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.

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.

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…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

So the moral of the story is, better Red Riding Hood than dead Riding Hood. You read me?

The Fortune Cookie (1966)
(SPOILERS) Despite its pedigree – director and writer Billy Wilder reteaming with Jack Lemmon, the first teaming of Lemmon and Walter Matthau, a clutch of Oscar nominations – The Fortune Cookie isn’t up there with the best of Wilder’s Lemmon collaborations. Which were, at this point, in the past.

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

You’re a slut with a snake in your mouth. Die!

Mickey One (1965)
(SPOILERS) Apparently this early – as in, two years before the one that made them both highly sought-after trailblazers of “New Hollywood” – teaming between Warren Beatty and Arthur Penn has undergone a re-evaluation since its initial commercial and critical drubbing. I’m not sure about all that. Mickey One still seems fatally half-cocked to me, with Penn making a meal of imitating the stylistic qualities that came relatively naturally – or at least, Gallically – to the New Wave.