Saturday, June 20, 2015

Timeless Terror

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turns 40.

By Paul Beston
June 19, 2015

To mark the 40th anniversary of its debut, Jaws is back, playing in brief engagements in selected theaters around the country. The occasion gives audiences a chance to see Steven Spielberg’s second feature film as it originally appeared, on the big screen, where it became for a time not only the highest-grossing movie ever made, but also, apart from The Exorcist, the most visceral, propulsive film-going experience anyone could remember. In summer 1975, the lines at movie theaters stretched around the block. A pop cultural force as unstoppable as its ravenous star character, Jaws spawned tee shirts, toys, and a shark craze that, naturalists would soon lament, gave Great White Sharks a bad name and helped eventually land the species on the endangered list.

The plot of Jaws is simple: Amity Island, a summer resort community, is terrorized by a series of shark attacks. From the opening bars of John Williams’s dread-inducing score—which, more than anything, suggests inevitability—audiences were hooked. People slumped in their seats, screamed, covered their faces—then laughed at the release of tension and applauded. The respites were brief. They knew the terror would return, even if glimpses of the shark were few. For much of the film’s first half, viewers mostly saw—and heard—the monster’s handiwork: the screaming, thrashing woman attacked in the opening scene; the unfortunate young boy on a raft who dissolves in a geyser of blood before a crowded beach of swimmers and sunbathers; and the local scout leader knocked out of his small paddleboat and devoured.

The girl’s killing goes unaddressed, the boy’s causes a panic, and the scout leader’s results in the closing of the beaches and the hiring of an experienced, if slightly mad, local fisherman, Quint, to hunt and kill the shark, by now identified as a massive Great White. Quint (played by the inestimable Robert Shaw) takes along two partners: Amity’s police chief, city slicker and aquaphobe Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), and a wealthy young oceanographer and shark expert, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus). They become one of the great movie trios, playing off one another the rest of the way. When Brody utters the movie’s most-quoted line—“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” after he first sees the shark—he expresses the middle-class man’s deep consciousness of limits, an instinct for which Quint has little regard. Hooper navigates a middle ground between the two, sharing Brody’s rationalism but aligned with Quint in his relish of the chase and his love of the sea.

The shark expedition forms the second part of Jaws, after the shark has had its way with hapless swimmers and we have gotten to know the distinct and opposing personalities of the three leads. The hunt draws obvious parallels to Moby Dick, and Quint is a clear analogue for Ahab—but Jaws has been interpreted in other ways over the years, too, including (somehow) as a parable about Watergate. The Peter Benchley novel on which the movie was based is filled with subplots about transplanted New Yorkers (the Brodys) marooned in beach towns, extramarital affairs, and politicians’ ties with the mafia. But the movie wisely pares all that back and puts the “fish story,” as Benchley called it, center stage. From the moment the trio sets sail, Jaws never lets up on the viewer—and the pace had been breathless already.

Though frightening to watch, Jaws wasn’t scary in the way that gives one nightmares, like Psycho or Halloween. Instead, it tapped into a universal, if submerged, fear—of the water and what might be lurking there, and of the nagging anxiety (not confined to water) that we might be devoured by forces as old as the world. Uncannily, just as Jaws neared its anniversary this past week, sharks provided fresh reinforcement for these intuitions: two teenage bathers were attacked in North Carolina and a ten-year-old was bitten in Florida.

Jaws had a famously troubled production, going way over budget and way past schedule, and the 27-year-old Spielberg worried that his career might sink with it. The expensive mechanical shark rarely worked, and the director had to get creative by “implying” the shark’s presence, on the timeless suspense principle that we’re more afraid of what we can’t see than what we can. It worked: people were frightened by Jaws because they never knew when the shark was coming, and the underwater shots of bathers emphasize how vulnerable we are when we leave dry land.

From its chaotic birth, Jaws became a landmark in Hollywood, widely credited with (or blamed for) creating the summer blockbuster. It did all this without a website, a Twitter feed, or downloadable clips from YouTube. When you walked out of the theater, the only way to see Jaws again was to pony up for another ticket. In the age before on-demand everything, movies had to be sought out, at least in comparison with today. And somehow, this relative scarcity—like the scarcity of the shark in the movie—fixed them in the mind. I’ve carried scenes from Jaws in my head since 1975, and I’ve never put a foot into salt water without thinking of sharks.

Perhaps this has to do with the tender age (nine) at which I first saw Jaws, at a theater in the Golf Mill shopping center in Niles, Illinois. It proved to be the movie-going thrill of my life. Of course, young minds are famously impressionable; as adults, we struggle to remember what happened yesterday, or to reconstruct even vivid conversations, while events from decades past are imprinted on our memories. Last weekend, I watched Jaws for the first time in many years, on DVD. My wife, a few years younger than I, didn’t grow up with Jaws and had never watched it all the way through. Yet I noted how she flinched at all the same scenes—and her unease reminded me of how my mother and father twitched, too, in that movie theater long ago. Near the end, she turned to me and said, “This is really pretty good.”

“You should have seen it on the big screen,” I said. Forty years? Jaws is ageless.

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