What a difference eight years can make

I saw two old films on TV this week: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), both of them for probably the first time since they came out. It’s salutary to think that the old films I used to watch as a child, from the 40s and 50s, were only half as old then as these are now. Each film was nominated for a string of Oscars and took home an award or three, albeit for very different things. In their own ways, they’re both about aspiration, but what struck me most was the abyss that had opened up in the few years between them in terms of what people asked from cinema. Midnight Cowboy is visually inventive, thoughtful, nuanced. Its take on solitude is unsentimental, even cruel; nothing could be more absurd than Joe Buck’s belief in himself or Ratso’s faith in the healing powers of Florida. The film has the harsh clarity of vision you find in Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul, another great film about isolation and what people do in their efforts to cheat it. It’s a film about growth and (dis)illusion. The party sequence is mildly embarrassing now, but what party sequence isn’t after a year or so? Taken as a whole, the film is funny and sad and illuminating. It’s the work of an adult (and it’s heartbreaking to think Schlesinger would be making The Next Best Thing thirty years later).

By comparison, Close Encounters of the Third Kind feels like the work of a gifted child, with too many toys and no one offering the kind of tough love he so desperately needs. It’s a film that seems entirely unaware of its hollowness as it strives for depth by turning on more and more lights, and getting its actors to look more and more starry-eyed at the sheer fucking size of it all. It’s a cheap film, for all the money spent on it, and one that turns its back on the kind of redemption achieved, in one way or another, by Ratso and Joe. Because Dreyfuss’s character learns nothing; he’s too gobsmacked by his brand new friends. He just gets what he wants, which is surely the most infantile satisfaction of all.
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2 Responses to What a difference eight years can make

  1. nmj says:

    Midnight Cowboy is one of my favourite films. I have never seen Close Encounters, only clips!

  2. Rob says:

    I used to think just like that about Close Encounters, and then I read an essay about it somewhere that completely changed my mind about the film, and gave me a new respect for it. Since then, I've forgotten who wrote the essay, what it said, and why it impressed me, and am back to the old way of thinking.

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