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I vividly remember the first time I sawClose Encounters of the Third Kind. It was 40 years ago, and I was at the Ziegfeld Theater on the west side of Manhattan (the same place where I saw Apocalypse Now when it first opened - a different but equally memorable and transformative experience).

I’ve been thinking about that this week because Close Encounters was back in movie theaters for a one-week run to celebrate its 40th anniversary, complete with a bonus feature with writer/director Steven Spielberg talking about the making of the film.

I’ve seen the movie several times since on television, but nothing could replicate the experience of seeing it on an enormous screen, with a great sound system - Close Encounters is a film that paints its universe of ideas in bold colors, and it requires a big screen. Which is why my eldest son, David, and I went to see it in a theater this week - he's a huge movie buff, and he’d never seen it on a big screen. And I wanted to share it with him.

(David always has loved movies and theater, and we’ve seen hundreds of movies and dozens of plays together over the years. He’s 31 now, and lives in Chicago, but he was home for Labor Day weekend and we grabbed the opportunity.)

Close Encounters is a film that mostly has aged well, because the themes it explores are as resonant today as they were four decades ago. Maybe more so. It is a movie about belief, and we live in a time when polls show that people have less faith in institutions than ever. Not that Close Encounters is reassuring on this score, since it portrays authoritarian institutions that want to control what its people know and think about extraterrestrial life. But it also shows us people who break free of the boundaries that these institutions want to place around them, who are driven not just by a desire for knowledge, but a yearning for truth.

Richard Dreyfuss is a marvel as Roy Neary, a bundle of neurotic energy who knows that the truth is out there (to borrow a phrase from another popular cultural artifact about extraterrestrial life) and is desperate and driven by visions to uncover it, even abandoning his wife and kids to do so. (This made me a little more uncomfortable to watch this time around, but then again, Spielberg has said that if he were making the movie today, he probably would make some different artistic choices. We all get older, and sometimes even wiser.)

Dreyfuss is never better than when he demands of Francois Truffaut, playing a scientist, “Who are you people?” (It also may be that I have a bias towards short, chubby, bearded, bespectacled, urban-leaning protagonists who tend to have smart mouths that get them in trouble. Not sure why.) Truffaut also is great, as are Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, and, of course, Cary Guffey as Barry, the small child who has a unique bond to the alien visitors. The music by John Williams isn’t just irreplaceable, but a character in the plot.

There is one way in which Close Encounters is terribly anachronistic - in portraying the scientists who lead the search for alien life on earth, it makes them almost all white, middle aged men. Almost no women, no people of color, no Asians or Hispanics. It is, in fact, truthful to the facts of how the world was just 40 years ago … the fact that it seems so noticeable now stands as some sort of progress, I guess.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a masterpiece of moviemaking - its DNA is entirely and embracingly cinematic - that manages to be thoughtful and entertaining at the same time. While some people in the movie are shown to be afraid of the truth, or in denial of what they do not know and cannot understand, Spielberg’s Close Encounters suggests that we should not be fearful, and that open arms and hearts are far superior to closed minds and clenched fists.




That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

Sláinte!!
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