Hot, sticky night in Eugene. Perfect opportunity to break out one of my favorite hot summer night movies: ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind.’ I re-watch Spielberg’s classic, heartfelt, adventure about once a year, and every time I learn a little bit more about the storytelling process. This time, watching Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) Neary’s mad struggle with the mashed potatoes, something new occurred to me. Stephen Spielberg wasn’t just walking about UFOs in CEIII, he was also talking about the struggle of being a creative person.
I mean, ignore everything about the aliens for a second. Just focus on Roy Neary’s character. His life, his family; they’re important but they don’t seem to be very fulfilling to him. He ignores his kids to play with model trains. Then, one hot summer night, everything changes for him.
In a flash of light, everything about Neary’s universe changes. We are not alone. There are other beings in this universe, and he is one of the first to meet them. On the surface, this journey is about his eventual departure with the aliens – in Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ model, it ends in ‘Transformation.’ But the more I think about it, I think Spielberg was trying to say something else.
This time, watching CEIII, I saw the ‘implanted vision’ as a metaphor for how Spielberg saw his creativity back in the late 70s. It wasn’t just joy and sparkles for him.
In Neary, we see a little bit of how Spielberg sees himself. A regular guy, who has something in his head that he doesn’t understand. He didn’t ask for it, doesn’t even want it. Until it turns into something that everyone else understands – like say, a blockbuster movie – it’s a source of frustration for him and his family. He picks at it, kicks at it, rages at it, but it refuses to go away. It’s still there, implacable and relentless. You see it in how Neary first reacts to the questions they put to him at Devil’s Tower:
Laughlin: [translating] What did you expect to find?
Roy: An answer. That’s not crazy, is it?
You get a little more of that insight as Neary throws garbage into the house to build that massive Devil’s Tower in his living room. To Terri Garr’s suggestion that he see a doctor, he says: “Ronnie, if I don’t do this, *that’s* when I’m going to need a doctor.” To everyone else around him, the vision is meaningless, stupid. But if he doesn’t get it out of his head, he knows he will suffer. That in a nutshell is what creativity does to creative people all the time.
Think about how frustrated Richard Dreyfuss was where he has this big huge sculpture in his living room. He was tortured on that phone call with his wife, but there was something else brewing there. It was like, ‘okay there it is. Now what?’
Some have written that CEIII is ‘escapist fantasy,’ or as a metaphor for growing up. Those can be true, but I also think there’s room to consider that creativity is an end to itself. Writers write, filmmakers film, because they have something in their head that needs to get out.
The process of creativity requires singular vision, a willingness to keep going when no one else understands what you’re trying to say. This isn’t a weekend project, this can stretch for months and years. What do you think it feels like to be that person, to wonder if all the other naysayers are right? Maybe you really are just crazy, throwing trash in your living room. As a creative person, you wrestle with those uncomfortable thoughts every single day of the week.
Then, maybe once in a lifetime, the curtain pulls back and everyone else sees it. Your vision does mean something. It isn’t garbage, it’s meaningful. Creative people live for that moment.
We admire Spielberg because he’s had so many of those moments in his life. We all wish we could do the same.