Catching Up: Jaws

We all have gaps in our cinematic knowledge, films which, if we confess our ignorance of, someone, somewhere will say, “How have you not seen that?!” Catching Up is about these films, and viewing them so long after seemingly everyone else has. Some of these entries may be shocking, some are embarrassing, but all of them are classics.

The Film:

Directed by Stephen Spielberg, released in 1975. A great white shark terrorizes the shores of a New England island community. Chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), local shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), and marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) must work together to take it down.

Wait, you really haven’t seen this?

That’s right; until now, I have never seen Jaws. Well, not in it’s entirety. Years ago, I caught the last ten minutes of the film on television, and not long ago, I saw the first twenty minutes. But I’d never seen the entire movie. Even more shamefully, I’d owned the film on DVD for three and a half years before finally sitting down and checking it out.

The Legacy:

Jaws won three Oscars. It launched Stephen Spielberg to superstardom. It’s on most of the lists in AFI’s 100 Years… series, as well as pretty much every “best movies ever” list that you can find. It’s in the National Film Registry. It did for the ocean what Psycho did for showers, causing beach attendance to drop. It kicked off the horror subgenre of animal attack movies.

But, more significantly than all of that combined, Jaws was the first blockbuster. This movie, along with Star Wars, is responsible for the model of studio production, distribution, and marketing that persists to this day. Depending on whom you ask, this is either the best or worst thing that ever happened to the movies. I fall somewhere in the middle.

What did you know about it beforehand?

Basically everything. Jaws is one of those works of art whose every aspect has been made iconic and omnipresent in pop culture through imitation, reference, parody, and its influence on craft. Is there anyone who can’t hum the bars of that theme tune? You’re hearing it in your head right now, aren’t you? It’s synonymous with “urgent, approaching danger.”

And the quotes! “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” “Smile, you sonofa-!” Not to mention Quint’s monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, most of which I was able to recite in my head while he was saying it.

Beyond that, there are all the big beats and moments of the story. The opening scene with poor Chrissie Watkins, doomed for taking her clothes off. The jerk Mayor refusing to close the beach. The nails on the chalkboard. The corpse in the boat hull. I already knew this movie, even though I hadn’t seen it.

Did what you know matter?

I can’t lie: this movie didn’t scare me very much. That isn’t fair to it at all, I know. I wish badly that I’d watched it as a child, so that it could properly thrill and terrify me, untouched by pop culture. I knew who would die and when, so I wasn’t fooled by any of the fake-outs Spielberg pulls, such as the boys with the fake fin. The underwater dead man didn’t make me jump, not even a twitch. I don’t know if comedies or horror films suffer more by pop cultural propagation, as all of their brilliant moments get spoiled.

But it didn’t ruin the experience for me. On the contrary, removed from the weight of a first impression, I was able to judge the suspense scenes on their technical merit. I was often laughing at them, not from derision, but at the sheer brilliance of Spielberg’s craft. He constructs the scares impeccably, knowing how to build a sense of dread throughout a scene, before unleashing the pent-up tension in a cathartic blast.

Consider the early scene on the beach, as Brody, aware that a shark is out there but pressured by the Mayor into keeping it quiet, watches the swimmers worriedly.  He and we know something that the other people don’t, and scrutinize every action that the beachgoers take, watching for any sign of danger. A false alarm, a screaming girl who it turns out is just being teased by her boyfriend, winds us up further. Then the scary music kicks in, we get the POV of the shark stalking towards a group of boys, and we’re digging our nails into our armrests. And finally the shark strikes and the suspense breaks in a wave of chaos, as the swimmers scramble back onto shore. And, after the initial shock wears off and things seem peaceful, the scene closes out on a note of tragedy, as one mother desperately looks for her son, who isn’t coming back.

This movie might not be scary anymore, but it’s still tons of fun.

Did anything surprise you?

It turns out that there’s one major scene that I was completely unaware of, one that had escaped pop culture’s notice. It’s an early sequence, coming after the second attack, when two idiots fish for the shark off of a small dock to collect the bereaved mother’s bounty. One man worries about what his wife will do if he ruins their holiday ham, which they are using for bait, while the other man reassures him. In case you are unfamiliar with that scene as well, I won’t spoil what happens. Suffice to say that it’s funny and scary, and that watching it, I probably got the closest experience to that of the original audience.

I didn’t realize how much of this movie takes place on the Orca, with just Brody, Quint, Hooper, and sometimes the shark. I was under the impression that this formed the last third or last act of the film, when in fact more than half of running time is spent there. Occasionally I would glance at the timer on my Blu-Ray player and think “huh.” This isn’t inherently a negative; it just took me unawares.

There also turned out to be one jump scare that hasn’t been excessively referenced and parodied. It happens during the last chase sequence, and in retrospect I totally should have seen it coming, but I didn’t, and was jolted literally out of my seat. It was awesome.

And on a smaller note, I was unaware that Bad Hat Harry, Bryan Singer’s production company, took its name from a throwaway line in this flick. It’s always fun to discover the referents of things you didn’t know were references.

So, did it live up to the hype?

Oh yeah. Watching Jaws is like watching a preview of Spielberg’s entire career laid out for you. His proficiency at manipulating the audience’s sense of adventure, drama, humor, fear, wonder, and even sentimentality is all here. But it is of course a great film in its own right, and not just a hint of what’s to come.

I must confess that I did have some minor problems with the film. It almost feels worthless to mention. I mean, who am I to assail such a classic? And they’re so small that they don’t really affect the experience at all. But I’d be remiss to let these go. First, John Williams score occasionally feels inappropriate. Frequently, the music, like so much of the rest of his work, sounds triumphant and rousing. This doesn’t quite jibe right with some of what is actually happening on screen. This is most obvious in the scene where the Orca sets out on its mission. What is supposed to be a serious undertaking is scored as if it’s the outset of a great adventure. It bugged me more than it will probably bug anyone else, but I’m very sensitive to tone, even the slightest details.

My other issue is that the climactic chase with the shark drags a bit. By the time Brody is finally staring down the creature in a last showdown, I felt just a twinge of “get this over with already.” I think that, with the many scenes in the last half featuring the team fighting the shark, one of them could have been cut without negatively affecting the pacing. But again, this is a small complaint.

But overall, Jaws completely deserves its reputation. It’s thrilling, interesting, and funny in equal measures. If you’re a doofus like me and have somehow gone so long without seeing it, I suggest you rectify that as soon as possible. You won’t be disappointed.

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