Ramblin' 'bout Amblin: Jaws

Fox Its release was a watershed moment in motion picture history. In 1975 Steven Spielberg was a relatively unknown filmmaker. He was 26 and had one theatrically released feature film under his belt, the neo-noir The Sugarland Express. Dick Richards, who'd just put out his own debut The Culpepper Cattle Co. had slotted Jaws to be his second film but the producers dropped him for Spielberg.

I think they chose correctly.

Jaws became the first summer blockbuster in history and it's a bit of downward spiral from there as far as popular American film is concerned.

I've seen this film plenty of times but only in this most recent watch did I take a hard look at it for Spielberg's touch. And even so early on in his career he'd developed some of the key traits we associate with his shooting style. The full dolly pushes forward on characters at moments of revelation, really realistic performances despite the fact that Jaws is essentially a monster movie, and, probably the oddest touch for me, an overwhelmingly classical view towards the 
titular man-eating shark. Robert Shaw's Quint rapidly becomes Captain Ahab but at no point in the film does the viewer worry about Brody or Hooper's exposure to the man. Instead we're treated to a lot of laughter and camaraderie, accompanied by John William's oddly upbeat score as they chase harpoon-led barrels around the Atlantic.

Two main things stood out to me on this most recent viewing: John William's score and the narrative's focus. Williams is arguably the greatest film composer of all time. Almost every single theme known by the masses belongs to the man and Jaws is the birth of the legend. Many times I've heard anecdotes about how Spielberg laughed with incredulity at William's when he came to him with the theme to Jaws. "That's it?" was Spielberg's reply. Whether it's true or not is beside my point though. What got me about the score on this viewing was how jovial it is. Most of the film utilizes a really upbeat classical sounding score with very lively string arrangements. The famous theme makes plenty of appearances but Spielberg uses it the same way he uses his reveals. Most of the time the theme is used instead of the actual shark (Though this is due mostly to the malfunction of the shark prop). The first time you really see the shark is about an hour into the film. Spielberg plays it close to the chest and it makes the film so much better. And that's where the narrative comes in.

Now Spielberg didn't write the screenplay but his love of the novel was what got him into the film in the first place. And it shows.

The film's opening is mighty famous. Skinny-dipping teenager gets eaten by an unseen monster. With horror we watch as this girl gets dragged every which way through the water as her too-drunk partner passes out on land and can't possibly help her. The sequence is horrifying, though I couldn't help but laugh. The three minute sequence was definitely shot during at least three different times of day. The quality of light ranges pretty greatly throughout the scene. In fact this kind of error happens quite a bit throughout the film. Hardly an unforgivable mistake but it's interesting to think of films as legendary as Jaws having these kinds of continuity errors. And since I'm thinking of it the best error comes once the final trio are on the Orca late in the film where Roy Scheider is talking and the scene quite literally fades out mid sentence. It'
s hysterical.

What's interesting though is after this initial attack the film goes quiet. We get a really close look at the town on Amity Island and learn quite a bit about its economy and lifestyle. This is where the film shines in my opinion. Because of Spielberg's patience, this thriller's punches end up really packing a wallop. Spielberg makes sure there's real heart in this thing. Whether it be Roy Scheider's sheriff's son being in danger or the mother of one of the shark's victims slapping him in front of the whole town, Spielberg makes sure that at the heart of this film there's a real town with real people in it. This allows for him to not only stave off seeing the shark for so long but also to truly give the film weight that lasts long after people have left the theater.

I'll probably end up having more to say about Jaws when I take a run at Spielberg's earlier work (especially Duel). For now though I'll say that its a great flick and a perfect jumping off point for this project.

Emily D Tucker and I have recently been discussing what makes a good horror movie 'good'. We keep coming back to the same popular opinion that, of course, what makes a horror movie work is for the creator to remember that the film still needs to adhere to the standards of any other movie genre. It must have a fully developed story with equally developed characters; the horror element can’t be expected to carry the film alone. (I’m looking at you, Candyman).

One of my favorite ways that some horror films carry this out is to emphasize a character’s life outside of the main plot. This not only creates a more interesting and three-dimensional character, but also ensures that the character is not simply a vehicle for the plot. The Exorcist, for example, begins by showcasing Regan and her mother under normal circumstances before their new demon friend comes to town. As Regan begins exhibiting signs of trouble, Mom handles it in a realistic way by taking her to various doctors and psychologists, but their lives are not put on hold by Regan’s “illness.” Mom even holds a dinner party for her colleagues during which Regan takes a turn for the worst and pees on the carpet in front of everyone (come on, R, Get it together). By this point, we’re invested, and our understanding of the characters ultimately heightens the eerie sequences that infuse the remainder of the movie.

Jaws handles this technique pretty well. We first meet the main character, Brody (who I’m going to call Danny Tanner for the rest of this review), as he begins his new job as sheriff of a hip beach town. He’s got a cool house, a wife with fabulous hair, and two kids that are surprisingly not annoying. Things are looking up for ol’ Danny Tanner. Just as he's getting his feet wet (!), he and his deputy find a dead body on the shore. In this initial investigation alone, we learn about the main character’s moral code, his logical approach to solving problems and his primary obstacle in solving those problems: the mayor. What we gather about the character here informs our viewing of the rest of the film, as we’re not just watching a shark killing kids or whatever, but a man trying to keep those kids or whatever alive. In subsequent conversations with other characters, like his wife, we see the effect that the shark situation is having on his life. The shark isn’t just a menace, it’s an imposition.  

We have a similar opportunity to get to know Danny Tanner’s entourage, Captain Ahab and Mr. Holland. Captain Ahab, though the most two-dimensional character of the three, has a clear motivation and strong sense of self throughout the film. Mr. Holland, after explaining his reasons for assisting with the hunt (science!), even has to call out of work in order to keep helping Danny Tanner. A small detail like this really lends some realism to a creature feature, particularly after seeing the clearly-rubber shark flopping up and down the boardwalk. 

Parceling out time to explore these characters at the beginning of the film pays off, as it amplifies the suspense of the boat trip in the second half of the film. This would be the most boring movie ever if we didn’t care about or understand the characters, regardless of the fantastic boat attack during the climax. This part of the film is pretty much just a war monologue, a weird fade, and a lot of waiting – risky, but it works.

Though I’m not in love with this movie overall, I certainly respect and appreciate its storytelling ability. The main thing I want a movie to do is get me to care about what it’s telling me, which Jaws actually did. Although I could have used at least one urination scene. Maybe next time, Spielberg

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