This Means Something …
Mashed Potatoes and Music. In 1977 as well! I’m such a sad foodie that whenever I think of this Steven Spielberg marvel, I think of a Richard Dreyfus carving The Devil’s Tower Monument out of pureed spuds. Well, that and clear, summer night skies. It is almost a travesty that the culture of the Drive In movie theatre has gone. This film was meant to seen on a warm summer night on the hood / bonnet of your car sitting next to your sibling and squabbling over the division of popcorn. If you are really lucky, you can travel all the way to Wyoming and watch this on a big screen outside in the Devil’s Tower National Park.
Close and Encounters of the Third Kind (a term that is now obsolete but that’s not important right now) is a film that builds slowly with simmering tension that culminates in a symphonic exchange at the films iconic climax. How many times have we seen the premise of ‘Visitors’ from another planet? Countless. How many times have we seen these visitors conveyed as benevolent, curious and with an almost childlike manner? Very rarely. This film is played out with two different viewpoints and the viewer gets to see how both sides play out as the date of contact looms closer. This consists of a secretive government initiative to keep the alien presence a secret and the people who have had direct contact with these visitors whose actions are having a massive impact on their lives.
The government team is led by Claude Lacombe who is played by the famous French director, Francois Truffaut. He and his cartographer / translator view the contact as an event sociologique and not a potential threat. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) is one of hundreds of people who have had a (literally) scorching encounter and he just wants to know that it’s really happening. Roy merely wants to know that he is not losing his mind, that he is still himself and still Dad. He finds himself increasingly tormented by images of a structure he can’t identify but he knows with certainty that it means something. He genuinely believes that the image is important. This inspires him to team up with others who have had direct contact and make a desperate pilgrimage to the Tower.
Oooh Spielberg, how do I love thee? Can you believe he followed up the terrifying film ‘Jaws’ with this? I have a feeling that I will revisit him often on this blog but why shouldn’t I? I have to go with the charm and warmth and occasional sly wit that accompany all of my childhood favourites. Shortly after I watched this film recently, I watched another movie called ‘Super 8’ and gained an even deeper appreciation for that impression this Ohio native has left on our modern consciousness. Not only as a director but a writer and occasional actor. The description as a modern day Frank Capra would not go amiss.
I can’t believe I went this long without talking about the music. Would the films be as good if anyone but John Williams did the score? Luckily we don’t need to speculate further because the film that spawned a million doorbells wouldn’t make much sense if it weren’t for those five simple notes he arranged to allow these creatures a method to communicate. The climax is more than just an excuse to put little ballet dancers in green alien costumes, it was a tutorial in a new language. All the scientists and persons in the military were going back to the first day of school in order to use music to speak to a unfamiliar race of beings. It didn’t matter that they arrived in a space ship that looked like R2D2, they wanted to share their words with mankind.
We’re not worthy!
Oh to be 11 again and discover what good music sounds like. Deep down, I feel like I should feel some degree of shame that it took a movie based on a sketch from ‘Saturday Night Live’ to introduce to me the music of Queen, Alice Cooper and ACDC. Luckily, I know I’m not the only one who got their transition from assembly line, cheesy pop/boy band music to the lush vocals of Freddy Mercury so I have made my peace with history. I also suspect that my parents eventually made peace with me after all the times they were driving and my friends and I would howl along to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Try it next time you are out with your friends. It takes YEARS to get old. Not like ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
I loved the sketch show ’Saturday Night Live’ growing up. So many actors who are now considered Hollywood standards had their start there. Want a few names? Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler, Jim Belushi and Mike Myers. Before Austin Powers and way before Shrek, Wayne’s World was his first movie role (and Chris Farley’s as well. I advise you to rent ‘Tommy Boy’ because its a modern classic). He and Dana Carvey put on a couple long hair wigs and play Wayne and Garth, two simple metal enthusiasts broadcasting their own brand of talk show from their parents basement which they have to save from an evil executive. I really like that this is the premise of the film that Rob Lowe credits for saving his career. Well, the world is a twisted place.
Why do I love this film? It is just so random and off beat. You want something everyone will like? Go listen to the Bee Gees. The fact that Tia Carrere is a smoking hot bass player doesn’t hurt either. There is no explanation for Garth making a donut man and then stabbing him to death. You know, if you stab a man in the dead of winter, steam will rise up from the wounds. Indians believed it was his soul escaping from his body. Why does Wayne’s pyscho hose beast ex girlfriend give him a gun rack when he doesn’t one a single firearm. The film even pokes fun at itself whenever the duo pause and talk directly to the audience. Plus, haven’t we all wanted movies to stop with the shameless product placement? Well, this film brings the whole subject of sponsor control to the forefront and mocks it incessantly. We always knew these guys had no penis, Wayne just wrote it down and used an arrow to point it out.
I could (and have) spend ages quoting this early 90’s gem but I don’t need great one liners to prove why anyone who likes music should see this movie. I just need two words, Alice Cooper. I have a friend or as I like to call her ‘that lucky bitch’ who went to one of his concerts and he stroked her face while singing ‘Poison’. In ‘Wayne’s World’ he does a awesome performance of ‘Feed my Frankenstein’ and later welcomes our co-stars into the after party where he proves not to be just another braindead rock star. He is articulate, well informed and kind to the people around him. He also does this while rocking some serious goth makeup thus rendering him God-like in the eyes of his fans. Kiss his hand and get down on your knees while you declare yourself unworthy and maybe he will grant you the opportunity to hang out.
We can all learn something from this movie. A flawless profile, a perfect body, the right clothes, and a great car can get you far in America - almost to the top - but it can’t get you everything. No way? Way!
Round Up The Usual Suspects
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. When one of the best films of the later half of the 20th century uses a reference for its title, it may be true. Which side are you on? Is Casablanca the greatest film of all time or is it Citizen Kane? If pressed for a choice, I vote for the film that makes me smile and has a luminous Ingrid Bergman amoung its very talented cast.
In 1942 a small film, based on a play meant to stir up the American public against the encroachment of Axis forces, was released to very little fanfare and even less expectation. The actors thought the lines were hokey and the scenario implausible but history proved them wrong (a Best Picture Oscar will do that). This is why we are still revering, quoting and even sharing with those who have never known why ‘As Time Goes By’ is such a haunting song.
This tension laden film is filled with some very intense characters. Imagine whole families living day to day in hope for an escape to the Americas, the ultimate refuge from Nazi tyranny. They spent each day waiting for a miracle in a time when they had outlawed miracles. Many of the actors in the film were refugees from occupied countries; the tears, the frustration and anger was all very real. Even Germans singing a song about defending their homeland from the French had made the same torturous journey out of Europe to freedom described in the film’s opening sequence.
The war time love triangle of Rick, Ilsa and Victor played by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid is the focus of the film. Rick operates the Cafe Americain where he isolates himself from the people around him. He sticks his neck out for no one and is viewed by local officials as being a drunkard or citizen of the world, depending on your viewpoint. All that changes when Ilsa, the love of his life walks into his gin joint with her husband.
I always thought that Captain Louis Renault played by Claude Reins was pure brilliance but vastly underrated. He may only play a poor corrupt official in unoccupied French territory but at heart (his least vunerable point) he is an pragmatic romantic who is not as collaborative as he seems. He is the source of most of the subtle jibes at the political situation and even jokes about his own devious nature. Watch him misspeak and then backtrack when he says Germany instead of Vichey when refering to government policies. He will shrewdly play both sides to make sure he gets the most beneficial outcome. He knows how to handle the Germans and how being destructive impresses them.
My favourite scene in the film is when Captain Renault if forced to close the Cafe Americain at Major Strasser’s command. When asked for a reason for the sudden closure, he loudly announces ‘I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!’ shortly before recieving his winnings at the Roulette table which he kindly accepts. Its a smart injection of humor before the characters desperation makes them turn to more violent methods to achieve their goals.
Over the years, this deftly written film has had many of its brilliant lines enter into the english lexicon, even incorrectly. It may have come from people who hear very little and understand even less. ‘Play it Sam’ became ‘Play it again Sam’ but the sentiment is the same. The final farewell scene at the airport is the definition of classic cinema but after the speeches and goodbyes Rick still has to make sure the Ilsa and Victor can make a clean getaway. To prevent anyone stopping their plane to Lisbon, Rick is forced to shoot the Nazi Major leaving him with Captain Renault as the only witness. Instead of pointing the finger at Rick, Renault surprising the audience by not having Rick arrested but instead instructing his fellow officer to ’Round up the usual suspects’. With this act; Rick and Renaults friendship seems to be cemented and they walk off into the night, resolved to help others fight for freedom.