Skip to main content

You yell "Shark", we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.

Jaws
(1975)

(SPOILERS) I decided to revisit Jaws principally because I was intent on tackling the mostly maligned sequels, and it didn’t seem right to omit the genuine article. And also, because it’s never a chore to watch one of Spielberg’s very best movies, made before he began second-guessing himself and imposing peer review conditions on form and content. The way I see it, there’s the ‘berg before E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the ‘berg after E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and I’d opt for the former over the latter any day.



Untold reams have been written about Jaws, and will continue to be, a movie that changed the cultural landscape, giving birth to the modern blockbuster while repositioning the wunderkind boom of the late ‘60s towards popcorn pictures, just in time for the empty ‘80s. What’s most interesting about the movie, though, is the manner in which it straddles both crowd-pleaser (that score; that effortlessly assured building of tension; not even seeing the shark until an hour in – even if necessity was the mother of invention) and the kind of character piece the period had been hitherto best known for. Indeed, while Spielberg and Lucas have in common thinking their most legendary movies of the ‘70s were complete disasters, as a prelude to two of the biggest, record-breaking pictures ever, as well as mutual fingers on the pulse of what audiences wanted (as long as it wasn’t comedy), they diverged significantly when it came to their treatment of character and theme.


And lest you think that was a flash in the pan for the ‘berg, he’d show similar aptitude in his next picture, the first of his friendly aliens propaganda pics, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But if his ‘70s E.T.s are benevolent, in contrast (mostly) to their 1950s cousins, the authorities in both Close Encounters and Jaws are not to be trusted. They keep secrets from the people, fail to act in their best interests and act with impunity and an absence of consequence. On one level, this can simply be pegged as a reflection of post-Watergate distrust, but it goes deeper, at very least to the JFK assassination and the first publically voiced chink in the American Dream. In Close Encounters, the protagonist at the mercy of the government is simply an everyman, but in Jaws he is more dynamically established as an upholder of law and order; he’s on the inside, part of the system, learning how corrupt it is first hand (you can do that once, but as the producers of Bond and Mission: Impossible haven’t learned, putting your hero outside the law because it’s what they think the public expects, since they no longer trust the system, can only go so far before it seems faintly risible).


So the Mayor (Murray Hamilton, masterfully pulling off a very loud suit to match his broad duplicity) is willing to do the right thing as long as it doesn’t affect Amity’s summer business; the rest of the town – aside from the grieving mother, pointedly taking it out on Brody (“You knew all those things, but still my boy is dead now”), who let himself be manoeuvred and fair cops to it – want to hear what the Mayor wants to tell them. It’s their livelihoods on the line. Spielberg doesn’t need to labour the point about the politics the way he did so mawkishly with this year’s Best Picture nominee The Post (Jaws, lest we forget, was also nominated for the top prize); that’s why his best foot forward was always nursing such thematic material in mass appeal entertainments; tackling them head-on revealed, usually, that he didn’t have very much erudite to say about anything, telling us more about his insecurities and pretentions to intellectual acceptance that then earnest subject matter he nominally tackled.


There’s a looseness and authenticity to the interactions in Jaws that seem to come from a completely different guy to the one who had matured into a formula filmmaker by the ‘90s (be that blockbuster formula or Oscar-bait formula): he’d never truly recapture the domestic interplay in these early movies post-E.T (witness how much engaged he is with, and how engage it is attending, Brody’s home life, in particular the scene where Hooper calls by with booze). There’s even cross-conversation during scenes; anyone would think he thought he was Robert Altman!


It goes without saying that Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss are superb, the latter two in particular probably the best they’ve ever been, before or since. Just how did Dreyfuss age twenty years in ten between Close Encounters and Always? Coke, probably. The off-screen antagonism only serves Quint and Hooper’s relationship during a second half that segues effortlessly into a buddy-rivalry shark-hunting movie. It’s the man of science versus the man of instinct, with the lawman left to mediate between them.


Everything everyone says about how great the prize scenes are is true, from Quint and Hooper comparing war wounds over a bottle to Quint’s USS Indianapolis tale (courtesy of screenwriter Carl Gottleib, Shaw and John Milius), but I particularly love Quint’s taunting (“You’ve got city hands”) and Hooper’s Popeye impression. And the touch that Quint affords the inexperienced Brody the respect due to the head of the expedition while giving Hooper none. There’s also the masterstroke of, if you don’t want your plot logic contested, put a madman in charge (Quint smashes up the radio, leaving them to face the shark alone, because he’s a nutter). The only aspect of Brody I don’t quite buy into is “Martin hates beaches”; it’s a bit on the nose, truth be told, that he also has to conquer his fear of water.


You get a lot of theses analysing what the shark represents, just as they do the trio as symbols, but mostly the shark offers the comfort of a tangible, verifiable foe, one who deserves everything it has coming. In this sense, it links to the decade’s biggest prior hit, The Exorcist (the devil also deserves what he gets). So too, both feature professionals (priest, shark expert & salty old sea dog) brought in to rid the world of a menace to innocents. Quint is very different to Max von Sydow’s Merrin, but both operate on a similar level narratively (the seasoned veteran is compelled to die in both). And in terms of genre, they aren’t so far apart; Jaws is, essentially, a family horror movie, as much as Poltergeist would be seven years later. The shark is the boogie man (or fish), and it’s notable that the first victims are punished for would-be sexual transgression, Jaws prefiguring the slasher genre (like John Carpenter’s the Shape, Brodie’s bullets have no effect on the monster).


As solid as the performances and character work are, and as audacious as Williams’ score is (although, as notable on revisits is the often deceptively jaunty incidentals he uses to distract from the danger), the reason Jaws succeeds is all Spielberg’s technique. Those wipes as beach bums walk by Brody and we’re closer to his uneasy face each time, is just masterful. The death of the kid is all the more horrifying for its vagueness (what we see and don’t see). The way he engineers and increases stakes just through Hooper’s reaction on examining a victim’s body. The appearance of the shark behind Brody as he spoons scraps of meat (and for all those mocking antics of the shark in Jaws: The Revenge’s, this one taking a flying leap at the Orca first set the bar for daftness).


I came late to an appreciation of Jaws’ strengths. Which is to say, it wasn’t until revisiting it in the ‘90s, having seen it as just a scary shark movie as a kid, that its estimable merits were brought home. It’s undoubtedly Top Three Spielberg. The iconography of the brand has become cheapened through parody and replay (and inferior sequels), yet that only makes the picture’s continued effectiveness the more remarkable, an exemplar for the cinematic virtuosity of its director.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

Do forgive me for butting in, but I have a bet with my daughter that you are Hercules Porridge, the famous French sleuth.

Death on the Nile (1978)
(SPOILERS) Peak movie Poirot, as the peerless Peter Ustinov takes over duties from Albert Finney, who variously was unavailable for Death on the Nile, didn’t want to repeat himself or didn’t fancy suffering through all that make up in the desert heat. Ustinov, like Rutherford, is never the professional Christie fan’s favourite incarnation, but he’s surely the most approachable and engaging. Because, well, he’s Peter Ustinov. And if some of his later appearances were of the budget-conscious, TV movie variety (or of the Michael Winner variety), here we get to luxuriate in a sumptuously cast, glossy extravaganza.

I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
(SPOILERS) Was Joe Eszterhas a big fan of Witness for the Prosecution? He was surely a big fan of any courtroom drama turning on a “Did the accused actually do it?” only for it to turn out they did, since he repeatedly used it as a template. Interviewed about his Agatha Christie adaptation (of the 1925 play), writer-director Billy Wilder said of the author that “She constructs like an angel, but her language is flat; no dialogue, no people”. It’s not an uncommon charge, one her devotees may take issue with, that her characters are mere pieces to be moved around a chess board, rather than offering any emotional or empathetic interest to the viewer. It’s curious then that, while Wilder is able to remedy the people and dialogue, doing so rather draws attention to a plot that, on this occasion, turns on a rather too daft ruse.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…