I try to imagine Jaws being released now and how Twitter would have responded to it. Would they complain about how fake the shark looked? Would they think Quint was a cliche? Would women like me complain that the role of Ellen Brody had been greatly diminished in the adaptation? Would animal rights activists be up in arms about the personification of the shark — sharks kill just five people a year compared to hippos that kill 2,900. Winning Twitter is no easy game these days. For every Inside Out that comes out to raves there are dozens of others that are snarked within an inch of their life.
It’s a good thing, then, that Jaws came out when so many of us hadn’t yet gotten ourselves in the clutches of social networking. Jaws resonates still because it’s a great movie. Period. Yes, the shark looks fake but that isn’t near enough to derail its prominence. This is the master Steven Spielberg at the top of his game working with a team of actors who nail their characters, to say nothing of John Williams’ score, which is so much of what makes the movie work.
I was ten years old when Jaws came out and it remains the only movie I stood in line to see roughly 14 times when it played. Since then, I probably watch it at least once a year. At least. Jaws is great because it treats the shark like a character. It’s great because its plot derives not from the visual effects but from the internal conflicts of its three main leads. All three men – Brody, Hooper and Quint are given backgrounds, pasts, demons to overcome, and most importantly, there is conflict between them when thrown together. Hooper and Quint are rivals down economic and professional lines. Brody holds the whole thing together but is inexperienced and afraid of the water. He’s an ex-New York cop coming at the shark problem like he would a common criminal on the streets. Credit for building mythology around the shark must be given to Hooper (a scientist) and Quint (a fisherman). We see beautiful symbols of this mythic shark — its jaws, its fin. The dramatic tension is driven not by seeing the shark at all but by watching the barrels shot into him bob to the surface. We know where the shark is because we can see the barrels. Our imaginations does the rest. The barrels pop up then start to move. We have to guess where they are moving and where they’re heading.
Spielberg plays with our imaginations and fears about the shark from the very first scene with Chrissie swimming at nighttime. This vicious attack we see only from the surface — we see no blood, we see no teeth ripping into flesh — we see only her reaction to the vicious mutilation happening to her from below. We connect with our own fears from swimming at night or swimming at all of what might be swimming beneath us.
So many of us came of age on Jaws and have loved it faithfully ever since. I personally know at least four or five people who have committed the film to memory. I challenge you to try to stump me with quotes on it as I know it backwards and forwards. I think of Jaws as so much of a part of my childhood it always seems strange to me when I meet so many others who felt the same way. In a sense, the popularity of Jaws is wrapped up with that — nostalgia. But in another sense, has there ever been a better movie?
Jaws and Star Wars altered the path of summer movies forever. They were the first blockbusters. Though they didn’t really get it at the time they were the first tent poles. Imagine any film made today that waited as long on the character development as it did on the suspense. That was what the greats of the 1970s did better than any of the filmmakers today making similar films — Ridley Scott’s Alien, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. The fear was rooted in worry for the characters we had come to know so well, not so much from the horrors of what computer graphics could achieve. Because of that, there is nothing dated or embarrassing about any of these films except perhaps the effects themselves which are the only elements of these films that could be improved upon.
The two best sequences in the film are the shark attacks themselves, specifically the Alex Kintner attack, but you have to add in “Michael’s in the pond.” Both are examples of why Spielberg was one of the greatest directors. The scene is first set on a typical summer’s day. Brody is on the beach with his wife. The kids are splashing around in the water. A young man plays fetch with his dog until the dog disappears. The stick turns up but the dog doesn’t. Alex Kintner is given one more chance to swim even though his fingers are beginning to prune. Brody is on edge already because he knows there was already a shark attack that the mayor told him to quash. He sees Harry’s swim cap and thinks it might be a shark. He’s watching and nervous. Once again we see things from the shark’s point of view. We see the legs and the raft. We hear the shark’s theme. Then we get our first glimpse of the big fish — just fins and blood and a screaming child. Then the famous rack zoom shot of Brody — his worst fear confirmed. As the parents rush to the shore to rescue their children we see Brody unable to put his feet in the water. Finally, poor Mrs. Kintner is the last frantic parent on the beach — looking for her son. Finally, we see evidence of a torn up raft awash in bloody seawater.
You could go to film school on that scene (and many others in this film). The second magnificent scene is the 4th of July celebration on Amity Island. It’s the one where Brody’s own son is endangered by the shark. He builds the suspense once again with Brody’s fear. He’s on the beach but this time he has the support of law enforcement who are EVERYWHERE. Michael is told to go in the pond because the pond is supposed to be safe. “The pond’s for old ladies,” his son says. “Well do it for the old man,” Brody says. Once again Brody is trying to do the right thing but forces oppose him leaving him helpless. When a family is pressured to go in the water to set an example for the beachgoers it seems as though things might go back to normal. But no, kids prank the crowd with a fake fin creating mass chaos. Next we get a glimpse of the shark swimming and we hear the young woman shout, “The shark! In the pond!” Brody brushes it off until his wife says “Michael’s in the pond.” Yes because Brody sent him there. He begins to walk to the pond, then run, then finally he gets to the shore and this time he does go in the water to help pull his frightened son out. During this attack we see the shark — the hugeness of it (watch here for an continuity blip in the shoe being off the coach’s foot then back on). What makes the scene so powerful isn’t the shot of the shark — it’s Brody’s fear of his son being killed.
One scene after another in Jaws is top-notch directing, acting and editing. They didn’t get much better then and they certainly don’t get better now. Jaws sinks into its story, not leaning only on the first hour for suspense but driving the suspense throughout the second half, when Hooper and Quint are introduced. It succeeds because it never sacrifices the people for the thrills.
Jaws taught us all about corporate greed over public welfare. 40 years later it re-emerges in theater when corporate greed has all but choked the life out of America. It innocently set aflame our collective fears about sharks, which sadly led to their slaughter. It re-emerges now with better awareness of how to allow endangered creatures to share the planet with us.
My summer the year Jaws came out was haunted. It was haunted by the paperback cover, the movie poster and then the film. We would have gone to see it no matter if it was good or not. We probably wouldn’t have gone back to see it if we hadn’t connected so personally as we all did then and as we all do now.
Jaws was only nominated for four Oscars, Picture, Sound, Score and Editing, winning all but Picture. Spielberg, of course, was shut out. It was so much — and is so much — bigger than the Oscars. It represents some of the best American filmmaking then and now.