There is no bigger question for kids as they watch a film, particularly one that exposes them to an adult world they have no personal experience of so far. And once they start asking “Why?”, it opens up a potential snowstorm of follow-ups. One of the most important things in any screening I have for the kids is the conversations that show me what they’ve taken from what they’ve just watched.
My oldest son, Toshiro, just recently turned seven. I know that when I think back to childhood, everything before seven is fuzzy, select images or impressions, but starting at the age of seven, I have a distinct recollection of things. I can tell you details about things that happened to me that year, places where I saw certain films, events that happened to me or to my friends. It feels in hindsight like seven was the age where everything clicked and turned on and I became a “real” person.
And in the summer of 1977, I was all about “Star Wars.”
There were two films that were earning repeat business from my family that summer. “Star Wars” became a habit for me, and every time I heard that anyone we knew was considering a trip to the theater to see the film, I would invite myself along. For my parents, “Smokey and the Bandit” was the film that demanded more than one viewing. Remember, this was in the age before home video, when your only option was seeing something enough times to memorize it. Those two films were a major part of the background noise of that year for me. There were other films, other milestones, other family events, but from May to September, both of those movies were still in theaters, still drawing audiences, still drawing return visits from us, still a major part of my pop culture experience.
I couldn’t even imagine a film that would do the same thing to me that “Star Wars” did, but I started getting voracious about new movies. I started actively reading the newspaper and the magazines we had in the house, becoming aware of things that were in release or coming soon. While I had not seen “Jaws” yet, I was aware of it because my best friend next door had older brothers, and they swore by the film. Because of them, I was vaguely aware of Steven Spielberg’s name.
Then I saw the cover for the paperback adaptation of “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” on the newsstand one day, and that passing interest immediately intensified into pointed curiosity. The thing that jumped out at me about it is that, like George Lucas, it appeared that Steven Spielberg had written his own tie-in novel, something I found really fascinating. It felt like reading someone’s feelings about the movie. I had no idea Alan Dean Foster ghost-wrote both of those books at the time. I just believed what the covers said completely.
I bought the book and read it, and by the time the film opened, I was rabid to see it. It felt like the next thing perfectly tailored for me, and the experience did not disappoint. I saw it at a drive-in the first time, and that was magical, seeing the film with a big bright starfield as a backdrop. I kept thinking the edges of the screen would simply fade away and the various ships would come racing out at us. I saw it again two more times while it was in theaters, and it felt like one of those movies I was almost too young for, something I had to work to decode. It was a totally different flavor of film than “Star Wars,” and it helped expand my palette.
The Blu-ray edition of the film has the same cover as that paperback book did in the fall of 1977, and Toshi’s spent at least six months slowly but surely working his way up to asking me to play it for him. I can tell when he’s interested because he starts just by asking the most important question: “Is this for kids?”
Once he determines that it is indeed a film that is appropriate for him, the next step of his campaign begins, and he starts to ask for story details. He’ll ask me a million questions. I must frustrate him enormously because I don’t always answer those questions. I tell him that most of his questions will be answered by the movie, and that he doesn’t want to know everything before he sees it. Admittedly, I read the novelization before I saw the film, but I was a voracious reader in a way that really hasn’t kicked in for Toshi yet. He likes to read with me, and he likes me to read things to him, but reading for pleasure is not yet on his list of ways to spend an afternoon.
With “Close Encounters,” though, I went out of my way to tell him nothing besides explaining what the three kinds of close encounters are. Once he and his younger brother Allen realized that this was a movie about aliens, they were impossible to manage. They pestered me for five straight days while we tried to find the right time to sit down and watch the entire thing, start to finish, without interruption. That’s harder to do than it sounds, but on a late Sunday afternoon, we finally managed to finish everything that needed to be done, shut out the rest of the world, and settle in for what remains one of my favorite Spielberg movies.
The big difference between Toshi and Allen and myself when I first saw it is that they are well aware of who Spielberg is. They haven’t seen the movies yet, but they know Indiana Jones by sight. They both adore “The Adventures Of Tintin” and “E.T.” And, of course, we did an earlier Film Nerd 2.0 screening of “Jurassic Park,” which has proven to be one of the biggest series of films for my kids so far. So sitting down to this film, they already had a different relationship with him as a filmmaker than I did as a seven-year-old. They were primed for something special.
It worked, too. Toshi is just now starting to come around to the particular pleasures of getting scared silly by a movie, while Allen’s been primed for that since day one. “Close Encounters” is a very scary movie for kids, at least for the first 2/3 of it, and watching it with the boys, I was struck by the specific things that scared them. There’s that great early scene where Cary Guffey wakes up in the middle of the night and he’s walking around his house as everything turns on around him. The most magical shot in the entire sequence features Duffy standing in the doorway of his kitchen, everything scattered, smashed, and spilled, and as he watches something off-camera, he reacts with delight and fear and wonder. It’s one of those moments where you realize Steven Spielberg has an acute sense of how to direct young actors and capture something special with that. I remember in the theater when I was a kid watching that sequence and wondering intensely about what it was that Guffey was looking at, and I created the most elaborate images in my imagination. Even as I watched the film the first time, I began to fill in the stories about what these things were, about what they might want, and about why they were in the house or the sky or at Devil’s Tower.
Watching Roy Neary descend into madness over the course of the film is a harrowing experience for his family. It’s an equally harrowing experience for young audiences because Roy is so clearly established as a decent father at the beginning of the film. Spielberg paints a frantic, noisy picture of family life, but Roy is a funny, engaged dad in those early moments. As my boys watched the movie, I noticed that they slowly but surely moved towards me over the course of the film, something that happens when a film particularly disturbs or provokes or scares them.
They like to start each movie in their special places in the office. They each have a chair, they each have a way they like to sit, and there’s a sense at this point that there’s a bit of a ritual about how we start each movie. When a film really works on them, they start to move towards me because they want some sort of reassurance that these terrifying, amazing, unusual, extravagant things happening onscreen are only on the screen and that they are safe while they watch. I love that they can be so wrapped up in what’s happening onscreen that they feel personally involved. Of course I want to let my kids thrill in these vicarious thrills, and I’m very aware of watching that line as we watch movies, making sure that the thrills they are having are fun and not traumatic.
When I saw “Close Encounters” for the first time, it was an exciting experience and that I primarily walked away with the thrill of that third act reveal. As much as I like to think of myself as a sophisticated viewer at age seven, I think I was more of a reader at that point. Toshi is very sharp about reading a film already, and he’s really starting to take movies apart at this point, and I think he is perhaps a more sophisticated film viewer then I was at his age. I even think Alan is starting to develop a relationship with movies that I didn’t have at his age. I think the availability of them and the way we engage with them so far has started the kids thinking about a film as something more than just background noise to keep them busy during the afternoon.
As Roy Neary drove his family away, the boys got quiet. The early scenes with the spaceships were exhilarating, and we had spirited conversations about the nature of the lights and the ships and their behavior. But the stuff with Roy in his house gradually destroying it as he builds these elaborate models of whatever it is that’s driving him nuts, that actually seemed to bother the boys. The big blowout between Roy and his wife, played so so well by Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in her prime ’70s frazzled sexy suburban housewife years, is staged with a startlingly realistic eye by Spielberg. When they’re gone, they’re gone. She takes the kids, she takes off, and Roy moves on with his life, as crazy and as strange as it is. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important when he finally finds Melinda Dillon at the train station in the middle of all of that chaos. It proves to him that somebody else is going through this, that someone else can understand what it is, and it makes him feel a little less crazy and alone and afraid. Roy doesn’t choose to leave his family. Roy doesn’t choose to have the dreams about Devil’s Tower. The movie is a tragedy for Roy for most of its running time.
It’s only in the very end of the film that Roy finds what it is that he needs to complete himself. When he gets on the ship at the end of the film, it is a triumph for him. We want Roy to get on that ship. We want him to get the answers to the questions that he has. He was chosen for something, it seems, so why shouldn’t he go on that ship? When I saw the film the first time, I was glad he left. I was happy for him.
But watching the film with my boys, they both turned on Roy in that final moment. They were both upset by his decision. They both had the same question for me when it was over.
“Would you leave us?”
There is probably no scarier question for both parent and child. I didn’t hesitate when telling the boys that I would never leave them, but I know there’s no guarantee that my wife and I will always be together. We just celebrated our 10 year anniversary, and those are ten hard-won years. I hope my boys grow up in a loving united house. I think every parent hopes that. You want to give them something to model their lives after. You want to do well so they see what it looks like. I married my wife precisely because I want to grow old with her. I hope we see our children happy and healthy as adults, and I hope we see grandchildren who are every bit as beautiful as these kids we share. My boys know that several times per year I leave for extended visits to film festivals, film sets, or press events. Separation is part of our routine. In some ways, it seems to be the trade-off for getting to work at home most of the time. I get to be around my children for breakfast, lunch, and bedtime, more often than many fathers who work out of the house. I know I’m fortunate. I try not to complain about the travel I do for work. I love the festivals I go to, and I love the way they shape my year. I love being able to go to Cannes. I love knowing several trips to Austin are on my permanent annual schedule. Those are things that are important to me. So I work overtime to make sure my kids understand that I always plan to come back from those events. Those are temporary pleasures. I make sure to reassure the boys each time that they are my greatest pleasure.
Roy Neary, though, gets on that spaceship. He never looks back. He can’t wait to leave this planet behind, and he knows whatever is next, it will be better. Seeing Roy so happy to be leaving the planet upset my kids. There’s no other way to put it. The ending upset them and we spent a long time talking after the film. It was clear that it wasn’t the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence that most excited them about the movie, or that marked them most deeply. Toshi needed to understand why Roy had the dream he had, and what had set off Roy in his madness. The more we talked, the more it became clear that the thing Toshi feared in the movie was the loss of one’s mind. The concept of “crazy” is just starting to really get hold of him, and it has become his primary fear. He talks about Mr. Hyde as something that scares him, and he told me that it was because “you could have Mr. Hyde in you and not know it.” Even with Roy’s joy at the end of the film, so much of it seemed so dark to Toshi that he wasn’t able to enjoy the ending. As the closing credits began to play, Toshi turned to me, scowling, and said, “Daddy, I hope they made another one called ‘Close Encounters: What Happened To That Guy?’, because that is a really bad ending for the movie.”
It’s the first Spielberg movie that they have not asked to see again, and while they both told me since the screening that they liked the movie, I think it is one of the first times they were left genuinely off-balance at the end of a film. Up till now, movies have happy endings. That’s the way movies work. That’s what they were being taught. And now, thanks to the way they read this particular film, that’s not true any more.
Now they know that sometimes, things don’t end happy. Sometimes, dads leave.
Just knowing that I introduced that fear into their world, just knowing that they’ve got a crack in the trust that is innate among children for the first few years of life, just knowing that this thing I shared with them hurt them in some way made this the single hardest Film Nerd 2.0 that I’ve written so far. I don’t think I made a misstep. I shared it with them in the same way I’ve shared everything with them, and I feel like we’ve had good discussions about it that were productive. Even so, the film touched them in a way that rewired them permanently, and I realized that part of the process of letting our kids experience culture is that we have to let them have experiences that they find unpleasant or that they struggle with or that they are upset by, and maybe the real value of a relationship like the boys and I have is that I know that they’re going to look to me to help them process things, and they’re going to actively think about the questions raised by the film. Even if some small piece of their innocence was chipped away here by this anti-“Mary Poppins” in science-fiction form, at least we were able to talk about it afterwards so that they weren’t just struggling with it on their own.
Next time out, I think it’s time we have some fun. In fact, the next few Film Nerd 2.0 columns are going to be about some pure popcorn, and those should be coming sooner rather than later. This one particular column took a while to write, but we’ve been screening in the meantime, and we’ve got a bit of catching up to do including the appearance of our very first Film Nerd 2.0 guest professor.
“Film Nerd 2.0” remains, in every sense of the word, an irregular column: