May 1999
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Visiting the Real Monolith
What I did on my vacation

I'm going through heavy withdrawal here. With all the heavy traffic of Summer-Blockbuster-a-go-go coming up soon, late April is a weak time for movie releases. Most folks can use this time to catch up on all the flicks that everybody else has seen, or catch that post-Oscar re-release, or even (hopefully) support their neighborhood revival house. But what's your friendly neighborhood internet film reviewer supposed to do? Oh, I suppose I could write something about that big sci-fi movie somebody told me about that's supposed to be out by the end of May, but that might be too obscure for this audience.

Just then, fate stepped in to save the day.

I took a little drive across the country last week (I won't go into the reason why - long story), and on the way visited the scene of one of the country's most beloved films. And mine.

"One day, an Indian tribe was camped beside the river and seven small girls were playing at a distance. The region had a large bear population and a bear began to chase the girls. They ran back toward their village, but the bear was about to catch them. The girls jumped up on a rock about three feet high and began to pray to the rock, "Rock, take pity on us; Rock save us." The rock took pity on the pleas of the young girls and began to elongate itself upwards, pushing them higher and higher out of the reach of the bear. The bear jumped and clawed at the sides of the rock, and broke its claws and fell to the ground. The bear continued to jump at the rock until the girls were pushed up into the sky, where they are to this day in a group of seven little stars. The marks of the bear claws are there yet."

the rock If history were fair, this legend of the creation of Devil's Tower, passed down through hundreds of generations, would be the most commonly known story about it. But the truth is that the first named United States National Monument was not very well known - at least in the national consciousness or popular culture - until 1978 when Steven Speilberg made one of his best features, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

I didn't know what to expect from the movie when I first saw it, other than whatever hype I'd read in the sci-fi magazines. These were the days when Star Wars was still thought of as a possible fluke. Studios were cautiously following with a few "special effects" features, trying to find out how to best cash in on the craze. I hadn't seen Jaws yet at the time, but I imagined that its success was the only reason they'd let Speilberg make a big budget movie about little grey men from outer space. Those kinds of movies were only made at low budgets for the drive-ins back then.

The movie blew me away, and still gives me a thrill after many visits (in whatever of the many editions I see it). It wasn't only a wild special effects movie about the UFO phenomena, or even just a story about an average guy who gets to meet aliens. It was about a BIG thing that everyone, no matter who they are, really wants to have happen to them. They want - need - to believe that some day they'll get a chance to be a part of something that's much bigger than themselves, something that banishes all petty cares from their lives.

Okay, it's corny as hell, but I'm far from the first to think of CE3K as a religious experience. A lot of movies have tried to translate that kind of thing to film, but this was the first one that really hit the mark and I got into it 150%.

For all I'd read and seen about the movie, I didn't know until visiting Devil's Tower itself how fitting it was for the film's climax. Lots of geologic formations have character, personality even. But Devil's Tower is spooky. Looking at it, it's hard to believe that it's real. It feels like something from another planet plopped down on Wyoming. It's not something you'd expect to be able to drive right up to - even over the muddy, bumpy road currently being rebuilt. I expected that I would've had to jump out of a helicopter and run from federal agents just like Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon (and wasn't that TV's alien John Lithgow trying to tag along?).

Making the visit even more surreal is what's at the base of the monument: a bar! You can go in and suck down a cold beer right in the shadow of the Great Spirit's Holy Work. There's gift shop that sells every different kind of trinket, keepsake, gewgaw, or souvenir of the occasion that you could think of with the monument stuck on it somewhere, be it tasteful and classy or with a horde of grinning glow-in-the-dark Grays plastered all over it in dayglow colors.

Geologists can tell you that Devil's Tower is nothing more than the core of a long extinct volcano left standing after the surrounding rock had fallen away, but for me, it's still the dark side of the moon and Ground Zero for friendly cargo pant wearing visitors from other worlds. also...


in the junk drawer:

and such
and such

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