Tuesday, January 02, 2007

CE3K Revisited - This Means Something

New Year's day was an opportunity for me to re-examine a touchstone of my youth. I was laying on the couch, exhausted from dismantling the wormy old picnic table in our backyard, and I channel-surfed to HDNet where they were showing, in its full hi-def glory, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

I paid a lot of attention to that movie when it came out but somehow never bothered to consider what it might be about. Perhaps I was distracted by all the pretty lights and the massive game of Simon at the end, or maybe I got caught up in the trivia surrounding the production. Did you know that you can see R2-D2 hanging from the underside of the spaceship in one scene? That Gene Hackman turned down the role of Roy Neary because he was trying to save his own failing marriage? That CBS didn't allow Walter Cronkite to do a cameo, so they had to substitute Howard K. Smith? And that dude with the pipe is J. Allen Hyneck, noted UFOlogist?

So with all that going on, it's easy to think it's a movie about UFOs. CE3K, I now realize, is about Steven Spielberg's right to put artistic expression over everything else.

The emotional meat of the story (by the way if you go to mall right now, you can pick up Hickory Farms emotional meat at half price) concerns Roy Neary, the blue-collar suburbanite who witnesses a UFO appearance. Afterwards he becomes obsessed with a certain shape which haunts his imagination. He can't stop visualizing it - he starts carving it in shaving cream, mashed potatoes, clay, ultimately digging up his yard and building the thing in his living room. It turns out to be the landing site of the mothership. However, over the course of this obsession he loses his day job and drives away his family.

Every artist has had the experience of people telling them their vocation is impractical, every one of them has felt isolated by the need to get deep into their own head and produce the story/picture/chord that they find in there. And when you're plumbing the depths of your personal life for material, you inevitably run into the problem of dragging your loved ones into the work; and you often have to chose between depicting them realistically or kindly. A real artist always picks the work over the fragile feelings of those he loves.

In CE3K Neary is shunned by society for his efforts but ultimately is rewarded with a transcendent experience, going with an elite group of people on a journey with the aliens. He indulges his art and is rewarded not with heroin addiction (like Bukowski or Burroughs) nor financial success (like Dickens or Spielberg) but with transcendence. It's the best apologia for the bad behavior of artists that has ever been made.

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