Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Some people argue that Jaws ruined cinema. It was the first massive summer blockbuster and it paved the way for the nonsense that followed - high concept, big budget, fast food movies for people with short attention spans and less than discerning taste. It completely changed the landscape of the movie industry.

Whether you think this change is a good thing or bad thing depends on if you’re a drooling fanboy or someone with a modicum of intelligence. I know there are people who jizz in their pants at every big movie release. They watch the trailers, they read the news on excitable blogs and they go to the opening weekends, crying inside as they realise that the latest future movie classic starring Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson isn’t The Godfather. Hell, it isn’t even The Poseidon Adventure. But despite this they’ll still try and convince themselves and others that it is. They’ll artificially inflate the score on IMDb and they’ll nod in agreement with that fuckwit Harry Knowles. Yes The Dark Time Traveling Matrix of Wonderland was really a life changing experience.

For other folk, summer movie season is a time for despair. A time when nothing decent seems to be showing. But even though Jaws helped usher this in, we shouldn’t think less of the film. Jaws is fantastic entertainment and proof that it’s hard to make a big mainstream flick. Producers these days seem to think that there’s a magic formula, but there isn’t. The vast majority of them aren’t going to make anything that comes anywhere near close to the genius of Jaws.

One of the things that helped Jaws was that the special effects were rubbish. This meant that the filmmakers had to be a little more imaginative about the way that they filmed the shark sequences. They couldn’t just show the rubber Great White right from the beginning; the suspense would have been ruined. Instead we see lots of point of view shots and we get to see the results of the carnage.

Had Jaws been filmed today, we probably would have seen the shark in the very first reel, even if Spielberg had been director. Drunk with the possibilities of CGI, the focus would have been on pointless money shots instead of suspense.

But is CGI even better than the effects we have here? Sure, towards the end, as the shark performs increasingly outrageous acts, the effects look dodgy. Just take the mechanical gnashing as he eats Quint or the shark torpedo as he crashes into the sinking boat in order to eat Brody. The effects don’t look remotely real. But did the effects in Deep Blue Sea look real either? Not at all. And at least here there are one or two amazing shots of the shark. Easily the most effective is the first reveal. The attacks at the beginning are unseen, but during the 4th July celebrations we get our first glimpse of the monster. We see it from above as it goes to attack a man in a small rowing boat. The water is dirty and the shark doesn’t perform any acrobatics, but in this one shot it looks completely real. And it makes the scene quite chilling. The thought that there’s this monster in the water, waiting to eat you, has certainly made me more reluctant to dip my feet in the ocean. That there is a sign of an effective film.

As mentioned before, later scenes with the shark aren’t quite as powerful. For instance, the moment when the shark reveals itself to Brody. Yes it’s a big surprise, but the shark, chomping thin air, kind of looks like it has Bell’s Palsy. Far scarier are the scenes where we don’t actually see the shark but feel its presence. For instance, the scene where Quint talks about the Indianapolis. Now the scene is amazing for many reasons. One of the many reasons I love it is because of the scar contest that the characters have - you can feel the characters bonding and this of course makes you care more about them. But it’s also a great scene because of the sense of dread it fills you with. Quint talks about his ship being sunk after delivering the H-Bomb - trapped in the Pacific waters with rescue a long way away, sharks feed on the men. It conveys far more terror than any of the action scenes and gives all of the characters an added layer of depth. Before this they’re all kind of one note (stuck up policeman, crazy seadog and cynical oceanographer) but after this they all kind of change - they finally realise what they’re up against and you’re more invested in them as people.

Other scenes are a bit more mechanical in the scares they create. A prime example is the scene where Brody and Hooper search for the shark at night. As they travel through the waters they stumble upon the boat of a fisherman. Of course, Hooper decides he has to investigate and dives into the water to check the hull of the boat. As he’s checking it, the dead body of the fisherman leers out. It’s a blatant, shameless attempt to make you jump (Spielberg actually tinkered with it, knowing that he still had one big scare left in the film) but it works like gangbusters.

Something that’s easy to forget when talking about Jaws is how funny it is. The dialogue is incredibly pithy and it helps give the film lots of life and energy. I also like the politics of the film - Brody is helpless in the face of a stupid Mayor who will put money before people. But even though he could be a simple villain, even the stupid Mayor has a little depth to him. He just wants his town and its people to prosper and as such ends up putting lives on the line. In one particularly amusing scene, during the 4th July as the fearful beachgoers remain safely on the sand, he encourages a family to enter the water - it kind of reminded me of when a British politician made his child eat a burger to prove that British beef was safe and that we wouldn’t all get Mad Cow’s Disease. He’s just trying to make sure that the celebrations proceed as normal and that the town has a good holiday season, but his recklessness ends up costing lives.

Another scene that gives me a laugh is the introduction of Quint. In the middle of a typically silly and short-sighted town meeting, he runs his fingers down a blackboard and says that for a sizeable sum of money, he’ll catch the shark –he’s the guy who knows exactly what the problem is and how to solve it. Of course, seeing as the town is run by a shyster who likes to cut corners, his offer isn’t taken up. Once again the Mayor puts money before people.

But Quint is by far the most interesting character in the film. And watching the film for the first time in years, it’s kind of remarkable that he’s only really in the final half of the film. It just goes to show how strong his presence is that he’s the first thing I remember when I think of Jaws.

What makes Quint such a likeable character is how much fun Robert Shaw seems to be having. But this doesn’t mean that Shaw is overacting or playing the buffoon. Quint feels legitimately coarse and dangerous. But at the same time, he also has a nurturing side to him. He helps Brody and even comes to like Hooper (thanks largely to the Indianapolis scene).

Speaking of Hooper and Quint, there’s an excellent class war between the two. Quint represents the working class, learn things through experience ethos, and Hooper represents technology and book learning. Neither of them are wrong, but initially they clash. There’s even an amusing bit where Quint downs a beer in one go and then crushes his can. In response, Hooper downs a paper cup and also crushes it. In some ways, the relationship is even like father and son. Hooper constantly feels the need to prove himself and only after much effort does he gain the respect of the old man.

But like I said earlier, neither of their approaches are wrong. Both experience and technology should be embraced. And Quint eventually learns this. Too bad, though, that he only learns it minutes before disappearing down the gullet of a Great White.

The ending of the film, with Brody literally blowing the shark up, should be completely laughable and preposterous, but somehow the young Spielberg has a way of making even the silliest things both plausible and enjoyable. We shouldn’t root for the destruction of sharks, but you can’t help but clutch the air as this fish explodes into a bloody mess. Somehow man manages to triumph against nature. But man shouldn’t let this success go to his head. The key to our survival is education and intelligence. Although a big gun and a gas tank also come in handy sometimes...

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  1. To say Jaws ruined the auteur era is a really simplistic argument. Heaven's Gate, One From The Heart did far more to do that.

  2. True, the excesses of directors like Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin etc. helped destroy the power of directors in Hollywood, but the success of Jaws and Star Wars etc. helped usher in the idea of film as product. Well, film has always been product, but those films helped institute a reliance on summer tent-pole pictures; a business model that the studios have become increasingly dependant on.