Vol 7, Num 3 :: 2008.02.08 — 2008.02.22
FILM: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
This 1977 film is probably one of Steven Spielberg’s best. Many of the themes that characterize most Spielberg films are already evident. The UFOs of this sci-fi classic evoke wonder and awe rather than fear. Like ET, which was made after this film, the government forces are more frightening, more foreign and more a threat than the aliens. But Close Encounters is more than just a film about aliens. It is an account of a kind of theophany, a visiting of the divine to an unsuspecting humanity. The vision that haunts the film’s main character, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), is of a mountain that looks every bit like Mt. Sinai where the new nation of Israel came close to God and received God’s commandments. The end is quite shocking, in a way, especially if you think you’re watching a family film. Spielberg has always touched on issues of family separation, but after watching this movie you might be tempted to see his subsequent films as a way of making up for the way he ended Close Encounters. Unfortunately, I can’t say more without ruining the movie. If you haven’t seen it, you are missing one of the greatest American films ever made.
FILM: The Big Lebowski
Unlike many people who have seen this film about a California drifter and his bowling buddies, I liked the movie the first time I saw it. And the second and third and fourth, etc. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen this film. I was surprised it wasn’t given more attention when it first came out, but as the film’s life continued beyond theatres, it developed a cult following and may ultimately get its due as one of the great films of our time. Not only is it funny (to me) all the way through, but it’s one of the best film commentaries on American culture that I’ve seen. The Coen Brothers borrow many cowboy western themes and clichés to ground this film in the American psychological landscape. The Dude, a middle-aged pot-smoking hippie living in California in the early 90s, gets mixed up with a right-wing conservative millionaire when his rug is taken. When the Dude decides to take action to get his rug back, he finds himself blown like a tumbling tumbleweed from one limo to another, from one “white russian” (it’s a drink) to the next. He doesn’t really know what he’s caught up in but we begin to realize that it has something to do with American politics and history. The Dude, who always abides, is the hero of this story told by an old cowboy (Sam Elliott) who finds comfort in The Dude’s lack of ambition. Along the way, we see the stereotypes of corporate conservatism and artsy-fartsy liberalism fighting it out over a kidnap-ransom scheme reminiscent of the Patty Hearst debacle. The Dude is just a pawn in their game. He just wants his rug back (“it held the room together”). The Dude’s two friends have a code of ethics all their own. We see the Vietnam Vet (John Goodman) and the common working stiff (Steve Buscemi) discussing the right and wrong of each aspect of the situation they find themselves in at the bowling alley until ultimately they are compelled to take action. Things don’t exactly work out the way they plan, but The Dude comes out on top as the hero in a world of selfish ambition. When The Dude quotes (or misquotes) George Bush Sr.’s threat to Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War by saying, “This will not stand, you know? This aggression will not stand, man,” it rings a kind of eloquence that goes beyond mere comedic effect. I encourage you to take another look at The Big Lebowski.