Sunday, June 20, 2010

35 Years Ago This Weekend...

...Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) opened in theaters and captured the nation's imagination.

I was old enough (five) to get a good, long look at Jaws fever, from the Ideal-produced game to joke books and beyond. I still recallthe onslaught of sea-based horror movies that came in the film's wake too, including Orca (1977) and Tentacles (1977).

In many important ways, Jaws still hasn't been outdone. The Spielberg film has stood the test of time, and remains scary as of the great horror movies of the disco decade.

Here's a snippet from my Jaws review to celebrate the 35th birthday of Bruce the Shark:

"Jaws derives much of its terror from what you might half-jokingly term "information overload." Although the great white shark remains hidden beneath the waves for most of the film -- unseen but imagined -- Steven Spielberg fills in that visual gap (and the viewer's imagination) with a plethora of facts and figures about this ancient, deadly predator.

Legendarily, the life-size mechanical model of the shark (named Bruce) malfunctioned repeatedly during production of the film, a reality which forced Spielberg to hide the creature from the camera for much of the time. Yet this problem actually worked out in the film's best interest. Because for much of the first two acts, unrelenting tension builds as a stream of data about the "monster" washes over us. It's the education of Martin Brody, and the education of Jaws' audience.

After a close-up shot of a typewriter clacking out the words "SHARK ATTACK" (all caps), images, illustrations and descriptions of the shark start to hurtle across the screen in ever increasing numbers. Chief Brody reads from a book that shows a mythological-style rendering of a shark as a boat-destroying, ferocious sea monster.

Another schematic in the same scene reveals a graph of shark "radar," the fashion by which the shark senses a "distressed" fish (the prey...) far away in the water.

Additional photos in the book -- and shown full-screen by Spielberg -- depict the damage a shark can inflict: victims of shark bites both living and dead. These are not photos made up for the film, incidentally, but authentic photographs of real-life shark attack victims.

Why, there's even a "gallows" humor drawing of a shark (with a human inside its giant maw...) drawn by Quint at one point, a "cartoon" version of our learning.

Taken together, these various images cover all aspects of shark-dom: from reputation and lore to ability, to their impact on soft human flesh, to the macabre and ghastly.

The information about sharks also comes to Brody (the audience surrogate) in other ways, through both complementary pieces of his heroic triumvirate, Hooper and Quint, respectively. The young, enthusiastic, secular Hooper first becomes conveyor of data in his capacity as a scientist.

Hooper arrives in Amity and promptly performs an autopsy on shark attack victim Chrissie Watkins. He records the examination aloud, into a tape recorder mic (while Brody listens). Hooper's vocal survey of the extensive wounds on the corpse permits the audience to learn precisely what occurred when this girl was attacked and partially devoured by a great white shark. Hooper speaks in clinical, scientific terms of something utterly grotesque: "The torso has been severed in mid-thorax; there are no major organs remaining...right arm has been severed above the elbow with massive tissue loss in the upper musculature... partially denuded bone remaining..."

As Brody's science teacher of sorts, Hooper later leads the chief through a disgusting (and wet...) dissection of a dead tiger shark (one captured and thought to be the Amity offender). Again, Hooper educates not just Brody; he educates the audience about a shark's eating habits and patterns. All these facts -- like those presented by illustrations in books -- register powerfully with the viewer and we begin to understand what kind of "monster" these men face.

Later, aboard the Orca, Quint completes Brody's learning curve about sharks with the final piece of the equation: first-hand experience. Quint recounts, in a captivating sequence, how he served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945. How the ship was sunk (after delivering the Hiroshima bomb), and how 1100 American sailors found themselves in shark-infested water for days on end.

Over a thousand sailors went into the water and only approximately three-hundred came out.

As Quint relates: "the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces."

This testimony about an eyewitness account is not the only "history" lesson for Brody, either. Brief reference is also made in the film to the real-life "Jersey man-eater" incident of July 1 - July 12, 1916, in which four summer swimmers were attacked by a shark on the New Jersey coast.

This "information overload" concerning sharks -- from mythology and scientific facts to history and nightmarish first-person testimony -- builds up the threat of the film's villain to an extreme level, while the actual beast remains silent, unseen. When the shark does wage its final attack, the audience has been rigorously prepared and it feels frightened almost reflexively. Spielberg's greatest asset here is that he has created, from scratch, an educated audience; one who fully appreciates the threat of the great white shark. A smart audience is a prepared audience. And a prepared audience is a worried one. We also become invested in Brody as our lead because we learn, alongside him, all these things. When he beats the shark, we feel as if we've been a part of the victory.

Another clever bit here: after all the "education" and "knowledge" and "information," Spielberg harks back to the mythological aspect of sea monsters, hinting that this is no ordinary shark, but a real survivor -- a monster -- and possibly even supernatural in nature (like Michael Myers from Halloween).

Consider that this sea dragon arrives in Amity (and comes for Quint?) thirty years to the day of the Indianapolis incident (which occurred June 30, 1945). Given this anniversary, one must consider the idea that the shark could be more than mere animal. It could, in fact, be some kind of supernatural angel of death.

Thematically, the shark could also serve as a Freudian symptom of guilt repressed in the American psyche. The shark attack on Indianapolis occurred thirty years earlier, at the end of World War II, when a devastating weapon was deployed by the United states.

Now, in 1975, this shark arrives on the home front just scant months after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War (April 30, 1975) -- think of the images of American helicopters dropped off aircraft carriers into the sea. This shark nearly kills a young man, Hooper, who would have likely been the same age as Quint when he served in the navy during World War II.

Does the shark represent some form of natural blow back against American foreign policy overseas? I would say this is over-reach, a far-fetched notion if not for the fact that the shark's assault on the white-picket fences of Amity strikes us right where it hurts: in the wallet; devastating the economy. It isn't just a few people who are made to suffer, but everyone in the community. And that leads us directly to an understanding of the context behind Jaws..."


  1. So began the age of the blockbuster. This flick changed so much—movie release patterns, reporting of grosses, the need to won the weekend and make hundreds of millions to succeed. I was a teen when it it, and I still remember the experience of sitting in the theater and thinking that it was actually better than the book which as we know, rarely happens.

    And Spielberg was born.

  2. A fine look back on this one, John. This is the film that just about everybody agrees started the summer movie blockbuster (for better or for worse depending upon which mega-movie release one looks at). I waited 2-3 hours in line at the now long gone ABC Entertainment Center. And it turned out to be a real social event for the folks standing in line there.

    I still can recall seeing popcorn flying for some patrons during some of the surprise moments in the picture (it taught me never to eat the stuff during one of these films). The other reason I share such an affinity for this movie is that almost a year later I did a stint at a local theater as the projectionist. On the re-release of the JAWS, we showed the film for six weeks! Anyway, a wonderful post for this anniversary, my friend. Thanks for this.

  3. Grayson10:42 PM

    Classic. I imagine there was a lot less swimming in the summer of '75.

  4. Hey everyone, thanks for the comments.

    Theron: Yep -- Jaws kicked off the age of the blockbuster as we now know yet. I try not to hold the movie responsible for that, since it's so good! :) But I also agree with you that the movie is better than the book.

    Le0pard13: Jaws played all summer back in 75, if I have my facts straight, and so I'm not surprised to hear that on a return engagement it played again for six weeks. I guess the last movies that had such longevity in modern times are Avatar and Dark Knight. What amazes me is how good the movie remains; how it has stood up so well. Every now and then I hear someone discuss a remake and I just shudder...

    Grayson: because of Jaws my wife has had a life long fear of the ocean and swimming in it. We go to the beach and she's a basket case...

    best to all, and my thanks,

  5. Watched this film again last night and it never gets old. I think that what helps the film endure over the years is all the little details that help flesh out and define the characters, like when Brody shares a moment with his littlest son after a particularly hard day, or when Hooper comes over with a bottle of wine and Brody pours most of the contents into a regular class... It is these little things that always stick in my mind and make me appreciate this film the more times I see it.

  6. J.D.:

    That's a good insight, I think.

    By the time we get to the Orca and the last act at sea, we feel so invested in all the characters that the thought of losing any one them is difficult. The movie plays strongly on our emotion of empathy for these people (in addition to our terror over the nature of the shark; orchestrated by the information overload).

    Thanks for the comment, my friend.



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