Wonder, and Love: On Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I just watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time in over 30 years with my son of seven. Throughout the film, as is his way, the boy kept leaping to conclusions of what would happen next: the army guys are gonna try to kill that guy; the army guys are gonna try and kill the aliens; the aliens are gonna try and kill the army.

And yet nothing of the sort transpires.  The army is, in some sense, the bad guy in that they perpetrate a lie to clear people off of Devil’s Tower.  But even when it seems they’ve killed animals to support their lie, we discover no, they haven’t killed the livestock: they’ve used a gas to put the animals to sleep for a bit.

The earthlings of this film might not all be competent, they might not all be nice, but no one suggests a hostile approach to this close encounter.  I mean, look who leads the initiative — a presumably American initiative: François Truffaut!  He is never explained — why is a Frenchman leading this? What, exactly, is his role?  He’s never in a uniform; he seems to have no military affiliation.  And yet everyone, including the military, defer to him.

Oh, what a different image of America!  Led by Truffaut! He of The 400 Blows! Of Jules and Jim!  This is the man 33 years ago that Spielberg decided — and America accepted — as leading the first human contact with alien life.  And on American soil!

The main hostility in this film is between Richard Dreyfuss and his wife, Teri Garr.  He is obsessed, possessed, by visions — in his eyes and in his mind, scorched across his flesh.  She cannot tolerate it.  Nor can his nosy, suburban, middle class neighbors.  So what does he do?  He heads for another planet without a moment of regret or hesitation.

Look at the encounter itself.  It is mediated by music.  And not just any music but baroque music: infinite complexity without dissonance.  The humans and the aliens riff and jam without hitting a bad note.  Of course, it might have been more interesting had they broken into some free jazz. Still, we get a beautiful, baroque encounter.

There is little fear and absolutely no hostility.  The encounter is just that: an event, ripe with awe, wonder, love, generosity, a tad of caution but open arms.  No one reaches for a gun; there are no planes ready to attack, no missiles at DEFCON 4.  Only wonder, and love.

I may be no fan of Spielberg.  But it was so refreshing to (re)see a film about an encounter with difference — an alien encounter, literally — that was fundamentally bereft of fear and hostility.  Alas, how things have changed. TC mark

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