As those who visit this site regularly are aware, I have a few passions. Um, obsessions, Tom, obsessions… Potato, po-TAH-to, whatever. Earlier this year I wrote of my justice issues, centering around the brilliant, seminal, devastating Chinatown. I promised then to write about another passion… um, Tom, it’s an… that’s enough, you. So today I give you Technicolor Dreams.
In the summer of 1977 a movie with a wookie was unleashed on the world and became the obsession – there, I said it – of many a cineaste, including a zillion teenage boys. I was one of these and saw Star Wars 6 times in the theatre. What can I say? As much as George Lucas seems to be trying to kill any love anyone might have for the first three films through his revisions and desecrations of the original texts, Star Wars was and is a wonderful movie. Later that year, though, in November of 1977, another outer-space movie was released to high acclaim. Radically different from Star Wars, this movie took place on the home front, dealing not with galaxies far, far away but with what might happen were aliens from another planet to come to earth.
Movies and books had been exploring alien invasions for many years, of course. H. G. Wells wrote what is perhaps the godfather of such tales. In 1898 (1898!) he wrote War of the Worlds (free download!), a terrifying depiction of what might happen were we invaded by Martians. Orson Welles famously adapted this for radio in 1938, presented mostly as a news bulletin, which anecdotally caused some people to believe the broadcast was true. This was followed by a host of terrific, frightening films about alien invaders, particularly in the 1950’s when the potential invasion by communists was a deep seated fear of many Americans. Just about every plot involving space aliens coming to earth was a dark, terrifying tale. Until that November 1977 release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Like most of the public, I went into Close Encounters knowing virtually nothing of the plot, expecting at least in part a typical ‘evil alien invasion’ experience. Nothing could have prepared me for what unfolded on the screen OR for what would happen to me in the theatre. I don’t need to go into it much but suffice to say my three teenage friends were mortified and moved far away from me when, as the final 25 minutes played out, I began to sob helplessly in awe and wonder. While movies had of course been my main passion since, well, always, I’d never encountered a movie that spoke to me so personally, so deeply. I didn’t even care that my friends were embarrassed, that they moved seats, that I was a spectacle. I was so enraptured by the movie and the plight of the hero, Roy, I remember sitting there, fixed to the screen, letting the magnificent images and music wash over me, long pent up emotion pouring out of my soul.
Suffice to say I like this movie better than the one with the wookie.
It would be years before I could figure out just what the heck was going on in that theatre. The movie itself, of course, is terrific and the experience of watching such amazing storytelling, on the big screen, was wonderfully overwhelming. Additionally, after years of evil alien invasion movies, to have a movie that depicted the possible sense of glorious wonder such an encounter might entail was revelatory. But as I grew older and was touched deeply by a few other such movies, I began to understand what else was going on that magical November night. It involves a different kind of technicolor than we see at the movies.
The Old Testament tells the narrative of Joseph, a boy who so beloved by his father, Israel, that Israel gives Joseph a coat of many colors, a technicolor dreamcoat, if you will. Joseph also is a great dreamer and, perhaps not too smartly, tells his brothers of his dreams, dreams of reaching such heights that even his family will bow down before him. Jealous both of their father’s love for their brother, as well as his dreams, his brothers sell Joseph into slavery. Everything that then happens in Joseph’s life takes him farther and farther away from even the remotest possibility of that dream coming to fruition. It’s impossible. Yet through the struggle… in fact because of the struggle and horror he endures for much of his life, as well as his remarkable persistence, Joseph’s dreams are fulfilled in the wildest way imaginable. It’s one hell of a satisfying story and to this young dreamer in the movie theatre, who was going through some very difficult experiences, the similar narrative of Close Encounters hit me deep.
In Close Encounters, Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is given a vision of sorts. It drives him crazy, as well as his family. Because of his obsession, he is stripped of his job, his family, his life. Just as he is about to truly go insane because of the vision, in the wake of all his experiences and the people around him trying to derail him, his dream comes true in a much greater way than he ever could have imagined. It’s a wonderfully edifying and fulfilling narrative, particularly for those of us who are passionate dreamers with deep longings and yearnings. As Belle, another Josephian dreamer, sings in Beauty and The Beast, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere, I want it more than I can tell.” Many of us have head-banging dreams, dreams that torture rather than uplift, dreams it can be very difficult to express. When I, for one, stumble across a narrative about such a fellow dreamer, a narrative that affirms what I hope might possibly be true, well, few things are as remarkably satisfying. Even though it might cause great embarrassment for the people near.
Do I myself believe all dreams come true? Certainly not. One only has to pick up the newspaper and read the front page to realize people’s lives, often through no fault of their own, go horribly, tragically awry. Life is hard, it is so damn hard. Dreams die hard, too. Had my own life turned out the way I always dreamed, it would look wildly different than it does now. Unrecognizable even. Which is what causes my own maddening frustration and at the same time complete wonder with God. Things never seem to go the way we’ve planned. Nor can we expect, necessarily, the fruition of our dreams. As a person of faith, I believe many of our wildest dreams will be fulfilled after death, in ways we cannot foresee or imagine. But I don’t think one has to be a believer of any faith to tap into the hope of dreams fulfilled, which is what is so satisfying about a Joseph story well told. Movies are in many ways a hope of dreams fulfilled. Whether an afternoon’s escape from the harsh realities of life, or a motivating call to keep on dreaming, movies are a grand encourager for me, a reason to keep the faith, a reason to see the world, even the harshest realities of life, with a sense of glorious wonder. It might not be the way we planned, but perhaps things will eventually work out all right. As yet another Josephian dreamer is told at the start of another such favorite, ‘If you build it, he will come.”
Which brings me to a few other great Joseph stories. Close Encounters was not the only movie to reduce me to a sobbing mess. I actually rarely cry in life…it’s a problem, frankly… and over the past 40 some odd years I have pretty much only cried in or because of the theatre. Hey, the movie theatre is like a private room to me. It’s my place. It’s where I feel at home. And when I lose it in a movie theatre, it is usually at this type of narrative, it touches so deep.
Shortly after my Close Encounters experience, Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait was released to great popular and critical acclaim.
If you have not seen it or seen it lately, you must check it out. It’s a romantic comedy of the best kind wrapped in the tale of Joseph. Every element is there: the vision, being uprooted from that vision, every circumstance drawing the persistent hero farther away from the dream. The final moments, as things somehow come together but in a very different way than you could ever imagine, are breathtaking. Then there is this one:
Field of Dreams is also very specifically a Joseph tale. It’s a classic American movie filled with a beautiful sense of wonder. I’ll also add this: be glad you weren’t sitting next to me at the end of Field of Dreams. Good Lord. What an amazing movie, with one of the most remarkable final images I’ve ever seen in a film. (For many, the ‘Dad stuff’ in the movie gets them, which I understand. For me, it was that final image. And what it meant. Amazing.)
Finally, as quoted above, there is the magnificent Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, a Joseph tale filled with extreme sacrifice and love, the first animated picture to be nominated for Best Picture, an award it should have won that year.
I’m actually forgetting what might be the grandaddy of Joseph stories at the movies, one that is bursting with color, tangible and emotional. It is one of the most enduring classics of all time because of it’s relation to hopes and dreams and the themes of the Joseph Story: