Steven Spielberg

by Joseph McBride

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Steven Spielberg 1947–

American director, screenwriter, and producer.

Spielberg is one of the most successful of the many young directors who emerged in the seventies. Spectacle is perhaps the most prominent element in his films: the shark in Jaws, the alien spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In these films, Spielberg creates the terror of the unknown to bring about a catharsis in his audience.

Spielberg began making short films while in high school. He spent three months at Universal Studios in 1967, sneaking past the guard each day to watch directors work in television. Spielberg's short film Amblin' won a number of awards and helped him become a television director. He directed episodes of six different programs, including Night Gallery, The Psychiatrists, and Columbo, and also directed three made-for-TV movies. The first of these movies, Duel, has been widely acclaimed as one of the best movies television has ever produced.

Spielberg's first feature, The Sugarland Express, contains a number of the best elements of Duel, including a choreographed car chase, but critics are divided as to the film's artistic merit. Spielberg himself has said, "If I had it to do all over again I'd make Sugarland Express in a completely different fashion." Spielberg was totally unprepared for the huge commercial success of his next film, Jaws. The movie combines humor, violence, contemporary problems, and horror, and the end result is an engrossing story that has received much critical acclaim. Close Encounters of the Third Kind received as much publicity for its special effects as for Spielberg's directorial prowess and screenwriting talents, and it is generally believed to be his best work to date.

Although Spielberg's directorial abilities seem to get lost among the special effects in his films, he still feels that his films are personal statements. As Spielberg has said: "A lot of my films are question-answer pictures leading up to an inevitable conclusion that the audience is waiting for, and hopefully they won't be disappointed." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Tom Milne

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With almost insolent ease, Duel … displays the philosopher's stone which the Existentialists sought so persistently and often so portentously: the perfect acte gratuit, complete, unaccountable and self-sufficient. Steven Spielberg … sets the scene brilliantly from the outset….

The glory of Richard Matheson's script is that there are no motivations, no explanations, simply the archetypal rivalry of the road carried to reductio ad absurdum heights. At first there are moments of unease—the commercial traveller's name, after all, is Mann—in the telephone call to his wife which suggests a background of marital stress, in the rather coy insistence … with which his efforts to put a face to his rival are frustrated. But all these hints of allegory (man's inability to cope with machine-age pressures) are held firmly in check, giving just a touch of abstract meaning to the unseen lorrydriver, just a touch of social fallibility to the ineffectual salesman, and leaving the way free for a simple mortal combat between hunter and hunted in which one can, if one likes, see the huge, lumbering lorry as the dragon, and the glitteringly fragile Plymouth sedan as the prancing, pitifully vulnerable knight in armour.

Adhering strictly to these limits and only once leaving the road … Spielberg and Matheson screw the tension almost to breaking point with a series of cunningly contrived incidents which simultaneously reveal the full extent of the lorry-driver's murderous intent and turn the timid salesman into an animal fighting desperately for his life…. Like Clouzot's Wages of Fear, Duel may be a once-only film, an exercise in tension which never seems...

(This entire section contains 307 words.)

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quite so rewarding the second time round; but likeWages of Fear and unlike Les Diaboliques, it is a film built on legitimate suspense rather than sham trickery.

Tom Milne, "'Duel'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1973 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 42, No. 1, Winter, 1972–73, p. 50.

Pauline Kael

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"The Sugarland Express" is like some of the entertaining studio-factory films of the past (it's as commercial and shallow and impersonal), yet it has so much eagerness and flash and talent that it just about transforms its scrubby ingredients…. [Steven Spielberg] isn't saying anything special in "The Sugarland Express," but he has a knack for bringing out young actors, and a sense of composition and movement that almost any director might envy. Composition seems to come naturally to him …; Spielberg uses his gift in a very free-and-easy, American way—for humor, and for a physical response to action. He could be that rarity among directors, a born entertainer—perhaps a new generation's Howard Hawks. In terms of the pleasure that technical assurance gives an audience, this film is one of the most phenomenal début films in the history of movies. If there is such a thing as a movie sense—and I think there is …—Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn't have much else. There's no sign of the emergence of a new film artist (such as Martin Scorsese) in "The Sugarland Express," but it marks the début of a new-style, new-generation Hollywood hand. (p. 300)

"The Sugarland Express" is mostly about cars; Spielberg is a choreographic virtuoso with cars. He patterns them; he makes them dance and crash and bounce back. He handles enormous configurations of vehicles; sometimes they move so sweetly you think he must be wooing them. These sequences are as unforced and effortless-looking as if the cars themselves—mesmerized—had just waltzed into their idiot formations…. [The] cars shimmer in the hot sunlight; in the dark, the red lights of the police cars are like eerie night-blooming flowers. The cars have tiffs, wrangle, get confused. And so do the people, who are also erratic and—in certain lights—eerily beautiful…. These huffy characters, riled up and yelling at each other, are in the combustible comedy style of Preston Sturges…. This movie enjoys orneriness and collision courses; as the Sturges movies did; it sees the characters' fitful, moody nuttiness as the American's inalienable right to make a fool of himself. It merges Sturges' love of comic confusion with the action world of cars to create a jamboree. (pp. 300-01)

You get the feeling that the director grew up with TV and wheels … and that he has a new temperament. Maybe Spielberg loves action and comedy and speed so much that he really doesn't care if a movie has anything else in it. But he doesn't copy old stuff. He isn't deep, but he isn't derivative, either. (p. 302)

Spielberg savors film, and you respond to that. "The Sugarland Express" has life to it. Not the kind of life that informs a young film like [Scorsese's] "Mean Streets" …—but the vitality that a director with great instincts can bring to commercial entertainment. (p. 303)

Pauline Kael, "Sugarland and Badlands" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. 50, No. 4, March 18, 1974), in her Reeling (copyright © 1974 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Altantic-Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 300-06.∗

Stephen Farber

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"The Sugarland Express" is a prime example of the new-style factory movie: slick, cynical, mechanical, empty. Spielberg and his young writers, Hall Barwood and Matthew Robbins, have been weaned on old Hollywood movies, and they want to recreate the schlock that once mesmerized the masses. They have good memories, and a shrewd commercial instinct that the industry often confuses with talent.

Although "The Sugarland Express" is based on a real incident that happened in Texas in 1969, it seems perfectly synthetic—pure Hollywood—from first frame to last. (p. 203)

Everything is underlined; Spielberg sacrifices narrative logic and character consistency for quick thrills and easy laughs. He has a very crude sense of humor, indicated by his obsession with toilet jokes, and an irrepressible maudlin streak. Early on Spielberg lingers over a shot of the couple's baby playing with a dog, and after the final tragedy, he moves in for a close-up as a police car drives over a discarded teddy bear. It's depressing to see a young director who is already so shameless.

This kind of movie is like a shifty campaign speech designed to please every segment of the public. Young moviegoers can weep for Lou Jean and Clovis as rebels against the system, cut down by the authorities because they love their baby. At the same time, Spielberg cunningly softens his portrait of the police so as not to alienate the Law and Order crowd…. "The Sugarland Express" is a "social statement" whose only commitment is to the box office. (pp. 203-04)

Toward the end the movie turns into another tired celebration of male camaraderie. Clovis and patrolman Slide … are striking up a beautiful friendship that the dumb bitch-wife destroys. In its misogyny "The Sugarland Express" echoes a whole series of popular American movies, but this is one element in the film that may not have been consciously calculated to sell. The amusing thing is that even these filmmakers' unconscious prejudices are not their own; their souls belong to Hollywood.

Spielberg is admittedly a skillful (if vulgar) technician, and he understands how to engineer car chases and crashes; but he doesn't have an original idea or the slightest feeling for people. A good way to test a young director is to look at his handling of actors; Spielberg fails that test miserably. Under his direction even the nonprofessionals act like Hollywood hams…. (p. 204)

Stephen Farber, "Something Sour," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1974 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1973–1974, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1975, pp. 203-04).

Tom Milne

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After Duel, Steven Spielberg's dazzling way with the cars in The Sugarland Express was almost a foregone conclusion: stately processions snaking through the countryside in the wake of the fugitives, multi-coloured roof-lights forming intriguing patterns in the night, pursuers retarded by the telephoto lens looming menacingly out of the heat-haze at the crest of a hill. But where Duel was motivated by a strange inner compulsion, The Sugarland Express seems peculiarly contrived, with a script (albeit based on fact) so self-consciously tailored to the 'road film' formula that from the very outset the illusory Eldorado of Sugarland becomes a dismayingly obvious metaphor for the bitter-sweetness of the odyssey we are invited to watch…. All too early on … the whole thing is revealed to be a storm in a teacup, and one watches with mounting disbelief as both police and public go through their extraordinary gyrations: it may have happened this way in real life, but in the film the fugitives are so unequivocally presented as poor, harmless innocents that the veritable army of police cars absurdly queueing up to be in at the kill looks very much as though both they and the film were taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Paradoxically, therefore, the film is at its best not on the road (despite the striking car imagery) but in the lay-bys: the moments of repose when the forced relationship between the couple and their hostage begins to evolve into something more than mere friendship. In themselves, though observed with fresh, delicate humour, the episodes which mark the stages in the relationship are not particularly original…. [There is] a sense of deprivation, a feeling that the staid young patrolman has never before encountered such freedom and fantasy, while the young couple have never experienced such stability as he represents. Never overtly stated, the point reverberates through the film….

Tom Milne, "'The Sugarland Express'," in Monthy Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1974), Vol. 41, No. 486, July, 1974, p. 158.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

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With a shark for a villain, Peter Benchley could hardly have missed making Jaws a best seller, nor is director Steven Spielberg likely to miss with his film adaptation. Benchley and Spielberg's only problem was that a shark is almost too good a villain. What way could they find to oppose such unadulterated power? Put up against the Muhammad Ali of sharkdom, the whole human race looks like a Joe Bugner.

The trouble is that where a shark is simple by nature, man is various. Where a shark is unmistakable and purposeful, man is ambiguous and self-contradictory. Accordingly, both the novel and the film try to cover the board by putting three very different men up against the shark, leaving us to amuse ourselves guessing which one really has what it takes to kill the best. This puts the movie, as an entertainment, roughly on a par with a quiz show—What's My Line? perhaps, or To Tell the Truth. (p. 210)

Although the final showdown with the shark provides the story's most incredible episode, it is also, in a sense, its moment of greatest realism. That is to say, Benchley probably came closest to truth here when he imagined that the one thing man has which is equal to a shark's is just instinct for survival, the taste for a desperate combat. It is this, rather than cunning, experience, or knowledge, that finally kills the shark….

As to who kills the shark…. Well, it doesn't really matter which of three men does it. The fact is that the movie begins to blur the distinctions between them almost as soon as they are introduced…. Somewhere between the talk about eating dinner in the one scene and the talk of being eaten for dinner in the other, we come to realize that the three men in this movie are in fact all the same man.

Who is it that kills the shark, you may still be asking. Why, it's Peter Benchley, of course. The whole point of a novel like Jaws is to indulge in a little fantasy, so Benchley has paid himself the dividend of a three-for-one split of his personality….

If we get to know Peter Benchley better than we ever really wanted to, that is not so disappointing as the fact that, at least in the movie, we also get to know the shark rather better than we cared to. Early in the film he remains an implied presence only….

[The] further along the film goes, the more the shark, as it were, surfaces. When he is killed in the end it is in part because he has literally become a fish out of water, and for the same reason our psychological need as an audience to see him killed has pretty much abated by then. The fact that Spielberg was capable of doing acceptably realistic mock-ups of the shark for the closing scenes was not really a sufficient reason to do them. Rubber dummy, you're the one. The shark is far more frightening when he is still swimming unseen down in our subconscious. (p. 211)

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr., "Gums," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 102, No. 7, June 20, 1975, pp. 210-11.

James Monaco

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Jaws' singular financial performance is ultimately a matter of the craft of the film-makers involved. Not the art, the craft. Jaws is an extraordinarily well made entertainment…. There isn't an ounce of dead wood in it; it is the sum total of thousands of 'effects' (special and otherwise) tested and tuned to produce the desired response in the audience. Jaws is a landmark of modern cinematic engineering.

It is, therefore, something like the ultimate Hollywood movie. Not only does it represent the tradition of film as entertainment product (as opposed to film as personal statement), but it is also, like many memorable Hollywood entertainments of the past, an example of 'film as a contact sport.' Watching it one is aware that, as Howard Hawks once said in another context, 'that stuff's good, and that stuff's hard to do.' It doesn't matter with it means; in this kind of film-making the relevant question is, does it work? Jaws works. (p. 56)

James Monaco, "'Jaws'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1976 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1975–76, pp. 56-7.

Gordon Gow

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The right things certainly happen in Jaws. At given moments, the images before us lead to frissons of dread anticipation. The pulses pound. Excitement escalates. And by climax time, when it is impossible to disbelieve that one of the leading actors, screaming and vomiting blood, is actually being swallowed alive by a gigantic shark in an unnerving series of gulps, we are watching movie magic of the highest order. Trickery has mastered the illusion of truth.

The film is a condensation of Peter Benchley's novel, which deals not only in the suspense value of abrupt lethal sorties by a great white shark among the swimmers at a Long Island resort, but also in the attempts of local plenipotentiaries to hush up the danger so that the town will not suffer economically by a decrease in the number of its summertime tourists, on whom its very existence depends. The film brushes rather briskly across this ethical problem; it also makes a sprightly change in the ending, and totally eschews the sex quota that gave the book a certain amusing affinity to Peyton Place. What remains is a superior essay in horror.

Characters are simplified…. [Mostly] the humans are ciphers. The shark, on the other hand, is a wow.

Affectionately known during production as 'Bruce', the huge mechanical fish is in line of descent from Kong. But unlike the king of cinema monsters, this one has no truck with fantasy. Its titillation and terror reside in its utter realism….

What Spielberg is doing in Jaws, though, is hardly to be esteemed to the same extent as his work on The Sugerland Express where he was able to bring unusual human endeavour to the forefront, giving characterisation equal consequence with the filmic exuberance of his 'road' show. The present exercise is a consolidation of received ideas from the history of suspense and horror films. It is none too original, yet exceedingly neat. (p. 30)

Gordon Gow, "'Jaws'" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1976; reprinted with permission, in Films and Filming, Vol. 22, No. 4, January, 1976, pp. 30-1.

Pauline Kael

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the most innocent of all technological-marvel movies, and one of the most satisfying. This film has retained some of the wonder and bafflement we feel when we first go into a planetarium: we ooh and aah at the vastness, and at the beauty of the mystery. The film doesn't overawe us, though, because it has a child's playfulness and love of surprises…. [The intelligent creatures in the machines from outer space] are benevolent. They want to get to know us. This vision would be too warm and soul-satisfying if it weren't for the writer-director Steven Spielberg's skeptical, let's-try-it-on spirit. He's an entertainer—a magician in the age of movies. Is Spielberg an artist? Not exactly—or not yet. He's a prodigy—a flimflam wizard-technician. The immense charm of Close Encounters comes from the fact that [this is a young man's movie] … and there's not a sour thought in it. (p. 348)

Close Encounters is a vindication of village crazies. Those people always give you the feeling they know something you don't, and in this scientific fairy tale it turns out they do. God is up there is a crystal-chandelier spaceship, and He likes us. The stoned, the gullible, the half-mad, and just plain folks are His chosen people…. Very few movies have ever hit upon this combination of fantasy and amusement—The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, in a plainer, down-home way.

Close Encounters, too, is a kids' movie in the best sense. You can feel the pleasure the young director took in making it. With his gift for investing machines with personality, Spielberg is the right director for science fantasy. He made a malevolent character of a truck in Duel his famous made-for-TV movie. In his first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express, he had cars dancing, feuding, bonding. In his second film, Jaws, he turned a computer-operated shark into a personal enemy. And now he's got his biggest mechanical toys: the mother ship and the flying-saucer herald angels—whirring through the skies, flashing their lights…. Jaws was a nightmare movie; this is a dream. (pp. 349-50)

With a vast, clear sky full of stars, and a sense of imminence—much of the movie feels like being inside the dome of an enchanted cathedral waiting for the Arrival—terse, swift, heightened dialogue is called for. Instead, we hear casual, ordinary-man language, and, although it has an original, colloquial snap, Spielberg just doesn't have the feeling for words which he has for images. And he doesn't create the central characters … or develop them, in a writer's way; he's thinking about how to get them into the positions he wants them in for his visual plan. (p. 351)

Steven Spielberg is probably the most gifted American director who's dedicated to sheer entertainment. He may have different aims from the aims of people we call artists, but he has integrity: it centers on his means. His expressive drive is to tell a story in shots that are live and hopping, and his grasp of graphic dynamics may be as strong as that of anyone working in movies now. The spatial relationships inside the frame here owe little to the stage, or even to painting; Spielberg succeeds in making the compositions so startlingly immediate that they give off an electric charge. He puts us right in the middle of the action, yet there's enough aesthetic distance—he doesn't assault us. Though the perspectives don't appear forced or unnatural, they're often slightly tilted, with people moving rapidly in or out of the frame, rarely intersecting the center and never occupying it. By designing the images in advance, Spielberg is able to cut without any confusion. Nobody cuts faster on shots full of activity than he does, yet it's never just for the sake of variety: it's what the movie is about that generates the images and the cutting pattern, and there's a constant pickup in excitement from shot to shot—a ziggety forward motion. (pp. 351-52)

Close Encounters shows an excess of kindness—an inability (or, perhaps, unwillingness) to perceive the streak of cowardice and ignorance and confusion in the actions of the authorities who balk the efforts of the visionaries to reach their goal. Having devised a plot in which the government systematically covers up information about U.F.O. sightings, Spielberg is much too casual about how this is done and imprecise about why. He has a paranoid plot, but he hasn't dramatized the enemy…. Impersonality doesn't enrage Spielberg, because he hasn't got at the personality hidden in it. Stock villainy isn't what's needed—something deeper is. He had similar trouble with the corrupt local merchants and politicians in Jaws; their corruption was tired, ritualized—it was necessary for the plot, that was all. In Close Encounters, there is nothing behind what the military men do except bureaucratic indifference. But that means they don't know what they're doing—and to be so totally blind is tragic, crazy emptiness. Spielberg has a genuine affection for harmless aberrants, but he doesn't fathom the dangerous aberrance of authority—particularly an authority that in its own eyes is being complete reasonable. (p. 352)

Spielberg may be the only director with technical virtuosity ever to make a transcendently sweet movie. Close Encounters is almost the oppose of Star Wars, in which a whole planet was blown up and nobody batted an eye. It seems almost inconceivable, but nobody gets hurt in this movie…. The film is like Oklahoma! in space, with jokes; it's spiritual cotton candy and it goes down easy. (p. 353)

Pauline Kael, "The Greening of the Solar System" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. LIII, No. 41, November 28, 1977), in her When the Lights Go Down (copyright © 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1980, pp. 348-54.

Stanley Kauffmann

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I was not aching to see Close Encounters, especially since I had disliked the previous work of its director, Steven Spielberg. His first feature, The Sugarland Express, had seemed facile, fake-honest naturalism. His second, Jaws, was made for one purpose, to scare, and flopped with me because it was so clumsily done. I was utterly unprepared for this third kind of close encounter with Spielberg. I was particularly unprepared for the last 40 minutes of this 135-minute film, in which two things happen. First, and less important, the SF film reaches its pinnacle to date. Second, the movement of SF as vicarious religion and the movement of (what I've called) the Film Generation meet, unify, and blaze.

The script, written by Spielberg, is not much. It's like a 19th-century opera libretto: it serves as an armature, with some passable and some feeble devices, on which to string a progressive series of splendors that are part of, yet distinct from, the story…. (p. 20)

The long, last, thrilling scene overpowers us because, given any reasonable chance to be overpowered by it, we want to be overpowered by it. The film does everything in idea and execution to make it possible. Outer-space creatures, if they ever come, may in fact prove to be malevolent, or stupider than we are. Those possibilities are not part of the faith. We need them to be benevolent and brighter, and that's what Close Encounters gives us….

If Spielberg is what's called a post-literate, he has the strengths as well as the defects of post-literacy. The modern self that he represents may be straitened, even narcotized, as against the historical self of Western tradition, but that self, forlorn religiously, distraught politically, finds its consoling expression in the size and shaking powers of the finale of this film. That finale doesn't bring us salvation—there is no hint of what will come out of the encounter—it brings us companionship. We are not alone. That belief seems potent in itself, if not all that one could possibly want, and the film makes the belief believable….

One of the chief attractions of the film form for the Film Generation is, I think, that an art dependent on technology seems the most fitting means of expression for an age dominated by technology. The finale of Close Encounters is a dazzling epiphany of that idea. The technology of the film makes the faith tenable, but the technology itself becomes indistinguishable from what it is conveying. Prayers are being answered by the act of answering. It's not a case of the medium being the message; the medium is a function of the recipient, the audience, through its delegates, Spielberg and company. (p. 21)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Epiphany" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1977 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 177, No. 24, December 10, 1977, pp. 20-2.

John Simon

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If there is such a thing as a zap-and-zowie school of filmmaking, Steven Spielberg is its prime example….

From the very beginning, Spielberg's speciality was shock. Sex not at all, violence to some extent, and plan shock above all…. While grandly orchestrating cars and helicopters, Spielberg left the human elements of [The Sugarland Express] on a level that was both primitive and factitious. About Jaws one can say at least that however worthless the scenes on land were, those on or in the water were gripping.

Close Encounters is science fiction, a genre that shows signs of becoming a favorite form of cinematic escapism for reasons that are not far to hand…. [Machines], gimmickry, and special effects obviate the need for such more complex human elements as characterization and dialogue, and make things easier for the new breed of illiterates both behind the cameras and in front of the screen…. (p. 7)

[I could tell you the plot or list the absurdities]—which, in this case, comes to be same thing—but why betray the few feeble surprises the movie holds? Let me stress merely that it is not so much a matter of a number of holes in the story, as of a story—and this may be a first—being built entirely out of holes. A friend and I counted, in a matter of minutes, some thirty or forty of them….

Under the many layers of contradiction, however, we come to the bedrock of solid nonsense. Thus, for instance, the visitors, despite their superior intelligence, are unable to crack the Earthlings' language…. The whole business of taking people from earth to the visitors' domain—either for thirty years, as in the case of the wartime aviators … or else for a few days, as in the case of Barry Guiler—is never made remotely clear; but, then, what is?…

In Spielberg's lopsided world, people and their relationships do not begin to make sense…. [People] have been turned into objects, while objects are accorded maximal importance. The movements of machines and gizmos of every kind are made volatile and manic: they zoom at us with exaggerated suddenness and fury. Almost every scene is treated as if it were a climax…. Only with extreme reluctance does the director-screenwriter accord us a few scenes of relative quietude; before we know it, all zap and zowie breaks loose again.

This is not to say that Spielberg isn't capable of shooting certain climactic scenes with genuine ability; but after all those bogus climaxes, all that fake excitement, the real thing begins to look specious and worse yet, anticlimactic….

To clarify everything and make things cohere would have required, as Spielberg remarked in a press conference, a four-hour movie instead of the present one, slightly over half that length. Yet four hours of sense would go by faster and more pleasantly than two of nonsense. Moreover, I doubt whether anyone who could make a shorter period this nonsensical could have made much more sense at any length. Spielberg which in German means toy mountain—may indeed have made the most monumental molehill in movie history, conveniently cone-shaped to serve as a dunce's cap for an extremely swelled head. (p. 8)

John Simon, "Film Reviews: 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'," in Take One (copyright © 1978 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 6, No. 2, January, 1978, pp. 7-8.

Garrett Stewart

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Without the steely perfection or visual profundity of [Stanley] Kubrick's 2001, Spielberg's rousing entertainment [Close Encounters of the Third Kind] is easily the next most impressive venture in the film art of science fiction. Kubrick was out for apocalypse, Spielberg only for epiphany. Yet more is revealed than the cosmic visitation, for even more obviously than in Kubrick's masterpiece, Close Encounters offers a multiple comment on the genre in which Spielberg is working, the gifts he brings to it and their imaginative nurture in other genres, other film and fictional outlets for the imagination. The most resolutely popular of the successful young directors has given us the apotheosis of his own devoted audience, his Everyman, with the ordinary middle-American men and women whom we see struggling to shape the form of their destiny and that of their planet emerging as the director's personal stand-ins….

Almost a decade after 2001, Spielberg's film continues to acknowledge the ways science fiction taps directly the springs of cinema: technological kinesis, simulated environments, imaginary vistas made visible. With its brilliant flooding and blacklighting, especially in the blanching inferno of cosmic irradiation at the end, Spielberg's movie also draws self-evidently upon the sine qua non of film imagery. The movie at its transfiguring extravagant climax is a 'film-within-the-film' in nothing so much as its spectacular lambency. The aliens announce themselves in light; all but invisible in the brilliance of their own aura, like seraphic presences, they are also what Stanley Kauffmann calls all film images: figures of light. Light plus sound to be exact: their double ambience, their medium. To the tune of a strange encoded melody, the aliens seem to come singing 'Fiat lux', summoning revelation from both the night sky and the darkened screen that projects it, each a visionary's tabula rasa….

[Spielberg] has braved the revolutionary effect of incorporating his score, as film structuralists would say, into the 'diegesis', the credited universe of the film's fictional present. Everyone in Spielberg's movie-within-the-movie listens for a good while, spellbound, to the movie's own staccato soundtrack, for it is by these celestial grace notes turned cinematic accompaniment that they have tracked their vision to the dazzling rendezvous….

[But just] when the film spreads its wings to their full metaphysical reach, it is somehow most flawed and poorly thought out. Blandly disbelieving or later woodenly wonderstruck, Spielberg's poorly cast scientists, astronauts and politicians manage to dehumanise the intoxicating spectacle of the finish. Not caring to make his minor bureaucrats and army personnel a palpable threat, Spielberg has left them with nothing much to be or to do, and their flatness is one of those strategic miscalculations or missed chances that flow directly from the film's intent…. Spielberg lets the dialogue get short-changed. Principals excepted, the die is cast with indifferently selected bit players, and the cast dies left and right, especially when plot thickens and interest thins towards the climax, with no lines worth breathing life into and only the tenuous ozone of bedazzlement to inhale. (p. 168)

[Except for François Truffaut], Spielberg has … little interest in casting other members of the experimental team…. [And the] insistence on translating Truffaut's speeches throughout the film, an idea obviously dear to Spielberg in its hints of universality and achieved communication, inevitably serves to distract and decelerate the plot at eventful turns.

Other minor annoyances and questions proliferate in a film which too often seems stitched together of loopholes and loose ends. Why are the few dozen scientists convened to hear recordings of the mysterious five-tone chant taped by Lacombe's team in India huddled together in the front rows of an enormous indoor stadium? And why are they suddenly reading their sign-language charts with small flashlights in the gradually darkened auditorium, when there is no footage being screened, only a tape played? Is it the theatrical nature of the experience, with Truffaut spotlit on stage, that Spielberg wants to insinuate along the way as he moves towards the flamboyant staging of his overtly theatrical climax? Is it worth it?…

The sum impression of Spielberg's grand finale, subtracted from unquestionably by such defects, nevertheless tallies powerfully with his overarching themes. The climactic shots that work, that work wonders, are those in which we look on starry-eyed along with the scientists, the camera's frame filled to distraction with alighted marvels. But when we merely watch the spectators watching, the awe is oversold and devalued….

Spielberg's optimism requires reaction shots, on our behalf, from his gathered faithful. Yet because wondrous events cannot be just told, but must be unfolded before our eyes, a sublimity visibly pondered by others must run the risk of blunting to redundancy our own encounters. Spielberg's slackened inventiveness fails his climax at its very heart, for it should not be about incredible splendours so much as about their cleansing reception. Though no such lapses in dialogue or logistics can defuse the impact of the special effects …, Spielberg's genuine gusto and originality have been expended earlier, with those thematic preparations for the climax which seem tacitly to call up the history of fantasy film, including of course science fiction, as the theoretical meeting ground of cinematic technology and dream mechanisms. A meeting ground and also a proving ground for such interaction. (p. 169)

The shapes of American junk food provide the analogies closest to hand for the cosmic vehicles when they first appear to Roy, just as the term 'flying saucer' is of course also derived from such a reductive domestication of the unknown. Later the trucks carrying scientists to Devil's Tower are camouflaged with familiar advertising logos. In its easy humour about pop-culture commercialism, the movie often looks like a detoxified Zabriskie Point, or like slices of American life cut with the reverse side of Robert Altman's knife. And even the affectionate sarcasm vanishes for Spielberg's entirely unambivalent interest in one kind of consumer item—children's toys.

The expectant clash of cymbals with which a toy monkey at his bedside awakens Barry Guiler is surely, as Newsweek saw, an allusion to Kubrick's apes at the initial moment of ennobling contact in 2001. Perhaps the most inspired single idea in Close Encounters is that toys should first intuit such encounters, the mechanical instruments of a child's objectified fantasy life responding promptly to the influx of cosmic energy around the bed of a sleeping child, as if … they were the child's dreams incarnate. The second toy we see is a mechanical Frankenstein who blushes red when his pants fall to his knees—the most famous of the screen's mechanically devised humanoids caught in a particularly humanising moment. Later, Barry's delightedly lisped sense that the alien machines are only outsized 'toys' in a 'train', come down to 'play' with him, reminds us of what we know to be true about their mechanical simulation by electronic miniatures on screen. Spielberg is thematically tooling up for his climax, when the director becomes a conceptual engineer for one of the most complicated twinkling erector sets ever devised….

[In one scene Spielberg concentrates] on the debate over whether the children can see the rest of a four-hour TV movie. Roy says he promised only that they could watch 'five commandments', and this mumbled joke, plus our single peek at the screen, lets us know that the marathon film in question is Cecil B. DeMille's epic of revelation, The Ten Commandments. What we see briefly on the screen is probably the most renowned special effect in film history before 2001, Moses' parting of the Red Sea. Spielberg has such Biblical parallels much in mind, along with the cinema history of their presentation. Not only does his own triumphant epiphany occur on a mountain top, but it comes after an ominous rending of the heavens derived from DeMille's own battery of effects. (p. 173)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film precisely about film's power to envision ex nihilo what it cannot express or otherwise convey. This is the subject of its subtext, ramified with the outlines of film history and media advance cleverly in mind. On any cinema screen and all the more so with the increased sophistication of film technology, two-dimensional space opens upon an illusory flickering depth into which our eyes lead our imaginations. Yet there is often an imaginatively self-evident though invisible fourth dimension to contend with, a reflexive mirror intersecting the three other planes of film space, reflecting back on itself and back in time, toward the cinema's mechanical springs in technical invention and its psychological fountainhead in dreams projected as moving shapes.

What Spielberg has sensed at once so largely and so delicately is that science fiction, by the direct exploitation of this twin cinematic genesis in mechanics and fantasy, by its immediate confession of the dual modality implied by the phrase 'dream machine', is disposed more than other genres to manifest this fourth dimension of cinematic self-awareness. Implicitly a vindication of fantasy film, of cartoons, of all filmic devices and formulas by which reality gets idealised and remodelled, and by taking all along, and especially at the end, the measure of itself as film feat, Spielberg's new popular monument explores its generic identity both grandly and gaily. It negotiates as so many important films do, by a self-mirroring in the admitted dimension of their own fictionality, a clarifying confrontation with its own essential nature: that closest encounter of the fourth kind. (p. 174)

Garrett Stewart, "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 167-74.

Jane E. Caputi

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[Jaws] is the ritual retelling of an essential patriarchal myth—male vanquishment of the female symbolized as a sea monster, dragon, serpent, vampire, etc.—administering a necessary fix to a society hooked on and by male control. The purpose of Jaws and other myths of its genre is to instill dread and loathing for the female and usually culminate in her annihilation. (p. 305)

The great white shark in Jaws,… actually represents the primordial female and her most dreaded aspects. (pp. 307-08)

When Jaws hit the international market the French translated its title as "Les Dents de la Mer," (The Teeth of the Sea), a fact which can easily lead us, not only to the idea of castration, but to the consideration of two related themes—the mythological motif of the vagina dentata (the toothed, i.e. castrating vagina) and male obsessive fear of abortion. (p. 312)

[It] is the vagina dentata itself which rips across the screen as the bloody, gnashing mouth of the shark. one scene from the film men peer into the mouth of a safely dead shark and quip, "Deep throat." As most are aware, fellatio was the subject of a widely viewed pornographic film of that name. Here man's deep-rooted fear of the castration implications of that act surfaces…. With the sea symbolically evoking the uterus and the shark's teeth the ferocious mouth of that womb, Jaws emerges as a full-blown male nightmare, not only of castration, but of abortion. For what is abortion but the action which most typifies a "Terrible Mother," a "destructive and deathly womb." (pp. 313-14)

There is no place this terror is clearer than in Jaws. The action takes place mainly in the ocean, the primal womb and source of life, but this is a uterus full of blood, gore, danger and death. There are scenes of dismembered limbs, legs falling off into the deep, etc. All of the victims of the shark, except one, are male—usually swimming or floating peacefully unaware when attacked.

Significant to this aspect is the strong emphasis the film deliberately places on boy children, closer to the fetal stage and more vulnerable to the mother, encouraging fetal feelings among the viewers. Again and again little boys are the focus of peril….

There is not only a boyish slant to the victims of the shark, its two surviving killers are also markedly and stupidly puerile. One is terrified of the water and looks like he is perpetually in danger of wetting his pants. The other sticks his tongue out and makes lots of faces behind the back of Big Daddy Quint. Brody and Hooper join a long line of distinguished boy killers for youth is one of the more prominent characteristics of monster-slayers. (p. 315)

The association between the shark and the birthing Terrible Mother was suggested quite early in the film. When a shark is caught and displayed as the killer, Hooper remains unconvinced. To be sure, he proposes, they must cut open the dead shark to see if the little boy is inside of it. He subsequently performs a post-mortem caesarean section (amid much grunting and letting of waters) while Brody watches in revulsion. Later, the final scene in Jaws is clearly the representation of an initiatory ritual of matricidal rebirth. Confrontation with marine monsters … is the typical ordeal of initiation. Immersion in the waters (sacramentalized as baptism) is the classic symbol of rebirth. The sea monster successfully torn apart (and Daddy rid of in the bargain) the two boys, now men, emerge from the waters to paddle fearlessly for shore. (p. 317)

[In his Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, Gerald Mast remarks that in some films: "We film spectators are not only voyeurs; we also experience a kind of rape."] Jaws sets up its viewers for [two experiences of rape—the rapist's and the one who is raped]. Men can gloat over the rape/defeat of the primordial female, women are invited to internalize this defeat. Yet, there is still another rape in Jaws—as a matter of fact the film opens with one.

A group of teenagers sit around a campfire smoking and drinking. One boy keeps giving a girl the eye. She gets up and begins to run toward the beach. He gives chase, continually calling to her to "Slow down. Wait. I'm coming." As she throws off some of her clothes he adds, "I'm definitely coming." Reaching the water naked, the girl enters for a swim. By this point the boy has reached the beach and lies down on the sand. The girl calls out, telling him to take a swim too, but he refuses. Suddenly the shark attacks, whirling the girl on a labyrinthine circle of death through the water. She screams for what seems to be an eternity. Some of her words, though very scrambled, can be made out. She is yelling, "It hurts, it hurts." At this precise moment the camera cuts to the boy, stretched out on the beach and intoning, "I'm coming, I'm coming." No doubt he was. (pp. 317-18)

One can protest that the boy did not touch the girl, that it was indisputably the shark who killed her. Yes, but this is not supposed to be enacted and perceived as a "normal" rape scene. Rather, it is a carefully constructed from of subliminal cinematic rape, with the visual images leading to one interpretation, but the sound and succession of events suggesting another….

[This] was the only female whom the shark ever attacked; every other victim, anyone who was even actively threatened by the shark, was male…. If the subliminal message is that the girl has been raped and murdered, then the shark is clearly the archetypal, revenging guardian spirit who throughout the rest of the film, with deliberate vengeance, attacks only males. (p. 319)

The purpose of Jaws is to instill relentless terror. Though the movie ends, its message is set for eternal mental replay. Yet all those who reeled and wondered under the ferocious assault of patriarchal myth in Jaws should remember that this great white shark, as well as whales, dragons, serpents, and sea monsters all represent the untamed female, the Mother, the vagina dentata, the Lesbian, the White Goddess, Tiamat, the wild, the unconscious. (p. 323)

Jane E. Caputi, "'Jaws' as Patriarchal Myth," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1978 by Michael T. Marsden and John G. Nachbar), Vol. VI, No. 4, 1978, pp. 305-26.

B. H. Fairchild, Jr.

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Almost everyone both in and out of [Close Encounters of the Third Kind] seems … to be waiting for some kind of miraculous salvation, an escape, an awakening, from the bad dream of social stagnation and middle-class malaise which the first half of Spielberg's movie so emphatically reminds us of. And we would probably all arise and go now … were it not for the film's sustained promise that soon, suspensefully soon, our questions will be answered, our emptiness will be filled, that Something Out There will take us away from all this. And what will it be? UFO's? No, Close Encounters seems to me to be about UFO's only in the way that King Kong is about apes. Religion, then? Ideology? Science? No, it isn't science, says the movie's Major Walton. It is, replies Lacombe …, "an event sociologique." (p. 342)

Close Encounters is about a sociological rather than a scientific event, but the film is also a sociological event in itself. We, the audience, become the sociological content of the film. We swarm to the theater to witness a close encounter for the same reasons that Spielberg's characters rush to Devil's Tower. (p. 343)

[The] contrast between the two kinds of space, closed and open, is important to the film because it develops another landscape: the technological. Moving from the closed, limited spaces of the beginning—the world of small rooms, small yards, fences, the shoulders of a narrow highway—to the vastness of the Wyoming countryside and, of course, the eternal depths of the night sky, we move between two different technological realms. Indeed, in getting from one to the other, [Roy] Neary repeatedly has to overcome spatial limitations: crowds, roads, fences, barricades, and finally, forced enclosure. He moves from the small, cramped world of low technology (the kind he knows too well) to the outer or open-space world of high technology (whose envisioned possibilities rescue him from the lower realm).

High technology as it is seen in the baroque ballet of lights and sound at the film's climax might be described as aesthetic (if machines can be beautiful), coherent (meaningful, significant), and creative (opening up new dimensions). Low technology by contrast is non-aesthetic (synthetic ugliness), incoherent (chaotic, trivial), and productive (consumptive rather than creative)…. Most of the time, these two levels, high and low, are distinct—violently so, in fact. The UFO's arrive to the din and howl of common mechanisms: Toys (musical monkeys, cars, record players) as well as the machinery of domestic life (stoves, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, telephones). Usually the contrast is established through juxtaposition: the immediate shift, for instance, from the dazzling spacecraft to the domestic disorder of Roy's home, particularly the television room filled with a chaos of technological junk. It is this oppression of things in rooms that provides a prelude to the central scene (or sociological event) of the film: the vision-crazed Neary's decision to turn his world (his house, his possessions) inside out. (pp. 344-45)

The two technologies may, then, exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, but they are nevertheless rooted in the same reality. They are, as the child tells us in a vision of innocence, "Toys!" As these "toys" emerge, lights flashing, from the cloud-embroiled heavens, we realize that they are indeed only toys in comparison with what they suggest: the vast unknown and unknowable, prophesied but certainly not limited by the high-technology aesthetics of other-worldly shapes, lights, and sounds. What transpires wondrously through the film is in fact sociological (and technological); what is suggested, on the other hand, is theological.

There was a time when these two areas—science-knowledge and God-knowledge—were connected, and the connection was the myth of the music of the spheres: the belief that astronomical and heavenly perfection was manifested in musical harmony inaudible to man in his fallen state…. Spielberg provides a kind of parody of this myth in the symphonic sequence following the landing of the largest spacecraft. Having finally deciphered the five-tone sequence transmitted in alien radio waves, the investigative team gradually enters into tonal interplay with the aliens, increasing the tempo until in a bursting crescendo the two, earthlings and celestial visitors, are communicating mystically in a kind of atonal fugue, a music of the spheres. It is music as language, and what could be more appropriate for man in the moment of transcendence, making the Promethean leap upward, to what?—if not God, then gods, or god-like gestures from the unknowable Beyond. (pp. 345-47)

[There] are three spatial dimensions in Close Encounters: not just outer space, or suburban space, but also inner space—mystical and theological consciousness. The face of this consciousness is appropriately innocent, and in this way the film is distinctly Romantic: each vision of the Beyond is a vision of innocence. Repeatedly, the screen is filled with the face of the beautiful child with the soft, blue light playing across it, and his beatific smile and joyous attraction to the creature that has entered his home are pure, spiritual ecstasy…. Throughout the film, adult faces become children's faces: Neary gazing upward, the expectant crowd at the highway, the policemen, and especially the investigative team at the landing. The organist stares open-mouthed at the celestial spectacle, and the light reveals his eerily childlike expression. Wonder and awe are everywhere. As the mothership looms over the mountain, first one voice and then another exclaims, "Oh, my God," beneath the empyreal vibrations of the soundtrack.

This is the point for which Neary was apparently destined. It is not God, but it is a version of the transcendental god in nature—in theological terms, the simple recognition that there is More, that the natural and mundane are not closed but open-ended and extend ultimately perhaps into the supernatural. It is mysticism of a kind that traditionally seems to lurk in the corners of science fiction. And this is Roy's salvation from the meaningless and insignificant. (pp. 347-48)

But this is not serious theology, or serious science, for that matter. It is cinema, and the brilliantly orchestrated close encounter is as much a film as the one in which it occurs. This is, I think, the point of having Truffaut as Lacombe. Truffaut is a director whose films often deal with children and innocence. And Lacombe is also a director (of the UFO investigative forces) who literally directs the filming of the UFO landing. The lines of cameras swivel and whirr as Lacombe conducts the organist and beckons to the film crew. The music swells, the lights dance, and Roy Neary walks bedazzled into the glowing maw of the unknown. It is not science. It is not religion. It is an event sociologique. And as I scan the Roy Nearies of the audience who have gathered to witness it, I realize that it is also Hollywood, an event cinematic, with all of the old thrill and magic and mystery. (p. 349)

B. H. Fairchild, Jr., "An Event Sociologique: 'Close Encounters'," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1978 by Michael T. Marsden and John G. Nachbar), Vol. VI, No. 4, 1978, pp. 342-49.

Jerome Klinkowitz

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Notice how [the film version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind] virtually stops once the giant mother ship arrives—half the shots are of people just standing there and staring. Their sense of wonder is what the movie is all about. The need, the anticipation, the whole sense of irresistible movement toward some goal is resolved when the mother ship looms into view. After that, the movie continues for another forty minutes, simply as a big clump of indulgence—like driving an hour to get a six-scoop ice cream sundae, then taking almost as much time to eat the thing. Little Barry Guiler first describes the spacecraft as "ice cream"; so does Roy Neary. Apparently audiences feel the same way.

Close Encounters in book form is more ice cream—packed tighter and flavored more sharply to compensate for the lack of cinematic effects. But there's more to reading the book than getting another scoop on the sundae. Certain themes are more apparent, and Spielberg is able to make a deeper and more complex statement. Reading his novel makes you want to see the film again, a new wrinkle in the economics of book-and-movie tie-ins….

But there remain large elements of this novel which are pre-cinematic. This fact is most apparent in the realm of "special effects." At times Spielberg's language tries to create such effects, as when the space creature "flows" instead of walks. But often his descriptions are more suggestive than the effects themselves….

Reading about these actions, rather than just seeing them, brings up considerations of motive and design; less random, the spectacle is that much less exciting. And somehow the words don't quite make it….

Thankfully, Spielberg's novel capitalizes on the essentially middle class nature of his story, and this new fascination (only dimly present in the movie) makes up for what we lose in special effects. If the characters are so awestruck by their close encounters of the first, second, and third kinds, if they are so rooted in wonder that they must pursue these visions to the earth's end and then just stand and stare, it is because their own daily lives are so much like the opposite….

The pity is that the fantasy is constructed almost completely within middle class terms…. The space ships are visualized as Detroit dream machines. And, at one point, Neary sees some technicians as looking like "a cooking-foil commercial." The mother ship, the grand finale which is meant to knock us off our feet, looks like nothing more than "an oil refinery at night."…

Finally, death is what Close Encounters is about: death as a form of astronautics, the one solid hope beyond this dismal world. As he prepares to leave the planet, an official tells Neary he will now be considered legally dead. He agrees happily. The novel ends, like the movie, with the mother ship's departure, described here as "a brilliant, multicolored stairway up to the heavens," another movie set from countless middle class fantasies. The movie's last forty minutes, the book's closing chapters, have stood absolutely still because both have entered a state of death….

By itself, this death-wish theme is the loveliest part of both book and film. But in its novelized form, Spielberg stresses that this heavenly vision is homemade, built of the stuff our imaginations keep telling us to flee. The dimensions of our prison, then, are all the more small, for our fantasies are made out of the very same stuff. (p. 78)

Jerome Klinkowitz, "Renewed Encounters," in The North American Review (reprinted by permission from The North American Review; copyright © 1978 by the University of Northern Iowa), Vol. 263, No. 3, Fall, 1978, pp. 77-9.∗

James Monaco

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[Sugarland Express was meant to take advantage of Spielberg's] demonstrated strengths as a director of chase/road movies. It remains one of the most interesting of the genre…. Structurally, the chase is not only more exciting than most, but humorous as well. In all, quite an achievement. Since it leaves itself more time to deal with character, and since its people are complex, interesting, and rooted in reality, Sugarland Express is arguably a more interesting film than either of the two blockbusters that succeeded it. The chase draws us in, but it's the notoriety of the couple that is the real subject of the film, and that is a more interesting theme than either Jaws or Close Encounters has. (pp. 174-75)

[Jaws and Close Encounters] are surprisingly similar. Both present simple suspense stories with linear plots and make them exciting and absorbing through a continual, incessant panoply of cinematic effects. They are just the sort of films we should expect from a young man who has achieved breathless mastery of the medium. Not that character and human relationships aren't as freshly realized as they are in Sugarland Express …, but there's so little time to develop character in the two blockbusters that he only has space to sketch them in. Both films depend on machines more than human beings for their ultimate effect. (pp. 175-76)

To their credit, the special-effects staff of Universal … managed to jiggle a satisfactory performance out of Bruce [the mechanical shark in Jaws]. But it was minimal at best. Spielberg saved the day by devising a series of much less complicated, more purely cinematic effects that make Jaws the most cleanly efficient and thoroughly effective entertainment machine of the decade. (p. 176)

If Jaws is a lovely machine, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a spacey tour de force. The tension between the characters and the machine of plot and effect was very much on Spielberg's mind. He says he finally wrote the film himself because he couldn't convince anyone else to do both the personal story of Roy Neary … and the larger narrative of the first meeting between humans and extraterrestrials. He wanted a balance between the macrocosm and the microcosm.

As it happened, the film that was shot concentrates strongly on the human stories that would have been minor subplots in most other versions of this archetypal SF plot…. Spielberg makes it especially difficult for us to follow the big story. In order to redirect our attention to the little stories, he has to contrive a very rickety MacGuffin (like the motivating red herrings by that name that power Hitchcock's films). The plot is shot through with false leads, gaping holes, and circuitious side trails … But it doesn't seem to matter…. (pp. 177-78)

Spielberg is saving the actual encounter for the climax. No film, in fact, has been more obviously designed to foster a sequel: it stops where we would expect it to begin. For most of the time, he wants to concentrate on Neary's obsession, and see how he can handle it on film. To keep us properly tense, he punctuates this modest enterprise with a string of devices almost as long as Jaws's: the moving objects … the bright lights, the strange sunburns a few perfunctory chases, occasional shots of the ships (but not the ship!), a few quotes from North by Northwest, and most amusingly the lovely little scene in which Jillian tries to keep The Force out of her house….

People who take science fiction seriously are even angrier with this film that they are with Star Wars. It assiduously avoids all of the issues that should adhere to the basic plot. Spielberg has stolen the subject matter and carefully left the theme behind. He keeps us entertained with some nice effects while he goes about the business of playing with his own mountain: the character of obsession. Then he brings in a little lukewarm apocalyptic quasi-religious ecstasy at the end to let us feel we've completed the experience and drawn the moral. (p. 178)

James Monaco, "The Whiz Kids," in his American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies (copyright © 1979 by James Monaco; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York), Oxford University Press, New York, 1979, pp. 139-84.∗

David Denby

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[1941] is an overblown repetitive, cartoon-style satire that runs into the ground a good hour before it ends. Yet there are things to be prized in it…. Set in Los Angeles the week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 1941 jumps back and forth among a dozen or so parallel stories, all of them illustrating the confusion, incompetence, and nutty panic of a people expecting Japanese invasion at any moment. The movie is fun because Spielberg takes a fondly appreciative attitude toward the innocent righteousness of the time. He's made an homage to the gung-ho silliness of old war movies, a celebration of the Betty Grable-Betty Hutton period of American pop culture. In this movie, America is still a very young country—foolish, violent, casually destructive, but not venal. That we joke about a moment of national crisis shows we are still young—and sane….

1941 looks like a series of crazily animated Norman Rockwell paintings. The California settings, bathed in golden light, gleam with health, and Spielberg fills the screen with odd, jumpy movement…. The movie is full of projectiles, many of them fired off in the wrong direction. Spielberg has a talent for creating adolescent jerkiness: There's a muscular grace in his scenes of excess…. When one of the G.I.'s, hot for a blonde, goes out of control, he practically becomes a rapist, yet Spielberg uses him as a projectile too—pure energy—and transforms his rampage into a scene out of a Gene Kelly film, with athletic flips, tumbles, spills, brawls, and so on. Shouldn't Speilberg direct a musical next time out? (p. 65)

David Denby, "Broadway Melody of 1979," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 1, January 7, 1980, pp. 63-5.

Robert Asahina

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Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind having been very well received by critics and mass audiences, [Spielberg] decided his latest feature, 1941, would be something entirely different—a comedy (the previous films were only unintentionally funny). So, keeping Stanley Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World in mind, he began with a script … about the pandemonium in Los Angeles during the week after Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, the director never asked himself whether the paranoid superpatriotism of that era actually was humorous. Was the xenophobia that led to the forced "relocation" and imprisonment of thousands of native Americans of Japanese descent really funny?

Of course, Spielberg's idea was to make a free-for-all comic fantasy, not a political satire…. [Thus] 1941 became another big-budget spectacular, laden with expensive special effects, explosions, crashes, mindless destruction, and crowd scenes. It also turned into a colossal bore, totally lacking in good belly laughs, or even mild chuckles.

The paucity of Spielberg's … comic imagination is apparent from the number of gags lifted from other movies….

Incredibly, he has even stolen from his own films. Like Jaws, 1941 begins with a girl … shedding her clothes as she runs along a beach; once again, an underwater menace—this time a Japanese submarine, instead of a shark—interrupts her skinny-dipping. It is beyond me why the director thinks it funny to lampoon his own work.

Equally mystifying is why he should try to emulate Kramer, although the two share an inability to construct a joke. In 1941, Spielberg spends a lot of time on Hollis Wood's capture by and subsequent escape from the Japanese sub, but there is no payoff—we never learn what happens to him. Other gags simply aren't set up properly….

Spielberg, once praised for his Hitchcockesque manipulativeness, is living proof that two hit movies are enough to guarantee that some studio will give you $26 million to fall flat on your face. (p. 22)

Robert Asahina, "No Laughing Matters," in The New Leader (© 1980 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXIII, No. 1, January 14, 1980, pp. 22-4.

Pauline Kael

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I wish that Steven Spielberg had trusted his first instincts and left "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" as it was. In his new, reëdited version, "The Special Edition," he has made some trims, put in some outtakes, and shot a few new bits. But if you saw it before and loved it, you may be bothered all the way through—not just because you miss some of the scenes that he has taken out (you miss even what you didn't think was great) but because the slightly different outtakes that Spielberg has substituted for the shots you remember keep jarring you. You can see why most of these outtakes weren't used originally, and some of them have the wrong lighting for where they've been inserted. (pp. 80-1)

It's true that the action is swifter and more streamlined, but I didn't mind the diversionary scenes of the original; they had their own scruffy charm, and part of what we love in fairy tales is their eccentricity. It's also more clear now from the beginning that Roy has become alienated from his family; his character is easier to understand, and there's more preparation for his leaving. Despite these changes, the structure, which was clumsy, is still clumsy—but does that really matter much in this huge toy of a movie?

The only really serious flaw in "Close Encounters" is one that can't be changed by cosmetic editing: in a picture with such a childlike vision, it seems wrong—unjust—that the cranks, the misfit dreamers, and the crazies who received the signals and fought their way to the mountain are not allowed to board the craft….

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is one of the most euphoric comedy fantasies ever made. It will probably be a wonderful movie in any version, but I hope that this "Special Edition" will not replace the original—that the original will also be available to audiences. I want to be able to hear the true believer … tell people that he has seen Bigfoot as well as flying saucers. It may not seem like a big loss, but when you remember something in a movie with pleasure and it's gone, you feel as if your memories had been mugged. (p. 81)

Pauline Kael, "Who and Who," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 28, September 1, 1980, pp. 74-6, 79-81.∗

Stanley Kauffmann

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Steven Spielberg, the writer and director [of Close Encounters of the Third Kind] has re-edited some bits of the original, put in some footage that was omitted first time, and shot some new footage….

It's a mistake. The second encounter isn't as good as the first. One special power of Close Encounters, I thought … was that it exemplified a Dionysian attribute of film: the exaltation available through film's technology and, therefore, repeatable—at will, more or less. Spielberg has interfered with its "immutability," which was probably a mistake in any event and is doubly so because he hasn't improved the picture….

The worst alteration is that we now follow [Roy] into the strangers' spaceship at the end and get a look at its immense interior. Nothing that Spielberg could show us could match what he had made us imagine. Seeing is believing less….

I don't get the idea behind these alterations, unless it's to make the film more of a one-on-one affair between one family's upset and international complications. Nothing is gained, something is lost—except for the good Gobi sequence. This "special edition" ought to be withdrawn. The third encounter should be, more or less, the first. (p. 24)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Late Summer Round-up," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, Nos. 10-11, September 6-13, 1980, pp. 24-5.∗

David Denby

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Synthesizing [Raiders of the Lost Ark] out of trashy pop elements—occult and religous mumbo jumbo, cursed tombs, buried temples, cardboard Nazis—[Spielberg] has produced a work that is like a thirties serial, only grander, funnier, and blessedly free of interruptions….

In pop filmmaking, neither death nor history ever matters. Only thrills matter, and, trying for bigger and bigger thrills, Spielberg has done something almost offensive. He's thrown in the kind of inspirational religioso stuff that used to be such an embarrassment in biblical spectaculars—sudden shafts of light and silvery specters flying about and forming themselves into death's heads. When Cecil B. DeMille produced effects like these in The Ten Commandments, they may have looked trashy, but they weren't cynically intended, and they suited the hammily reverent tone of the rest of the movie. Raiders, on the other hand, hasn't the slightest trace of a religious impulse. None of the characters is motivated by religous belief, and the spirit of the movie is farcical and mock-heroic. Thus when Spielberg opens the Ark, and the clouds race upward into the vortex and all that, the effect is both overblown and creepy. How can he expect us to be awed by a religious spectacle that is totally without feeling? (p. 68)

There are no real people in the work of Lucas and Spielberg, and that may be the main reason I always feel a little unsatisfied—as if my responses had been hollowed out—when their movies are over. They are both superb craftsmen, but neither shows much sign of developing into an artist, or even wanting to. But perhaps that doesn't matter very much. In a highly commercial way, these two have restored to American movies the kind of adolescent ecstasy that has been lost since the silents and the serials. Perhaps we should be grateful for the fun and look for art somewhere else. (p. 70)

David Denby, "Movie of Champions," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1981 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 14, No. 24, June 15, 1981, pp. 68, 70-1.∗


Spielberg, Steven (Vol. 188)