Happy 40th Birthday to the Best of All Time!

There can, of course, be only one “best of all time” and whatever the subject, the choice is clearly subjective. Each individual is entitled to  his or her own choice for “best of all time”.

When the subject turns to movies, I have my vote for “best of all time” and this film is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week.

So, happy birthday to the best movie of all time, at least, of course, among those I have seen. Happy birthday to Steven Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I have seen the movie so many times and each time I find myself completely mesmerized by the experience. All that I have to hear are those 5 tones and I can’t resist watching the entire movie even though I know the story and most of the dialogue by heart.

There are so many reasons why I love the movie. The subject matter is one that has fascinated me for years and other movies which have dealt with the theme also are among my favorites including Contact and E.T. But, Close Encounters is in a class by itself. The entire culminating scene is so full of wonder and awe that it brings me to tears each time, no matter how many times I have seen it.

I find the acting compelling, particularly that of my two favorite characters played by Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban. The scientist and the mapmaker who work together to make the encounter possible are brilliantly understated in their acting.

Finally, individual scenes which stand out in my mind make the entire movie so memorable. Besides the final scene, the scenes which I love include the short scene at the beginning with the old man in Mexico who says over and over in Spanish: The sun came out last night and sang to me”; the scene in India in which the leader asks those gathered where they heard the tones they are chanting and all you see are hundreds of fingers pointing excitedly to the heavens; and, finally, the scenes with the little boy smiling at his new friends.

What a movie!

I stayed up most of the night with a good friend after seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time during the fall of 1977. We talked through the night about the symbolism, the spiritual hints in the movie (watch for two of the characters reaching for each other and touching each other’s fingers mimicking the “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel ceiling) and  the foreshadowing which you only catch when watching the movie for the second, third or 100th time.

But, as the years have gone along, I have become more fascinated with the spiritual message of the movie as I understand it. The message is contained in the final scene. Here is the way I explained it in my book: “The Long Way Around: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey”:

There is a memorable scene from the end of Close Encounters in which human scientists, standing in the presence of aliens who are clearly superior to them in intelligence, take a moment to teach a simple musical scale using hand motions. The alien leader, on the second try, mimics the simple hand motions and smiles a knowing, loving, proud, smile.

This is the paradigm. In the presence of immense power and creative ability, there is still something which is needed and appreciated by the one who is clearly superior. Simply put, we can be teachers.

I believe that as God has retreated from active involvement in the day to day life of human beings, leaving us to exercise free will with the guidance of Torah, God continues to watch us closely.  When we take even the smallest step to bring the world to a better place or use our wisdom to improve the world, I believe that God smiles that same knowing, loving and proud smile at what God’s creations have taught him.

If you’ve never seen the movie, make it a point to do so soon.

It is simply the best.



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