Tuesday, May 15, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "JAWS"

JAWS (1975)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb based on the novel by Peter Benchley



The film became the first ever and it in fact, invented the term “blockbuster,” as it was played in every theatre in every town. (Before than, most films were shown at one theater in a town.) I’ve been lucky enough to see it on the big screen and, “Jaws,” had to be seen by everyone. If you ever get a chance to see it on the big screen, go. It’s as great an action-adventure-horror film you’re ever going to see, and it’s also the first really great example of how good a director Steven Spielberg really is. Yes, there's some legendary aspects to Spielberg, and to "Jaws" in particular, his films are like him, bigger than life, but sometimes it's the small choices he makes that can really separate him from the rest. There’s a shot in the movie, that nobody thinks much about, involving a huge shark that one fisherman’s caught, and everyone thinks it’s the notorious shark that’s been terrorizing the beach. As the camera pans, Spielberg actually uses the shark, as a frame, and he frames Roy Schieder's face with the shark. Would you ever think of a shot like that? Schieder plays Brody, a local sheriff to the beachfront tourist area of Amity, who’s convinced that the shark should be caught, and that the beaches be empty until it is. A marine biologist, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) thinks so as well. This is one of the first action movies where despite every warning imaginable, the guy in charge, in this case, a town mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) continually does the opposite, until it’s too late. Eventually, Hooper head out along with an old sea-farer Quint (Robert Shaw), and hunt for the shark.

One of the keys to the movie that not everybody picks up on, is the exposition dialogue, most of it, from the Dreyfuss character, who’s strangely right to play this role. He was very young when he got this part, he had just done “American Graffiti,” about two years earlier, and here’s a character who’s basic objective in the role is to explain to us, just how vicious this shark can be. “I pulled out a tooth as big as a shot glass, and it was the tooth of a great white,” for instance, it’s very vivid dialogue that in a bad actor’s hand could be heavily overacted. Dreyfuss looks like he fell off the Volkswagon bus from Berkeley, but he speaks matter-of-factly and urgently, like an expert does. It’s this dialogue, and the way it’s delivered, that set up the movie’s most famous line of dialogue. We remember Brody saying “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” but the line was set up so well, we don’t realize immediately, that he isn’t joking. I had forgotten that he actually insists on getting the bigger boat twice more after that. That’s the only conclusion he honestly can come to.

The shoot was notoriously difficult, way over-budget and overdue time-wise because the Shark would never work. Spielberg’s solution by not showing the Shark for most of the movie actually seems more like an ingenious and elegant solution to that problem. Watching the ending scenes again, except when we see the Shark actually try and eat the boat, it never comes out even slightly comical, but by that point, we’re too invested to even care. It’s one of the great thrillers of all-time, pretty much every poll I’ve seen in the genre the movie gets ranked, somewhere in the Top 5. It’s definitely scary, maybe too much so actually. Spielberg once admitted that he made a mistake by adding an extra scare of the dead body found in the underwater remains of the original boat that went out searching, because it made the audience distrust the movie, and it lessened the impact of the shark, exploding out of the water, later. He might have a point there actually, ‘cause when I first watched it, that was the moment I first gasped, and not the shark’s first appearance.  You know, oddly, Spielberg has actually shied away from making horrors much since “Jaws”, other than “Jurassic Park,” and, maybe you can argue “War of the Worlds”,  he really hasn’t approached a straight-forward film within the genre since. He’s done some thrillers of a different sort with the Indiana Jones films for instance, and also horrors of a different kind with “Schindler’s List,” and “Saving Private Ryan,” which both earned him directing Oscars, and he’s taken some pleasure in combining a couple genres like in the underrated “Minority Report”. His only other horror was his first film, “Duel”, which was a TV movie in America. He didn’t direct any of the “Jaws” sequels which were mostly blockbuster hits themselves, but were not critically-acclaimed. I think he still enjoys working within the genre, but I believe he’s looking for the most grandiose of stories to use for it; a regular horror movie, just won’t do it for him. Ultimately, that’s a good thing, and one of the aspects of Spielberg’s work that rarely gets as notice as it should; he is a man of big ideas and I believe he likes that his films are mostly filled with extravagance, not just in spectacle and special effects either. In many ways, his films rival Stanley Kubrick in sheer audacity. Most people who kill to direct a grand spectacle that’s as great as “Jaws,” for Spielberg, it was his first great spectacle, and four decades of films later, he just keeps on making them. He was 26, when he made "Jaws", and that's scary. (Hmm, hm)
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