Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Reality of JAWS

"None of man's fantasies of evil can compare to the reality of Jaws."

That was the line that opened one of the TV commercials for JAWS in 1975.  It was the movie everyone was talking about.  There are famous movies, legendary movies and great movies.  And then there are those historic movies.  Not movies about history, but movies that made history.  Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, King Kong (33), Star Wars, the Ten Commandments, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Easy Rider, and of course JAWS.

At a time when many believed it would be endless years before the 100 million dollar mark was breached, when movies were aimed at general audiences, when realism was beginning to dominate and the R-Rating was allowing Hollywood to shatter taboos, a young Stephen Spielberg unleashed what many consider to be the greatest horror film of all time on an almost ill-prepared movie going audience.

Much has been written about the movie.  And next to Citizen Kane, few other movies have become as
known for the production as the finished product.  Everyone knows the mechanical shark didn't work.  State of the art for the day, salt water did it in, forcing Spielberg to adopt a more Hitchcockian approach to what would have been a 'monster shark eats people' disaster film of the mid-70s. Union problems, zoning problems, difficulties shooting on the ocean, cantankerous crew, bickering actors - Spielberg has said that for many months after the film's release, he would wake up in a cold sweat thinking he was still working on the set.

And yet, when it hit theaters in the summer of 1975: movie magic.  Hollywood realized there was a whole new way to package and market films.  The Summer Blockbuster, whose bastard children are still alive today, was born.  Spielberg became a superstar.  John William's iconic score went down as one of the greatest ever composed for a film.  One of the greatest monologues in movie history. Martha's Vineyard officially became a major tourist spot.  And in the summer of 1975, revenues for the beach industry took a sharp plunge.

And why not?  Even then it was recognized as better than your average horror thriller, garnering an Academy Award nomination (losing to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).  And though some criticized the lack of character development among some of the cast (though usually not the principle characters), today it looks like a Shakespearean drama by comparison.

Spielberg's insistence on filming on the high seas rather than a studio tank paid off, and the atmosphere and
the ocean become major players in the film.  Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, and a young Richard Dreyfuss all give stellar and sympathetic performances.  Even though the movie relied on locals to round out much of the town's population, they actually pull their weight well.  And while the shark has gotten some ribbing over the years (sharks don't really have 'jaws'), when looked at as a model, it really isn't far off an actual Great White.  It was just the lack of information saturation that movie makers today would have that the model builders then weren't privy to.

Still, by the time the shark appears, it's lack of continual appearances keeps it menacing until the end.  The tension and stress of the movie keeps the audience alive, and just like other great films of the past - anything by Harryhausen, the original King Kong - most are able to mentally transfer the images and remember that this isn't really a shark, but it's a character in the movie.  Just like Shaw wasn't really a fisherman, or Dreyfuss a scientist, so the mechanical shark was an actor.  And what an actor it was.  Though modern CGI creatures have the benefit of unlimited access to any scholarship about any topic, and  of course the limitless bounds of CGI graphics, few have ever sustained the menace or the horror that 'Bruce' the shark managed off the coasts of Amity all those years ago.

Knowing the movie and its place in history and the quality of its production, it was inevitable that I'd want to see it with the boys.  Our oldest had seen it a couple years ago.  But our next two youngest hadn't seen it yet.  So last weekend, busy with Mothers Day and preparations for Confirmation this weekend and  Graduation next, we set aside any major plans, popped some corn and sat down to watch JAWS.  I was curious to see how my boys would react.  After all, in 1975, unless you were able to see Rated R movies, chances are you hadn't seen much in terms of blood and violence.  JAWS made some people leave the theaters because of the blood.  I remember my then teenage sister being utterly freaked out by the huge amounts of blood.  But this is 2014.  My boys grew up on a diet of PG-13 violence, and have actually seen some select rated R movies (or scenes from them, for instance battle scenes from Gladiator). Would this be old?  Would it be dated?  Would it be a bore?

When the movie was over, and Dreyfuss had tossed out his final quip, as the credits ran I looked and my eighth grader was literally clutching the arms of his chair.  My oldest, who had already seen it once, was shaking.  My ninth grader laid back as if exhausted.  So what did they think?  My soon to be confirmed eighth grader was first to speak, and he summed up something I've been think about since.  He said, "You got to like those guys.  You didn't want to see any of them killed.'   The others agreed.  Far from two dimensional fodder, you cared about them.  Almost half the movie was spent getting to know the main characters, and even though common sense said that at least one of them had to go, you didn't want it to be any of them.  But it wasn't just that.   It was intense.  How was it intense I asked.  Because it was, well, real.  They couldn't quite put their finger on it, but they said it wasn't just 'it was real because sharks are real.'  It was because the people didn't seem like today.

I pondered that and pressed on.  According to them, today many (not all, but many) characters are not overly sympathetic.  Bad guys are supposed to be bad and get what they have coming.  Good guys are good guys, usually because they represent PC values.  Characters aren't real.  They're like types.  They are either supposed to get what they have coming, or not.  And even though the gore and violence is more, it isn't the same.  They just couldn't but their finger on what made this 1975 movie so intense.

And yet, they've encountered that more than once.  Not that they don't enjoy movies and TV shows today,
but they have time and again admitted that, with few exceptions (Christopher Nolan being a consistent example), movies today lack something. They're not 'real.'  Yes, the acting quality in JAWS among the three leads is wonderful, and that helps.  But actors today are good.  Writers.  Directors.  What is it that so struck a nerve with my boys?  I'm not sure.  To quote Quint when asked if he'd seen a shark do this: I don't know.  But it's got me to thinking.  Thinking about the media pool in which our youngsters swim.  Maybe it's my boys.  Maybe others would just laugh and guffaw.  Maybe they would cheer whenever someone got taken down by the shark.  Part of me fears that might be true.  But I can't help but think it means something, and I'll be thinking about it over the months to come.

Maybe it's not fair to compare what many (or at least pre-internet many) consider one of the greatest movies of all time to the entire package today.   After all, there was more than one pile of lousy, superficial junk movies in 1975.  But for now, three men went into the water, two came out alive, and the reaction of my boys gave me something to ponder as I think of our culture, our society, and the world which we have given them as our oldest's graduation approaches.

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