Jaws (USA, 1975)

JAWS-ORIGINAL-SHARK-MOVIE-webDirected by: Steven Spielberg. Before you ask, yes this was my first time actually seeing Jaws, and yes I’m embarrassed by that fact. I mean, in this culture, Jaws is around, so I knew about it, I’d seen a few scenes (including the ending with the gruesome demise of the old sea captain and the explosion with the compressed gas), but I’d never actually seen it. So here we are. The verdict…pretty good! This movie is really enjoyable, even knowing what’s going to happen. By this point, it’s been 40 years, and the full effect of this film as a horror isn’t quite there. I won’t say this movie wasn’t scary, because it definitely was, but its full effect was definitely dampened by the intervening decades. That opening scene with the young girl, swimming naked, just like a stock horror movie punishing the youth for their sexuality, and its confusing day for night shooting, was apparently utterly terrifying in 1975, prompting walkouts right off the bat. To me, the lady jolting around in the water and screaming was actually a little funny and cheesy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m super glad that this film’s low budget and technical problems kept the revelation of the actual shark to a minimum, lending the film a sense of Hitchcockian suspense-via-absence, which is a welcome world away from today’s bloated CGI, show-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink saturation mindset. All questions of “scariness” aside, this film is generally a good movie overall. The main story is, of course, not really about the shark, it’s about the Sheriff, Roy Scheider (I was amazed to learn, not Schneider), an NYPD cop who comes to a small town to raise his family in a safe environment away from the rampant crime and danger of the big city. And—plot twist—he can’t swim, he’s terrified of the water. So already in the basic setup, it’s pretty interesting: it’s a critique on the common assumption that small-town life is safer than the big city, that humanity/culture is harmful and nature is pure and blissful, and it’s also a story of a hydrophobic guy on an island, completely out of his element (a figurative fish out of water). And from there, it builds up, driven by the shark attack. The drama is in the danger threatening to destroy everyone, including the Sheriff’s family, and eventually the Sheriff and his two co-leads (Richard Dreyfuss as the rich-boy marine scientist, and Robert Shaw as the crazy, experienced sea captain), but the film also has the maturity to set the drama in the real world, as it were, with grown-up concerns and the constraints of real life. It would be easy for the Sheriff to just block off the beach, close the beach, don’t let anyone in the water, except for the red tape of small town politics, the economic concerns driving the beach community, the expected flow of tourist dollars to keep the town alive. But as much as it threatens to, the movie never devolves into stock blue-collar griping about fat cats and red tape and bureaucracy, etc. The mayor and the other “town elders” are pretty slimy, but not too slimy, and the film seems to present the problem in a straightforward way. Sure, we can slam them for not closing the beaches until more people die, but we also see the room full of angry townspeople, dependent on tourist money, who the greasy politicians have to answer to. In that meeting, the crazy old sea captain dragging his nails across the chalk board looks like the odd one in the mix, the anachronistic one who doesn’t belong in this context of civic decision making, and yet, the fact that he’s the one they ultimately rely on to kill the shark isn’t really blown out of proportion. The old kook’s attempts to draw himself as the only authentic, patriarchal, experienced, salt of the earth know-it-all is kept in check by the likability of Scheider and Dreyfuss, and the film keeps us more in line with the latter two, who feel more like real people that we can identify with. And, while I’m on the topic, that whole character dynamic is interesting, the way the film handles Captain Quint, keeping him as the outsider in the group, and yet also the one seemingly most capable of defeating the monster, and yet and yet, the only one of the group, and the only character in the movie with any characterization to speak of, to be killed by the shark. And what a death! His brutal, graphic, bloody demise by the monster shark is handled in such a peculiar way, almost like a war movie. It reminded me of the Dirty Dozen, where the two survivors meet at the end, ask each other “hey, what happened to the other guys?”, and then shake their head solemnly in recognition of the terrible fate that met everyone else, only to immediately laugh and smile because the story is over and everything’s okay. In this movie, the extreme and brutal nature of the death, especially after Quint’s story about how terrified of sharks he is after being stranded in WWII, is especially resonant with me. I know it’s a fictional character, but watching him get eaten from the waist up, until blood gushes from his mouth, as he screams, you know that this is his worst nightmare come to life. And for the movie to end so abruptly afterwards, without mentioning his death, with his death seemingly having no impact, leaves us in the audience to just sit with it, like a rock in our stomach. But hey, the Sheriff learned how to swim and he beat the shark, and everything’s going to be okay! And—bonus—the town doesn’t have to pay $10 000 to the weird old sea captain because he’s been horribly devoured by the shark he volunteered to catch. Everything’s great! Weird. I don’t know, there’s a bunch of stuff you could say about this movie, its impact, its influence, the transformation of Hollywood, the birth of the “event movie”, the summer blockbuster phenomenon, etc. You can read that shit anywhere. For now, I’m glad I saw this, and it makes me want to give myself a primer on Spielberg, on all the stuff that I took for granted, but that’s actually worth looking at. What’s next? Close Encounters? Sure, why not? And hey, he’s got a Cold War spy movie based on a true story and starring Tom Hanks coming out soon, so that’ll be nice.

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2 responses to “Jaws (USA, 1975)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (USA, 2016) | Offhand Reviews·

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