Sunday, June 20, 2010

Jaws: On a 35-Year-Old Obsession

June 20th, 2010 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of the movie JAWS. This post is part of Radiation-Scarred Review's 2010 SHARKATHALON, which celebrates this milestone with blog posts around the web.
"There is a creature alive today that has survived millions of years of evolution. Without change, without passion, and without logic. It lives to kill. A mindless eating machine, it will attack and devour anything. It is as if God... created the devil... and gave him... Jaws." - Narration from the original 1975 trailer.
Where does an obsessive fan of Jaws even start? How does one trace the threads of its power to captivate, to enthrall, to terrify? What does one make of its entwining itself throughout a life, and especially the nightmares, the nightmares of monstrous, maniacally grinning sharks that look like nothing ever seen on earth? One starts at the beginning, one supposes.

Being exposed to it from the age of four is probably the main fact of it. Growing up in the 1970s, you couldn't escape the Jaws phenomenon, even if your folks wouldn't let you see it until you were older. So you spent a lot of time being accosted by this monstrous shark image and wondering if, when you finally saw the movie, you'd die of fright. And by you I mean me, of course. The week before I saw it on re-release in 1978 or '79 (at a drive-in, no less!), I laid awake in bed each night, literally fearful for my life. Would this be the last thing I ever saw?

One of my earliest memories is of my parents picking my sister and me up from our aunt's house, who'd babysat us while they went to see the movie in '75. From the darkened backseat of the car I asked, "How'd they kill the shark?" My mom replied, "Three men went out on a boat and blew it up." In my tiny head I had an image of three men in a wooden fishing boat throwing a stick of dynamite into the ocean while a rather large nondescript fish swam beneath them.

me, c. 1976

Also a kid I spent a lot of summers down at the Jersey Shore so there was plenty of time to ruminate upon just what lurked beneath the waters. Daytime was bad enough, of course, but night was worse. Hearing the endless roar of waves and looking out over a blackened sea and imagining what was beneath - imaging myself out in those waters, helpless and alone, truly vulnerable, as swells lifted and dropped me, pushing me further and further from shore - was almost too much for my imagination.

I'd lean over the boardwalk railings and give myself a frisson of delicious terror, like someone who craves the burn of whiskey or habaneros on their palate. Then my parents would call me to catch up and off I'd run, glad to be free of the fear that I know haunts people everywhere; even, I'm sure, in landlocked places. I even remember being afraid of swimming across a pool at night, when I was older, and giving myself that same tease of terror... and then getting out, drying off, going inside.

The estuary sequence as originally shot

But Jaws is more than just cheap thrills, and while I always watched it over and over whenever it was on TV, it's been in the last three or four years that the obsession has fully bloomed. Once I had the DVD it was on almost nightly. Now that I'm an experienced film fan, with a film degree and all that entails (basically writing about films for free online), watching Jaws is a different experience; the pleasures are not simply in the terror the movie engenders, but in how that tale is told. It is common film lore that the shark didn't work so the filmmakers couldn't use it as much as envisioned, etc., etc.

Today I see how perfectly the film is constructed, how effortlessly it presents character and dramatic conflict, how it takes its time getting to the "good stuff." Like all great '70s movies there is overlapping dialogue, faces that bear the traces of lives lived and not makeup artists employed, and space, so much space for which the characters to move in and around, a real sense of place... until we get to sea, of course, and all avenues are closed off. It's man versus nature and man versus man and man versus himself. Brody, Quint, and Hooper each have their own reasons for confronting this beast. Scheider, Shaw, and Dreyfuss are one of the great cinematic ensemble casts. Watch each actor closely next time you see the film; you'll be amazed at the little things they do to solidify their characters.

Do I think that Jaws is the best movie ever? Honestly, in many ways, yes, I do. It is surely the finest thriller Hollywood has made; in its perfect cocktail of character and carnage it is still a beacon to filmmakers today. While other favorite movies of mine may aspire to a higher, more rarefied art, I am also of the opinion that art and generic conventions need never be separated and yield some of the finest films ever made. The Godfather could have been a cheap gangster flick; The Silence of the Lambs a potboiler about a mad doctor; Raging Bull just another sports triumph movie. But they're not, and neither is Jaws simply another monster-on-the-loose story. I'm surprised when I talk with people who think so.

The stunningly moody and poetic teaser for the sequel
(thanks to peelslowlynsee)

And then once in a video store I overheard a young woman whining to her boyfriend, "Why is Jaws in the horror section?" Took all my strength to not grab her, thrash her about, and shout in her face, "Because when a shark EATS YOU it's considered SCARY."

"Hello, Universal? Look, I know I'm only 26 years old, but I'm gonna make you the first movie to ever gross $100 million ever. What? You want me to shoot it in a tank? FUCK YOU."

Jaws could have been what all of its countless imitators are: cheap and fast, Corman-style exploitation flicks with all of the blood but none of the heart to give it a beat worthwhile. We've all seen those movies and we've all thought they were... okay. But Steven Spielberg's Jaws (and, of course, Benchely's and Scheider's and Dreyfuss's and Shaw's and Verna Fields's and John Williams's), even with its gore-flecked teeth and gaping maw and insatiate hunger, with the irrational fear it has given people all over the world, again I say that Spielberg's Jaws is heart, all heart, and probably even my own.

Cheers, and thanks for reading.

"Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women."
The second most famous toast in film.


Doug said...

Nice write up!

This is sucha great movie. Can't believe it is 35 years old. I had similar feelings about Jaws when I was a kid and also saw it on on the reissue in 79, I was about 9 years old at that point. I never forgot it.

I also like bourbon too. Been drinking some Dickels special batch lately. Also dig the Makers Mark and Bulleit bourbon too. But I also drink Evan Williams when I want to get more bang for my buck!Heck I'll drink almost any bourbon you put in front of me!

Will Errickson said...

Thanks, Doug. JAWS fans unite! Those are all good bourbons but my main man is Mr. Evan Williams, green label. We are not often separated...

Carl (ILHM) said...

Dude. Awesomest Jaws shirt ever.

Who cant be obsessed with Jaws, or at least too utterly terrified of it to watch it? My dad raised me on Jaws and Back to the Future. We literally rented one of the sequels to either every. single. weekend. I love reading nostalgic posts like this about one of my all time favorite films. Great post my friend!

'77 - '80 Collector said...

Totally with you on this. I never get tired of watching Jaws. Still terrifying. Not many thrillers/horror movies can still pack a punch 35 years on.

Jaws, Star Wars and Rocky are the three reasons why I firmly believe that the 70s was the best decade for movies.

Will Errickson said...

"Jaws, Star Wars and Rocky are the three reasons why I firmly believe that the 70s was the best decade for movies."

Yep, and they're just the very tip of the iceberg!

Carl Manes said...

Fantastic post Will, I am right there with you as a complete Jaws nut. I do consider it to be one of the greatest films ever made, and I have fond memories watching it and its sequels every weekend with my dad.

To this day, I am dead certain that Jaws will come out of the light in the deep end of the pool and eat me. You all laugh, but when it finally happens...

A_Wonder_Book_Of_Rockets said...

I am supremely jealous of that t-shirt.