In the study of film, the group ready to identify Steven Spielberg as an immensely influential, clever, and popular director, but not a particularly artistic filmmaker, is no minority. The reasons for this are not all that difficult to figure out, after you are familiar with a large number of his films.
Spielberg’s dramas are often overwhelmingly saccharine; his action films often sacrifice tension to safety and predictability; his historical films play loose with the facts and the tone, often in the interest of either the aforementioned sentimentality or else American nationalism; and many of his films across all genres rely on reductive, trite moralizing. A prime example of many of these issues is fan-favorite Saving Private Ryan, which represents at times a relentless, graphic, unsentimental portrait of armed conflict, but which is interspersed with and ends with a clarification that the film loves a good soldier, loves America, and loves any war America should happen to fight.
Praising and Criticizing Spielberg:
With all that stated and recognized, however, I do not count myself among those who dismiss Spielberg as a creator of blockbusters, and nothing more. Even if I would agree that many of his films (even many of his most popular films) do not stand up well under scrutiny, I think that some of his films do pass beyond the (unjustly maligned) category of entertainment, and into the hallowed category of art.
For one, the innovative camera-work, structural uniqueness, and threatening world of Jaws more than hold up; Hitchcock’s praise for the use of the camera in Jaws as a desirable abandonment of the subconscious proscenium arch was apt. For another, the Indiana Jones trilogy consists of capable, cohesive tributes to its American action and western forebears (discounting some hiccups in the middle). For a third, as a fan of the screwball comedies of the 30s-40s, and an even bigger fan of the fast-talking, authority-questioning comedies of the 20s-40s (by the likes of The Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin), I have a soft spot for the lampooning of American paranoia and military procedures in 1941—I have even enjoyed a screening of the most recent director-approved version of the film, which weighs in at nearly 3 hours in length.
The pattern here, which you may have noticed, is that these films were made closer to the first half of Spielberg’s movie career, before he had settled comfortably into his sentimental niche. This was back when Spielberg reserved the sentimentality for movies about sentiment and connection, such as E.T. But the film which I would like to take up as a perfect example of this early Spielbergian brilliance is one that is not much-discussed anymore, but which has long been a favorite of mine: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Discord and Discovery in Close Encounters:
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
Close Encounters is a movie about embracing experiences which challenge your conventions and traditions. It is a movie about learning something which changes you as a person, and learning it against your will. The irrevocability of knowledge accompanies the overwhelming thirst for more knowledge; there is a non-trivial parallel between protagonist Roy Neary’s desire to understand what he encountered on the road and his fascination with exploring the kernel of geographic imagery implanted in his mind.
Despite its fantastical subject matter, this is a film which places a premium on realism in its portrayal of the emotional experience of sincerely held aberrant thoughts informing aberrant behaviors. One watches as Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, loses his wife and children, only to eventually give up any reasonable hope of ever rejoining them. This finely detailed, protracted breakdown of a family—with its accompanying implication that there will never be a reunion—is a plotline which has almost no analogues in Spielberg’s later films, despite the fact that Spielberg not only directed, but also wrote Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Roy’s wife, Ronnie, played by Teri Garr, is emblematic of a type of conventional knowledge, i.e. a knowledge which restricts itself to what it already believes. This is exposed most blatantly when she dismisses the obvious physical evidence represented by Roy’s half-sunburnt face. The sequences between these two could also be read as a discussion of mental health. Roy is in need of help (think of the scene where he has locked himself in the bathroom), which Ronnie is unable to provide for a set of circumstances which she does not understand. Either way, this is a film more interested in reconciling itself to disconnect than in reconciling disconnect.
In contrast to this individual experience of exploration in Close Encounters, one also sees the governmental experience of exploration. The coalition of professionals who are investigating strange occurrences around the world appear with the full force of human technology at remote locations, seemingly without effort. This portrayal of the collective resources of the involved agencies becomes something as intimidating as it is impressive. On the one hand, the respect of the professionals involved (especially the character played by writer, director, and actor François Truffaut) and the careful attention to detail showcase the best that the scientific community can offer in times of exciting discovery. In this light, the theme of learning is reinforced by their engagement with investigation, as though their scenes would be more at home in the mystery genre.
On the other hand, the effortless manipulation of the public in the preparation of the landing zone near the film’s end, and the endangerment or killing of all of the animals in the region breed mistrust of the use of authority as an evidential source. A detail like the sedating or killing of the animals is not easily glossed over with C.G. retroactively (a tactic Spielberg tentatively used to increase the safety and decrease the tension in a key scene in E.T. 20 years later, possibly taking a cue from his erstwhile colleague George Lucas).
These emphases on the value, affect, and difficulty of pursuing a line of inquiry are also echoed in the relationship between the earnest enthusiasm of young Barry Guiler, who ostensibly volunteers himself into the arms of the aliens, and his beyond-concerned mother. Instincts can be misleading in the pursuit of truth, and Jillian Guiler is only trying to protect her son to the best of her abilities. The framing of the abduction scene is particularly well-executed, as the viewer shares in the feeling of invasion into the established order of the house through its endless vulnerability.
There are plenty of other details in Close Encounters of the Third Kind which lend credence to this interpretation. It would be strange to call it a coincidence that one of the scientists explicitly refers to the musical inter-species communication as “the first day of school.” Nor do I think it is merely a fortunate quirk of the script that the alien language meshes with entrancing music and haunting notes (part of the wonderful score by John Williams). Nor does it seem to me a fluke that the dramatic conclusion of Close Encounters, the interface between two conscious sentient species, occurs at a place called Devil’s Tower. The name of this iconic Wyoming formation evokes the full mythos of the devil, including the account of the devil’s dangerous pursuit of evidence for authority claims (seen in particular detail in John Milton’s Paradise Lost).
In the end, Roy Neary risks all that he has ever known in order to embrace the new knowledge which he is in the process of acquiring. This abandonment of old modes of living and thinking come across as a sort of Nietzschean self-overcoming. In accordance with his mounting obsession, Roy comes across as an often-unlikeable and even unstable person who is nevertheless sympathetic—in short, he conspicuously possesses all of the nuance of a very well-written protagonist.
This epistemological reading of the movie is just one of the many ways to approach this beautifully composed film, and is not the only interpretation of the film which I myself would give. Nonetheless, I hope that I have demonstrated why I find such artistic value in Close Encounters, and by extension why I would never write off Spielberg as just a serial producer, or as the unsubtle commercial director he has been for some of his later films. In my opinion, the crown jewels of Spielberg’s directorial contribution to film are Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it would surprise me greatly if either of them did not stand the test of time.
Spielberg Before the Sentiment: