that you’ve known since kindergarten is in the same state over her as you. Worse still, if you get even the tiniest hint that she is in the same state thinking about you, you cannot possibly give any though to the fact that she is not at all in that state for your friend.

This is the real drama of the film, the Elle Fanning-shaped wedge that is finding its way between Joe and Charles. And as if everything weren’t going badly enough for Charles in Super 8, the wedge is his own fault, invited into the movie by him, the director — the boss, at the top of the new hierarchy. Even though he has no problem talking to and bossing his friends around on set, there is trouble communicating this to Joe, of course. There is an expectation on Charles’ part that Joe should just know, so close is their friendship, but Joe is in no emotional shape to see.

Aside from the misguided, tv-minded decision to have Alice kidnapped and remove Elle Fanning from the film for a half hour, there is plenty of meatiness in this fledgling, awkward triangle to sustain the film where the typical monster mayhem nonsense doesn’t. Awkward teenage romance is its own nostalgia beyond anything you saw at the movies growing up, and it’s a universal thing, especially here: if you got the girl, you can relate to Joe. If you didn’t, you can relate to Charles or use Joe and Alice as your escape.

There is a trick to actual nostalgia in film, though, and its one that Abrams hasn’t quite figured out, or at least not conveyed here. You can, and should be, inspired by the thing. Hell, even rip it off if you want to. Ford stole from Murnau, and Welles from Ford. Truffaut and Scorsese have stolen shots wholly from directors they admire. But they used it to extend their craft. It was a supplement, massaged to fit neatly into their own visual and thematic schemes. Abrams, well, I don’t know what he’s about except that he likes to play in other peoples’ sandboxes. He hasn’t personally expressed anything here as a filmmaker beyond being a fan of other peoples’ films. The lens flares in Close Encounters helped to visually build upon the themes that Spielberg was setting up. Close Encounters is as much a visual experience about light and sound as a common language as it is an emotional experience about Neary and Lacombe and their search for the truth. In Super 8 they just seem to be there. It’s not a visual experience where the quality of the light is important, it’s about the kids overcoming the things kids (and adults) need to overcome, or move beyond. It’s aimless copycatting for the sake of being a copycat. I don’t know that being up front about it changes the fact that it wasn’t necessary to the film. It wasn’t even that necessary to building an homage to Spielberg.


Quick Hits on I Am Number Four – DJ Caruso (2011)

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-I wanted to like this, I really did. The concept is intriguing and had so much potential. But just like real teenagers who never do anything with their potential, this went nowhere fast.

-It does strike me that, actually, the least implausible thing about this movie is the alien factor. I can buy that aliens are hiding away on this planet to get away from evil fish-gilled, tatted aliens who overran their home planet. That trope is almost as old as film itself. What I can’t buy — what I can’t believe someone tried to sell — is Alex Pettyfer and Dianna Agron as outcasts. The film itself can’t even believe they tried to sell this, giving Agron’s Sarah the big-time jock ex-boyfriend and sticking her in cool kid parties.

-What ever happened to chemistry amongst actors? The only chemistry here comes because of a cute, protective dog, and we all know that dogs and babies is a big cheat. There is just not an ounce of it to be found anywhere else. Not a single spark, and that’s probably the biggest thing that hurt it as a movie. If there is chemistry and charm you can go back in your head later and edit out all of the bad dialogue or silly plot twists, but as a director, Caruso needed to pinpoint this right away (I think it was John Huston who said he did 90% of his directing during casting). You have to at least give the audience something to work with instead of just putting a hoodie on the hunk and giving the hot girl a weird hat and a camera and tell them Go, pretend to be freaks. It doesn’t work. It’s criminal. It’s job number 1. That’s the first thing they hammered into our head in film school: don’t roll a single frame until your cast is nailed.

-As I said, it’s quite a good concept for a movie franchise when you think about it strictly as a concept. But you have to strip it down to its bare, naked base and lose everything that it actually became. The execution on all levels was pure misery, from the dreadful script, the woeful acting and the insipid directing.

-It’s not the first time I’ve thought this about youth movies. I can remember thinking the same exact thing about Agent Cody Banks of all things, hoping Frankie Munoz might have a few chops in him, but that was an even big stinker than this. I Am Number Four merely wasn’t good.  Agent Cody Banks (and Big Far Liar while we’re at it) were actively, aggressively awful. I half guess it just means I’m old and can’t connect with what the kids are digging these days, but the kids don’t dig it either. Is this just going to be a terrible generation of filmmakers? I hesitate to claim it as my generation because these guys are all a few years older than I am, but we all did grow up on the same Jaws-Indy-Goonies-Die Hard progression of films as kids. But the problem with that is Lucas and Spielberg were mirroring their childhoods in a lot of those films, so when they’re used as inspiration they become secondhand regurgitation of the Lucas-Spielberg childhood instead of something wholly original.

Quick Hits on Paul – Greg Mattola (2011)

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-I don’t quite understand why it was even attempted to keep Sigourney Weaver a secret in this film. She has one of the most distinctive film voices, and there wasn’t even really an attempt to mask it. At least it was a surprise when Madonna turned out to be The Blank in Dick Tracy, but it was rather silly to play it as a big finale reveal here. It’s obvious.

-I really appreciate the hell out of the nostalgia, though it does make me feel quite old. Most of the stuff that they’re nostalgic about is stuff that was 10 years old by the time it came out on video and I was old enough to process it, so I think it’s making me feel artificially old, not genuinely old, even though I’m about to turn 31 (that doesn’t even seem possible).

-Kristin Wiig, who I’m starting to like more and more as she gets away from SNL, was largely wasted on throwaway jokes. She handled them like a champ, but except for being adorable there was nothing really memorable about her in the movie. I suppose that is somewhat true of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, too, to be honest. Paul himself, and Zoyle, really steal the show.

-I was skeptical about Bateman as Zoyle at first, he won me over by the end, and I was thankful that it wasn’t Paul Rudd playing the character.

-Even though I did enjoy the hell out of the nostalgic elements, there were probably too many of them. I did half expect there to be a shark and a man in a fedora being chased by a band of Nazis somewhere in there. I hope Abrams handles the direct references better in Super 8.

-I enjoyed it quite a lot overall, though there are more than a few spots where I ended up groaning or rolling my eyes. It probably didn’t even need to be as long as it was, but there is going to be an extended edition DVD out soon. I guess that’s just to be expected with comedies these days, but I can’t remember anything in any of the extended edition DVDs that I’ve seen that I thought should have stayed in the theatrical cut. The most recent one I can remember watching was Get Him to the Greek, which is much better in the theatrical cut of the movie. I liked Paul but not enough to give it extra time.