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Close Encounters: Understanding Speilberg's Mastery of Film and Story Development

Steven Spielberg has often been compared to Alfred Hitchcock because of his mastery in the ability to manipulate the emotions of his audience. His extreme care and planning for each and every shot show his awareness of the impact his images will have on people; both those watching the film and those in the film itself. My interest lies most with the latter. One of Spielberg’s favorite themes is that of the seen-and-unseen, or more broadly, the known-and-unknown. He so often cleverly uses the inherent desire in all of us, the need, if you will, to know in order to elicit the feelings of the audience that he wants them to feel towards the film. To clarify, it is not an actual physical state that I speak of, but rather a state of consciousness. He makes the audience feel how they are supposed to feel in every scene by showing them, or not showing them, what is important at a certain time and place in the film. When you watch a Spielberg movie there is never any question of the mood in a scene because he tells you: this is going to be scary, something good is about going to happen, this is important. This last feeling, the feeling of importance, is what I would like to expound upon. For the sake of time and space, I will narrow my investigation to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the significance of the obvious and ever present image of the mountain motif; I will concentrate solely on the effects of this motif within the diegesis as relating to individual characters and the plot as a whole. I would like to show here, then, that the progressive presence of the mountain imagery in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters parallels with the gradual increase of the character’s obsessions, especially the main character, Roy Neary, and the significance of the mountain to the plot of the film.

Just twenty-one minutes into the film, less than fifteen percent of the way into the film we are introduced to alien beings, that is we get to witness an alien craft and a small display of its powers. Only two scenes later we are introduced to our first depiction of “the mountain”. In a squirt of shaving cream, Roy Neary creates his first, our first, image of the mountain. A new image to both character and audience, we are invited along with Neary to investigate the possible importance of such a creation. The pile of shaving cream is brought from background to foreground and creates an intense juxtaposition between the lit from above dollop of shaving cream and the shadowed face of Neary, who is obviously as “in the dark” about the shaving cream’s meaning as we are. His wife follows soon but ignores him when asked about the familiarity of the shape of the shaving cream -- the seed has been planted.

Our next encounter with the image is one with a pillow that Neary makes reference to later but was cut out of the version of the film I used for this study; one can imagine, however, that he stays consistent with the previous and next images as the shots share such similar compositions. Neary’s next run-in with the mountain is not a creation of his own but one of Barry Guiler’s, another character with whom the aliens have seemed to have a more intimate encounter. On a hillside the night after the first sighting, a large group of people await the return of the alien crafts and we find Barry sculpting the mountain from a pile of mud. Neary and Barry’s mother, Jillian, come close to investigate the structure. In this scene we have sequential shots of the mountain image, now about the size of a basketball, with both Neary and Jillian. However, rather than an equal sharing of the screen as they did in the bathroom scene, Neary is now placed slightly behind the mountain image, again lit from above and one point the target of a passing headlight, placing the image more in the foreground. Neary goes on to say “Ever since yesterday, on the road, I’ve been seeing this shape... shaving cream…pillows.” We clearly get the sense that this is not just a chance imagining but something that is very prevalent on Neary’s mind, an image that is starting to hound him. The shot then reverses the angle to show Jillian also closely investigating the mud pile and runs her fingers up and down the sides of mud obviously feeling the same curiosity. Neary continues, “Damn it I know this! I know what this is. This means something. This is important.” We begin to see that Neary’s familiarity with the image is not just a random coincidence, and that now we must attribute some significance to this image and its presence in the plot for he (Neary/Spielberg) tells us outright: “This is important.”

Jillian, like Neary and Barry, is soon compelled to use her own artistic abilities to create portraits of the mountain image that seemingly known, but in fact still unknown. Just before the famous Barry Guiler abduction scene, we find Jillian sketching mountains on paper, just slightly larger than our mud pile from the previous scene. She has created a series of them, all somewhat similar, and just as we realize her growing obsession she apparently does also and takes the drawings down. She walks out to the garbage to throw a bin full of drawings out, perhaps trying to prove to herself that they are no more importance than any other piece of trash, but she is soon corrected as the aliens arrive outside her home.

In perhaps the most poignant scene in the film, Neary’s obsession finally over powers his everyday actions and reaches its pinnacle at the dinner table with his family. With parents at each end of the table, children on each side, the plates of food being passed around the table, we get a semblance of the everyday, all American family. Neary seems pensive but under control until the time for him to serve himself a helping of mashed potatoes. He quickly becomes transfixed and makes a large mound of potatoes while his family watches in awe. As his intensity increases so does the concern of his family. Every shot in this scene shows him alone in the frame, separated from the group by a milk carton, or seemingly distanced from members of his family. We see an intense close up oh Neary’s hand and the mashed potato mountain before we pan up to see Neary realize his family’s stares. This is the first instance that the mountain image fills the entire screen and stands almost entirely alone in the frame. The mountain has moved completely to the foreground both in the shot and in Neary’s brain and its presence causes some of the family to break down in tears. For Neary the mountain has officially taken over his life, as took over the shot in the mashed potato scene. For the audience we find ourselves like Neary, begging for more information, wanting the story to continue so we too can have the answer. We are teased by still another sculpture, this time a clay sculpture that sits on a table with his model train set (a foreshadow of the trains that carry people away from the “gas leak”). Frustrated with learning nothing up to this point Neary begins throwing bits of clay at the sculpture, storms outside and screams to the sky, “What is it?! What is it?!” His obsession is going nowhere and all his efforts have accomplished nothing. Both for Neary and the films plot it has become a quest for the answer to what all “this means”.

Devil's Tower in the spring - as the snow begins to melt and the first seedlings begin to sprout...

Devil's Tower in the spring - as the snow begins to melt and the first seedlings begin to sprout...

Finally, the next morning, we get our first big clue. For the first time in the film we have two consecutive scenes involving the mountain figure showing us that the image is now the primary focus of Neary as well as the driving force behind the plot. In desperation Neary attempts to tear down the clay structure but is only able to pull a chunk off the top leaving a flat surface to his sculpture. As the newly designed mountain fills nearly the entire screen we hear Daffy Duck exclaim, “That’s the last straw!” This declaration serves a multiple purpose: it illustrates the last clue before we create the largest, most realistic mountain; the last scene before we find an answer (at least to what it is, if not what it means); the last time that Neary’s wife will put up with his strange behavior; and the last time that Roy Neary will ever doubt the significance of his inspired thoughts.

In the last of a long line of mountain models, Neary has created a sculpture of dirt, trash, and fencing that fills an entire room. After an argument with his wife on the phone, Neary sits down in defeat, his creation filling the room behind him. He looks over to the television to see the very same image and suddenly, simultaneously, Neary and the audience make a connection. This is it! In a beautiful shot we have Neary (the obsessed), the mountain image (the obsession), and a television telling us what we have been looking at, that is, looking for, nearly the entire film (the key to bringing it all together). We get a cross cutting of Neary and Jillian making the same connection, each having their own moments of “eureka!” finally giving the characters a sense of accomplishment, a sense of closure, a sense that they are in fact not crazy and the answer to their questions are just in reach. They are ready to go to Devil’s Tower to find what it all “means”.

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In Close Encounters, the mountain acts as both seen-and-unseen, the known-and-unknown. We see Roy Neary’s depiction of a mountain in a blob of shaving cream, in a mound of mashed potatoes, in a gigantic pile of dirt and garbage, but we do not see, until nearly the end, what the real life object these models portray. We know that all of these creations of Neary’s “mean something” but we do not know what. The mountain then acts as the driving force behind the actions of the characters (their gradually increased obsessions) and the plot (the quest to find meaning in that unknown). As the image of the mountain increased in frequency and size, so did its role in the lives of the characters, and so did it bring us all closer to the point at which we make contact with the alien ships, the climax of the film’s plot.

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