Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Ronnie

I recently went to a screening of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Before the start of the film, Harvard professor Avi Loeb delivered a charming speech to the audience on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

I am not a child of the 70’s. But this wasn’t my first time seeing Close Encounters on the big screen. And try as I might, I was left with the same ambivalence I had after my first viewing. This isn’t due to any lack of creativity, craft, or imagination on Spielberg’s part. It could even be argued that ambivalence is integral to this project. As with many other early Spielberg movies, no detail is unimportant to the story. And those details are what I’d like to make an accounting of today.

Much like the sunburnt face of Roy Neary, the film’s protagonist (Richard Dreyfuss), Close Encounters is divided into two parts. In the first act, we watch as this family man experiences his first encounter with intergalactic visitors. This sets off a voracious pursuit for more and more encounters of the third kind. In act two, the film blossoms into a true Hollywood blockbuster. Roy attempts to evade government forces in the hills of Wyoming so to achieve his ultimate goal: joining the extra terrestrials in their spaceship. When people talk about Close Encounters, I get the sense that they are mostly talking about the second half. The film’s Wikipedia page glosses over large sections of the first act, zeroing in on the sequences directly involving Roy and the government’s search for alien life. This isn’t much of a surprise. After all, Richard Dreyfuss coming face to face with his prized aliens is a banner moment in sci-fi history. But I’d like to rewind a bit and examine more closely the first act, where I believe we find some of the film’s more horrific elements.

From the start, Roy Neary is a middle class patriarch in the typical American sense. An electrician with three kids, he has somewhat of a bored and tired disposition. This is best illustrated by our first sighting of Roy, who unemotionally watches a toy train crash before putting his three children to bed. I won’t overstretch this image. It would be unfair to compare Dreyfuss’ character to, say, that of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty — a domesticated, middle-age man on the verge of upending every aspect of his life. But there are some similarities.

Roy’s run-ins with extra terrestrials are about the least menacing of his encounters. His dealings with bosses, neighbors, and the government bring him far more headaches. That is because the intergalactic visitors have everything to do with our protagonist. They have come specifically for him. Those other stakeholders have countless of other concerns, holdups, and relationships. Their focus is decidedly not on Roy Neary. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere on nights when the townspeople seek out their UFOs. People bring their kids and picnic blankets in a scene reminiscent of a fireworks show. The US government is consistently more aggressive and antagonistic than any extra terrestrial. Each attempt to understand the aliens is through a non-threatening medium: a child’s xylophone, clay, charcoal sketches, hand signals. One might be tempted to ask — what is so scary about this movie?

To me, what is menacing is the world of Roy’s wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr). Seldom is there a moment when Ronnie isn’t completely exasperated. Their home is crowded and dreary. Most of Ronnie’s lines must compete with the noise and clatter their children create around her. She is seen arms full of toys, running around picking up after them. All of this is before her husband begins shoveling soil and garbage through the kitchen window.

The movie’s Wikipedia page reads as follows: “Roy becomes increasingly erratic and causes Ronnie to abandon him, taking their three children with her”. Though concise, I don’t think this captures what really goes down between Ronnie and Roy. At the start of the film, Ronnie is mother to three children. By midway through, she has acquired a fourth: her husband. The audience is brought along to witness Roy and his increasingly worrisome, infantile behavior that begins with the loss of his job. He starts experimenting with clay sculptures and waking up to Saturday morning cartoons. Everyone remembers the scene when Roy sculpts the Devils Tower butte out of mashed potatoes at the dinner table. It is no accident that this was shot with their son Brad as the focal point, looking on in disappointment and fear as his father’s mental state continues to deteriorate. By the end of the first act Brad has arguably eclipsed Roy as the man of the house.

From Roy’s perspective, his wife is unreasonable. He doesn’t understand why she resists talking to the kids about the UFOs. It feels like a chore for Ronnie to attend a town meeting to discuss these sightings, something Roy has likely been looking forward to. Our hero feels this about Ronnie. But it remains unclear whether or not the audience ought to feel the same. I suspect that, in the worst case, we aren’t meant to like Ronnie. At best, we are meant to forget her like Roy does in the end. Decades later, everyone remembers rooting for Roy once he gets to Wyoming.

This marital quagmire concludes one morning with Roy scrambling outside in his bathrobe. The neighbors look on as he shovels plants, dirt, and garbage through the kitchen window in an attempt to again recreate Devils Tower. All the while Ronnie is begging him to stop. Both times I’ve seen this, the audience laughed at such ridiculous behavior. But I cannot decide whether spectators should applaud or shudder. This sequence is one of absolute dread for Ronnie and the kids. Roy’s dirt-shoveling gesture is the final straw, and she packs up the kids to leave. Roy pleads with her “Will you just listen?” Hours later, we hear him on the phone apologizing and explaining, declaring emphatically “I am an adult. It was just a joke.” The dirt-shoveling scene is the last we see of Ronnie and the children before Roy begins his true and final quest at Devils Tower.

I find the phrasing in the Wikipedia summary revealing. Despite Roy losing his job, destroying the house (among other erratic behaviors), and becoming completely unrecognizable, in the eyes of the internet Ronnie is still the abandoner. Although I’ve said it a few times already, again I struggle to understand if Close Encounters is supposed to be a triumphant tale. My sense is that, whatever Spielberg’s intentions, the traces of horror brought to life in the Roy/Ronnie dynamic are now considered auxiliary to the central plot. But when I think to myself about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I barely even remember any spaceships. I mostly remember Ronnie and the children’s depleted faces as Roy, bedraggled and eyes bulging, gradually disappeared from their lives.

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