[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), December 14, 1977]
It’s getting harder and harder for a movie to just happen anymore. I’m not talking about the ways movies get made (although, to be sure, that’s become an extremely messy business), but the ways movies and audiences get together. In the absence of a vast public that simply “goes to the movies,” film-selling has become a matter of creating Events—Events that may or may not live up to the induced expectations but which in any, er, event have an uphill fight to stay alive and spontaneous. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is having a harder time than most. It’s a $20 million film that a lot of people are anxious to recover their money on. It’s a film in a genre, sci-fi, variously blessed and burdened with an enthusiastic/rabid following whose specialized requirements for satisfaction do not necessarily have much to do with a film’s being good as a film. It’s a film in a genre, moreover, that has recently given the cinema its Number One Box-Office Champ, Star Wars, and hence become newly embattled among critics and commentators who deplore the preeminence of “mindless,” two-dimensional, feel-good flicks on the top-grossing charts.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
The forces of freedom and spontaneity have a way of dominating foregrounds in Bound for Glory: kids, in closeup, singing a Guthrie children’s-ditty whose beat seems slightly out of sync with the mechanical rhythm of the motion their parents make as they stoop and pick vegetables deep in the shot; or Woody himself singing songs of protest in a recording studio while behind him in another booth a trio of radio actors read from what might well be some escapist Depression comedy script (we can’t hear their voices but their expressions and gestures are pretty inane). On the other hand, authority and oppression—or at least the powers of inertia maintaining the social and political status quo—seem to mobilize in murky backgrounds such as those we find in a California fruit camp where bosses and thugs mill about à la John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, preparing to break up a hoedown they figure is pretty subversive—a crowd of homeless migrants clumped around blinking fires, making music into the night. Perhaps there’s no hard and fast rule at work, but such a visual structuring presents itself often enough to warrant some thought; and the matter of perspective is especially vital because Bound for Gloryis to a large extent about how, in the Seventies, we see Woody Guthrie as a folk hero.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
To make a film celebrating the life of Woody Guthrie, and to nominate that film for Academy Awards, is something like the U.S. Government’s putting Henry David Thoreau on a postage stamp. It’s a way of institutionalizing the pariah as a practitioner of the American ideal, once he is safely dead and no longer a danger to the American reality. Hal Ashby’s Bound for Gloryis an appropriate reflection of this double standard. For a film bent from the beginning on the canonization of its hero, Bound for Gloryis oddly noncommittal about what Woody Guthrie stood for and what his positive accomplishments were. The movie carefully sidesteps central political issues. Indeed, how politically serious can a film about Guthrie and the farmworkers’ movement hope to be, when it is afraid to say “Communist” in any but a derisive tone? Sign-painter Guthrie’s insistence on red paint is a droll reference to the political conviction that dare not speak its name; but in the mincing context of Ashby’s film, it becomes indicative instead of Guthrie’s personal attraction to freedom to the exclusion of self-discipline and responsibility.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
As everyone must know by now, the title of Steven Spielberg’s science-fiction extravaganza refers to an actual meeting with an extraterrestrial visitant; or, as the advertising more directly puts it, “contact.” “Contact” is very much what the movie is all about. No film since 2001: A Space Odysseyhas applied E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” dictum so spectacularly. Explanations are unimportant, but understanding, intuitive and visceral, is paramount. Like 2001, Close Encounters is a stunning visual experience (both films feature the dazzling work of special effects man Douglas Trumbull, who also directed the excellent SilentRunningin 1972); if it’s intellectually less profound, it has a more direct appeal to the emotions, and whether or not it’s in the same league as Kubrick’s masterpiece couldn’t concern me less. In other words, it’s good enough, for all Kubrick’s obvious influence on it, to stand on its own as a classic of the science-fiction genre, and also outside any genre considerations. And there aren’t many s-f films you can say that about.
Rumour has it that Spielberg planned to end the film by using “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the hit song from Disney’s cartoon Pinocchio,as the tune behind the closing credits.* It’s as well he didn’t; that would be spelling things out, which the film elsewhere avoids admirably, and also a touch twee. But it gives a hint of one of the film’s main aspects. It’s a magical movie, a film that exults in the potency of cinema, in the type of experience you can get only from a film, in the tools whereby a filmmaker can excite, entice and provoke his audience. And thus it becomes a film about films, and also about filmmaking. One of Spielberg’s leading actors (taking, indeed, nearly all the acting honours going) is François Truffaut, the artist as actor as critic, the man who not only came up with the longest-ever Hitchcock interview, but also once suggested that Howard Hawks’s big-game-catcher movie Hatari!was secretly an essay on the topic of filmmaking. A similar interpretation of Close Encounters holds a lot of water. When, at the film’s climax, Truffaut marshals enormous human and technical resources, shouting “Plus vite!” and “Allez!” whilst striding to and fro and waving his arms, he is, to all intents and purposes, a director controlling a set, the biggest in film history.