What makes me call this film "postmodernist"? Partly it is the homely suburban world where Spielberg sets his story. American films have a long heritage of adventure. Big films before this tended to be set in big places with big characters – but Richard Dreyfuss plays a nobody who lives in nowhereseville to whom something weird happens. In high art, postmodernism was the moment when the idea of the avant garde as a radical movement – rejecting conventional society and pushing perception forward into an ever more ambitious vision of the new – collapsed. The lofty idealism of a Rothko was suddenly unconvincing to advanced artists. The idea of artists as prophets or priests was abandoned. Artists were not special and neither was art. This was above all an American moment, for it was in America in the 1950s and 60s that modernism attained its loftiest heights and shaped a national culture, from skyscrapers to the space race.
Close Encounters marks this same moment in popular culture. Science fiction is a form of modernism. It shares modern art's belief in progress and meaningful change: it proposes a history of the future. 2001, the great modernist science fiction film, actually creates a model of history in which we evolve as a species under alien guidance. By contrast, Close Encounters does not offer any sense of history or progress or any theory as to what the alien encounter means. It is rooted in everyday suburbia and the revelation that unfurls is beyond understanding. In fact, it does not feel right to call it "science fiction" at all, for it refuses the genre's rationality.
Postmodernism anticipated the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, and a world with a single superpower: a global, American, suburban culture. But as soon as those things came to pass at the end of the 1980s, art moved on again, imaginations railed at the supposed complacency of postmodernism and turned once more to grand themes of death, history and mourning.