Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Seeing Jaws Again for the First Time

Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, and Roy Scheider pushing their fishing vessel, the Orca, to its limit while being chased by a Great White Shark in Steven Spielberg's 1975 mega-hit classic Jaws.
I am 16 years old, a rising high school junior.  It is the summer of 1975 and I am in Daytona Beach just as I have been almost every summer as long as I can remember.  My nose is sunburned and peeling.  I am otherwise golden brown from long days of swimming in the pool and body surfing the waves of the dark Atlantic ocean.  I am skinny and toned and full of budding dreams and desires.

My uncle and I have gone down to the movie theater on Friday night in Daytona.  We stand in line for about 30 minutes to buy tickets but when we get to the ticket booth we discover the 7PM show is sold out.  They are selling tickets for the next show which will start after 9PM.  My uncle turns to me and asks if I want to wait and see it then.  Yes!  I have never seen so much buzz and anticipation by the general public about a movie.  All these people wanting to see the opening of this film!  I want to see it right now!

My uncle buys two tickets.  These are in the days before cell phones.  He goes to a pay phone, puts in some coins and calls the hotel room where my great-grandmother and grandparents are staying.  We have been in Daytona for a week and are leaving early tomorrow morning to return home.  My uncle informs them that we will be later than we expected before we return from the movie.  He and I then kill a couple of hours at the mall, in the bookstore, wherever.  It seems to last forever.
Of course, I don't know it yet but the "summer blockbuster" is about to be born.  The movie is Steven Spielberg’s  Jaws.  There were certainly blockbuster movies before but these were not seasonal in nature.  There was nothing different about marketing a summer movie yet.  But after this innocent time no Hollywood summer would ever the same.  Jaws is the original summer blockbuster and it absolutely terrified and delighted me that night almost four decades ago on its opening night.  No one knew anything about it.  Expectations were high.  But, they weren’t high enough, as it turned out.  The film was a sensation, far surpassing the previously highest grossing film, The Godfather.

Last Saturday night, I watched Jaws with my daughter, who had never seen it before. She had borrowed a DVD version of the film from a friend several weeks ago and wanted me to see it with her. I kept telling her to wait because I knew I would be acquiring the new re-mastered Blu-ray, which came out a few weeks ago.   It was worth the wait.
The film is beautifully restored and looks as if it were just released at a theater near you.  The sound is more robust and clearer than ever. The music by John Williams is terrifyingly terrific.  In fact, this might be a better version of the film in terms of color and sound than I saw on opening night in 1975.

My daughter jumped and became audible at all the appropriate times.  She was caught up in the carefully crafted, suspenseful build-up.   She did not want me to pause the film.  She did not leave the sofa to either go get a snack or to the bathroom during the course of the film.  Most tellingly, perhaps, she did not text anyone during our viewing.  Her eyes were glued to the screen just as mine were the first time I saw it.  She said she really enjoyed it after it was over.
I tried to explain to her my history with the film.  About how back in 1975 there really was no such thing as movies everyone (particularly kids) was more or less expected to go see - “a summer blockbuster.”  About how this movie changed Hollywood forever in terms of marketing to summer audiences.  After Jaws, it was no longer possible to escape all the pre-opening movie hype that is so prevalent today.  But before Jaws, this sort of super-hype simply did not exist.

Universal Pictures bought considerably more television advertising to promote it than for any motion picture before.  It was these television ads that I saw all week long in Daytona that got me so fired-up to see the film.  I must have hounded my uncle nearly to death before he caved-in and agreed to take me to see it.
The bonus features on the Blu-ray are generous.  The Making of Jaws is an excellent documentary that I have seen before on my double VHS version of the film.  The Shark is Still Working is a lengthy new documentary that contains a lot of never-seen-before interviews with key members of the cast and crew as well as a great summary of the film’s continuing influence and legacy.  Among the other features there is an interesting piece on how the Blu-ray was computer crafted frame-by-frame from the original negatives of the film, rendering its color even better than when it was released to theaters.

A film’s greatness ultimately can only partially be measured by the financial and critical success it originally enjoyed at the box-office.  Rather, how it holds up through time, and repeat viewings, carries most of the verdict.  Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Lawrence of Arabia are all examples of great films that certainly hold up as well when viewed today as they did when they were first released decades ago.
For many, Jaws does not deserve comparison with these other films.  For prejudicial reasons, its placement in the “horror” genre somehow lessens its esteem in the eyes of many who seem to contend that straight drama is the highest expression of film as an art form.  Well, I tend to agree, good drama is king; but, not to the exclusion of all other genres.  I am not a purist in that sense.

For me, Jaws compares favorably and most directly with another ground-breaking horror classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Psycho from 1960.  Both films were financially successful, particularly among young people of their day. Both offered great suspense and memorable scenes that audiences continue to discuss to this day.  Both develop rather slowly, the shark is not even seen in Jaws until over one hour into the film.  Both featured musical scores that are still remembered as important elements in the achievement of a heightened degree of terror in the collective experience of the audience.
Most film connoisseurs would rank Psycho as a great film. I see no reason the slight Jaws simply because it became, in its day, the highest-grossing film of all time.  Financial success should not automatically “infect” the “art” of a film with a cheesy “pop culture” tag.  Popularity and Art are often not the same thing, but neither are they mutually exclusive.  Even though both of these films became part of the popular culture of their day, both still pushed the art of filmmaking (each for different reasons) to a point that it had never been before.

When watching Jaws with my daughter, I looked forward to one particular “scream moment” that occurrs when Hooper snorkels under Ben Gardner’s sunken boat to verify whether the shark was responsible for the incident.  As the diver approaches a large hole in the hull of the small vessel he finds a shark’s tooth.  Seconds later, Hooper drops the shark’s tooth as he is terrified by the remains of Ben Gardner’s head as it happens to float out of inside the murky hull and fill the hole in the boat. The close-up of the hole induced one of the most powerful screams in the audience of that theater in Daytona Beach back in 1975.  I recall a “wave” of heads jerking back away from the screen and through the theater.  This past weekend my daughter nearly jumped out of her skin when it happened.  Spielberg explains in one of the documentaries that this was one of the last shots he added to the movie after its preliminary showings tested audiences.  It works wonderfully.  Boo!

Of course, if you stop to think about it, it is a totally unlikely thing to happen.  The head would have no reason to float around aimlessly inside the sunken boat in tranquil water like that and certainly the odds of its mutilated face appearing at exactly the same time the diver looks inside the boat is a chessy contrivance that lesser horror flicks employ all the time.  So, this is basically a B-grade movie trick used by Spielberg to get one more scream out of the film.  But, it is highly effective, nevertheless, and no one stops to consider the ridiculous nature of the scene since Spielberg does not abuse the cheap technique. 
Fear overwhelms any disbelief.  Since Spielberg only uses this horror trick once in the whole film, not only is it overlooked and taken for granted, but it turns out to be one of the most shocking things I ever saw in those more innocent times of the 1970’s. It is more memorable to me than the shark itself.  It is as unforgettable to me as the baby alien bursting out of the poor guy’s stomach in the classic scene from Alien which came out four years later.   By that time (1979), the summer blockbuster was expected.  And Alien was one such summer movie influenced to some extent by Spielberg’s very successful efforts to make his immense audience think twice before entering the water again.

I didn’t have that problem as a 16 year old.  We left the beach early the next morning and made the long car trip back home.  I saw Jaws several more times in the coming weeks that summer, marveling at it each time with various friends I took to see it with me.  I was 16, after all.  I could drive and took advantage of my new-found freedom to venture out into what the world had to offer.

All my life I have taken bits and pieces of this film with me.  "Here's to swimming with bow-legged women" has been a regular party toast of mine since 1975.  "Show me the way to go home" is a song most of my friends have heard me sing at one point or another.  "You're going to need a bigger boat" is a great line to have in your back pocket when times seem tough.  I first learned about the history of the USS Indianapolis in the film.
Jaws made me want to make movies.  I later became a film major in college based upon my experience with Jaws and my love for movies in general.  Even though that whole career never panned out for me, the motivation and inspiration of these cinematic moments are something I treasure to this day and get to touch again for the first time in the T.S. Eliot sense as my daughter watches a film from the distant past with me and jumps just as that first audience collectively did with my uncle and me sitting among them almost 40 years ago.

If you haven’t seen Jaws in awhile, you might be surprised how fresh it still feels.  This outstanding new Blu-ray presentation makes it not only feel fresh but look fresh too.

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