Close Encounters with Composition Brilliance

September 8, 2017

I was baptized once again in the glow of poetic cinema during the 40th Anniversary release of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. This time my aching body was cradled in a custom leather recliner while my eardrums were caressed by state-of-the-art sound. Well done #AMC. Seeing Steven Spielberg’s masterwork on a huge screen in its anamorphic greatness filled me with joy.

I could praise every detail of this legendary film, but I want to discuss two things not as common in Spielberg’s later films. First is the messy dialogue throughout this film; from conversations in an exotic desert to family squabbles in a cluttered home, these scenes represent the time before corporate studios forced a ‘dumbing-down’ of dialogue. It’s amazing how this young director inherently knew the mix of messy dialogue and refined visuals would get his point across. This mix puts the audience in a childlike ‘bedtime story’ trance; their brains fill in the blanks and thirst for more, they are never pulled out of the story but pulled along. Today a conference room of executive producers would demand reshoots to clean up the dialogue sucking the life out of every scene.

The second thing Spielberg hasn’t done to such a degree is fill his composed frames with such kinetic energy. You can really sense the youthful energy of the filmmaking team while watching ‘Close Encounters’ on the big screen. Some will belittle the comical way helicopters fly in the background of the desert ship scene; I love it as it both adds to the forward momentum of the film while reinforcing the bedtime story aesthetic. The scenes in India, with information happening in the fore/middle/background, are part of this masterwork of cinematic composition. The energy and forward momentum never let up; these exotic scenes prove once again that the easiest way to enliven your film is with a wide lens and a lot of extras – LOL!

A simple, well thought out frame, without cuts, introduces the audience to the Neary home. This layered composition establishes that the story could happen anywhere while foreshadowing the central conflict. A little boy dismembering a doll behind a frantic mom and a cluttered dining table make this is Anywhere, USA. Background shelves stuffed with the electrician father’s endless hobbies add to the visual clutter. All these tensions foreshadow what will happen to Roy Neary’s mind. When father and son finally break down at the dinner table, the use of a split diopter lens smashes the foreground and background together just like the character’s hearts.

(Seeing my #BallStateUniversity in the set decoration and wardrobe still makes me giddy.)

Every scene in this film is a master class in composition and energy. I’ve been baptized anew, thank you, Steven Spielberg.