Sunday, September 30, 2012

Monarch Migration Being

It was very cloudy today.  Rain was coming up from the Gulf.  Dripped and drizzled off and on.  Jennifer and I happened to be outside looking up and noticed what I though were birds at first.  Then I realized they were Monarch butterflies, dozens and dozens of them, flying south for the winter.  Jennifer and I were in awe.  Neither of us had ever seen anything like this.  The migration lasted a very long time in the late afternoon and we could watch them at our leisure sometimes seeing as many as a dozen.  This shot contains only five.  Jennifer sent me this cool link on the Monarch migration paths.

There are seven monarchs in this shot and you can see how low and high the variation of their altitude was.  The first photo is by me with our Canon.  This shot is by Jennifer who had our Nikon.  These photos go well with another migration I posted a photo of in 2010, only the directions and times of year are opposites.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hitchcock's Psycho

Janet Leigh in the infamous shower scene before the attack.  Hitchcock worked in some sensual imagery to establish a completely different effect before the "murder/rape" sequence. 
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest film directors of all time. His 1960 thriller, Psycho, shocked audiences in new ways, as I eluded to in a recent post. I had the film in the back of my mind when I read last week that Anthony Hopkins, one of my favorite living actors, is portraying Hitchcock in a new film about the director's making of Psycho. The stars feel all aligned on this one (forgive the slight pun).  I'm really looking forward to it.  So, I decided to watch the original film again - for the first time in many years.
The film begins with the conclusion of a sexual encounter between two unmarried lovers in a hotel room. 
Psycho is a highly erotic film, reflecting the inner, probably frustrated, sensual nature of Hitchcock. Janet Leigh is another in a long line of young blonde women Hitchcock loved to direct. Her performance is devious, subtle, conflicted, wonderful to watch. One of the film's great shocks, of course, comes when, about halfway through it, the primary actress is brutally murdered. The second half feels like a completely different film. It becomes a detective story carried forward by the appearance of Vera Miles.

The second half reveals the underlying truth of Norman Bates' mother. His mother had an affair with a married man. Only she didn't know he was married at first. When Norman (Anthony Perkins) discovered this he poisoned both his mother and her lover with strychnine while they were "in bed" together. This twisted and sexual undercurrent motivates Norman to commit what is perhaps the most famous murder in Hollywood history.

Norman then became obsessed with his dead mother, taking on her personality in stressful times. As the psychiatrist says near the end of the film: "He was never all Norman, but he was often only Mother."  So disturbingly perverse, even today.

I found Psycho to be dated in some respects as I watched it again. It is clearly a product of the 1950's in many of its details and in aspects of its storyline. But, the fundamentals of the film and the actual, brilliantly directed and edited shower scene are timeless and still seem fresh and powerful today.

This led me to reread the section pertaining to Psycho as discussed in Donald Spoto's great biography of Hitchcock. Let me share some of this with you...

"Of all his films, Psycho is the most famous - and the most shocking for audiences both then and later. Its legendary shower murder changed the course of Hollywood history, and although few filmmakers matched its technical virtuosity, many tried to imitate its powerful sensual violence." (page 413)

"'From the start,' Joseph Stefano recalled, 'Hitchcock had decided to use a nude professional model for the shots in which a torso would be glimpsed, so he wouldn't have to cope with a trembling actress.' About the central sequence, which has evoked more study, elicited more comment, and generated more shot-for-shot analysis from a technical viewpoint than any other in the history of the cinema, Hitchcock always retained a cool attitude. And rightly so, for he delegated the design and the shooting of it to the brilliant artist who had created the title designs for Vertigo and North by Northwest, and who, eventually, would do so for Psycho, too.  'I'm going to get Saul Bass to do a storyboard for the shower scene,' he told Joseph Stefano when they reached this point in the script, 'so we know exactly what we are going to do.'


This is the final frame of the knife slashing shot, which Hitchcock insisted be included in the sequence.  It is a rather provocative image even by today's standards but particularly for 1960 audiences even though it is on the screen for only a fraction of a second.
"As it happened, Hitchcock made two important - and personally revealing - additions to Bass's designs: the quick shot of the knife entering the woman's abdomen (done by a fast-motion reverse shot), and the shot of blood and water running down the drain.  'It had been my idea to do it entirely as a bloodless sequence without overt violence,' according to Saul Bass, 'but he insisted on inserting those two shots.' And to the description of the brutal murder in the screenplay - only generally stated by the writer - Hitchcock added to shot 116: 'The slashing. An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film.'  If there's a vicious anger throughout Psycho, this is the single moment when that spreads that anger before and after it.

"But it was not the brutality of this sequence that caused alarm at Paramount: it was the unprecedented shot (and sound) of a toilet being flushed. This, not the scarcely glimpsed, soft-focus nudity in the shower, was the most iconoclastic image in the picture - more influential that Hitchcock's killing off of the leading lady almost halfway through the film. Toilet imagery, as mentioned, and allusions to bodily functions not only surfaced in Hitchcock's humor - they also mark a recurrent, obsessive motif in his films. everything about Psycho was bold; and in Hitchcock's mind, perhaps nothing was so bold as this explicit lavatory detail." (pp. 419-420)

A moment of voyeurism.  The audience becomes Norman Bates spying on the beautiful Janet Leigh as she undresses for the shower.
"Perkins spies on Janet Leigh as she disrobes for her fatal shower. And to gain access to his concealed peephole, he removes from the wall a painting of Susanna and the elders, the biblical story (in Daniel 13) of a woman overtaken in her bath by voyeurs whose passions were aroused as they spied on her from a secret place as she prepared to bathe. The artistic representation of voyeurism and sexual exploitation is thus replaced, in the world of the film, by the action itself; and the knife murder, therefore, is deliberately recorded as a stylized rape scene, an artistic depiction beginning with close shots of a screaming mouth and a raised knife.

"What Hitchcock makes clear, moreover, is the degree to which the audience is implicated in all this. One not only watches Perkins watching - the camera swings round and the viewer stares with him. The watching therefore has the moral function of a supreme irony - as ironic as the final protest of 'Mother' from beyond the grave, who (like the chair-bound viewer) cannot, as the voice says at the end, 'do anything but just sit here like one of his stuffed birds...'" (page 424)

"...all of this is expressed by Hitchcock's insistence on changing the killer's hobby from stuffing animals, in the novel, to stuffing only birds. The sexual wordplay is obvious - 'stuffing birds' is the hobby of a sexual psychopath - and the gazing eyes of stuffed crows and owls can see nothing. 'Owls belong to the night world' as Hitchcock pointed out; 'they are watchers, and this appeals to Perkins's masochism. He knows the birds and he knows they are watching him all the time. He can see his own guilt reflected in their knowing eyes.'. This explains other avian imagery: the crucial shot of Perkins knocking over a sketch of a bird when (in his 'son personality') he discovers the body of Janet Leigh - the last 'stuffed bird' is, aptly, a woman named Crane, who came from Phoenix (a city named for the mythical bird that returns from the dead); and why, when Perkins suggested candy, Hitchcock insisted it be candy corn, a confection that resembles the kernels pecked by chickens. (As will become clear, everything about Psycho points forward to and aesthetically necessitates Hitchcock's next feature film, The Birds.)" (pp. 425-426)

Alfred Hitchcock was a prolific director of many great films beginning with The 39 Steps (1935).  But between 1954 and 1963 he made Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963) - an unprecedented achievement of consistently high standards.  Truly he was a master of suspenseful story-telling at the height of his talents during this time. 

Vertigo is now considered the greatest movie ever made.  My personal favorite of these films is Rear Window.  But, none of his film projects match the sheer visceral power of Psycho.  It is a brilliant film, much imitated but never surpassed as a cinematic thriller.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gaming Bagration-Warsaw 1944

The combined Bagration-Warsaw wargame set up on my gaming table.  Many of the later game units have not been punched out of their countersheets yet.
Operation Bagration, as I have mentioned before, was one of the largest air-land military operations of World War Two. It was a complete triumph for the Soviet Union and the worst defeat the once-vaunted German Wehrmacht suffered through all of World War Two. The Germans lost roughly 400,000 men in about nine weeks of fighting. Army Group Center was destroyed as a cohesive fighting force. They also lost all of the Belorussian Region which it captured almost exactly three years earlier. After Bagration, the Russians were knocking of the door of the German Reich itself.

As long-time readers know, one of my primary hobbies is to wargame historical military situations. My blog is sprinkled with posts on wargaming. In recent weeks, much of my free time has again turned to this lifelong hobby, in this case gaming the great Soviet victory on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1944.

I have been in a reading funk lately. I'm not able to rip through any book. I am rambling around in several books, a few pages here, a few there. Lately, my attention has been focused on a couple of new war games I got from a fairly new company out of France. Of course, the versions I got had English translations. The two games can be combined into one longer playing experience. The first game is entitled Operation Bagration. The second game is Target Warsaw 1944. The two games can be combined into one longer campaign experience. Together they cover the worst German defeat and its immediate aftermath: the Warsaw Uprising, the immense tank battles in eastern Poland late that summer, and the Soviet crossing of the Vistula River which ultimately served as the jump-off points for the 1945 capture of Berlin.


A closer view of the section of the game prior to the initial Soviet attack.  Note the Partisan units in the German rear area.
 
While the Bagration part of the game is an interesting blitzkrieg in reverse (the Soviets called it "deep battle") sort of game, the Warsaw part becomes more of an attritional slugfest. The Germans can attack here and there to stop Soviet penetrations, but the Red Army (unlike in 1941) is now mature and well-supported. It can use strategic movement to setup new penetrations turn after turn, though it must pause now and then to rebuild before the next push forward. The huge pocketing capability of Bagration, the wholesale killing of German divisions, is pretty much over in the Warsaw game, occurring only a comparatively smaller scale. It is more a game of attrition though the Reds can still go wherever they want, but deep breakthroughs are harder to come by.


The initial Soviet break-through.
Both games are of reasonably high quality in terms of presentation. The rules, however, could have used some tightening. Several key concepts about the game were never covered in the original French rules. My guess is that these seemed so "obvious" to the developers they neglected to convey them clearly. This confusion was ironed out by exchanging a series of emails with Jean-Phillippe, the French designer. Since then I have spent a great deal of free time playing the combined scenario of the two games.
 
The German forces directly on the fortified frontline are not allowed to move through Game Turns 1 and 2. Since the Soviets get to move each turn before the Germans that means the Soviets will end up able to move three times before the German frontline units can move. In games terms this results in encirclements very close to what happened historically. The Soviet side has a lot of artillery and air support to blast holes in the German line. Then they can ooze through the holes with their reserve units and place the German frontline out of supply.

When taking losses due to combat, the game system allows for the defender (only) to mitigate losses by retreating hexes instead. Playing as the German in the opening turns, I took as many retreats as possible in order to save as many units as I could. Retreat is allowed for front line units and they remain free to move thereafter. By carefully sequencing certain opening attacks, it is possible to make retreat costly for the Germans, however. By penetrating with armor units the Soviet cast a zone of control through which any German retreat also entails a step loss.

In the early turns the Germans are helpless to do anything more than launch very specific, isolated counterattacks, mostly to protect routes of retreat. Part of the fun of the game is to see how many German units can escape isolation by the Soviet advance. Meanwhile, the fun of playing the Soviet side is to see just how many Germans you can kill through encirclement and destruction.
 

Close-up of part of the initial Soveit break-through.  Notice the partisan unit near the center which blocks German strategic movement along railways.  Most German units in this photo are now out-of-supply.
 
An example of this is the German 501 Tiger Panzer Battalion. It will likely find itself trapped by the Soviet Tank and Cavalry Corps on initial penetration. It can barely outrun the Soviets the first couple of turns and ultimately it must fight its way out if it is to survive. Historically it failed to do so. In my first play the Tigers were lost on Turn 4.

"Chrome", or added little touches, are a part of any worthy wargame. Examples of Bagration-Warsaw chrome include the Nazi French Legion, Soviet Joseph Stalin Tank Regiments, and the official unique insignias of individual German divisions and Soviet corps. Soviet tank brigades containing British-built Matilda II tanks have the profile of those tanks on the counters. The Hungarian Army is represented with a few weak divisions. These small added touches give the game a great historic feel that is part of the aesthetic pleasure of war gaming for me.

Another nice piece of chrome are the Partisan units. They have no combat ability, nor do they even possess a zone of control beyond the hex in which they are sitting. They are placed by the Soviet player in the initial phase of each turn. They cannot be placed in a German zone of control nor in any city hex. Their sole purpose is to stop German strategic movement, at which point they are removed from play until the next turn. This neatly represents the effect of Partisans at delaying certain German reinforcements or other strategic movements without a great deal of overhead of rules for the player.

By controlling various operational markers or points, the game system reflects the problems of logistics and operational support abstractly. For example, whereas the Soviets start Bagration with as much as 8 artillery support markers and as many as 6 close air support markers, by mid-game at the start of the Warsaw portion the Soviets have over-extended their logistical abilities. Air units must now transfer to forward bases instead of flying combat missions, for example. This is not a direct game mechanic involving lots of rules to govern the game. Instead, the game simply reduces these capabilities. By the beginning of Warsaw, which is turn 11 of the combined game, the Soviets have only 3 artillery support markers and 1 close air support marker. Meanwhile, the total German artillery and air support capability rises from near nothing to as much a three of each in the late game. Naturally, this slows down the pace of the Soviet attack but it does so, once again, without a lot of heavy game rules.

Still, the Soviets are powerful. Their tank and cavalry corps can do a lot of damage and all of their units are supported by tank regiments and brigades that many German units do not have. This creates another neat game subtlety. Each combat where one side has any kind of armor unit and the other side has no armor at all receives a +1 to any die roll attacking or -1 to the defense. In this game system, it is the accumulation of die roll modifiers that leads to the greatest damage by an attacker. For the German this means localized counterattacks. For the Soviet it means that all their units on the map can receive this bonus if the player properly disperses all the tank brigades and regiments. The German, by contrast, have several Strumgeschutz units but not enough for everyone. The Soviet can always find units on the map where the player can hit German units that don't have tank support.

The attacker must always take their losses as step reductions to their units. The defender gets an option to either take losses and hold ground or to retreat and take fewer or no losses at all as the player chooses. The secret to insuring attacker success in destroying the enemy in game terms as in real life is to get behind the enemy and surround the units. In game terms if a unit has to retreat through an enemy zone of control it takes a required, additional reduction. In this sense only can the defender never run away but will definitely be destroyed.

Overall, this is a fun and somewhat elegant basic wargame system. It compares favorably with something on the order of the Standard Combat Series developed by Dean Essig. The rules could use some tightening here and there to make concepts clearer. It could also benefit from requiring the defender to take at least one step loss, such as when armor attacks a hex containing infantry only in clear terrain, or whenever the defender receives any result of 2 or more.

The beauty of a simple, workable game design is that it allows me to tweak it with my own rules and test their validity. That is part of the fun for me. At any rate, I plan to set the combined game up again soon. Now that I know the long-term consequences of certain decisions I made for both sides, I'd like to try a few different approaches for each side to see what happens next in this moment when it first became irrefutable that Hitler would lose this war.
 

Near the end of my first playing of the combined game.  The Soviets have driven the German forces back across the map and are threatening East Prussia and Warsaw.  Some German units are encircled at the top of the map.  The Warsaw Uprising marker is placed on Warsaw denoting that the Germans cannot use this urban center to trace line of supply.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Booting Badness Out of Benghazi

The inferior cultural nature of the jihadist movement in Islam which I exposed in my last post was overcome today by the majority, moderate Muslim perspective.  Libyan protesters forcefully drove all militias out of Benghazi, particularly the one supposedly responsible for killing Ambassador Stevens.

Such violence against violence is perfectly compatible with Islamic reality.  In this case, the violent winds blew in the direction of a civilized society instead of a tribal warlike one.  Islam is a highly civilized ideology, if repressive in many ways.  It is, nevertheless, fundamentally full of goodness.  So, there is hope against the jihadists, and other fundamentalist Muslims, who are oh so full of hate.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria today, protests over the recent video poo-pooing Muhammad motivated thousands to chant "death to America."

So far, President Obama has not been hurt by this Libyan situation.  Secretary Clinton has now officially condemned the Libyan attack as an act of terrorism.  But, the Republicans are contending that security was inadequate and this is a responsibility and short-coming of the President.  Some military experts seem to be siding with the security criticism.

There is sharp disagreement between neocons and liberals over whether a video showing Muslims carrying the body of Ambassador Stevens out of the smoking American consulate have just killed him and are praising Allah or are trying to rush him to safety and save his life.

We live in two different realities in this country when it comes to Islam.  But, this is understandable if you take American culture off the pedestal of liberal rights and look at it as just another perspective groping in the darkness of human certainty.  We are distrustful because it is we who do not understand.  Driving out militias?  Shouting death to America?  Who are we?  Who are we?

And the Romney camp looks for a possible opportunity.  Was security really too light?  Does Obama look whimpy here?

The latest Gallup Poll has Obama and Romney in a dead-heat with 47% of the popular vote each.  Funny, that is precisely the percentage Romney said Obama would get in an exposed video that created a news buzz this weekRomney stumbledAmericans do not like to be called "victims." Both these guys are looking whimpy if you ask me.

Late Note: The next day a Pakistani official offered a reward for the death of the film-maker that mocked MohammadThis is what we are dealing with. I've heard all this before. They wanted Salmon Rushdie dead too.   Savages.  But, in other news, a Sunni Islam leader called for "patience and wisdom" instead of violence.  Meanwhile, the Pakistan government tried to distance itself from the official offering a bounty for the film-maker's murder.  A wisp of higher things. 

Our "Muslim allies" want to murder an American citizen because of a film he made.  Inferior culture, reflecting a primitive reaction to intense personal outrage.  Understandably animalistic.  They are also trying to control themselves and not riot and not kill, for a change.  The winds of Islam whip themselves between disbanding militias and killing film-makers.  Who can predict the winds of change? 

Monday, September 17, 2012

As the World Burns

Ethics, Libyan style.
The Dalai Lama issued a statement on Facebook last Thursday acknowledging that “the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate.  This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.  This is not a new view for His Holiness.  He has written a couple of books on the subject of non-religious ethics, one just last year.

I am re-reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil in preparation for future posts in my Nietzsche blog.  Nietzsche, of course, was no great fan of organized religion himself, though his critique of religion is from a different perspective than what the Dalai Lama posted.  Still, there is some common ground between some passages of Nietzsche and the Dalai Lama’s Facebook post.
One thread running through all of Nietzsche’s work is how to attain “higher culture.”  Nietzsche firmly believes that world religion, with special emphasis on Christianity, is a major stumbling block to humanity “overcoming” itself and realizing its full spiritual potential.

Though not specifically tied to events, I saw the comments by the Dalai Lama and my reading of Nietzsche as juxtaposed against the murder of Chris Stevens, American Ambassador to Libya, which happened on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on America.  The full story is still unclear, but there are reports of torture inflicted by elements of the angry mob upon Stevens before his death.
There were, in fact, four murdered in the Libyan attack which was praised by al-Qaeda.  The whole of the Muslim world is in a furor over an inept and amateurish video critical of the Prophet Muhammad.  The video was made by some nut in California.  But, we have freedom of speech in this country.  So, nuts are free to express themselves as long as they are not, by American standards, obscene.

The sweeping reaction of what appears to be a significant, radicalized minority in the Muslim world to a video that most Americans find stupid to begin with reflects how little the Muslim world understands us.  It also reflects how shallow and one-dimensional these radicalized Muslims are.  Secretary Hillary Clinton is handling thus situation very well, even as violence continues to spread today.  Her statement that such acts "should shock the conscience" of people of every faith, rang alongside the Dali Lama post.  Faith itself seems to be ethically inadequate or is only adequate if it can be shocked by actions motivated by other perspectives of faith.
Any religion or culture where rampant violence and torturous killings are routine whenever events in the world upset the balance of that religion or culture, those people are of an inferior culture.  They manifest behavior that is obviously primitive, immature, and wrong.  To elevate a poorly made video attack on Islam's Muhammad to the point of murder and burning buildings across the globe reveals a sensitivity and a use of the concept of what is "holy" that is truly ridiculous and inexcusable.

The cultural infrastructure that justifies this type of behavior is criminal and without legitimacy in the eyes of humanity as a whole.  Rationally and spiritually, we are evolved past such behavior and these people are stragglers through the debris of time holding on to habits that pre-date Muhammad.
Nietzsche’s project toward a higher culture is clearly not exhibited by those who murdered Ambassador Stevens.  Clinton’s declaration that the conscience of every faith should be shocked is on target in its critique of this manifestation of extremist Islamic faith.  The Dali Lama’s concern that ethical behavior can no longer be grounded in religion is a subtle cultural protest against the unethical religious justification of the jihadist tradition.

But, before the United States gets too self-righteous in its indignation we should pause and reflect upon the indiscretions of our own soldiers in Afghanistan, which include burning the Koran; upon the baseless, wasteful, and overly aggressive invasion of Iraq which killed many thousands of innocent Muslims; the intrusion, rightly or wrongly, of Pakistani sovereignty by the United States with drone attacks.  This behavior by our country inflames the Islamic world, even though the basis for most of it lies with the September 11 attacks which were, in turn, motivated predominantly against the liberal traditions of what I would label as a comparatively higher culture.  The US did none of these things in the name of religion.
American and western culture certainly has not reached the heights proclaimed by Nietzsche’s harsh and stark critique.  Higher culture as Nietzsche intended the term is based upon individual discipline, devotion to the artistic pursuits, and spirituality that transcends the master-slave morality that organized religion has wrought.

With a greater emphasis on compassion, but with no less commitment, the Dalai Lama does not wrestle with the traditional western dialectic of higher-lower, superior-inferior, dominant-submissive, or master-slave.  Instead, he merely points out that the guidance for ethics, as a basis for governing society and for legal behavior, can no longer be trusted (as it has for centuries) to religious faith.  The interesting thing is that the Dalai Lama is talking about secular behavior side-by-side with spiritual growth.  To this extent he and Nietzsche have some common ground.
But, there is little doubt in my mind that the Dalai Lama’s post was motivated by events in the Muslim world.  If the spirituality of a society does not sufficiently restrain that society from acts of violence due to the religious tastes of the culture, then we obviously need to start addressing ethical behavior in a way that transcends religion altogether. 

This is a hopeful message even though it is unlikely to have much impact upon Islam as a whole.  This is because Islam is more akin to an ideology than it is a religion.  The religious aspect of Islam is not the basis for its ethics.  The ideology that represses women, advocates an eye for an eye, and glorifies (at least among the jihadist minority) retribution over compassion.  In the case of Ambassador Stevens, this man who had nothing to do with the idiot who made the video regarding Muhammad, Islamic culture somehow produced a shared responsibility by Stevens that justified his murder.  What sick people these are.
As Slate so expertly points out, this is a new world baby.  In the internet reality all religions will be mocked.  All religions will be subject to continued satire and outright misrepresentation.  If every Christian or Jew reacted to the immense amount of information available on the internet offending their religious sensibilities then the whole world would be burning and murders against the “infidels” of whatever faith you want to mention would leave stacks of bodies piled to the sky.

The message by Secretary Clinton is that the United States is a friend to Libya and that this friendship will not be another casualty of Islamic violence.  The message of Ambassador Stevens, before his death, was that our work in Libya is necessary to bring democracy to a nation that has only known tyranny.  Our official response is rightly to rededicate our efforts to the region.
But, for me, the more appropriate message is that the immaturity of radicalized Islamic ideology has no place in the world today.  The Dalai Lama is right to attempt to uncouple religion from ethics.  But, that decoupling requires a level of rational and spiritual sophistication that few have on this planet.  Though he is courageous to point the way, I doubt if many are ready to follow him there because, as Nietzsche knew too well, part of being “human, all too human” is to cling to religion to the point of ending the world for all “non-believers” who deserve nothing but ridicule and death for their unforgivable sins.

Very Late Note:  Three weeks later the narrative of this event has gradually shifted.  It seems that the murder of Ambassador Stevens was not a spontaneous reaction to the Youtube video.  Instead, it is now being called "a terrorist attack".  Obviously, this has become a major campaign issue for the Romney campObama looks weak here but, to her credit, Secretary Clinton took full responsibility.  The story continues to unfold as investigations continue.

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.