Monday, June 24, 2013

Jaws




Jaws
1975
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

I think there is a distinct gap between the public’s impression of Jaws and what the film actually is.  The general impression of Jaws is that it’s a horror film about a monster rampaging shark.  While I would never wholly disagree with this statement, if that is all you want from Jaws, you will probably be rather bored for most of the movie.  In reality, this is a film that defies classification, offering up bits and pieces of multiple genres, all delightfully blended together into a helluva rollercoaster.

  
Police Chief Brody (Scheider) is still kind of a newbie on Amity Island, a resort town in the Northeast that relies on summer dollars for its economy.  When mangled human remains are found on the beach, Brody tries to convince an unbelieving mayor that he has a shark problem on his hands.  When panic starts to spread, Brody calls in help from the oceanographic institute in the form of Hooper (Dreyfuss) along with the salty sea captain Quint (Shaw) in an effort to kill the shark.

  
I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to horror films and violent films and war films.  I don’t have the best tolerance for violence, blood, and gore.  However, I am a huge fan of suspense films and thrillers.  I was scared to see Jaws the first time – I remember that I was in middle school.  There are certain scenes that scared me then (and that still scare me now), but I remember a distinct feeling of “Is that all?” where the blood was concerned after that first viewing.  For all its hype as a man-eating shark horror film, there is little (but not zero!) graphic violence and blood in it, especially by today’s standards. 

Despite the moderate amount of blood, the film has some very scary moments.  The opening prologue – following a skinny-dipper as she is eaten by the shark – is truly terrifying to me.  Her fear is so primal and all-encompassing, and watching her bob up and down in the water, being pulled back and forth against her will, and then finally pulled down for good… ACK!  Susan Backlinie played the girl who drowned, and her brief performance is my favorite scream queen sequence from any film.  It really wigs me out.  There is so much lore around the making of the movie, how Spielberg had to rely on fear of the unknown instead of a frightening monster, I won’t bother going into detail about it, except to add on that this opening sequence is a prime example of that.  You don’t see the shark here.  The camera, right at water level, only shows you the girl’s head, and you don’t know what’s happening just under the surface.  It’s so visceral, so guttural, and really, REALLY scary.  I’ve seen that sequence dozens of times, and it still gets under my skin.  

  
So after scaring the pants off you in the opening, Spielberg then introduces you to his seventies small town dramedy that is the majority of Jaws.  The interaction of Brody with not only the mayor but the rest of his town, and certainly his family, provides a substantial heart and heft to the film.  Spielberg devotes a great deal of time giving you insight into Brody’s life and relationships, but never doing it in a prosaic or predictable manner.  Brody argues with the townspeople in a decidedly chaotic manner; Spielberg has people talk over one another constantly in this movie, to the point where I thought I was watching a Robert Altman film.  It works, though; it emphasizes that no one really understands what’s going on.  With Brody’s family, Spielberg doesn’t give us staged dialogue between Brody and his wife where they tell each other how much they love each other.  Instead, we see Brody’s wife rub his shoulders, hand him a glass of wine, and purr, “Wanna get drunk and fool around?”  Instead of presenting a scene where Brody hugs his sons and tells them tearfully just how much he cherishes them, Spielberg gives us the incredibly tender mimicking sequence, which speaks volumes about the family dynamic.  Scheider is fantastic as Brody, the police chief of an island community who hates the water.  

  
From time to time, I forget what a funny film Jaws is.  So many great lines, so many funny moments.  It’s not primarily a comedy, but Spielberg freely laces in light laughs, mostly in the form of Richard Dreyfuss.  Whether he’s cackling under his breath, “You’re all gonna die!” to a group of ignorant islanders or pulling ridiculous faces at Quint, he’s a great character.  

  
The finale of the film, where the trio embark on their ultimate hunt for the great white shark, is a great piece of filmmaking.  Spielberg doesn’t rush the final encounter.  Instead of one long battle, he breaks it up into much smaller fights between the shark and the men.  In between these fights, there’s a great deal of waiting and preparing and drinking and bonding.  As the men sit around, they swap scar stories, drink apricot brandy, and worry.  The feeling of brotherhood between three men who would otherwise have precious little to do with one another is one of the reasons that this is one of my husband’s favorite films.  And then, just when Spielberg has lulled us into thinking we might be watching a buddy film, the shark appears out of nowhere and everyone jumps out of their seats. 

John Williams’ score is a large part of the success of Jaws.  The deep, throbbing shark theme (shamelessly ripped off from Dvorak, by the way) is established early on a signifier of the shark.  We hear the music, then realize the shark is near.  The rules are established.  Well, then, what happens next?  The rules change, we see the shark without ever hearing the music, and jump out of our seats yet again!  The rest of the score, the non-shark parts, are typical triumphal John Williams in his classic Americana style; rousing and charming.  




Jaws is a rollercoaster of a film, and it’s so much fun.  I don’t wonder that movie-goers flocked to it in droves when it came out.  Spielberg knows how to take you on really terrific ride.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Addendum: I saw Jaws last summer at the Dryden because the Dryden is awesome, but unfortunately, I had a less than stellar theater experience while there.  First of all, the Dryden showed an original print of Jaws, and while this sounds awesome in concept, the original print was in what can only be described as mediocre condition.  There were a lot of small skips and scratches and faded color.  The person doing the introduction described the print as “having character,” which is a nice way to say it’s crap.  Additionally, there was a rather obnoxious group sitting in front of us who consisted of two middle-aged men, presumably brothers, an elderly woman, presumably their mother, and a child who looked no older than 8, more like 6, presumably daughter of one of the men.  I was “lucky” enough to be sitting right behind the poor girl, so I got to witness her excruciating boredom at the first two thirds of Jaws.  Best part of her boredom?  Her vocalization of said boredom at all opportunities and her inability to sit still in her seat.  I THEN got to witness the young girl being utterly traumatized by the final sequences in the film, her shrieks of terror and her quiet sobs as she again couldn’t sit still in her seat, while the adults repeatedly told the girl to “Be quiet!”  They were completely unsympathetic to both her boredom and her terror, and were also rather loud in their indignance toward her.  All of this severely tainted an experience I had really been looking forward to: Jaws on the big screen.  Really, who takes their young child to see this movie?  I am certain there are young kids out there who would enjoy this movie, but not many.  Not the majority.  Thanks, idiotic family.  I know we all have those shitty theater experiences; I’m still really bummed that I had to have such a crap experience with this movie, because Jaws is an awesome movie.

11 comments:

  1. I'm a bigger wimp than you are and put off seeing this much too long. I loved it once I saw it. I think it's a practically perfect example of the summer blockbuster genre, with a little bit of everything good. Love all the actors in this.

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    1. I know what you mean - it seems like it'll be scary, but because it's so much of everything, I gladly take the gore with the gentle humor and unexpected thrills. Definitely a perfect summer film. (I actually wrote this review months ago, but I saved posting it until summer for these reasons.)

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  2. I think this is my favorite Spielberg film, and a lot of it is what you mention here. The mimic scene is wonderful, as is the scene where Hooper shows up to the Brody house while Chief Brody is getting himself drunk.

    Jaws is a classic horror film--it follows all of the horror guidelines, like not showing us the shark until we're well into the film and slowly building the tension. And the characters are real people. Brody and Hooper and Quint are all people with real histories. The scar swapping scene is great--completely comic (including Roy Scheider contemplating sharing his appendix scar) until it becomes something so serious and sobering that it's almost too much to take.

    But of course you know I love this film. There's a reason I use a shot from it as my site's logo, after all.

    Dammit...now I want to watch Jaws.

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    1. I know, I already had you pegged as being a fan of this movie! But it's so hard NOT to be a fan, when there's so much in it.

      UGH the scar scene. A classic. My husband and I will occasionally break out into "Show me the way to go home!"

      I don't think I mentioned this in my piece, but Jaws is one of my husband's favorite movies. He's seen most, if not all, of the sequels as well. I refrained from those, though.

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  4. Every summer at the YMCA, they screen this movie on the pool deck for us to watch on floats in the pool. It's the best movie-going experience.

    This is my mom's favorite movie, so I used to watch it with her when I was little. Her running commentary kept me entertained even through the slower parts (and explained a lot too). We both love this movie.

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    1. Holy cow, seeing this while floating in a pool - that's brave! And definitely sounds like a very cool movie experience.

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  5. I only saw this film for the first time a year or two ago and I was really taken with the way the Richard Dreyfuss steals so many scenes. Of course I had already culturally absorbed what the film was about and how it ended and what roles Scheider and Shaw played, but Dreyfuss was an unexpected delight. Close runner-up in favorite things about this movie: the mayor's sport jacket with the little anchors. WANT.

    Because I saw this movie so late in life, I had already seen Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy about a million times before I ever knew that the scene at the bar where Banky and Alyssa compare scars is a direct homage to the Quint and Hooper scene on the boat. Learn something new every day.

    And your story about the Dryden reminds me of when the Star Wars movies were remastered and re-released theatrically in 1997. My buddies and I all went to a matinee of A New Hope and behind us was a father and his young son, probably all of four or five years old. The climax of the movie, the run on the Death Star, freaked that little boy right the heck out, so I got to hear him crying plus his father talking basically non-stop trying to calm him down ("Look, there's R2-D2, you *like* R2-D2!" &c.) Granted, taking a little kid to see Star Wars makes a bit more sense than taking a little kid to see Jaws, but man ... now that I have kids I know they can handle G-rated cartoons in the theater, but any other classics which are even slightly intense I will be far better off introducing them to via DVD in the comfort of our own home.

    - Sunny D

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    1. The mayor is a great foil in the film. I hadn't noticed the anchors on his jacket; that just gives me something to look forward to when I inevitably watch this movie again!

      Dreyfuss is fantastic in this movie. He's got such a great blend of neurotic intelligentsia and painful humanity, along with being very funny of course.

      Oh lordy, I can't quite imagine having that running commentary going for Star Wars. We had something similar with the first Harry Potter movie, although it was the opposite - a young child was giving her parent running commentary on what was happening in the film. Rob and I still yell out "That's Professor McGonagall!" in high-pitched voices from time to time.

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  6. I love Jaws, too. Quint's soliloquy about the Indianapolis may be the best ever put on film. And the movie does a great job of communicating just how awesome the shark is.

    For instance when they hit it with the third barrel we see Quint, almost as if he's reassuring himself, "it can't go down with THREE". Then we have a shot following the three barrels as the get closer and closer to the boat...then they go under. Goosebumps. Just to cap it, Dreyfuss' character is in disbelief, asks Quint if he's ever seen a shark take down three, Quint quietly says no, then tries to gruffly cover the fact that he's finally and truly scared himself as he says he's going to point the boat towards shore. When the two EXPERTS get scared, we know we should be scared, too.

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    1. I didn't mention Quint's speech, but that's partly because everything's already been said about it. Agreed - it's brilliant.

      Really nice point about seeing the experts getting wigged out. Yes, I remember that scene, and it really is frightening to see Quint, this hardened sea captain who has been through everything imaginable, surprised by the power of the shark. YIKES!!!!!

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