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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Munich poster

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.

Munich film World trade center

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.

Muchich - Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig

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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. 

The picture’s ended (but the imagery lingers on)

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By Scott Ross

When I first saw Alien in 1979, knowing almost nothing about it, and John Hurt gave birth to the chest-burster, I had my first attack of hyperventilation and nearly had to be taken out of the theatre. Seeing it again last night, promoted me think of other movies whose introduction into my life were experiences so intense that their initial impact has never wholly faded. The reasons vary, but what unites these disparate threads is the simple power of images—the thing that has enthralled 100 years of movie-going audiences. And even if, as I sadly believe, the movies’ best days are behind them, the images remain, behind the third eye as it were, always available for re-screening at the hint of mental recall. Here, the first titles that occur to me, and that had the greatest, and most lasting, impact.

bert_chimney-sweeps_mary-poppins

Mary Poppins: Very possibly the first movie I “saw,” at a drive-in with my parents, in 1964 or ’65. Being used to early bedtimes I fell asleep fairly quickly, but woke up to see the Banks children being approached by the old crone and menaced by the dog in the alley. When I saw it again, in the early 1970s during a reissue, that scene was still vivid in my mind. (As I also remember the “Step in Time” number, I think I stayed awake, as the Sherman Brothers’ song impelled, after that.)

irmaladouceIrma La Douce: This was the second movie I remember “seeing,” again at a drive-in. Must have been in 1965, when it ran in a double-feature with Tom Jones. Again, I was asleep for most of it, but remember waking up and seeing a woman with dark hair in a sleeping-mask. Fast-forward to 1972 or so, and watching it with the family on television. When Shirley MacLaine put on the sleeping mask, I had an instant flashback to that night at the drive-in. Imagine; one of my earliest movie memories is of a racy comedy about a Parisian prostitute and her mec!

WizardWest2The Wizard of Oz: On my first viewing, around age 5, I was so terrified of Margaret Hamilton’s witch I hid behind the sofa whenever she was on-screen. I did the same thing, 3 years or so later, when Darby O’Gill and the Little People was reissued, crouching down on the theatre floor at the first sight of the wailing banshee, and begging my sister to tell me when it was gone.

Lampwick2Pinocchio: One of the first movies I saw in North Carolina after the family moved there from Ohio in 1971. The transformation of Lampwick into a donkey stayed with me for decades. A nightmare sequence, terrible in its delineation of panic, terror and hopelessness. Only later, as an adult, did I come to appreciate the totality of this exceptional achievement, its beauty and its astonishing pictorial texture.

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1776: Say what you will about this one, to have come at me at the age of 11, when I was just beginning to become immersed in theatre, musicals and American history, the movie was an instant touchstone.

Cabaret7Cabaret: I saw this on a reissue, the night after having seen the original musical play in a surprisingly fine a dinner-theatre production, a present for my 12th birthday. At first I was disappointed; the movie was so different. I had been an avid listener of the 1967 cast album, borrowed repeatedly from a local library, and I missed those songs. (I was not yet the Isherwood maven I would become.) But it grew on me, steadily. I was absolutely dazed by Bob Fosse’s staging, editing and choreography, unaccountably both titillated and disappointed by the ménage that never happens, and highly amused when Michael York exploded, “Oh, screw Maximilian!”, Liza Minnelli responded coolly, “I do,” and York, after an initial shock, smiled and riposted, “So do I.” That exchange also tickled by best friend, with whom I saw the movie, and for personal reasons it would take me some time to understand… as it would to comprehend my own, nascent and very buried, sexuality.

gone-with-the-wind-gone-with-the-wind-4376036-1024-768Gone with the Wind: Love it, loathe it, dismiss it or embrace it, to see this movie on a big screen, at 13, with my mother and sister, was one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my early adolescence. The dolly-in on Clark Gable’s face (“Wow!” I whispered to my mother); Hattie McDaniel’s big, broad face; the removal of the Confederate soldier’s leg; the massive crane shot of Scarlett at the depot; the burning of Atlanta; the collapse of her horse as she sights Tara; the shooting of the renegade Union soldier; Scarlett’s “morning after” smile; her fall down the stairs; the deaths of O’Hara, Bonnie Blue and Melanie. When one is older, one can roll one’s eyes at the appalling “happy darkies workin’ for Massa,” but also more fully appreciate the rich humor of the thing, and the sheer prowess David O. Selznick showed in putting it together.

jaws-30th-anniversary-edition-20050617034815619Jaws: Seen in 1975, when it opened. Sure, I remembered poor Ben Gardner’s head scaring the bejeezus out of Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw being eaten whole. But the images that haunted me were: The shots of Roy Scheider trying to see past the beach-goers wandering past his field of vision; the dolly zoom (a simultaneous zoom-forward/dolly-back) close-up of Scheider’s face as little Alex Kintner is attacked; and the scene of Scheider racing to the estuary. I think Spielberg’s direction really introduced me that day to the power of moving-picture images on a technical as well as emotional level.

Marathon Man - is it safeMarathon Man: The first “R”-rated movie I saw, in 1976. The sense of unnerving terror that permeates the narrative, exploding here and there as it unfurls, driving toward a violent, ironic climax. Although I had read William Goldman’s popular novel before seeing his re-imagining of it and knew what to expect of plot and character, nothing prepared me for the creeping dread, the elegantly shot and edited set-pieces with their seemingly incongruous blood and violence and horror, that John Schlesinger brought to it. Pauline Kael complained that director and film were a mis-match; that his direction was too stylish and accomplished—too serious—for what she regarded as pulp material, but I demur. It is precisely the luminous, autumnal glow and gleaming elegance of surface that make the ensuing action of the movie so disturbing and disorienting.

closeencountersdoorClose Encounters of the Third Kind: Deliberately knowing as little as I could about it, I saw this on its second weekend. (Although my loose-lipped high school newspaper advisor, who’d seen it the opening week, spoiled the Devil’s Tower mystery for our entire class.) When you aren’t aware, in advance, of whether the visitors are malign or not—and, really, even if you are—the sequence in which little Barry is abducted is absolutely terrifying. When the screws on the floor heating vent unscrewed by themselves, sending poor Gillian into a justifiable panic, we were right there with her. Yet this is the most benign of all UFO movies, and, at 16, the most completely entrancing movie I had ever seen.

1978-AN-UNMARRIED-WOMAN-006An Unmarried Woman: I saw this one solo, as was often the case at that time. I was working at a local movie theatre, had a pass, and went to damn near everything. While by no means a humorless feminist screed, Paul Mazursky’s magnificently textured exploration of what happens to one, rather typical New Yorker, when her husband of many years dumps her for a younger woman was revelatory. It seemed impossible for a man—a modern writer, anyway—to have conceived it, let alone written and directed such a complete portrait. I went back to it over and over, always bringing a woman with me (my sister, once, close friends at other times.) It feels now as though the movie came from another time, or a distant planet, where it was not only possible to make such things, but to get large numbers of people, of both genders, to see them.

Alien H3kO0Alien: I know I run the risk of admission to fogiedom when I say this, but for anyone who wasn’t there in 1979, it’s almost impossible to describe the impact Alien had on we who saw it when it was new. The working-class grunginess, the slowly building terror, the genuine shocks, the unsettlingly sensual biomechanical Giger designs, the sheer, unholy scale of the thing, were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. It was the anti-“Star Wars,” the acid-bath flip-side of Close Encounters. Movies were tough then, but seldom quite this tough—or this unrelentingly dark and claustrophobic. Few movies I’ve seen before or since have had that kind of impact. And they did it all by hand.

AllThatJazzScheider_zps9e1f9e94All That Jazz: My Star Wars—the movie I saw repeatedly over the first year or two of its release, and never tied of. For a budding playwright, besotted with theatre and longing to secure my own place in it, this mad, flamboyant epic, with its incendiary editing, hallucinatory structure, and obsession with death, became for me a kind of rite of passage.

Richard Pryor in Concert 364455-1Richard Pryor in Concert. Pryor’s first solo effort was, and remains, the single funniest movie I’ve ever seen. We were, quite literally, falling, if not out of our chairs, at least so far forward we risked serious injury, and our faces ached from laughing for some time afterward. Genius, unfettered and unrestrained, given full play, as it never was in any of his more traditional narrative movies, which somehow could not meet, match or contain the troubled meteor at its center.

goodfellas_bar_sceneGoodFellas: Arguably the most exhilarating tour de force movie of its decade. No one limns the easy allure of crime, or the shocking availability and prevalence of sudden violence quite like Scorsese.

lawrence-of-arabia-2Lawrence of Arabia: I’d seen it once, on a very small, black-and-white television. I was given the widescreen cassettes of David Lean’s restoration as a present, and to call that an improvement on my initial exposure would be comparable to noting that a sachertorte beats a Moon Pie. But finally getting to see the “Director’s Cut” on a big screen, in a theatre, knocks every previous viewing from the memory, replacing it with splendor few movies ever provide. Not merely the stunning desert vistas or the big set-pieces, but the enigma at its center, exemplified, if never fully explained, by Peter O’Toole’s magnificent performance.

the-wild-bunch-the-walkThe Wild Bunch: Another “Director’s Cut” experience, and one that left me literally, not figuratively, dazed for about a week afterward. No other movie I know, even Scorsese’s, is more concerned with violence—its effect as well as its execution. From the opening massacre, and the dreadful sight of the scorpions beset by an army of ants that forms perhaps too easy a metaphor but remains indelible, to the horses falling to the water, to the final walk of the Bunch and their terrible end, Sam Peckinpaw had me by the throat, and kept on choking.

Tired of being disappointed over and over again, I go to few new movies now. Two, I think, in the past six or seven years. But in a sense, I really don’t need to. I’m not an adolescent or a thrill-junkie, and anyway, the imagery that remains embedded in my memory from forty and more years ago and remains so vivid still does not require jostling, and certainly not replacing. I’m still discovering older movies, on disc, that, whatever their age, are new to me and that more than fulfill my requirements, so it isn’t that I’m not open to new images. But with such a rich store, I just don’t need them.

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

She went through my soul: “Poltergeist” (1982)

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By Scott Ross

A catch-phrase that really caught on.

A catch-phrase that really caught on.

For every avid filmgoer there are those rare, popular movies whose first viewing are so powerful they alter the contours of experience. For this viewer, Poltergeist was one of the most indelible.

If, as I do, you love good horror movies, or ghost stories, your love is apt to be largely un-requited, and disappointed on a fairly regular basis. There simply have not been enough great ones. There are those that make an enormous impact on the wider culture but which, over time, can seem nugatory at best, ludicrous at worst. The 1931 Dracula is a fine (or rather, not so fine) example of the phenomenon. Seen today, this early talkie is beset by the technical limitations of the nascent sound-film; static dialogue sequences, stilted performances, and great long periods of sleep-inducing ennui. Stack Bela Lugosi’s hammy, self-regarding turn as the Count against Boris Karloff’s magnificent, shockingly sympathetic performance as Frankenstein’s Creature that same year, and its deficiencies become almost overwhelming. The only performer who really registers in Dracula is the unfortunate Dwight Frye, doomed as he was to increasingly minor roles, as Renfield; he’s as over-the-top as Lugosi, but his bizarre inflections and terrifyingly mad grin stay with you.

Dwight Frye

Dwight Frey as Renfield.

The master list of truly great horror movies, alas, add up to a paltry few: Frankenstein; King Kong (1933); The Invisible Man (1933); The Bride of Frankenstein (1935); The Thing (from Another World) (1951); Dead of Night (1945; the influential ventriloquist sequence starring Michael Redgrave, anyway); a few of the RKO Val Lewtons (the 1942 Cat People and the 1945 The Body Snatcher especially); the 1960 Hamer Brides of Dracula (if only for Peter Cushing’s jaw-dropping self-cauterization of the vampire’s bite); Psycho (1960, although it’s less a horror picture per se than an all-too human, contemporary shocker); Rosemary’s Baby (1968), less horrific than unsettling, especially if you’re a woman who has ever experienced or even contemplated pregnancy, and far funnier than was noted at the time; perhaps Planet of the Apes (1968); The Legend of Hell House 1971); The Exorcist (1973); Jaws (1975); Carrie (1976); Alien (1979); Dressed to Kill (1980); the woefully under-seen The Changeling (1980) and Wolfen (1981); Fright Night (1985); Aliens (1986); The Silence of the Lambs (1990), more police procedural, perhaps, than outright horror, and what you don’t see is more chilling than what you do; Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and The Sixth Sense (1999). Television manged to produce two masterworks in The Night Stalker and Duel (both 1971), one very good, if desperately truncated adaptation (of Stephen King’s IT, 1990) and very little else since.

I recognize that I’ve left off this list a number of accepted “classics” of the genre—The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920); London After Midnight (1927); Black Sunday (1960); The Innocents (1961); Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978); The Abominable Doctor Phibes (1971); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)—and can only offer the feeble but nonetheless binding excuse that I’ve never seen them. I also realize I’ve omitted any number of movies others love. The simple explanation is, I don’t happen to share the enthusiasm of the mavens for items like the following, whatever their individual or incidental accomplishments: The 1925) Phantom of the Opera (despite Lon Chaney’s extraordinary performance, and unforgettably grotesque appearance); The Mummy (1932); Freaks (1932, whose final image is so disturbing I cannot bring myself to watch the movie a second time… and what is the use of a “classic” you can’t bear to see again?); The Island of Lost Souls (1932); The Uninvited (1944), to which Poltergeist owes an obvious debt; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); the deeply unpleasant Peeping Tom (1960); Village of the Damned (1960); The Birds (1963); The Tomb of Ligeia (1964); and The Haunting (1963), which isn’t a patch on Shirley Jackson’s superb novel, except in its characterization of the parapsychologist’s wife, who in the book is a characaturish, meddlesome battle-ax.

Others are good but, by greater or lesser degrees, manage to skirt greatness: The Barrymore Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920); The Old Dark House (1932); The Wolf Man (1941), hobbled as it is by the appallingly amateurish performance of Lon Chaney, Jr.; perhaps the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (if you ignore its reactionary McCarthy-ite allegory); The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957); Theatre of Blood (1973, which is ultimately too mean-spirited to be wholly enjoyable); Halowe’en (1978, fatally marred by the supernatural implications at the end); the satirical 1978 Philip Kaufman version of Body-SnatchersAn American Werewolf in London (1981); The Company of Wolves (1984); the funny-frightening Arachnophobia (1990); Interview with a Vampire (1994); and, perhaps, Tim Burton’s 1999 Washington Irving fantasia Sleepy Hollow (and even his and John Logan’s 2007 adaptation of the Sondheim-Wheeler Sweeney Todd.)

Similarly, while I love it with an affection one reserves for Three Stooges shorts, Deep Rising (1998) can hardly be counted among the masterworks in the field any more than its writer-director Stephen Sommers’ later Mummy movies. And while there are horror comedies I hold in esteem—Bob Hope’s 1940 romp The Ghost-Breakers, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), Ghostbusters (1984), Beetlejuice (1988), even the 1974 Young Frankenstein—these must be accounted as special institutions and not really what we mean when we talk about great horror movies.

(It’s a mark of real deficiency in the genre to note that horror’s most successful late 20th century practitioner has had so few good adaptations. Aside from Carrie, most of the 1983 Cujo and parts of the otherwise ludicrous 1980 Kubrick edition of The Shining, Stephen King’s work has produced only one great transliteration—and, at that, not a horror picture at all: Frank Darabont’s 1994 The Shawshank Redemption. There is something certifiably wrong with the people who make these things, that King’s batting average as a source is so undernourished.)

The foregoing is to suggest both the paucity of really satisfying cinematic horror, and why Poltergeist was, and remains, a high-water mark for the genre.

I first saw it on a weeknight in early June, just after its opening. The theatre was surprisingly empty, but the small gaggle of teenagers more than made up for the sparse audience, hooting and yakking throughout the first reel. I was on the verge of heading to the lobby to complain when the tree smashed through the window of the children’s bedroom and all Hell broke loose. After that, I never heard a peep from those kids. And that goes some way to suggesting the stunning power of that sequence, which the filmmakers had painstakingly prepared us for during the movie’s first 20 minutes, yet which burst with a suddenness and intensity that was genuinely shocking.

Tobe Hooper, who the credits tell us directed the movie, was widely suspected of being little more than a figurehead on the production, to the point that its producer (and story author) Steven Spielberg  took out an ad in Variety to quell the rumors. His imprint on Poltergeist is not merely evident in its pace and lighting (that tell-tale kukaloris!) but in the way the characters and their milieu are introduced. The first reel of the movie bears an aura similar to sequences of domesticity in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): Fathers, mothers and children in everyday interaction, warm but not idealized. The Freelings—low-key father Stephen (Craig T. Nelson), earthy mom Diane (JoBeth Williams), eye-rolling teenager Dana (Dominique Dunne), overly sensitive son Robbie (Oliver Robbins) and adorable but not precocious youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke)—are normal to the point of being mundane, yet strikingly individualized and almost documentary in their casual, ad-libbed normality; their suburban world is bordered by cookie-cutter architecture, Star Wars posters on the children’s walls… and the cathoid tube.

Carol Anne meets

Carol Anne meets “The TV People.”

Indeed our first important image is of the tube itself, Stephen sprawled out in front of it, asleep, as the broadcast day ends. (Younger viewers may have to have that concept, and the pre-signoff playing of the National Anthem, explained to them; they’ve never known anything except the 24-hour cycle.) And the picture ends with Dad, in a credulity-stretching yet emotionally satisfying moment, banishing the TV from the Freeling’s motel room. Spielberg said the movie was his “revenge on television,” and he wasn’t kidding. Stephen and a neighbor nearly come to blows over control of their remotes, and the small screen, as in so many American households, is ubiquitous; it’s on in every room in which there is a set. Its banalities infect everything; as Diane makes a bed, she’s singing, not the latest pop hit but a then-current Miller Beer jingle. And it is from the television that un-welcome visitors first make themselves known to the little girl and, later, violently forge a portal to the interior walls of the Freeling home. (Side-note: The inclusion in one scene of a clip from A Guy Named Joe is not merely an in-joke for those who know Spielberg’s identification with it; the discussion of the intersection between life and death is very much germaine to Poltergeist.)

The portal opens...

The portal opens…

The opening sections play up this ordinariness bordering on banality… until, at breakfast, some odd things happen: Robbie’s milk glass shatters as he’s holding it, and his silverware curls while he’s not looking. Still, there’s nothing spectacular at play until that amazing moment when Diane turns back to the dining area to see all the chairs stacked on the table. What makes the moment especially startling is the way Hooper keeps Williams and O’Rourke in view throughout; only when Diane turns back and gasps do we see what she does. (I clocked this; the crew had fewer than 7 seconds to remove the chairs around the table and place the stacked ones on top of the table.) It’s this pleasurable little shock that let me know, in 1982, that I was seeing something very different from the normal run of spook-fests.

poltergeist1

The first of many startling moments. Diane: The… TV people? Carol Anne: Un-huh.

Another of Poltergeist‘s prime assets, one that puts it far above the usual run of escapist entertainment, is the lived-in, almost verité quality of the acting. Much of the dialogue in the early sequences has the same ad-libbed feel that gave the domestic scenes in Jaws their verisimilitude—a sense of reality that grounds the characters and that makes the terror, when it explodes, all the more shocking. In private, Stephen and Diane josh each other with an ease of long standing, and the children (young Oliver Robbins especially) perform with a naturalness seldom seen in a major Hollywood production. That Spielberg, whatever his unofficial function here (he is reputed to have been on set nearly every day of the shoot, and Zelda Rubinstein claimed he directed all of her scenes) has a special affinity for, and with, children was evident as early as Jaws, but not even the kids in E.T. have quite the unaffected spontaneity Robbins, Dunne and O’Rourke exhibit here. Robbins’ reaction to realizing he’s hearing Carol Anne’s voice coming from inside the television is so good it brings chills; anyone who’s ever been so frightened he or she could not produce speech, let alone a cry (“Scream, ladies and gentlemen! Scream for your lives!”) will recognize the phenomenon instantly. It’s one I’d never seen done quite so well in a movie before and have since only seen as convincingly once (Laura Dern in another Spielberg, Jurassic Park.)

Robbie

Robbie “finds” Carol Anne. Young Oliver Robbins is almost preternaturally good in this sequence.

Although my library includes a fairly extensive collection of movie “novelizations,” I don’t think I’ve actually read one in 30 years or more. But I sat down with James Kahn’s Poltergeist “tie-in” recently, and found it remarkably fulsome, and markedly different from the finished picture. Unusually, its cover proclaims it as “Based on the Story by Stephen Spielberg and the Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor.” Kahn’s narrative deviates only in that it contains much about the parapsychologist Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight in the movie) and a great deal more about Tangina Barrons, who in the original conception was a woman haunted by her psychic gift, going forth through astral projection to do battle with what she calls “The Beast” on the plain of existence in which little Carol Anne Freeling is trapped. It’s fascinating, and makes Tangina much more central to the narrative; it also reassures the reader about her motives, which in the movie as shot are slightly ambiguous. (Kahn’s source may have been Spielberg’s earlier story-draft, which he eventually conflated with the work of Grais and Victor for the final screenplay.) As it turned out, introducing Lesh and Tangina separately, and after Carol Anne’s disappearance, suits a more streamlined, less amorphous, approach. And here we come to one of the movie’s great strengths: Beatrice Staright’s superb performance.

Martin Casella, Beatrice Straight and Richard Lawson encounter the restless spirits inhabiting the children's bedroom.

Martin Casella, Beatrice Straight and Richard Lawson encounter the restless spirits inhabiting the children’s bedroom.

Dr. Lash and Diane are dumb-struck by what's coming their way.

Dr. Lash and Diane are dumb-struck by what’s coming their way.

Viewers of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network had seen Straight’s stunning rendition of a monologue of grief, anger and rhetorical flourish—although brief, the role, and her reading of it, won her an Oscar. I believe she’s even better in Poltergeist, not least because she’s on screen longer. Dr. Lesh calls upon Straight to exude intellectual rigor, professional competence, mounting terror, and deep, embracing warmth in equal measure. She is, in a way, the beating heart of the movie. Straight has a couple of reactions in Poltergeist that I treasure (her look of shock on seeing Carol Anne’s room in a state of full possession, and the way her hand flutters to her face when the full extent of the Freeling’s un-welcome visitation is made manifest) but her finest scene of masterfully sustained acting is the one in which she talks, in a whisper, to Diane and Robbie. It’s an annealing sequence, beautifully acted, that brings a kind of desperately needed respite from all the supernatural goings-on which precede, and succeed, it. It’s also splendidly written, which is not something one expects, or very often gets, at a spook movie.

Beatrice Straight, as the parapsychologist frightened out of her wits. The lovely sequence in which she whispers the nature of hauntings to little Oliver Robins, is a small master-class in luminous acting.

Beatrice Straight, as the parapsychologist frightened out of her wits. The lovely sequence in which she whispers the nature of hauntings to little Oliver Robins, is a small master-class in luminous acting.

The women of Poltergeist are exceptionally strong, as written and performed, and share a bond that does not extend to the male characters. Diane becomes, in a sense, Supermom by the climax, willing herself through sheer, terrified determination. But Dr. Lesh and (to a smaller but no less plangent extent) Tangina act as surrogate mothers to her as well; these older women’s embraces comfort and sustain her. This intensely feminine aspect went largely un-remarked upon at the time of the movie’s release, but I’ve always felt it lies at the very center of the narrative, and is an essential part of its effectiveness. Motherhood itself is seldom as felt in a movie as it is in Diane’s anxious love. When a sudden gust in the den portends Carol Anne’s presence, Williams’ reaction, alternating from astonishment to joy to nearly hysterical anxiety (“She just moved through me… It’s my baby. She went through my soul…“) are almost palpable. It would take a sterner heart than mine not to melt at that moment.

Zelda Rubinstein. As the Southern-accented psychic, she is dominating, witty and a wholly unexpected delight, even as we are unsure at first how to take her, or even what her motives are.

Zelda Rubinstein. As the Southern-accented psychic, she is dominating, witty and a wholly unexpected delight, even as we are unsure at first how to take her, or even what her motives are.

The entrance of Tangina into the proceedings is so individualized I think it would have been a shame to have introduced her earlier, as Spielberg’s original story suggested. (That Kahn describes the character in the novel as a dwarf presumes that the casting of Rubinstein was no fluke.) Our lack of preparation and “back story” also give her an unknown, and unknowable, quality, and we may be forgiven for wandering, briefly, as Diane does at a crucial moment, whether Tangina is all she says, or some curious agent of The Beast. One drawback, or perhaps unintentional, mis-direction occurs in the finished film that is explained more fully in the novel; when Tangina says of the chief malevolence in the house, “To us, it is The Beast,” the sudden turn of phrase, and the other characters’ reactions to it, lead us to think she is referring to no less a presence in the house than Satan himself, and may cause some confusion as to exactly what we’re seeing later, when Diane is menaced by spectral beast in the movie’s wild, accelerated climax.

There are two additional missteps in the movie as released. The first is the abrupt cut to Stephen and Diane with their genially hostile neighbor, especially as it comes in mid-dialogue. I’ve often wondered what’s missing between those scenes. The second is a rather poor special effect, in a movie almost over-brimming with exceptionally well-executed ones. When Dr. Lesh’s assistant Marty (Martin Cassella) hallucinates in the mirror and begins tearing off the flesh of his face, the countenance in the mirror is so obviously a made-up dummy that it completely dissipates the horror. I think it’s the quality of his hair: Marty’s is loose and lank; the hair on the Marty in the mirror seems plastered down to its head. (In Spielberg’s story, the sequence is even more terrifying, as Marty imagines he’s being overrun, and devoured, first by insects, then by a horde of rats; he later hallucinates turning into The Beast that bit him earlier.)

Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

Signs of Spielbergian oversight: The kukaloris in action.

I remark on this lapse only because the rest of the movie’s effects (executed by ILM) are so spectacularly successful, and so perfectly integrated. This is notably true of the extended climax, in which the house itself seems to be doing its best to deter Diane’s repeated attempts to free Robbie and Carol Anne from the newly opened portal. Her confrontation with The Beast is both beautiful and almost unbearably sacrifying, but the moments leading to, and away from it are rendered with equal panache. There is, first, the way Diane is physically manipulated, up the wall of her bedroom and across the ceiling; it’s the old “upside room” trick, so memorably enacted by Stanley Donen when Fred Astaire dances all over the walls in Royal Wedding, but on a much grander and more astonishing scale. Hitchcock’s simultaneous zoom and pull-back effect in Vertigo has been imitated widely, but only Spielberg has used it appropriately, and twice: Once in Jaws, at the moment Roy Scheider feels most disoriented, fearful and isolated, and here, as Diane attempts to race down a hallway that elongates as she’s running, suddenly shrinking back to normal dimensions as she struggles to move forward. It’s a great moment in a movie filled with them.

Poltergeist - beast

Diane Freeling confronts The Beast.

Craig T. Nelson, like JoBeth Williams, is eminently strong, and equally likable, as Stephen Freeling. I particularly relish the quiet, affectionate manner in which he greets Carol Anne as he’s lowering the den lights (“Hello, Sweetpea”) and the confidence he shows as an actor when confronting his boss (the always dependable James Karen) at the climax. The way his voice careens into nearly incoherent screeching (“You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! You only moved the headstones! Why? Why?”) is deeply impressive. Only a performer of great confidence can afford to let hysteria take over quite so completely without being unmanned by it.

Poltergeist - Nelson Karen and Speileberg

James Karen and Craig T. Nelson sure LOOK as though they’re being directed by Steven Spielberg…

Special mention must be made of Matthew F. Leonetti’s sumptuous cinematography, which is responsible for much of the movie’s effectiveness, and of Michael Kahn’s kinetic editing. Like the direction, it eschews flash in favor of long scenes played with minimal fuss. The sight (and sound) of Beatrice Straight, Oliver Robbins and JoBeth Williams just talking, quietly, is as compelling as any of the more apocalyptic sequences. It’s an art that Hollywood, in its drive to (as they say in the ad biz) “blow you against the back wall of the theatre” has forgotten, seemingly forever.

Gatefold detail of the 2013 Mondo release of a 2-LP vimyl soundtrack album.

Gatefold detail of the 2013 Mondo release of a 2-LP vinyl soundtrack album.

The movie’s greatest collaborator after Hooper and Spielberg, however, is Jerry Goldsmith. Setting aside the annoying book-end device of children’s laughter electronically manipulated to sound like a gaggle of Rosemary’s offspring, the soundtrack LP quickly became one of my personal touchstones. In a career spanning some 50 years of scoring, and taking in everything from intimate drama to special-effects comedy, it would perhaps be unfair to cite Poltergeist as Goldsmith’s masterpiece. But its effectiveness, in what it brings to the movie, and as music, simply cannot be overstated. The “Carol Anne” theme, gentle and haunting at once, is the cornerstone of the score, imbuing the Freeling household with its own sense of innocence touched by something ineffably unsettling. But the “action” cues—particularly “Twisted Abduction,” “Night Visitor,” “Let’s Get Her/Rebirth” and “Night of the Beast”—are so muscular, so chromatically varied, instrumentally complex and gripping, they amount to almost a master-class in what a genius composer can bring to a film which, already strong, is made damn near invincible by his contributions. Sentiment rather than relative merit seemed to dictate Goldsmith’s being shut out at the Academy Awards that year by John Williams’ score for another Spielberg creation. I’m not knocking either Williams or E.T., which in its own rights is a landmark. But the more I listen to the Poltergeist soundtrack, the more convinced I become that this is one of the quintessential movie scores, to be placed in a Pantheon that includes Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Psycho, To Kill a Mockingbird and Jaws as a prime representative of the art.

Much ineluctable noise has been made since 1982 concerning the fates of two of the the three young actors who played the Freeling children, and I don’t intend to rehearse that here… nor to ennoble the specious, insensitive talk of a “curse” attending the movie; Dominque Dunne’s murder was horrific, as was poor little Heather O’Rourke’s demise via medical misadventure. To imply otherwise, to suggest that somehow these young people “tempted” some god of chaos by appearing in a goddamn movie is to dishonor their deaths, and their lives. Just as using the current, odious Hollywood phrase “re-boot” to describe the planned 2015 “remake” of Poltergeist itself is to dignify the ghoulish (and creatively anemic) cinematic equivalent of grave-robbing.

Diane discovers she's not alone in the swimming pool. Do you find yourself thinking of Karen Allen in the tomb of the Ark? (Those skeletons, by the way, were real.)

Diane discovers she’s not alone in the swimming pool. Do you find yourself thinking of Karen Allen in the tomb of the Ark? (Those skeletons, by the way, were real.)

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

A timeless sense of glamour: The graphic art of Richard Amsel

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By Scott Ross

Richard Amsel’s artwork, evocative of earlier eras but infused with a modernist’s wit and self-conscious sense of style, graced the posters for many of the iconic American movies of the 1970s. His magazine cover art, for TV Guide especially, shimmered and his book covers gave his subjects an eloquence to match their own achievements. He died, a victim of the AIDS pandemic, at the obscenely early age of 37, but his best work is a timeless reminder of his own, particular and unduplicable, genius.

1 Amsel

I first encountered this signature, as distinctive as the work it ornamented, on the poster for Murder on the Orient Express in 1974. It became a talisman for me; whenever I saw it, I could feel reasonably sure of a rich visual experience to accompany the signature.

2 Amsel

This, almost unbelievably, is the work of the 18-year old Amsel, for his high school yearbook, in 1965.

3 Amsel

An early self-portrait. As beautiful as he was gifted.

5 Burnett

A delightful portrait of Carol Burnett and her gifted alter-ego, Vicki Lawrence.

6 Lucy

Amsel’s study for a cover portrait of Lucille Ball, commemorating her retirement from regular series television. As glorious as the finished product was, some hint of soul was lost in the process.

7 Lucy

The completed Lucy cover. Amsel said, “I did not want the portrait to be of Lucy Ricardo, but I didn’t want a modern-day Lucy Carter either. I wanted it to have the same timeless sense of glamour that Lucy herself has. She is, after all, a former Goldwyn Girl. I hoped to capture the essence of all this.” He did.

12 Harper

Valerie Harper as Rhoda. Amsel captures the character’s quirky and stylish clothing choices.

20 Divine

The cover of “The Divine Miss M” LP.

17 Babs

Streisand in the curiously appropriate style of Klimt.

19 ClamsAmsel’s artwork for Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half-Shell Revue. Miss M as she might have been seen by Vargas.

18 Midler

The Divine Miss M in her most iconic portrait. A friend tells me, “This was 6 stories high on The Palace Theater in Times Square.”

16 Midler

Midler a la Alphonse Mucha. Artwork for Midler’s “Songs for the New Depression.”

21 Harlettes

Midler’s indispensable backup trio, The Staggering Harlettes.

25 Act One

The marquee will eventually read “Act One: An Autobiography by Moss Hart.”

Interestingly, there are no women in it to speak of in this famous memoir; Hart never mentions girls at all.

26 Sundays

An appropriate shattered Fitzgerald, anchored by a Gatby-esque figure.

 

The unholy marriage of Mucha and Klimt. Sacred (Duse) and profane:

27 Duse28 Madams

29 Selznick

The “star portraits” are a bit of a yawn, but Amsel’s depiction of Selznick captures his intensity, his anxiety, and his essential alone-ness.

31 Comedy Teams

This may have been the first Amsel I ever “owned.”

33 Venus

Marjorie Rosen’s overview of women in American movies is, to me, infinitely superior to Molly Haskell’s much-better-known From Reverence to Rape, and Amsel’s art for the paperback edition makes it that much more of a treat.

34 Gatsby

The mid-’70s era “Gatsby Craze” in full flower.

35 GQ

Another Klimt evocation.

 

38 Woodstock

An early Amsel movie poster, for a cultural icon.

40 Dolly

Hello, Dolly!: Amsel captures the “Gay 90s” feeling, filters it through late 1960s “pop,” and adds a Mucha headdress to promote the musical that nearly broke its studio. If only the film had been a fraction as much fun, and had half as much life, as Amsel’s artwork.

43 McCabe

Amsel’s first poser art for Robert Altman. The saloon-door plank and the carved filigree to either side capture the Western setting while the portraiture suggests the quirky nature of the leads in this, one of the filmmaker’s masterpieces.

44 Doc

A slightly Bob Peak-ish study, for What’s Up, Doc? Amsel limns both the oddball romance of the thing and its classic face nature (note the keys.) Streisand should have hired this man to be her full-time portraitist; she never looked more radiant than she did in one of his drawings.

45 Fuzz

Amsel’s jokey portrait of Burt Reynolds here is a humorous nod to his then-recent Penthouse centerfold as well and the total picture a canny evocation of Frazetta’s crime-caper movie posters of the 1960s.

46 Bean

Another one of those “If only the movie had been as distinguished” Amsel posters. That’s Ava Gardner in the background, as Bean’s inamorata Lily Langtree.

48 Sandbox

A superb Amsel image for Irvin Kershner’s underrated adaptation of the Anne Roiphe novel starring a non-sing Barbra Streisand. Note the integration of the star’s name and the title.

51 Goodbye 49 Goodbye

Variations on a theme: Two different Amsel designs for Robert Altman’s seriocomic (and absurdly overrated) take on Raymond Chandler. That cat in the second poster is planning something especially unsavory.

52 Sting

One of Amsel’s most iconic designs, evoking the Saturday Evening Post of the 1930s.

53 Sting

Amsel based his concept for The Sting on J.C. Lyendecker’s “Arrow Collar” ad. That Lyendecker used his male lover as a model adds an interesting, if unintentional, twist to what was perceived by some critics as the movie’s un-articulated homoerotic undercurrent.

57 Prince

A lovely Amsel image for the last Lerner and Leowe musical, best remembered for Bob Fosse’s marvelous “Snake in the Grass” sand-dance.

58 Murder

I’d seen Amsel’s work before, but his brilliant design for Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express was the first that really captured my attention, in 1974. It’s all there: The evocation of the 1930s, the starry cast, the train, and even the murder weapon. Wouldn’t this make you want to see the movie?

60 Lucky

Amsel’s splendid design for the Stanley Donen mis-fire Lucky Lady. If the movie had been half as good as this…

62 Nashville

An Amsel design for Nashville. Note that he captures the 24 main characters, the country-and-western milieu, and the sense, despite the seemingly amorphous quality of the narrative arc, that something is about to explode.

63 Late Show

Amsel’s brilliant artwork for Robert Benton’s nifty semi-comic meditation on the hard-boiled L.A. gumshoe genre starring Lily Tomlin and Art Carney as a very sane kook and the aging shamus she hires.

65 Tycoon

A striking Amsel design for a very, very bad movie. Elia Kazan directed this supposed evocation of 1930s Hollywood as if he’d never seen a vintage film, let alone directed one. Amsel could have taught Kazan a thing or two about real glamour.

66 Shootisy

John Wayne’s final movie: The Shootist. One dying legend playing another, framed by Amsel faces on a gold and sepia base.

67 Ship

Amsel’s design for Voyage of the Damned. A great subject undone by tepid filmmaking and overwhelmed by a too-starry cast. On the other hand… Where are the comparable faces today who could fill out that cast-list?

68 Solution

Amsel evokes Fin de siècle Vienna (and, again, Alfonese Mucha) in his original design for the marvelous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The final version omits the woman’s arm.

69 Julia

Amsel’s stunning design for Julia. Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman is central, but is dominated both by Jason Robards’ Dashiell Hammett and Vanessa Redgrave’s eponymous figure — less distinct, and idealized, as Julia is for Lillian.

70 NYNY

Striking Amsel concept-art for Martin Scorsese’s ill-fated (and somewhat ill-conceived) New York, New York. The final poster used photos of Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli.

71 Sleep

Mitchum as Marlowe. Candy Clark clings, damsel-in-distress-like to Chandler’s iconic private detective. A lousy movie (when you’ve seen Bogart and Bacall directed by Howard Hawks, why bother?) but a terrific Amsel design.

72 Death

Death on the Nile. It’s a variation on Amsel’s own “Murder on the Orient Express” design, but then the movie —charming as it might be — was a bit of a re-tread too.

73 Paradise

One of the reasons Stallone had to keep making Rocky and Rambo movies: His “big” brainchildren had an unfortunate tendency to flop, as this one did. That design does make you want to see the movie, though.

74 Muppet

Amsel captures the joy of the Muppet’s first movie, along with its highest moment (which came, unfortunately, right at the beginning): Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection.”

76 Norma

Sally Fields’ break-through performance, as Norma Rae Webster. The more well-known posters featured a photo of Fields triumphant, but Amsel’s portrait captures her anxieties and social class.

77 Nijinksy

The unused design for Nijinsky. The golden-hued ballet designs almost overwhelm the central figures (Leslie Browne, George de la Peña and Alan Bates.) Note de la Peña headband, suggesting the sweat behind a great dancer’s art.

78 Nijinsky

The completed Nijinsky design emphasizes the (so-called) love triangle, gives de la Peña sculpted pretty-boy/matinee-idol hair, and opts for a single dance: Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune.

79 Marker

Amsel invokes 1930s screwball comedy, as well as the Damon Runyan characters, for this forgotten remake. Sort of makes you want to shell out your $3.50 to see the movie, though, doesn’t it? And now that Matthau’s gone and Julie is an old lady, I can’t help wanting to see it, on a big screen.

81 Raiders

Amsel’s superb design for the George Lucas/Steven Spielberg Raiders of the Lost Ark, capturing the sepia-era quality of those movie serials that inspired it, the derring-do and brooding nature of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, and the desert setting.

82 Raiders

The completed “Raiders” poster.

83 Raiders

The reissue poster.

84 Woman

Lily and Amsel, together again for The Incredible Shrinking Woman.

87 Star

Amsel was commissioned, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to create this gorgeous design for the restored, rereleased version of A Star is Born. The pose is from the movie (“Here comes a big, fat close-up!”) and was used in the original 1954 ad campaign. Amsel added the spotlights and a change in Garland’s costume.

88 Itch

Amsel captures an iconic moment in American culture for the laser-disc release of what is otherwise Billy Wilder’s worst movie.

89 Counsel

Amsel’s design for this Grahame Green adaptation (also known as Beyond the Limit—as though Green had written some sort of fast ‘80s kiss-kiss/bang-bang techno-thriller rather than a thoughtful examination of the cynical political murder of a minor functionary) incorporates a portrait of Michael Caine: The eyes of God, watching the lovers.

90 Yentl

La Streisand, as “Yentl.”

91 Amsel

Richard Amsel in the 1980s.

Most of these images, and much of the information, are from Adam McDaniel’s lovely Amsel site: http://adammcdaniel.com/RichardAmsel2.htm

Special thanks to Amsel’s friend Bob Esty for inspiring me to collect, and comment on, these magnificent works.

Text copyright 2014 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

I had a bad feeling about this: My “Star Wars” problem

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By Scott Ross

Unlike nearly everyone else of my generation, I had an aversion to Star Wars long before I saw it.

I was working in Reference at my high school library the day that now-famousTime magazine came across the desk. Part of my responsibilities was to stamp in the new periodicals, which had the added perk of allowing me to see them before anyone else. (Not that there was much clamor for any of them, other than when the Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” arrived.) An avid movie fanatic who at 16 was about to receive his first taste of the freedom that came with having an after-school job and a car of his own — both of which would enable him to go to many more movies — I noticed the side top banner of the May 30 issue immediately:

Once I’d worked my way through the pile of magazines I was checking in I turned back to this one. “The Year’s Best Movie”? I wasn’t yet plugged in, as I would soon be, to the growing press for all things Hollywood, and didn’t have a mental list of forthcoming titles. But if you bear in mind that this was an era of really interesting movies being released on a fairly regular basis, you can imagine what sort of film I was thinking might be deemed (and by Time magazine, mind you) “the best of the year.”

The year before this the releases had been rather good, sometimes exceptionally so. Being dependent on my mother to ferry me to the movies, I hadn’t seen all of those from 1976 I would later, but I had seen, and loved, Marathon Man, Network, The Seven Per Cent Solution, The Front and Silent Movie. Consider a few of that year’s other titles: Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Carrie, Family Plot, Harlan County USA, Mikey and Nicky, Robin and Marian, Bound for Glory, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Next Stop Greenwich Village, Murder by Death. The comedies hadn’t been altogether bad either: Car Wash, The Bad News Bears, Freaky Friday, The Ritz, Silver Streak. True, some of the bigger, more bruited entries didn’t pan out (King Kong, Logan’s Run, The Missouri Breaks, Nickelodeon, Welcome to L.A.) and there were huge hits that had done nothing to pique my interest (A Star is Born, The Omen and the year’s big title, Rocky, which I’d loathed.) Still, the possibilities for good new American movies seemed, if not limitless, at least open.

So I flipped through Time to “The Year’s Best Movie”… and saw this:

Oh. Spaceships and little robots. Uh-huh.

I put Time and its Best Movie of the Year right back on the pile, and promptly forgot about it.

By the early part of summer ’77 I had a part-time job at last (I’d turned 16 in January). The fact that said position was at a two-screen movie theatre — the then-limit in “multiplex” — and entitled me, in lieu of a decent salary, to a pass which allowed me to see any movie in town, provided I waited until at least the second weekend of a new film’s opening, made it, despite the low pay and the vicissitudes of working for an especially un-pleasant, humorless, piggy-eyed little schmuck of a theatre owner, just about the best job I could imagine having at the time. I spent that summer seeing movie after movie, two a day sometimes. What was out there was infinitely better than what we were showing: Having passed on Star Wars, the owner had instead opted for the Burt Reynolds redneck-fest Smokey and the Bandit (the 4th top-grossing movie of the year) for one screen; I forget what was on the other, but since we ran perhaps two or three decent movies the entire year I worked there, it couldn’t have been very inspiring, whatever it was. The Peter Benchley-scripted The Deep or Neil Simon’s lame Murder by Death follow-up The Cheap Detective, possibly. That was the sort of trash we tended to play. For months.

If I wanted to see a good movie, I usually had to go to a competing theatre. There was at the time an old movie-house across from NC State campus that showed hard-core porn at night and, of all things, foreign and “art” films during the day. I spent many pleasant hours there, and at other cinemas in the area, enjoying fare like Allegro Non Troppo, Man on the Roof, Providence, the uproarious Watergate satire Nasty Habits, Ettore Scola’s A Special Day, Slap Shot, the problematic A Bridge Too Far, The Spy Who Loved Me, Annie Hall (which after later viewings became something of a magic talisman for me), the underrated Rollercoaster (about which I’ve written before in these pages), the not entirely successful but intensely felt William Friedkin version of The Wages of Fear, Sorcerer and, especially, the absolutely lovely Disney animated feature The Rescuers.

I resolutely did not see Star Wars.

My best friend felt the acting was bad and the script silly, but he loved it anyway, and tried, vainly, throughout that summer to get me to see it with him. I couldn’t see the point. By this time, of course, the movie had become a fully fledged cultural phenomenon. One couldn’t avoid hearing about it. But I was far too patrician a snob to be taken in by the hype. Ifany movie was that popular, I argued — conveniently forgetting in my superior attitude the examples of both The Godfather and Jaws, a movie I’d loved — how could it possibly be any good? The People were (sniff!) simply not to be trusted in these matters.

Besides, my 1977 summer was magical enough without recourse to whooshing futuristic spacecraft and funny robots. I couldn’t have articulated that at the time, of course, because I was simply too busy being young, reasonably independent, and, absurdly for a 16 year old, happy to recognize that time as magical. Had I known how I would feel by the end of the following year, I might have recognized the time I was enjoying as a golden period. But that would have required prescience far beyond my meager share. All I could say for certain was that the Star Wars behemoth did not interest me, either culturally or cinematically.

And as if to cement those feelings, a movie opened around Christmas that year that far outstripped, in my admittedly ignorant mind, any hold a silly space-opera could have had on me. By design, I knew nothing about it beyond the two-page ad I’d seen in the New York Times before that extraordinary night, the second weekend into its run, when I braved the shopping mall crowd and took it in.

In those days, I didn’t mind going to the movies by myself. Since I so often went in the daytime, when my close friends were working their own part-time jobs, and since I was so completely movie-mad, if no one was available to accompany me, it didn’t dampen my ardor. That evening, I was on my own. I settled into a seat in the very close and crowded theatre, and spent the next two and half hours more entranced than I think I’d ever been in my life by a single movie.

This was my Star Wars. Screw hairy aliens and space battles. Close Encounters fulfilled my needs, exceeded my expectations and was, for all its size and scope, both deeply human and deeply humane.

I was to work at the Mission Valley Cinema I & II until my best friend, needing assistance at the peanut shop his father owned and at which he was the manager, and knowing my frustration with the beady-eyed homunculus who owned the theatres, offered me a part-time position, and I took it. By then I was more than exhausted with Mr. Nance and his choice of films. True, we’d somehow gotten a pair of exceptional movies, neither of which made a dime (Robert Altman’s dreamlike 3 Women and the fine adaptation of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden) and a few that were not bad in themselves, if also not entirely successful artistically: Tony Richardson’s Joseph Andrews had moments but was no Tom Jones; Fred Zinnemann and Alvin Sargent’s Julia was lovely but too diffuse; and Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which came with a climax so shattering I was nearly unable to open the exit doors for the patrons on its first night, was also unpleasant—so much so that I counted more walkouts for it than for any other movie we played that year. But the general run of our features tended to the likes of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, A Piece of the Action, Orca, Kingdom of the Spiders, High Anxiety, The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, The World’s Greatest Lover and not one but two dogs that more or less killed off Henry Winkler’s film career, Heroes and The One and Only. As usual, all the really good movies were playing somewhere else.

My best friend was almost as much of a movie-nut as I was. We went to many together, a lot of them late-shows of classic Hollywood features of the ’30s and ’40s exhibited at that weird old art cinema/porno grindhouse. I’d generally go to anything he was interested in seeing, and vice-versa. But when Star Wars came back for the summer of 1978, I put my foot down. No amount of cajoling would move me… until the night he finally succeeded in nearly dragging me, kicking and kvetching, to the damn thing. When he called to say, “Let’s go” I was settling in for the night. I’d taken out my contact lenses. I didn’t want to go out — and certainly not to see That Movie! No amount of suasion would on my part work this time, however, and his last words before he hung up were on the order of, “I’ll be there in five minutes; put in your lenses.”

Well, I sort of loved it.

Admitting that I had actually enjoyed Star Wars was one of the harder confessions I’d ever made. Looking back, it’s not hard to understand why even a snob like me could surrender. I wasn’t exactly the prime audience for big-budget, effects-laden spectacle. But I’d seen enough to know how poor, and limited, those I had seen were. That’s probably the most difficult thing to explain to someone too young to have seen (or even been around to see)Star Wars in 1977 or 1978: In the ensuing years, largely due to George Lucas’ success at pushing for, and achieving, much of what he wanted, on this movie and every subsequent entry into the series, those effects now, if not seeming exactly old-hat, are at least taken for granted by two generations raised on them. But if you were around then to see Star Wars when it was still new, you can’t quite get younger people who have grown up on this stuff to understand how stunningly effective that original movie really was. They’ve never lived without such wonders, as many have never lived without, cannot imagine life without, personal computers, cell-phones and home video. Trying to explain how jaw-droppingly unexpected the things in Star Wars were to audiences in the late ’70s is a bit like the parents of my generation attempting to impart how magical the radio was to children who’d never known life without a television set.

The look of the thing, from that opening shot of the battle cruiser’s impossibly long underside to the light sabers and the holographic stop-motion chess pieces, was unlike anything we’d ever seen — seemingly effortless, as though the images had gone straight from Lucas’ brain to the screen itself.

Knowing rather more than most about movie history, I immediately “got” the affectionate tributes to the Buck Rogers serials and Errol Flynn swashbucklers, most memorably represented in Luke and Leia’s breathless swing across the Death Star chasm.

I also appreciated the old-fashioned optical wipes and lap dissolves, which I had only ever seen employed in one previous contemporary movie, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein. And the fact that the externals of the picture, as well as the sets, which could be gleaming and clean, also reflected a certain lived-in look, a grunginess we’d not seen before in a space-fantasy context, where nothing ever looked lived-in. I also responded, as everyone did, to that magnificent, leitmotif-ridden John Williams score, which managed to be simultaneously revolutionary (full, thickly-textured symphonic music at a time when film scoring tended toward electronica and small combos) and retro (evocative of the past) at one and the same time. Williams had been of special interest to me since The Towering Inferno and Jaws, composing for the latter the most recognizable theme since Bernard Herrmann terrified the nation with Psycho. Not coincidentally, the unprecedentedly double LP soundtrack went platinum, selling 2,000,000 units in the U.S. alone.

If I had a complaint at the time, it was a relatively minor one: The jump to light-speed never held for me the visceral excitement I wanted from it. I’d expected, hearing about it beforehand, something that would slam my back against the theatre seat and turn my head around. It didn’t. Nor was seeing the movie, finally, long after the rest of America had (some far too many times) a Demascus Road conversion for me. I still preferred Close Encounters, and I still do. Only when The Empire Strikes Back opened two years later did I sense that, for all the dazzle and fun of the first movie, a real human element had entered the Lucas omniverse, one whose darkness and feeling and sheer room for breathing space (the Yoda sequences) satisfied me completely.

Not being of an especially scientific frame of mind, I didn’t notice — as indeed I suspect most people who saw the movie didn’t — that space is a vacuum. Two years later, 20th Century-Fox, which had by then made more millions on Star Wars than on any movie since The Sound of Music, released Alien with the instantly famous tag-line, “In space, no one can hear you scream”; it was almost a dig at Lucas himself and his many loud space-explosions. Which, like noticing the young woman in the drawing of the old lady, cannot be ignored once it’s been pointed out. For Lucas, in space, everyone can hear you scream.

My second “Star Wars Problem” was to arrive later — when I absorbed fully how its shattering fiscal impact had altered the movie game, ending that era of more personal filmmaking the best of the ’70s had come to represent — much of it, alas, too late for me to have enjoyed except later, in revival houses and on home video. Not that Lucas (or Spielberg, for that matter) is, or was, wholly “to blame” for what happened; it’s the usual course of events when dealing with the craven, the avaricious and the cowardly: The studio Suits want more of what they think The People like, and less of what they think of as foul-tasting medicine. L & S are surely culpable, as producers, for their subsequent descents into pap and juvenilia and the deleterious effects of that on the larger culture, but the overwhelming success of Jaws and Star Wars was, in both cases, wholly unexpected by their directors, and not a concerted attack on the Pakulas and Scorseses, the Altmans and Coppolas of the movie world. You can’t plan for that sort of thing, whatever the frightened temporary heads of the studios may believe. As William Goldman famously noted of Hollywood, “No one knows anything.” They merely believe they do.

If I’m still dubious about a single aspect of a cinematic enterprise that I admit has given me great pleasure over the ensuing years, it’s the slightly acrid dogmatism of the thing. For a liberal of his time, Lucas’ reliance on what Harrison Ford’s Han Solo regards as a “hokey religion” is at best philosophically oxymoronic. The Jedi’s “Think less, feel more” mantra carries a queasy whiff of fundamentalism, despite the obvious compassion behind the mysticism. Another contradiction: For a series of movies as symbiotically dependent upon special effects as these, the lesson of Return of the Jedi, in which the Ewoks with their organic, “primitive,” skills and weaponry, triumph in battle against the technologically advanced Imperial forces, makes for a tutorial of rather doubtful provenance.

And, too, I’m bothered by the feeling, expressed on one of the recent Star Wars DVDs, that Lucas banished the post-Nixonian national malaise and made it okay to have fun at the movies again. It’s obvious that Star Wars touched a nerve in its vast audience, but if you extrapolate that rather smug mentality to its equally obvious conclusion, are we as a culture really better off with fewer Klutes, Chinatowns and McCabe and Mrs. Millers and more Top Guns, Independence Days and Titanics? For the most successful independent filmmaker since Walt Disney, that’s rather more dubious a legacy than I think George Lucas might wish to have on his conscience.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross