Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008

Close Encounters: The Book

By David Luhrssen
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Movie writer Ray Morton’s life changed that night in 1977 when he saw Steven Spielberg’s first science-fiction feature. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Classic Film (published by Applause Books), Morton explains that the technically ambitious movie awakened him to cinema’s artistic potential. It was a powerful experience for a teenager. For many adults, CE3K’s optimistic perspective on the state of the cosmos came as a tonic after decades of upheaval and unease, presidents assassinated and shamed, wars without victory and problems without end.

Along with Star Wars, released only months earlier, CE3K inaugurated a cycle of special effects driven pictures conceived as thought or wonder-provoking entertainment.

Morton’s book could have benefited from some editorial reorganization. The lengthy plot synopsis of Spielberg’s film that precedes Chapter One should have been relegated to the appendix—assuming it was needed at all. Likewise at other spots, the author appears intent to fulfill a contractual word count. Problems aside, Morton’s readable prose encompasses many interesting tangents, including the long history of UFOs and their upsurge following World War II, Spielberg’s life and career, and the creatively fertile milieu of 1970s Hollywood.

Morton’s account of CE3K’s long gestation and its multiple phases of development is fascinating. At one time screenwriter and film scholar Paul Schrader wrote a darker, more profound script than Spielberg was willing to direct. And in an inspired and unlikely casting decision, Spielberg convinced French filmmaker Francois Truffaut to star as a UFO investigator. Although Truffaut didn’t share Spielberg’s interest in extraterrestrials, he had admired the craft of the young American’s previous movies and was intrigued to work in a Hollywood production whose catering budget exceeded the total cost of any one of Truffaut’s films.

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