Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Turning Point, September 30, 1955
• It would be pleasant to be able to see another tightly-knit suspenseful SF film like The Andromeda Strain. In 1977-78 we have two high-budget SF films, each with its own faults.
The trouble with Star Wars was not lack of action (far from it) but meaningless action. There is no battle of wits between the film and the viewer, since no one can know what the probabilities are: there's no telling what kind of newfangled weapon is going to be pulled out unexpectedly and by whom—as far as the audience is concerned, it's a matter of sheer chance. As in Homer's Iliad, there are gods on each side with supernatural powers, and when a god on side A zaps a warrior on side B against whom he has a grudge, a god on side B zaps a warrior on side A with an even more powerful invisible spear, and the war goes on. The invisible spears divinely flung by Homer's gods aren't that different from the incomprehensible weapons in a space holocaust. Nor are the emotions registered with any subtlety—but, then, how is a person supposed to react when not only everyone he's ever known but his whole planet is destroyed at the push of a button?
In this respect CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND is much more "realistic," and, if one accepts the reality of UFOs, more down-to-earth; we are in the real world here, and the action is quite credible. There isn't all that much action, but there is a degree of developing tension and mounting climax.
A number of different elements are (not always too clearly) interlaced. Officially, it is a story about flying saucers and the visitation to Planet Earth of denizens of a distant world. Secondly, there is a strong element of mysticism—or at any rate ESP—presumably this is invoked to explain how different people in different parts of the world would have a vision of the same rock, and gravitate toward it at the same time. Thirdly, there is quite a bit about us Army shenanigans in keeping the public away from its own UFO operations in Wyoming, while continuing publicly to deny the existence of such objects.
There are quite a few things that aren't made very clear: brief incidents that remain unconnected with the main action, avenues entered but not developed, hints that are dropped without explanation—rather like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces never quite fit together.
At any rate, we do glean from the film that:
1. The fine French film director Francois Truffaut is also a pretty good actor.
2. Science fiction is not incompatible with a certain cornball sense of humor.
3. The army likes its privacy. It also resents interference with its plans.
4. Little boys that get picked up on space ships invariably come back.
5. For those who were lost in the Bermuda Triangle through the years, fear not, they will yet return.
6. When them space ships come flyin' through Indiana they shore do churn up a mighty big wind.
• THE TURNING POINT has been described as "glorified soap opera." Perhaps it is, though it isn't clear how glorified it can be and still be soap opera. It is true that neither the film nor the characters in it are remarkable for their depth—there is a layer of sensitivity and subtlety that is missing here that was present in Julia. There is more overt action and constant motion here, and much less done through suggestion. But then, Julia is first and foremost a character study, and The Turning Point is primarily a film about ballet. Anyway, it has a number of features to recommend it:
1. The ballet scenes, of which there are many, are superb. The dancing of Baryshnikov by itself is worth the price of admission. The many scenes of ballet practice are equally good, and more revealing of the self-discipline required to master this difficult art.
2. The picture of the life of ballet dancers, especially backstage, is not only instructive but involving. One is introduced to a world of a major art-form, and the picture it presents, neither a put-down nor a whitewash, rings quite true.
3. The plot develops, if not "with necessity," at least with plausibility. (The "improbability" of a ballet star settling down in Oklahoma has been commented on. Was it improbable? Not at all, in view of what threatened her at the time.)
4. The characters, at least to the depth to which the film takes them, are also plausible. And the long love scene between two of them, to the accompaniment of ballet music by Tschaikovsky, is one of the most sensuous and spirited in films.
5. The characterizations by the actors and actresses are also excellent. Best of all is Anne Bancroft, who lends distinction even to mediocre lines.
6. There are quite a few good lines too, with something to say about life's hopes and dreams. From the opening scene, when Bancroft says (in the presence of Shirley MacLaine and her children), "They have no idea how fast one's life goes by," the quiet intensity of her utterance makes it moving, and almost profound. There are many examples of this throughout the film, enough to give it a sharp cutting edge in comparison with most other films.
7. Most important of all, the film is in its own way a celebration of life, and after seeing it one is more than ever glad to be alive.
• On September 30, 1955, the promising young actor James Dean died in a motorcycle accident. Arising to stardom virtually from nowhere, he completed three films before he died at the age of 24. Even before his death he had unintentionally created a legend—of the rebellious misunderstood, anti-establishment youth; and as such he became an idol to millions of young people who identified with him.
His ability as an actor was tremendous, and the opening scene of the new film SEPTEMBER 30, 1955, is the concluding scene (the father's death) from Dean's first film East of Eden.
That scene is the only part of the new film that is worth remembering. Aside from one moving bedside speech by star Richard Thomas, who plays the part of a high school student in Arkansas in 1955 who shared the legend of James Dean, this film is totally unremarkable. Whereas East of Eden was filled with high drama and the searing intensity of human relations, September 30, 1955 is uninvolving and rather silly. Its plot creaks along with one fatuous improbability after another, and what might have been an effective story about the effect of Dean's life on a generation of young Americans ends up being worthy of no one and nothing except the trash heap.
If, however, it should lead anyone to see East of Eden, for the first time or the seventh, then and only then would the seeing of this banal film have been worth the trouble and cost of producing it.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".