Over at the Film Experience, Nat has written up an appreciation of George Lucas’ American Graffiti. That’s his 4th of July pick. Ours is the other history-making blockbuster.
There isn’t a better day in America to enjoy Jaws than the 4th of July. As the business owners on Amity Island are in a panic. There’s a shark in the water and it’s killing people. A woman, a young boy. But the mayor of Shark City doesn’t want to tell people that. They need summer dollars to keep Amity Island comfortable. But Chief Brody is from the city where you take care of the problem the old fashioned way. The shark in Jaws has always been more than just a shark. It represents fear of the unknown, and unfamiliar enemy to the traditional Chief of Police. In picture-perfect America the water belongs to us. We lay out our beach towels, blow up our rafts and take to the glittering, inviting sea. And yet, in the water, we are mostly vulnerable. The 4th of July is supposed to be a celebration of our country’s birth and an affirmation of freedom. But isn’t it funny, then, that our dreams are punctured by a hungry predator seizing the opportunity to attack.
The truth is that sharks don’t even like to eat people. They prefer seals. They won’t fight back if fishermen try to hunt them down. They will do what any animal would do if it was outmatched — flee. But this shark is more than a shark. It’s a character in the film with its own mind. So it takes three barrels and it dives under and it never lets up. When it finally lands on the boat, and we see it in all of its mechanical, fake, movie glory we know we are watching a movie. We know the shark isn’t real. We might even think it looks cheesy. But for the last hour and a half we’ve gotten to know the film’s three main characters so well we have long since abandoned our need for reality.
Jaws is about Brody, Quint and Hooper. It’s about hubris. It’s about old fashioned police tactics to take down an enemy that can’t really be beat any other way. Jaws is also about Steven Spielberg — his natural ease with storytelling, his willingness to explore character even in the midst of special effects, and his extraordinary gift to entertain. It’s also about John Williams and Richard Dreyfuss’ laugh. It’s about scars, small towns, tradition, and fear. It is about that opening shark attack filmed in day for night, a woman’s spirited skinny-dipping overtaken by an unseen beast. It was never an embarrassment to Spielberg that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Jaws; that one’s on the Academy. Jaws changed Hollywood forever in good and bad ways. But so far no director has ever really managed to top what Spielberg did that summer when he released one of the infamous blockbusters. There aren’t many Spielbergs walking around, even though we exist now in an era of non-stop blockbusters. Most of them give character the short shrift and that is probably their biggest mistake overall. That audiences are so willing to go along with it is the depressing reality.
Though I was just ten when Jaws came out, and though I watched it maybe 14 times in the theater, sometimes spending all day in the theater to watch it three times in a day, I find myself returning again and again to this film because, I think, the three main characters are drawn so well that it is almost like visiting old friends. Good actors, good writing, and flawless direction work in combination to create something that has endured long after most other films released in the same year.
For these and many other countless reasons, Jaws is our 4th of July pick. Here are the other nine.
2. David Fincher’s Zodiac – an American celebration interrupted by murder and mayhem
3. The Shining – Duck and Goose Soiree
4. Manhattan – for the opening scene
5. Brokeback Mountain – Heath Ledger fights back after being insulted on the 4th.
6. Born on the Fourth of July – because
7. John Adams, currently playing on HBO2
8. Cape Fear, another great American nightmare
9. To Kill a Mockingbird, nice reference to the Declaration of Independence
10. 1776 – if you really just want balls-out patriotism