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 Loch Ness Monster

A Monstrous CommotionThe mysteries of the unexplained — UFOs, ESP, ghosts, and so on — were an integral part of growing up in the 1970s, just as the threat of global thermonuclear war was in the 1980s. And, just as, sometime in the mid-90s, I found myself looking back and thinking, ‘Hey, it seems we’re not going to die a horrendous radioactive death after all,’ I’ve recently found myself looking back on those unexplained mysteries I grew up with, wondering what happened to them.

In a sense, the Loch Ness Monster is the purest example of a ‘mystery of the unexplained’. Belief in UFOs implies belief in technologically advanced aliens; belief in ghosts implies belief in life after death; but belief in the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t imply anything other than belief in a ‘large living creature of an anomalous species’ in one particular body of water. It doesn’t even have to be, as the popular image has it, a plesiosaur — a reptile, and hence entirely unsuited to living in a cold-water loch, and, what’s more, a creature whose fossilised bones reveal it to be entirely incapable of raising its neck above the vertical, Nessie-style — it could be any dark, humped, long-necked, small-headed, giant water beastie, just so long as it (a) can be described as a monster, and (b) is in Loch Ness.

One of the things that fascinated me about the story of the Loch Ness Monster, as detailed in Gareth Williams’s comprehensive A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness, was how, despite its having no religious or idealogical baggage, belief in the monster nevertheless inspires religious levels of devotion (as well as inter-factional and cross-factional squabbling). One sighting of an anomalous, glistening hump travelling across an otherwise glassy-calm loch can change lives. It can certainly ruin careers, as it did to Denys Tucker, only 26 years old when he was made Curator of Fishes by the British Museum in 1949, but sacked eleven years later, in part because of his insistence that the Museum investigate the Loch Ness Monster — but also because he was ‘shortfused and easily goaded into “intemperate” language and firing off abusive memos’. A martyr to the monster, maybe, but no saint.

Sir Peter Scott, son of the famous explorer and a natural history presenter for nearly three decades of BBC documentaries, planning a serious scientific expedition to Loch Ness, was advised (by the Assistant Private Secretary to Her Majesty, no less):

‘I’m sure that you would be right to enlist a psychologist amongst your team, as there is obviously something about the Loch Ness Monster which makes normally sane and balanced people behave in a highly emotional manner. Even if of no use to you, he would have an interesting time examining the causes of the Loch Ness Monster neuroses.’

And, as Gareth Williams says of another scientist/monster hunter:

‘Roy Mackal was knocked spectacularly off course by the Monster and became almost schizophrenic as a researcher. Back home in his molecular virology lab in Chicago, he was a methodical experimenter who published good work in high-quality journals. At Loch Ness, however, he behaved as though the water contained some mind-altering substance that made him throw away the basic principles of his research training. He bent facts, re-wrote evolution, invented new species which had no grounding in zoology and covered pages with lengthy calculations that were obviously wrong.’

Doctor_Who_and_the_Loch_Ness_MonsterAs a piece of modern cultural history, the Loch Ness Monster story is fascinating in its own little way, starting out with several sightings in the early 1930s, including that of a large ‘prehistoric’ animal crossing the newly-built road around the loch, it quickly attracts further sightings, rebuttals, parodies and hoaxes (when big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell was financed by the Daily Mail to track down the beastie, he found footprints — that were later identified as the foot of a hippo, and just the single foot, not a pair, and a withered, dead foot at that, as these had been produced by an umbrella stand); it moves from the local paper to the nationals, and gets mentioned in Parliament, and on radio, and TV. It has films made about it (the first being The Secret of the Loch in 1934, edited by David Lean!). Books are published, books that collect the evidence, books that focus on particular theories, books that disprove other books. Photographs appear, and snippets of film, and, as technology moves on, underwater images, and sonar. Submarines are used, and a gyrocopter (straight off You Only Live Twice). The Loch gets dynamited, and peppered with biopsy darts. The Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau is formed as a scientific investigation of the monster in the 1960s, and quickly gets derailed when an over-enthusiastic MP gets on board (who later loses his Brighton seat for spending too much time by a Scottish Loch). Then, in the 1970s, the Americans come along, with their money, and their new technology, and the whole thing gets a new lease of life. Photographs (enhanced first of all by cutting edge computer-scanning methods, but also, perhaps, by dodgy-but-traditional paintbrush methods) are printed in the most prestigious scientific journal of all, Nature. It even gets onto Blue Peter.

How can this mystery, fixated on one large but limited loch, go on for so long? At every stage, each new method for finding the monster, often driven by new technologies and new ideas about what it is and how it must behave, brings it own unique grey areas. Sonar scans, for instance, find anomalously large, fast-moving objects deep in the loch that get everyone’s pulse racing, but are later explained as artefacts caused by reflections off the thermocline, the border between regions of water with different temperatures. The loch itself, with its deep, deep bottom, can produce powerful underwater waves with startling effects on the surface, and even boat-wakes can reflect and linger in all sorts of monstrously deceptive ways. The most persistent and convincing pieces of evidence (to believers, anyway) are almost always found, later — often, as in the case of the celebrated ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’, much later — to be hoaxes. It’s not, as Denys Tucker insisted, an Elasmosaurus neck standing a clear twelve feet out of the water, but a home-made model on a clockwork submarine, and much smaller.

The 'Surgeon's Photograph' - a model monster on a clockwork submarine

The ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ – a model monster on a clockwork submarine

The mystery of the Loch Ness Monster isn’t so much a cryptozoological one, as a human one. The monster hunters are, as Gareth Williams puts it, ‘a wonderful collection of one-offs’, and their quest:

‘…a magical mystery tour, complete with a yellow submarine, a flying machine lifted from James Bond and electronic wizardry straight out of Tomorrow’s World.’

In this purest of all quests to plumb the ‘mysteries of the unexplained’, it’s the quest for mystery itself, whatever form it takes, that comes out the strongest. It only takes a human pair of eyes, and something deep enough, or dark enough, or fuzzily-edged or murky enough, or simply something (like the Loch’s waters) that does something strange every so often. That, and a nudge towards an interpretation: a myth, a story, a bit of folklore, a modicum of fear and of excitement. ‘Am I seeing a monster? What else could it be?’ After all, as recent political events have proved, human beings can find monsters anywhere.