Monday, August 20, 2012

37 YEARS LATER, JAWS STILL HAS BITE


This weekend was one of the last big summer movie weekends, and THE EXPENDABLES 2 opened about 29% off of expectations. It’s been one of those kinds of summers where, outside of the big success of THE AVENGERS, little has lived up to the hype. Certainly none have come close to creating the kind of summer movie hysteria that JAWS created back when it opened in the summer of 1975. To call it a phenomenon is an understatement. And now with it’s spiffy new Blu-ray release this past week and the Huffington Post characterizing it as the most influential film of all-time (http://huff.to/NL0VPQ), it’s time to take a new look at this Steven Spielberg masterpiece. 
Original caricature of Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw & Roy Scheider in JAWS
Indeed, HuffPo got it right.  JAWS did change the film industry forever. For starters, it set the summer template for blockbusters to come, not only setting ridiculously high expectations for what a film could reap at the box office, but also in the way it was rolled out. It opened on over 400 screens at the time, which was extremely rare, almost unheard of, in the 1970’s. (Another blockbuster wannabe, BREAKOUT starring Charles Bronson, opened on a thousand screens earlier that year, but it bombed.) And Universal Studios cleverly marketed the film on TV, launching a series of 30-second commercials, mini-trailers if you will, that have now become the norm for film promotion. At that time, newspaper advertising still got the lion’s share of movie ad dollars, but the JAWS broader and more visceral media buy demonstrably whetted people’s appetites for this big fish story. 
Brody's reaction to seeing the shark up close set up Scheider's brilliant ad-lib, "You're gonna need a bigger boat."
But all that marketing wouldn’t have made a dime of difference if the movie hadn’t been utterly superb. And  JAWS was. To watch it anew again, via the new two-disc set, is to not only see a movie that looks amazing with its digitally remastered picture restored from the high resolution of its 35 mm print, but to realize that few summer releases or films in the horror genre have as much bite. Or as much lasting impact on our cinema psyches.
Robert Shaw delivers Quint's famous monologue about delivering the Atomic Bomb.
Taken from a pulpy, sexed-up Peter Benchley novel (the scientist Matt Hooper has an affair with Chief Brody’s wife in the book), the movie surges way beyond Benchley’s purple prose. Director Steven Spielberg, all of 26 when he filmed on Martha’s Vineyard, wisely eliminated the affair and cast Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper (Not exactly hunk central.) He went for superb actors, never condescending to the machinations of a monster movie, and rounded out his leads with acclaimed thespians Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw. Spielberg also cheekily cast a lot of the locals, non-actors most of them, in the small parts of the townspeople and it gives the film a salty authenticity.
Steven Spielberg in the jaws of the mechanical shark "Bruce"
Spielberg also was an incredible improviser. As the documentary features on the discs showcase, the mechanical shark malfunctioned constantly under the rigors of the briny waters of the Atlantic Ocean. “Bruce”, as it was not so affectionately dubbed by Spielberg after his Hollywood lawyer, delayed the film for weeks and forced Spielberg to re-storyboard his picture. Spielberg shrewdly chose to use the difficulties to his advantage. He decided not to reveal the shark in its entirety until almost 90 minutes into the picture. Thus, he not only kept us from seeing a prop that might not have looked all that convincing, but it made the shark seem all the more real because our imaginations filled in the rest of what we could not see.
A side shot of the mechanical shark and all its working parts.
And John Williams’ nerve-jangling score did the same as well. By creating his famous “Da dum, da dum” theme, Williams let the shark have presence even if it wasn’t visible. Williams and Spielberg also were brilliant to not overuse their tensely aggressive theme music. As noted in the disc’s main documentary, the theme is only heard when the shark actually is present. It is cleverly absent from the scene where you think the shark is attacking the July 4th vacationers, but it’s actually just two kids playing a prank. 

There are so many other wonderful things to reflect upon after seeing the movie again with fresh eyes: Scheider’s subtle acting of self-loathing after being slapped by one victim’s mother; Shaw’s casual body language, legs crossed and snacking on a chip, as he announces to the town board his services as a Great White hunter; the overlapping dialogue in the screenplay that gives the narrative realism as well as a sense of comedy. Then there’s the obvious things that you’ll all remember like Verna Field’s masterful editing throughout, the eyeless fisherman’s head popping out of that boat, Shaw’s monologue about delivering the bomb, the Orca sinking, and iconic line after iconic line like, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” (a Roy Scheider ad-lib!) and “This was no boating accident!” 
The original 1975 iconic movie poster
 Yet for me, the most amazing part of JAWS is the fact that it treats horror seriously. And why it remains my favorite horror movie to this day. Yes, it’s an implausible tale about a Moby Dick-esque fish that seems to have a mind for terrorizing as well as tenderizing the people of Amity Island. And true, it’s a bit farfetched that shooting a gas tank caught in the corner of the shark’s hungry mouth would explode him like an oil rig. Still, Spielberg knew that the story was visceral, that his screenplay was smart, and that his cast and crew were perfectionists. Bill Butler’s revolutionary underwater photography alone gives this film a cachet that horror never had, and that is just one of the reasons it is not only one of the greatest frighteners of all-time, it is also simply one of the best movies that Hollywood has ever made.

We’ll see if we’re still talking about any Avenger or Expendable 36 years later with the same awe and affection. Sorry, Iron Man and Sly, but you’ve got nothing on ol’ Bruce.

3 comments:

  1. I couldn't even get into the tub for a week or two...

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  2. Wonderful and truly excellent analysis! JAWS is such a brilliant movie, and you truly nailed the reason why: it never condescends to the audience or the performers. Some have called it cliched, but the reality is that it comes off cliched at times because it pioneered those cliches!

    For me, I've come to absolutely love the movie because of the performances. You have Quint the eccentric Great White Hunter played beautifully by the drunken method actor Robert Shaw, the Yankee know-it-all scientist Hooper played with intellectual smarminess by Richard Dreyfuss, and the mayor-with-his-head-up-his-ass Vaughn played with delicious idiocy by Murray Hamilton.

    But the glue that holds it together is Roy Scheider as Chief Brody. The story is told from his POV, and Spielberg does everything to make him a fish out of water (sorry, I couldn't resist):

    1. He's an alien (a New Yorker who can't even get the Amity accent down)
    2. He's emasculated (a NYPD cop playing sheriff in a one-stoplight resort town)
    3. He's powerless (the Amity mayor and other powers that be directly challenge his authority)
    4. He's not all that heroic (not only does he hate the water, but he's even dressed like a shmuck in a black shirt and zinc on his nose during the beach scene)
    5. He gets all the crap jobs on the boat (shoveling chum into the water, tying knots, driving the boat while Hooper and Quint repair it).

    Even with all that against him, we are rooting for this guy to prevail almost from the very start. And like the lone cowboy left to battle the bad guys for control of the town all on his own, he finally asserts his manhood ("Smile, you son of a bitch!") and wins.

    ELLEN BRODY: What am I going to tell the kids?
    CHIEF BRODY: Tell them I'm going fishing.

    Fast fish. :)

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  3. Great comments, Michael. So true about the character of Martin Brody. I love the way Spielberg inhibited Scheider's tough, broken-nosed face too with those wire frame glasses. Fits right in with your emasculation process of Brody too. Of course, Brody loses them and looks every bit like a Bronx 'good fella' when he finally lines up that shot at the end and blows the shark to smithereens. Just one of the many details that makes JAWS one of the greatest films of all time.

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