Watching the skies: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” at 40

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By Scott Ross

I’ve written about hundreds of movies over the last 40 years but have somehow contrived to avoid writing appreciations of my five favorite pictures. This has not necessarily been out of any conscious avoidance on my part; if any specific reason applies I suppose it’s the desire to do justice to whatever I put my hand to, and my love for these movies is so strong, and so personal, I suppose I’m afraid that my limitations will allow me to do them full honor. In addition, my preference, for the purposes of this blog, is to write directly after having seen a movie, or seen it again, when the images and dialogue and performances, and my responses to them, or their remembered pleasures, are still fresh in my mind. I wanted to write a review of the present subject for my high school paper when it was in release but somehow and for reasons that now escape my memory never did. Having just seen it again on a big screen, after a 40 year wait, I think it’s time I made the attempt.

If the foregoing seems unduly personal (if it does, the remainder of this essay will almost certainly feel embarrassingly intimate) I can only offer in my defense the fact that, when one loves a movie as much as I love this one, and has nurtured that affection for four decades, the matter is itself intensely and entirely personal. And anyway, I seldom consciously employ an omnipotent critical voice, especially where an object of such love is concerned. So I beg your indulgence if the following ends up being as much about me as about one specific picture. Although I have what actors call a sense memory of where I saw almost any movie I could name, that’s simply a quirk of recollection; it seems to me that one’s biography is linked, inextricably, to anything we feel as strongly about as I do this one specific movie.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my avoidance of Star Wars as a 16-year old burgeoning movie fanatic, following my confrontation by Time magazine’s May 1977 front cover come-on (“Inside: The Year’s Best Movie”) and my indifference, once I opened the feature, to what I saw as space-ships and cute robots. It was part of my position as student aide at my high school library to stamp in the new periodicals, so I guess I saw that Time story before most of my peers. Similarly, one Monday morning in the fall of that year while behind the reference desk I opened the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section to see a two-page spread heralding another new movie. On the verso side were the soon-to-be famous descriptions of J. Allen Hayek’s three stages of a phenomenon new to me; on the recto, that stunning logo image of the deserted highway, its vanishing point conflating with a corona of light behind it, and, at the bottom of the trade credits, those five magical words: “Written and Directed by Steven Spielberg.”

In these movie-conscious times, when the doings of actors and filmmakers are recorded with panting avidity by nearly every publication and even the box-office of new theatrical releases is granted breathless exposure in 5-minute news roundups, it must be difficult for the young to imagine a time when these (I would argue, despite my love for the medium, less than trivial) matters were not common coinage long before a new movie hit the multiplex. But even I, becoming as the result of my part-time job at a local cinema duplex besotted with the movies, was not exactly au courant concerning what was coming, especially if, as in this case, I hadn’t seen a trailer yet. (Oddly, considering how often I went to the movies then, I never did see that trailer until it was included on the DVD set years later.) I had heard of the picture, with its enigmatic title (“Kind” striking me as an especially odd noun for a movie) in some brief (and smugly admonishing) account that stressed the then-enormous budget overruns that so worried a cash-strapped Columbia Pictures, but that was all I knew about it. As a fan of the movie Jaws, I knew Spielberg’s name very well, and was aware that he hadn’t placed a new project in the theatres in two years.  What I still did not know was much of anything about this one, aside from its cost.

Close Encounter of the First Kind:
Sighting of a UFO
Close Encounter of the Second Kind:
Physical Evidence
Close Encounter of the Third Kind:
Contact

That double-truck ad haunted me as nothing else I’d seen related to a new movie had, probably since childhood. I fairly levitated with anticipation; like Alvin longing for his hula hoop, I could hardly stand the wait.

CE3K double-truck ad

This is a magazine spread rather than the original double-truck Times ad I saw but, aside from the banner at the bottom it’s identical in art and poster content.

Felicitously, between the appearance of that ad and the opening of Close Encounters, I had the opportunity to see Jaws again on a big screen, pretty much by happenstance. When the State Fair opened in October, the owner of the theatre at which I worked after school and on weekends, knowing that movie attendance dropped off precipitously during “Fair Week,” routinely scheduled a pair of older movies he could pick up cheaply from a distributor. For one screen he booked a sleazy yawn of a picture called Jennifer on My Mind, about which I mercifully remember almost nothing except the terminally boring heroine’s car-accident demise at the end. For the other, Jaws.

I had loved the movie at 14, and certainly believed it a definite improvement on Peter Benchley’s potboiler novel, but what had stayed with me most (aside from purely visual moments like the simultaneous zoom-forward/pull-back shot of Roy Scheider reacting to the boy’s death on the raft) was the sheer, sick-making dread it built up before (literally) exploding it at the end. Seeing the picture again, both it and I two years older, I was struck by how funny it was —  how its humor kept puckishly intruding into the dialogue, as a respite from the superbly mounting terror of its set-pieces. I also perceived anew the conflict between its three male antagonists, as a kind of satire on machismo, Robert Shaw’s Ahab-like Quint battling the less mature but more educated giddiness and obstreperousness of Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper and Scheider’s pragmatic, thoughtful cop (an oxymoron?) occupying a kind of annealing middle space between two extremes of masculine identity. I was also struck by how wonderfully Spielberg observed domestic scenes, not just with how natural the children were in their behavior but the slyness and well-worn comfort that existed between Scheider and Lorraine Gary. It likewise seemed to me that this young filmmaker had an amiable way of giving underwritten roles like Gary’s the space to breathe; one of the sharpest and most striking moments in the picture is her exit from it, first walking and then racing from Quint’s shack as if pursued by the hounds of Hell.

Because movie theatre owners at that time could, by law, get away with sub-minimum wage in my state, the chief compensation for their mostly teen and college-age staffs was the movies themselves, not only those at our complex but elsewhere. Accordingly, we all had 12-month universal passes to anything playing at an area theatre. The only proviso was that we were not to use them on the opening weekend of a new picture. So, despite my fixation on the new Spielberg, I duly, if impatiently, waited a week. The following Friday, no one I knew and with whom I regularly went to the movies had the night free, but I was in those days (unlike today) perfectly willing to go alone. It was a crisp December evening — that sticks with me too, for some reason — when I set out for what was then a new notion: A six-screen multiplex. (In the late 1970s movie theatres still tended to be either stand-alone, single screens or, at most, double that.) I had kept to a promise I’d made to myself to avoid reading anything about the picture — reviews or anything else, including the Newsweek cover story I was itching to get my hands on (I could have cheerfully murdered my newspaper staff advisor for revealing, in her usual absent-minded “Oops, I shouldn’t have said that, should I?” manner, that Devil’s Tower figured into the plot) so as the house lights dimmed, I sat in a state of delicious anticipation. It was rewarded moments later, with the slow build of a sustained chord in John Williams’ score that ended with a crash and the screen becoming filled with light and it remained with me, keenly, for two hours and 15 minutes, as I entered into a state of wonder I’m not sure I’d ever before encountered at the movies, and know well I’ve never experienced since.

I’m reminded as I write this of Evelyn Keyes’ description to an interviewer of being at the Atlanta premiere of Gone with the Wind (in which she played, as the title of her memoir had it, Scarlett O’Hara’s younger sister): “It was as if I’d never seen a movie before, and haven’t really since one since.” That Close Encounters of the Third Kind was, and remains, the single most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen, was certainly due in large part to the staggering assurance of its director and to his largesse of vision, as well as to the beautifully conceived and executed effects that buoyed and enhanced that vision. Yet equally as effective I think was the prevailing sense of mystery. Not as to what was happening and why — that was self-evident — but the uncertainty of it all. If you walked into this picture unawares, you had no idea, really until the final 15 minutes or so, whether the visitation its characters were going to receive was benign, or malevolent. If all you knew were the UFO movies of the past, you’d almost have to conclude that things couldn’t end well. There had not, aside from the hectoring aliens of the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, been a single American picture in which the visitors from outer space meant us anything other than harm. And indeed even here, where the tone was reasonably light, there hung a question mark, particularly during and after the terrifying night abduction of the little boy played by that amazing child Cary Guffey. Until the moment, very near the climax, when those lost to what we could only presume were similar kidnappings began to emerge from the Mothership on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” things could still have gone terribly, dangerously wrong. You just didn’t know, and nothing in the movie’s look or sound or texture gave you reassurance anywhere close to complete. So when Guffey descended from the ship, his cherubic face brimming with joy, you might have felt a surge of relief as well as joy: Things were going to be okay.

One of the gentlest people I know positively loathes this picture. He names it the single worst movie he’s ever seen, and I think I know why; it’s that very benevolence of spirit implicit in Guffey’s beatific smile that bugged certain people then, and that irritates them now. So that when that final, magical exchange of gestures occurs between François Truffaut and the leading alien, those who are incapable of giving in to the generosity of heart, or to what I think of as the grace, of the picture and who have been squirming with either indignance or boredom, or both, must be ready to hurl something at the screen. If you can’t give yourself up to the… there’s almost no other word… cosmic munificence of that moment, and the sense of hope that radiates from it, the entire thing has no doubt been a colossal hunk of especially redolent old cheese.

It isn’t that I’m especially or organically optimistic, and I certainly wasn’t as a teenager. I had hopes, of course; they’re built in to adolescence, however cynical you might fancy yourself. My childhood was bordered on Viet Nam, assassination and Watergate, and whatever illusions I had about the goodness of my fellow human beings I lost from being subjected to some pretty representative examples of them in junior high. I have retained, I’m happy to say, some childlike joy, which I think is essential to psychic balance, even if, as in my case, it’s concentrated in my passions for animated cartoons, children’s books and Gold Key comics, Peanuts strips and the movies of my youth. I’m not sure that delight obtained in my response to Close Encounters, although I can well imagine those who despise the picture as my friend does smirking that my affection for it has all the hallmarks of childishness. It may well be that the character of Roy Neary, the Everyman of the movie portrayed with such alternating zest, despair and wonder by Richard Dreyfuss, was one I could on some level relate to at 16. In footage added to the ill-conceived Special Edition of the picture in 1980 (and now a permanent part of Spielberg’s preferred cut, which is the one Sony has restored and reissued to theatres) Roy tries without success to interest his disdainful children into a screening of Pinocchio. Although I hadn’t seen it since its re-release in 1971, Pinocchio was the Disney feature I loved most of those I’d seen, and I silently willed those kids to abandon their dopey enthusiasm for Goofy Golf and listen to their excited father. So did Spielberg: not for nothing did he obtain the rights from Disney to incorporate “When You Wish Upon a Star” into John Williams’ score for Close Encounters’ finale. Roy is Pinocchio, and at the end he gets to abandon his child-man persona and become a real boy again. But whatever my sub-conscious identification with Dreyfuss, to sit in rapt enchantment for two hours and fifteen minutes while those images of wonder washed over me was more than sufficient to crack my cynical shell, and when Truffaut’s Lacombe and the E.T. communicate at the end, the wonderfully articulated Carlo Rambaldi alien returning the Kodály hand-signals for the five notes transmitted by the extra-terrestrials, and ends by imitating Lacombe’s radiant smile, any reservations I may have entertained about the filmmakers’ intent crumbled to dust. I left that theatre on a high I’ve never forgotten, one only the rarest of movies is capable of transmitting and which is as elusive as those UFOs that keep teasing Neary throughout the picture. I get it consistently from the endings of Some Like it Hot and A Hard Days’ Night and Singin’ in the Rain and Victor/Victoria and, yes, Pinocchio… and even Star Wars, that movie I avoided and so disdained without bothering to see it in 1977. But not many others, so I don’t think I’m naturally a sap when it comes to these things.

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Carlo Rambaldi’s extra-terrestrial smiles back at Lacombe in the moving finale.

The bath of hopefulness that suffused me as the climax played out has little or nothing to do with belief; whether there are beings outside our understanding and experience seems to me, as it seemed to me then, one less of faith than of odds — why, the passionate assurance of the religious that we are the only perfect creation of God to the contrary, should we assume we are unique in the vastness of space? The movie’s other tag, beyond its explanation of Dr. J. Allen Hynek’s three stages of the close encounter (which, curiously, Spielberg never gives us in the picture itself) was “We Are Not Alone,” a phrase that, fittingly, expresses both optimism and potential dread. But more simply, and beyond the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, my hopeful side was touched by the sheer, big, open-heartedness of the ending, and by that exchange between Lacombe and the alien spokesman: A gesture, a smile, and we may touch each other, and express our common life-force. It doesn’t matter whether the recipient is of spheres beyond the earth or simply another race or nationality or even gender. The smile is what matters. It spoke of a gentleness, a respect and a wish for mutual peace, that transcended Spielberg’s fantasy — and indeed the tenor of movies both at the time and now, born of cynicism and a disturbing taste, shared between movie makers and their audience, for escalating forms of violence. No one in the business, outside the Disney studios, was expressing those sentiments in 1977, and almost no one is concerned with them now. The desire for understanding, the imagination that empathy requires, had become rare by that time, and slightly suspect, and feels even more isolated now, when even Steven Spielberg no longer embraces them. What was special then is even more rarified four decades on.

Sentiment in movies is something to be embraced when you’re in good hands, but sentimentality almost never is, and it is certainly true, and contrary to those who found the picture unbearable, that while Spielberg eschews the rank exploitation of it in Close Encounters, his sentimentality in subsequent pictures often became gloppy as hell; even as fine a fantasy as E.T. can at moments cause your teeth to ache. But I’d almost rather have that, which in Spielberg’s case was at least heartfelt, than the ugly, cold, violent and puzzling fury of something like his 2005 War of the Worlds, which feels like an angry old man’s contemptuous reaction to the benignity of his own past work. I’m reminded of George Stevens, who made a number of sparkling comedies before the war but who, after helping to liberate Hitler’s death camps, never made a happy picture again. Something about making Schindler’s List in 1993 appears to have permanently altered Spielberg’s outlook, and not for the better. He has repeatedly said he isn’t the same person as the young man who made Close Encounters, or even Jaws, and it would be foolish and even a little creepy to expect him to be — like a parent willing a favored child back to infancy. Yet with War of the Worlds Spielberg seemed to be gleefully pissing on everyone who’d ever loved his earlier pictures — especially Close Encounters. A lot of people have cherished the hope, since the 1990s, that he might one day return to the sort of optimistic pictures that made his name; but while I think the darkening of his worldview enhanced his best post-Schindler work, the wrenchingly felt Munich, on the evidence of War of the Worlds I would say that if he has lost the capacity for wonder and the openness of heart that propelled and enlivened Close Encounters and E.T., perhaps it would be best for all concerned if he stayed away from fantasy for good. There are more than enough filmmakers around now who are only too happy to grind their audiences’ faces in sadism, gore and misery. Does he really need to be one of them?

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Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind Mothership

The Mothership emerges, with illogical magnificence.

Whatever its disadvantages in loss of surprise, seeing a movie you love a second time has ample compensations, if only the simple joy of reliving what made you so happy the first time. With Close Encounters, the subterranean anxiety about the outcome which attended that first screening was eliminated, the anticipation of pleasure taking its place. I was able to relax more fully and appreciate the contours — the totality — more fully. Things like the naturalness of the domestic sequences and the behavior of the UFOs themselves, which now no longer held any threat and could be seen as Spielberg intended, as playful rather than potentially deadly. While the abduction of Guffey’s Barry Guiler was still creepily frightening (Jesus Christ, those screws coming up and out of the heating-grate!) and full of anguish for Barry’s mother, a second viewing made manifest what had only been sub-conscious the first time: That the aliens have chosen Barry for his sweet, ingratiating innocence — that they are attracted to the ingenuousness of the child, just as they have marked Roy Neary for his childlike curiosity and delight. The image of Barry opening the door of the house is not just totemic, it’s emblematic of the movie itself; he’s saying, as the entire picture does, “Welcome! Come in!”

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Barry Guiler opens the door.

When I finally did see Star Wars — dragged all but kicking by my best friend the following summer — I was conscious, in spite of my general enjoyment and even, to my surprise, delight with it, that many of the special effects that so many other people reveled in were a disappointment and suffered by comparison with the effects in Close Encounters. Spielberg was canny enough to determine that his effects looked far better shot in 35mm and blown up to 65. I was conscious of a lot of blue-screen in Star Wars, but with the Spielberg picture I never saw the joins. And that 65mm frame gives the entire picture a scope that does wonders for the sense of enchantment you get from it. It’s not merely widescreen —it’s enormous. It doesn’t overpower you, but it enthralls you, and brings you into it, in a way that, among epics, only Lawrence of Arabia really does. That is a large measure of my decades-old desire to see it again in a theatre. The biggest home plasma television in existence can’t do for you what seeing the movie projected on that massive screen does.

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Dreyfuss’ truck in the alien spotlight/

And the images sing, as the UFOs are said to sing to those who see them and to whom subliminal messages are passed marking them out as chosen, even if they never know it: The sparkling eyes and ancient, smiling face of Eumenio Blanco as Truffaut gently turns his head to look at his partial sunburn; the way Bob Balaban is swallowed up by sand blown by the desert wind as he yells out his confusion; the blinding light that falls on Dreyfuss’ truck as he’s scrutinized at the railroad crossing; the changing expressions of little Cary Guffey as he surveys the ransacked kitchen (and, we presume, the new friends who’ve come to visit); the Disneyesque, Dopey-like, perpetually tardy little spacecraft, represented by a red Tinkerbell light as it darts about, seeking to catch up with the armada; the streaking alien craft zooming through the toll-booth; the clouds roiling in the night skies (achieved by injecting paint into fresh water sitting atop saline); the ship in the desert; Dreyfuss, bathed by a red night-light, fully-clothed and being deluged by the bathroom shower as he sits weeping in his isolation and despair (a sequence cut in 1977 but added back in 1980); the crane-shot revealing Devil’s Tower to two breathless pilgrims; the birds falling from the trees as they’re hit with non-lethal gas; the Mothership hovering over the landing field as technicians scramble to take readings, their hair and clothing and instruments lifted by the static charge; Bob Baker’s elongated marionette emerging from the Mothership, its arms upraised in benevolent greeting; Guffey’s beaming face as he emerges from the ship; the aliens surrounding their chosen initiate, his childlike delight drawing them like light attracting a swarm of moths.

If Close Encounters has flaws for me, they’re few, and for the most part minor. That big plane of glass that shatters when the Mothership responds to the synthesizer attempting communication with its first great chord should blow in and not out, although you can understand for the actor’s sake why it doesn’t. Also, when the Mothership makes it initial appearance, seeming to rise up from below Devil’s Tower, the physics make no sense; the thing is immense, and would have to emerge from the bowels of the earth to create that effect, but you’re so delighted by the image that even as you critique it you don’t really mind. There are little glitches, too, such as the fact that the newscaster on Neary’s television makes an aside to Walter Cronkite when the broadcast is clearly manned by Howard K. Smith. (Spielberg had always planned for Cronkite to play himself, and the veteran newsman was willing, but CBS corporate policy negated his appearance.) The largest leap of faith is Neary’s, and it’s one that simply never occurred to me at 16, or 19 — perhaps because my relationship to my own father was so uneasy — but has since bothered Spielberg great deal: Roy’s leaving his children behind as he eagerly embarks on his new interstellar life at the end. However impossible his marriage may be, however lost Roy Neary feels and however childlike his enthusiasm, asking what sort of father would make that decision is more than a fair question.

Some critics at the time bemoaned the lack of characterization in Close Encounters, but what I think they were really missing was dialogue. I’d be interested to know what the comparative ratio is in the screenplay (credited to Spielberg solely but worked on as well by Jerry Belson, John Hill, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins) of dialogue to action, because Close Encounters strikes me, as it struck me in 1977, as having perhaps the least amount of talking in it of any picture I can think of since the advent of sound. The dialogue is not only spare, but much of it — especially Teri Garr’s — not only feels improvised but was. Garr’s role, and Melinda Dillon’s’ as Barry’s mother Jillian, are in terms of dialogue among the shortest of any picture of its time, but they’re not in any way under-nourished. That’s partly the effect of good casting: Garr and Dillon do so much with so little that they’re astounding; Dillon was subsequently nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, and it was, as these things go, well deserved. Among the images and moments that have remained most vivid with me for 40 years are those involving her elastically mobile face and body: How she places her fingers on the motel television screen as Devil’s Tower is revealed, as if touching a religious icon, or the way she bites her finger ecstatically, grinning and bouncing up and down on her feet at the light-show she witnesses at the climax, or her despairing cry (“Ba-ar-y!”) as she runs through the woods. And little Cary Guffey at four years old still seems to me the most preternaturally expressive child the movies have seen since Jackie Coogan in The Kid. Even granting that many of the reactions Spielberg got from him involved elaborate subterfuge and thoughtful preparation, Guffey’s wide eyes and heart-melting smile are still astounding to see. He’s the spirit of the movie itself, in a way, open and beguiling. It’s not an actor’s performance, but a state of natural delight, sustained and without calculation or guile. For him the alien visitors are spirited playmates bringing wondrous new toys. It’s no wonder he opens that door.

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Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr)

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Dreyfuss with the marvelously expressive Melinda Dillon.

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Barry (Cary Guffey) meets his new friends. Spielberg put ruse on top of surprise to elicit Guffey’s beautiful, spontaneous reactions.

Guffey’s adult counterpart is Truffaut, in whose countenance and demeanor (particularly in his performance as Dr. Jean Itard in L’enfant sauvage) Spielberg saw an embodiment of gentle wisdom and spiritual largesse. It’s certainly no accident that it is Lacombe who exchanges greetings with Rambaldi’s articulated alien at the end, and if the actor had some difficulty with his occasional English dialogue (his mispronunciation during an early take of the line “They belong here more than we” as something like, “Zey beelong ‘ere Mozambique” delighted the crew, who printed up T-shirts bearing the sentence, even amusing the easily-embarrassed Truffaut himself) it is in his face, and his eyes, and his smile, that Close Encounters finds its true animating spirit.

 

CloseEncounters_Truffaut

Truffaut’s radiant smile.

Aside from those quickly-famous five notes, John Williams’ score for Close Encounters got short-shrift generally in 1977 (he did win the Academy Award, but for Stars Wars) and this seems more than a little unfair. His compositions here are less showy, perhaps, and contain fewer motifs, but his musicianship is even more impressive than in the Lucas picture, not least for its embrace of atonality, which gives much of the score an ethereal, otherworldly feel that is perfectly in keeping with the picture’s theme. He didn’t need to emulate Korngold here as he did in Star Wars, and much of his work in Close Encounters seems based as much on the Dies irae as on the five notes he and Spielberg painstakingly selected before filming began and which are so much a part of the movie’s overall scheme and texture. That the Latin hymn translates to “Day of Wrath” in no small way contributed, if my ears are correct in placing that eight-note theme with the Dies irae, to my underlying un-ease on seeing the movie the first time. This is in no way a hopeful set of notes, although Williams doesn’t use it in a manner that feels at all deathish, in contrast to Stephen Sondheim, who built much of Sweeney Todd on the same octave. But unlike his work on the Star Wars movies, Williams was not tracking action in Close Encounters as much as he was limning and helping to define the picture’s moods. Not that he doesn’t excite you at several junctures, especially near the beginning and toward the end. But only at the climax does his innate romanticism burst through, in those soaring, even Wagnerian, strains that accompany the heavenward flight of the UFOs during the credits. (He’d do something similar for the lifting off of the rescue craft at the climax of E.T., although his emotionalism there is less restrained there than here. In Close Encounters Williams accompanies the release of emotion; in E.T. he almost seems to be tearing it out of you.

I see that I haven’t begun to touch on Dreyfuss’ extraordinarily modulated and often wildly funny performance; on Bob Balaban’s quiet excellence as Truffaut’s translator; on Vilmos Zsigmond’s exquisite lighting and expansive, muted palette; on Michael Kahn’s kinetic editing, or Joe Alves’ phenomenally effective production designs, Roy Arbogast’s marvelous visual effects, or even on Spielberg’s astonishingly assured and often witty direction —impressive when measured on any scale but staggering for a young man of 30. (Note for a single example the way he put together the great sequence in which the air traffic controller played by the splendid Bill Thurman handles the picture’s first close encounter, which in its confidence in holding on interesting faces communicating with disembodied voices and sonar blips — the filmmaker’s belief that the tension of the scene can build, and release, without our ever seeing the event that so captures the characters’ anxious concerns — is in its way as impressive as the movie’s biggest set-pieces.) But that’s the way it is when one is confronted by something as rich and satisfying and even, just conceivably, as profound as Close Encounters. If there’s anything as gratifying as finding that something one loved as deeply as my adolescent self loved this movie still holds up, still enchants and entrances and elates, it’s the satisfaction of discovering that the 16 year-old me was, in loving it, absolutely justified.

You can go home again.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind 2

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Everyone is overtaken, eventually: “Munich” (2005) and “One Day in September” (1999)

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One Day in September - poster

By Scott Ross

If you were alive at the time, and of age to be aware, 5 September 1972 is unlikely to be a date you forget. I was 11; coincidentally, a 5th grade writing assignment on the subject was my first experience of composing an essay, and my first angry opinion piece. There was much I did not know then — primarily about the appalling manner in which the Bavarian government botched things so thoroughly that a deadly encounter between the Palestinian terror group Black September and 11 Israeli athletes mutated to a bloodbath; concerning the complicity of the news media, most specifically the ratings-crazed ghouls at ABC, and how much its idiocies cost the hostages; and of the indecent callousness of the International Olympic Commission, then and now* — a mounting pile of incompetence and insensitivity (and, in the end, complicity**) that compounded the ugliness of the event and turned it, inexorably, into a public horror-show. Had I known then half of what I’ve learned since, my pre-adolescent rage would almost certainly have become positively incandescent.

The value of factual narrative such as that in the 1999 documentary One Day in September, for all its slickness and even its errors of fact, is that it can stand as an exercise both of education and of remembrance. The virtue of a documentary fiction like the 2005 Munich lies in its willingness to grapple with matters beyond fact and into something very like a popular treatise on the mutability of human morality.

Kevin Macdonald, who made One Day in September, has been criticized severely — and rightly, I think — for his climactic use of imagery from the catastrophic failure at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield, in which 9 of the athletes were slaughtered. When we are told, in Michael Douglas’ voice-over narration, what happened to the nine Israeli athletes held hostage there by members of Black September, the horror does not require photographic proof to lodge in the mind. If there is anything served by the sight of those men’s bodies, mangled and bloody on the tarmac, its documentary value eludes me. It is, in its way, as obscene as the footage of athletes in the Olympic Village sunning themselves and playing ping-pong while nearly a dozen of their confederates either lie dead where they fell or sit in their suites under hostile armed guard. It most certainly does not ennoble the enterprise, or add meaning to the lives and pointless deaths of the Israeli team. Since the movie is so clearly and resolutely sympathetic to the athletes’ ordeal, one is left stunned by the filmmaker’s sudden, and nearly unwatchable, violation of them in death. Nor is this the only disparagement one can make of Macdonald: He somehow gets the very details of those senseless murders wrong, and I’ll be damned if I can understand why. Particularly since Steven Spielberg, in Munich, gets them right.***

What the director does accomplish, while not mitigating these lapses of judgment and taste, is a thorough, and deserved, rebuke of the utter incompetence of the Germans and of the broadcast media. Not only was security at the Village so lax as to be virtually nonexistent, the final attempts to bring the situation to a satisfactory end were doomed from the start through lack of manpower, communication, proper planning and a tactical incompetence so vast as to exist somewhere well beyond the realm of the merely shocking. As for the soon-to-be venerated Peter Jennings and his television team, their own lack of foresight is simply astounding, as they continued to film and broadcast from an adjacent building, even as a hastily assembled team of German officers prepared to mount an assault. In an ever-shrinking world in which the broadcast media had, by 1972, become ubiquitous, it is both staggering and unconscionable that no one at ABC considered for a single moment as it aired these events to the world that the terrorists in the Israeli suite also had access to television sets. One Day in September does not provide any information on what happened in the boardrooms of ABC Television following the massacre at Fürstenfeldbruck, but considering Jennings’ rise at that network, I scarcely think he was regarded by Roone Aldredge and his cronies as anything but heroic.

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Spielberg is scarcely any less impassioned than Macdonald. And while he has been at pains to make it clear he intended in Munich no rebuke to the Israeli government, his somewhat fictionalized account of the events that followed the massacre is, paradoxically, even more precise and exacting. Working from a more than unusually intelligent screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, taken from George Jonas’ nonfiction account of the Mossad response to Black September, the director fashions not a revenge fantasy but a meditation on the price of vengeance and whose conclusion is, aptly and refreshingly, a question mark.

It seems unlikely that Spielberg could have achieved the emotional complexity of Munich, much less its striking, de-saturated visual scheme, without having made Schindler’s List. While it is possible to lament that the maker of Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind appears to have turned his back on the fantastic and relatively innocent fare that was unique to him, and which it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone else making (or making quite so perfectly, anyway) if the trade-off is a picture like Munich, then popcorn entertainment’s loss must surely be said to be serious cinema’s gain. (Although I don’t think the aforementioned, with the exception of Raiders, is less than thoughtful and, in the case of Close Encounters, very possibly profound.) I don’t wish to overstate the case, or turn Spielberg into some sort of intellectual manqué. There are deeper thinkers amidst the directorial ranks, and creative artists of more daring generally. But if is it impossible to think of Spielberg’s having made this morally complex exercise 40 years ago it is equally improbable to imagine any filmmaker with less of a box-office track record getting it made at all. They’d be laughed out of the studio for even suggesting it.

While some of the events at Munich are re-created, and teased out at strategic moments in the narrative, reminding both us and the character of the assassination team leader played by Eric Bana of his very raison d’être, Munich is not really about the terror of that September day. Nor is it, except incidentally, about an un-tested quartet of operatives who begin uncertainly and improve with each sanctioned killing; it is instead concerned with the very nature of deliberate, cold-blooded murder and the effect it has upon its practitioners. Only two of the five (Bana and Daniel Craig, as the most dedicated member of the team) escape with their lives, but all of them are mortally unnerved, long before their fates are determined. There are moments in the picture in which Bana appears so haggard, and haunted, he begins to resemble the survivors of a Holocaust he, as a young Sabra, knows only through largely impersonal history. And although there are a number of brief, hot debates scattered throughout the action (and in which one senses the nuanced and intellectually bracing hand of Tony Kushner) Munich is the furthest thing from a didactic picture. No conclusions are reached, no particular ideology identified or embraced, beyond the inescapable one: That blood begets blood, and its actors can never sleep untroubled. As the taciturn Carl (Ciarán Hinds) notes to Avner late in the movie, “You think you can outrun your fears, your doubts… The only thing that really scares you is stillness. But everyone’s overtaken eventually.”

The look of Munich is extraordinary, thanks in large part to Spielberg’s usual cinematographer, the splendid Janusz Kamiński, whose images are of such de-glamorized clarity they allow for no romance of the subject. Michael Kahn’s editing is likewise of such precision that there is no flab here, no attempt to linger prettily at some depiction of aesthetic beauty. But then, there is little beauty to be had in the picture; it’s as tough and uncompromised a movie as can be imagined. Morally bankrupt filmmakers can be had by the score, and their movies celebrate violence as a thing to be admired; Spielberg never lets you forget that taking a life is a dirty business —the ultimate obscenity. Even when an innocent is spared, as in the harrowing first assassination attempt when the target’s young daughter unexpectedly makes an unscheduled appearance on the scene, the moral thread is torn asunder by our knowledge that her father’s existence will not be similarly spared. There is a sequence, late in the movie, wherein a Dutch assassin (Marie-Josée Croze) is coolly, and agonizingly, disposed of, that is about as brutal and unblinking an indictment as I think can be imagined, yet even here we cannot shake with what duplicitous calculation she has disposed of one of the team. Munich has little time for innocence, nor much belief in it. What a long, hard road this is from E.T.!

Munich is so exceptionally designed and contains devices so fresh in conception and execution, that the viewer may be hard-pressed to recall seeing them in a picture before. That Dutch assassin’s death is one such moment, her stunned reaction to the silenced bullets that are draining her life as she stumbles about her houseboat both startling and, in a way, the most felt death in the picture. Another is the moment when Eric Bana’s Avner, finding his colleague dead at the woman’s hands, buries his face in the bedclothes and emits a muffled scream of anguish that expresses more than mere personal grief; Avner is an active participant in his own nightmare, and that scream is like a violent rending of his soul. Avner is also the focus of a sequence, late in the movie, which uses eroticism in a way that is almost unbearably powerful, something I’ve never seen in another director’s work and certainly never expected to see from the man of whom Francis Coppola once observed, in their relative youth, “Stevie hasn’t discovered sex yet.”

Spielberg commits only one inaccuracy in Munich I can detect. When the team assembles in London in the early spring of 1973, a poster may be seen on the street for The Sting — a picture that was not released until December of that year. This error only becomes obvious when, later, Ephraim begins a tape-recorded interrogation with a date of June, 1973. But in a movie of a length approaching three hours, that lapse is minor indeed, and all the more noticeable for being the sole discernible example of miscalculation.

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The final image: Where in time the chickens will come home to roost.

If there is a didacticism in the approach of the filmmakers, it is raised only at the end, when Avner confronts his mercurial Mossad chief Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) on the Brooklyn shore, arguing that the vengeance he and his team have enacted has led only to more bloodshed, and that the deadly tit-for-tat will, in time, merely engender more of the same — an endless conundrum of the type human beings, and their governments, seem incapable of avoiding, or extricating themselves from. Just before the end credits roll, as Avner is exiting to the left of the screen, Spielberg frames the New York skyline behind him, the World Trade Center towers visible in the background. It’s a discreet visual paradigm, a sort of silent rebuke, eloquent in its understatement.

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Avner and Ali in contemplative mood.

In a large cast, the at once ordinary yet somehow remarkably beautiful Bana is revelatory as Avner, the character (based on the actual Yuval Aviv) who resides at the center of Munich’s ethical maze. He seems open, yet is constantly guarded, so that not even his cherished wife (the radiant Ayelet Zurer) can penetrate the curtain he draws over himself. In the movie’s most pointed sequence, in which Avner, under cover, engages in a lengthy discussion of the Palestinian ethos with the unsuspecting Ali (Omar Metwally) Bana conveys a fascinating ambivalence, capped by the corresponding moment that follows, in which Avner must kill Ali. He’s been brought to consider the Palestinian as an individual, perhaps even a man he can like, and it’s the first instance in his experience in which he must end the life of someone he has come to know, however superficially. Ali is no longer simply an abstraction, and it is this killing that tests Avner’s sense of what his bomb-maker thinks of as the righteousness inherent in being a Jew. The action is not lingered over, or in any way elongated, by Spielberg, but it resonates.

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Louis and Avner: An uneasy alliance.

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Papa and Avner in the former’s garden. While the older man expresses a fatherly feeling for the younger, he also makes it clear that Avner is not family.

Mention ought also to be made, and at length, of a number of actors here, particularly those in Avner’s team: Craig, in his first important role, to which he brings no hint of what he would later do as James Bond; Steve’s is an entirely different character altogether —  a man who, unlike Bond, kills his perceived enemies with relish. Hinds contributes a performance of quiet magnificence as the philosophizing Carl; the redoubtable Geoffrey Rush gives a superb account of Ephraim, alternately seductive and enraged, and making it clear that, with him, neither emotion is to be trusted; and Mathieu Kassovitz (himself due to appear in a Bond picture, as a memorable villain) makes of the independent information contractor Louis a figure at once enigmatic, gentlemanly and dangerous. The wonderful Michael Lonsdale (himself, interestingly, a former Bond villain) steals every scene in which he appears as Louis’ venerable Papa, Gila Almagor does wonder work as Avner’s mother, and Lynn Cohen provides a fine account of Golda Meir, outwardly mother-like but never less than the successful (ergo, ruthless) politician. John Williams’ superb score employs none of the maudlin over-emphasis that marred his compositions for Spielberg’s equally sentimental (and, ultimately, pointless) Saving Private Ryan. Munich is a picture so accomplished, on so many levels, that it stays in my mind as the last great, new American movie of my experience.

Yet notwithstanding all of the above, Leonard Maltin, in his popular video guide, was able to muster little enthusiasm for the picture, accusing Munich of both lacking focus and of “treading familiar ground.” You mean like all those dozens of other American movies about teams of government-sanctioned assassins that question the morality, and the efficacy, of piling violence on top of violence? In a picture of some 2 hours and 43 minutes, that places us absolutely in the midst of the planning and execution of deadly vengeance and that reflects in every particular the paranoia and mounting ethical, emotional and intellectual anxiety implicit in such activity, the very last sin of which anyone of moderate intelligence could accuse the writers and director of is not being focused.

Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

* The IOC continued the Games during the day of the 5th, and only acceded to public outcry the morning after the massacre of the Israeli athletes at Fürstenfeldbruck airfield. And while it sponsored a documented day-trip by the Israelis to nearby Dachau, the organization refused, 40 years later, to permit a public remembrance of the 11 murdered athletes, claiming — speciously — that it could not allow a “political” demonstration. The IOC did honor the 11 in 2016… very pointedly not during the ceremonies themselves but two days before the Games began.

** As One Day in September makes clear, the German government appears to have arranged, with Black September, the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight in October of 1972, as a result of which the three Palestinian survivors of Munich were freed and allowed to emigrate to Libya — an act designed to mitigate its own deep international embarrassment over the manner it which it mishandled the Olympic crisis.

*** I am referring here to the manner in which the hostages were killed. In One Day in September we are told that one of the Palestinian terrorists threw a grenade into the first of two helicopters in which the Israelis were being held, and that the German armed forces accidentally shot up the second. In fact, Black Sunday raked the inhabitants of the first vehicle with bullets before tossing in the grenade, then similarly sprayed the occupants of the second with gunfire. Macdonald’s errors here nearly defy belief, and certainly beggar comprehension. 

Black Sunday (1977) “What exactly is this Super Bowl?”

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By Scott Ross

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Robert Shaw, in contemplative mode as the Mossad agent David Kabakov. Note concentration camp tattoo, which thankfully goes unmentioned. It would be gilding the narrative lily to do so – and the image itself makes its own statement.

Black Sunday could probably not be made today—or at least, not the same way. Doubtless its depiction of utterly ruthless Arab and Palestinian terrorists would raise an outcry no Hollywood studio would be comfortable attracting to a big-budget thriller. Never mind that the Israeli agents portrayed in the picture are every bit as unsparing, or that the 1975 Thomas Harris novel on which it was based was written in the early–to-mid 1970s, long before the attacks of 9-11 financed if not indeed carried out by Our Friends, the Saudis but not long after the internationally televised atrocity at the Olympic Village in Munich. If I am skeptical of Movieland suits in this matter it is not that I wish to see Semitic peoples vilified. We’ve had quite enough of that, inside Hollywood and out. But Harris’ bestselling novel (his first, predating the Hannibal Lecter series by half a decade) was surely written in part as a response to Munich, and as a commentary on the viciousness, not of Palestinians or Arabs generally, but of the Black Sunday group itself. (Add that his protagonist, the Israeli David Kabakov, is, as he tells a confederate, beginning to question and thus no good to the Mossad, and you have an idea of Thomas’ ambivalent approach.) Rather I am pointing out that generating such a movie now would take more spinal and intestinal fortitude than can habitually be found among the studio brigade, terrified as they are of taking chances—something their 1970s counterparts were accustomed to on a routine basis.

Still: Imagine the reaction of Paramount executives to John Frankenheimer’s initial cut, which ended with the Goodyear blimp carrying a deadly cargo designed to kill 80,000 spectators at once crashing over the top tier of the Miami Orange Bowl as the screen goes to black. The End. Not on your nellie, mister! We paid top dollar for that goddamned book, and it’s not ending that way! Frankenheimer (who surely should have known he couldn’t get away with it) was forced to shoot additional sequences that conformed more closely to Harris’ book (although Kabakov does not go down with the ship—er, blimp—as he does in the novel) and it’s a good thing he was. Audiences who sat through a splendidly exciting two hour thriller to be greeted with that ending would have been ready to set a bomb off under the filmmakers themselves. The foregoing presumably accounts for Black Sunday’s unusually long running time (2 hours, 23 minutes) and the presence in its credits of three screenwriters (the estimable Ernest Lehman and Ivan Moffat as well as Kenneth Ross, the scenarist of the Day of the Jackal adaptation.) It may also explain some rather paltry blue-screen imagery in the movie’s final quarter hour, surely not the fault of John A. Alonzo, the movie’s accomplished director of photography. Not that any of it did Paramount much good: By the time the movie was in release, it had been beaten to the nation’s screens by a cheapjack Charlton Heston Super Bowl disaster picture called Two-Minute Warning, and, while it was the studio’s biggest grosser in 1977, it still didn’t do enough business to matter. No one’s pictures did that year, except a certain space-fantasy released by 20th Century-Fox.

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The aftermath of the bomb test: Bruce Dern extols the beauty of its symmetry to an unnerved Marthe Keller. One of John A. Alonzo’s most eloquent visual effects.

Cavils aside, Black Sunday was and remains a superb example of the thriller genre, at which Frankenheimer excelled. He was, of course, a brilliant director of drama as well—All Fall Down, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Fixer, The Gypsy Moths, The Iceman Cometh—but it is as an assured maker of action pictures that his larger reputation rests: Seven Days in May, The Train, Seconds, French Connection II, The Challenge, Ronin and, supremely, The Manchurian Candidate. The sheer logistics in his pictures took a steady head, and here Frankenheimer not only staged an exciting speed-boat chase and an agonizing, long, palm-dampening climax but had as well to accommodate thousands of sports fans at an Orange Bowl event. Not to mention the presumably nervous heads of the Goodyear Company. There is a single, continuous panning shot late in the movie which begins by following the car driven by Marthe Keller, floats up to the top tier of the Orange Bowl; and down again onto the field to pick up Robert Shaw’s eminently familiar face that is as breathtaking as it is un-ostentatious. It’s the kind of thing Spielberg became a master of, but very few picture makers other than perhaps David Lean could have carried off at that time with such seeming nonchalance.

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The producer, Robert Evans, with Frankenheimer on-set.

Keller herself is problematic, as she so often was, and the script fudges her character’s origins to oblige her Germanic roots, but the lethal Dahlia should ideally have been played by an Arabian actress. Then again, which one would have been an acceptable enough substitution to feature above the title? No such qualms concern Bruce Dern as the movie’s chief psychopath. It’s the sort of role that Dern must have resented at the time (they came to him so often) but he triumphs over the typecasting. That Michael Lander is a Vietnam vet could have been problematic. This was, after all, the era of the Nixonian lie which claimed without any evidence that such soldiers were spat on in airports, and in which so many convenient fictional villains were vets.

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Dern’s Michael Lander in full-on madman mode. Keller’s Dahlia knows him too well to register surprise.

Michael’s experiences as a prisoner of war reduced to a coerced statement of Quisling complicity by his captors during the war, and subjected to unconscionably cavalier bureaucratic treatment by the brass after, counteract that conventional narrative ploy, making him emotionally unpredictable in a way the audience can easily comprehend… although it must be said that the Michael of the movie is nowhere near as frightening a figure as he is in Harris’ book; there’s a moment in the latter where, to make a point, he pushes a kitten down a kitchen sink garbage-disposal that shocked me when I read it AT 15, and has remained vivid in my consciousness ever after. Really, I’d prefer to see that nowhere aside from the cinema of my mind.

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Detente: Shaw with the marvelous Walter Gottel.

Shaw must have relished both his paycheck, his top billing, and the opportunity to play a quietly heroic (if perhaps necessarily pitiless) hero after so many years of villainy: As that cold sociopath “Red” Grant in From Russia with Love (1963), a scarily mercurial Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, the equally dangerous Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, the chilling Mr. Blue in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the Ahab-like Quint of Jaws, and even the Sheriff of Nottingham, in Robin and Marian. Kabakov is as dangerous as any of these, but more messily human. It is, after all, his unwillingness to gun down the vulnerable Dahlia at the beginning of the picture that makes the entire Black Sunday operation in Miami possible.

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Fritz Weaver with Shaw in the extended, nerve-wracking climax.

The great Fritz Weaver does his usual impeccable work as Kabakov’s FBI coeval; Michael V. Gazzo turns up as a sleazy go-between subjected to a typically brutal bit of questioning by the Israeli (whose ironic nickname in the Mossad is “The Final Solution”); William Daniels provides a nice turn as a sympathetic V.A. psychologist; and Walter Gotell, the splendidly multifarious General Gogol of the Roger Moore Bonds, shows up as a finely-judged Arabian ambassador. Frankenheimer himself can be glimpsed, briefly, in what those who worked with would recognize as his occasionally manic directorial mode as a CBS television director. In this splendid ensemble only the rather blank-faced Keller fails to land. The character of Dahlia was altered here from Palestinian in the Harris novel to German to accommodate her obvious Swiss origins, but her presence among so fine a cast is a puzzler. Then again, the entirety of her 1970s stardom itself never made a great deal of sense to me. She isn’t terrible, but she’s barely adequate, and, in this company, that’s nearly as bad.

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Shaw’s brutal interrogation of Michael V. Gazzo

Mention should be made here of Tom Rolph’s kinetic editing, and of Alonzo’s use of the hand-held camera, becoming rarer in those early days of the Steadicam and used here for its deliberate effect of documentary immediacy. John Williams was, at the time, not yet a household name even after composing the then-ubiquitous Jaws theme. (In a couple of months, everyone would know his name.) This may account for Paramount’s deigning to release a soundtrack album, which seems to me to have been a major miscalculation, as Williams’ score is absolutely integral to the success of the picture. (It was, thankfully, released in full thirty-three years later by Film Score Monthly.) Its main theme is an ominous twelve-note phrase (three clusters of four notes each, with a single variation in the second phrase) that, repeated, becomes a melodic accompaniment to Frankenheimer’s visuals, sowing the seeds of dread early on (although not, interestingly, during the picture’s opening credits, which are played out sans music) and carrying through to the end titles, during which a nervously triumphant fanfare takes over, one that anticipates similar thematic phrases in Williams’ later scores for Dracula and The Fury (both 1978) and that hints at an uneasy truce. This isn’t The End, that composition seems to suggest, merely a temporary lull—a sentiment his compatriot Spielberg would one day echo at the end of his own depiction of terrorism and its bloody aftermath. That we end with a nod to Munich seems appropriate to the inspiration for Black Sunday itself. Such calculated ideological violence is itself a circle, a deafening parabola from whose deathish, ironic reverberations we never seem to learn.

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Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross

My Five Favorite Movies

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By Scott Ross

I hope to write at length about each of these titles, but for the moment this set of capsules will have to suffice.

5. Jaws (1975) On the basis of this item alone, Steven Spielberg must be regarded as one of the most talented people to ever stand behind a movie camera. The source was pure potboiler, the shooting went on and on and on, the crew’s activities were stymied by a mechanical shark that couldn’t work. And out of this chaos, Spielberg delivered a masterpiece — in what was only his second theatrical feature. The time spent waiting for the shark to function added to the movie’s special quality of life observed: the co-scenarist, Carl Gottlieb (Peter Benchley did the first draft) was on hand to add punch to the script, and the actors spent so much time together that their relationships (and improvisations) made for an especially rich character palette. And, since a working shark was largely absent, Spielberg made a virtue from a deficit by not showing the monster fully until well into the picture — the unseen menace is much more terrifying. Side-note: Roy Scheider improvised the famous “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” line on the set. With Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary and John Williams’ spectacularly effective orchestral score.

4. Pinocchio (1940) Bar none the greatest animated movie ever made in this country, and the finest work of Walt Disney’s long career. Its failure, along with that of Fantasia, caused Disney to retreat from conscious art to conscious kitsch — one of the great tragedies in popular American art. Pinocchio has never been as popular in its various reissues as more comforting fare such as Cinderella, and it’s a dark movie, no question. The Pleasure Isle transformation of Pinocchio’s truant pal Lampwick into a donkey ranks among the most terrifying animated sequences ever created, and there’s a truly disturbing image of an ax hurled at a smiling, immobile marionette that’s the stuff of childhood nightmares. But it’s an enchanting picture overall, from its great Leigh Harline-Paul Smith score to the inspired voice work of Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. The movie has a deep, detailed look unparalleled in animated features and, in the whale chase, one of the most excitingly executed cartoon sequences ever put on film. I can’t hear Cliff Edwards’ pure, ethereal falsetto on the high notes at the end of “When You Wish Upon a Star” without chills running up my back.

3. Cabaret (1972) In another post I said Singin’ in the Rain was the best musical ever made, and I meant it: Bob Fosse’s transliteration of the Broadway hit Cabaret is less a musical than a drama with musical numbers. Only one of them occurs outside the context of the creepily seductive Berlin nightclub where Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles performs, and that isn’t a production number (the movie doesn’t really have any) but an impromptu anthem by an angelic-looking Aryan Youth that builds into a terrifyingly musical mob statement of National Socialistic fealty. Based rather loosely by Jay Presson Allen on the show and on its source, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin StoriesCabaret goes much further into the original’s slightly veiled sexuality than any other version of this material prior to the recent Broadway revival of the stage musical. (Isherwood famously described Michael York’s homosexuality in the movie as something undesirable and uncontrollable, “like bed-wetting” and was heard to say, after a screening, “It’s a goddamn lie! I never slept with a woman in my life!”) Is it condescending? I don’t think so. Fosse and Allen (and “consultant” Hugh Wheeler) never condemn York’s bisexual adventures, and you have to take their version of Isherwood as merely a single variation on the original material. (Although Minnelli’s using it as a pretext against marrying York is a bit much; would the real Sally Bowles have cared?) In any case, the look of the movie is overwhelming — it’s how we now think the Berlin of 1929 must have felt — and Fosse’s editing style dazzles no matter how often you’ve seen the movie. York is sumptuous to look at and, with his slightly shy smile and Isherwood-like haircut, perfectly cast. Minnelli was never better, or more controlled, and Joel Grey’s Emcee becomes a truly Mephistophelean figure, commenting on the action and winking lewdly. With Helmut Griem as the sexy bisexual count who woos both Minnelli and York, and, memorably, Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson as the ill-met lovers. The faux-Kurt Weill songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb are about as good as you can get.

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) The most entrancing movie I’ve ever seen. I can vividly remember sitting in a crowded theatre in 1977, with almost no foreknowledge of the story, and feeling this great, empathic fantasy wash over me like annealing waters. Steven Spielberg may have greater audience popularity with Jaws, E.T. and Jurassic Park and won his Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but Close Encounters is his true masterwork. It’s the most benign alien-invasion movie ever made, and full of wonders. (The special effects look so natural in large part because Spielberg shot them in standard ratio and then had the images blown up to widescreen.) Richard Dreyfuss makes a perfect Everyman, Francois Truffault’s face shines with gentle passion, and little Cary Guffey is an absolute amazement. The perfectly integrated score is, of course, by John Williams.

1. Some Like it Hot (1959) My favorite movie, and arguably the funniest comedy made after the advent of sound. Billy Wilder and co-scenarist I.A.L. Diamond took an episode from a forgotten German comedy and expanded it into a breakneck farce that took in gangland massacres, sexual duplicity, homosexual implication and transvestitism, turning it into one of the cheeriest comedies in movie history. Marilyn Monroe, famously unreliable, is luminous — when she’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off her. The only fault I can finds in Tony Curtis’ defining performance as an unrepentant heel is that, in the persona of “Josephine,” his falsetto was provided by Paul Frees. But it is Jack Lemmon, whooping it up as “Geraldine,” who gives the movie’s greatest performance. It’s so inspired it seems to have come (as Lemmon always claimed the character was anyway) from the moon. Lemmon was, and is, my favorite actor, and for all his fine work (in The Apartment, Irma La Douce, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race, “Save the Tiger,” The China Syndrome, Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross) I don’t think he was ever better than he is here. This is Billy Wilder’s ultimate masterpiece, the movie that summed up everything he could do without breaking a sweat. The great Joe E. Brown has the classic final line — which Wilder always claimed was written by Diamond, and vice-versa.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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By Scott Ross

32 years ago — Christ, I’ve gotten old — and despite the enormous success of Jaws and Stark Wars, popcorn movies were not yet the sole type of movie the Hollywood studios produced, or understood how to make. That fundamental shift was certainly in process, but only as a faintly detectable tremor. You could still go to the theatres and see, on a pretty regular basis, the likes of Prince of the City, Blow Out, Pennies from Heaven, S.O.B., True Confessions — my god, even a full-on epic about American Communists (Reds)! Even flawed items like First Monday in October, Fort Apache, the Bronx, On Golden Pond, Ragtime, Thief, Absence of Malice, Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice were, whatever their individual shortcomings, made by and for an adult audience. There were comedies that were, mirabile dictu, actually funny — and occasionally pointed (Arthur, Buddy Buddy, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, The Four Seasons) and even the genre pictures (Dragonslayer, Wolfen, The Howling) were beautifully crafted, intelligently conceived and written, stylishly made, and either had something pertinent to say or engaged their audiences on a level above the sub-literate.

I suppose the enormous success of Raiders was more than partly responsible for what was to come. Certainly the movie’s two most important creative forces, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, produced, separately, some of the worst and most dispiriting garbage of the decade (The Goonies, The Land Before Time, Howard the Duck, Willow.) But, as Larry Gelbart once noted of television executives, in a phrase equally applicable to movie suits, “You don’t even have to say to them, ‘Steal.’ That’s all they know how to do.”

At the moment of its release, however, Raiders of the Lost Ark was a great blast of fresh, escapist air. About the movie itself, going in on opening night all I knew about it were the images on the evocative Richard Amsel poster, a copy of which I’d picked up as a radio station giveaway

and the Big Names associated with it. I was entirely unprepared for the inspired set-pieces, or for an opening sequence that packed as much of an electric wallop as the finales of most adventure pictures.

I’m no fan of Lawrence Kasdan’s as a writer-director yet even I must admit his work with Lucas— Raiders and, especially, Kasden’s screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back* — enriched those movies immeasurably. It’s probably no accident that those two back-to-back productions represent the best work either has done. But there’s a telling name in the “Story By” credits: Philip Kaufman. As author and director of White Dawn, the marvelously witty and atmospheric 1978 Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Wanderers, The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it may be Kaufman who is ultimately responsible for the strong narrative arc, the engaging quirkiness of the movie’s characters and (perhaps) its Howard Hawks-like central romance.

Harrison Ford, until Raiders primarily known and remembered as the scruffily charming Han Solo, was revelatory here. Doctor Indiana Jones is almost the diametric opposite of Solo in bearing, temperament and essential character: Solemn were Han was ebullient, witty where the space jockey was more of a smart-ass, as phlegmatic as Solo was excitable. He was also one of the few men I’ve ever seen who could carry off a two-day beard — a look not nearly as ubiquitous (nor as studied) in 1981 as it has since become.

One of the wonders of the movie is the infinitely varied presence of the great Karen Allen as Indy’s inamorata. Delightfully freckled in an industry that views facial blemishes in a woman as a sin rivaled only by passing the age of forty, Allen’s Marion Ravenwood is spunky, irritable, sexy, adorable — a perfect match for Jones. None of the women in the subsequent sequels comes close to Allen in sheer strength of personality; she’s as womanly as she is formidable, and never less than utterly engaging.

Raiders is a movie full of splendid curlicues and delightful accidents. Jones, while hardly macho in the Schwarzenegger mold, is the modern equivalent of the unflappable Saturday matinee serial heroes  (Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon) Lucas was both emulating and updating. Yet the filmmakers were willing to wink at the audience by sending their hero up, especially in the early admission of ophidiophobia and its ultimate payoff, when Jones and Marion are sealed in the ancient tomb filled with cobras and their slithering kin.

One of the most effective moments in the movie was entirely un-planned. As originally scripted, Jones, menaced by an ostentatiously scimitar-wielding Arab, was to engage with the brute physically. Ford as suffering from a cold that day and asked a personal privilege. The way he, Lucas and Spielberg handled the moment, with disarming comedy that utterly reversed audiences’ expectations and left them cheering and laughing at the sheer, demented logic of it, was probably better, and more memorable, than the scene as written. (It also opened the movie up to a patently ridiculous charge of xenophobia.)

The supporting characters were carefully cast with then-unknowns (Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, Alfred Molina) whose very anonymity lent a freshness to their various evocations of movie “types.” The score, by John Williams, provided not merely an indelible new movie march to his growing pantheon of almost uncannily memorable themes, but was brilliantly devised, and composed, for maximum harmonic impact. The great Douglas Slocombe provided the atmospheric cinematography, and Speilberg’s later cutter of choice, Michael Kahn, was responsible for the movie’s kinetic editing (with an un-credited assist from Lucas.)

There’s a charming moment, early in the film, where Indy is instructing his college archeology class. As the students file out, one boy, eyes averted, slaps an apple on teacher’s desk. I’ve seen impassioned idiot threads on the ‘net in which the movie’s aficionados argue this simple spin on the old classroom cliche endlessly. Not one of them gets that the student is gay, and rushes out of the room in embarrassment at his own (and, in the 1930s, dangerous) declaration of a school-boy crush. Do filmmakers now have to insert subtitles on these things so even the slowest member of the audience understands the jokes?

*Although the Empire screenplay is credited to Kasen and Leigh Brackett, that venerable scenarist died well before the movie was made and, while she is probably as responsible as Lucas for many of the movie’s darker narrative contours, he was reportedly unhappy with her work and hired Kasden to punch up the script.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Nixon (1995)

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By Scott Ross

JFK made an almost infinitely greater amount of money and received far more press, but Nixon is, to my eyes and ears, Oliver Stone’s masterpiece: A sharp, sprawling, often astonishingly fulsome character portrait of Shakespearean depth and tragic overtone. Stone and his co-scenarists, Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, offer a remarkably supple and surprisingly sympathetic characterization of the 20th century’s Richard III, evoking a strange pity even in those, like this writer, who despise our 38th President in nearly every particular. Stone and his collaborators are abetted enormously by the central performance by Anthony Hopkins which is remarkable on any number of levels, not the least of which is his intelligent eschewing of either direct imitation or prosthetics. Joan Allen gives a shattering performance as Pat Nixon, and Mary Steenburgen’s steely presence as Nixon’s immovable mother Hannah gives you a stunning understanding of just how searing it must have been to his psyche to have that women — whom he repeatedly, and one feels, reflexively, referred to as “a saint” — for a mother. The supporting cast is astonishing: David Hyde Pierce as John Dean, Paul Sorvino as Kissinger, Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell, Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and especially the great James Woods as H.R. Haldeman.

Powers Boothe, E.G. Marshall, David Paymer, the late J.T. Walsh, Brian Bedford, Tony Goldwyn, Edward Herrmann, Fyvush Finkel, Larry Hagman, John Cunningham, George Plimpton and James Karen also appear.

John Williams wrote a spectacularly successful score, and the hyper-kinetic editing is by Brian Berdan and Hank Corwin. The DVD is worth watching for a chilling sequence, cut from the theatrical release, between Nixon and Sam Waterson as CIA director Richard Helms. The only embarrassing moments are those concerning Hoskins’ Hoover, all too winkingly informed by Stone’s Monday morning political quarterbacking; if you know anything about Hoover’s circumspection, you can only roll your eyes as he cruises Marine guards at Tricia Nixon’s wedding. (These scenes also recall the unsettling homophobia of JFK, which seemed to endorse the reprehensible theory that a cabal of fags were responsible for Kennedy’s murder. Well, what can you expect of a movie that lionizes Jim Garrison?)

The box-office failure of a movie as intelligent and impassioned as Nixon brings into broad relief the difficulty of (and Hollywood’s sadly justifiable resistance to) creating rigorous political movies. Americans do not like their history unless it is burnished by celebratory whitewashing.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross