Last year, the modern blockbuster celebrated its 40th anniversary. Following the success of Steven Spielberg’s JAWS, the Hollywood system once again smelled blood in the water. Two years later, it went in for the kill. The phenomenal returns for George Lucas’s STAR WARS (1977) made JAWS look like a guppy, and changed the media landscape forever. Q.E.D. But the legacy of STAR WARS, and the commercial resilience of the tent pole JAWS had raised, were cemented a few months later by Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND: an obvious counterpart to Lucas’s film, but a different reaction to the same bloodied water.
Some of the blood leaked in from Vietnam. JAWS was released the summer after American troops withdrew from Saigon, but the damage to the American psyche had already been done. This was only the latest domino to fall; the revolutions of the 1960s seemed by then to have ended in defeat, and so too had the counterrevolution (which represented the old guard) when President Nixon resigned. It was a stalemate: everybody lost. The recent revival of interest in this desolate period may at first seem counterintuitive. Leave it to the French to have a term for it: nostalgie de la boue. This “yearning for the mud” makes sense, though, if one focuses on the art, literature, music, and cinema that blossomed amid the meltdown of morale in the late 1960s and early ’70s. For artists, it was more than mud; it was arable soil. Spielberg and Lucas were transitional figures at the tail end the so-called movie-brat generation—a movement that reflected the confrontation of values in aesthetically and morally challenging masterpieces like THE LONG GOODBYE, CHINATOWN, TAXI DRIVER, and THE GODFATHER.
JAWS, by contrast, provided virtuoso escapism at a time when audiences desperately craved it, and the blockbusters of 1977 represent nothing short of a religious revival: a merger of faith with Pop Art. (I might be biting off more than even Jaws could chew, but humor me.) STAR WARS was the artful synthesis of many, many things, but, for the sake of concision, let’s boil them down to the sci-fi stylings of 1930s FLASH GORDON serials, plus the moral certainty of Westerns, all buttressed by a Manichean system of belief: the Force. A cunning blogger recently made the case that Luke Skywalker’s path in STAR WARS, from hayseed to Jedi knight, tracks with the real-world radicalization of jihadists. In this telling, Luke, an orphan who aspired to an apolitical career, comes home to find that his adoptive parents have been butchered in an Imperial attack (read: drone strike). It is in this vulnerable state that he is manipulated by Obi-Wan Kenobi, a dissident from a perished sect, into believing that the Empire murdered Luke’s biological father as well. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is also a conversion story that’s grounded in the pop-cultural heavens, this time U.F.O. lore. Unlike Luke, who lives a long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away, Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is a blue-collar family man who hails from Muncie, Indiana. The reality he’s resigned to is rattled when his pickup truck encounters an alien craft. Dismissed as a kook, he nonetheless unites with other witnesses to extraterrestrial activity, including Jillian (Melinda Dillon), whose son was abducted in a fit of paranormal sturm-und-drang. They’re compelled by mysterious forces to go on a pilgrimage to Devils Tower in Wyoming, where, unbeknownst to them, the mothership will emerge from the clouds. Whereas Luke is “brainwashed” by a “fanatic” and recruited into a struggle against Evil, Roy has a mystical revelation and seeks enlightenment. Luke is a soldier, Roy a searcher.
Both Lucas and Spielberg are drawing on different expressions of faith: institutional and personal, respectively. But evangelizing to audiences whose self-image was pulverized by collective failures to do good in this world (whether those failures were wars to contain communism or social movements to promote equality), which in turn translated into serious doubts about rewards in the next, isn’t exactly preaching to the choir. This is where Pop Art kicks in. For Spielberg and Lucas, secular filmmakers, heaven is transferred to outer space: flying saucers and B-movie pulp are recast as ecumenical icons. And while one would not be wrong to be on guard about potential hazards in this, I think it is worth noting that no movie since CLOSE ENCOUNTERS has made the leap more wondrously. Though it’s a beloved classic by a celebrated master, it represents the road less traveled when compared to the behemoth of STAR WARS, a four-decade-old movie that had a sequel released last year. The difference between them is a reflection of institutional religion’s dominance over mystical practices: STAR WARS, the franchise, has continued to self-propagate and convert new viewers; CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, mirroring the solipsism of the Me Generation, remains sui generis.
Take, for example, the special effects. The vessels in STAR WARS are space fortresses modeled on nautical and aeronautical precedents. (They aren’t “alien” vehicles, even if the humans piloting them aren’t earthlings.) The ships in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, by contrast, are composed of light rather than matter. In one sequence, police cruisers that look like coffins on wheels pursue a pack of flying saucers over the Ohio border and well out of their earthly jurisdiction; they’re no match for glistering orbs that tumble through the air. The U.F.O.s look more like the police’s flashers than their cars, tin-slab symbols of ’70s malaise. One of the whirling dervishes is nothing but a crimson nimbus swirling around a speck, like Tinkerbell on a bender. These ships—if that’s what they are—don’t fly like planes; they take to the air the way sea lions twist through water. They’re energy incarnate, grace itself. When the mothership lands, it’s solid but beyond ecumenical: it’s an upside-down dreidel emblazed like a Christmas tree.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS modernizes its religious overtones, and polishes them with a scientific gloss, in the storyline it weaves in parallel to Roy and Jillian’s. The government is covering up the mothership’s imminent arrival, but is being advised by a ufologist named Lacombe (François Truffaut) who’s both a visionary and an empiricist. Though Truffaut was not the first actor considered for the role, his presence lends the film the benefits of his authority. With the possible exception of his old colleague, Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut was the most prominent filmmaker who was also a film scholar. His taste was different than Spielberg’s, but they shared the same “religion”; if movie worship had a spiritual leader, it was Truffaut. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS validates their faith. In its most famous sequence, Lacombe and his team communicate with the extraterrestrials using music, light, and color. The implication is that art is a universal language. The visitors respond by atoning for their sins; Jillian’s son is returned unharmed, and so are scads of others who’d vanished over the years. And, at the very end, Roy—voluntarily—takes their place. It’s the opposite of an abduction; he sees the light. The searcher is now being saved.
In the years since 1977, Spielberg has shown us the light again and again—as recently as his late-career biopics LINCOLN and BRIDGE OF SPIES. Ethereal backlight has become a hallmark of his collaboration with cameraman Janusz Kaminski. There are many ways to look at this, just as there are many reasons to be skeptical of the director’s “faith.” But, in the generous spirit of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, let’s assume that Spielberg can finally see heaven on earth.