Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Just what is the aliens’ plan in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? We know they’ve come to Earth in the past and kidnapped a random selection of people — some of them military personnel, others just ordinary folks — along with, in the military cases at least, their vehicles. Now they’ve come back, but to do what, exactly? First, they leave those captured vehicles in random, out-of-the-way places, such as a ship in the middle of the desert. Then they zip down from the skies and buzz aircraft or swoop along US highways, causing all sorts of poltergeist-like electrical disturbances as they go, including shutting off the power to whole towns (including hospitals?), incidentally causing skin burns in those who see them too close, and resulting in at least one policeman crashing through a road safety barrier and down a (fortunately not too steep) incline beyond. They kidnap a child whilst terrorising its mother; they induce a mental breakdown in the lead male character who, as a result, loses his job and then his family.

The odd thing is that, throughout, everyone seems to feel this is all to some ultimately benevolent end. Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) wants answers, and Jillian (Melinda Dillon), who had her child ripped from her hands after having a selection of kitchen knives thrown at her, wants her child back, but both seem more angry at the government for refusing to admit anything’s happening, than at the aliens, who are the cause of it all.

And what do the government know, anyway? (And it’s not just the treacherous post-Watergate US government. At some significant meeting before the film begins, it’s said to have gone very well for the French in some way, meaning François Truffaut’s Claude Lacombe is in charge of the whole official response. His speaking French to the US military and government implies that the difference between their attitude and his is a question of people speaking, metaphorically as well as literally, entirely different languages.) The most the government seem to do is rush around ticking off vehicles as they’re returned, and listening to a crowd in India enthusiastically chant a five-note melody then pointing at the sky. Associating this melody with a series of hand signals gets Lacombe a round of applause, as though translating this message from one abstract form to another were some sort of breakthrough. Later, while the other government scientists are getting excited over the idea that a series of numbers being beamed at them from somewhere within the solar system might be map coordinates, Lacombe shouts at them to listen, then once again picks out the five-note melody, as though he’s only just discovered it.

This welter of strange phenomena — electrical disturbances, lights in the sky, sunburn at night, random kidnappings, lost military vehicles reappearing in desert locations, obsessive visions of a mountain landmark, a five-note musical sequence — feels like one of those “terminal documents” J G Ballard’s near-to-breakdown protagonists from The Atrocity Exhibition insist on making: fragmented lists of specific-but-random images or objects they nevertheless assert “all make up one picture”. (At one point, Roy, tearing apart his and his neighbour’s gardens for raw materials to build a living-room-sized sculpture of Devil’s Tower, says, “You ever look at something and it’s crazy, then you look at it another way and it’s not crazy at all?”) Like The Atrocity Exhibition, and Garner’s Red Shift, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Wilson’s The Outsider, Close Encounters is crisis literature, but it’s not an individual going through a crisis, it’s an entire world, even though it occurs as much at a domestic as an international level. (Roy’s wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), on the poltergeist-levels of disruption of Roy’s UFO obsession: “It’s turning this house upside down.”)

Heaven or Hell?

But where does it all lead? What are the aliens doing? It’s as if they’ve come, not to reassure humanity there’s a greater power up there in space that’s looking after them — they’re not, it turns out, the sort who disarm our nuclear weapons and wag an extraterrestrial finger at us, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still — but, rather, they’ve come to reassure us that the world is far stranger than we’ve become used to. Our world, the aliens seem to want to say, is capable of turning upside down, of breaking apart, of having things disappear then reappear thirty years later for no apparent reason, of having the sun come out in the middle of the night, of interrupting your normal, humdrum life with disruptive artistic visions, devastating losses, and wonder-inducing bright lights. One of the government men says, at one point, “There’s so much we don’t know.” He, it seems to me, is the one who sums up the aliens’ message. Not that they’re some vast benevolent force who are going to intervene in the course of human history and save us from ourselves, but, rather, that they’ve come to remind us of chaos — creative chaos, but disruptive and often painful chaos all the same — to remind us that this is what life’s about. Unpredictability. Incomprehensibility. Then they go away, taking another human with them, as though to say, “Don’t think this is over.”

Raiders of the Lost Ark – a Nazi film crew

Close Encounters – a government film crew

The end of Close Encounters (1977) is oddly similar to the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). In both cases, we have a remote, rocky location where a film crew — an actual film crew in the case of the Nazis in Raiders, a government crew of scientists in Close Encounters, though one equipped with a host of cameras, bright lights, and even a musical instrument, therefore much closer to a film crew than your usual group of government scientists (it’s even, to underline the analogy, presided over by a real-life director, François Truffaut) — attempt to record the unrecordable: a meeting with the supernatural. (Which ties both films in with all those ghost stories where scientists try to understand the supernatural with a host of electrical measuring devices, as in The Stone Tape or The Awakening.) Clouds gather, and wonder-inducing lights weave among the watchers — angelic ghosts in the case of Raiders, UFOs in the case of Close Encounters — before the main visitation itself. This, of course, is where the two differ. In Raiders, the angels turn to demons and everyone who’s been watching gets melted, burned, or zapped; in Close Encounters, everyone gets a milder-comeuppance: a dose of benevolent awe and bewilderment. The worst that happens is a window gets shattered and a man has to rush to the toilet.

An adult’s fear, a child’s wonder. Which is the right reaction?

The key to Close Encounters is probably in the way the kidnapped child reacts to it all. He’s not scared of all that poltergeist activity (just like the young girl in Poltergeist (1982), in fact) — the eerie wind-up monkey that springs to life in the middle of the night, the vacuum cleaner that begins hoovering the carpet on its own, the kitchen knives that launch into the air — he just accepts it as part of how the world is, sometimes. (He also almost gets run over by standing in the middle of a bend in the road. Childlike wonder is no defence.) And the aliens themselves, even those who aren’t child-sized and child-proportioned, look more like childish drawings, with ill-shaped potato heads, round starey eyes and shapeless mouths, can’t-be-bothered-to-draw-it-right long-fingered hands and vague, oval bodies. “It’s like Halloween for grown-ups,” says Jillian, in the early days of waiting for the UFOs to reappear. Lacombe, shouting, “Écoutez”, as he picks out a five-note melody on his toy keyboard, and who brandishes crude paintings as evidence before the military, is like a child who insists on taking his own games as seriously as the adults take things like bills and work and national security. But, at the same time as all this child-like wonder and awe, there’s also a feeling of childish self-involvement which, however unintentionally, hurts others. It all starts to feel a little like that Star Trek plot where the god-like alien is just about to kill the crew of the Starship Enterprise when his parents turn up and tell him to stop being such a naughty boy. Are we dealing with grownup aliens, here? They certainly don’t behave that way.

Close Encounters is, at its most boiled-down, a film in praise of awe and wonder. Made as it was in a post-Watergate, post-1960s age of increasing cynicism, it duly acknowledges the adult complications of awe and wonder: mental breakdown, paranoia, governmental attempts to return things to a point of control and secrecy, and the possibility of real, irrevocable loss on a human level. But ultimately it waves its hands over those things. We see Roy ascending to the skies like a child being taken, finally, to the ultimate Disneyland; we don’t see his wife and children living with the aftereffects of his breakdown and abandonment. Also, perhaps too obviously, it’s about the most cinematic aspects of awe and wonder: bright lights, close-ups of wide-eyed human faces, strange and awful things you’ve never seen before (and wouldn’t really want to see, outside of a cinema), and wonderfully convincing special effects.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

John Christopher’s Death of Grass (published 1956) came out five years after John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Both are about how the precariousness of modern life can so easily give way to a tooth-and-claw battle for survival when civilisation breaks down. Christopher’s chosen disaster — a virus that destroys all grass-related plants, including wheat, rye, barley, oats and rice, and which soon threatens the world with starvation — isn’t as instantaneous as Wyndham’s, but that’s only to give its English characters a brief chance to look on in combined pity and superiority as China, where the virus originates, descends into chaos. As the virus spreads, the Brits tighten their belts and roll their eyes at the thought of going back to war-time rationing, sure they’ll handle the situation with the same dignity:

“Yet again,” a correspondent wrote to the Daily Telegraph, “it falls to the British peoples to set an example to the world in the staunch and steadfast bearing of their misfortunes. Things may grow darker yet, but that patience and fortitude is something we know will not fail.”

But when our hero, John Custance, learns the government’s latest efforts to combat the virus aren’t working, he, his family, and a small but growing band of taggers-along, head for his brother’s farm in the north. Situated in a narrow-entranced valley, it should be easy to defend as the country goes feral — as long as they can get there in one piece.

They certainly can’t do so peacefully. Leaving London, they’re faced with a military roadblock. By this point, Custance is convinced the government are planning to drop hydrogen bombs on the major cities, including London, to bring the population down to the sort of levels that can be maintained with new levels of food production, so he knows it’s a matter of kill or be killed. This close to WWII, Custance is the sort of man who has had some experience of this:

He brought the rifle up and tried to hold it steady. At any fraction of a second, he must crook his finger and kill this man, unknown, innocent. He had killed in the war, but never from such close range, and never a fellow-countryman. Sweat seemed to stream on his forehead; he was afraid of it blinding his eyes, but dared not risk disturbing his aim to wipe it off. Clay-pipes at a fairground, he thought – a clay-pipe that must be shattered, for Ann, for Mary and Davey. His throat was dry.

The most significant addition to Custance’s group is Pirrie, an older man whom they encounter when they try to first buy, then rob, guns for their trip up north. After the robbery fails, they explain what they know and Pirrie agrees to provide them with guns in exchange for him and his wife being able to come along. He proves to be a crack shot, and soon becomes their most valuable asset. He is also quite ready to take advantage of the new lawlessness to his own advantage — not to the point of betraying the group, but certainly in getting his own, sometimes brutal, way. His pragmatism quickly becomes the embodiment of what this new world is going to be like. John Custance comes to rely on, and trust him, more and more.

There’s an uneasy air of compliance, in the book, in Custance’s shift from civilised man to survivalist leader. Perhaps because we started it off by taking his side — he was the reasonably-sounding, civilised one in the early chapters, as opposed to his friend Roger’s pessimism — but as we rarely get to see inside his head, we don’t witness the inner moments when he gives in to the way the world is going to be. We just see his actions getting darker and darker. At times it’s hard to tell if Custance is taking a certain pride, or grim satisfaction when, for instance, he finds his children being that much more obedient to him — and the women too — now he’s taken on the role of leader of a band of survivalists.

So, it’s an uneasy book. But, of course, it’s meant to be.

Day of the Triffids was far more about the ecological disaster, the loneliness of the survivors, and the many different types of challenges they’d have to face in order to survive. Although it addresses the same sort of moral issues as Christopher’s book, Christopher’s is more wholly, and brutally, about the moral issues alone. In Death of Grass, there’s no real concern for the idea of trying to preserve civilisation, or mourning its loss, just a cold looking on as it dies. As Roger says, “We’re in a new era… Or a very old one…” and everyone seems quite happy, after an initial inner tussle, to take that as read and join in:

“It’s force that counts now. Anybody who doesn’t understand that has got as much chance as a rabbit in a cage full of ferrets.”

It’s easy to see Christopher’s characters as the sort Wyndham’s might meet, try to talk to, and quickly need to escape from. Wyndham had no illusions about the depths human beings could sink to, but he did believe that some might (successfully) choose not to sink all the way — which is, after all, the basis of civilisation. Christopher’s book doesn’t really debate the point. The pragmatists are the most eloquent, and they are the ones with the guns. They survive, but we do, at the end, get to see some of the cost of that survival. (It should also be said that Christopher’s characters suffer more than Wyndham’s. Not only do they kill others, but two of the women are, early on, kidnapped and raped, something that Wyndham would never have included in a book. It’s not dwelt upon, but it certainly sets a grim tone for the mental state the group falls into.)

There was a 1970 film adaptation, named No Blade of Grass (after the US retitling of the novel), which is mostly faithful, and fits in neatly with the 70s fascination with ecological disasters and survival scenarios. The smaller cast changes the dynamics of the group, even improving on Christopher’s plot at one point, when Pirrie (here a younger rather than an older man) chooses Custance’s daughter Mary to replace his wife (instead of, in the book, another young woman picked up on the way), which makes Custance’s acquiescence all the more damning — or it would, if only Custance (played by Nigel Davenport) wasn’t so stolid and matter-of-fact throughout the film. The whole mood of the film really depends on how Custance is portrayed, and Davenport doesn’t bring the slightest hint of moral doubt to the role. The group might as well be out for a country stroll, for all the horrors (made all the more horrific by being depicted in lurid 70s fashion) they meet with, and perpetrate. (It doesn’t help that, with his eyepatch, jacket, and moustache, he’s the mirror image of Julian Barrett’s 80s action-star parody Mindhorn.) Plus, there’s a rather silly stand-off near the end with a motorcycle gang, who seem to be there simply to use up the film’s stunt budget. You can see its trailer at Trailers from Hell.

Nigel Davenport’s Custance, Julian Barrett’s Mindhorn

Vertigo

We begin with a plunge into a human eye, and the hypnotic, whirling spirals in its depths. Vertigo (1958) is all about that plunge, that being caught in the combination tangle-and-embrace of an ever-revolving spiral, be that spiral love or deception, the frailties of one’s own mind, or the darkness and mysteries of another’s.

Vertigo is a lush film, and lushness is the invitation to plunge in, to immerse. The cinematography is lush, with its bold, smouldering colours, such as the almost supernatural green Hitchcock keeps bathing his leading lady in. Bernard Herrmann’s music is lush, with its teetering-on-the-edge arpeggios at the start, and the deep, romantic surrender-sigh of its love theme. And it may sound odd, but I think the plot is lush, too. How can a plot be lush? Because it tangles you in its ever-whirling spiral, pulling you deeper and deeper, and the deeper you go the richer it gets, increasing in questions, complications and implications the more you give in to its embrace.

Usually when a film has one of those mid-point reveals which throw a new light on everything that went before, it makes the plot clearer. If you watch the film again, it’s with a series of mental tumbler-clicks. “Ah, so that’s why-so-and-so did such-and-such…” But when Vertigo passes through its central reveal, it only seems to make things clearer. Once you start to think about it, it actually makes everything that’s been going on even stranger.

I’m not going to lay out the whole plot (though what follows contains spoilers), but it begins with Scottie (Jimmie Stewart), retiring from the police force after a roof-top chase proves him to have a debilitating fear of heights, and results in the death of a fellow officer. Jobless and aimless, he’s contacted by an old college acquaintance, Gavin Elster, who needs someone to follow his wife — not because he thinks she’s having an affair, but because he believes she’s come under the influence of a past she never knew about. Somehow, she’s being possessed by the spirit of her long-dead great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who took her life at the age Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) is now. Though initially reluctant, Scottie takes the job, and does so because Madeleine is beautiful. As he follows this dreamy young woman in her wanderings about San Francisco, he falls in love with her.

Why does he fall in love with her? Not only because she’s beautiful, but because she’s in need of being saved, and Scottie is very much in need of saving someone, because that’s the only way he can redeem himself. His masculinity took a blow when he was forced to leave the police, and what he needs to restore it, to feel like a hero again, is to save some beautiful, haunted young woman from… whatever it is she needs saving from, be it her own psychology, a darkness from the past, or the ghost of dead Carlotta.

The thing is, this story about Madeleine being possessed and death-obsessed isn’t true. The Madeleine Scottie follows isn’t haunted by the past, she’s not Gavin Elster’s wife, she’s not even called Madeleine. It’s an act, part of a murder plot to do away with someone Scottie never meets, but for whose death he is going to be made to feel responsible.

Can the love for someone who’s not real be real? If you judge by its effects — losing the unreal Madeleine plunges Scottie into a near-catatonic combination of melancholia and guilt — it is real. And anyway, even though “Madeleine” is an act, there’s something about the act that is true. Because this woman does need saving. Not from the spirit of dead Carlotta, but from the tangles of Gavin Elster’s murder plot. So perhaps Scottie does love the real woman behind the Madeleine-facade, the woman who needs saving, and whose redemption can, in turn, save him.

And perhaps another proof his love for her is real is that Madeleine — or the woman who’s only pretending to be Madeleine, but who nevertheless is on the receiving end of Scottie’s love — falls in love with him. Which is even stranger, because that means she’s fallen in love with a man who loves her because he thinks she’s someone else.

After things go wrong and Gavin gets away with murder, and the real Madeleine is dead and Scottie thinks he’s to blame, he meets Judy (Kim Novak, again). Distraught over the death he thinks he caused, he sees enough of his Madeleine in Judy to make him think he can remake this young woman in her image. Which, of course, he can, because she’s the same woman. And when he turns up at her door, Judy, who has made an obvious effort to look and act as unlike Madeleine as she can — brunette as opposed to blonde, gaudy makeup and chunky jewellery as opposed to elegant understatement, homespun, high-voiced innocence as opposed to deeper-voiced, smouldering refinement — Judy at first thinks she has to run away, because she is, after all, accomplice to a murder. But she doesn’t run away, and that’s because she’s genuinely in love with Scottie.

Judy and her ghostly alter-ego

Or is she? This Judy that we meet in the second half of the film is also an act. She’s doing her best to be as unlike Madeleine as she can, so as not to be discovered. She has been cast off by her former lover/accomplice Gavin, so she might well be looking for a protector, and she knows enough about Scottie — now a vulnerable, broken man clearly capable of being manipulated — to play him. She may have seemed to be falling in love with him even when she was still playing Madeleine, right before the murder, but was she, really? She later claims she ran to the bell-tower of the church to prevent the murder of Elster’s wife, but how can that be true? She must have known that, the moment she appeared in the tower’s top chamber, Elster would throw his already-dead wife’s body off the top of the tower. And the key thing is already-dead. The murder, by that point, would have already taken place. If she’d really fallen for Scottie, and wanted to prevent the murder, she should have taken him away from the tower and explained everything. He was an ex-policeman, he’d have known what to do. But she didn’t. What she did gives every appearance of going ahead with the plan.

At no point in the film can we be sure we meet the real Judy. But it could be, in a mirror-image of Scottie’s story from the first half of the film, that she might be trying to redeem herself for her role in the murder by trying to save this broken man from his lovelorn melancholia. She may also truly love him. Or it could be that, though she might not (like most of us, with regards to both Vertigo and life) understand this complex, ever-deepening spiral she’s found herself caught in, but she’s doing what, in this film at least, is the one thing human beings can do in the face of so much confusion and deception: she’s finding someone she can cling to.

This is what Vertigo is about. It’s about clinging to whoever’s there to cling to. There are several long sequences in Vertigo where Jimmie Stewart’s Scottie and Kim Novak’s Madeleine/Judy are caught in an extended clinch — it’s the only word for it — a constantly moving, restless mix of kiss, embrace, controlling hold, and don’t-leave-me grip. At times, they’re struggling against one another, at others they’re just sort of pressing helplessly into one another as though no hold could ever be close enough. (In the final sequence, they spend over five minutes in near-constant physical contact, even as they cross a quadrangle and climb the steep, spiralling steps of a church tower.) The first time I saw the film, I was left for some time afterwards with a lingering, almost physical feeling of touch, and it was these intense clinging/clinching scenes that did it.

Despite the labyrinthine tangles of its plot and its characters’ deception-based identities and constantly-questionable motives, what’s real in Vertigo, both for the characters and the viewer, is that moment of finding something to cling to amidst all the whirling spirals and vertiginous plunges. That’s why they cling — because they’ve finally found something solid, something real, a living presence in a world of shadows and ghosts and lies.

Vertigo’s is a world in which there’s no solid ground, and only the feeling of falling is real. You find someone to cling to who’s falling with you, or you do it alone. Obsession isn’t, in this world, an aberration, it’s the only workable response. Scottie’s pal Midge’s lukewarm attempts to get him to love her aren’t anywhere near enough. What’s needed is superheated, Gothic Romantic Noir levels of obsession. Love, in Vertigo, is utterly irrational and absurd — the idea of trusting anyone in a world so full of deception and lies is impossible — so, even if it springs to life on the back of a lie, as long as it does spring to life, you cling to it for all your life and sanity are worth.

This, I think, is the way to watch Vertigo — and re-watch it, and re-watch it, ever deepening the obsession. As you watch it, you know you’re being presented with lies and deceptions, magic tricks and hypnotic passes — not just in the film, by its characters, but by its director, the arch-manipulator of audiences, Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo is, I’d say, his most potent spell. So the best thing to do is give in to the plunge, cling to the cling of Vertigo, obsess with the obsession, otherwise you’ll be lost, alone, in an ever-whirling fall…