Tuesday, February 07, 2012
With Close Encounters coming some six months after George Lucas's Star Wars I noticed a trend at the time to take sides for one against the other. Me, I was always in Spielberg's camp, and not just because I have a lifelong fascination with UFOs. If it's better not to bother me when a new "UFO Hunters" is on the History channel, then it's no surprise that I went for this over what still seems to me a ponderous fairy tale with pretentious airs of mythos. Not that I want to relitigate along the old fault lines—I have long since retired to the minority here, and I know it. Heck, full disclosure, I like the "Star Trek" franchise a lot more than the Star Wars, and I know that's open at least equally to charges of simple-mindedness and bad acting.
Anyway, I think the enduring strengths of Spielberg's picture actually have very little to do with UFOs or even with science fiction. Spielberg was so good during this time at capturing the textures and small-bore realities of middle-class suburban life—the messy family rooms, broken toys, TV sets always playing, the exhausted parents and the sudden vulnerabilities and rages of their kids. That's all over this. But what sealed the deal for me was how sneaky shrewd it is about taking on some of the most profound terms of being alive itself. "This means something," Roy Neary keeps insisting plaintively, as he plays with his mashed potatoes or goes about destroying his basement. "This is important."
That's obsession, and exactly the way anyone feels about the things that matter most to them. These books and music I live with and this ridiculous list of movies I craft so carefully—they mean something. They are important. When Francois Truffaut (!) tells Neary that he envies him, so do I, and not because he gets a ride on a spaceship with adorable aliens, but because it looks like he's finally going to get some answers to his questions. I'm still waiting for mine.
"Well, I guess you've noticed something a little strange with Dad. It's OK. I'm still Dad."
Phil #49: The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg, 1974) (scroll down)
Steven #49: Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode, 1997)
Now with paragraphing! I don't normally do much of that here, and I don't know why I felt the need to paragraph more there, but I did. Maybe the best thing all around and lesson for this blog. I exaggerated about the degree of my fealty to the UFO shows on TV—I like them, but I'm not fierce about it or anything (also, there are better one-offs and other TV on the topic than "UFO Hunters," which is just the one that happened to come to mind). It turned out Steven also had Close Encounters on his list, and much higher, which surprised me a little. I've seen it so many times at this point that it suffers from exhaustion, plus I think I underestimated how many people like it and how much, hence the vaguely apologetic tone and general attitude that it is a guilty pleasure. That's how it felt to me when I wrote it up. I am still a little tired of it, however, I must say.
In the Facebook group this proved to be the first front in a dispute that would erupt continually, with one commenter in particular taking a consistent position despairing for the state of our civilization because of the success of fantasy-oriented pictures, a wide swath that seemed to cover science fiction and animation both, which he felt amounted to an "infantilization" that only degrades us. I didn't anticipate that, looking out instead for Star Wars aficionados who didn't like Close Encounters, except it turned out they don't actually seem to exist? Where have I been all this time?
Phil followed with a Spielberg pick and another one I am not sure whether I have seen or not, but will know more on that in the fullness of time. It may or may not have been in the nature of a response to my pick. Phil's list would prove to be remarkably more liquid than either Steven's or mine, an interesting and unexpected approach for me to this exercise. Steven's James Bond pick got jumped on a bit by Phil and me. Steven had some reasons for the choice of the latter-day title, but what I liked best was that it made two pictures in a row for him by director Roger Spottiswoode, perhaps the only time such an honor has fallen that filmmaker.