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From CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to WAR OF THE WORLDS, A Legacy of Child-like Wonderment... and Inherited Immaturity.

Of all the horrific elements in Steven Spielberg's 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds, the one that people seem to remember most painfully is the poor behavior of Ray's (Tom Cruise's) child, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), who screams like a little brat throughout, hindering Ray's panicked efforts to protect her from Martian laser beams. Her outright refusal to believe she is in actual physical danger is indicative of a generation for whom death does not "exist" except as red splotches in a video game. To attempt to convince her otherwise is harder than trying to get her to clean her room. Ray's other kid is a sullen lout named Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who thinks the invasion is somehow all Ray's fault, just one more in a string of fuck-ups by their immature dead-beat dad (their mom has remarried a dependable yuppie), and worse, Ray is now using  the Martians as an excuse to boss everyone around.

 

Cruise has always embodied the sort of cocky man child whose charm and eye-hand coordination has enabled him to succeed in life without the bother of maturing into an adult. WOTW opens with him showing off his skills at moving big boxes around in a ship yard (every young boy's fantasy). He's so good at it the boss needs him to work overtime, but Ray is already late to receive his kids from his beautiful ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) so she and her new husband can go "upstate" for a nice, relaxing weekend. The four of them are waiting with barely concealed disdain in front of Ray's ratty Jersey house, refusing to even argue over this insufferable man child's lame excuses. Ray's smug Peter Pan-isms simply do not work in the grimy day to day maintenance of two needy, spoiled kids.

 

Within 24 hours of the parent's departure, Ray and his children have already reached the point where no one is talking to anyone else, and Robbie has run off with Ray's car. Ray is in a panic at the thought that Robbie might get an accident (he's not old enough to have a license), but the panic seems less over the kid's safety and more how Mary Ann's low opinion of him will be confirmed if he allows the kid to get hurt. While all this is happening, freak electrical storms have given rise to giant underground Martian machines which are gentrifying the area in a big hurry, knocking down the ratty old buildings of Ray's town and vaporizing the blue collar residents with a giant ray gun. Yeah, right, like Mary Ann will ever believe this! If the kids get vaporized, Ray has no doubt he'll be the one who gets blamed, and it's this intense fear, more than the lust for survival itself, that seems to propel Ray's quick thinking. In turn, his kids, having not seen the Martians, think his throwing them into a car and fleeing the state is all merely some dumb ass stunt to get attention.

 

So what the hell happened to the square-jawed hero of the original 1953 film, played by Gene Barry? What is Spielberg trying to say? The real war of the worlds being played out subtextually here is the war between generations, between Ray and his bratty kids, Ray and his ex-wife, Ray and his own notions of himself as an adult. Ray as the Spielberg man-child who suddenly just aint cute anymore. It's like throwing the Tom Hanks of Big into the Saving Private Ryan.

 

The recent partnering of Spielberg and Cruise makes sense when you realize that Spielberg's films are at least partly responsible for the championing of the man-child, which began, ironically enough, in his precursor to WOTW, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). As early as his previous film, Jaws (1974), we had portrayals of men and children where the line was very clearly defined. Chief Brody and Quint are both men's men, but the Matt Hooper (who was no "kid" in Peter Benchley's original novel, and even had an affair with Brody's wife) as played by Richard Dreyfuss becomes the original Spielberg stand-in; short, bearded-- the geeky rich kid with the neat toys.

 

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I recently re-watched Close Encounters in order to try and trace the threads that led up to this collapse of the adult world so eloquently conveyed in WOTW. From childhood all I remembered was the end, and the scenes of the lunatic Dreyfuss making mountains out of mashed potatoes, throwing uprooted trees through the window, and generally carrying on in the man-child manner all kids adore. This time what I noticed was the stirring of my soul at the scenes of men working together, for a common, professional goal. Spielberg contrasts the "personal" scenes of abduction, close-ups of bewildered, mouth-agape wonder, with scenes of organized experts in the African desert, beholding the arrival of WW2 planes and a ship, or quietly lecturing on the basics of music theory.  The film is ruled over by noticeably short men, there are no less than three here: Dreyfuss's character Roy, French New Wave icon Francoise Truffaut as U.N.-sanctioned head of the UFO greeting committee, Claude Lacombe, and Lacombe's bearded, bespectacled translator.

 

The presence of French New Wave icon Truffaut is one of the great genius stunt castings in 1970's cinema. He brings an authentic film director gravitas that can only come from experience. When he marches across the platform wherein the aliens will land, to test the speakers and light show system that will communicate with the aliens, he has an authority that is free of ego, something uniquely French, the mix of shortness, smallness of figure, benevolent use of power. We assume this is how Spielberg must be on his own sets. We can't imagine him anything other than a benevolent but thoroughly professional man, and those who work with him attest to that. These are working men at the top of the food chain-- but not evil--not using the alien contact for personal power. As with WOTW there is no expository dialogue in these scenes such as, for example, "We will communicate to the aliens via music." / "Could you explain how, professor?" Spielberg obviously wants these adults to be a little awe inspiring and mysterious. He allows the audience to be baffled as to what they're up to until it all comes together in the big light show climax. These are real grown ups, and we watch them from the point of view of children for whom nothing is explained. All we know is that they seem to warrant our attention; they are not afraid, and who are not reacting hysterically to the idea of contact from outer space.

 

Note also, that these workplaces are run by men; there are no women around.

 

By contrast, the "personal" stories going on in Ohio, with Roy and four year-old Barry (Cary Guffey), are surrounded by fearful women who impede contact. Barry's mom, Jillian (Linda Dillon) tries to keep the spaceship and aliens from getting into her house by lowering the shades and locking all the doors. Roy's wife, Ronnie (Terri Garr), lets the close encounter experience of her husband turn her into a total bitch, viewing his disturbed behavior with resentment. This resentment towards the man child on the part of the wife who has to raise "real" kids is even further amplified in WOTW.. It is Ronnie's attitude towards Roy that Ray imagines Mary Ann will have towards him when she gets wind of this Martian business.

 

What is unbearable for these angry women is that in the face of an alien presence their men are unable to keep it together, unable to remain calm and act the role of the father. Instead, they act like children and go running around waving their hands and whooping and hollering. In Lacanian terminology, they have abandoned their connection with the absolute signifier; the "keeper of the law," or "He Who Pretends to Know."  In Close Encounters there still is such a signifier, Claude Lacombe, who slowly becomes a fine figure of a father to the audience. By granting us an all access pass to the top secret goings on of Lacombe we realize that at the very core of government, the only thing serving as an absolute signifier among the men (who constitute the absolute signifier for the masses) is their masculine work ethic, the sense of no-nonsense camaraderie which helps them stay cool in the presence of the unsignifiably "real" manifestations of alien intelligence. No one in the inner group surrounding Claude Lacombe stammers and yelps and runs bug-eyed around the room at the thought of what they are dealing with, though there is an unspoken feeling between them all that this is all pretty freaking HUGE. None of them have, of course, dealt with this situation before. I mean it's ALIENS, man, for REAL! They have no idea what they're doing, but they assume an air of professional resolve. They're just folks doing their job. Like Zizek's description of communism and the relation of the people to the "Big Other," they pretend to believe in their own authority even though they know, and they know each other knows, it doesn't exist! In short, they maintain their purpose, power and status as absolute signifier via their male work ethic bonding, a sort of "whistle in the dark while you work" approach. If there were women in the room, they would either respect this (as Margaret Sheridan in 1951's The Thing), or--perhaps, undermine it (Gillian Anderson in The X-Files).

 

To illustrate: in an early scene a group of air traffic controllers are gathered around a radio listening to flying saucer reports of one of the pilots. "Do you wish to report a UFO? Over," one of the men says after the object has finally flown away. After a long pause the man calmly, resignedly answers, "No. I wouldn't know what to report." By choosing to not allow the UFO into their consensual reality in this way, the pilot and those gathered maintain their positions within the symbolic order. They know there are UFOs and they know there is no explanation for them, and they can "handle" it. Their decision to not run around like a flock of crazed Chicken Littles separates them as men from the "boys" like Roy, who expect the "adults" to provide them with answers the adults do not have.

 

This split between the "grown ups" and the "adult children" is further borne out in a later scene where panicked citizens meet with government officials in a press conference. The government officials basically acknowledge that the citizens saw something that no one has an answer for. Despite this, the people still are not satisfied, they demand more.  They cannot recognize that the symbolic authority of the adult government has been removed by the presence of this advanced alien intelligence. The explanation they are looking for does not exist, and this is simply not good enough. Their outrage mirrors that of Dakota Fanning screaming in the backseat of the car 28 years later. They are going to stamp their feet and scream hysterically until the government contextualizes the aliens within the social order.. NOW!

 

By standing firm and acting contemptuous and dimsissive towards the citizenry's concerns, the government agents allow the citizenry to continue to live in the illusion that somewhere along the chain of command there is someone who "knows." This keeps the social order from collapsing into hysterical anarchy. In contrast, by showing his wide-eyed fear to his children in WOTW, Ray displays his weaknesses (becoming what Lacan refers to as "The Anal Father."), just as Roy does by obsessing over the mountain image with his potatoes.

 

The presence of the infantile Roy within the mountain stronghold where the aliens land at the climax of CEOTTK symbolizes the beginning of the collapse that will lead to the sad state of affairs in WOTW. The government forces do their best to keep the citizenry out, but Roy is able to infiltrate the compound through a mix of luck and determination. When he is finally caught, he's placed in a debriefing room with Claude, who expects this to be an exchange of information between two mature, short men; each will fill the other's informational gaps. Instead Roy rants and raves and storms around the debriefing room in such a manner that Claude is appalled and allows the military officials (rightly) decide to send him back home. A parental equivalent of this would be deciding a child is not ready to stay home by himself since he has a temper tantrum at the mere mention of a babysitter. If the child was able to accept the presence of a babysitter he would be mature enough not to need one. The temper tantrum being thrown is a demonstration that the subject is still utterly dependent on the "Big Other."

 

Of course Roy manages to escape yet again, and this time he's given an orange suit and sent right on up in the space ship with the aliens, freeing him from worry about massive debt, custody battles, and home foreclosure.

 

With everyone subsequently imagining they can solve their credit card debt via alien abduction, it becomes easier to understand how the Roys of the world have completely subsumed the culture (The Claudes merely take all the Roys' money and hide out in Cannes).
 
I am not anti-feminist but I feel there needs to be some acknowledgement of how the feminine presence in the workplace has undermined the absolute signifier--the name of the father. Just as men can never be as good mothers or nurturers as women, women cannot be as good "names of the father" as men. If they were, men might as well just kill themselves right now, as there then is nothing that makes the symbolic masculine of any value. Wherever he looks for a place of power, man finds woman right on his back, like a little brother always "copying everything I do."  

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