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Match Cuts: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”

Match Cuts: “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (photo)

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In Match Cuts, we examine every available version of a film, and decide once and for all which is the one, definitive cut worth watching. This week, in honor of J.J. Abrams’ Spielbergian small-town alien mystery movie “Super 8,” we’re looking at Steven Spielberg‘s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

EDITIONS:
Theatrical Cut (1977): 135 minutes
Special Edition (1980): 132 minutes
Director’s Cut (1998): 137 minutes

THE STORY:
Every cut of “Close Encounters” tells the same essential story. Indiana utilities company employee Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) see a UFO one night while out on patrol. Afterwards, Roy is plagued by strange visions of a mountain and has trouble focusing on his job or his family, much to the chagrin of his wife Ronnie (Teri Garr). Meanwhile a series of mysterious supernatural incidents all over the world — World War II planes in modern day North Africa, an steamship in the middle of the Gobi Desert — point towards an alien intelligence trying to make contact with our world. The two plotlines converge at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, the mountain of Roy’s visions, and the site where an alien mothership descends from the sky and attempts to make first official contact with the human race.

REASON FOR MULTIPLE VERSIONS:
According to Spielberg, the Theatrical Cut of “Close Encounters” was rushed into theaters by its studio before it was ready. In an interview included on the 30th Anniversary DVD and Blu-ray box set Spielberg says he “was forced to finish it before it was really ready to be finished. I kind of felt like I was being pushed into finishing the movie based on huge corporate matters which I had no ability to comprehend; something about Columbia facing bankruptcy, ‘Close Encounters’ was either going to break the company or get the company out of the red that it was in.”

It turned out to be a smart business decision by Columbia — the film was a huge hit, and it did help save the company from bankruptcy — but in Spielberg’s mind, it still wasn’t a smart creative decision. So a year and a half later he went back to the studio and asked for permission (and money) to finish the movie to his satisfaction. They agreed, on the condition that he include a scene set inside the alien mothership that was previously only seen from the outside during the film’s dramatic finale. Spielberg didn’t like the idea, he agreed in order to finance the project, eventually titled the Special Edition. His dissatisfaction with the studio-demanded mothership scene eventually sparked the Director’s Cut almost twenty years later, which combines his favorite elements from the Theatrical Cut and Special Edition.

KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MULTIPLE VERSIONS (SPOILERS AHEAD):
In the Theatrical Cut, Roy finds himself inexplicably drawn to Devil’s Tower where he risks his life several times just for the chance to witness the mothership landing. Sensing that he has been summoned there by the aliens, the lead UFO scientist Dr. Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) invites Roy to join the astronauts who’ve volunteered to enter the aliens’ ship. The E.T.s select Roy to accompany with them, he walks up into their ship. In the Special Edition, against Spielberg’s better judgment, we get a glimpse of what Roy finds inside the mothership.

I don’t know whether Spielberg’s heart wasn’t in the sequence or this was simply the best he could do with the budget he was given, but it’s pretty anticlimactic. Roy stands around, does nothing, and sees not much of anything in particular. No wonder Spielberg left the whole thing out of the Director’s Cut years later.

Though Spielberg never wanted to show the inside of that ship. He saw it as a means to an end. Here is an example of a scene he wanted badly enough to acquiesce on the mothership stuff. Note that Truffaut’s character doesn’t appear even though his interpreter (Bob Balaban) does. That’s because Truffaut was busy shooting another movie and couldn’t participate in the Special Edition reshoots.

The Special Edition includes almost ten minutes of new footage, but its runtime is three minutes shorter than the Theatrical Cut because Spielberg also trimmed and completely cut scenes that had previously appeared in the film. Some changes are so small, you’d need you watch two versions side-by-side to notice them. If you’ll watch the Special Edition closely, for example, you’ll see an insert shot of a McDonald’s billboard in the sequence where Roy and the alien hunters stand on that hilly road and watch the UFOs fly overhead. The addition of the insert gives the scene a punchline: instead of just flying over the onlookers and zooming around a corner, it looks like the aliens fly over the onlookers, pause, read the billboard, and then zoom off to McDonald’s. It’s a cute gag, and it only appears in the Special Edition.

Maybe the biggest but least commented upon difference between the various versions of “Close Encounters” is the portrayal of Roy’s wife Ronnie. Though the ending of “Close Encounters” is superficially uplifting — man and alien make a peaceful connection — it also carries a dark undercurrent: by joining the aliens on their journey to who knows where, Roy ignores his responsibilities as a wife and father. Yes, he’s a brave guy. But he’s also a deadbeat dad. I think many of the changes in the Special Edition (and to a lesser extent the Director’s Cut) are made to try to justify, or at least explain, Roy’s irresponsible actions.

The Special Edition inserts two scenes that weren’t in the Theatrical Cut that involve Ronnie yelling at Roy. One scene is particularly harsh: after Roy loses his job and then ruins a family dinner by turning his pile of mashed potatoes into a miniature Devil’s Tower, Ronnie finds him sitting in the shower, crying and moaning “I don’t know what’s happening to me.” But instead of comforting him, she screams that his “bullshit is “turning this house upside down!” From there, the Special Edition immediately cuts to Ronnie leaving with the kids the next morning, as if the argument was the last straw.

That fight is missing from the Theatrical Cut. The morning after the mashed potatoes scene, Ronnie wakes up and tries to apologize to Roy (apparently for the mashed potatoes thing, but really for the fight that wasn’t even in that version of the film!). Then she watches him spaz out in a fit of alien-fueled inspiration, stealing the neighbor’s chicken wire and plants. Out of fear instead of anger, she finally packs up the kids and leaves. In the Theatrical Cut, Ronnie is a frustrated, confused woman. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her husband, and she’s frightened for the safety of her kids. In the Special Edition, she’s a mean, shrewish wife. I don’t think Spielberg blames her for Roy getting into that spaceship — he was going to do that no matter how she behaved — but I do think he’s trying to explain why he doesn’t even give his family a second thought.

The Director’s Cut synthesizes the two versions of the sequence. It includes the shower scene and the fight and it also includes Roy freaking out the following morning. It’s a more believable representation of the ups and downs of a marriage. As a result the tone is a little more uneven — the shower scene is incredibly dark and the morning after freakout is borderline slapstick comedy — but it does also give you a good sense of the roller coaster of emotions that Ronnie is on. One minute her husbands bawling, the next he’s throwing ferns through their kitchen window. What else could she do with this nutjob but leave him?

IF YOU ONLY WATCH ONE VERSION OF “CLOSE ENCOUNTERS,” WATCH:
The Director’s Cut. This was actually a tough call, because there are things I like about both the Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut. It was not a tough call to say you should definitely avoid the Special Edition, which has the pointless mothership scene and the demonizing portrait of Ronnie. The Special Edition is also the only version of “Close Encounters” without my favorite scene in the film: an army press conference designed to debunk the Indiana sightings. I love that sequence for the attitude of military officers (who claim they want to believe Roy because they’ve spent years looking for concrete evidence of aliens) and for the way it transitions brilliantly from the officials reassuring the public that UFOs pose no threat to a secret military installation where Lacombe and his team are inventing a phony threat in order to evacuate the area around Devil’s Tower.

The Theatrical Cut and Director’s Cut are very similar, but each has good scenes missing from the other. I like how Roy is introduced in the original version of the film: playing with his model train set alone while a music box plays a twinkly version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” (the song is later echoed by John Williams’ score as Roy walks into the mothership). The Theatrical Cut also has one of the cooler WTF moments, when Roy lays down on his bed after getting fired and becomes entranced by the shape of one of the pillows.

Neither of those beats are in the Director’s Cut, but that version does retain the great Special Edition scene with the boat in the Gobi Desert and it has the most heartbreaking version of Roy and Ronnie’s breakup. And while it’s also the longest cut of the film, the Director’s Cut is actually the best paced. As we do more installments of this column, we’re going to find instances where a director’s instincts about his own film were proven incorrect. But that’s not the case here. The third time was the charm for Spielberg. I don’t know if he got it “right” with the Director’s Cut of “Close Encounters.” But he definitely got it “best” with that one.

All three version of “Close Encounters” are available in a 3-disc Blu-ray or DVD 30th Anniversary Collection. Which is your favorite cut of the film? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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