Saturday, February 6, 2010

Steven Spielberg: Jaws

The troubled production of Steven Spielberg's breakthrough, Jaws, could (and has) filled books, not to mention constantly evolving documentary that continues to grow as it awaits distribution. Even the most casual of filmgoers knows a piece or two of the story, how walkie-talkies crackled with that damned chant, "The shark is not working" or how Robert Shaw could barely do his scenes for his seasickness or how Peter Benchley threw such a tantrum over the changes made to his book that Spielberg barred him from the set.

Indeed, the stories are legion now, to the point that some neglect their importance to the actual production. The constant malfunctioning of the mechanical shark altered the entire framework of the story, one that originally showed the beast at several intervals before the reveal we got in the final version. Waiting around for the effects engineers to fix the villain of the story, Spielberg and the crew did two things: they refined the script and, when they grew tired of sitting around wasting money, they decided to shoot much of the film without allowing us to see the shark.

One of the great "blessing in disguise" changes in cinematic history, this decision added mystery to a film that would have lacked it, ratcheting up suspense due to the X factor of the unknown. We see the shark's attacks through its point of view, a lens moving impossibly fast through the water as it rises on a pair of dangling legs, or from the top of the water, as its latest victim suddenly disappears under the waves with only a bit of froth for dissipating evidence. It can strike anywhere at sea, at any time and swim away without anyone knowing how to find it.

As such, the shark has become the great metaphor, used as a stand-in for villains of both sides of the political spectrum and military conflicts. It could be Vietnam, a vision of a guerrilla springing out of nothingness to attack and disappearing just as quickly. It could be big business, creeping up on the little guy to cut him off at the knees. Conversely, it could be the welfare state, taking a bite out of the wealthy to feed the poor. Political cartoons spoofing the iconic poster became de rigeur for a time after the film's release, most of them directly conflicting with each other.

To figure out what point, if any, the filmmakers themselves tried to make with the movie, we can of course look to the shark's victims. Its opening scene, of a group of drunken youngsters sitting 'round a campfire on the beach splintering to follow a young woman who invites a boy to go skinnydipping. The lad passes out from the booze as she takes to the water, swimming out just far enough to guarantee she won't come back. Suddenly, she jerks downward slightly, then she goes under and pops back up, then she is swirling around the area shrieking in pain and fear before being pulled down one last, horrible time. Can we infer from this attack that, like Halloween, the promiscuous and rebellious will be picked off, killed for the sin of violating traditional values? Well, no, because the next victim is a child and, after that, a man who attempts to help some boys swimming in the estuary. This shark kills without discrimation; it doesn't see the first victim as a sign of progressiveness that must be curbed or the child as an image of fresh-faced Americana. It's hungry, and it wants to eat.

Of course, what people fail to understand when they analyze what makes, say, a Hitchcock film so great, they focus too intently on his pop psychology and his sexual hangups. Interesting and revealing as such studies are, they fail to understand what makes Hitchcock's films classics is that they are thrillers that retain their power after multiple viewings. Jaws, the greatest film Hitchcock never made, retains its power across generations for the same reason: it's thrilling, it's chilling. It'll make you jump when you least expect it, even when you know what to expect.

Plenty of thrillers play on the comely, traditional village as a setting for horrific murders -- David Lynch built much of his legacy on it -- and Amity Island is as friendly and old-fashioned as they come. When the shark comes to this idyllic town, the public safety rests in the shaking hands of Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), once a cop in New York City, where he felt he had no impact on the city's rampant, pre-Disneyfication crime. So, the aquaphobic Brody moved his family to an island -- "It's only an island if you look at it from the water," he later says, his dopey optimism saying more about the characters and underlying emotion in Spielberg's cinema more than any biography ever could -- and he's the only one of his nuclear unit to enjoy the simpler life.

Of course, all the big city troubles can be found in small towns; the only difference is that grand corruption is replaced by mere pettiness. The shark attack threatens the tourist industry of a town dependent on those dollars, so the mayor (Murray Hamilton) ignores the problem and downplays it when he finally does acknowledge it. Using the same empathy he displayed in The Sugarland Express for its cops and criminals, Spielberg never fully condemns the man, though Hamilton certainly plays him like an officious prick, but the mayor's justifiable concern for the town's economy does not excuse his direct responsibility for additional deaths.

On land, Brody displays a level head worthy of a '70s New York cop: he calls in extra forces to scout the beaches and asks an oceanographic institute to send an expert before the mother of an eaten child causes a firestorm by placing a bounty on the beast's head. He's also humble and sharp enough to know when someone's smarter than him, ceding ground to that expert, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), on the subject of the shark. Some part of city life still burns inside Martin, as he takes to city-boy Hooper, a trust fund kid with a deep love of the sea, as if an old friend. The two share some wine with Brody's wife at Martin's house, investigate a caught shark together and ride out to an eerily damaged boat when they learn that "their" shark is still on the loose.

Their quickly bonded relationship helps flesh out the two and provides a yin for Robert Shaw's fantastically obnoxious, cantankerous yang as the drunken fisherman Quint. Hysterically, Shaw's performance isn't too terribly removed from his boisterous, carousing take on Henry VII in A Man for All Seasons (a performance that recalls more Brian Blessed's demented take on Richard IV in Blackadder than any formal appraisal of royalty): Quint is loud and irascible, chanting filthy limericks in Mrs. Brody's presence and spending most of his time in the film reminding the other characters of his superiority to them. Rarely has such a rambunctious asshole of a man been so immediately endearing, and Shaw tempers the more dynamic bursts of personality and scenery chewing with genuinely dramatic moments that would impress in the most straight-laced of Oscar bait.

All that downtime during production allowed the writers and actors to hone these characters, and no three people in any of Spielberg's subsequent features, indeed all of blockbuster filmmaking since this film invented the genre, have been so fully realized, so tangible or so perfectly played off one another. The trio head to sea in Quint's boat, the Orca (named for the killer whale, known to attack great whites on occasion), and immediately set at each other's throats. Quint, the grizzled old man who's never known a life of luxury and relaxation, mocks Hooper's "city hands" and all the fancy equipment the lad brings on the boat to find and capture the shark.

Each character juxtaposes nicely with the others, and they adapt to each other in the subtlest of ways. Quint eyes Hooper with derision, crushing a beer can with his fingers, to which Hooper responds by crunching a paper cup with gusto. Earlier, we saw Brody and Hooper head out to find that wrecked boat, and Hooper stuffed his face with snacks and cola. Quint, on the other hand, clearly has never enjoyed any sort of wealth. As he sits in his chair with his fishing rod, Quint nibbles on a single club cracker, and when he sees his line being tugged, he gently places the remainder in his shirt pocket to save it for later.

Yet the two slowly forge a respect for each other. Hooper may be a city boy sitting on his parents' money, but he's also hands-on and knows his way around a boat. Quint's method of catching sharks involves chumming the waters and shooting harpoons tied to barrels, preventing the shark from diving below the surface. Yet this shark, of course, cannot be stopped by normal methods, and when Quint's plan nearly destroys his boat, he gently turns to Hooper and quietly asks the scientist to use that equipment he so viciously mocked at first. They also find common ground over Brody, who is simply hapless at sea. They teach him knots and how to steer the boat, and when one snaps at him the other offers a quiet word of support ("You come get me the next time, Chief"). It's like a couple bonding over a puppy, or a baby.

Of course, the nexus of their character growth comes in the Indianapolis speech, one of the greatest monologues in cinema. It begins with the trio in the cabin, as Hooper gains Quint's respect as they compare scars they received through their maritime activities, until Quint mentions a tattoo removal. Hooper asks if it said "Mother" and collapses into drunken giggles with Brody until Quint nearly whispers that it was of the USS Indianapolis. A clueless Brody continues to chuckle, but the laughter dies in Hooper's throat, and Quint goes on to explain its significance. "We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte," he says, "Just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb." Torpedoes sank the vessel, sending all men overboard. For five days, they floated in the water, their whereabouts unknown because they couldn't send out a distress signal due to the nature of their mission. As they waited, sharks swarmed the survivors and picked them off one by one. Shaw's voice is cold and emotionless as he details the horrors, allowing for some flicker of lingering fear as he mentions the more poetic aspects of his suffering, those descriptions of "lifeless eyes." "So," he concludes, "1100 men went in the water; 316 men come out and the sharks took the rest, June the 29th, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb."

This scene is no less horrific than the jolts placed throughout the film, and Shaw's terribly matter-of-fact delivery, embellishing only a few words here and there for maximum effect, continues to send shivers down my spine. Both Brody and Hooper heretofore viewed Quint as a crazy old sot and largely tolerated him because they couldn't argue with experience. But they realize with crystalline alacrity that the man has seen more than they could ever imagine, and they never disrespect him again. Spielberg recognizes the gravity of this speech as well, and his presentation is bare-bones, particularly in comparison to the rest of the film.

Duel showed a director clearly capable of handling a thriller, but the visual acumen on display here puts him at the level of his more serious-minded peers -- Scorsese, Coppola -- even though he's making a B-movie. The opening tracking shot of the two teenagers running along the beach recalls Sunshine in its ability to traverse smoothly over hilly terrain. The dolly zoom of Brody realizing that he's watching a shark attack is arguably as noteworthy as the one employed in Vertigo. The director expertly handles crowds, navigating their unease and eventual hysteria and always looking out upon the ocean in an attempt to spot the predator coming. Everything mounts our discomfort, including those ascetic conversations such as the Indianapolis speech.

The decision to take the Orca far out to sea alone reveals his brilliance: he astutely recognized that any sight of land would undermine the suspense of the final act, as they could simply head for land when the situation turned south. It's why a scene like the one where Quint destroys the radio to prevent calling for assistance carries weight, as it shows a man who is willing to risk them all to kill this fish, as opposed to just a bit greedy.

And what of his ability to work around the malfunctioning shark? Those POV shots of dangling legs serve as a message: without faces to look at, we don't root for any characters or develop any bonds to them. Under the water with only legs to watch, everyone's the same, and all bets are off. On the surface, we occasionally see a fin (and then it's not always the shark), or we spot the shark through objects tied to it. One of the film's best moments, involving two local fishermen who attempt to catch the shark from a dock using a roast, is at first comedic, depicting the pair as fools who seriously think they have a shot at winning the hefty reward (one of them even nervously mentions that he stole the roast from his wife and is going to catch a tongue-lashing if nothing else). Then the chain attached to the hook tightens until the dock collapses. It's almost Keatonesque, until we see that one of the fishers is dumped in the surf as the broken dock speeds away before it turns around and chases after the man. Spielberg manages to repeat the trick later with the barrels and retain the suspense, and when Alfred Hitchcock later said that Spielberg was "the first one of us who doesn't see the proscenium arch" we can instantly see what he's talking about. There are no theatrics here, only a young talent taking the arthouse breakthroughs and placing them into the B-movies that inspired the New Wave in the first place.

Jaws actually stands as probably the most important film release since Godard kicked the budding New Wave into overdrive with Breathless. It was the first film to receive saturation booking as a release patten, as opposed to the old system of staggered releases that allowed word of mouth to build. The film became the first to make $100 million at the box office, proving the release format's worth as a business model that would eventually phase out limited releases until it reached its current method of releasing Oscar bait and smaller fare in L.A. and New York before moving it elsewhere. On one hand, it allowed everyone the chance to see the film at the same time, but it also led to the artistic collapse of '80s cinema and the emphasis on gross over quality seen today. So, yes, its impact on film was economic, not artistic, but that does not reflect on this film's quality, and if but a tenth of the subsequent blockbusters were as well-crafted, cinephiles would have far less to complain about concerning the paradigm shift.

It's scary, it's human, it's often quite funny. No actor hits a false note and the only unnecessary scene I can find after over 20 viewings over the years is the scene where Alex Kitner's mother slaps Brody after holding him responsible for not closing the beaches when he knew of the shark, despite us sitting through several prior scenes of him desperately attempting to do so, only to be shot down by the mayor. Ergo, there's a tedium running under the scene and it's easy to dismiss the character; however, she also manages to stop the vapid celebration of all the men who treat the capture of a different shark as just a good day fishin', reminding them that people died for the administration's incompetence. I just wish she pinned it on the town authority as a whole, not simply Brody as a means to motivate him later.

Yet this is a minor quibble, and everything else is perfect. Only those looking for technical gaffes will find something to complain about here (there's an eyeline match of Hooper looking out at the shark after it first pops out of the water that isn't possible, but honestly, at point are you satisfied if that gets to you?). I first saw Jaws at the tender age of 8, and I've looked at the ocean with distrust ever since. I really shouldn't, because that attitude led to a spike in shark hunting after the film's release, a horrible ecological result of people too stupid to differentiate fiction from reality. But perhaps that speaks to the gripping power of Spielberg's vision, one that can still make us jump when the shark first pops out of the water, only to make us laugh as Brody composes himself to say, "You're gonna need a bigger boat." The ending of Jaws is similar to Duel's in which the heroes manage to overcome the beast, only for the film to abruptly end without full resolution. If we read Jaws as a message of our ability to overcome obstacles, then maybe, for all his sentimentality, Spielberg adds these ambiguous endings as a cynical commentary. Yes, they triumphed over the stated enemy, but they've still got to swim to shore. It's a moment that sticks out now as I plan to carry through to his modern output, which is decidedly more downbeat, and I begin to wonder if people sold him short long before they accused A.I. of being sappy. But that is not important for now; Jaws is, simply put, the greatest thriller ever not directed by Hitchcock, a tour-de-force of editing, writing and directing, and I would not hesitate to rank it among the greatest achievements of New Hollywood.


  1. Hey Jake, great piece. I particularly love this final sentence and couldn't more:

    "...Jaws is, simply put, the greatest thriller ever not directed by Hitchcock, a tour-de-force of editing, writing and directing, and I would not hesitate to rank it among the greatest achievements of New Hollywood."

  2. Oh, thanks very much. Jaws has been one of my favorite films ever since it scared the pants off me as a kid. I find it strange that I take to thrillers yet still have a distaste for horror, but at least I didn't wall myself off from such a rich genre for years like I did with horror (took me forever to sit down with classics like Texas Chainsaw and Alien). I'd put Jaws at the top of a list of the 10 best non-Hitch thrillers along with (no order) The Terminator, Z, Dr Mabuse: The Gambler, Zodiac, The Insider, The Conversation, The Conformist, The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View (or All the President's Men; I'm not sure).

  3. Hey Jake, yeah that's a great list! Many of those would also be on my own. Good stuff, I look forward to continuing to follow your great work!

  4. Jake, I can almost guarantee that by the time you have finished your De Palma marathon at least one of his films will be in that list!

  5. You know, I was actually thinking about that as I wrote it. I'll be interested to see how that list changes after I watch some movies I've been meaning to see, De Palma's work among them.

  6. Hey Doniphon, good observation! I would definitely have some De Palmas on my list. I'll be curious to see how he treats you, Jake.

  7. Yay, you review a movie I've actually seen in the last 5 years! Very good review. Long, well-drawn out, pretty flawless. I remember liking the movie. The last time I saw it was probably 2 years ago, though I've never taken the time to make the observations that some people have. I'll probably see it again. One question: How many Speilberg films do you plan on reviewing?

  8. All of them. I probably won't write another review of A.I. because I covered everything I feel I could cover when I wrote about it a few months ago.

  9. I think it'll be 2030 once you finish reviewing all his films, but good luck.

  10. This is a good film, but it's just a suspense thriller. I understand that a ton of people who heard about how good this movie is misguidedly searched for subtext, but dude, look at the promotional poster. It's a shark eating a hot girl. The shark didn't eat her because she was...naked, or....naked, but because she happened to be there at the time, and any other reason would be silly.

    Regarding your problem with Mrs. Kinter blaming Brody is that, while, yes, it was more the Mayor's fault than his own, Vaughn had to deal with, basically, the fate of the city. Yeah, he's a dick, but compare what he had at stake to what Brody had at stake.

    The thought of the mayor "just doing his job" probably sickened the woman, but that there was a deputy who knew it was a possibility and didn't take much action likely sickened her even more, to where it was too much to take. (Remember, she JUST found out.)

    And between the coroner going from "It could've been a shark attack." to "It was definatily a boat accident." after likely spending a little time hanging out with the mayor, and Vaughn himself saying, "Let's try not to scare people.", I'm certain that Brody sensed a fair amount, if not a large amount of manipulation, and as a deputy, surely he could've publicly warned people by saying "There's a small chance of a shark being around, try not to go too far into the water."

    And though I get the feeling that you're not much of a JW fan(Oh, the irony), please don't tell me you didn't like the music in this. Please?

  11. Yeah, but the Kitner scene only exists to openly add guilt to Brody's character, which Scheider could already have pulled off with his acting. Everything else about Jaws was sharpened to a fine point, and that's the one misfire of the movie.

    And yes, I do like Williams' score. It's got enough bombast to be immediately recognizable as him, but he gets the mood perfectly, and his two-note motif retains its power after 35 years of incessant parody. There are plenty of Williams score I find too overbearing (his work on the first Harry Potter is outrageously terrible, though funnily enough his Prisoner of Azkaban score is one of his five best).