Saturday, January 06, 2007

Great Cinematic Speeches: Jaws

Watching Jaws again the other day (for, I swear, the hundredth time) I realized something during the speech that Robert Shaw makes immediately following the “comparing-of-the-scars” scene. I’ve always loved this speech but I would’ve been hesitant to call it my “favorite” moment in the film (although Spielberg has no problem calling it his) because there are so many great and/or memorable scenes in the film. I had to admit to myself finally that Quint's "Indianapolis" speech is not only my favorite scene in Jaws but that it is probably one of the great cinematic speeches of all time.

Long speeches are not unheard of in films but they are not exactly common either. Since cinema is primarily considered a visual medium, the old adage is “show, don’t tell.” Give the audience something interesting to look at. Communicate an idea or emotion via images. So, anytime something has to be explained at great length it is referred to, quite affectionately, as “exposition” and no actor likes to have expository dialogue. Just listening to someone talk for 2-3 minutes is often considered “death” in cinema. We tend to associate monologues/soliloquies more with the theatre than with film (since theatre is more of an actor’s medium; film a director’s). Nevertheless, speeches do occasionally surface in movies and they can range from the sublime (the Jaws speech or Jack Nicholson’s tirade in A Few Good Men) to the ridiculous (Chris Walken’s “watch” story in Pulp Fiction or Pheoebe Cates’ Christmas tale in Gremlins).

Sometimes a long speech, like an extremely long tracking shot (unless they're very well-placed by the writer/director), can simply draw attention to itself. Filmmakers often think very economically and unless something furthers the story or develops character, it’s usually considered extraneous. This is one of the many things I love about the “Indianpolis” speech. Yes, it is indeed a wonderful stand-alone sequence and a n electrifying performance by Robert Shaw, but it is anything but extraneous. It is essential to understanding Quint. Up until this scene Quint has been a wonderfully entertaining, eccentric character but he could also be (as some have argued) a caricature, an exaggerated stereotype of the “salty sea-dog.” This speech reveals that he became the crazy, hardened shark-hunter that he is because he was one of the few survivors of a massive shark attack. It’s actually one of the few moments in the film where the audience is not worried at all about the shark attacking. We realize that this scene belongs to Quint, he “owns” this three-and-a-half minutes of the film. This also foreshadows the climax (for the dozen or so people who still haven’t seen Jaws, spoilers follow) where Quint will be eaten by the shark in virtually the same manner that his fellow sailors were eaten. It’s almost as if this particular shark has come to finish the job that was left undone so many years earlier. The astute viewer seeing Jaws for the first time, should realize after that speech that Quint is not going to make it to the end of the film.

Finally, the thing that for me places this among the annals of great cinematic speeches is that the story Quint tells really happened. It may be a fictionalized telling of the event (I believe that Quint gets the date wrong) but the numbers are more or less accurate (“1,100 men went into the water; 316 came out.”). I remember working in the video store one night, with Jaws on, and a customer came in during the Indiananpolis speech. He said to me, “You know, my father was on the carrier that rescued the Indanapolis survivors.” I got shivers. I had already known by that point that the scene was based on a real, historical occurrence but to actually have a person who was in some way connected to it talking to me made the scene all the more powerful. And, of course, you can’t beat that last line. If there is any more poignant way to end that speech, then I don’t know what it is. The loss of hundreds of sailors to sharks was certainly an immense tragedy... and yet their mission was to deliver the atomic bomb that killed thousands of people at Hiroshima. The way Quint smilingly acknowledges that they accomplished that mission (“Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”) before taking a drink indicates that the irony is not lost on him.

Anyway, rather than post a list of 10 or 25 great cinematic speeches and invariably forget some, I figured I would just mention my personal favorite contender and then throw the door open for others to contribute some of their picks. So, what is/are, in your opinion, the great cinematic speech(es) of all time?


Tucker said...

Damian, that's also one of my favorite speeches in any film, and maybe my favorite moment in Jaws. Along with what you said, the scene also feels a little like a scary story being told around a campfire – in this case, letting the audience have a chance to "catch their breath" while planting more seeds for coming attractions.

For others, I could say the obvious, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but I'll pick two less remembered ones: Steven Soderbergh in the opening scene from Schizopolis (1996) and Ben Johnson's speech in The Last Picture Show (1971) when he and the boys are out at the fishing hole. Neither are real long, but they are both wonderful in their own way.

For whatever reason, I just have to put in the introductory speech from Schizopolis:

"And action.

Ladies and gentlemen, young and old... this may seem an unusual procedure... speaking to you before the picture begins... but we have an unusual subject.

When I say that this is the most important motion picture you will ever attend... my motivation is not financial gain... but a firm belief that the delicate fabric that holds all of us together... will be ripped apart unless every man, woman and child in this country... sees this film and pays full ticket price... not some bargain matinee, cut-rate deal.

In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing... please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.

In closing, I want to assure you... that no expense was incurred... bringing this motion picture to your theater. And now, filmed in its entirety...and proven to heal minor cuts and abrasions... we proudly present Schizopolis.!"

Damian Arlyn said...

I think you're right, Tuck, and one of the things that helps contribute to that "scary story" aspect you mentioned is Williams' music. It is not necessarily "scary" here, as it is so often in the rest of the film. I find it more eerie and unsettling (especially the "moaning" sound he creates with the strings).

The Mr. Smith Goes to Washington speech is a great choice. I tear up everytime I watch it.

Confession time: I have not yet seen Schizopolis or Last Picture Show. (GASP! SHOCK!) I know. I know... and I call myself a "cinephile." :(

Anonymous said...

The opening speech from "Patton" may be the greatest of all time.

JMC said...

Don't know if it's truly a 'speech' as defined here but Wilford Brimley's speech at the end of China Syndrome (and the 'tv-mute' scene that caps it) is one of the strongest I will ever recall. It had me in tears - a sense of relief after seeing such wickedness triumph. I felt like Brimley was lifting away the veil from this cuckoo-land of people actually thinking it's OK to cover their ass in a shoddy nuclear reactor.

Quint's is definitely #1 though. You don't mention it in your essay, but did you know that Shaw himself pushed for the speech? IIRC, the final version of the speech is mostly his own doing. How amazing!

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