Monday, June 22, 2015

Spielberg's "Jaws" at 40

I'm on the road for work (hello, Houston!), and am not going to be watching any movies or be doing much reading, so I thought I'd write something up on the 40th Anniversary of one of my favorite movies, the 1975 Spielberg directed shark opus, Jaws.

I didn't fall in love with Jaws until college.  Frankly, I can't say I'm sure if I saw it all the way through until then.  There was some sunny afternoon where I was drinking beer with my brother discussing the movie and realizing, "you know, that really is a hell of a movie when you think about it."  And I picked up the DVD at some point, but hell if I know where it is now.

Of course I love the fact that Jaws plays on cable each summer almost as much as the Vacation movies.  It's the perfect summer movie, especially for those of us who kind of need a push to get to water that isn't a public pool.  Jamie's a big fan, too, so she'll always take in a viewing if that's what we're doing.

I was born about two months before Jaws debuted, but it remained a big enough deal that it was still being discussed when I was learning to ride a big wheel.  As other Gen X'ers will recall, monsters were a big deal at the time, and Jaws was shoe-horned in alongside Frankenstein and The Mummy.  And Godzilla.  It was a weird time.

My earliest specific  memories include the KISS-loving teenager next door telling me and my brother not so much about Jaws in detail, but that it was super scary and people got eaten, and that's all I really needed to lose my three-year-old mind.  It was quite a bit different from the Universal Monsters.  Sharks were real.  From then on, the opaque surface of the ocean (and lakes, and swimming pools, and large tubs of water) seemed to be an open plain beneath which things with grizzly teeth were just waiting to speed at you and give you a super hard time before digesting you.

The movie itself plays on that idea.  The sea can be a playground, but beneath the surface dwell ancient forces, more than happy to chew their way through your summer fun.

Spielberg wasn't a household name yet, but he already had a bizarrely keen sense of character and story.  Sure, he borrowed from Altman and Hawks a bit with the overlapping chatter when it came to dialog, but he also knew what middle-class families looked like, what dads and moms and kids looked like and how they behaved (I still remember being shocked at how real the family felt in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial when I was a kid about the age of those kids.  I think all of us know the difference in feel between Spielberg's squirmy kids and the haphazard households versus the staged families of most movies).   And, dammit, did he know how to build tension.  Not just by shooting and retooling his script, but with camera work and pacing.  Showing and not showing.  And, sweet jeebus, that score by John Williams.  So simple and primal, but as effective as a caudal fin pushing a shark through the water.

And it's not just the shark that's a danger.  As always, it's also in how we respond to such a thing.  Chief Brody is right from the get-go: if no one is in the water, no one will be eaten.  But so are the town's leaders - if they don't open the beach, everyone goes bankrupt.  Except, you know, hungry shark.

What's really amazing, though, are the performances of the three leads.  Roy Scheider as Chief Brody - a New York cop who has just arrived in the seaside town of Amity, ready for a quieter way of life.  Richard Dreyfus as Hooper, the university-lad researcher who has been at sea but can't get taken seriously by fishermen and folks who more traditionally work with their hands.  And, of course, Robert Shaw as Quint.  What could have been cartoonish or loutish done by a lesser actor instead becomes somehow respectable and virtuous.  He may not hold degrees, but he's the one who properly respects the sea and everything beneath the waves, and he's earned it.

The island is full of people doing what people do, panicking, coming up with a million more problems and unworkable solutions and rushing in to create more trouble than just dealing with the shark itself.  As much as about man vs. nature, it's also three very different characters coming together, remaining themselves as they work past the edges of the others to get a job done.

Spielberg is very clearly looking to bring his A Game, a game so A, in fact, it more or less changed movies forever.

There are a few docs out there about Jaws.  Plenty of bonus material on DVDs, etc... And I recommend watching at least one of them, because the movie was not a simple production that ran like clockwork.  It was a nightmare of ill-performing robot sharks, drunk famous actors, production dragging on way past the schedule, egos on set, and the ocean reminding everyone that - yes, it's nature that's really in control (and good luck controlling your set when anything and everything can cross your horizon).

I get the feeling that Jaws is a movie a certain segment of the public has seen and a far larger segment of the public has either seen once, decades ago, or not at all.  People forget that it's not just a dumb movie about a rubber shark, or how good the movie actually is.  They remember being frightened or being told that if they saw the movie they'd be frightened, but there's not a ton of appreciation for what got them there and why it was so effective.  We forgive a lot of modern movies for being "big and loud and stupid", and your mileage will vary when it comes to Jaws.  I'm sure many viewers will see a movie about a scary shark that needs killing.  Others will see some iffy effects and a small cast of faces they feel like they saw in some other movies.

I dunno.  It seems to me that even in making his big summer movie, Spielberg was still trying to make something better than the average movie.  The kinds of stuff you get in the movie - the unspoken but very clear stress within Chief Brody, Mrs. Kintner's slap, Quint's monologue...  all of that creates a movie very much about man vs. nature in a modern context that we don't see all that often anymore.  We like to think we've conquered our planet, whether we say it out loud or not, and that the sea pushes back when we don't respect what lurks within.  It's not a cautionary tale about respecting the environment.  It's a tale of man vs. beast, of man against himself.

And, of course, together, they got one of the best monologues in a movie on film.

I've never seen Jaws 2 or 4.  Jaws 3 is hilariously terrible.  I've seen Deep Blue Sea - which is terrible as well, but it's the only other Shark as Enemy movie I can think of that I've watched that didn't include a tornado or wasn't from The Asylum.  Jaws alone is the one people come back to, and we've had a hard time catching lightning in a bottle again on the screen.  If you don't include the fact I'll gladly sit and watch Shark Week every year.  And like a lot of little kids, my brother and I were always pulling books off the shelf at the library with shark facts and whatnot, and we owned a few.

And, yeah, when we were in Hawaii, I tried to keep Jamie swimming close by when we were snorkling lest Jaws came sidling up to us.

Already Jaws has stood forty years of Hollywood history, passed into the lexicon with other pop culture greats, and shows no signs of fading any time soon.  No doubt modern audiences will be too jaded by its not CGI effects, missing the magic of practical effects and management of the audience - not to mention never realizing what so many filmmakers learned from Jaws and have borrowed from that has passed into the language of film.  I hope I'm wrong and young people today appreciate it as well, but who knows?  Will we still be talking about Jaws in another 20 years?  Another 40?

I like to think so.  I like to think that, despite the additional 40 years of movies since 1975, it'll find it's way into the required viewing lists for a while longer and keep reminding audiences what waits for them out there in the water.

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