****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut
written and directed by Steven Spielberg
by Bill Chambers If his Jaws was about the Fourth of July, then Steven Spielberg followed it up with something like the holiday itself. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a soft-touched yet uncompromising hypothesis of benevolent flying saucers, seems structurally patterned after that day: domestic chaos, then military parades, then fireworks. It's a film now in its third incarnation; Columbia TriStar's DVD version, like their recent-vintage LaserDisc that preceded it, contains a Spielberg-sanctioned melding of the 1977 and 1980 theatrical releases, the latter the controversial "Special Edition" that effectively ransacked the imagination of fans. The latest rendition, which appears to have adopted the label "The Collector's Edition," is nothing short of masterful.
Sequence upon sequence provokes goosebumps, demonstrating a command of technique that is intimidating. My current assessment of the film, I'll warn you, is nigh useless as criticism: I found in this latest viewing that the three instincts I have as a moviegoer--filmmaker, reviewer, little boy--cancelled each other out, leaving me the singular reaction, "Holy mackerel!" The body of Close Encounters of the Third Kind depicts an everyman (Richard Dreyfuss) searching for the answer to why he feels as overwhelmed as he does post-UFO sighting (trying the patience of his pragmatic wife (Teri Garr) and their incorrigible children), and his plight inspires great empathy from those among us shattered by the artistic impact of Spielberg's lean yet Lean vision.
There is a specific moment in Close Encounters of the Third Kind that deserves the reputation of David Lean's hard cut from an extinguished match to the sunrise in Lawrence of Arabia: villagers in the Gobi desert have been reciting an enthusiastic chant; when asked where they learned it, suddenly a bunch of hands jut into frame, all pointing upwards at the blue, empty sky. End scene. I reviewed Lawrence of Arabia on DVD a few weeks back. You might recall that Spielberg not only contributed a glowing conversational supplement to the package, but also that that epic's editor, Anne V. Coates, remembered in an exclusive interview how the French New Wave's abandonment of fades and dissolves, Hollywood's ingrained scene transitions, inspired Lean to do away with them as well. Because of an absence of old-fashioned affectations, neither does Spielberg's ambitious Close Encounters of the Third Kind suffer the pretense of its own scope.
Another facet of Spielberg's film has more direct ties to the Nouvelle Vague: Francois Truffaut's casting as a Gallic scientist teamed with Bob Balaban's cartographer in a parallel plot. A major proponent of the auteur theory, Truffaut had helmed the stylistically liberated The 400 Blows, among others, in addition to writing the definitive Hitchcock interview book. His mere presence defends Spielberg against detractors, validating the flashlight auteur. Production designer Joe Alves relates a wonderful anecdote on the DVD: Spielberg, under the gun, was forced to whip up an unplanned motel room for Melinda Dillon's Jillian (whose button-cute son, Barry (Cary Guffey), is an alien abductee). Truffaut, after spending months in an enormous hangar that doubled as a detailed alien landing strip, smiled at the makeshift lodgings and exclaimed, "This is a set," having been raised on scrappy ingenuity. The film achieves unity between the improvised and the expensive because it lacks blockbuster detachment.
This was the first screenplay of his own that Spielberg saw to the stage until the upcoming A.I., a fact which impressed Truffaut, since hyphenates fit the purest definition of "auteur." (There is, of course, much controversy surrounding Spielberg's writing credit, as numerous scribes from Paul Schrader to Matthew Robbins, took a whack at the script and have laid claim to specific story movements.) Much of it reflected and refracted his parents' divorce; one can sense lingering resentment towards both his mother and father filtered through the depiction of family tensions and in a humbling climax that today Spielberg rejects for its youthful idealism. (Nay, arrogance.) If Close Encounters of the Third Kind has anything in common with Jaws, it lies in the somewhat selfish on- and off-screen preservation of passion. (Think the sadistic consequences of Quint's obsession in the final minutes of Jaws.) This is of course why the two films resonate: they're the product of a great talent who wasn't also a family man and a household name. In the Seventies, Spielberg yielded only to his concepts.
I missed out on screening "The Collector's Edition" theatrically (in 1997, it played select cities) and on LD, and stayed away from VHS in anticipation of the DVD. Columbia TriStar's double-platter, THX-approved DVD release surely benefited from delay: it was scheduled long before such features as reverse-spiral-dual-layer and a disc reserved for bonus material were the norm. The 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced video transfer alone profits from improved compression techniques, given the format's early tendency to pixellate in dark shots, of which this film has plenty. Some dusky sequences, especially Roy and Jillian's ascent of Devil's Tower, retain a gritty, optical quality, but digital break-up is undetectable. Footage created expressly for "The Special Edition," like the shadow that trails Roy's truck, looks flawless, as does 99% of this brilliantly-rendered presentation. The colours amaze.
The remastered, 5.1 audio is also out-of-this-world, pun woefully intended. DTS and Dolby Digital vie for your attention on opposite channels, with the former edging out its competition by dint of better-balanced sounds and less shrill dialogue and music. Each shows that Spielberg and co. went that extra mile to create a definitive soundtrack for the definitive version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Those playful spacecrafts swirl around the room, while The Mothership's entrance is accompanied by appropriately grand bass--in fact, for about a minute, the sole speaker producing noise (and a lot of it) is the subwoofer. This is one of those mixes that brings the cinematic experience home.
That's Disc One. Disc Two offers up prolific Laurent Bouzereau's chapter-encoded "The Making of Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (100 mins.!), a soup-to-nuts retrospective history of the production straight from the mouths of many horses. No surprise that there is big fawning over the late Truffaut (one of the first filmmakers Bouzereau himself met), in addition to grown-up, well-spoken Guffey's (who earned the nickname "One Take Cary") treasurable insight into Spielberg's working methods for kids. (When little Barry exclaims "Toys!", Spielberg is actually bedazzling him with off-camera gifts!) I'm only scratching the surface, but here, we also learn why the signature theme runs just five notes and how the notoriously stubborn Spielberg was coaxed into adding interior views of The Mothership for "The Special Edition." This is Bouzereau's finest (two) hour(s). Note that while the doc contains optional Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, as does the next mentioned extra, there is no sub-menu selection for them; on some first generation players, the Spanish subs will default display. As for the English translations of Truffaut's dialogue during the film proper, Columbia has left them as burn-ins.
The 1977 featurette "Watch the Skies" is also on the second disc. Running just over five-minutes, this split-screen-crazy preview gets most of its posterity value from interviews with technical advisor Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the basis for Balaban's character. (Trivia update: Writes reader Michael Geary, UFO researcher/venture capitalist Jacques Vallee was the inspiration for Truffaut's Claude Lecombe.) Rounding things out are period trailers, filmographies, and, last but not least, eleven non-anamorphic deleted scenes that help flesh out Roy's day-job and Garr's homemaker, likable though unessential omissions that Spielberg and editor Michael Khan probably didn't lose sleep over. (In this section is where you, and Roy, can see inside The Mothership.) The whole shebang comes in a two-piece, combination cardboard-plastic box that's not quite as inviting as Columbia's mock hardcovers that house Men in Black and Lawrence of Arabia, to name a couple. One major disadvantage to the packaging is that you have to leave it unwrapped to read the chapter selections, and my copy is already starting to fray. But the contents within are simply divine. Originally published: May 2, 2001.