Monday, August 06, 2007
DAY 6: Jaws (1975)
One of the most difficult prospects confronting the modern critic writing about classic movies is that so much has already been written about them that the critic fears sounding redundant. When dealing with a film that has become such a major part of contemporary culture—with practically every inch of footage scrutinized, every frame of film analyzed, every cut studied, nearly every line of dialogue having made its way into the hall of memorable movie quotes, every character having become indelible, every actor’s performance grown iconic, every note of the music score immortalized and every story about the making of the film told repeatedly--how does one possibly unpack any interesting new insights into it which have not yet been uncovered? When it seems as if every possible layer of meaning has been explored, how does one try to find a fresh and innovative perspective on it? How does one try to bring something new to the table about an old familiar favorite?
The answer is... one doesn’t. The role of the critic/film historian is not to make the “old seem new” but simply to make sure that the “great still seems great.” Perhaps in the process of doing so, the critic actually will uncover some new perspective on the work, but that really shouldn't be the intent. The intent should be simply to elucidate what gives a great film the status it deserves. Thus, although I struggled for a long time on what to write about Jaws--wrestling with what I personally could bring to the conversation--I ultimately decided to simply express what I thought made (and still makes) the film great. Therefore, most of the ideas you will be reading in this piece have already been expressed by many other smarter and more eloquent people than I, but I can’t let that deter me from reminding myself (and others) about the truth of those ideas.
Jaws truly is a modern American classic. It is a prime example of Hollywood entertainment at its best, a pitch-perfect balance of style and spectacle, of great storytelling combined with visceral filmmaking, a splendid marriage of art and commerce. It is, as I have said many times before, a perfect movie. This is not to suggest that the film does not contain plot holes, logical errors or just good old-fashioned movie mistakes (including that Spielberg “favorite” of showing the shadow of the cameraman). Not at all. Jaws is “perfect” for what it was intended to be. It is not “perfect” in the sense that it is free of mistakes. In fact, the film is loaded with them, but Jaws is that rare kind of product where even the mistakes seem to improve the film rather than detract from it. Every creative decision made for this film was exactly the one that needed to be made. Any other movie could have only 1/100 of the “mistakes” contained in Jaws and still not be 1/100 as terrific a film. In art, there is a difference between doing the “right” thing and doing the “correct” thing.
Of course, as many people know, not all the decisions that were made came about in the most unrestricted of circumstances. By this point, most people are at least somewhat acquainted with the level of difficulties that faced the filmmakers in the production of the movie. It has been the subject of numerous books (the best of which is probably Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log) and documentaries (including the excellent Laurent Bouzerau-directed feature for the 30th anniversary DVD release and the recent The Shark is Still Working: an independently produced film which not only focuses on the making of the movie but on its “legacy” as well; currently still looking for distribution). It was even used as the basis for a made-for-TV movie entitled Courage and Stupidity, wherein an actor named Todd Wall plays a young Steven Spielberg trying desperately to get his movie made against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Yet the enormity of these hardships and the manner in which the filmmakers dealt with them (sometimes overcoming and sometimes simply relenting) only goes to demonstrate that, in spite of appearances at the time, the “movie gods” were truly with this movie. The impossible conditions resulted in a much better film than what would’ve been created otherwise. While I do not plan to go into all of the stories involved in the making of the film, since any of these other sources would be a far better way to familiarize yourself with the nightmarish events surround the production of Jaws, I might (as I said in my preface) touch on it briefly in my examination of the finished product, which is really my main concern here: how did Jaws ultimately turn out and what part did the then 27-year-old Steven Spielberg play in bringing it to the big screen?
Jaws first began as a debut novel by Peter Benchley. Even before it’s publication, producers Dick Zanuck and David Brown, seeing the potential for a good movie, acquired the rights to it and found a director to helm the project. While preparing for the release of Sugarland Express*, Spielberg came across a stack of papers in an office at Universal with the word “Jaws” on the front page. It turned out to be “galleys” for the yet unpublished book. Intrigued by the title--later confessing that he was wondering if maybe it had to do with dentists or something--Spielberg asked to take it home. He read it in one night and, much like his reaction to Duel (which he realized was a similar story), completely flipped for it. Knowing that the producers of the film were the producers of his own movie he approached them asking if he could direct the film. They informed him that another director was already attached but if that fell through, he could have it. Sure enough, the movie gods smiled upon Jaws and the other director left the project. Steven Spielberg’s next movie was to be the big screen adaptation of the soon to be best-selling book Jaws.
*Note: The fact that Spielberg had selected Jaws as his next project before the release (and obviously poor box office reception) of Sugarland Express disproves the theory many people have that Spielberg chose Jaws specifically because he wanted the kind of hit that Sugarland hadn’t turned out to be. It’s an anecdote commonly referred to as the beginning of Spielberg’s “selling out” to the almighty dollar and not following through on the counter-culture/“new Hollywood” instincts shared by his contemporaries and which he demonstrated in works like Amblin’ and Sugarland. Peter Biskind, in his controversial book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, is a propogator of this perspective.
Spielberg assembled a top-notch cast, an extremely talented production/post-production crew (including editor Verna Fields, cinematographer Bill Butler, production designer Joe Alves and composer John Williams) and shot the film at Martha’s Vineyard. Although principal photography was scheduled for a mere 52-3 days, the shoot went over by more than 100 with the ocean providing all sorts of problems and the mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce” after Spielberg’s lawyer) refusing to work. As a result, Spielberg ended up showing the shark on screen even less than he originally intended to. As he demonstrated in Duel, Spielberg knew that “what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do” and he had always planned on not showing the shark for the first half of the film but it was supposed to make more appearances in the second half of the movie. The rare glimpses of the shark seen even in the film’s hunting sequences only make Jaws a stronger film. Nonetheless, it was a very painful process (Spielberg has called it the most difficult shoot of his career) with Spielberg almost quitting several times, but the “proof is in the pudding.” The resulting film is a masterwork of audience manipulation (with even Hitchcock himself expressing admiration for it) and it proved to be a success of unprecedented proportions.
Jaws opens with what has become a very common scene for a film of this genre: an innocent is taken by a “monster” which we do not see. In this case it is a young girl named Chrissie who leaves a group of teenagers partying on a beach in the early morning to go skinny-dipping. While her accompanying male friend passes out drunk on the sand, Chrissie swims out rather far and in a frighteningly unsettling scene (particularly when she cries: "Oh God, help me! God, please, HELP!") is pulled under by what will later be revealed to be a great white shark. As she thrashes around in the water screaming, Spielberg wisely shows nothing. Like the use of montage to imply violence in the shower murder in Psycho, the images in Jaws create violence in our own minds rather than depicting it before our eyes (both Hitch and Spielberg rely on the audience's imaginations to provide the details). In point of fact, there are numerous similarities between the shower scene in Psycho and the death of Chrissie. Both involve beautiful young women being killed by an unseen force, both feature water prominently into the equation, both women are essentially “trapped” with nowhere to escape to, both women are completely naked and thus completely vulnerable and in both cases there is a not-so-subtle sexual connotation to the attack. Just as Mother’s butcher knife could be interpreted as representative of the male member, the shark can be seen as a sort of phallic symbol and its penetration of Chrissie’s flesh indicative of a rape/violation of her body (interestingly one of the many things she cries out in her distress is “It hurts!” and one of the things the young man resting peacefully on the beach whispers to himself is “I’m coming. I’m coming.”).
In the subsequent scenes we meet the film’s central character, the new sheriff of an idyllic island town called Amity named Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). Spielberg immediately establishes Brody as an “outsider” through a series of incidents where he is clearly seen as someone who doesn’t belong, doesn’t fit or is just generally awkward and uncomfortable in these surroundings. Brody also has a crippling fear of water. Like David Mann in Duel, Brody’s character is a highly flawed “everyman” with his own personal issues that he must overcome in addition to the external obstacles he will soon be confronted with. Unlike the Dennis Weaver character, however, Brody is a real family man. The home life glimpsed briefly in Duel did not seem to contain much warmth, but Brody loves his wife (Lorraine Gary) and children very much and in fact, they will be part of the reason he will be driven to confront his fears in order to destroy this threat to his town and his way of life.
When Brody learns of the disappearance of the girl from the previous night, he questions the young man who was with her and subsequently the two of them find her remains (again mostly unseen) washed up on the beach. When the medical examiner concludes she was the victim of a shark attack (which is finally revealed to the audience in the close-up shot of a typewriter, a la Columbo: Murder by the Book) Brody immediately tries to have the beaches shut down. Hearing about this, and concerned for the financial security of his “summer town,” Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton, always seen wearing the most hideous suits) talks Brody out of it suggesting it could have been an accident merely caused by a boat propeller.
"You yell 'shark' and we have a panic on our hands on the 4th of July."
Although Brody doesn’t believe this explanation he nevertheless bows to the political pressure and soon regrets it. It should be mentioned that this theme of the mayor being more concerned with the commercial fate of the community rather than the lives of its citizens is one of many subplots that feature more prominently in the book (another being an affair that occurs between Brody’s wife and the soon-to-appear ichthyologist character Matt Hooper). In adapting the narrative to the screen Spielberg heavily streamlines the story, cutting out a lot of elements that might have been necessary in a work of literature but which would not have made Jaws a better movie. Jaws is a very lean and very economic film. Although it is heavily simplified from the book, it is not a “simple” movie.
Brody’s decision to allow people to go swimming comes back to "bite him in the ass" in a sequence where he is sitting on the beach with his wife and children watching nervously as people frolic in the water. Several times he (and we) think a shark might be attacking but it proves to be only a false alarm. The entire sequence is shot and edited magnificently as Spielberg captures the increasing fear and paranoia of Brody and in turn causes the audience to experience the subsequent attack through his eyes. When a young boy is grabbed by something out in the water and there is a spurt of blood, Spielberg uses the same Vertigo shot he employed in Sugarland but here it is even more effective as it visually represents Brody’s psychological state: his isolation from the situation and his inability to do anything about it (the eerie effect of the shot further enhanced by John Williams in a sort of “stretching” sound created by strings). Brody is powerless to stop the horrible event that is unfolding before him. He even rushes out to the water for a second but stops (again because of his hydrophobia) and simply starts yelling “Get everybody out!” The man whose job it is to protect people has failed miserably. He has come upon an area in which he is impotent and if he is going to solve this problem then he is ultimately going to have to deal with his fear.
Since there is now no denying the presence of a shark, the townspeople gather to discuss what is to be done about it and we meet another important character: Robert Shaw’s shark-hunting Quint. In what may be one of the great introductions of movie history, he runs his fingernails across a chalkboard silencing all of the arguing people and reminding them of who he is and what he does for a living. The strength and power of Quint is demonstrated not only by the way he assumes control of the room but the way he commands the camera as well. In a long tracking shot, we start out on the other side of the room from him but slowly creep in until we are looking at him in close-up as he makes his offer ("Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that ya get the head... the tail... the whole damn thing."). When he is finished talking, he rises, says goodbye and leaves. Although we do not see Quint again for quite a while, we know that eventually he is going to have to be consulted in the destruction of this shark. It should be noted that although most of the performances in the film are grounded in realism, there has been some criticism of Shaw’s Quint as the stereotypically “salty sea-dog sailor” character (an obvious homage to Captain Ahab). There is legitimacy to this but just as the film itself does an excellent job of making an audience believe something which is utterly ridiculous (as anyone with even a modicum of shark knowledge can attest to) Quint’s character doesn’t need to be “realistic” to be believable and indeed the extreme eccentric nature of his persona not only serves as a great counterpoint to the other characters but makes for a far more memorable and entertaining experience than it would have been otherwise. I couldn’t imagine Jaws without it.
Shortly thereafter we are introduced to another major character: the oceanographer Matt Hooper played by Richard Dreyfus (my personal favorite character in the film). Hooper completes the trio of men who will eventually hunt down the shark and kill it in the film’s second half and in many ways he is the exact opposite of Quint. While Quint is older, more “traditional” and more self-taught in the way he deals with sharks, Hooper is young, educated and relies more on newer, more technological toys (watching the two men go from animosity and competition to respect and teamwork is another very rewarding aspect of the film). The famous comparing of scars scene beautifully represents the bonding of these two (while simultaneously capturing Brody’s “otherness” once again) and leads into a scene where it is revealed why Quint hates sharks so much (whereas Hooper, as he says many times throughout the film, “loves” sharks, emphasizing another difference between the two). The now legendary Indianapolis speech was the subject of a previous post of mine here on Windmills so I see little need to go into it again now.
"That's it! Goodbye. I'm not going to waste my time anymore arguing with a man who's lining up to be a hot lunch!"
While Duel and Jaws share a number of common characteristics, one of the excellent aspects Jaws possesses which, as I mentioned previously, could be counted as a criticism against Duel is its structure. The structure of Jaws is (and I feel a little silly constantly using this descriptor but I’m having real trouble coming up with a better one) perfect. Certainly it is used as a prime example of the practice of three-act storytelling but it is also (as Ted Pigeon of Cinematic Art points out here) neatly divided into two parts: the first part taking place on land and the second being a Moby Dick-like hunt on the sea. The story unfolds in such a deliberate, wonderfully-paced and logical manner that the individual set pieces, again a typical area of strength for Spielberg, do not exist in and of themselves but function as parts of a greater whole. While Spielberg would struggle with the episodic nature of his films throughout his career, he would occasionally manage to strike a nice balance between featuring fantastic individual moments and still having a strong story foundation to connect them (films like E.T. and Schindler’s List find that balance while films like Raiders and Jurassic Park return to Spielberg’s more episodic tendencies). I am not suggesting that one is necessarily better than the other. In fact, there are times when both are perfectly appropriate. It’s just an interesting phenomenon to observe.
When the shark is finally destroyed at the climax (in a way foreshadowed several times earlier in the film) Spielberg makes one final nod to the kinship between Duel and Jaws. The "roar" made by the truck in the extended slow-mo shot at the finale of Duel is heard in Jaws as the bloody carcass of the shark descends into the depths of the ocean. In both cases the death of the "beast" came as a result of the hero taking a lone stand against (through the process finally confronting his debilitating fear) and triumphing in a spectacularly victorious way. Again, although the notion that an oxygen tank would explode when shot is patently absurd, Spielberg achieves verisimiltude to the point that audiences not only accepted it but stood their feet and cheered in the theatres when it happened. Duel might have led to Jaws but Jaws truly outdid Duel in just about every way. Then, in a well-earned bit of Spielbergian happy "ending-ness," Hooper swims to the surface (having barely survived an encounter with the shark in a cage earlier) swims over to Brody and the two share a laugh. Hooper asks "Quint?" and Brody just shakes his head and mutters "No." indicating that Quint did not survive but in fact was eaten in what was probably the film's most livid sequence. The two then swim back to shore and the credits roll over the image (done in wide shot) of their safely reaching land. As Dreyfus would later say about the film's preview: "The movie ends and the audience applauds. We swam away, it says "the End" and they just went crackers... and then they sat there and they watched every single last credit... and then they applauded again, and I have never seen that."
The cultural impact of Jaws can be seen not only in the overwhelmingly positive reception by critics and audiences but in the influence it held over people's minds and actions in the summer of '75 and even ever since. People who were unafraid of swimming now thought twice about going into the water and people who were already reluctant to do so only had their resolve to stay dry strengthened by the film. To this day I would venture to say it is impossible to be in water without hearing John Williams' sinister two-note motif that has become so associated with danger in general and with sharks in particular. The effect/legacy of Jaws demonstrates, once again, Spielberg's knack for understanding the universal fears, emotions and experiences shared by most people. Understanding that fear of the water is a very commonly shared phobia among people, Spielberg shot the film very subjectively. Just as Spielberg shot Duel entirely from the perspective of David Mann, he shot Jaws primarily at sea level (the way we experience it when we tread water), using a special rig designed by DP Bill Butler allowing the water to lap onto and off of the lens on occasion. In doing so, Spielberg tapped into something very primal and consequently people were able to connect with it in significant ways (Spielberg will employ this approach to storytelling perspective in later films: shooting E.T. almost entirely at child's eye level, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan very much in cinema verite style and War of the Worlds predominately at street level). This demonstrates another remarkable ability of Spielberg's that people have a tendency to undervalue: namely, his profound understanding of people, his knowledge of human nature, his sympathizing with common, everyday ordinary human beings. As my friend Tucker says, Spielberg is essentially a humanist filmmaker, his films highlighting aspects of the human condition in sometimes sad, sometimes humorous, sometimes very dark and frightening but always honest, revealing and entertaining ways.
With Jaws Steven Spielberg’s developing gifts as a cinematic craftsman and entertainer achieved critical mass. His natural gift for engaging audiences in the lives of characters and the stories revolving around them, combined with his now finely tuned sense of technique, helped turn Jaws into an immensely satisfying cinematic experience and a landmark film. In what is now known as a monumental event in the history of cinema, Jaws became the first movie ever to surpass the 100 million dollar mark at the box office. The excitement and energy that surrounded the theatrical run of Jaws was at a level that had virtually never been seen before. Jaws wasn’t just an incredible hit, it became a phenomenon and Hollywood took note of both how the film was constructed and how it was promoted. The publicity and merchandising of Jaws became just as important to its success (if not, as some have argued, more so) as the quality of the movie itself. It changed the way Hollywood movies were made and marketed from that point on and has informed the practice of such to this very day. If ever a movie could be called the first real “blockbuster,” it’s Jaws.
And in the middle of it all was Spielberg. The “wunderkind” who had shown a lot of promise over the past ten years but was now, at least in terms of numbers, the most successful movie director in the history of the medium. Spielberg was now faced with a tough decision. Having worked so hard for so long to achieve the prominence and freedom he had sought for so long, now that he had it, what was he going to do about it? He could now make any movie that he wanted but in a business where you’re “only as good as your last movie,” what would he do next? With all eyes now on him, how does the hottest new director in Hollywood manage to “beat” the most thrilling, most fun and most profitable piece of cinema produced in decades? How does one top Jaws?
The answer is... one doesn’t. In fact, one doesn’t even try to. Spielberg went another way. He decided to make a movie that he personally had wanted to make for a long time before that. Rather than looking back toward the water, or even on land, for his next project, Spielberg looked another direction... upward
TOMORROW: Watch the Skies