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"Your father was a computer engineer; your mother was a concert pianist, and when the spaceship lands, they make music together on the computer." That’s James Lipton’s tongue-in-cheek analysis of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, given to director Stephen Spielberg during his interview on Inside the Actors Studio. And in a way it captures everything you need to know thematically about the film. Close Encounters does seem to reflect a wish to mate technology and art and make them play well together, making technology facilitate human connection rather than compromise it by serving the purposes of distraction, alienation, power, and aggression. The technology-heavy medium most relevant to this aspiration is, of course, film. And so Close Encounters includes a strong meta-narrative about the promise of filmmaking, and the way it satisfies the childhood aspirations to which Lipton points.
The film puts three domains in sharp contrast, each involving a different relationship between technology and human intimacy: In the first, technology alienates human beings from each other by enhancing the trivial, routine, and irritating aspects of human relationships, and providing socially isolating compensations for these irritations. The second domain promises—at a grand scale—to use science and technology to repair this interference, by unlocking the meaning of the universe and forging a connection to higher truths and entities, objects of joint attention that should unite humanity via a set of common interests, purposes, and values. The third domain—still at the grand scale—makes use of technology to attempt to foreclose on the reparative possibilities of the second domain, by concealing them from the everyday hoi polloi who inhabit the first. The scientists uncovering the secrets of the universe turn out to serve governments whose power is predicated on concealing these secrets from their citizens, and making sure that technology is used principally to surveil, control, and pacify them.
The third domain is defeated by making the overweening pretensions of the second domain serve the more visceral, emotional, down-to-earth needs of the first: to make rationality, scientific inquiry, and technology serve the purpose of instinctually reinvigorating the realm of human care, by integrating them into the arts. This is the sort of synthesis of art and science that Nietzsche referred to as “joyful science.” And film—with its use of a multitude of technologies to combine word, sight, and sound—seems like a good example of such a synthesis, restoring a Dionysian element to a theatrical form that Nietzsche thought was always under threat of becoming too static and cerebral. The hope here is that rationality, when used correctly, will not deprive of us our emotional lives, but facilitate a dynamism in art that allows us to give better expression to them.
The first domain consists of local domestic scenes, long deprived of their romantic novelty, thoroughly routinized around meeting basic needs, and beset with the irritation predicated upon overlong familiarity and proximity. Spielberg’s movies seem to argue that these scenes are most successful when they allow themselves to be somewhat chaotic and insane. Family members show each other impulses, eccentricities, and a level of affective volatility they usually keep hidden from everyone else. When we first meet the Neary family (“neary” as in “close”), Roy’s attempt at a math lesson with his son is interrupted by his wife Ronnie asking him to make good on a promise to take the family to a movie, after which she quickly moves on to being irritated. She’s irritated not by the thing that we audience members already find extremely irritating—a kid in the background loudly smashing a baby doll to pieces, an activity that ends later only when Roy thankfully stops ignoring it and yells “you are close to death!”—but by the fact that her “breakfast table” is covered with husband’s “stuff,” which turns out to be a bunch of unidentifiable objects that look like they’ve flown out of a garbage can.
Technology was supposed to expand the space and time for human relationships…. Instead, its contracting effect is to divide the spatiotemporal realm into pieces: spatially, it becomes clutter and distraction; temporally, it becomes interruption.
The idea here seems to be that there is something inherently eccentric about the good-enough domestic scene, and that minor expressions of madness, as well as a tolerance for such expressions, are natural coping mechanisms for its difficulties. That’s true up to the point where domestic madness gets extended into the second domain—into the “search for meaning” that turns people into artists and philosophers and crackpots who ignore their families and start looking for symbols in their mashed potatoes the way some of us look for symbols in films. In the meantime, the difficulties of domestic life—and its natural tendency to degrade into a meaningless, inertial getting-by—are enhanced by certain technological multipliers: the distraction of a toy train (which Roy lamely attempts to integrate into his math lesson); the interruption of a phone call; the distraction of a TV in the background. Technology was supposed to expand the space and time for human relationships, by being “labor-saving.” Instead its contracting effect is to divide the spatiotemporal realm into pieces: spatially, it becomes clutter and distraction. Temporally, it becomes interruption. Each of these is what psychoanalysts might call an “attack on linking”—an attack on the meaning that is made of connecting thoughts and feelings, something that requires some environmental, spatiotemporal continuity. Human intimacy, in turn, requires that we make these connections.
The second domain is, by comparison, grand. In the first domain, technology enhances the mundanity of life, by abetting the routine of persistence that suppresses the extraordinary fact of existence. In the second, it is the key to the extraordinary. It is the means by which scientists—cooperating at a global scale—are unraveling clues to the existence of extraterrestrials, and a means by which they might communicate with them. The tools in question are the recording devices, cameras, and computers—the same tool used in filmmaking—that are required to document and analyze their findings, including the five-tone melody that will be the key to communicating with the aliens. We also see these scientists racing about desolate places in jeeps, dune buggies, and helicopters, to find forms of motorized transport long since disappeared in the Bermuda triangle, including the bombers of Flight 19 and the SS Cotopaxi. It’s as if they were trying to use the transport technologies of the current era to engage in a quest to rediscover those of an era bygone. Technology here becomes a means of reflectively modifying the significance technology, in a way that reduces its rough, utilitarian edges with a nostalgic soft focus.
These scenes of the second domain always involve the interaction of the powerful, well-educated, travelers from other countries—the scientists—with local plain folk in out-of-way places: an old man in the Sonoran desert, Gobi desert nomads, Indian villagers. These scientists are something like aliens to the people they visit, and also—with their recording devices—something like filmmakers: famously, French director François Truffaut plays the head scientist who must communicate, like the actual aliens, via translation. In their capacity as scientific auteurs, their relationship to extraterrestrials is inferential and indirect: it comes by way of their media—which is to say, by “close encounters of the second kind” (as classified by J. Allen Hynek’s The UFO Experience, from which Spielberg took his title). By contrast, the regular, everyday people they are interviewing and recording have made direct contact—“close encounters of the third kind.” As the trope goes, these folk have the more visceral experiences that the upper classes have watered down with intellectualization and the discipline required to function at the higher levels of a hierarchy. Consequently, the scientists’ pursuit will be undermined if they fail to incorporate these instinctual, gut-level encounters into their rational pursuit: in this case, by the use of music as a mathematico-communicative device that elicits actual contact with aliens and moves beyond the inferential. As proverbial filmmakers—rather than mere investigators—they must be ready to look at things from the perspective of the audience.
The wish is that technology go from being an alienating, ineffable structure to something concrete that can be encountered by actual contact; not as reinforcing the ordinary, but as delivering on technology’s original, magical promise. It must become a visitor from another world.
And so the promise of the second domain is not just the satisfaction of scientific curiosity, but that there be something more to life, something that can without exception evoke a sentiment like “this means something, this is important,” as Roy puts it. The wish is that there be a truly important thing, important to everyone, one that consequently brings all human beings together by making itself the object of universal interest and joint attention. On the level of subtext, this something we get very nicely by sharing a dark theater with an audience. Within the film’s narrative, there seems to be a hint an even grander possibility, the concrete but universal object replaces the more limited, abstract, and hence conflict-producing objects of national, religious, ethnic, and partisan fealties. That object has a chance to mobilize the world’s authorities away from their short-sighted differences, in the direction of the one-important-thing that will appear to all. A different sort of film would, of course, unite humanity by making the alien a common enemy. But in Close Encounters, the hope is that the possibility of an alien encounter will distract the powers that be from the use of technology to battle otherness, to persecute and control and surveil it, and instead seduce them into using technology as a means of communicating with the truly other—this otherworldly visitor—without eliminating it. The wish is also that technology go from being an alienating, ineffable structure of the first domain to something concrete that can be encountered: not by sight or inference (the first two ways), but actual contact (the third way); not as reinforcing the ordinary, but as delivering on technology’s original, magical promise. It must become a visitor from another world.
It takes something just this alien to get us across a seemingly unbridgeable chasm. The war-producing chasms between peoples—their narcissisms of minor differences—are made much larger by a familiarity that breeds contempt. So are the chasms between individual people: for instance, the one that opens up between spouses after years of contact transform intimacy into familiarity. This distance-out-of-closeness threatens to leach the wondrous unfamiliarity out of life, to deprive us of the romance of the alien. It obviates the difference that fuels desire and intimacy and connection, the sort of feelings that makes people travel to out-of-the-way places “just to look at each other,” as Ronnie says to Roy. To establish intimacy between human beings, we need the alien.
The third domain represents the threat of the failure to truly embrace otherness: the desire to control and suppress the gut-level and instinctual, for fear that there is something to the impending communication that cannot be heard by regular people, lest it disrupt the stable hierarchies of psyche or society. And so the powers-that-be (societal or psychical) conceal the truth, and make the regular person feel like a crackpot. Roy experiences the various ways in which society will try to dissuade the commoners from unsanctioned meaning-seeking expeditions—the government cover-up, the military checkpoints, astonished neighbors, a disapproving spouse, societal norms demanding that one’s primary focus be raising up the next generation. There is a thinly veiled metaphor here for the trials of the artist—Roy, after all, uses art supplies madly scrabbled together from lawn materials to build a sculpture of a mountain. One wonders how many times Spielberg was told, as a young man, that he couldn’t really be a filmmaker, only to find a way to make it happen with the objects that happened to be at hand—of a kind with the random items cluttering Ronnie’s breakfast table. Meaningless clutter is what they remain, unless they can be aesthetically ordered.
Roy’s wish, and the artistic wish, is to be vindicated in one’s crackpottery: to have it demonstrated that “the ideas that are fun to believe in,” as a government official puts it, have a basis in reality; to avoid being called a “crybaby,” by one’s nine-year-old, just for one’s ardent desire to “find out what’s going on” and discover that a genuine encounter with another is really possible, that “it’s really happening”; to know that it’s not crazy to expect to find “an answer”; to prove the cynics wrong; to undo the ostracism predicated upon such an insistent curiosity.
Art is the language that allows, in the form of music and word and image, communication with the incomprehensibly other.
“You have no right to make people crazy,” Roy tells Lacombe. And we can elaborate: you have no right to use your powers—those of surveillance and control and conformism—to hide the world’s meaningfulness from us, and make us feel crazy for seeking it. Here, art is the decisive form of defiance. Art restores meaning. Art restores intimacy without obliterating the alien. Art turns panoptic helicopters into curious space ships. Art is the language that allows, in the form of music and word and image, communication with the incomprehensibly other. It seems to cross the ultimate divide, even the abyss of death, to retrieve what seemed irretrievably lost. That’s the significance of having some of the world’s missing human beings—once thought to have been taken by war or foul play or accident—walk out of a spaceship at the film’s climax. Art is the unidentified flying delivery mechanism that might land directly in front of us, to restore the memories of not just of dead people, but dead emotions and experiences and parts of ourselves: it undoes the attacks on linking that compromise human intimacy; it reconnects thought and emotion. And film in particular undoes the spatiotemporal fractures effected by technology in the first domain. In this, art and film fulfill the original promise of technology to facilitate intimacy rather than the routine convenience and hedonism that compensates for its loss.
And so all of this represents the promise at the heart of a medium as technically complex as film. The grand mothership that descends at the end of the film is not just a personification of technology, but a spectacle of music and light that represents the peculiar artistic synthesis that is film. Really, it turns an airfield into an impromptu drive-in theater. It’s as if scientists went searching for extraterrestrial intelligence and found some treasured memory from their childhood. Their search for a nostalgic transport technology is now complete, now that the mobility in question is psychical. Near the beginning of the film, Ronnie reminds Roy that he “promised everyone a movie this weekend.” Close Encounters makes good to us the promise that Roy can’t keep to his family: we get not just a movie, but Movie herself, an enormous mobile city full of child-like aliens in possession of filmic memories: the human beings who walk off the ship are also the stereotyped characters of Hollywood classics.
Spielberg has said that his inspiration for the mood of Close Encounters was Pinocchio (which Roy wants his kids to see early on in the film) and its theme song When You Wish upon a Star. Indeed, Spielberg’s films seem to associate the intimacy restored by art with a childhood sense of wonder. Children’s sense of wonder—their ability to play, to be naturally artistic, and to access the sorts of wishes and longings that adults often leave behind in their pursuit of money, sex, status, and power—make them aliens to the adult scene. Spielberg has said that he felt like an alien as a child, and he is famous for introducing us to the perspective of children in a compromised family scene, in which they feel abandoned by adults focused on adult concerns. At the beginning of E.T. the father is absent (as was Spielberg’s father), the mother preoccupied, and chaos reigns: the children in this movie are the principal aliens, and in E.T. they find a kindred spirit.
But their ability to play, and to have wishes, is also the means by which children survive this compromised scene. And even the best sort of scene is compromised. The truth is that adults cannot themselves deliver directly on the promise of When You Wish upon a Star—that “fate is kind,” as the song puts it, and “dreams come true.” On the face of it, this seems like a blatant deception only children could fall for. Fate is not kind, and dreams that depend on external fortunes often don’t come true, as the ancient Stoics were so fond of pointing out. But whatever the externalities, certain states of mind are, as the Stoics were also fond of pointing out, typically possible if we put in the work; and on this account they’re the only things worth wishing for anyway. That includes the possibility of making genuine contact with our own thoughts and feelings, and genuine contact with other human beings, along with the sense of wonder that is necessary to revitalize these connections in the face of life’s routine.
If that’s right, the wish in question is just the ability to have wishes. The “star” here is not just a prophetic sign, but a signifier of the self-fulfilling nature of what lies at the core of childhood’s central wish. If you can maintain your ability to dream, then your dream has indeed come true. And so to “wish upon a star” is to wish to preserve the best parts of childhoods—its imaginativeness and wonder—in the wake of adult concerns. We have a source here for the desire to put technology in service of intimacy: that is, to put the ample powers of adulthood—all the learning that children naturally resist because they instinctually understand it may compromise wonder by falsely sating it, by eliminating the alien—in the service of alien-preserving creativity. The mothership turns out not just to be Movie herself, but to be a certain kind of wonder-instilling artistry; a technologically advanced version of the Disney castle, finally returned to fulfill the central wish and prove that fate indeed is kind.
That is, in the end, where Roy—stand-in for aspiring filmmaker—wants to be. He embarks upon the delivery mechanism for a return trip. He inhabits his medium. He absents himself from the earth, from the mundane, and becomes an immigrant in search of a better world. That seems like a cruel fate for his family, and he seems to be re-creating the compromised family scene that makes creativity a more poignant, urgent outlet for the adults that survive them. Spielberg said if he had made the movie after having children, he would never have let Roy get on the ship. But metaphorically, Roy’s trip is necessary. He is more the child-alien abandoning the compromised scene of jaded adults, than the negligent father who can’t make good on taking his kids to a movie. Besides, on a more fundamental level he’s making good on that movie, as much as adults can, insofar as he facilitates what it represents—the child’s wish-to-preserve-wishing. The benefit of making himself an alien, filmic memory to those who love him is that perhaps they too can become searchers. Perhaps they too can become crackpots and voyagers and—yes—film-lovers for whom the world’s eccentric, bug-eyed subtext will never again be concealed and suppressed in a human form so familiar that it is inevitably taken for granted, loved only in the manner of an object that has been wholly identified.
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