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October 13, 2020:

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE NOTES KIND

Bruce Kimmel Photograph bk's notes

Well, dear readers, I am sitting here like so much fish, listening to the soundtrack of Close Encounters of the Third Kind – in fact, it’s been a John Williams musical night.  I remember very well attending the big screening of Close Encounters – I can’t remember how I got invited or who invited me, but it was, I believe, at the Academy on Wilshire Boulevard.  I still have the invitation.  It was Mr. Spielberg’s follow-up to Jaws and anticipation was high, and electricity was in the air.  I had great seats, about ten rows back and sitting directly behind me was someone named George Lucas.  I remember the screening as if it were yesterday.  The curtains parted, black screen, music – weird, dissonant – building and building and building to a huge crescendo and on the final beat, a blasting chord and the entire screen went blindingly white.  We all knew it was about UFOs because we’d all looked up the meaning of the title.  And then two lights coming at us, which we all assumed was a UFO, only it was headlights, which got a chuckle right off the bat.  The opening scene was great, and then we went directly to the family scene with Richard Dreyfuss.  From there, it was truly a rollercoaster ride, with laughs, tension, the kidnapping of the kid, during which you could cut the tension with a knife.  Everything about it worked.  We were all mesmerized like little kids and then came the climax.  And Spielberg began one brilliant sequence after another.  The first UFO parade and faking us out, thinking that was it until we got our first glimpse of the mother ship, which I must tell you brought gasps from the audience, an audience, I remind you, of industry professionals who could not believe what they were seeing, so brilliant were the effects – I’d almost say that we were so taken in by it we didn’t even think they were effects.  We still didn’t know where it was going – remember, the kidnapping scene was so strong that we were prepared for the worst kind of extra-terrestrial being, although, as I said, none of us knew where it was heading, really.  And I don’t think any of us could have predicted the emotional powerhouse that Spielberg delivered when the alien made its appearance, in one of the most moving scenes in all of cinema.  When the end credits began to roll, the applause was HUGE and went on and on and every credit at the end got applause, too.  We all knew we’d seen an instant classic.  When we stood up to leave, I looked over to George Lucas, who was just raving and calling the film a masterpiece, which, by the way, it is.  I saw it five or six times during its run, ran to the theater on the opening day of the “special edition” release, wherein Spielberg had re-cut the film a bit and shot new footage aboard the spaceship.  I took the Darling Daughter to that screening (at the Fox in Hollywood – not a great theater – in fact, where The First Nudie Musical played), and we were both disappointed with it – she’d seen the original.

We wanted to be blown away, but I didn’t like any of the changes he made, and I really didn’t like going in the spaceship at all – it was so much better imagining what was inside.  For me, it was a crass money grab.  Thankfully, there are, I think, four different versions of the film on the Criterion Blu-ray and the best of the four is, of course, the original.  All the things that Spielberg said he was rushed to finish all work just fine and all his re-cuts lessen the impact of the film, including his final version.  So, for me, nothing will beat seeing that screening and discovering that film that way.  Well, until I went to the premiere of ET at the Dome.  Again, I’m not sure how I got invited, but I had a reserved seat invite, great seats – maybe it was because I was in it briefly.  I had an idea about what the film was because they shot it at Laird Studios right after The Creature Wasn’t Nice wrapped editing.  Their cutting room was, in fact, my office for The Creature.  I remember hearing Spielberg had come by one day and laughed when he saw our “Creature” sitting in a chair opposite my desk.  I also knew two of the ET wranglers, twins, who I’d gone to junior high and high school with.  And again, it was a screening like no other – laughs, tears, tension – all of it brilliant and perfectly played by the cast, a hugely satisfying conclusion, and a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd.

And the one thing the two films had in common that was a huge part of each film’s success?  Mr. John Williams, with two completely different but brilliant scores.  Listening to the music apart from the film, one marvels at just how great the Close Encounters score is and how many bases it covers musically.  Of course, now I’ll have to go searching for the Close Encounters Blu-ray so I can watch it again.  Perhaps even tonight.

Yesterday was a kind of a sort of a day.  I got nine hours of sleep, did stuff that needed doing, answered e-mails, picked up no packages or mail, and then ordered food from Togo’s – one regular pastrami and one mini ham and Swiss – just over 1000 calories for the two.  This was the first problematic Grubhub delivery – an hour to get the food, which was thirty minutes more than it should have taken.  But that wasn’t the real problem – the real problem was that the driver didn’t do anything he was required to do once he delivered, i.e. text and ring the doorbell.  So, when I finally clicked on the site to track it I saw that it had been delivered twenty minutes earlier – how was I to know?  So, my hot pastrami was cold, and I began a “chat” session with Grubhub and they gave me a ten dollar credit, so that was helpful.  So, the pastrami sandwich wasn’t as good as it usually is.  After that, I did two solid hours of work at the piano and then on the computer, after which I sat on my couch like so much fish.

Last night, I finished watching Alfred Hitchock’s Topaz.  As I mentioned, I saw it on its opening day – twice – in New York at whatever theater on Broadway was playing it.  I quite liked it and was surprised at the vitriolic reviews it received, much as I was surprised at the vitriol directed at Marnie two films before Topaz.  As I also mentioned, the only version of the film that’s been available since the first VHS release and the laserdisc, is the preview cut of the film, you know, the cut that got some of the worst preview cards in the history of movies.  There were two versions of the preview cut – the original ending was a duel between two of the characters.  That got unintentional laughs and watching it, it really doesn’t work at all.  Then they previewed the same cut with a hastily shot new ending – that didn’t work either and the cards were equally bad.  Hitchcock was an audience man – he loved audiences and wanted them to love his films.  He’d been upset at the reaction to Marnie, and while Torn Curtain did well at the box-office, apparently that was an unpleasant experience, with the firing of Herrmann, and not enjoying working with Paul Newman.  So, he set about trimming the film from two-hours-and-twenty-three minutes down to two-hours-and-seven minutes.  He eliminated a few scenes entirely, tightened up other scenes, professed himself satisfied, and created yet another ending – not reshot, but re-thought and made up of existing footage cleverly used.  And that was the version show in theaters and which I rather enjoyed, seeing it several times before moving back to Los Angeles in January of 1970.

When I first got the DVD of Topaz, I was shocked not only to find this unseen preview cut (with ending 2), but shocked that the original theatrical version wasn’t included.  And since that day, it has never been seen again, which I find reprehensible and incomprehensible.  That’s the version that played and we need to have it available because frankly it’s better in every way.  As to the film, it has major issues, the biggest of which is not really knowing WHOSE film it is – that’s a problem Hitchcock had never had before.  And if you consider that it’s Frederick Stafford’s story then it really doesn’t work at all, because the character is a stick figure and Mr. Stafford’s stick acting does nothing to help.  And a lot of the other casting is sub-standard for Hitchcock, some really awful performances.  In fact, there’s really only one truly Hitchcockian performance in the film that works completely, and that’s Philippe Noiret, who has a brief but memorable role.  Also, very good is Roscoe Lee Browne, John Vernon, and to a lesser extent, Karin Dor.  Dany Robin is terrible as Stafford’s wife.  And John Forsythe has always been a wooden actor and he’s not so hot.  But what the film sorely is missing are Hitchcock’s key collaborators – editor George Tomasini, who truly understood Hitchcock and his storytelling rhythms, had died after Marnie, as had Hitchcock’s long-time cameraman, Robert Burks.  One can only imagine what Torn Curtain and Topaz and even Frenzy would have been like if those three people had remained part of Hitchcock’s team.  Herrmann is especially missed on Topaz – Maurice Jarre’s score is pretty dire most of the time – overly melodramatic and just plain obtrusive.  But, the Harlem sequence, and the Cuba sequence and the two scenes with Noiret are pure Hitchcock.

After that, I ate the mini ham and Swiss and that was fine.  Then I began listening to John Williams and an hour after these here notes should have been posted, I’m still writing them.

Today, I’ll be up when I’m up, I’ll do whatever needs doing, I’ll finally finish choosing songs, I’ll hopefully pick up some packages and mail, I’ll eat, I’ll work at the piano, and then I’ll watch, listen, and relax.

The rest of the week is more of the same, with maybe a Zoom thing and maybe a lunch meeting at some point.

Well, dear readers, I must take the day, I must do the things I do, I must, for example, be up when I’m up, do whatever needs doing, finish choosing songs, hopefully pick up some packages and mail, eat, work at the piano, then watch, listen, and relax.  Today’s topic of discussion: What movies have you seen that you knew were instant classics the minute you saw them for the first time? Let’s have loads of lovely postings, shall we, whilst I hit the road to dreamland, having had close encounters of the notes kind.

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