Chapter 18: Indiana – Visions

“The magic of darkness breaking through into colour and light is such a promise of invitation and possibility. No wonder we always associate the hope and urgency of new beginning with the dawn. The beautiful danger is that no one can ever predict what the new day will bring.” — John O’Donohue, ‘To Bless the Space Between Us’

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS of the THIRD KIND, 1977. Directed and Written by Steven Spielberg. Electrician Roy Neary wishes upon a star, and pursues a dream of aliens, because he believes that there is more to life than what we tell ourselves. And he’s right. Relationships have broken up over one party not endorsing life for what it is—a mystical experience.


The first thing you see in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the dark. The second is that it’s beautiful. The third is that you don’t belong there. Yet. Spielberg was obviously paying homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by opening with a completely black screen accompanied by a high-pitched sound, before an eruption of white light consumes the audience’s field of vision. Opening titles proceed with the names (Dreyfuss, Truffaut, Zsigmond, Balaban, Spielberg himself) evoking an imaginary heist crew consisting of Polish rabbis and French chocolatiers. There’s a sense that we are entering liminal space—a different place to any of those that we have previously known. When the screen brightens, we’re peering through the dust into a wind-swept desert in Mexico, and people are babbling about things we don’t understand. Almost the first words of the film are, “Are we the first to arrive here?” And this is why and how it represents America—the thrill of actual discovery mingled with the adolescent assertion that no one else did it before us. This is what America (and America’s shadow) is about: invention (and colonizing), creation (and empire).

We meet a delirious old and poor man, jabbering on about the vision he had the previous night, repeating his new mantra “the sun sings to me.” We cut to an air traffic control room—and as I watch, I’m aware of yet another sign that we live in a new epoch: You can’t see an air traffic control room in a movie without thinking of 9/11. The pilots squawking to the controllers don’t want to report a UFO because there are times when no one wants to accept that there is anything that they can’t explain.

Then, suddenly, we’re in Muncie, Indiana—a house straight out of The Wizard of Oz, the house that Jack built, the house that those of us who have never been there believe is America: clapboard siding, huge yard, crickets sounding off everywhere, the medium-sized house on the prairie with the cymbal-crashing monkey, the house that we imagine to be standard in the country of our dreams. It intentionally evokes Dorothy’s farm in Kansas, for Spielberg is reaching back into our childhood pre-history, nudging our inner innocent to come back to life.

A little boy is awakened by what turn out to be aliens from outer space. His mother (Dad is so absent he might as well be on the moon) is terrified by the noises and lights and her inability to protect her child. Melinda Dillon has made a career out of playing slightly unhinged mothers—in this, in A Christmas Story where the dogs destroy her oven-roasted turkey, and in Magnolia where her husband almost destroys her daughter. Meanwhile, in the Muncie suburbs, Roy Neary (Dreyfuss), ignorant of the fact that he is mere hours away from being invited by aliens to go with them into the unknown, is playing with his trains and failing to help his son learn how to count. He’s enacting the myth of American fatherhood as it looks in real life. As a baby boomer, Roy may be fixated on the fear of having no great task in life, no “great crisis,” as Fight Club would have it. The sons of this generation are looking to their fathers for guidance, but their fathers are too deadened by suburbia to know or perhaps even to care:

“I don’t have to do your problems for you. You do your problems for you.”

There is no organizing theme to Roy’s life except sleeping and working and eating and playing with his trains; indeed, he is so bored by the ordinary that there is a part of him desperate enough for the prize of being alive that he will eventually abandon his family to win it.  He has more capacity for dreaming than even his own children:

“You have a choice tomorrow night—you can either play Goofy golf which is a lot of waiting and pushing and shoving and probably getting a zero, or see Pinocchio, which is a lot of furry animals and magic and you’ll have a great time.”

As I watch, I wonder if I ever become a father in America whether I will have to struggle against forces that leave me able to be more playful than my kids. I may be doomed to trying to persuade them that there is more magic out there in the world than on an electronic device. Magic is, of course, partly what this film is about: A man hears a voice that speaks apparent absurdities, but he follows because, although he can’t understand it, there’s nothing else he can do. It’s the biblical story of Abraham, who left everything he knew for something apparently ridiculous only to become the father of a nation because he did. It’s the story of the Pilgrim Fathers who may well have felt they were traveling an Abrahamic route. It’s the story of anyone whose inner monologue ever told them they were different.

So it’s my story, too. I’m the mad guy in the Sonora Desert, jabbering away to myself about what the world is and is not, asking where the light came from and why it sings to me. I too say the light came from UP THERE, and I point—it comes from heaven and from the cinema screen. I say the sun came out last night and it sang to me. The sun sings to me through the movies, and while this particular movie was made when I was three-years-old, I feel it understands me now. At one point, Roy’s wife, played by Teri Garr, who, when given a chance, is one of the most perfect of pitch perfect comic actors, listens to him trying to explain something he can’t articulate, just as in life the movies so often articulate for us what we can’t speak, what we feel and not what we think we ought to say. Roy has seen something beyond profound, but his wife only worries about how to put dinner on the table. He’s discovering the secret of the universe; she’s telling him he should put fake tan on his face. The face that was burned by an alien spaceship.

The fascinating thing about Close Encounters is that, for a quintessential American story, it’s relatively open to the rest of the world—we see traces of alien reconnaissance in India, Nepal, and Mexico, and we can assume that Indiana and Wyoming are not the only places they choose to land. In that sense, the film respects the audience more than many American mythic enterprises—it’s an everyman story that really does have something for everyone. We can believe that something happening to a little guy in a house in Muncie is also happening to the whole world. This is perhaps the good side of American exceptionalism—at its best it is a country that sees itself as a gift to the rest of humanity. And what can be more human than a mother searching for her child? What can be more human than a man getting on a spaceship to find God?

And this may be the vision that America most believes about itself: There’s something out there bigger than us, but it’s not just out there—it’s here. The American story, like all of Spielberg’s stories, is a domestic drama with a metaphysical soundtrack, and there’s only one authority that Spielberg respects—a man’s vision of what might make him a good man. Every other rule is challenged, from employee responsibility to obeying military instructions, and eventually common sense. What stuns me is that Spielberg was younger than I am now when he made it. I’m getting older, faster than I want to, and I want my inner innocent to come back to life. Close Encounters suggests that I should just sit still and build something.

For much of the film’s central section, Roy is compelled to mold a shape that he doesn’t understand—from mashed potatoes, from plasticine, from the soil of plants he uproots in the garden, from clay. Tom Waits once wrote a song about such a man, his neighbor inquiring, half-amused and half-horrified, “What’s he building in there?” There is a subset of America in which the suburban male is forever working on a project in the basement. In real life, the Unabomber constructed bombs in a shack, destroying the lives of others to make a political point. George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading enacted the Coen Brothers’ coruscating satire of the flimsy reasons for the war in Iraq by using aluminum tubes to build a sex toy in his cellar, and Roy Neary sculpts Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower, the first declared national monument in the US, and the landing site for his particular ETs. Plasticine, of course, is for kids and Roy needs to, as St Paul and President Obama might say, put away childish things. The uprooting of the plants telegraphs his maturation—Roy needs a rupture. He gets it, but it comes at a price. The gifts that life brings us are sometimes accompanied by scars, and when Roy sees the light, it burns him and takes him away from what he has known, maybe never to return—which is, I suppose, what the best movies are supposed to do.

Close Encounters is, like Chinatown, also a movie about cinema itself, with the magic of Oz and Pinocchio mixed with gentle jokes about North by Northwest. The climactic half hour takes place in an alien landing strip at the bottom of Devil’s Tower, which is not only one of the most majestic images ever committed to film, but a picture that evokes the feeling of being in the largest movie theatre ever built. It’s not just aliens that are coming: it’s the greatest film premiere on earth.

As the large plasticine alien emerges from the craft and does his peaceable wave-thing, we are moved, uplifted, possibly we are changed, and we know that there is something bigger than us in the world. As we look at the gracious face of French critic and director Francois Truffaut, cast by Spielberg because of his association with Great Movies (and evidence against the charge that Americans never trust the French), we know that there Is Something Bigger, and that something is not just America, nor is it cinema. It’s being a Person. That’s what Indiana, somewhere in its depths, knows.

Along the way, the religious figures do their thing, anointing the new astronauts on their way to forever; but ecclesiastical ritual pales alongside the vision of the alien mothership. The scientists congratulate themselves, but seem sufficiently under-awed by the majesty of the visitation that none of them try to board it. As Jesus or John Updike might say, “Only ordinary people can see the magic, and only the childlike can enter the kingdom of heaven.”

(Note to Self: Things have changed since the Seventies: The striped cardigan of the guy who tries to escape from the army with Roy is horrifying. Second Note to Self: Things have not changed since the Seventies—the sign at a McDonalds featured in close-up says that they had served only “24 billion” then, but the buildings look exactly the same today. Third Note to Self: When people in America see things that inspire awe, they invariably say, “Oh my God!” whether they believe in God or not.)

Ultimately, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is America’s cinematic prophecy of itself, reminding us that the new is often frightening, and that promise and danger can be the same thing. This is how America began. In promise and in danger. In Close Encounters, you have both: America is a place that worships its own myths of greatness, where the authorities make you wear gas masks when the air is clean, and pretends that there’s no such thing as aliens; where salesmen try to scare people into buying protection they don’t need; a place where the government militarizes human discovery and endeavor, is willing to harm its own citizens for the sake of what it determines to be national security, and tries to frighten a superior intelligence away by playing John Williams’ music to spaceships. It’s also a place where everyone is called by the same cosmological echoes—to be reunited with our parents, to get back to the source, to know that there is a God, to feel like we have done something significant. At the end of the film, Roy is no longer an outsider looking in, looking on, yearning to be part of things. He has melded with the core, which is where America says everyone can be—at the center of their own nation.

Extracted from CINEMATIC STATES by Gareth Higgins.

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