Domestic scenes: Spielberg's suburbia

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: opening doors onto wonder and danger.

The sleeper hit of the summer (on the small-screen front, at least) has turned out to be Netflix’s Stranger Things, a derivative but immensely entertaining sci-fi adventure in the style of Cronenberg, Carpenter, and vintage Spielberg.  One of the most appealing things about the series is the extent to which its suspense plot is populated by warm and humorous characters—dorky middle-school kids and harried single moms and heartsick teenagers.  The banality of the show’s milieu (certain of its situations would not feel out of place on an episode of Family Ties) works to leaven its spooky, campfire-story tone.  While recent tent-pole movies like Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have struggled (and failed) to strike a balance between lightness and heaviness, sincerity and irony, Stranger Things succeeds in doing so almost effortlessly: it’s thrilling and fun and funny, and it has a big heart. 

The show owes its particular combination of these qualities mostly to Spielberg, whose Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) I revisited earlier this week.  (E.T. is a more direct influence on Stranger Things; I’m hoping to get around to revisiting that one later this fall.)  Both Close Encounters and E.T. (1982)—as well as films like Poltergeist (1982, dir. Tobe Hooper) and The Goonies (1984, dir. Richard Donner), which take place within the extended Spielberg universe—ground their fantastical plots in suburban environments that are so believably drawn that we immediately buy everything that proceeds to happen within them.  In Close Encounters, I love how Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) brushes with extra-terrestrial life play out before an audience of squabbling kids and nosy neighbors, against a backdrop of model train sets and Looney Tunes cartoons.  When he tries to describe his sighting of a UFO to his wife Ronnie (a beautifully frazzled Teri Garr), she translates it into the language of groceries: “was it like a taco shell?  Or one of those Sara Lee moon-shaped cookies?  Those crescent cookies?”  Meanwhile, an alien encounter at the home of Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her three-year-old son Barry sets off thick media static: Jillian’s TV set starts up in the middle of a late-night movie while, on the record player, Johnny Mathis sings “Chances are…”  (Barry’s record player strikes up a chirpy nursery-school song.)  Where Ronnie Neary tries to conceptualize the UFO in terms of supermarket foods, Barry’s sightings set off a series of child’s-eye associations.  Mesmerized by the novel shapes and colors of the ships, he cries out “ice cream!”, and, later, “Toys!”  
The Guiler and Neary households: domestic clutter.

In these, Spielberg’s best films, the doors of ordinary suburban houses open, often literally, onto wonder and danger.  It’s a technique that he may have learned from Hitchcock, for whom putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations was a surefire way to generate audience involvement and identification.  Watching Close Encounters, in which Roy’s crisis is punctuated by moments of observational humor, I kept thinking of Shadow of a Doubt (1945), perhaps the best example of a Hitchcock film in which the use of cornball humor and a banal milieu works to intensify rather than dilute the heavy drama of the plot.  Spielberg’s infusion of this technique with the naturalism of new Hollywood would allow him to inherit Hitchcock’s title as the most purely entertaining (and popular) studio filmmaker of his generation.  Like Hitchcock, Spielberg knows how to play the mass audience like a piano—in large part by grounding his films in a familiar world that then spins off into uncharted territory. 

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