"And from her native east,
To journey through the aery gloom began,
Spher’d in a radiant cloud, for yet the sun
Was not."—Paradise Lost. Bk. VII. L. 245.
"In the closing sequence of steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, an enormous UFO descends on to Devil's Tower in Wyoming, and Roy Neary, the character played by Richard Dreyfuss, climbs onboard with an assortment of American scientists to be taken off to who knows where. Moments before it appears, a host of smaller craft descend in an advance party. They emerge from a layer of thick, billowing clouds that spread out in time-lapse fashion across the desert sky. These were the first convincing special-effect clouds in the history of cinema, and they were created by the visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbell. Though they swelled down behind the craft in somewhat unmeteorological fashion, they spread out in much the same way as real stratocumulus do. In order to create them, Trumbell had to invent and build a piece of equipment down as a 'cloud tank.' It revolutionised cloud special effects and it worked on the principle of temperature inversion. Trumbell's clouds didn't consists of water droplets suspended in air, like the real thing, bit tiny globules of paint in a tank of water. To have the necessary control over their behaviour and to be able to light them effectively, he knew that his clouds would need to be miniature ones. 'I had the idea that realistic miniature clouds could be created in a liquid environment — into which could be injected some other milky white liquid,' he said in a 1977 article in American Cinematographer magazine. So he built a seven-foot-square glass tank at his special-effcts studio, into which a remote-controlled arm could be lowered to ibject a special mixture of white poster paints. The tank was like a large aquarium — only for someone who couldn't decide if they wanted fish of the cold-water or tropical variety. The bottom half of the tank was filled with cool water and the top half with warm. Of course, the water temperature would always have a tendency to even itself out. But a complicated system of plumbing, heating and filtration allowed the effects co-ordinators to sustain a temperature inversion in the water, in which a layer of dense cold water below was covered by one of less dense warm water above. In the boundary region between the two layers, the remote-controlled arm was carefully manipulated to squirt its clouds of white paint. Spielberg could then point the camera up through the water and film the clouds from below. The temperature of the paint solution was halfway between that of the warm and cool water, which meant that it was also halfway between the two in density. When injected into the boundary layer, the paint swelled upwards only as far as the ceiling of warm water above and sank down only as far as the floor of cold water below. And just as we can't see temperature inversion in air, the inversion in the water was not visible to the camera. Trumbull's clouds gathered and spread in a puffy layer in the same way as stratocumulus do below a temperature inversion. 'Since each "take" required a totally fresh and clean tank of specially heated (or cooled) and filtered water,' explained Trumbull, 'the shooting was slow and difficult and occurred on and off for over a year to achieve the results we wanted.'"
"... thy self invisible [ 375 ]
Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sit'st
Thron'd inaccessible, but when thou shad'st
The full blaze of thy beams, and through a cloud
Drawn round about thee like a radiant Shrine,
Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appeer, [ 380 ]"
From my book Blockbuster:—
Biographers of Spielberg and Lucas generally have a pretty tough time of it. Both men’s stubborn normalcy refuses to buff up into the 24-carot gleam we usually expect of our geniuses. The biographer arrives at his subjects door, sleuthing for clues of what is to come — portents of future greatness — only to find their subjects slumped in front of the Mickey Mouse Club, wallowing in the same pop-culture plasma-pool as the rest of us. “George’s favourite story was Goldilocks and the three bears,” writes Dale Pollock of Lucas. “The future director of Jurassic Park had an early fascination with dinosaurs,” notes Joseph McBride, unlike the other 70 million children in America, who were of course, effortlessly boring their way through the latest text-books on subatomic physics. You can see the problem. The portraits are either of slink-off-the-page banality, or — the opposite tack — eerie banality, of TV zombies from Midwich Cuckooland. “The beak was matched by a bird’s gaze, motionless, eerily unblinking,” tries John Baxter, “and he moved in an avian way, darting and topping, his actions apparently unmediated by intellect.” You’re not sure whether such a creature would grow up to direct Jurassic Park or evolve into one of its stars.
Twenty-four pages into the Baxter, however, and you come across this great fact: Spielberg’s grandparents would occasionally come from new Jersey to visit the family in Ohio, and he loved it when his mother said it was “something to look forward to.” It was one of the first phrases he learned to say. If you had to know just one fact about Spielberg, and throw away the rest, that would be it, I think, for from it everything flows: both the keening narrative instincts which drive his films along — replace those grand-parents T Rexes or UFOs and you pretty much have the entire oeuvre — and also the delicate art of audience beguilement that drive audiences along to his films, commonly known as hype. Spielberg movies don’t begin with the credits; they begin the moment you first hear about them. Half the fun with a movie like Close Encounters was the humming sense of anticipation that kicked in when you first saw those dead-pan, gnomic posters, or first asked what its title meant, and wondered what a close encounter of the first or second kind were, and whether they’d be worth having. The other half was the humming sense of anticipation you felt while watching the thing, for the film is, at its baldest, one long teaser trailer for forthcoming attractions, with the aliens glimpsed, in fractionally greater increments, in everything from beached super-tankers and planes to rampaging toys and hoovers. “America is the first country in the world to take its fads seriously and to beat its chest about them and to say ‘Look what we can produce, look at the kind of gross national product which our culture alone can produce,” says Spielberg. In which case, Close Encounters is chest-beating at its most lyrical. In its vision of America, roused from its slumber by the whirring concert of its consumer clutter, the film amounts to a sort of junk Sorcerers Apprentice, with Spielberg playing Prospero to America’s gross national product. The film’s sprightly mischief comes from exactly the same place in the national psyche that produced Watergate board games, Nixon impeachment T-shirts and CB radios — which, during the energy crisis, allowed truckers to radio to one another the locations of gas stations with gas — for it is a movie all about the fun to be had in times of national crisis. When the lights go out in the Neary house, the children cheer.
If you ever wondered where all those great national fads of the seventies — lava lamps, pet rocks, slip ‘n’ slide — went do die, then Roy Neary’s house would be your first port of call, for it an eruptive mess of toys and train-sets, hobbyhorses and doll’s heads, a junkyard of yesterdays’ enthusiasms. Close Encounters is a great movie for household mess, which functions in much the same way that garage junk does in Star Wars, somewhere between an insistent fetish and a guiding aesthetic, and its net effect is to make you wonder at just how much stuff there was in American lives in 1977. There is the mess of Neary’s living room, not least after he shovels his front-garden into it, the mess of his kid’s bedrooms, then the mess the aliens make of Melinda Dillon’s kitchen. And it is out of this mess that the possibility of alien visitation seems to grow, like just another fad or craze. “Its better than goofy golf!” Neary tells his kids. The first time he sees UFOs, he is alone. The second time he goes out there, he brings his wife and children — “Remember those articles about the aurora borealis in National Geographic?” he asks Teri Garr, “well, its better than that!” The third time he goes out, everyone is there, all the crazies and hill-billies, whole families with their picnic hampers, playing cards and painted signs. “It’s like Halloween for grown-ups,” says Gillian.
Or July 4th for moviegoers. The one thing the whole thing really resembles, but which nobody points out, is the pre-release build-up for a blockbuster movie: an audience of Americans are drawn from all over the country, by an “implanted vision” they get from watching TV, to congregate together, to watch a show of music and lights.... “They were invited!” insists the French UFOlogist, played by none other than film director Francois Truffaut, which clinches it: the aliens are opening a blockbuster, and tonight is their premiere. You could be forgiven for not noticing this in 1977, though, for blockbusters were only just achieving their status as pre-eminent national spectacle and so could reasonably remain absent from their own cultural radar. By the time of E.T., in 1982, Spielberg would have Eliott playing with Star Wars dolls, for it would be inconceivable to make a film about an 11-year-old and have him not be a Star Wars fan; and by the time of The Phantom Menace in 1999, George Lucas would return the nod by giving E.T. a walk-on at the galactic senate, but the toys that run around Neary’s floor hail back to an altogether more innocent era — Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet, Frankenstein’s monster. Close Encounters was the last time when Spielberg could reach for the nearest toy in a movie and not be in any danger of it being one of his own. It thus marks the high-point of his innocence as a filmmaker, far more so than E.T., if only because back in 1977, he still had no idea of what Spielbergian meant: this was the last movie of his that wouldn’t betray that knowledge, for it was all being mapped out for the first time, the suburban sprawl, the flying toys, the spilled fridges and sprinkled lawns. We would, for instance, see many monster-in-the- rear-view-mirror gags in his movies — from the Nazis that Indy sees in his mirror in Raiders, to the T Rex in Jurassic Park glimpsed in a side- mirror, whose decal reads “objects are closer than they appear” — a nice touch. But not as good as the moment in Close Encounters when Richard Dreyfuss pulls in at a turnstile to read his map, sees some headlights in his rear-view mirror, and waves them on, only to have them go up over the car. Dreyfuss said that when he read that in the script, he could hear the audience react.
The important thing is that he could hear at all. Jaws had played to theatres so rowdy they almost drowned out the movie, razzing up the audience to match its own internal hoopla-levels. Close Encounters, too, is full of the sounds by which seventies blockbusters usually heralded their global importance — the excited babble of simultaneous translation, the crackle of air traffic control — but the movie’s key scenes play out in a midnight hush so pure that you can hear the crickets chirp, or the whirring of a child’s toy, or a dog bark in the distance. It is almost as if Spielberg had listened to the expectant silence that descended on the world after Jaws, like snow, and then turned that expectant silence into his movie. Said sound editor Frank Warner of the UFOS: “we decided that [their] presence would be expressed simply as silence — or more accurately, a cessation of normal ambient night exterior sounds — crickets, birds, etc... When an accustomed sound stopped, it became a signal that something big was about to happen.” The rebuke to the sound and fury of today’s blockbusters — with their crank-up towards immediate Dionysian blow-out — could not be more acute. The special effects of Close Encounters were pretty damned special, with something of the magic of headlights seen from the safety of your parent’s car on a long journey home — a flypast of flared coronas, blurred haloes, and buttery anamorphic flares. Close Encounters was the first film to suggest that when mankind finally gets to make contact with intelligent life from another galaxy, we might, in all our wisdom, have forgotten to put the right type of film in our cameras, or leave our thumb clamped firmly over the lens.
Roy Neary, meanwhile, takes his place amid the aliens, arms outstretched in what would become Spielberg’s signature sign-off — the image that ends films as disparate as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, E.T. and Schindler’s List, of a man surrounded by children, a filmmaker meeting his adoring audience, the bow of the maestro. It is this movie, though, in which all of Spielberg 's innate benevolence and Mozartian instincts for delight got their purest display, their least self-conscious outing. It tends to be the thing that most divides critics about the director — his unshakeable proclivity for the upbeat — and it’s true that we prefer our artists a little more down in the mouth, edgy, gritty. It’s like the old Turgenev dictum about happiness writing white: grittiness is, in the eyes of most film critics, next to Godliness. It’s easier to spot that way. You’re onto a much safer bet liking someone like Martin Scorsese, whose genius shows up in all the fully-vetted forms — to the left of the studio system, tearing films from his breast like chunks of his own flesh — than you are liking someone like Spielberg, the audience gigolo, devoid of visible self-destructive impulses, alighting aerobically on film after film, slam-dunking one box-office record after another... if that guy also turns out to have been the best filmmaker of his generation, then what, frankly, was the point? What was the point of all those hours passed in the dark confines of the arthouse, watching the frankly unwatchable? But there you go. If you have to point to any one director of the last 25 years in whose work the medium of film was most fully itself — where we found out what it does best when left to its own devices, it has to be That Guy. These early films of his now play like a bracing crash-course in the history of the medium, with a young man’s excitement for his newfound toy: first, a step on the gas with Duel, then a quick exercise in collective fright, Jaws, and finally, with Close Encounters, a deep push on the bass pedals of straightforward awe and wonderment: Let’s see what this sucker can really do.
So what can it do? Well, it turns out it’s pretty good at bright lights, music, and faces. Spielberg’s eye for ordinary American features — squidgy-faced cops, beaker-featured technicians, hairy hill-billies — is here as scrupulously unbeautiful as anything in Walker Evans. Mellinda Dillon said she felt like Lillian Gish being directed by Griffith as Spielberg coaxed her through her reactions; and indeed, the film may be the closest modern audiences will ever come to knowing what it was like to dig out your nickel, and take your seat for the first cinematographs, flickering silently overhead: “A tense, well-knit, immobile mass of human faces, their eyes alertly fixed on the screen,” is how one spectator at New York’s Bijou theatre described his fellow audience-members in 1909. He could as easily have been describing the climax of Close Encounters, with its row upon row of transfixed spectators, bathed in a baptism of light, watching the First Picture Show. Everything about the shoot marks it out as the film that should have been Spielberg’s downfall — his over-reaching epic, his Intolerance — but even at its furthest reach, the film draws us close to home: when the aliens start leaving huge great super-tankers in the desert, it resembles nothing so much as the carelessness of a child, strewing toys around their playpen.