Thursday, April 23, 2009

Roy & Me

When I did the characters meme a while back, I knew in my heart that I had left off a film character that is of vital importance to me, one that I identify with on both a personal and cosmic level. But I also didn't want to write a quick paragraph to attempt to convey my feelings, either, so it was probably best that I save it for a separate entry. In Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfuss' Roy Neary is awakened to the profound beauty and mystery of the Universe through contact with extra-terrestrial life forms.

This is a concept that has always intrinsically appealed to me, that of spiritual transcendence via interplanetary contact. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and De Palma's Mission to Mars are the only films I can think of besides Spielberg's film that liken extra-terrestrial contact to a religious experience. In terms of practical, scientific concepts of God, alien life would be just about the closest we could come in the known Universe. The notion that we're not alone in the Universe is one that is extremely humbling, and the notion of life reaching out to other life is one that I've always found to be incredibly profound. Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn't cast the aliens into a generic monster role--- though it does acknowledge that fear is a natural reaction to alien contact, but rather these aliens are benevolent harbingers of goodwill. Which makes sense, as I can't imagine life-forms making their way across the Universe (can you imagine the traffic?) simply to blow the shit out of us, as so many films seem to depict (including Spielberg's own War of the Worlds).

Since Spielberg is a deeply spiritual film maker, it's no wonder that he would treat the idea of alien contact with a God-like awe. He recognizes that religion, art, and science are all separate means to the same end: to better comprehend the world around us. Spielberg is criticized for so often using aliens as plot devices in his films, but I don't see this as a problem. The profound rumination on narrative in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed to fly over the heads of the Nuke the Fridge crowd, who were more interested in focusing on trivial semantics than sub-textual meaning. Spielberg's interchanging of religion and science fiction as the central McGuffin is actually a perfect articulation of the themes of emotional and psychological interchangeability that he has been making films about most of his career. And it started with Close Encounters.

But these themes of cosmic and spiritual wonder could not be properly expressed without the deeply moving performance of Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary. In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, humankind is given a stand-in in the form of Keir Dullea's Dave Bowman. Kubrick was an artist who analyzed humanity on the macro-cosmic level, from the top down (some have called this approach 'cold', though I don't agree), and thus Dave Bowman is lacking in a truly identifiable personality, since he's essentially a stand-in for us all. Spielberg, conversely, is an artist who works on the microcosmic level and thus is deeply emotionally involved in the odyssey of Roy Neary, whom he is clearly using as a stand-in for himself. It's the only time he's put himself on screen in such a blatant way.

Though there is a big difference between the first cut of the film and the 1997 edition, my preferred cut of the film, and that focus is what I feel makes the difference between a flawed work of undeniable vision and a perfect distillation of a mature artist. The original 1977 cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is kind of all over the place and the parts lack cohesiveness, to the point that they almost feel disjointed from the whole. This is because the 1977 edition hones in less on the Roy Neary narrative, and thus the film has no real emotional center. Rather, the 1977 cut has an ideological focus instead, and this makes it feel almost like an Altman-esque network narrative. While the intent is certainly ambitious, ultimately, I don't feel as though it works as strongly as it could have. I love the movie in all its forms (and I plan on writing about the three versions here at Medfly someday), but I also feel that Spielberg's maturation over the course of 20 years ultimately helped make the film everything it should have been in the first place. He found the film's emotional center in the odyssey of Roy Neary over that time, and thus found his voice.

I saw an interview with Spielberg where he described where he got the idea to make Close Encounters (naturally, I have been unable to find the interview subsequently, otherwise I'd post it). He was driving alone at night and came to a large, empty field. He stopped there and laid looking at the night sky, and suddenly he got the vision of a UFO landing in the exact spot he was, and the aliens inviting him to go with them. He honestly thought to himself about what he would do in the event that this situation arose--- and came to the conclusion that he wouldn't go with aliens, in spite of his curiosity. This notion bothered him so much that he left his spot as quickly as he could.

So, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is in part about dealing with the fear of alien contact as well as the massive psychological weight that such a revelation would carry with it. When Roy Neary first sees the flying saucer, its light is literally overpowering; it blinds him, burns him, and damns him in a sense. It awakens his senses to something beyond his job, his wife, his children, and even his planet--- but there are consequences to this enlightenment. This knowledge comes with a very deep price, as Roy Neary's simple life has been forever altered, for better or worse. The light, or rather the light's implications, consume him to the point where he is at the very edge of sanity.

On a shallow level, we could say Spielberg made this film about running away from parental responsibility. Roy goes on a roller coaster ride with funny looking little men to get out of being a husband, father, and working a 9-5. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind takes the decision Roy has to make seriously, acknowledging the damage that Roy's obsession was causing within his family. Though this is another aspect underdeveloped in the 1977 cut, because Roy himself is underdeveloped--- Spielberg skirts around the issue of parental abandonment in the original cut, perhaps because he's scared of it. Because Close Encounters in its original form is about avoiding parental responsibility, Spielberg more or less spends the scenes with Roy's family building a case for Roy's eventual abandonment of them--- in the 1997 cut, the issue certainly isn't as cut and dry, because he more vividly paints a picture of Roy's family dynamics. Again, Spielberg's maturation over 20 years helped him flesh out themes that were initially only on the surface.

Like Lynch's Eraserhead, made the same year, Close Encounters also articulates apprehensions about being a father--- about resigning yourself to being a 'family man'. Spielberg has said that, if he'd made the film today, he never would have had Roy Neary leave his wife and kids behind--- because, having become a father, he knows in his heart that's something he would never do, regardless of the circumstance. This is understandable, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind was made before he was a father, and what we're left with is a film that shrugs parental responsibility in favor of a joy-ride round the Universe. Maybe it's my youth, but the idea of having children pretty much makes me want to run to the hills, so this is another aspect of Roy that I connect with. Maybe if I were a father, I would think of this character differently.

I think we've all felt like we simply didn't belong at some point in our life. The feeling of isolation can lead us to dark places. This is, of course, an ongoing theme in Spielberg's career (E.T., Empire of the Sun, Amistad, A.I., and The Terminal have that theme as their either main or tertiary focus), and it's probably a large part of why I connect with his films. He so perfectly enters the subjective frame of mind of the 'outsider' that we feel like we're there with him, on the outside looking in. In High School, when I first saw the film, the idea of leaving the world behind and going on a transcendental journey of cosmic enlightenment is one that struck a deep personal chord (especially having just seen 2001: A Space Odyssey a few months before). I remember feeling like, in many ways, High School was actually suffocating my internal growth and quest for knowledge, and Spielberg's film is one of the key experiences that awakened me to things beyond my day-to-day existence.

It's Richard Dreyfuss' eyes that speak to me most in the performance, and the sad longing that they convey. The notion that something inexplicable, intangible, is just missing. Since the beginning of mankind, we have looked to the stars for answers as to our place among them, and we have channeled these existential queries into our art. Spielberg takes this one-step further by making the stars themselves the answer--- that wordless, cosmic mystery that drives us to make sculptures out of our dinner and found garbage. The childlike awe that is the only reasonable reaction to a notion so extraordinary. He conveys these mind expanding and earth-shattering themes through Roy Neary, which is why the character touches my heart in a way like no other character does.


Adam Zanzie said...

Jolly well done, Ryan. The first thing I really have to praise you for is your thorough analysis of nrealy every single pivotal detail about "Close Encounters". Your article reminds me strikingly of Matt Zoller Seitz's writings on "Munich" and "Carlito's Way". We could look at all three of these films as being simple, but without devoted apologists, all of that interesting info would go to waste, wouldn't it?

I've always wresteled with myself over which cut of "Close Encounters" I prefer. Mind you, I have the botched 25 Anniversary DVD (which has ONLY Spielberg's director's cut) and not the 30th Anniversary DVD from two years ago with contains all three versions (the original cut, the Special Edition, and the director's cut), but here's what has always bothered me: what are we to make of that extra ending scene, in the Special Edition, when Roy enters the ship and we get to see what he saw inside?

I myself have always admired that ending because I think it really sets the imagination on fire... what's going to happen to Roy? This is exciting! However, Spielberg says that he has always hated that ending because he believes it should be left up to the audience to decide what's inside the ship for themselves.

Roy does indeed go through tons of spiritual transformations in the film (in any of the cuts). Now, was this really "the first Spielberg film" to cover spiritual nirvana? Not quite. In "Amblin", there's that scene towards the end when the hippie boy reaches the seashore, forgets about his girlfriend, and runs off towards the sea cheering because he has finally reached his destination! He's basically ditched love for nature. It's almost obviously a reference to "The 400 Blows", but of course, "Amblin'" makes reference to a lot of filmmakers (notably Antonioni and "Zabriskie Point").

On top of that, it's also one of the greatest short films ever made. Watch it on YouTube and it might provide you with even more great comments on the "spirituality" of Spielberg's career!

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your thoughts, Adam. My greatest hope with this site is that it spurs an interesting dialogue. So thanks for contributing, to me this is what it's all about.

I confess I have not seen the second, 1980 cut of the film. I have the Boxed Set that was released a while back, but haven't gotten around to watching it yet. When I do, that's probably when the post about them will go up. I can see a final scene in the spaceship being really interesting, though, and dare I say maybe Spielberg's opinion on which cut is the best should in no way be the final word on the matter. He's one of my favorites, but this is the guy who CGI-ed E.T., replaced guns with Walkie-Talkies, called Yentl the best film since Citizen Kane, and said he wouldn't have Roy leave Earth if he made CE3K today, which completely goes against what the film's about in the first place. So the guy is definitely a tad on the kooky side.

You really should get that boxed set, not just for comparative reasons but because they got the film looking absolutely gorgeous. There's lots of grain and distortion in the old edition, because I think it was one of the very early round of DVDs. The film looks and sounds great and has all kinds of cool extras and even gives you a little poster that tells you every detail that's different about each cut. It's definitely a beautiful set and a worthy investment.

I wasn't trying to imply that this was the first film in his career to touch upon "spiritual nirvana" as you nicely put it. Rather, what I meant was this was the first of films to understand that art, science, and religion all come from our base desire to relate to the world around us and to understand it. "The relation of narrative to existence", to quote Munich.

bill r. said...

This is a great piece, Ryan. It's been so long since I've seen Close Encounters that I can't really comment with any authority on it, but you've increased my desire to finally give it another look, which was already pretty strong.

Spielberg IS a very spiritual filmmaker, and I remember him saying once that his plan for the Indiana Jones films was to take Indy from an atheist to a believer over the course of the three films. I don't really know quite how Crystal Skull fits into that, but I would like to say, Ryan, as someone who didn't like that film: subtextual whatevers, even if they're picked up on, don't make a bad movie good.

Ryan Kelly said...

Spielberg IS a very spiritual filmmaker, and I remember him saying once that his plan for the Indiana Jones films was to take Indy from an atheist to a believer over the course of the three films....

Wow, can't say I ever thought of it like that, but it makes sense. Even though the second film takes place before the first one it still puts a strong emphasis on paternity, honor, and family in general. And the third movie in the series is one of the most Christian movies I've ever seen (in a good way)--- ironic coming from A Jewish director. But, as I said in the piece, Spielberg understands why our theological beliefs matter to us and he finds a spiritual kind of common ground.

I don't really know quite how Crystal Skull fits into that, but I would like to say, Ryan, as someone who didn't like that film: subtextual whatevers, even if they're picked up on, don't make a bad movie good.Well, I wouldn't argue with that--- there are films that I don't like but wouldn't necessarily describe as shallow--- but for any kind of discussion to take place it needs to be acknowledged what the movie is or isn't and what it does and doesn't do well. To pretend it's just a flacid adventure film and nothing else is to kind of miss the heart of what Spielberg is going for.

But it's certainly not the only reason I adore it; Spielberg's manipulation of space and motion, Kaminski's GORGEOUS photography... the fact that I was an extra in it. I am fond of it for all these reasons and more.

And, in answer to your quesion, I think it fits into this by implying that religion and science fiction kind of appeal to out same base desires--- to me, the changing of the core focus from religion to alien contact is more than incidental, and in keeping perfectly with the themes of Spielberg's career. He likens science fiction to theology with this film, too.

And thank you for the kind words, my friend, this was one from the heart and I appreciate your kind words.

bill r. said...

Crystal Skull's deeper moments felt like Lucas-brand profundity, which plays false to me. I just didn't think the film worked.

Also, regarding Spielber wanting to take Indy from atheist to believer over the course of the three films: he did say that, but it occurs to me now that anyone who still considers themselves an atheist, or has only recategorized themselves as agnostic, after the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark is beyond stubborn. Not only that, he KNEW that was coming! He told Marion to close her eyes! I mean, what the hell, Indiana Jones?

And you know, I've never seen the 1997 cut of Close Encounters at all. My brother, who's a big fan of the film, swears by the '77 cut, and won't even watch the '97 version. My plan had been to just check out the '77 (and actually, your description of it as Altmen-esque only sweetens that pot), but now I guess I'll have to check out both, after your description. Not back to back, of course.

Ryan Kelly said...

Crystal Skull's deeper moments felt like Lucas-brand profundity, which plays false to me. I just didn't think the film worked....

I won't argue that it felt like a combining of their two sensibilities--- that is what the Indiana Jones pictures have always been. Though Last Crusade feels more Spielberg, and the first one feels more Lucas (IMO). But the ebb and flow of their sensibilities has always yielded interesting results, and I'm really big on Spielberg's films this decade--- with the exception of Minority Report (which is a very solid potboiler), he's really been hitting it out of the park since A.I. and beyond.

it occurs to me now that anyone who still considers themselves an atheist, or has only recategorized themselves as agnostic, after the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark is beyond stubborn....

That had always occurred to me--- I'm not sure how Jones could continue being skeptical after he's come in such close contact with the supernatural. Maybe seeing isn't believing?

My brother, who's a big fan of the film, swears by the '77 cut, and won't even watch the '97 version. ...

Well, as I said in the post, I love the movie regardless of the form. I would probably be most partial to the version I saw first--- and I saw the 97 cut right when it first came out on DVD, so I wonder if maybe I'm just building it up in my head. I was ecstatic when I got the box set a while back and could finally see the film in its original form. But I was confused when it ended--- I felt kind of like I did after The Dark Knight... like I had seen a flawed piece of vision that had parts that didn't gel together. As I see it, the few added scenes with Richard Dreyfuss in the 97 cut really help flesh out the story. Because for me, the story really is him. But, again, if I'd seen the original cut first I'd probably say that the added scenes with Dreyfuss distract from the main story. When you watch the two versions, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it, either here or at your esteemed blog.

But still, regardless of the form, they're different sides of the same coin. Different roads to the same destination.

Miranda Wilding said...

This is a spectacular piece that you should be justly proud of, my darling boy.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS IS THE LIVING END. It's one of the few films of its genre that genuinely left a lasting impression on me.

(The only sci fi film I own is 2001. If you knew how much I worship and adore Stanley to this very day, then you would understand why.)

I've seen two versions of this amazing opus: the original (I assume, anyway) and the one where Roy sees the inside of the space ship.

It's too cute that Steven got Francois Truffaut to appear in this motion picture. It makes me giddy with delight.

If you can ever get your hands on the book YOU'LL NEVER EAT LUNCH IN THIS TOWN AGAIN (the late great ACADEMY AWARD winning producer JULIA PHILLIPS talks about her experiences working on this film), you'll definitely find it worth your time.

She was the one of the coolest women that ever lived...and her literary masterpiece is a testament to the difficulties of making something of yourself in that town.

I loved her. She was as hard as an iron bar and as deeply vulnerable as a wide eyed kitten. I thought she should have been immortal. But she died (many decades prematurely) of breast cancer.

She was an original.

We've talked about this a bit at my site. But I think that MELINDA DILLON and RICHARD DREYFUSS deliver spectacular performances that humanize CE and anchor it effectively.

It's my theory that RICHARD'S OSCAR for THE GOODBYE GIRL the same year was largely due to the contrast of the films and his intense and very different characterizations.

He was a young, immensely popular actor that had two enormous hits that also happened to be excellent films.

Yeah. He cockblocked RICHARD BURTON'S last shot at the prize. That happened to be the way it all went down.

But I've seen EQUUS.

I don't think the ACADEMY made a mistake.

Ryan Kelly said...

Thanks for the high praise!

Yes, so little sci-fi is actually about the spiritual element of the cosmos. It's generally just a venue with which to set action and adventure. Kubrick's 2001 is certainly another of the few Sci-Fi films to be more about the ideas than plot-beats.

It's impossible not to worship Kubrick. He may very well prove to be among the greatest minds cinema ever had--- not to imply I'm enamored with everything, just mostly everything.

Yes, I love Truffaut in this film. Everything about Truffaut brings a smile to my face, and it always amuses me how it is so obvious that he has no clue what he's saying ("They belong here - Mozambique.") And considering the very heavy influence of the New Wave on Spielberg, it makes his presence in the film all the more poignant.

And yes, Dreyfuss and Dillon give the film a human touch--- the one thing 'missing' from 2001 (I mean, it's not really missing per-se, 2001 just has a very different M.O.). But as I said in my piece part of why the film is so great to me is exactly because it takes a human and emotional perspective to extra terrestrial contact.

Yes, it's a shame the way politics creeps into awards. Much as I do like him in The Goodbye Girl, it's hard to deny that is a more 'academy friendly' performance.

And I will add that book you recommend to my ever-expanding list.

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