Sunday, December 29, 2013

Close Encounters of the Mythic Kind

Close Encounters of the Mythic Kind

The Fact, Fantasy, and Speculation Behind Cinema's Greatest UFO Movie

More so than any other filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has moulded our perceptions of otherworldly visitors. His films teem with iconic imagery seared into the minds of millions: a mothership’s miraculous ascension at Devils Tower; a boy and his fugitive friend from the stars cycling in silhouette across the face of the moon... Even Spielberg’s less memorable alien offerings – War of the Worlds (2005) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – have enjoyed enormous success at the worldwide box-office, raking in some $1.4 billion between them.

Although he has donned his director’s cap for just four alien-themed movies, Spielberg’s role as a producer has long seen him neck-deep in entertainment of the extraterrestrial kind. His credits to date include Batteries Not Included (1987), the Men in Black franchise (1997 – 2012), the alien abduction mini-series Taken (2002); the Transformers franchise (2007 - ); the alien invasion series Falling Skies (2011 - ); the ‘Sci-fi-Western’ Cowboys and Aliens (2011); and Super 8 (2011), the plot for which features Area 51, the US Air Force and an escaped alien entity.

That Spielberg continues to make movies about life elsewhere is owed not simply to good business sense but is due in large part to his own childhood fascination with UFOs – a fascination that would intensify into his late twenties and culminate in his cathartic production of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

A teenage Spielberg in 1964 awaiting the premiere of his first feature-length film, Firelight, which would serve as the blueprint for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Close Encounters was a miracle of a movie. It imparted to the viewer a message of universal hope, revealing to cinemagoers that aliens were not necessarily a force to be feared. According to Spielberg’s vision, aliens were simply misunderstood – not our maleficent destructors, but our gloriously beneficent friends. He told his cast during filming that the movie was to be “very gentle, like an embrace.” Here, then, was the work of an unashamed idealist, its director’s childlike sense of wonder infusing its every frame.

Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) on the trail to Devils Tower.
The film’s plot, such as it is, follows electrical engineer Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a Spielbergian ‘everyman’ with a thirst for adventure who is trapped in a joyless marriage with bratty kids in middle-American suburbia. Roy’s life is turned upside down one night after a close encounter with a UFO convinces him that we are not alone in the universe. This experience prompts Roy to embark upon an obsessive and isolating quest for the truth behind the UFO enigma and ultimately leads him to Devils Tower in Wyoming where he meets angelic extraterrestrial beings and blissfully takes his leave of our ‘humdrum’ planet.

Close Encounters is notable for being the first film ever to feature the archetypal ‘Grey’ alien. While shades of the Grey are identifiable in film and TV products dating back to the 1950s, Close Encounters marked the Greys’ first fully crystallized appearance onscreen with trademark spindly bodies, small stature, oversized heads and eyes, and otherwise featureless faces. Cultural commentators often have used this fact to suggest that it was Spielberg’s iconic movie – not real life occurrences – that lead witnesses to claim personal encounters with the diminutive Greys. However, the man who designed the aliens for Close Encounters – famed production designer Joe Alves – deflates this theory. When I interviewed Alves recently he told me that he based his alien designs on descriptions he’d received directly from witnesses. “I had called a lot of people when trying to design the aliens to see if people had actually seen anything,” said Alves, “and I talked to a lot of legitimate people... who described to me very simplistic creatures with large eyes and small mouths, no nose.”

Production Designer Joe Alves (kneeling) with Spielberg (left) in 1976
during the shoot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Based on what he heard during his research, Alves began conceptualizing the alien beings. “The descriptions I heard were of these big-eyed things with small mouths and no nose, long fingers, that kind of thing. So I made some sketches and I also made a couple of clay models.” Spielberg was pleased with Alves’ designs: “Steven said ‘I like these simple little childlike beings. That’s what I want.’” It was soon after that Spielberg made the decision to have little girls wear the alien costumes in order to imbue the cosmic entities with a sense of innocence and grace.

Enter the Greys: the movie's aliens were designed by Joe Alves based on real witness reports.

Spielberg’s film is rich in UFOlogical detail beyond the appearance of its aliens – from its depiction of silent but spectacular UFO manoeuvres, UFOs interfering with electrical grids and car engines, government secrecy and disinformation surrounding the subject, and even alien abduction (around a decade before such stories began to permeate the literature). The movie achieved its extraordinary UFOlogical verisimilitude thanks in large part to the advice of legendary UFO investigator Professor J. Allen Hynek. It was Hynek’s classification system for UFO sightings that gave Spielberg’s movie its unusual title (a ‘close encounter of the third kind’ referring to any sighting of a UFO within 500 feet of the witness during which UFO occupants are also observed), and Spielberg appointed the man himself as his official UFO advisor on the movie.

Close Encounters also owes a debt to the pioneering UFO research of Hynek's most famous protégé, Dr Jacques Vallée (pictured here with Hynek). Indeed, one of the movies main characters, the Frenchman Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), was partly inspired by Vallée himself. Spielberg consulted briefly with Vallée during the movie’s production and the scientist attempted to sway the director in favour of a more exotic explanation for the UFO phenomenon. Spielberg’s movie should explore the interdimensional hypothesis, Vallée insisted. “When I met Steven Spielberg, I argued with him that the subject was even more interesting if it wasn’t extraterrestrials,” said Vallée, “if it was real, physical, but not ET.” Spielberg wasn’t convinced, however, telling Vallée: “You’re probably right, but that’s not what the public is expecting – this is Hollywood and I want to give people something that’s close to what they expect.’”

Spielberg chats with (takes direction from?) legendary director Francois Truffaut, whose character in the movie
was partly inspired by Dr. Jacques Vallée.
For years, Close Encounters has been the subject of fervent speculation in the UFO conspiracy community, with even some of the most level-headed of researchers inclined to believe it was part of an official UFO acclimation campaign. Such speculation can be traced back to the production of the movie itself. On July 23, 1976, after a hard day’s shoot, around forty of the Close Encounters cast and crew (including stars Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon) gathered in the sticky night air of Mobile, Alabama to hear a lecture on UFOs delivered by Hynek (who had been flown in for a brief cameo in the film’s closing scenes). It was shortly after this lecture that the co-star of the movie, Bob Balaban (who plays the character of translator David Laughlin) spoke of an intriguing rumour that had been circulating during the production – “a rumour,” said the actor, “that the film is part of the necessary training that the human race must go through in order to accept an actual landing, and is being secretly sponsored by a government UFO agency.” I asked Close Encounters production designer Joe Alves if he had heard any such rumours during the shoot and if there was any substance to them. “There were a lot of rumours,” he replied ambiguously, before changing the subject.

Making history. Left to right: Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Steven Spielberg, and Lance Henriksen.

In 1977, after the production had wrapped, Spielberg told Sight and Sound magazine what inspired him to make a film that dealt seriously with the UFO issue. “I realized that just about every fifth person I talked to had looked up at the sky at some point in their lives and seen something that was not easy to explain,” said the director, “and then I began meeting people who had had close encounters... where undeniably something quite phenomenal was happening right before their eyes. It was this direct contact – the interviews – that got me interested in making the movie.”

Left to right: Dreyfuss, Truffaut, Balaban, and Spielberg.
Spielberg’s interest in UFOs even extended to a belief in an official cover-up: “I wouldn’t put it past this government that a cosmic Watergate has been underway for the last 25 years,” he remarked during a Close Encounters promotional interview in 1977, “eventually they might want to tell us something about what they’ve discovered over the decades.” During the same interview, Spielberg spoke with relish of “rumours” that President Carter was due to make “some unsettling disclosures” about UFOs later that year. Needless to say, no such disclosures were forthcoming.

But was Spielberg dropping a hint? Was Close Encounters really part of a government-sponsored UFO indoctrination program – an effort to educate the public about the reality of an alien presence? We may never know for sure, although comments made more recently by another Hollywood professional make for intriguing reading in the context of this discussion. In February of 2011 – thirty-four years after the release of Close Encounters – I spoke with Andrew Thomas, a writer/director/producer who worked on Spielberg’s UFO epic in 1976 as head of ‘special marketing.’ Eighteen months before the film was scheduled to premiere, at the behest of the film’s studio, Columbia Pictures, Thomas worked with a major planetarium to create a dazzling twenty-minute show for the American public. He described it to me as follows:

“You sit down and a UFO shoots across the planetarium dome and then the audience is trained on how to figure out whether that was a meteor, a comet, or actually an extraterrestrial. We managed to bus-in tens-of thousands of kids from all around the country on the pretence of seeing an educational planetarium show, but what they really got was a sophisticated message to explain to them that extraterrestrials and UFOs are real and what an encounter of the first, second and third kind actually meant.”

At first glance, this testimony would seen to lend weight to the indoctrination rumours, but Thomas himself has a different take on why Columbia Pictures adopted such an unusual and deceptive marketing strategy: “They were concerned that the title ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ sounded suspiciously like a pornographic movie, because no one had any reference to what that vocabulary meant.” Thomas says his job was simply to introduce the ‘close encounter’ terminology into the vernacular, “so when the film opened-up everyone would know what was being discussed, and there wouldn’t be any question.”
There were further indications of secrecy and deception relating to Close Encounters shortly after the movie was released. It is curious, for example, that the Carter Presidential Library contains no record of the film-loving President ever having viewed Close Encounters while in office. However, in a 1977 Canadian TV interview conducted directly after the movie’s theatrical release, Spielberg said matter-of-factly that Carter had viewed the movie “Last Saturday.” “We haven’t heard the direct feedback,” Spielberg remarked, but added, “We hear he [Carter] liked it quite a bit.” The following March, The Phoenix Gazette cited Close Encounters as “Jimmy Carter’s favorite movie,” noting that “The President has seen the movie many times.” This is not the only discrepancy over the official record concerning Carter and Spielberg. Officially, Spielberg never set foot in the Carter White House and had never met the President; and yet a solitary photocopy of a photograph discovered in the Carter Presidential Library proves that the two men did meet. The photo shows Carter and Spielberg engaged in conversation and is signed: “To Steven Spielberg, [from] Jimmy Carter.” An accompanying White House stationary note signed by White House Social Secretary Gretchen Poston and addressed to Spielberg reads: “The President thought you would enjoy receiving the enclosed photograph.” 

This apparent secrecy almost certainly resulted from a desire in the military-intelligence community – and even among Carter’s staff – to keep the Administration from being further publicly associated with flying saucers. Famously, Carter had his own UFO sighting in 1969 in Leary, Georgia, witnessing a bright white round object that approached his position before stopping and then receding into the distance. Carter was with twelve other people at the time, all of whom witnessed the strange phenomenon. Needless to say, a UFO-spotting President viewing the ultimate UFO movie at the White House and having get-togethers with its alien-obsessed director would have been a PR nightmare.

By far the most outlandish of the conspiracy theories surrounding Close Encounters relates to ‘Project Serpo’ – an alleged human/alien exchange program between US military personnel and a race of extraterrestrials from the Zeta Reticuli star system.

The story goes that, in July of 1965, twelve astronauts were taken to the planet Serpo aboard an alien spaceship and remained there for thirteen years. In exchange, the aliens left one of their own in the custody of the US government. This story didn’t emerge until 2005 in the form of a string of anonymous emails that were sent to selected UFO researchers, including Project Camelot/Avalon’s Bill Ryan, who created a website dedicated to the “leaks.”

The Serpo story lead some in the conspiracy community to speculate that Close Encounters was partly inspired by the alleged alien/human exchange program of 1965, which assumes that Spielberg himself was privy to inside information on the UFO issue. In the movie’s final scenes, a taller alien (this one not designed by Alves but by effects expert Carlo Rambaldi) is seen to exit the mothership and communicate with the character of Claude Lacombe via a series of hand gestures. Soon after, we see twelve scientists clad in jumpsuits preparing to board the mothership and take permanent leave of planet Earth. Roy Neary joins the group as its thirteenth member. 
Again, it is important to note that the Serpo story, which has not a shred of credible evidence to support it, did not emerge until 2005 – twenty-eight years after the release of Close Encounters. The logical assumption, then, would be that the former was inspired the latter, rather than vice versa. 

Whether or not there is a shred of truth to any of the conspiracy theories surrounding Close Encounters, Spielberg’s movie remains hugely significant for the fact that it played a central role in Hollywood’s mid-to-late-1970s economic revival, forcing aging studio executives to recognize America’s vast and largely un-catered-for youth market and to adapt their output accordingly. It is notable that two other alien-themed movies of the period also played a key role in this industrial paradigm shift: Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978). Together, these three films about the wonders of the universe acted as adrenalin, shot straight into the heart of a dying industry (though many critics would argue, perhaps justifiably, that this adrenalin acted as poison in the long-term, stifling creativity and individuality in Hollywood). Spielberg’s film also reignited public curiosity about UFOs as an enduring enigma, and its release closely coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the Roswell Incident. Just one year later, Jesse Marcel would spill the beans on his firsthand experiences of that event, opening the floodgates for hundreds more closely-corresponding Roswell testimonies.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg -- the future of Hollywood, for better or for worse -- pictured with Francois Truffaut on the Close Encounters 'Big Set' in the summer of 1976.
It had taken the better part of thirty years, but Hollywood’s aliens had made the transition from invaders to saviours. Remarkably, this transition was affected almost single-handedly by a wunderkind director with a vision. With Vietnam and Watergate still fresh in the mind, Close Encounters came as a reassuring hug for America towards the end of a decade of disillusionment, and, for the next few years, at least, Spielberg’s movie would redefine Hollywood’s working relationship with aliens. With movies like E.T., Starman, Cocoon and The Abyss cleaning up at the box-office throughout the decade, the 1980s would be a time of extraterrestrial kinship and splendour in Hollywood when UFOs would return to the silver screen en masse, and, for the most part, in peace.

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