40 Years later I’m pleased to report, “The shark is still working. The shark is still working.” *
This past summer a good friend of mine and I (let’s call him Hal) decided to celebrate our mutual love for Steven Spielberg by attending a theatrical screening of his first big hit. It was the 40th anniversary of Spielberg’s monumental debut feature and AMC was showcasing restored prints at selected theaters nationwide. Coincidentally, a week earlier, the genetically reengineered reboot of his 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park (Jurassic World) was devouring dollars and breaking records. The new film – with its digital dino extravaganza – was on its way to claiming the biggest opening box office weekend of all time and it was interesting to see the movie with a familiar formula perform so well. Spielberg once jokingly referred to Jurassic Park as his “land shark” movie, a cheeky self-referential remake that seemed to imply that he was worried about relying on a template for success. By 2015, my favorite filmmaker’s career evolved to more artistic pursuits, but at the same time, Hollywood seemed to have double down on the formula. A formula that Spielberg helped inspire with his creation of the original blockbuster, Jaws.
It’s hard to imagine but there was a time when there was no such thing as “the big summer movie season”. It’s also strange to reconcile, in a day when the blockbuster dominates the landscape, just how humble and small the catalyst of all this spectacle originally was. We expect our summer cineplexes to feature young daring heroes, outrageous stunts, enormous stakes and visually stunning special effects but back in 1975, Jaws didn’t really have any of that. That came two years later with Star Wars. No, Jaws featured a middle-aged father who was afraid of the water, a geeky scientist, a grizzled fisherman and a big fish left mostly to our imagination. Jaws also wasn’t about the end of the world but rather the fate of a resort communities economy – the climax contained to a small fishing boat. What we tend to forget is that Jaws wasn’t a gigantic hit because of amazing spectacle but because it had some basic ingredients: a focused story, characters we care about, a few thrills, some surprises and above all, fun. Walking through the lobby and looking at what else was playing I couldn’t help but reflect on how the times had been a changing. I stopped and wondered, “did Jaws still hold up” or had my nostalgia blinded me to the fact that its impact had diminished in the interim of the blockbuster revolution.
Hal and I entered the theater and reminisced about Jaw’s impact on our cinematic sensibilities. He first saw it theatrically, at a very impressionable age. I first saw it on VHS, well into my unimpressionable teens.
He had been blown away. I had been relieved.
When I was Hal’s age I never wanted to watch Jaws. I hated being scared and a proposal to take me to see a killer shark movie would have been akin to dragging me to the gallows*. To a child, there was something very primal about the fear of being devoured and the fact that these prehistoric creatures really existed didn’t make the safe space of a theater any more comforting. The thought of seeing people chewed alive traumatized me and I knew I couldn’t handle actually seeing it. And yet, because I couldn’t escape the influence of Jaws, I was secretly fascinated.
I grew up in landlocked Illinois, far away from an actual ocean, but still that shark had an affect on me. Even though I was born after Jaws was in theaters, during my childhood its popularity lingered in the zeitgeist and lurked in the dark corners of my imagination – long after its lackluster sequels garnered any interest. Jaws had left a big impact on popular culture and as an 80’s kid you couldn’t escape its influence. Saturday Night Live did a sketch, Gary Larson drew cartoons in the newspaper, and everybody would play the film’s theme on a piano with the stroke of a couple of keys. I use to swim in my uncle’s pool but only in the daytime. Though all I had ever seen of Jaws was the poster at the video store, the image of knife-like teeth beneath an unsuspecting swimmer scarred my subconscious. That image had made such an impression that it was enough to keep me from entering into any water after dark – even if that water was chlorinated. And I wasn’t alone. Jaws kept a lot of beachgoers from venturing into the surf. It had that much power to affect the psyche.
So it was much to my chagrin that I would grow up to discover the film is actually a more balanced movie than advertised; a film that is mostly an adventure movie with as much humor as horror. Sure Jaws was occasionally bloody, but more importantly, the movie was fun! After all those years of avoiding it, when I finally finished watching it, I kicked myself because I liked it so much. I would become enamored with Jaws and it wasn’t just the charm of its performances, or the perfection of its filmmaking, but rather what was at the heart of its story. Jaws is a humanistic tale. It’s a story that features a scary beast doing terrible things but it is ultimately about an average guy rising to an incredible challenge. He confronts his fear, overcomes it and — in doing so — becomes a hero. It is for this reason I unabashedly love Jaws.
While Hal and I chomped our popcorn and regaled tales of seeing the film for the first time I couldn’t help but notice, sitting directly behind me, were two young boys. The kids appeared to be brothers -around nine and twelve- that were antsy and talkative and annoying—the way most boys who are asked to be patient are. Reflexively, I rolled my eyes. Clearly, they had been brought to the theater by their mother to see a really old movie instead of something good. Like, a movie with cool dinosaurs, or fast cars, or some awesome superheroes or, maybe, all of the above. Suddenly, it became very important to me to see what these two would think. When I was their age, I had a fascination with sharks (as well as dinosaurs, fast cars and superheroes). However, it then occurred to me that I was much older the first time I experienced the movie. I didn’t see the movie as a kid but rather when I had become a pretentious, teenage, film enthusiast. I turned back in my seat and started to doubt that Jaws would hold any interest for them. Obviously, their immature taste in movies wasn’t refined enough.
When I was a burgeoning film snob I viewed Jaws from a very critical lens. I appreciated the style and execution of the film: the cinematography, the lighting, the editing, the writing, the music and the performances. Sure, I found it to be an entertaining movie and any faults I observed :::ahem::: fake shark :::ahem::: where forgiven due to its age and the mastery of the filmmaking as a whole. Jaws is considered a classic for people who appreciate cinema so maybe you can understand my apprehension when I suddenly became less than enthused about sharing this celebration of a masterpiece with children in attendance. Jaws is a jewel of artistic achievement in the crown of one of history’s greatest filmmakers. Surely, millennial troglodytes could not appreciate it. They would undoubtedly be bored by the lack of action, the prehistoric 70s setting and the absence of a single frame of a computer-generated shark. Before I could vocalize my disapproval to my friend, the lights began to dim, the Universal logo appeared and John Williams’s legendary score filled my ears. The thoughts of the ungrateful hipster larva were immediately pushed out of my mind and I leaned forward in my seat. The show had begun.
Some movies just need to be seen in a theater to be fully appreciated. Jaws doesn’t have the most astonishing tableau in Spielberg’s oeuvre, but nevertheless, his understanding of cinematic expression could make My Dinner with Andre a captivating sensory experience. Whether it be the pages in a book reflected upon eyeglasses, the framing of a boat inside a row of teeth, or the actual reveal of a Great White as it surfaces for some chum, the power of Spielberg’s frame has the ability to create a myth. I sat in the auditorium and felt the stir the emotions in the audience around me. Somehow, the movie had become more impactful in the darkness of the cinema. The intensity of the first death, the tension leading up to the second attack — as well as the death of the Kitner boy — were much more heightened than I had ever experienced before. The familiar sounds and images had become extremely potent when projected upon a 47-foot wide screen. My biggest surprise came mere minutes into the movie. I had seen the famous, opening scene dozens of times on a 27-inch television in my living room, but within a 300-seat auditorium, I was unexpectedly floored by the brutality of the kill. It was vivid and visceral and amazing when you realize the only violence was inferred by performance and my own imagination. Better yet, it took on an added delight when I realized the fidgety boys sitting behind me had immediately become silent from shock.
Throughout the rest of the film, they never made a peep. Occasionally I would look over my shoulder and noticed that the kids were frozen transfixed. Any doubts that I had that Spielberg’s ability to capture an audience had depreciated was immediately proved unwarranted. Four decades later, Jaws could still bite.
Over the years, I’ve endured many film school snots accusing Spielberg of being overly sentimental with his work – to the point of being cloying – but those sameCahiers du Cinéma disciples tend to forget that he is often callous and audacious. Hal pointed out to me that not many filmmakers would have the cojones to kill the pretty girl, the ten-year-old boy and the dog within the first half hour of a PG rated movie. Spielberg definitely has a dark side but he only taps into it because he understands that the most satisfying stories conclude with relatable heroes triumphing over an unequivocal threat. And make no mistake, the shark is not simply an animal but an honest to God monster. It is a ferocious, intelligent, grotesque and uncanny entity. But what elevates Jaws beyond a run-of-the-mill horror flick is the charm and humanity of its three, mismatched heroes. There is no doubt in my mind that the key factor that made Jaws the highest grossing movie of all time (until Star Wars, that is) was the casting of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.
Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, by most standards, was not your conventional blockbuster hero. He wasn’t in peak condition, he wasn’t gonna get “the girl”, and he was hardly a tough-talking risk taker. Rather, he’s an over-the-hill, husband and father who needed to move away from the dangers of the big city to the quaint island of Amity in order to raise his family. But that is exactly what makes Brody so appealing. Scheider’s portrayal of an indelible family man makes Brody the perfect audience surrogate because he didn’t compare to traditional action heroes of the day like Sean Connery or Steve McQueen. He reacts like us. He wants to retreat to the safety of shore. If not for his compassion and strong moral compass we might even sometimes forget that he’s the hero. Still, we cheer Brody on, because despite his afraid-of-the-water, we’re-gonna-need-a-bigger-boat, let’s-radio-for-help mentality, he cares. He cares about the safety of his family and of his community and he believes — in a small enough town — that one man can make a difference. Brody is a good guy and he reflects the best we could hope to behave in such an extraordinary situation — especially during his last stand — and for that we can’t help but take pleasure in seeing him succeed.
After all, Brody’s dilemma of protecting his beach going community is such an overwhelming Catch-22 that anyone couldn’t help but sympathize with the guy’s plight. Like any rational person he insists that keeping everyone out of the water is the right thing to do, but closing the beaches – during the height of tourist season – would bring about financial ruin to his town. It’s with great relief to Brody (and the audience) when the amiable Matt Hooper arrives to lend his expertise. Richard Dreyfuss plays the young shark expert with both an intensity and whimsy that give some relief to Brody’s troubled Chief of Police. He’s an energetic and delightful character who can command a grim autopsy one minute and then cheerfully mock a disrespectful cynic the next. He’s both a seasoned and experienced sailor as well as a bit of a geekish intellectual so he contrasts and compliments Brody in an entertaining fashion. But Hooper, most importantly, has Brody’s back and their cooperation and banter adds a lively dynamic that lightens the previous dread hanging over the film. Jaws transitions from a straight Horror movie to a buddy picture simply with Dreyfuss’s introduction and their partnership together enlivens what could have been a very dour story. This humor mostly stems from the characters contrasts and idiosyncrasies. Brody is fearful of sharks but Hooper loves them. Brody hates the water but Hooper is looking forward to living in a sea lab for eighteen months. The duo bounce off one another in fun and interesting ways and the optimism and knowledge Hooper brings to the story makes Amity Island’s problem seem almost surmountable.
That is until further investigation of a derelict boat – along with a classic jump-scare – make the two men realize that their trouble is greater than they had presumed. Which brings us to Quint.
I sometimes forget that Robert Shaw’s unforgettable character Quint steals the movie for less than two minutes near the beginning of Jaws and then disappears until the second half. In what might be one of the most memorable introductions of a character in movie history, Quint interrupts a town meeting by dragging his fingernails across a chalkboard adorn with the caricature of a giant shark eating a stick figure. Everything you need to know about Shaw’s character is brilliantly revealed by this demonstration. The gruff, black-humored sea dog – who was inconspicuous at first – commands the room’s attention when he boldly claims he’s the only man who can kill the shark. Nonchalantly, Quint chews on a cracker while intently laying out the seriousness of the town’s predicament. Seated on a folding chair – arms and legs crossed – situated innocuously in the back, the entire room stares at him intently. Quint closes his pitch, smiles knowingly and then politely dismisses himself after the Mayor and the city council reacts dumbfounded to the fisherman’s costly bid. He is all at once charismatic and uncouth. The audience is left wondering how desperate the situation will become before the Mayor would turn to a man like this for help. All the while, the audience is left anticipating his return and the implications of that moment. And when he finally does reappear, Shaw’s performance is so electric it absolutely transcends everything that has come before. Entire books could be written about his U.S.S. Indianapolis monolog alone — a terrifying tale recounted with such hypnotic reverence it is a testament to the power of an actor’s performance and the mind’s capacity for fear. His addition, once again alters the entire dynamic of the film — from Horror movie, to Buddy picture, to Adventure film — with Quint clearly in command. He is Jaw’s most fascinating character and his entrance is just as dramatic and unforgettable as his inevitable exit. Both a charming partner and a harsh authority, Quint is both ally and liability for Brody and Hooper on their mission to slay a beast. A wildcard with an earned and obsessive hatred for sharks, Robert Shaw imbues the sea captain with a fascinating complexity that is alluring, tragic and frightening.
For a fun summer movie the final minutes of Jaws pit Brody in a truly harrowing situation. After watching (seemingly) both his friends be brutally killed, the Chief is left alone in a sinking boat, surrounded by his greatest fear and hunted by a relentless monster. His final confrontation is the stuff of nightmares. Heroes in blockbusters have faced similar trials but Jaws may be one of the most daunting, and therefore, rewarding. I’ve seen Luke blow up a Death Star, John McClane drop Hans Gruber out of a window, and Sarah Connor crush a Terminator but I’d argue Martin Brody in a showdown with a gigantic Great White tops them all. If only for the simple fact that Brody resists the role of hero until the very end and only after it’s forced upon him. It’s particularly charming to witness him act surprised when he wins. He cheers when his one-in-a-million shot blows up the shark and we can’t help but to cheer along with him. There’s also nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a really despicable villain get his comeuppance, and it’s even better when he goes out with a bang—Jaws delivers both. I suppose some may argue that Brody’s plan is unfeasible. Even the author of the novel, Peter Benchley, argued with Spielberg over the ending saying it was “completely unbelievable. It can’t happen [like that].” Spielberg replied, “I don’t care. If I have got them for two hours, they will believe whatever I do for the next three minutes because I’ve got them in my hands, and I want the audience on their feet screaming at the end, ‘Yes, yes! This is what should happen to this animal!’”
And sure enough, 40 years later, his instincts were still right.
Sitting in that theater and watching the finale play – out just as I had seen it so many times before – something extraordinary happened. The shark exploded from Brody’s rifle shot and the whole audience roared with applause, only this time, I experienced something unexpected. The two boys I was convinced would be asleep at this point distinctly let out a cheer. I could hear one of the boys laughing while his brother shouted out “That’s for Quint!” When the lights raised, my friend, Hal turned to ask them what they thought. They were wide eyed and looked a little frazzled. The older boy sheepishly said, “it was good” but clearly he was still processing the experience. I asked his brother, “Did you think the shark looked fake?” He just stared at me and shook his head as if it say, “Are you kidding me?” Even I had to admit – for all the flack Bruce** has gotten over the years for looking less than authentic — in the theater I believed it. On the big screen, it was still a convincing special effect that had definitely made an impression on a new generation of fans. The shark was still working.
There’s nothing wrong with blockbuster productions filled exciting set pieces but the entire spectacle doesn’t amount to much if you don’t care about the people it’s happening to. There are two scenes in Jaws that are less than a minute long and yet they probably really resonated with a lot of audiences. The first is a quiet scene when Martin Brody’s youngest son mimics his father’s worried expressions. It ends with the beleaguered Chief asking for a kiss. “Why,” the young boy asks. “Because I need it.” The other scene is right after Quint’s moving Indianapolis monologue. Spielberg filmed the scene with closeups, separating the three men, and then cutting between them. There is a dire shadow looming over this scene and the atmosphere is tense. Once the speech ends, the camera is pulled back to frame all three men together — and then Hooper starts to sing. In one single take, Quint smiles and joins in followed by Martin sitting beside Hooper. One by one all three men — who previously had little in common — are bonding together in harmony. The song only lasts less than a minute before they are interrupted but their reprieve temporarily lifts the mood before they are once again thrust back into danger. In both scenes, Spielberg takes a single minute to empathize with these characters humanity and thereby invites his audience to become invested.
The making of the film had no end of difficulties with the shark but arguably the most memorable scenes involved nothing more than the actors. Jaws was the first summer blockbuster, released in June when movie attendance had previously been light, it was an instant hit that stayed #1 at the boxoffice for 14 weeks. It was a critical success and also the first film to earn $100 million dollars. A lot of ingredients had to come together for its success: a solid script, strong direction, inspired casting, precise editing, dynamic cinematography, powerful music and a lot of luck. In the end, the result was magic, but most of all Jaws endures not because of a formula but rather because a talented filmmaker let us care. As we walked out of the theater I turned to Hal and confided, “You know, I use to be terrified of this movie.” My friend smiled and replied, “I can’t imagine why.”
Reelization: Jaws is a rare blockbuster, summer popcorn flick that filled with empathy for all of its characters.
* I’ll never forget at the age of 7 being dragged – kicking and screaming – past a cardboard standee in the lobby of my local theater to see Jaws 3D. I was terrified.
** The crew’s nickname for the motorized shark that never seemed to function when required to.