Anatomy of a Scene: “CE3K” Edition

The recent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the passing of Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the great cinematographers, got me thinking about the two groundbreaking science fiction epics released back in 1977, George Lucas’ original Star Wars (eventually subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope upon its 1981 theatrical re-release) and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the only movie for which Zsigmond received an Academy Award, which is a shame considering he lensed such classics as Michael Camino’s The Deer Hunter, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, John Boorman’s Deliverance and Brain De Palma’s Blow Out, among many others).

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Though the Conflicted Film Snob was but a runny nosed eight-year-old back then, he was lucky enough to see both films on the big screen, which was what people did in the days before VCRs, DVDs and 4″ smartphones. I preferred Star Wars, of course, not all that surprising considering a) Close Encounters introduced in me an irrational fear of being kidnapped by benign aliens…

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…and b) the Star Wars merchandising juggernaut much more effectively reinforced the joyful movie experience with trading cards, lunch boxes and pajamas*, my hoard of which tragically has been thrown away…

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[*Conflicted Film Snob aside: although I did indeed have Star Wars jammies and often could be spied walking around the house with a 5-lb. barbell slung crucifixion-like over my shoulder, the above photo isn’t me.]

…and toys, which I eventually exploded with firecrackers and then melted on beds of dried-out leaves when I finally outgrew them…

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An interesting thing happened as I got older, though. First off, I stopped worrying about alien abduction, shifting my anxieties to more relevant worries. Like nuns. And that Esau-like jackass Steve Garvey singlehandedly beating the Cubs in the ’84 NLCS:

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Second, as I continued viewing both movies throughout the years, it started to dawn on me that Star Wars, while never less than a good time, was rife with clunky writing and uninspired direction–a solid three-star movie, nothing more. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, on the other hand? Well, between its assured direction, mysterious storyline, literate script, fine performances and general weirdness, it’s a true American classic.

Yeah, that’s right, people. I’m saying Close Encounters of the Third Kind crushes Star Wars like a grape.

And it’s not just me. Pauline Kael, famous (and notorious) for her literate, often contrarian movie reviews in The New Yorker, said of Star Wars back in 1977: 

“[It’s] like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip.”

Now take a look at what she had to say about Close Encounters a couple months later:

“The film has retained some of the wonder and bafflement we feel when we first go into a planetarium: we ooh and aah at the vastness, and at the beauty of the mystery. The film doesn’t overawe us, though, because it has a child’s playfulness and love of surprises. Close Encounters is a vindication of the village crazies, those people always giving you the feeling they know something you don’t. And in this scientific fairytale it turns out they do.”

Alex Ross, writing in a recent issue of The New Yorker, summed up well why Close Encounters has such staying power–not just culturally, which Star Wars has in spades, but also artistically, which I’d argue is more important:

“[It] still strikes me as an amazing creation—a one-off fusion of blockbuster spectacle with the disheveled realism of nineteen-seventies filmmaking. It has a wildness, a madness [and] the Disneyesque fireworks of the finale can’t hide the fact that the hero of the tale is abandoning his family in the grip of a monomaniacal obsession.”

But let’s you and I argue no more over something so subjective. You have your opinion** and I have mine. Rather, what I’d like to do is take a closer look at an extraordinary scene from early in Close Encounters, one in which Spielberg’s prodigious understanding of the film medium creates an incredibly tense scene that, due to the limitations of its setting, really has no business being anything but completely flat.

[**Conflicted Film Snob aside: Yours is wrong, of course.]

So…for those who don’t recall or have never seen the movie, let me remind you/tell you that it opens with a smash cut taking us from its famous credit sequence (names appearing against a pitch-black background, John Williamsdissonant score eerily building to an abrupt orchestral crescendo) to the present day (1977) Sonoran desert in the midst of a sandstorm. A group of scientists begin to emerge from the murk to investigate a particularly strange sight: five vintage Navy torpedo bombers have appeared out of nowhere and in the middle of nowhere:

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Discombobulating from the get-go, the scene offers up imagery and bits of dialogue that only add to the general confusion. Team members scramble around the planes, incredulous they’re not only in pristine condition, but also fueled and operational. A translator named Laughlin (Bob Balaban, who, FYI, wrote a fine book detailing his work on the movie entitled, Spielberg, Truffaut & Me: An Actor’s Diary), upon asking who flies planes like these anymore, is told: “No one. These planes were reported missing in 1945!” And finally, we encounter a dazed old man sitting on the porch of his service station, his face strangely sunburned, mumbling in Spanish that the sun came out last night and sang to him. 

Even the language is puzzling, a jumble of Spanish, English and French translated back and forth by various characters. Williams’ score and the inclement weather only add to the eeriness–the scene wraps with a thoroughly unsettled Laughlin translating the “sun came out” line into French for his new boss (Claude Lacombe, played by legendary French writer/director François Truffaut) while backtracking away from the confused old man. He then meekly looks skyward, only to be swallowed by a gust of dust and sand:

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In a nutshell, the opening scene leaves the audience a bit agitated, our minds chewing over the same questions Laughlin gave voice to earlier when, told the planes haven’t been seen for 32 years, he barks, “Where’s the pilot? I don’t understand. Where’s the crew? How the hell did it get here!”

Instead of offering answers, however, Spielberg and his long-time editor, Michael Kahn chug right along, piling on more mystery and unease as they wipe from Laughlin disappearing in the sandstorm to the incidental sounds, green radar glow and tight confines of Air Traffic Control, Indianapolis Center, the scene I’d like to discuss in some detail:

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The Scene

A controller named Harry is asked to keep an eye on a plane by a co-worker (who we’ll refer to as Controller #1), who’s off for a quick break (“Harry, keep an eye on that point-out I gave you. He’s on 122.5. I’ll be right back.”). Almost immediately, Harry is contacted by the disembodied voice of an Air East pilot, who, cutting through some indistinct radio chatter, says, “Indianapolis Center, you have any traffic for Air East 31?”

Harry gives the radar a look-see…

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…and responds in typical air-traffic-control monotone: “Air East 31, negative. The only traffic I have is a TWA L-1011 in your 6-o’clock position, range 15 miles. And an Allegheny DC-9 in your 12-o’clock position, 50 miles. Uh, stand by, One. I’ll take a look at broadband, over.”

Spielberg, who isn’t afraid to move his camera, keeps things simple here, staying with this static medium shot for quite some time, the lack of movement and relaxed editing rhythm seeming to denote that everything is A-OK–no crisis here, just another day at the office. (Note his 2.39:1 widescreen composition above. He and director of photography Zsigmond have blocked and framed the shot just so, which will come artfully into play as the scene progresses.)

Anyway, when the scene finally cuts to Harry taking a look at the broadband radar, we’re given our first and only visual representation of Air East 31 and TWA 517, a decidedly undramatic sight. At least for now:

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The Air East pilot gets back on the radio, matter-of-factly reporting he has some unidentified traffic in the area “2-o’clock, slightly above and descending.”

Spielberg and Kahn quickly cut to a close-up of Harry examining the radar, the screen out of focus while his reflection remains in focus, a clever way for the director to keep the audience’s attention on what really matters here–not the radar but rather the guy looking at it, a guy whose expression tells us how concerned to be, which, at this point, isn’t much at all:

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“Air East 31, roger,” Harry responds. “I have a primary target about that position now. I have no known high-altitude traffic. Stand by, One, I’ll check low, over.” He leans back in his chair to address the controller (let’s call him Controller #2) sitting next to him. The camera remains static, the situation not dramatic enough for movement. Harry’s on top of things–what could go wrong? “Vic, will you check low-altitude and see if they know who this is?”

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The Air East pilot gets on the horn again, his tone, while not necessarily worried, definitely betraying frustration: “Center, Air East 31. The traffic’s not lower than us. He’s 1-oclock now, still above me and descending.”

Spielberg cuts to Harry at his station, a medium shot identical to the one we saw earlier but for one difference: Harry is now leaning towards his radar station, his interest piqued. Despite his calm demeanor, his unemotional back-and-forth with the pilot, it’s dawning on him (and us) that something’s not quite right. “Air East 31,” he asks, “can you say aircraft type?”

“Uh, negative, Center,” radios the pilot. “No distinct outline. To tell you the truth the target is rather brilliant. It has the brightest anti-collision lights I think I’ve ever seen. Alternating white to red. Colors are a little striking.”

Controller #1, the guy who handed off the plane in the first place, joins Harry at his station. Almost immediately Spielberg cuts to a wide shot of yet another controller (we’ll call him Controller #3) approaching from across the room, the camera following him with a simple right-to-left dolly. In the background, although out of focus, we can see that pretty much the entire Center has taken an interest in the situation. And so when the camera finally settles, the frame now includes all four controllers perfectly positioned within the horizontal space. Spielberg and his team are visually tightening the screws. Despite the calm back-and-forth between the Air East pilot and Harry, the framing seems to indicate something else: that a larger braintrust is needed to troubleshoot the situation; that shit’s about to hit the fan:

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TWA flight 517, in the vicinity of Air East 31, decides to chime in: “Center, this is TWA 517. Traffic now looks like extra-bright landing lights. I thought Air East had his landing lights on.”

The three controllers surrounding Harry debate what could be causing the anomaly:

Controller #1: “Could be a satellite reentry.”

Controller #3: “Speed’s not high enough for a reentry.”

Controller #2: “Could be space junk, maybe. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Controller #3: “How about an SR-71?”

Controller #2: “Not at that altitude. Traffic’s really moving though.”

The Air East pilot radios that the situation seems to have resolved itself. (“Roger, Center. It doesn’t appear he’s going to be a problem. He’s in a descent about 1,500 feet below me.”). Then, after a moment’s hesitation: “Wait a second. Stand by, One.” Spielberg quickly cuts to a close-up of the radar–the unknown object has just entered the same flightpath as Air East 31. An alarm begins to sound:

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“Okay, Center, Air East One,” the pilot radios, all business. “The traffic has turned. He’s heading right for my windshield. We’re turning away immediately and leaving flight level 3-5-0 now.”

Here the editing rhythm becomes a bit more aggressive–the radar image quickly cuts to an extreme closeup of the screen as yet another alarm joins the fray, this even more urgent. The tension, slowly building throughout despite such a simple, workaday mise-en-scène, despite all the monotone voices trying to work the problem, is heading towards a crescendo.

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Spielberg now cuts back to that static medium shot of Harry at his console, this for a third time, as Harry once again leans further into the frame and towards his radar (another subtle, almost subliminal visual cue to the audience), rapidly issuing flight commands (“Air East 31, descend and maintain flight level 3-1-0. Break, Allegheny 444 turn right 30 degrees…”). But then the camera begins to move, a slow dolly away from Harry. On the face of it the move seems inconsequential. However, there’s genius in it, the move designed to bring all four controllers back into frame one-by-one. Even better, as Controllers #2 and #3 reenter the frame, it coincides with lines of dialogue they’re speaking, a master class in blocking, camera movement and visual economy:

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“The traffic is quite luminous,” radios the Air East pilot, “and is exhibiting some non-ballistic motion, over.”

“Roger, Air East 31,” says Harry. “Continue descent at your descretion, over.”

Spielberg now reverses the camera dolly he’s just completed (which had gotten all four men into frame), slowly pushing in on Harry’s anxious face…

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…as the Air East 31 pilot radios, “OK, Center, descent at pilot’s discretion is approved. The traffic is approaching head-on, ultra-bright and really moving.” A burst of static crackles over the radio. “And right by us, right now.”

“Now that was really close,” interjects the Air East co-pilot.

Suddenly, Harry’s supervisor leans into frame, saying, “Ask them if they want to report officially.”

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Harry radios, “TWA 517, do you want to report a UFO? Over,” but receives only silence. He waits–we all wait. And as the gap stretches the audience can’t help but wonder if something similar to those Navy planes has occurred. Harry repeats the question. And here Spielberg cuts to a variation on that earlier shot of Harry’s reflection on the radar screen, the former in focus, the latter blurred, this time his flanked by other concerned faces:

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The TWA pilot finally breaks the silence. “Negative. We don’t want to report.”

Harry moves on to Air East 31, asking the same question.

“Negative,” the pilot radios, wearily. “We don’t want to report one of those either.”

Harry asks if they’d like to file a report of any kind.

“I wouldn’t know what kind of report to file, Center,” replies the Air East pilot.

“Air East 31, me neither,” Harry radios. “I’ll try to track target to destination, over.”

So there you have it. Three and a half minutes of mystery, tension, fear and, finally, release, all of it done with nary a visual effect, burning engine, electrical storm, screaming alpha male or complicated sound montage. Spielberg leans on no crutch here–even Williams’ musical score is absent. Whereas he had a toolbox full of sandstorms, abandoned planes, mysterious scientists and a creepy old man to unnerve us in the scene in the desert, all he’s got to play with in Indianapolis Center are a couple of guys talking in technical monotone, a disembodied pilot and some letters and numbers on a green and black radar screen. The economy is such that the following Señor Wences riff from 1987’s Tin Men comes right to mind. (Mine, at least):

The air traffic control scene in Close Encounters is simplicity itself, but it works in spades. Spielberg knows in his bones that something hinted at rather than shown can be incredibly effective. Not that this should come as a surprise; after all, it was Spielberg who, back in 1975, let our collective imaginations run wild over what terrors lay just beneath the surface of the ocean. He’s always knack for anticipatory dread–think of the truck in Duel, the lead-up to the T-Rex appearance in Jurassic Park, attack on the ferry in War of the Worlds, to name but a few.

Any director can wring tension from a planet being threatened with destruction by a death ray. To do the same with four middle-aged guys sitting around a radar takes talent on a completely different artistic plane, someone with total command of the language of film–from framing and camera movement to editing and mies-en-scene. No doubt a lessor director would’ve created a scene full of bright lights, cockpit views, whining engines and near-misses. Spielberg, on the other hand, has the confidence (and chops) to approach it a different way. This is, after all, a movie full of slow reveals, the pieces to the puzzle slowly coming together until, finally, on warm summer night at the base of Devil’s Tower National Monument, it’s finally time to show us everything:


No two ways about it: Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a better movie than Star Wars. I guess you’re just going to have to deal with it.

Here’s the scene for your viewing pleasure. Excuse the crummy quality. It’s the best I could find on YouTube. You’ll get the idea, though. Better yet, go buy the comprehensive blu-ray edition, the Conflicted Film Snob’s preferred home-video delivery system:

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