“The hope symbolized by light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.”
The arts offered a space where we could pause for reflection, and perhaps glimpse a faint glow from over the horizon, amidst the malaise weighing on 1970s America. That most innovative of film makers, Steven Spielberg, slipped the bonds of science fiction’s conventions in a visionary movie. He portrayed an alien spaceship with a spiritual aura, like those Renaissance religious paintings where the radiance from above promises a hopeful future and a chance of renewal.
“Children Opening Doors to Beautiful Sources of Light”
When the 1977 film Close Encounters opens, a luminous space ship dazzles airline pilots by its unearthly maneuvers, while air traffic controllers in the American heartland try to make sense of what they see on their screens. Unable to reconcile what they are witnessing with their familiar experience, they dismiss the extraordinary, rather than seeking its meaning. As the story unfolds, an aged Mexican villager with a beatific smile tells scientists that the sun came out at night and sang to him, as a Madonna might to her child. When the scene shifts back to Indiana, the specter reappears, and Spielberg sends a curious, not fearful, child chasing an elusive orange vapor into the prairie night. What is hidden from the wise and learned is sometimes revealed to children. As Spielberg later explained, “Close Encounters is all about children opening doors to beautiful sources of light.” It is difficult to imagine a more numinous response to the angst then afflicting America.
In Close Encounters, the viewer is from the opening drawn into a world of light, music, and wonder, which captivates the senses more than the intellect. Instead of intrepid explorers, we meet ordinary people, tentative in their search for the strangers. They are warm and approachable, unlike the steely glint of heroism. The viewer can identify with their uncertainty in the face of the astonishing. Close Encounters shares Hamlet’s response to the dreams and phantoms of other worlds: as strangers, give them welcome.
As the story begins, a utility company repairman, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), heads out in his truck when the spaceship’s over flight turns out the lights and plunges Muncie, Indiana into an eerie darkness. He gets lost in the outer burbs, but the aliens seem to find him, and he looks up to a dazzling white glare before the ship glides off into the night sky. Although rattled, Neary listens to the cacophony of voices on his CB radio so he can track the ship’s path, and pursue it. Throughout the movie, this Everyman follows his inner voice, strange and compulsive though it may be, to search for the unknowable. Does obsession lurk in the shadows of the deepest religious experience? Implicit in the movie is this ambivalence.
Enlightened guide and a counter-vision
Although the events in the film unfold as seen by the Everyman character, we have to focus elsewhere to approach the essence of the film. A marvelous work of art, or an idyllic scene in nature, when truly taken in by the viewer, can inspire a sense of awe, but a more profound appreciation flows from knowledge. Similarly, a childlike wonder may inspire a quest for the mysterious light, and Neary’s obsession may pursue it, but only an enlightened guide can enrich the numinous experience.
In Close Encounters, the awareness is provided by a scientist, Claude Lacombe–although what variety of scientist remains nebulous. The actor is an icon of French New Wave cinema, Francois Truffaut, who had expanded the frontiers of film creativity in the 1960s. As the refrain in the movie goes, this means something.
Lacombe’s point of view gives permission to the viewer to reflect on the mystical light. “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Through Lacombe’s perspective, we are invited to wonder and perhaps to begin to understand; what the radiance might represent is left to us. Given the increasingly materialist and secular outlook that was emerging in the 1970s, and since then has become increasingly dominant, this signifies a counter vision.
Consider that Lacombe is not an American pragmatist, but a French intellectual with a philosophical hue. He is drawn to the mystery, and his métier is the illuminating question. Yet, he is neither conducting an investigation nor solving a problem–that is the province of the technician. Lacombe might well agree with Einstein that scientific thinking involves a free play with concepts. He has the brilliant intuition to use several musical tones as the language to reach out to the aliens, relying on child’s play in the most fateful of communications. Recall the Mexican villager’s description of the ship: the sun that sang. Where a film involving space travel might well focus on the technology, the crucial tool in Close Encounters is simple music, and the goal is communication with strangers.
Quest and possibility
The scientist has set out on a quest—as have the child, Neary’s everyman, and, through identifying with the film’s characters, the audience. Each has taken a risk, even if it is only the hazard of unsettling their comfortable thinking, in hope of being renewed.
Lacombe’s philosophy accepts the possibility that there are things in heaven and earth that dwell beyond the realm of facts. He is like Einstein, who once said that he developed his relativity theory because he was still able to ask childlike questions about space and time. Lacombe has retained the child’s sense of wonder, yet he has cultivated the detachment necessary for insight into the shining enigma. William Blake wrote that the child’s toys and the old man’s reasons are but the fruits of the two seasons. Close Encounters’ script mirrors this: Lacombe is the adult companion to the Indiana boy who opens the door to the beautiful light. Not by force of logical argument, but through being open to creativity and inspiration, he calmly persuades his colleagues of the potential inherent in reaching out to the visitors. Lacombe is a prophet without self-righteousness.
No longer through a glass, darkly
With the majestic arrival of the mother ship at Devil’s Tower, a light from above shining in the darkness, time seems to be suspended, and the spiritual quest of Close Encounters reaches its apotheosis. We are by now alerted to the interplay of light and music that bounces back and forth between the ship and human technology. Emerging at last, the aliens appear, bathed in a diffuse white light. Neary and other explorers ascend into the ship, but the viewer does not follow them into the inner sanctum. What waits beyond the pale is left to the imagination, as each individual’s spiritual vision is her own. We no longer look through a glass darkly, but we are not yet seeing face to face. In Close Encounters, there is enlightenment, but no revelation—no definitive answers, only intimations. The hope symbolized by the light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.
© Tom Schultz, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.