By David Elliott
Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Review of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Almost 40 years ago, in November, 1977, I enjoyed the most star-gazing press preview of my life. Afterwards I called home to Chicago from New York, as thrilled as a space visitor. Sure, New York is always another planet, but Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one-of-a-kind, a celestial trip that gives us a cosmic lift without leaving Earth. Of course it’s really about earthlings, not space visitors, and remains Spielberg’s most elating and high-spirited movie.
I went to our best plex for the film’s revival, wanting to see it again on a big screen (smaller framings dim the luster). I got smacked again smacked by Spielberg’s youthful power. His confident sense of entrancement, as people try to decipher why UFOs are popping up like cheerful light bandits, even in Muncie, Indiana, pulls us in at once. There is a brilliant French scientist, played by that humane beacon Francois Truffaut, who lucidly collates the sightings and sounds (the alien signals become John Williams’s inspired theme, worthy of 2001: A Tinkerbell).There are dazzled hicks, stunned peons, Indian chanters and Indiana guy Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss (Roy’s wide appeal probably clinched the actor’s Oscar a few months later, for the sudsy romance The Goodbye Girl).
A close alien sighting, using a truck with the visual wit of Spielberg’s early film Duel, sunburns half of Roy’s face and colonizes his imagination. He compulsively builds a mystery mound (with shaving cream, then mashed potatoes, then soil), which will lead him on a frantic dreamer’s drive to Devil’s Peak, Wyoming. Spielberg turns cartoonish when Roy rips up the garden and house, shocking his wife (Teri Garr). But his obsessive quest carries us along, as he and other believers converge at the peak to welcome the giant “mother ship” along with Truffaut and government reps. If you argue that Spielberg oversells the big light show and the escalating music, you’re outside the movie without a ticket, as sad as an alienated alien.
Close Encounters, superbly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond (who had done another Aladdin job with light in The Long Goodbye), became pure magic for me with little Cary Guffey, 3. As beam-eyed Barry, who sees the luminous alien craft as fabulous toys and playmates, he runs in bliss below the stars, childhood’s perfect envoy. Spielberg touches genius with the scene of Barry’s abduction in a fiery visitation both playful and terrifying, like a modern fairy tale. Guffey is forever this enchanting mascot of the movie’s myth (add depth of love from Melinda Dillon as his mother). The Barry scenes and the grand finale move me much more than E.T. One can fathom why Spielberg had to reach for work like Schindler’s List and Lincoln. but his talent was at its wide-eyed best when he brought the heavens to Indiana and Wyoming. He made gaping up at the mother ship the perfect metaphor for our old habit, gazing up at the movies.
You can be cynical about the big product plugs, and call this show a gaga party for moonbeams. But remember that the film came right after Vietnam and Watergate, and that in 1977 Jimmy Carter was providing a sort of Jiminy Cricket hopefulness. Now, in the time of Harvey and Irma and Don and Vlad, Close Encounters seems from another time and better world. If you go to this thrilling entertainment for escape, hoping that benign aliens and giddy dreamers can lift you from doldrums, you’re no fool. Revel in the rise.
SALAD (A List)
Harry Dean Stanton’s Ten Best Roles in a long film career, by my estimation: Travis in Paris, Texas (1984), Bud in Repo Man (1984), Jerry in Straight Time (1978), Asa in Wise Blood (1979), Philo in The Black Marble (1980), Kiser in Where the Lilies Bloom (1974), Jack in Pretty in Pink (1986), Johnnie in Wild at Heart (1990), Brain in Escape From New York (1981), Jack in Cockfighter (1974). And, of course, his best victim role: Brett in Alien (1979).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson is taking the week off, and not drinking.
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Singular actor and presence Harry Dean Stanton died on Sept. 15 at 91, two months after the death at 84 of Sam Shepard, author of Stanton’s finest role (in ‘Paris, Texas’): “Wim Wenders worried about Harry Dean’s age (he turned 57, Nastassja Kinski was 24), and then felt ‘it makes no difference, in fact it’s better.’ Stanton and Sam Shepard bonded over drinks in Santa Fe, Harry telling him that ‘I wanted to play something of beauty or sensitivity.’ Getting the unfinished script, he accepted pronto, craving to play Travis Clay Henderson. Wenders believed he ‘was frightened of playing a lead. The great thing for him was Travis’s innocence, even if it’s rather abstract … he has managed to retain that certain innocence.’ Dean Stockwell saw that ‘Harry had enormous difficulties because all the workings of character were internal,’ and helped Harry Dean find his groove. The result streams, yet ‘seamless’ is too smooth a term for both the process and the result. Truth rises as vents of inner pressure, a tri-tonality of silence, speech, music. After the shoot, Stanton happily told reporter Patrick Goldstein of ‘finally playing the part I wanted to play … It’s the story of my life we’re talking about.” (From the Stanton/Paris, Texas chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Harry Dean Stanton in his great romantic role, with Nastassja Kinski in Paris, Texas (Road Movie, 1984; director Wim Wenders, cinematographer Robby Müller).