william steig drawing

October 7, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Tempers: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

In 1977 Richard Dreyfuss was very angry in two fantastic films.

Two movies that with Jaws top the list of his greatest performances: Herbert Ross’ The Goodbye Girl and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Two completely different films with a similarly distressed Dreyfuss as the glue that holds them together in my heart. Like a earth toned mid 70’s ice cream sandwich.

(I did intend for this post to be on both films, but I quickly discovered that Close Encounters needs a space of its own. Don’t fret Marsha Mason fans. The Goodbye Girl will have a turn in the near future).

The first thing you may remember about Close Encounters is the Devil’s Tower mashed potatoes. You may remember this because a pile of potatoes set before you hasn’t escaped unsculpted since. The second thing you may remember about Close Encounters is the melody the whole world sings to communicate with the Aliens. You may remember this because the Kodaly hand signs for the notes have been a stupid thing that you’re smug about remembering: Re, Mi, Do, Do, So

And last but not least, the third thing you may remember about Close Encounters is Richard Dreyfuss’ temper, or rather his total and understandable emotional reaction to living with his immensely unsympathetic wife Ronnie (Terri Garr), and three kids in a house whose walls have turned into plastic toy parts and are caving in on top of him (the family scenes are even shot with a lens that blurs the edges of the frame, shrinking the size of the scene in focus and increasing the sense of claustrophobia).

The banality of the world Roy rebels against is cleverly illustrated by the television, present in almost every home scene. It is one of Spielberg’s most frequently and well used tools. You will find it in the domestic scenes of nearly all his films E.T., Jaws, etc. Movies where people escape, for a moment, the deadly comfort of their lives.

The TV serves two important roles. First, it joins us under the happy blanket of cultural familiarity. What’s more familiar to Americans than American culture?Didn’t you know were all in this together? We’ve all laid about in our similarly cluttered living rooms paying half attention to the droning television. Secondly, television can modify the atmosphere of a scene. It dissipates the energy of a room, creating an ambient unfocused laziness and staleness. Or if there is conflict it can add another layer of chaos, like a ringing telephone, heightening the scene’s tension and characters’ irritation (of which there is an abundance in the Neary household).

Such a tiny and staid life cannot contain Roy. He is a short and stocky compact ball of eruptive energy. I imagine that he and Ronnie were once wild things, but unimaginative domesticity and motherhood has stomped the sweetness out of her. In reality she doesn’t have to let her kids and the house dictate her day, but she does. Anything different is not only beyond her reasoning, but irresponsible.

Unlike his wife, Roy believes in interrupting routine to chase the spectacular. Any chance for magic must be grabbed. Whether it’s allowing his kids stay up to watch DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, skipping Goofy Golf to go to Pinocchio, or completely abandoning his home and family to connect with another universe. Roy believes in dreams. In the existence of the other side. While Ronnie fears anything that threatens to expose lies about our lives (the American Dream), Roy wants the truth. Trapped in a life that sneers at such juvenile mysticism, that denies the magical, his frustration grows. It is bound to shoot out. A sprinkling at his family and neighbors, and finally an eruption at “the man”. The man holding the answer at arm’s length.

Heeding the call of Devil’s Tower, Roy and new friend Melinda Dillon (Spielberg has a predilection for leggy blondes in shorts) crash through road blocks, past “dead” livestock and fowl, to follow the vague urgings of their hearts. Of course they are stopped by the military who take them both to a secret compound for interrogation by world famous director scientist Francois Truffaut and his translator Bob Balaban.

Roy: Is that it? Is that all you’re going to ask me? Well I got a couple of goddamn questions myself! I want to speak to someone in charge! I want to lodge a complaint… You have no right to make people crazy… What the hell is going on around here!

As I watched this scene I was struck by this piece of dialogue in particular and the universality of the lines. It occurred to me that these are words many Americans in 1977 could have said, and did. I suspect that’s one of the reasons the film was so successful. After Vietnam and Watergate, and in the middle of a recession, Americans, especially young Americans were well acquainted with the kind of suspicion, anger, and betrayal Roy expresses. Though people didn’t say “Oh I love Close Encounters and Roy Neary because I hated the war and Richard Nixon and goddammit I’m poor,” the trauma of these events on the country and the world, made us receptive to Roy’s plight in a particular way. He had suspicions, and he wouldn’t accept bullshit for an answer. The military and the government had a great deal of credibility. Why should he believe them?

Roy’s anger and dissatisfaction with the lies he’s fed pays off (which is exactly what we want to see). His suspicions are vindicated. He has indeed had a close encounter of the third kind.

The lesson of the film is this: Raise hell if that’s what your gut is telling you.

Have faith in what you believe. Claw for it, claw so hard your finger nails fall out. Chase your dreams. Wish upon a star and always believe that there is always a chance that Jiminy Cricket will appear.

Tempers is a Mirror special series. Read more here!


If you’d like to see a 19 year old Dreyfuss on screen for only the third time in his career, make sure to check out the Gidget episode “Ego A Go-Go”. Dreyfuss is “Derf the Drag”, a nerd who shockingly turns into one hell of a stud.

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  1. Laura Mann

    Don’t forget about Tin Men. By far superior, in-depth and compassionate performances from both Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito. I still have my VHS copy and watch at least once a year. Absolutely delicious every time.

  2. Wow. I was just browsing around for new blogs on “Close Encounters” and I ran into this awesome blog. It’s extremely well written and thought out.

    Actually, the reason I was searching around was because I wrote a very similar blog recently, comparing the themes of the Close Encounters and the Truman Show. I think it’s great that you do the same with two movies Dreyfuss was in. I’ll be honest, I’m a child of the 90’s, so I was never really familiar with his work, but after watching Close Encounters and reading your blog, I’ll definitely have to check him out.

    I’d love if you would check out my blog, I think you’ll see some cool similarities: http://popchassid.com/go-crazy-believe-aliens-truman-close-encounters/

  3. “and I don’t like the panties, hanging on the rod!” One of my faves to quote. (*but you have to do the richard dreyfuss impersonation whilst quoting the line!)


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