Movie 91: Jaws

I have seen Jaws enough times—not as often as The Shining, or It’s Wonderful Life, to choose examples from elsewhere on the top 100 list—but often enough that I can, like many US citizens of a certain age, quote great, salty chunks of dialog from it. I was not sure that it truly belonged on the top 100, however, perhaps because of my general distaste for much of Speilberg’s output since then. He is a clearly a gifted director and storyteller, there’s just nothing particularly challenging about his work, like there is a thick layer of anti-microbial soap on everything in every scene. And this pervasive blandness seemed to get worse the more he turned toward serious, less escapist films later in his career. Close Encounters was great, and I would have said it belongs on the top 100 more than Jaws, but after that, things go very Xanax very quickly.

Then I sat and watched Jaws, with Comfortina, who had never seen it before, which helped remind me that, despite it being the DNA for so much of what is boring and unwatchable in Hollywood film-making ever since then, it really is just a great, scrappy, goofy movie, unafraid of its own ridiculousness. Maybe that is what his later films lose, which in turn heightens their sterility. And it does the heart good to see a rubber shark robo-puppet wagging its head in the age of CGI.

Even the cinematography seemed somehow fresher, less like he was trying to trademark a variation of the long take and more like he was just having a go, seeing if it would work to end a sideways tracking shot with a closeup. The many close-ups with Dreyfus, Scheider, and Shaw’s heads all crowding the frame, but at slightly different distances, work particularly well, exemplifying the claustrophobia of being stuck on the boat, but also the shifting power relationships between the three men. And the ending is about as silly as one could hope for, and as far as I can tell, he never got that silly again, sadly. Come to think of it, the end of Close Encounters tries too hard to be profound so, yes, Jaws belongs here instead.

Comfortina Footwear: In 1975 I was 10 years old and in love with the ocean. One of those fearless kids who threw themselves again and again into the salty waves who could only be pried from the beach by bone shaking blue skinned cold or the promise of ice cream and a return tomorrow to do it all again, I never saw Jaws. Even years later as all of my friends looked aghast when I said I hadn’t seen and wouldn’t see it anytime soon, I saw no point in ruining my love of the ocean by the earworm Jaws had become.

I knew the story, the music, the players, and even some of the iconic clips “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, but I’d never sat down to watch it. Until I agreed to watch the 100 best movies with Manly.

So, 45 years later, I watched Jaws. Having spent LOTS of summers at little beach towns and experiencing the “summah people” phenomenon first hand. I settled in comfortably.

I really thought this film aged well. I loved seeing Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss as youngsters. Even though I should be jaded by the realism in CGI films and the great white shark was decidedly not lifelike in some scenes, the thought behind the composition and the staging of the scenes was really well done.

Knowing the big shark was not super, the director employed the greatest asset horror movies have going – the imagination of the audience. Instead of showing the shark in every scene possible, he used music and cut scenes to let the audience infer what was happening and to fill in the details themselves.

When the shark did appear it was in great jump scenes where I did gasp and jump – much to the delight of my husband who has seen the film enough times that there were no real surprises for him.

This is one of the films we’ve watched that I wonder if it would be made today. From portrayals of the closing ranks of the islanders, to the incompetence and corruptness of the local government, to the foibles and phobias of the saviors and the magnitude of the villain, it seems unlikely it would be undertaken today. I’m glad it was and also glad I waited to see it.