Listening to “Star Wars”

from The New Yorker

My favorite film of 1977 was not “Star Wars” but “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Steven Spielberg’s U.F.O fantasia. Notwithstanding the fact that I was nine years old, I considered “Star Wars” a little childish. Also, the trash-compactor scene scared me. “Close Encounters,” on the other hand, drew me back to the theatre—the late, great K-B Cinema, in Washington, D.C.—five or six times. I irritated friends by insisting that it was better than “Star Wars,” and followed the box-office grosses in the forlorn hope that my favorite would surpass its rival.

“Close Encounters” still strikes me as an amazing creation—a one-off fusion of blockbuster spectacle with the disheveled realism of nineteen-seventies filmmaking. It has a wildness, a madness that is missing from Spielberg’s subsequent movies. The Disneyesque fireworks of the finale can’t hide the fact that the hero of the tale is abandoning his family in the grip of a monomaniacal obsession. Looking back, though, I’m sure that what really held me spellbound was the score, which, like that of “Star Wars,” was written by John Williams. I was a full-on classical-music nerd, playing the piano and trying to write my own compositions. I’d dabbled in Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler, but knew nothing of twentieth-century music. “Close Encounters” offered, at the start, a seething mass of dissonant clusters, which abruptly coalesce into a bright, clipped C-major chord, somehow just as spooky as what came before. The “Star Wars” music had a familiar ring, but this kind of free, frenzied painting with sound was new to me, and has fascinated me ever since.

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