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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Jaws

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Jaws, which, in addition to being one of the greatest adventure films of all time, is also a watershed film in the history of the business, being the first summer "blockbuster" and changing the way films are distributed. It also made the career of a fellow named Steven Spielberg.

My memories of Jaws are vivid. I am old enough to not only have seen it in its first release, I read the book first. I was fourteen when I saw it, when my dad took me. I was a little nervous, as there had been tales about the gruesomeness of it all. I do remember my stomach gurgling a little bit when Quint gets chomped, but managed to hang on to my lunch.

Even at that age I was a critic, and I remember writing a review of the film for a school class (some time later, since I did see the film in summer). I remember that I noticed how well they made changes to the book, which was really a potboiler (it's very similar to what Francis Coppola did with a bad book in The Godfather). The subplot of Hooper having an affair with Mrs. Brody, and the compression of time in the last act--in the book, the hunters return each night to the island, but in the film, they stay out there for the duration--made the film much more thrilling and gave the characters a desperation that is palpable.

The stories about the making of Jaws are legion. The Wikipedia entry is fascinating--Spielberg was thinking about doing Lucky Lady instead of Jaws (a dodged bullet if there ever was one) and actors like Robert Duvall and Lee Marvin passed. Charlton Heston was interested in playing Brody. When you read casting history like this for any film that turns out to be a classic you wonder if there's just a little stardust being sprinkled, because Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss are perfect. I wonder if Dreyfuss basically invented the nerdy scientist's beard--it's the same beard that Paul Giamatti wears in San Andreas.

The most famous story is about the trouble with the animatronic sharks. They were another gift from the movie gods, as out of necessity Spielberg had to make do with the suggestion of the shark, a la Val Lewton and Cat People. This was enormously helped by John Williams' score, based on two notes that sound like a heartbeat (the shark's, or our trembling hearts?) That music, plus a shadow, or, at the end of the film, ominous yellow barrels, put the image of the shark in our heads. The fish himself only gets a few close-ups, including his famous debut, which prompts Scheider to utter the great line (supposedly ad-libbed) "You're going to need a bigger boat."

Another great speech is that of Shaw's as Quint recalling his experiences after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, during which hundreds of seamen were killed by sharks. Carl Gottlieb, the ostensible writer of Jaws, gives most of the credit to Shaw, who was also a playwright, although John Milius takes some credit. This speech, along with the note-perfect second act, gives the film a Melville or Hemingway feel--man against nature, the leviathan, the perfect eating machine.

It's amazing to read that before Jaws, summer was the dumping ground for films. It was the first summer blockbuster. For example, The Godfather was released in March. But Jaws changed the game plan, altering the studio's way of thinking. Jaws, along with Star Wars, has left a bitter taste in many cineaste's minds, who bemoan that these good films gave way to a bean-counting culture in Hollywood that is more about making loads of money than actually making good films. In the following years, box office results would be published in papers other than Variety, and these totals were like the sports pages, removed from the quality of the film.

Jaws also changed marketing, as it had an extensive TV push and various tie-ins. It was released on 450 screens, a phenomenal amount for 1975. Before then, wide releases were usually for marginal-quality films, but Universal instead put it everywhere, upending the "road show" model that most prestigious pictures used.

The legacies of Jaws are many, and a mixed bag. It spawned some horrible sequels, for one. But who could have known that it would launch Spielberg to a status that no one in Hollywood had had before--the talent that ended up calling the shots. His great talent was evident then. He had made one release, The Sugarland Express, and a well-regarded TV film, Duel (he had also done some TV, notably an episode of Night Gallery). After Jaws, not only was his ticket punched, the keys to Hollywood were practically handed to him. But what was evident about Spielberg then, and still today (mostly) is his ability to tell a story on screen. His temptation to go sentimental was not yet on display in 1975, a plus (the fact that Matt Hooper survives was due to some stock footage shot of real sharks, not a dispensation for saving him).

After last night's viewing, I've now seen Jaws five or six times, and it holds up beautifully each time. It does truly seem to be a film that, like Casablanca, just fell together out of chaos to form a magical entity. Perhaps the most significant shot in the film in this regard is the two-shot of Scheider and Dreyfuss on the Orca, at night, as a meteor passes behind them. This was not a special effect--it was an actual heavenly body, coincidentally caught on film. What could auger better?

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