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A Near Perfect Movie

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Mike Cohen
A Near Perfect Movie
on Aug 12, 2010 at 11:13:01 pm

Last night I watched Close Encounter of the Third Kind in HD. It was like seeing it for the first time. I will use this film to illustrate my take on this thread, as a near perfect movie.

There are a handful of movies I would label as perfect or near perfect. It has to be a movie that, when you watch it, even though you have seen it many times, and you know what happens next, you are still transfixed on the screen and watching it straight through is never tedious.

Time

The length is long for most movies, short for an epic and the pacing is just right, building towards the climax gradually in a way that keeps you watching even on repeat viewings.

Place

While the film is set in the late 1970's, this was a time period that holds great sentimentality for me - toys, tv commercials, brands, clothing, cars, props, music, age of characters - Spielberg is a master of evoking nostalgia in his audience and this movie, like ET, is pure perfection from this perspective. It is refreshing to know that a prime movie director is familiar enough with the real middle class suburban world to depict it accurately.

The other locations aside from the climactic set piece never call attention to themselves - the characters both human and spaceship remain the focus.

Palette

Spielberg has a repertoire of camera shots, moves, blocking and methods that are in many of his films, especially the early ones. Modern directors can learn a lot about shooting dialogue, action and effects shots.

Spielberg also has some classic comedic notes in his films - such as a guy running to the toilet at a moment of fear or stress.

Acting

A master of getting little kids to show emotion, and getting adults to act like little kids as they break down emotionally, Spielberg again shows that as a young director he was on top of his game. Although he says that this is one film he would never make as an adult, because he would never leave his family, he depicts the family in crisis in a way that remains believable in the present day.

Effects

As in Jaws before and Jurassic Park after, the effects in Close Encounters are used only when required - hints followed by glimpses followed by the full reveal, then the money shot and then the exciting conclusion. A good way to build tension, save money and get a good payoff. Again, modern effects-drive directors could take some notes - don't do effects just to do effects. Maybe that is what the 16 year old audience wants to see (I did enjoy Transformers), but the slow reveal and a payoff later in the movie can be satisfying too - maybe split the difference.

Music

The music alternates between hokey 70's thematic music(not hokey at the time, the way films are scored has changed, in large part due to Williams himself), proper cinematic scoring, emotional notes and epic crescendo at the end/reveal. John Williams famously integrated a portion of "When You Wish Upon a Star" into the main theme. And in the case of this film, music was part of the story, the dialogue between man and visitor and in a way, a character itself - and this 5 note sentence became the main theme - you don't hear that very often.

Sometimes the best music is no music - as the mothership is lumbering over the landing strip, all we hear are the low engine sounds, no overly dramatic music - we know it is dramatic because there is a huge spaceship hovering just above our heads!

My favorite moment in the score is right at the end, as the mothership is gaining altitude, the theme changes key, speeds up slightly and the credits begin - the music tells us we can take a breath and that our story has come to an end. But unlike many films, the credits roll as the end sequence continues, and the music gradually moves into the end credits compilation, rather than an abrupt rousing start to the finish.

Story

The story, told from several points of view, is both an emotional rollercoaster, a mystery and suspenseful, while at the same time playing into the sensibilities and doubts of ordinary people. The government, as is often the case, is depicted as scheming, while at the same time, cooperating with science. Children play a big role, either as integral characters or as a way for adults to express themselves (much like Chief Brody's little boy in Jaws - "Give us a kiss" - "Why?" - "Because I need it.")

There are satisfying moments throughout the story, always building to the finish.

Scope

Spielberg has over the years proven he can do big - Normandy Invasion, Holocaust - the desert scenes, train station mob and of course the end set piece are huge undertakings, that offset the personal family scenes and dialogue/exposition elsewhere in the film.
Money Shots

From the beginning of the final sequence to the end credits, I would consider one big money shot. The final reveal of the mother ship would be the individual shot, and it is the poster, the lunchbox and the t-shirt in this case - but the interaction with the human and alien characters is what makes the epic scope of this sequence believable.

Conclusion

One thing I am learning, and enjoying, as I watch my favorite films in HD, is that I really haven't seen them at all. Note that I rarely wax poetic about any film, new or old, on my posts on this forum. I think I have discovered my one perfect movie.

Tag, you're it.

Mike Cohen


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Tim Wilson
Re: A Near Perfect Movie
on Aug 13, 2010 at 4:46:03 am

Funny that you say "near" perfect. I'm not aware of a major movie that has been shown in more majorly different versions.

1) The first theatrical release in 77.

2) Special Edition was the second theatrical release, in 1980. 7 minutes of new footage, but with cuts, the movie was 3 minutes shorter. Showed the inside of the ship.

3) Speilberg hated the inside of the ship, but had been forced into it as a tradeoff for the other edits and a re-release. (Come see it again! Now it has the inside of the ship!)

Leads to the Collector's Edition, which combined elements of the 77 and 80 cuts to come up with a third, distinct version. The inside of the ship is gone. I remember Steve liking this one best, but I'd have to look that up.

Of course, the 2-DVD set of the Collector's Edition includes the inside of the ship among the deleted scenes.

4) I had a laserdisc version that had a menu option to show the 1980 version OR the 1977 version! Slickest thing EVER. It was a "delta" cut, using a basic branching structure to feed whichever frames you wanted.

5) The 2007 Blu-ray release has ALL THREE of the "canonical" releases.

6)....but there was in fact an entirely different laserdisc version, that included elements of both of the first 2 versions, but was most definitely NOT the same cut as the Collector's Edition.

There were other versions in there somewhere that I'm forgetting, but that's the idea.

BTW, Steven's idea of his own all-time iconic shot when asked in 1990 was of the kid opening the door and being bathed in light. Kinda hard to argue with that.

Anyway, when you say "near perfect," which version did you mean?

:-)


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Mike Cohen
Re: A Near Perfect Movie
on Aug 13, 2010 at 12:34:42 pm

After writing my post I hit wikipedia and got all the info Tim gave us, and realized it is the 1988 version I have seen most often (dvd, cable, vhs)
I am suprised a new version has not come out that changes the guns to walkie talkies :)
The other versions were the tv edits - back in the early 80's, long movies like this one were sometimes shown on two consecutive nights - with commercials this became a 4 hour movie. There were often extra scenes added. I remember when Superman I was on tv around 1980 it included the scenes of Superman being hit with gunfire, freeze and fire before entering Lex's subterrainian lair - those scenes were not on the original theatrical version or early VHS tapes.
But back to Close Encounters - whichever version you like, the original footage, in most cases, is what makes the movie. I agree that the kid opening the door is iconic - a good mcguffin if we never actually saw the ship.
Mike Cohen


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Tim Wilson
Re: A Near Perfect Movie
on Aug 13, 2010 at 3:57:24 pm

I know that I sounded a little "Rain Man" about this -- truly underrated, an American classic -- but this movie really did mean a lot to me too. For a long time, it was the ONLY Speilberg movie I cared about - and I cared a lot.

(I didn't see Jaws at the time, but it has since surpassed CE in my mind, for reasons worth talking about another time.)

I was also amazed by how the evolution of the movie played out a transitional era of studio politics. He didn't get final cut on the original version, and it was rushed out before he thought it was finished. I can't say the studio was entirely wrong, because the original cut blew me away. But he was getting enough power before he turned 30 that the studio kind of HAD to yield.

The second version hit even harder. While I had mixed feelings at best about the inside of the ship, the rest of it was SO much better that it was remarkable. I was floored.

To be honest, I've never once seen the third version, the one that Speilberg feels is definitive! I'm kind of exhausted by the whole concept. I'll give him the second cut as a do-over, but otherwise, I've seen the first two versions so many times that THEY count as real to me. The third and subsequent cuts feel disrespctful. I don't care what Speilberg thinks. It's not his movie anymore. It's MINE. So he can do what he wants, but he has to understand that I'll never care. I like MY movie just fine.

I felt even MORE strongly about Star Wars that way: the first way was the only one that mattered. For people in their 40s and up, this was a sacred experience. It was the first time in movie history that people stood in long lines to see a movie again and again and again. It became a badge. I skipped school to watch it again, when lines were shorter. Twelve times for me, and I was at kind of the low end of the spectrum.

But back then, you wouldn't even consider dating a girl who hadn't seen it at least twice. My wife remembers that it was seventeen times for her...but I don't know that she skipped school for any showings.

Anyway, it's not just that every single one of Lucas's choices were bad - they were without exception DISASTROUS. He would have known that if he had ever watched the movie the first time. That's the problem. I doubt that he ever waited in line through an entire showing before he could get into the showing he had a ticket for, and sat in the dark with 100 or 200 or more people, strangers to whom you were now connected. It was tribal. To this day, I can't imagine Lucas has seen it more times than I did in 1977 and 78 alone. He never waited in line.

I overspoke when I called it sacred though. Back in the 70s, that would be Rocky Horror, but that was sacred by what the Native Americans call the trickster fox. Its congregants knew every word and gesture by heart. I don't remember that being a *goal* for the Star Wars crowd...but we got there by osmosis.

The point of my rant is that, once it's out there, directors lose the right to make more than one change. I respect directors cuts a lot - you haven't seen a single Lord of the Rings movie until you see the long version. Ironically, this is most true for the longest one. I simply couldn't follow the theatrical cut, but I was cool with that.

After that, though? Forget it. I'm sorry that you wish you'd had more time. I'm sorry that the technology wasn't where you wanted it at the time. Tough. You and your hundreds of millions of dollars don't get to buy your way out of that. You simply don't have the right. It's not yours anymore.

It's no wonder that South Park did an episode slaughtering (pretty literally) Speilberg, Lucas and Coppola for messing with movies that had already become part of our consciousness. They have no right to steal that.

Rant off.

Anywayyyyy, I agree that Close Encounters is pretty close to perfect. Twice. :-)

PS. Definitely worth reading Raging Bulls and Easy Riders, an amazing insight into the mavericks breaking away in the late 60s and early 70s, sometimes on their own, sometimes with the support of the studios, who learned the value of taking their hands off the wheel in some cases.

An exception: toward the end of his life, Robert Altman observed that he never got final cut for a single picture. Not once. He thought it was okay because they let him do whatever he wanted during the production that took up two years or more. In the end, they paid the bills, and were going to have to spend about the same amount again to distribute it, so it was only reasonable for them to have the last word....


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Scott Roberts
Re: A Near Perfect Movie
on Aug 13, 2010 at 4:18:41 pm

I am envious of both of your love for those movies. I love Close Encounters, and Jaws, and Star Wars too, but you guys went through magical theatrical experiences, and the desire to see them so many times in theaters is awesome. I don't think there has been too many epic theatrical experiences like that in my life, I mean I rewatch films over and over again on DVD to the point of insanity, but I am jealous of not having those movies like (the original) Star Wars to become a part of my life like it did for you guys, in the way it did.

The closest things I have are seeing Jurassic Park three times in theaters as a kid, seeing each of the Lord of the Rings movies twice in theaters, and seeing The Dark Knight four times in theaters. But none of them feel the same as the magic I hear about when Star Wars came out. This thread was a great read!


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Mike Cohen
Re: A Near Perfect Movie
on Aug 13, 2010 at 6:37:47 pm

I think the Dark Knight of LOTR 1 are on my more recent near perfect movies list.
It is true there may never be another movie with Star Wars impact (I thought it was going to be Avatar, but now I am not sure if people spent all that money because it was a magical movie, or because it was cool to watch - I think it was a little of each), and the long lines/repeat viewings. Before the multiplex, we would go to a downtown theater, line up hours in advance to get tickets for the latest Superman or Star Wars movie. On opening weekend of Return of the Jedi it took us three days before we finally got tickets.

Mike


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Ron Gerber
Re: A Near Perfect Movie
on Aug 13, 2010 at 8:08:56 pm

I think Close Encounters was adult sci-fi where Star Wars was kid sci-fi. While I liked Close Encounters in the theater, it was a bit over my head. Star Wars was simple to understand and unlike anything I had ever seen.

I caught part of Close Encounters on cable not long ago and really enjoyed it. The craftsmanship of it amazed me. It's kind of sad that they don't make 'em like that anymore.

On the Star Wars side, imagine having to drive almost an hour to the next town to see because it wasn't playing in the 1 theater in my town (and then making my parents take me back again and again). I wish my kids could have an expereince like that but I'm afraid it won't happen for them. They did like Star Wars in Concert (which is currently touring and well worth seeing).



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Tim Wilson
Re: A Near Perfect Movie
on Aug 13, 2010 at 9:59:46 pm

I agree that LOTR: FOTR is darn near perfect, but ONLY ONLY ONLY in the extended DVD version. There were quite a few gaps in the theatrical release that had me scratching my head, but they were paid off in spades on the DVD. The extended version also does a much better job setting up the rest of the trilogy.

Slight drag: the "full" movie takes 2 disks. Even more than image quality, being able to fit the longer versions on 1 disk will be the Blu-ray payoff for me.

This is something for another thread, but those extended versions are film school in a box. FOUR commentaries (director/producers/writers, as well as the design team, the post/VFX team, and the actors), and TWO WHOLE DISKS of documentaries will blow your mind. I call them "documentaries" rather than "extras" because they really are quite remarkable movies in their own right. They were obviously very clearly mapped out as they have THEIR OWN sequels with the later movies!

Truth is, as I was listening to the first commentary track, after having watched the documentaries, I turned to my wife and said, "This makes me glad to be alive when these movies are being made." She completely agreed.

In all seriousness, you should consider them part of your education as a filmmaker and a film watcher. And they're fun as all get out. Absolutely peak experiences.


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