This week, Hit Me With Your Best Shot is getting the jumbo treatment with each of the Best Cinematography nominees of 1977 receiving a daily installment. First up is the Spielberg classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Recently with the start of Netflix’s Stranger Things and the misfire of The BFG (I’ve yet to partake either) have reignited talk about Spielberg’s aesthetic its weaker would-be descendants. Encounters remains the perfect prototype for the true Spielberg formula: primal fear, emotional resonance, and a sense of earned awe. Thematically, it’s also possibly his best in dealing with social outsiderism and daddy issues.
Of the nominees included in this week’s installment(s), it’s almost unfair to start with the best. How can you really write about the gorgeous lighting and composition by Vilmos Zsigmond when his frames more than speak for themselves and keep talking. From the 70s-80s, you simply know a Zsigmond movie when you look at it. There’s a certain thematic texture to the image, a mirroring of the film’s emotion in the color pallete, the pure warmth, that makes his work among the greatest. Much of what makes his work here distinct in his career is the ability to make the terrifying still entrancing.
With Encounters, the depth of field is confrontational and expansive, the walls closing in on Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary as something monumental is happening in the world. The catharsis of the finale comes from his constantly building intimacy and scope – a reminder that like Roy we were search for greater meaning in the universe, it’s really all about ourselves.
Roy is the quintessential Spielberg absentee/flawed father, one of his most inexcusable but also the one that he treats most compassionately. The emotional arc of the film can piss some off for excusing Roy’s disregard for his family, but what it is ultimately reaching for is forgiveness. When Roy finally boards the spaceship for a more fantastic journey, the sweeping score and grandeur of the frame projects as much personal triumph as it does entertaining cinema. The absentee father’s journey was all worth it in the end – or maybe the film is just a projection of childhood coping mechanisms, the hope that wherever the missing parent is they are doing something bigger than themselves.
My selection for Best Shot is perhaps unexpected for a film filled with vast landscapes and spaceships…
Encounters is one of Spielberg’s most complicated emotional films for all of those daddy issues mentioned, and this shot both implicates Roy and works overtime to forgive him as his detachment is happening. The silent sobbing of his son is as unforgettable as any of the film’s more rousing moments.
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