What it is • The body of a young woman washes up on the beach; a little boy is butchered on a sunny day; a man is devoured in what should be a safe inlet while everyone else is distracted by a hoax down the beach. A new cop discovers that the tourist trade is more important than public safety; a knowledgeable oceanographer clashes with the ingrained ignorance of a small town; a physically and psychologically scarred veteran of war and seafaring is consumed by his obsession with bagging the fish of the century. Is this movie about a giant killer shark or is it about a group of men clashing with one another and challenging themselves? For much of its runtime, Jaws plays like a well-executed slice of seventies New Hollywood cinema. The dialogue overlaps and overflows while the camera captures the action with a documentary sense of realism (which doesn't mean handheld shakey-cam but rather patient, fascinated observation of domestic routine). When action and suspense arrive, they are handled with Hitchcockian suggestion rather than roller-coaster revelation, and the screenplay ensures that our focus is on the very adult relationships among the townspeople, colored by economic need, political maneuver, class jealousy, and personal history (you can't beat Quint's Indianapolis speech, penned by John Milius - unless you have the alternate take in which Robert Shaw was actually drunk, which Spielberg himself owns and occasionally shows to lucky visitors). Yet as the film draws toward its conclusion, we see more and more of the shark itself. Bloody death, final showdown, and the film's only explosion ensure a crowd-pleasing conclusion to the picture. We can witness the birth of the modern blockbuster onscreen as the film journeys from Altmanesque social drama to action-packed showdown with a fantastical creature.
Why I like it •
I love both aspects of the movie: the iconic power of the Great White and the more earthy quality of the human relationships. I also enjoy the film's two narrative halves - the Hitchcockian first, and the Hawksian second. If pressed, my favorite aspects of the film, keeping me coming back time after time, would probably be the latter in both cases. I am no longer especially spooked when John Williams' theme kicks in or the shark pops up to show them pearly whites. But I am consistently entertained by the uneasy, humorous dynamic between Brody (Roy Scheider), the sturdy Everyman, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the smart-ass hip kid, and Quint (Robert Shaw), the macho fisherman. Even typing out their identities in that fashion feels reductive, suggesting page-bound cliches rather than the recognizable but individualized characters onscreen. Frequently forgotten in the celebration (or denigration) of Spielberg as an expert engineer of cinematic thrill rides or heartfelt tearjerks is his rapport with actors, a real skill for teasing out the human element in situations that could easily fall into genre cliches or streamlined setpieces. The unguarded quality of the home movie always exists side-by-side with the director's love of grand visual flourish; Dreyfuss once marveled that if he chose to leave out the aliens, Spielberg could simply direct an epic film about the minutia of suburban life. You can see that passion at play in Jaws too, where throwaway lines, details, and objects lovingly carve out the Brodys' domestic space as a very real environment. This of course heightenes the horror and suspense when the shark threatens the peaceful community, but we also sense that Spielberg genuinely loves this homey texture for its own sake. Nonetheless, the relationships Spielberg focuses on in Jaws are centered around male bonding/rivalry rather than family, an emphasis he wouldn't really repeat until Schindler's List eighteen years later. Because he loves the people as much as the shark, Spielberg was the perfect filmmaker to usher in Hollywood's blockbuster era and also to demonstrate how these big pictures could keep an eye on those small details that make all the difference.
How you can see it • Jaws is available on DVD from Netflix and quite likely from your local library. I wrote a full review after a screening six years ago, and included a clip at 3:50 in "Pray For Us Sinners", chapter 22 of my 32 Days of Movies video series.
What do you think? • Does the film work better when we don't see the shark? Does the shark look fake to you, and if so does it detract from the enjoyment? How does Jaws compare with Spielberg's other films; does it feel less personal than many of them? Is Jaws truly the kickoff of summer blockbuster culture, or does it belong in spirit to an earlier era? How do you see its relationship with Star Wars, the other film given that credit (or blame)? Do you prefer the first half, based in the town, or the second half, set at sea? Who among the main characters do you sympathize with, and who (if anyone) do you think we're meant to sympathize with? In the book there is an extramarital affair between Hooper and Ellen Brody; should the film have included this and/or should it have given her character more to do? How does Jaws differ from later adventure and/or horror movies? Do you enjoy any of the sequels? Is this in some ways a more "adult" film than many of Spielberg's later movies, including some of his more self-consciously serious ones, and if so, how?
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