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 Invisibles

“Every paranoid fantasy, every conspiracy theory, every alleged coverup and government deception, every tabloid crank story you’ve ever heard… Imagine if it all were true?”

Cover to issue 1

This is how Grant Morrison’s Vertigo series The Invisibles explained itself in the first issue of its second volume reboot. (It eventually went through two reboots, three series, and 54 issues in total.) Running from September 1994 to June 2000 (the last issue was meant to coincide with the millennium, but was delayed), it tells the story of a countercultural cell of postmodern revolutionaries attempting to thwart the establishment’s plan to install the “Archon of the Aeon” as King of the World — after which we’ll have “cameras in the head, children with microchips, spin doctors rewriting reality as it happens”, “the infinite deathcamp of tomorrow” — by materialising the Archon into the body of the 200-year-old extradimensional offspring of the British Royal Line and Lovecraftian Things From Beyond, in a battle for “Timeless Freedom or Eternal Control”.

Series 2 first issue, cover by Brian Bolland

In The Invisibles’ world, not only is every conspiracy theory true, but every sort of magic — voodoo, shamanistic, ritual, chaos — works, and overlaps with the most advanced forms of technology. It’s a world of Gnostic engineers, four-dimensional liquid armour and remote-viewing time travel. It’s a world where an alien really was recovered from the Roswell crash, but as well as being a living entity it was also a form of liquid information. It’s a world that revels in all forms of 1990s counterculture — just look at the Day-Glo acid-orange cover to issue 1 — from multicoloured iMacs to Brit-Pop (“They’ve just cloned a sheep!” Morrison declares on one letters page), but also traditional mythology, with typical early stories consisting of interweaving strands, where one character may be relating an Egyptian or Aztec myth, another is undergoing a visionary experience in a separate dimension, while a third is having a bloody fist-fight/gun battle with soldiers, Ciphermen (human beings modified into hive-mind drones, engaging in psychic time-work from deep isolation tanks) or the Gigeresque King-of-All-Pain.

It’s difficult to tell how much its exuberant, sometimes self-referential storytelling style, with so many leaps in time, point of view, and style (some of the final issues are drawn by several different artists with widely different styles, from the cartoonish to the grimly realistic), is just buying into the whole postmodern style of post-80s comics, or is doing the same thing that, say, T S Eliot was doing in The Waste Land — mixing widely disparate fragments into a seemingly indigestible whole because that’s what the world feels like to its creator.

panel from The Invisibles #1, art by Steve Yeowell

I’d say there’s a lot about The Invisibles to link it to what I’ve called ‘crisis literature’ — as in The Waste Land, Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, or Garner’s Red Shift — but where I said that those works often present themselves as intellectual puzzles whilst attempting to present deep emotional trauma, The Invisibles feels like it’s already on the other side of the trauma. Its fractured style is not a case of a creator trying to piece together irreconcilable fragments, but to present a very weird vision in the only way it can be presented. It doesn’t feel like it’s fighting against its own conclusions or presenting them as evidence of despair or horror; The Invisibles is wholly, and joyfully, accepting of its weirdly destabilised world.

In the final issue, Morrison says he was using The Invisibles:

“…to recreate the complete and unabridged sensation of an ‘alien abduction,’ thrill-ride style. I’ve attempted to simulate an initiation into some of the secrets of time and ‘high-magic’ (where ‘simulation’ and ‘reality’ are synonymous, as in the formula Fake It Till You Make It) and create something which not only pays my rent but deprograms the nervous system and unravels the wallpaper.”

Series 2, issue 18, cover by Brian Bolland

That “alien abduction”, relates to an actual experience Morrison had, and which he has related in several places (such as this interview on YouTube (10 minutes)). He only jokingly refers to it as an alien abduction, because, he says, there wasn’t any other context to put it in. A religious mystic would have the vocabulary, but Morrison, raised on pop culture and comics, had to make his own version of the experience, with his own tools.

The last few issues of The Invisibles are so full of about-turns, reinterpretations and jumps in narrative, that it’s quite exhausting, like a deliberate attempt to break the reader’s sense of meaning and reality altogether, and there’s a feeling that what made the series fresh, fast-paced and full of ideas in its early issues has reached a point of exhaustion. Or perhaps that was just the result of my re-reading it all in so short a time.

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

AtrocityExhibitionIt’s oddly comforting to know that J G Ballard’s most experimental, challenging, and controversial pieces of fiction, the ‘condensed novels’ that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, were written between, on the one hand, a children’s story for the much-loved BBC series Jackanory (‘Gulliver in Space’, broadcast 11th Feb 1966) and a treatment for one of Hammer Films’ fur bikini efforts, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). In contrast, The Atrocity Exhibition stories are deliberately difficult, intentionally obsessive, and wilfully confrontational. As much experiments in form as they are in content, they were Ballard’s attempt to break away from his early, more conventional (though still firmly ‘New Wave’) science fiction, to something that felt more relevant both to himself and to the time in which he was writing. As he states in a 1973 interview with Peter Linnet (included in Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews):

‘I wanted to write directly about the present day, and this peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties… It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed.’

AtrocityExhibition02As much as they were a response to the ‘peculiar psychological climate’ of the mid-1960s, the Atrocity Exhibition stories were also a response to Ballard’s own psychological ecosystem. The protagonists of these fragmented stories, variously called Trabert, Traven, Talbert, Tallis, Travers, or left unnamed, usually start their stories working in some sort of institute (a hospital or a university), but leave to pursue their increasingly obsessive private projects. Similarly, Ballard gave up his medical training when the urge to write became too strong. The Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ private projects are often artistic, but always, like the Atrocity Exhibition stories themselves, highly experimental, and more often than not entirely conceptual. In the story called ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, Travis plans to make himself the first victim in an entirely imaginary, though very real to him, World War III; in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, Trabert wants to somehow resurrect the Apollo 1 astronauts. These men are usually trying to somehow recreate the decade’s most celebrated tragedies — those which most challenged the post-war optimism of the 1950s — but do so in a way that somehow, this time, makes sense. Their key working method, it seems, is to collect disparate photographs, scientific images, artworks, and other ‘terminal documents’, while somehow insisting that ‘all these make up one picture’:

‘(1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500cc; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones…’

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001When writing about Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as an example of what I called ‘crisis literature’ — books written on the edge of, or just past, a traumatic, and often psychologically destabilising crisis, which forced their writers into new, experimental, and often difficult narrative forms to capture and somehow master that crisis. Alan Garner’s Red Shift was perhaps the first example of this kind of book I really stuck with, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most well-known. Such books, I said, present themselves as highly intellectualised puzzles, but are really about deep emotional trauma. They take the form of fractured narratives (the multiple time strands of Garner’s Red Shift) or a barrage of seemingly unrelated fragments (the many styles and images of The Waste Land), that, like the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ ‘terminal documents’, the authors insist belong together as a single statement. (One such disparate list of peculiar photostats — ‘(1) Front elevation of a multi-storey car park; (2) mean intra-patellar distances (estimated during funeral services) of Coretta King and Ethel M. Kennedy…’ and so on — is titled ‘Fusing Devices’, making their function in an attempt at self-integration clear.) This is something Jung has said is a general characteristic of psychological healing: the search to resolve highly polarised, conflicting internal forces (a thesis and an antithesis) into a new synthesis, a new unity. The Atrocity Exhibition is fragmented in form (all those short paragraph-long chapters with their wonderful Ballardian titles), narrative sequence (Ballard says you don’t have to read the chapters in the order presented, but can pick and choose at random), and images. ‘At times it was almost as if he were trying to put himself together out of some bizarre jigsaw,’ as someone says of the protagonist of ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

What may be another characteristic of ‘crisis literature’ is the way that violence, or violent images, are always waiting to burst through any apparently normal facade. Dr Nathan, one of the recurring figures in the ‘condensed novels’, who Ballard calls, in his later footnotes to the stories, ‘the safe and sane voice of the sciences’ — though with a hint that it’s not necessarily safety or sanity that are needed to solve these post-traumatic conundrums — provides a key to understanding this element of the Atrocity Exhibition:

‘The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations. Violence is the conceptualisation of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.’

TAtrocityExhibition03he many violent images in The Atrocity Exhibition stories — car crashes, assassinations, murders — are, then, attempts to externalise a deeply repressed or dissociated pain, a pain so intense it destabilises the very landscape around the protagonists, disconnecting them from a sense of reality, and from normal contact with their fellow human beings. Half of what happens in each of the stories is probably hallucinated — certainly, some of the characters are, including that mostly-silent recurring trinity of Kline, Coma, and Xero — while the other half is overwritten by a fictionalisation of reality which is, nevertheless, more real, or at least more meaningful, to the protagonists than reality itself.

I’m not a great one for experimental fiction. The Ballard I like is mostly the writer of weird disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), dream-like psychological short stories, and a few of the mid-period novels (High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company). But after a while, reading interviews and articles about Ballard, you have to admit that, at some point, you’re going to have to read The Atrocity Exhibition, just to find out if it can really live up to all he said about it.

jg_ballardIn a way, what we have here is Ballard’s own commedia dell’arte taken to max — reusing the same stock figures (the mentally exhausted doctor/lecturer protagonist, the psychologist colleague who wryly, calmly comments and explains, the rather passive abandoned wife, the rather passive younger girlfriend), stock props (a torn flying jacket, a helicopter, a crashed car), stock images (the angle between two walls, cubicular screens or mirrors, vastly blown-up fragmented images of a woman’s face and body), and stock situations (car crashes, bizarre artistic exhibits) and landscapes (abandoned military testing sights, abandoned motorways, and other concrete wastelands), played and replayed, re-imagined and re-fit, in an attempt to find the combination that will unlock this particular meaning, solve this particular riddle. (The exception that proves this rule is, perhaps, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, which reads as though Ballard were deliberately trying not to use any of his standard tropes, and finds there’s nothing worth writing about. It’s the least interesting of the Atrocity Exhibition stories.)

Having read them, I have to say I didn’t find the whole as powerful as I’d hoped. The shock of the fragmented form works at first, but after a while the repetition doesn’t quite gain power through accumulation. What’s undeniable — as always — is the strength and integrity with which Ballard follows his obsessions. This is something you get, though, even in his more conventional narratives, the early novels and short stories. Here, in condensed form, sometimes the effect is of shocking juxtaposition, but sometimes it’s tired repetition. Undoubtedly, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write; it revitalised his novel-writing and set him on a new direction for a new decade. It’s almost as though he had to go to such experimental, obsessive lengths to break free of all the generic and standard novelistic conventions he’d been following, so as to return to them (with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise) with a new strength. And I think the condensed novel form can really work, and it would be great to read other writers attempting it — if, that is, they don’t just take it as an excuse to throw together a bunch of random paragraphs. (It would work well, I think, with cosmic horror.)

If, as I say, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write — so as to confront, and perhaps master, the dehumanising forces of trauma, despair, and the ‘death of affect’ in his own life in the mid-60s — then his final book, Miracles of Life, was the equally important answer to it, as that book is about the humanising forces that saw him through life, mostly notably being his children.