Guest Editorial: Growing up with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

by: GATW Guest Writer
June 14th, 2011

This editorial was written by our friend Ryan Ferguson. You can follow him on Twitter HERE.

The first time I saw CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND I was a teenager. I was completely taken with the magic, beauty, and adventure of the film. I remember giggling with delight at the exchange of music in the final sequence, being terrified when the aliens took little Barry, and I remember being awed by Roy Neary's ascension into the spaceship.

It was magical and wonderful and instantly instilled in me a sense of nostalgia for a period I was barely even alive for: late 70's, early 80's Spielberg. I was born in 1983, so CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T. were films I experienced on VHS. E.T. I watched over and over, along with other Spielberg-produced classics like BACK TO THE FUTURE, POLTERGEIST, and THE GOONIES. They all have a special place in my heart.

But it's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS that I've found myself returning to over and over again; especially in the last few years. Maybe it's because, as I've gotten older, I've been more drawn to the adult characters in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS rather than the children in the other films. But something interesting has been happening in that time. Where I used to find the film magical and joyous, anymore I feel more sadness and regret at the end of the film. Roy's adventure to join the aliens no longer holds the same joy for me as it once did. Where my focus used to be drawn to the moments I mentioned earlier, now I seem to find myself preoccupied with the devastating family tragedy at the heart of the film.

Roy Neary's preoccupation with the aliens leads him to completely alienate and then abandon his family. At first it's treated as a kind of joke, with Neary waking up his wife and kids in the middle of the night to go look at the sky (a moment that mirrors a story Spielberg has told many times about his own father rousing him out of bed to go look at a meteor shower). But later, this alienation is brought into stark relief by a scene that was actually left out of the theatrical cut of the film, but is restored in the Special Edition and Director's Cut.

In this scene, Roy has a kind of meltdown during a family dinner and ends up in the shower, crying. His oldest son is so upset by his behavior that he slams the bathroom door shut over and over again while crying and screaming at him. He later tears his room up in frustration while his younger brother looks on. The scene is devastating. Neary's wife Ronnie is also put through the ringer because of Roy's antics. Roy's behavior changes from one moment to the next. This roller coaster of emotions has Ronnie at times joking with Roy, crying and then screaming. Looking at Roy’s behavior from her perspective you begin to see a once normal man who is completely descending into madness. This madness ultimately drives her to leave with their children and, for all we know, Roy then disappears, never to be heard from again. She will have to go on now, a single mother, raising her children on her own. It’s heartbreaking.

Her departure is the last time we see her or the kids. It's also apparently the last time Roy thinks about his family, as the rest of the film has him completely obsessed with getting to Devil's Tower. This turn of events is even more interesting when juxtaposed with the family in E.T., which sees a single mother raising two boys and a girl (the Neary family also has two boys and a girl). It's almost as if E.T. could act as an unofficial sequel to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, with Roy's children dealing with their abandonment issues by befriending a kindly alien. I think it's important to note that when the film was released in 1977, Spielberg was not yet married or a father. He had yet to move on to that stage of his life. And that brings it back to my experience with the film. When I was a teenager, I was completely taken by Roy's adventure. But now, at 28, I'm engaged to be married and my fiancée and I are talking seriously about having kids in the near future. At this point in my life, I don't think I could just get on that ship and leave.

But CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is still a film that I love. In the weeks leading up to the release of SUPER 8, Spielbergian nostalgia has been peaking. My Facebook and Twitter feeds have been inundated with check-ins to CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T. I even found myself trading obscure Roy Neary quotes with a friend on Facebook. Quotes like, “Can you tell me where Cornbread is, TURKEY!?!” and “Toby! You are close to death!” are some of my favorites and still get a belly laugh out of me.

I watched the film again this weekend, right before SUPER 8 actually, and I found that my focus has begun to shift again. I can still find delight in Roy’s story, and little Barry and his mother still bring me to tears. But for me, the real hero now is LaCombe, the quiet, thoughtful French scientist played brilliantly by Francois Truffaut. A man who just wants to understand and ultimately make contact with these beings who come from the sky. His mission is not to join the aliens, nor to annihilate them. He just wants to put them in a position so that they can clearly communicate whatever message it is they mean to convey. And when it becomes clear that they have invited a select group of humans along for the ride, LaCombe tries to help make that happen. He is ultimately unsuccessful and, in my absolute favorite moment for his character, he watches wistfully as a military helicopter is taking the humans away, lamenting, “Zey belong here more zan we…” LaCombe is vindicated in the final moments of the film when he gets to partake in the great musical exchange between the aliens and the humans, he gets Roy onto the spaceship and finally, the climax of LaCombe’s story, he exchanges solfege hand gestures with an alien, a kind of cosmic handshake.

These films we grow up with, they never stay the same. For the most part, I find that I either grow into films or grow out of them. I saw PULP FICTION when I was 12 and totally didn’t get it. Watching it again at 17, it blew me away and changed the way I looked at movies. When I was 7 I absolutely LOVED a film called CONDOR MAN. My nostalgia for it was so pronounced that a couple years ago I paid $20 for a copy of it on VHS. It did not hold up. But CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is different. It’s a real testament to the depth of character and emotion in the film that, as I get older, rather than growing out of the film, I’m continuing to grow into it, finding new characters and moments to identify with. Maybe that’s the mark of a great film, one that seems to grow with you through the year.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1241507044 Nicklaus Louis

    Great post! It’s interesting that Neary’s wife is his antagonist for the first half of the film, but not in an evil way. Her struggle is one we can all relate to. She’s a sympathetic antagonist, and that’s what makes her story so heartbreaking.

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