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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.