What are your favorite films from childhood? Some of them stay with us, mark us somehow. The boat scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scared the hell out me, but left a picture of surrealism I didn’t have before.
I have many of these, but for me, there is one that stands alone, the chocolate to my vanilla, Star Trek to my Star Wars, Beatles to every other band ever.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Like so many things in my orbit, it has a deeper backstory than just “I like it.” Considering that I have bonded with a tiny spring I found on the carpet, this is not really a huge surprise.
When I was a kid, I was a very tall, very odd, spectacle-wearing, sci-fi loving, bookish, and awkward nerd. My love of the fantastic, the bizarre, my gallows humor, poetry, and music have been with me so long that I don’t know what came first, the odd wiring in my head or the odd wiring in my head as a response to bullshit.
Music especially was in my veins. Both my dad and my sister were/are musical, and it was a constant in my life. Sports, military, guns decidedly were not. But all I saw in movies and TV were that strong, powerful, square-jawed men would destroy all the alien threats. This is one reason I love The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu is issuing a warning, and the world comes together to listen after a nonviolent demonstration of power, and a sweet ass robot.
But I digress.
The ideas that I was saturated with were that music and art and literature and especially poetry were for people who don’t fight, but the world is safe from tyrants and giant ants because of manly men. Men with guns. Men who fart and don’t apologize.
So in 1977, I was nine years old, and my friend’s parents took us to the movies to see this new film, Close Encounters. Immediately I was hooked. My eyes were wide, my mouth slack-jawed, my head jutted forward for most of the film, according to my friend’s mother.
The domestic scenes with Roy and his suburban-hell-scape-dwelling family pulled me out a little. I “knew” all of those people and it was uncomfortable. It’s also best to not think about the fact that Roy straight up abandoned his family, the equivalent of “I’m going to buy cigarettes…” without the ending “…in a spaceship.”
And Roy’s obsession, the creeping, crippling insanity, using art to make sense of it all, and his ultimate vindication was like a soft creature hugging me from behind, whispering “it’s ok, you’re just as you need to be” into my ear.
Imprinting can be as simple as an overheard response as well. My friend’s parents were hippies, and when Roy and Jillian were driving towards Devil’s Tower and they saw all the animals on the side of the road, my friend asked “Did the military do that?” her mother’s answer was a scoff and an “Of course they did. Bastards.” A fertile seed was planted in my anti-authority soil.
Much of the film was smart people doing smart things. The mapmaker recognized what the signal was, the air traffic controllers coolly handling an unknown potential threat, the French man leading the team having doubts about what the military was doing, these were the heroes.
Oh, by the way, 42-YEAR-OLD SPOILERS!
All of this built to the scene that defines the movie for me, the final scene when the aliens arrive. This is the part that grabbed my heart and my mind and every single thing I was and am.
From the second the nerdy looking keyboardist climbed up on the platform, put on the headphones, and started to play the five tones, I was gone. Those five tones, that salutation to this alien presence, the responses from the mothership, that is enough to inspire wonder and awe from anyone with a pulse.
But it was far more for me. All the soldiers, all the guns, and the only thing that mattered at all was the nerdy keyboardist and the five tones.
Music was the tool. It brought them here. And with it, we spoke to them. Up a major third, down an octave, my language. My kind made this. My kind is important.
My kind speaks to aliens.
When the ship opened and returned all the people, some of whom generations of their families had lived and died wondering where they went (I don’t think too much about that either,) and they chose Roy to go with them, I don’t believe I was ever so jealous. I wanted to go away with aliens who spoke music. I sang the five tones to myself, sat on my bed doing the gestures, waiting to be taken away. In a sense I was I suppose, for a little while.
That film, that science fiction film with some troublesome plot points, was etched into me and has never left.
My husband and I finally made it to Devil’s Tower a few years ago.
As we drove towards it, it grew larger and larger, just like in the film.
My heart raced, my mind absorbed every inch of it, every scrape down the sides. The mountain is sacred to several tribes, so we tread lightly.
We arrived, got out of the car, and there it was right before me. Near the end of the film, Claude Lacombe asks Roy “What do you want?” his reply is “I just want to know that it’s really happening.” I felt like that, just for a moment, I felt exactly like that.
I was nine again.
Recently we got to see it with the music performed by the San Francisco Symphony.
Before it started, there was a short bit with Jeffery Anderson, Principal Tubist, outside Davies Symphony Hall, playing the tones on his tuba, the hall responding as the mother ship.
Those five tones always shake me to my core and fill my heart. I lose a breath, close my eyes, cry.
This film came to me at exactly the right time. It became a comfort and a joy. I’m 51 years old now, and my heart still beams when I watch it.
I’d love you to leave a comment about what fills you like this, whatever it is. But if you don’t have something, I encourage you to find it.
It’s not too late to feel childlike wonder. Not ever.