Tuesday, September 30, 2014


My first selection for the CP blog is the very first movie I ever rented on VHS. Granted I had already seen it on the big screen (the way it should only be seen imho) but when this seven year old walked into the Eroll's Video store somewhere in the suburbs of Virginia, his mind was completely blown when he learned that he could actually RENT MOVIES and take them HOME and PLAY THEM on his family's woefully inadequate television (back in those days, a flatscreen was exactly that - a flat screen.) Aspect ratios and screen dimensions be damned, my parents, my brother, and myself were just as captivated watching Spielberg's tale of alien contact on Earth at home as we were at the local moviehouse. I've seen it countless times since, most memorably at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. More recently, I caught an outdoor showing of it here in Austin, and despite the occasional chatter from the other patrons camped out on the lawn of The Long Center, I was once again transported to a pre-E.T. scenario in which the prospect of alien sightings was absolutely terrifying. The movie posters themselves summed up CEOTTK'S one-liner plotline: We are not alone. What kid wouldn't be scared senseless reading that? What struck me most this time around was how much the film is not so much about extra-terrestrial encounters so much as it is about obsession. Richard Dreyfuss (an Everyman if there ever was) has a truly frightening close encounter out in the boondocks where he is sent to fix an electrical grid - we all know the images: the classic Spielberg joke set-up and punchline delivery with the dual headlights only the audience recognizes as otherworldly; the shaking mailboxes; the spotlight over Roy's clunky red pick-up; the loose contents of the truck's cab levitating along with Roy himself; and then a most unsettling darkness and quietude - and Roy returns to his wife and three kids forever changed. He becomes casually distracted by his encounter at first, then when he has his second encounter that confirms his sighting ("Ice cream!" yells the young boy, Barry) he starts having visions of a dirt mountain. Roy sees it everywhere - pillowcases, plant dirt, and in a very iconic scene, mashed potatoes. This is where Roy's beleaguered wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr, excellent as always) realizes her husband has lost the plot and leaves him with their anguished kids in tow. Of course, the rest of the movie isn't about Roy trying to win his family back. Rather, it concerns him pursuing his obsession further, despite the eerie intrusion of sinister government officials. The destruction of his family unit doesn't seem to faze Roy; in fact, he soon bonds with Barry's mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon, quietly marvelous.) After Barry is abducted, their shared mission becomes personal, and ultimately (spoiler alert) Roy achieves perhaps the one thing that has eluded him in life: the third encounter - contact. His actions lead him to a seemingly impossible choice: stay here or go boldly into the unknown. It's his lack of hesitation that sometimes riles viewers - "What about his wife and kids? What an arrogant bastard!" Yes he is, but obsessions blind its beholders, and, not to defend the feckless man-child husband, you have to ask yourself: how far would you go to achieve the unattainable? There is no easy answer. That's what makes obsessions so personal. Now, given that CEOTTK is the sole screenplay that Spielberg has full credit on (quick: can you name the one he shares credit on?) one can't help but wonder if Roy's obsession with UFO's is a subconscious metaphor for filmmaking. Anyone knows that the life of a film director, especially one with Spielberg's pedigree, is rife with chaos. Divorces, career turbulence, substance abuse, second divorces, etc., etc. Yet the best filmmakers usually tend to endure because they seem to be driven to tell stories, personal or otherwise. Spielberg himself is actually a child of divorce so that aspect playing the elephant in Roy's house isn't a real surprise. It's the chase, the pursuit, that seem to keep our finest directors (Scorsese, Soderbergh, The Coen Brothers, etc.) on their path to their own Devil's Tower.

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