This weekend we celebrate Fathers Day, and we’ve decided to talk about one mother of a father, in the only way this column knows how.
To properly set up this piece we must first travel back, all the way back, to 1978, to a high school locker room after gym class. The guys are toweling off, putting on their clothes, splashing themselves with toxic amounts of Hai Karate cologne and discussing what happened to all their fathers.
Chucky was the first to pipe in. “Aw yeah, my dad left my mom for the secretary with huge knockers and took off for Aruba. How about you, Jake?”
“At least your story is respectable,” Jake replied. “My dad got busted at a disco snorting cocaine off of some dude’s chest.” All eyes train upon the other seemingly fatherless kid in the class. “What happened to your dad, Neary?”
“He hitched a ride with aliens and jumped on their spaceship,” young Brad Neary replied, after which the other youths, believing Neary was mocking them, grabbed him and proceeded to dunk his head in the toilet.
Come on, you know it. I know it. By now everybody knows it. Steven Spielberg’s 1977 entry Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the most revered, beloved, special-effects-laden films about a deadbeat dad ever made. Back on it’s initial release in the ’70s, few paid much attention to that aspect, that the spaceman-spellbound Roy Neary went nuts, took a manic drive to nowhere, jumped on board a spaceship and left three kids and a wife behind.
At the start of the film, it is made clear that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) was something of a dreamer, with his Disneyland asperations and his model train set. He probably never saw for himself the mundane power company job he got stuck with, or that irritating wife (played in the movie by Teri Garr) who actively wonders why Roy won’t shake them sheets like he used to. The viewer adds in subtext where it probably ought not be, how Ronnie was probably his “first” and before you could say, “Oops, I guess the rhythm method really is a load of BS,” he was up to his nuts in domestic concerns.
The thing I find delightful about Close Encounters is that the kids are lovably unlikeable in the film. They tend to whine and fight a lot, they talk over each other and repeat themselves just to make sure you heard them.
I said, they repeat themselves just to make sure you heard them.
In the supplemental materials for the DVD set, and later Blu-ray set, Dreyfuss admits a bit of his own confusion creeping onto the set as he had lobbied for his nephew Justin to play son Toby in the movie. After a while, who was who and what their relationships really were started getting jumbled, causing Dreyfuss a severe bit of existential angst. The point is that somehow, in spite of the multitude of shiny-eyed Disney kids, and TV ready tadpoles of that time, this brood seemed real, and really obnoxious, and I love the movie even more for it.
And yes, I do love Close Encounters even though it is ultimately about a guy who up and abandons his kids. There has been much controversy about the circumstances surrounding that bit in the script, as least in the aspect that screenwriter Paul Schrader has often claimed he wrote a large portion of it and never got credit. That makes him one of a pretty tall list of contributors to the text which also includes Jerry Belson, David Giler, and Dragonslayer team Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins.
There is one thread that, even with such a stew of cinematic spermatozoa involved, belongs strictly to Spielberg. When paired up against other movies like (more recently) the dysfunctional relationships between Henry Sr., Indiana Jones and his son Mutt, and his own life story, there was little chance Close Encounters would have happened any other way. Look to E.T. The Extraterrestrial for more clues, as Elliot’s dad did in fact ditch mom for the “secretary with the big knockers.” In a sense, Spielberg has been working out his complicated relationship with his own dad all these years, built into the subtext of the movies he has made.
I can’t watch Close Encounters the same way like I used to, back when the neon ice cream cones were zooming around the roads and the demon lights were tearing the hell up out of kitchens all to abduct a little kid. The thrills remain but are temporary. Once Roy Neary has jumped on board to be with his new family, totally tossing aside his old one, he no longer seems like a heroic dreamer anymore. He seems like a selfish S.O.B. that went off to “find himself” at the expense of those he left behind.
For the life of me, while the movie says an awful lot of things, I think this is precisely what Spielberg actually meant at the time.