Friday, November 10, 2017

Jaws (1975)

USA, 124 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Photography: Bill Butler
Music: John Williams
Editor: Verna Fields
Cast: Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb

A few weeks ago, catching up on horror backlog during the Halloween season, I got a chance to see Frozen (from 2010, not to be confused with the Disney animation from 2013), which is pretty nifty and actually much better than I expected. Two particular things I noticed: the name of one of the production companies involved is A Bigger Boat, and in an interview director and writer Adam Green declared—tongue no doubt in cheek, but still—that he wanted to make a movie that would do for chairlifts at ski resorts what Jaws did for sharks at summer beaches. This in turn impressed two more things on me: the enduring impact of Jaws, and my basic immunity to its premise.

I mean that I'm not afraid of sharks, never have been, and never give them a thought. (Ditto chairlifts.) It's not like they're zombies or evil spirits or something. But I've watched people seized by the delicious agonies of the fear of them nearly all my life. That's just one more long-term effect of Jaws—adding sharks to the pantheon of classic movie monsters and/or gnawing human phobias (piranha too for that matter). The creature from Black Lagoon has nothing on these beasts, except similarly beautiful underwater footage. Over 40 years later we have a ridiculous Sharknado franchise going and some pretty good movies like The Shallows too. And they're all about sharks, which actually pose less danger to us individually than radical Islamic terrorists, tipping furniture, slips in the bathtub, or air flight crashes—probably combined.

But irrational fears are irrational by definition. That's why we're afraid. There's no accounting for them. One of my own deeper phobias is of being buried alive, which includes a variation of being swallowed by a whale. This, of course, was a completely ridiculous idea to take hold in a kid growing up in the Midwest—I'm not even sure where it came from ... Sunday school?—but the nightmares and reveries were real. Jaws, which more likely delivers thrills on the order of an amusement park ride, nevertheless might have produced the same trauma that I had when I imagined the darkness and humidity inside a whale's stomach, so slimy and cramped it's impossible to stand or hold still in any one position.

I respect those fears if that's what someone gets out of Jaws. But honestly, I think it's a bit flabby as a thriller, never quite getting up to speed until late (and it's over two hours). There is too much theme music, too much talking, drunken male posturing, camaraderie, and singing, too much high New England seaside foofaraw. Robert Shaw as a buffoonish Ahab type is having a good time, but Roy Scheider as a hydrophobic city cop is too tentative and Richard Dreyfuss as a city expert is unbearably smug, as usual. The characters are rote stereotypes with rote neuroses. I never saw Jaws in its time so I can only imagine the echoes of an audience response that might have helped me like it more.

Even this early in his career, 28-year-old director Steven Spielberg has to be counted as a gifted filmmaker. Here's a nice representative detail I picked up somewhere. In Spielberg's 1971 TV movie Duel (with a Richard Matheson script), a pretty good picture in its own right, a semi-truck is the designated monster. We know now that semi-trucks did not really make it into the pantheon the way sharks did. When it is finally defeated in Duel, crumbling over the edge of a cliff, Spielberg added the sound of a dinosaur roaring, which he had picked out of Creature From the Black Lagoon. He uses that same sound again in Jaws for the final defeat of the great white shark, looking backward and forward at once, back to a logical source for Jaws as well as forward to a future for his monster movies, not to mention a more general lifelong sensibility, in dinosaurs.

Thus, as a Steven Spielberg movie, even an early one, Jaws has a certain baseline of competence and inspiration that other movies never even touch. But, perhaps because I don't share the phobia, I think there are much better Spielberg movies, much better thrillers, and, dare I say it? The Shallows alone is a much better shark movie. By my lights, Jaws doesn't belong in the top 100 movies on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (or even the top 500). It is likely there for one reason, which is that, in 1975, it single-handedly invented the concept of the summer blockbuster. It broke all the box office records at the time and took down the #1 all-time spot for itself, which didn't last long, partly because decades of summer blockbusters were to follow. Nearly half of the all-time domestic top 10 winners at the moment are exactly that: Jurassic World, Marvel's The Avengers, The Dark Knight, and Finding Dory.

For someone like me that's closer to a reason not to like Jaws, and in fact I admit I avoided the movie for years. It just sounded so stupid (not sharing the phobia), plus I was reluctant, as I still can be (to a fault), to trust massive commercial popularity. By the time I caught up with Jaws I saw it mostly as I still do: a charming, slightly clumsy foray into horror and a lumpy thriller, with many technical details of passing interest (most of it is shot handheld, for example, which we don't really notice because we are mostly in or on water), and a kind of moronic fascination with something that is not interesting at all. You can do better in every way, save perhaps nostalgia, if it gave you a thrill in the summer of 1975.

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