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Movie of the Day: Jaws (1976)

04 Jul

Most of us have never known a summer without Jaws, and those of my generation can’t remember a time when the movies existed without Steven Spielberg. We grew up on a healthy diet of his films at a time when he was still a wide-eyed kid, bursting with ideas, filled with a passion for the medium and always keenly aware of how to entertain the heck out of his audience.

Whenever I see Jaws, I am always aware that I am witnessing some sort of miracle. This is a movie that by all measurable reason should not have worked as well as it did. It was based on a clunky, overwritten pulp novel; the plot was rail thin; it was directed by a 27 year-old film director best known for a TV movie; It starred a broken mechanical shark that had so much downtime that we saw it for less than 10 minutes on the screen. The entire production was the working definition of Murphy’s Law, and yet it all came together so well that even after 40 years we’re still talking about it.

In what must be the strangest bit of irony, the best parts of Jaws were the product of piecing together all the things that weren’t working. Steven Spielberg wanted the shark to be the star of Jaws. The way he story-boarded it, the shark would have appeared in half the movie. Remember the attack on Chrissie Watkins? That was to have featured the girl and the shark at the same time, but since the mechanics of the shark didn’t work right, he borrowed a note from Hitchcock by hiding the antagonist for most of the film. Fortunately for us, it was a tactic that he would use to great effect.

Jaws does best by what it does least. When we see the shark it is rarely in the cold light of day. Revisiting the film again – for the first time last week in a movie theater – I counted the number of scenes in which we actually see the shark, and I could only count three and they all take place in the film’s third act. Spielberg’s use of empty space was what made the movie work. We see point of view shots; long shots; cut-aways; a fin here, a tail there. At times we aren’t sure what we’re seeing and that absence of a clear view plays on our imagination.

The lack of visual reveal leaves our minds to fill in the blanks, and that creates an unexpected intimacy. Again, consider the death of Chrissie Watkins in the film’s opening, which many consider to be Spielberg’s equivalent of the  shower scene in Psycho. Chrissie goes in the water at night. As she swims around there is a point of view shot from under the water. She’s jostled by something that scares her, then for the next several minutes, she is thrashed about by a shark that we never see. The scene plays with our senses. At one point, she grabs a buoy nearby thinking that the attack is over, but she is then pulled away and disappears beneath the water. What makes the scene work is that we aren’t seeing these events from a distance. We’re in the water with her. There’s a startling intimacy to her death scene and for the rest of the movie, we have a template in our minds of the terror that our protagonists are up against.

The streamlining of the story is what works best here. Human characters are important but the plot needed to focus just on the shark. Screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and the book’s author Peter Benchley took out some of the book’s clunky narrative including the subplot involving Amity’s government being bankrolled by the mafia (which is why the mayor doesn’t want the beaches closed); and a bit of infidelity between Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody. Plus, the ending, which is spectacular in the movie is kind of underwhelming in the book as the shark simply succumbs to a harpoon wound and drowns.

The absence of the mechanical shark also leaves us with a lot of time to get to know the characters, and that’s where the heart of the movie lies. It might have been easier to fill the roles with cardboard cut-outs, characters who are propped up as fodder for the mill, but Spielberg’s screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and the book’s author Peter Benchley streamlined the story and focused on the main characters, giving us a family man, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who suffers from a touch of aqua phobia; Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) an ichthyologist who is in love with sharks; and a crusty old sea salt who isn’t a million miles removed from Captain Ahab.

All three of these characters are given dimensions. Brody’s familial bond is felt in a tender moment at the dinner table when he plays the “same game” with his youngest son. Hooper’s youth and experience could have been a tiresome joke, but there is a lot of weight to what he knows, he serves the audience with nuggets of information about the shark.

But the best role in the film goes to Quint, an old sea salt whose motivation for catching the shark are laid out in the film’s single best scene, a harrowing four minute monologue in which he recounts his experience on board The Indianapolis, the WWII naval vessel that was sunk by a Japanese sub leaving 3000 helpless sailors to be fish food for the sharks. Late in the film when Quint busts the radio with a bat to keep Brody from calling for help, his motivation is crystal clear.

Even the tinier roles are given dimensions. There’s the town’s mayor Larry Vaughn who could have been just a foil but reasons that the town needs tourism to survive despite the shark. There’s Brody’s wife Ellen, who naturally worries about her husband, but is also cool and laid back: “Wanna get drunk and fool around?” And there’s Mrs. Kitner, the mother of a boy who is killed by the shark, a reminder that in most monster movies, victims are dispatched with little fanfare, but she gets a moment when she is in mourning, reminding of the dire gravity of this situation.

Without human interaction Jaws would fall flat on its face. This is a very strange, very specific story that could be just a monster movie whose only destination might have been late night television. Shark attack stories are hard to tell. How many shark movies have been a success after Jaws? Even the sequels decline sharply in quality after this (all were sans Spielberg). Jaws 2 was entertaining but basically unnecessary. Jaws 3D was a silly excuse for 3D, and Jaws: The Revenge? . . . well, we all know how that turned out.

Seeing the film for the first time in a theater two years ago – my entire exposure up until then had been on television –was something special. First, the print. It was crisp and beautiful where most older films that have returned to theaters, especially those originally shot on film like Top Gun and Raiders of the Lost Ark, look grainy when transferred to digital. Not so with Jaws. The picture was beautiful, the colors popped and the immersive quality was something that I realize that I will never get in my living room.

Another advantage was the sound. Remember that great scene where the three men are in the hull of the boat drinking? That scene ends with the shark bumping its nose against the side of the boat. On television it makes a knocking sound. In a theater there’s a startling BOOM!  Also, John Williams now legendary score is enhanced. The music is in a slightly different pitch then the dialogue or the natural sounds. That makes the stinger cues, like the head that pops out of the side of Ben Gardner’s boat, arrive with a jolt.

Looking back over 40 years, it’s hard to believe how movies have changed in such a short time. When Jaws was released in June of 1975, there was no summer movie season. Film, at the time, was just emerging from the downfall of the production code and filmmakers were working with darker subject matter. This was the era of personal filmmaking from which emerged talents like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and of course, Steven Spielberg.

The most enduring legacy of Jaws was Spielberg. Here was a kid from the mid-west who had his heart firmly planted in the canvas of the movies, not simply as an artist, but as someone who wanted to entertain. If Jaws hadn’t worked, his career might have ended before it had even started. But it did work. Everything that went wrong with the movie bred something right with the final result. His career would redefine the movies, making them fun again, anticipating and in many ways creating the era of the blockbuster – both for better and for worse. His filmography is a tapestry of some of the greatest works of popular American culture from the last third of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. Jaws helped redefined the art and the business of the movies. Spielberg gave the movies what it needed most, a bigger boat, a party boat, that we’ve happily been sailing on for more than forty years.

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