Roy Neary, a humdrum man who has devoted himself to work and family, is suddenly transfixed by an almost beatific vision from above. Abandoning his old life, Neary embarks on a mad quest to prove his vision real, uncovers and defies a massive government conspiracy, and is so successful that he is carried away from the planet Earth.
The plot for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) seems oddly resonant today, when huge numbers of ordinary Americans — Roy Nearies, the nearby kings — find themselves mesmerized by similar images, which they usually discover on Facebook rather than in the night sky. These people then abandon everything they know, leave their normal jobs and families, defy government mask mandates, refuse to get vaccinated, and then find themselves raptured to an entirely different plane of existence as they gasp out their final breaths in bright hospital rooms, surrounded by frantically beeping machines as well as doctors and nurses covered in strange, alien clothing.
At first I wanted to make this essay about baby boomers, since Close Encounters is a film made by and for boomers, but this quality of defying reason and logic extends to all kinds of Americans, not just those from a particular age cohort. It can be found as far back as Christopher Columbus — The First Boomer — who defied experts across Europe in his mad quest to sail westward to the East Indies. According to the information available to European scholars at the time, no ship could store the food or water necessary for such a long journey. What they didn’t know was that the Americas were in the way.
As American history progressed, settlers continued to defy experts and government authority. One cause of the American Revolution was the British insistence that American settlers respect treaties made with Native Americans and remain on the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains. As soon as the British were out of the picture, American settlers — always hungry for land and flesh — moved west, continuing the extermination and genocide begun by Columbus himself all the way to the present moment.
For centuries, nothing stopped them. When race-based feudal slavery in the antebellum south slowed capitalist development, the American settler-bourgeoisie swept it aside in the Civil War, reserving slave labor exclusively for the nascent state and federal prison system. When the ocean itself blocked America, Americans exported colonialism abroad, enslaving Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and any other country they could get their hands on, firing their cannons at the Japanese and supporting with soldiers and supplies the colonial powers in the Boxer Rebellion in China.
Communism is the only thing that ever slowed them down. Though the United States invaded the USSR during the Russian Civil War on the side of the tsar, the world’s workers and peasants seemed unstoppable. The USSR, Yugoslavia, Poland, Mongolia, China, Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Burkina Faso — vast swathes of the planet teamed up to oppose capitalism, colonialism, and slavery. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s was by far the most significant setback on the path to universal human liberation, but in the last decade the struggle has been taken up, once again, by countries like China, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and the DPRK.
When Close Encounters was made, America was in the middle of the stagflation economic crisis, and just beginning the Neoliberal Counterrevolution which would prove so successful in destroying organized labor at home and communism abroad in the name of slowing the overall decline in profit. The generation behind this move was the baby boomers, who would have been in their twenties and thirties when this film was released. Their stunning achievement means, four decades later, that their age cohort controls almost the entirety of America’s wealth. Yet at the same time, boomers are a victim of their own success: such spectacular wealth means a corresponding separation from the situation on the ground, a total lack of awareness of what the objective world is actually like.
The boomers were nonetheless able to rest on their laurels, to coast on their success until the advent of coronavirus, when it became vitally important for everyone to mask up, social distance, get vaccinated, and (at least in worker democracies like China, which have totally defeated the virus), shut down private business. Just as Columbus ignored the experts, just as the settlers ignored the British, and just as Roy Neary ignored his reasonable family, boomers (and their fellow travelers, the many boomers-in-training among younger age cohorts) ignored anyone who stood in the way of their stolen wealth. The settler bourgeoisie — a much more accurate term for “boomers,” since not every American boomer is fabulously rich or reactionary (although nearly all of them are) — had used this approach for centuries with nothing but success. Why would they fail now?
Although it is the young and poor who principally suffer the effects of coronavirus, the disease is still wreaking havoc in America generally, inspiring the most significant wave of strikes and labor militarism in a generation, the biggest protests in American history (in 2020), major supply chain issues, and a rebirth of stagflation. Could this be the beginning of the end for boomerism, or will capitalist ideology strike back with a harsher vengeance than ever before? Will communism destroy capitalism, or will capitalism collapse into techno-feudalism?
I listened to the excellent Why Theory podcast episode on Superego several hours before a rewatch of Close Encounters. As a result, I was unable to stop myself from thinking about the superego while consuming this film. The episode discusses the contradictory approach to the superego adopted by Freud and Lacan. According to the podcast, Freud viewed the superego (in the tripartite human psyche consisting of superego, ego, and id) as forcing the subject to fit in with society, to conform and restrain its passions. Lacan, working decades later in the midst of a mass consumerism which barely existed in Freud’s time, viewed the superego in a similar-yet-different fashion, forcing the subject to conform to a society which insists that you enjoy yourself to death: that you waste your life slaving away for consumer items which you could not possibly need.
We see both of these superegos on display in Close Encounters. Roy’s Lacanian superego, that of the friendly beautiful futuristic childlike aliens — a part of his psyche alienated from himself — guides him to the spectacular excitement at the end of the film before carrying him away from the earthly plane of existence entirely— leaving a path of destruction in his wake: he abandons his family, chaos descends upon his home city in the form of a power outage, he nearly runs over a child, and the landscape he finds surrounding the Devil’s Tower is littered with dead farm animals (with the human inhabitants herded by the Nazi-like government into cattle cars), surrounded by barbed wire, and patrolled by Hueys which drop poison gas on the forests below, an image straight out of the Vietnam War. One of Roy’s boomer companions perishes — or falls asleep — while hiking the Devil’s Tower because of this gas.
The Freudian superego, meanwhile, is represented by Roy’s nagging wife, who does nothing but oppose his own urges, as well as his neighbors, who stare at him as he cannibalizes his suburban lawn in the name of erecting a gigantic phallus dedicated to Lacanian jouissance in his living room. This old society and superego barely register with Roy as he constructs a new world of unearthly wealth and spectacle atop Native American land using labor stolen from the world’s workers, who are almost entirely seen only in their absence: the Vietnamese hinted at by the Hueys dropping gas on forests, and the Black people and Native Americans who have as much of a presence here as they would have with Leni Riefenstahl directing instead of Spielberg.
The Lacanian capitalist settler boomer superego of Columbus and beyond has triumphed over its collectivist Freudian counterpart in Close Encounters — at least for the last forty years. Only since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic has there been the slightest hint that its days might be numbered: that the finale of Close Encounters might just be in Roy’s imagination, and that in reality he used a little too much of his own supply, and was, in fact, the man who collapsed while attempting to scale the Devil’s Tower.