Reprint from Flashfilms, November 2017.
I drew the above cartoon in 1987 to honor the tenth anniversary of one of my favorite films: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
That’s supposed to be composer John Williams, who wrote the music for the film, rising up above Devils Tower, the mountain in Wyoming that appears in the movie. If you’ve not seen the film, I won’t explain any more, except to say it’s a place that still has a magnetic pull on me today.
To celebrate, here's a relic from my past, an article first published in the Steven Spielberg Film Society newsletter, December 1987, complete with my original stream-of-consciousness grammar, attempting to capture the awe and majesty of Spielberg's magical film.
Watch the Skies in Eighty-Seven
By Joe Fordham (Dec. 1987)
Night skies have never been the same since December 1977. The interweaving story of two obsessive men, their starch for meaning in a mounting crescendo of gifts from the stars and the final meeting of worlds, powerful and dramatic, shattering but never hostile, mystical but real, remains, ten years on, as universal, as scintillating and as much a ‘warm embrace’ as Spielberg originally intended.
One Saturday evening, a hot summer night, I was walking home alone under a clear sky, smiling up at the silent spectacle through the trees -- "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't think we could ask for a more beautiful evening..." Because of the heat, some houses had their windows open, lights on inside. I stopped in my tracks at a familiar voice, “You're in the middle of the road, jackass!" One darkened living room was lit up by Vilmos Zsigmond: Roy Neary in his truck. We both said the words together, "Can you tell me the way to Cornbread, Turkey!” I just grinned and ran the rest of the way home.
The dream movie Spielberg could never put down was peppered with commercials, its full Panavision breadth chopped in half by TV-cutoff, and Frank Warner's and John Williams' soundtrack filtered down to one channel. The thunderous majesty may have been diminished for a first-time viewer, but the drive of the narrative, the humanity of the characters and the sparkling jewel of the idea really brought it back.
My first contact with Close Encounters of the Third Kind was in February 1978 at the Albert Hall in London when John Williams conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a suite of music from what was then his latest score. The movie had not been released in Britain and I would have to wait a whole month to see the final thing, but my reaction was... "This is big."
Then came a radio interview with Williams. I taped it on my brother's cassette recorder and, again and again, played back what the deejay called the theme from the film -- the disco version. Pure seventies. The movie was beginning to develop its bouquet, an actual physical odor. For some strange reason, I do not have a good sense of smell but when I find a film that stays with me, it conjours up a ‘smell.' Close Encounters is 1978, sweet, earthy, intoxicating, big.
When the mothership came up over Devils Tower at the Odeon Leicester Square on the 24th of March 1978, I would see just how big. After that, my seaside castles never looked the same. I spent many weekends [building UFOs] inhaling balsa mood shavings trying to recapture my ‘implanted vision.’ And I bribed a cinema usherette to steal the poster for me.
Ten years later, I found a copy of the Close Encounters screenplay. You can see every detail, all that atmosphere, the subtle nuances, all down in black and white; uninhibitedly sketched out by someone highly involved, emotionally tied to a story.
And then, you have all the versions. The original with the power station, the Major Benchley scene, the tearing up the garden, the ‘rings around the moon’; the Special Edition with the box car math lesson, the Cotopaxi, the stunning ‘cry baby’ scene, what Neary sees at the end; and apparently, an American TV version with Neary in his homemade observatory. This has never been shown in Europe. All the versions contain different pacing, subtle tightenings and expansions of the characters, but the changes are minute, the tinkerings of a mad professor of filmmaking.
The film is now a period piece -- the clothes, the haircuts, the toys, the machinery, the McDonalds with only 24 billion sold. You notice these things now and can even appreciate the attention to detail, to the reality behind the myth.
Since 1977, Teri Garr has appeared all over the place, tangling with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, singing and dancing with Francis Coppola in One From The Heart. Dreyfuss is now making a come-back with Paul Mazursky's Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Barry Levinson's Tin Men. He is less chubby, has more grey hair and an Oscar for The Goodbye Girl. Melinda Dillon has kept going with Absence of Malice, TV movies, and Harry and the Hendersons. But now Truffaut is gone.
“I'll miss the movies - those two movies a year....” said Steven Spielberg in February 1985, referring to Truffaut in an obituary article titled He Was the Movies. The enormous charm and the wisdom of Close Encounters rests on Truffaut. As he and Puck face each other across the Panavision furnace of light -- only visible in the cinema! -- it is the single shot with the greatest charge in the movie -- the meeting of worlds and the compassion between them. And this coming together brought us an heir, as Spielberg noted, “I think that Truffaut's insistence was largely responsible for my making E.T. when I did.”
And so, full circle back to John Williams, the unifying entity, the musical spirit. It's September 1987 as I write this, and Williams is back scoring for Spielberg, recording music for his upcoming film Empire of the Sun. The “soul of the mothership” Williams himself has stated that CE3K is the score he is most proud of, “timeless and without restraints.” And a really groovy disco version.
Here's to the next time we have the pleasure of sharing a movie theatre with a 70mm print and six-track Dolby sound system or a portable TV propped up by a bed, viewing this golden film, and to all the future generations yet to see it.
Happy birthday, CE3K.
"Watch the skies. We show uncorrelated targets approaching from the north northwest." "Look with care for the shape of a square, can you fi-ind it?" "Wha-at is it? Wha-at is it?" “C’est une petite groupe de gens qui ont partagé un rêve ensemble." “Zay bee-long ‘ere Mozambique.” "Allez, allez! Allons-y, plus vite!” "It's the first day of school, fellas.” "Are we the first...?"