Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Jaws

And here we are, once again, with Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly watch of something in my DVD collection.  Today, we get to one of those classics that I'm stunned I'd never seen before...Jaws.  This entry is dated in my notes at September 8, 2012.  

What can I write about Jaws that hasn't already been written? Books have been written on it. Documentaries have been filmed on it. It was a legendarily troubled production. The most famous problem was a mechanical shark that refused to work. 55 days of shooting soon expanded into 159. But its influence is equally legendary. It made Steven Spielberg a superstar director. It was the first true summer blockbuster, establishing the marketing and release formulas that are still followed to this day. And children the world over still hum that music in swimming pools.

But the one thing that's always baffled me about Jaws is its fandom. Jaws has a gigantic and rabid fanbase. One of my favourite filmmakers, Kevin Smith, has long cited it as one of his favourite films and tries to slip in a Jaws reference in all his films. Bryan Singer (the first two X-Men films and Superman Returns) loves it so much he named his production company - Bad Hat Harry - after a line in the film. There's a very famous documentary called The Shark is Still Working. 3 hours long, completely made by fans, detailing the film's production. But why? It doesn't seem like the typical kind of film that would establish a fandom. Fandoms are usually reserved for sci-fi epics and sprawling fantasy tales. Why would this simple tale of a shark hunt create such a large and diverse fan base?

As I've previously blogged, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of Universal Studios, and as such, lots of their classic films are getting re-released in special 100th anniversary editions to Blu-Ray...some films, for the first time. Such as Jaws. So as I was reading online about the forthcoming Blu-Ray release, and started thinking, "I should pick this up." I mean, as famous a film as it is, with its reputation as the first blockbuster, it just felt like the kind of film I should own. So I picked it up.

I'd only ever seen pieces of Jaws. I always came in halfway through on basic cable, watching a bit of it, and then moving on to something else. However, I figured I should watch the whole thing because of another film in the Spielberg filmography.  I remember when Jurassic Park came out. Many people drew comparisons between Jurassic Park and Jaws. Heck, I even saw Spielberg himself say it in an interview. "Jurassic Park is MY Jaws 2," said Spielberg. "It's Land Shark." And I LOVE Jurassic Park.

Really makes you wonder, then. They say that one of the best things about Jaws is how you rarely see the shark and the suspense it builds. If Spielberg had the digital technology of today back in 1975, how much of the shark would we have seen?

The film opens in true slasher film fashion. Some promiscuous teenagers are about to get it on by going skinny dipping, and the shark promptly eats the young woman. When her chewed up remains wash up on shore the next day, Chief Brody leads the investigation, the coroner declares the cause of death to be a shark attack. Brody moves to close the beaches, but the mayor convinces Brody that he's overreacting. Besides, the mayor points out that their town of Amity Island is a tourist town, and closing the beaches for the upcoming July long weekend could cripple the local economy. Brody reluctantly decides to keep the beaches open...a decision he quickly regrets when a boy is killed by the shark a week later.

The mother puts a bounty on the shark's head, and a flood of amateur shark hunters comes to town, trying to get the shark. A colorful local and professional shark hunter named Quint offers to get the shark for $10,000. Brody soon gets some help from the mainland...the oceanographic institute sends a shark expert named Hooper to help hunt the shark. The amateur shark hunters soon bring in a tiger shark. Everyone thinks that the town is saved, but Hooper does some quick calculations, comparing the shark's mouth to the wounds on the remains of the victims, and determines that it wasn't the same shark. A quick night hunt looking for the real shark leads to the discovery of a third victim.

Despite all this, the mayor is still reluctant to close the beaches for the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, and is forever remembered in filmdom as the origin of the "selfish public official who puts his own needs ahead of the people" cliche. So, Brody and Hooper form a small army of shark spotters to patrol the waters and keep an eye out for the shark. A prank from some kids, though, allows the real shark to slip through the defenses and claim a fourth victim. Unable to ignore the evidence any longer, the mayor signs a contract with Quint and Quint is officially hired to head out into the water and hunt the shark. Quint, Brody, and Hooper all head out to see, and the rest of the film - pretty much the entire second half - is Quint, Brody and Hooper playing cat-and-mouse with the shark on the open sea.

I remember from the Jurassic Park/Jaws comparisons back in the day. One thing that a lot of film critics said was, the one thing that Jaws had over Jurassic Park was the characters. And I've got to agree with that now. In Jurassic Park, about all we ever learn about our dinosaur expert Alan Grant is that he's not good with kids. His Jaws counterpart though, shark expert Hooper, we learn that he comes from a life of wealth and privilege, as he shows up with all kinds of expensive and high-tech shark finding gear that he boasts he bought himself. He tells a story of a close encounter with a shark in his youth that inspired him to study sharks. And we see him engage in a battle of oneupsmanship with Quint as they have a "book smarts vs. street smarts" kind of conflict.

Brody. A small town sheriff. He lets us know that he was originally a New York City cop, but he moved out to the island because he felt he could do more good. "Out here, one man can make a difference," he tells Hooper. It comes with a price, though, as he has a fear of the water and usually refuses to go out on boats. So going out to hunt a shark shows that he's finally summoned up a lot of courage to do what needs to be done.

And then there's Quint. He explains his line of work and his obsession with hunting sharks in what is now simply known as "The Indianapolis Speech," which is considered to be an acting tour de force.

And Spielberg.  Make no mistake about it, this is a Spielberg movie.  The look, the style, the little director flourishes.  It's all there.  We even have a shooting star in a shot of the night sky.  That's the first little Spielberg flourish I ever noticed.  Whenever Spielberg has an establishing shot of the night sky, there's a shooting star.  And it's right there in Jaws.  This was only Spielberg's second theatrical film, and he also had a buttload of TV experience under his belt, but to see so many of his trademark touches so early in his career just speaks to his confidence as a director.

Peter Jackson once remarked that the key to the fandom for The Lord of the Rings wasn't the rich and detailed universe that JRR Tolkien created, but the rich and detailed characters.  I think that's why Jaws has generated the fandom that it has.  It's the characters that make this film pop.  We really get to know these characters, and that makes the film all the more powerful.  Jaws is a remarkable film, and I'm sure it will forever be remembered as one of the films that reshaped cinema.

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