Thursday, February 22, 2007

Père et fils


Caught Close Encounters on the hotel TV in Baltimore. It scared the bejeesus out of me as a kid, coming as it did in the thick of that late-‘70s “aliens are among us and the government doesn’t want you to know” fad, a weird confluence of blissed-out New Age hopefulness and countercultural post-Watergate conspiracy angst that must’ve been great fun for anyone coming down off the ‘60s, but was no picnic believe me for the under-10 set at the monsters-in-the-closet stage.

This time around, it struck me as kind of dull except as an artifact of the zeitgeist. In a lot of ways it feels like a bridge to the Reagan era. The WWII flyboys are virile heroes; the appliances threaten, but finally comply; the anonymous government scientists whose chatter through headsets and PA systems makes up the film’s backbeat are competent, sensitive, and ultimately benign. Even the Army’s cover-up (fake gas masks, dead livestock scattered like sacrifices at the foot of Mt. Sinai) turns out to be necessary and vaguely humane. This being Spielberg, the focus is on the family—the climactic moment of contact, the greatest event in human history, ratchets down to a little boy reuniting with his mom and an absentee father surrounded by child-sized aliens entering the mother ship.

What I’d missed as a kid though, and didn’t catch here until halfway through, is the bizarre presence of François Truffaut in the role of “Claude Lacombe,” a U.N. scientist combing the globe for alien-induced phenomena without managing to pick up enough English to dispense with his nebbish translator, hirsute Richard Dreyfuss-lookalike Bob Balaban. It’s hard not to see Balaban as a projection of Spielberg himself, playing American “translator” to a great director who really doesn’t need one. But Balaban’s resemblance to Dreyfuss suggests Dreyfuss too—the child-like father incapable of raising his kids, holding down a job, or feeling entirely at home in the decidedly goyish world of Muncie, Indiana—as a Spielberg stand-in. The real close encounter in the movie, as I saw it this time, is the one between Spielberg and Truffaut, as the young director works out his insecurities and artistic identity under the amused eye of the older alien filmmaker. Just as Dreyfuss finds his mountain, Spielberg finds his mojo: for some obtuse reason the aliens choose him, not Truffaut, as earth’s ambassador to the stars, or maybe just to the Cineplex, which the set for the final scene uncannily resembles, right down to the jumbo screen. Either way, Truffaut’s a mensch about it, tapping Dreyfuss just before he embarks to say with a wry smile: “Mr. Neary, I envy you.”

3 comments:

Brandon said...

Hi Rodney

I had a similar wash when I saw the movie recently; when I originally watched it, aged 8 or 9, it was so unbelievably huge, such inexorable experience, that I had to turn my head away. Now, all the mannerisms that SS brings to the (suburban kitchen) table make me completely itchy and superior. However, I still get the sappy, wordless impact of the beginning, as the spaceships start arriving and pass over all those large, symmetrical human gatherings. It's dumb, I know, but WOW...

Brandon

Nada said...

I like the five-note alien call. I wish I could get that as a ringtone. Or at least make a mountain of my mashed potatoes...

rodney k said...

Turns out the Wikipedia entry on "Close Encounters" has a 'Trivia Section' listing different places that five-note alien call's been used, from James Bond (a pushbutton code in 'Moonraker') to Jerry Garcia.

The part of the movie that grabbed me most made me think of you both--a scene in India with hundreds of devotees chanting a slightly chopped & screwed version of the five notes, to be recorded and "decoded" by our brainy U.N. team later via Kodaly hand jive.

Also, someone backchanneled about this book by Bob Balaban called "Spielberg, Truffaut and Me: An Actor's Diary." Must. Get.