Thursday, June 7, 2007

Jaws: Another (deserving) look

"Slow ahead... I can go slow ahead. Come on down and chum some of this shit."

This past weekend, I enjoyed an all-too-short vacation on the beach. Actually, I spent very little time on the beach; I instead sat on a breezy (and shaded) deck, or in cool air-conditioning to catch up on some much-needed reading. Fortunately, in between the lounging and reading, I was able to upkeep a long-standing personal tradition of mine. Since the time I was very young, I have made a habit of watching one of my very favorite “beach” films whenever I’ve been to the beach.

Although most people would probably prefer digging their feet in the sand and engrossing themselves in dark crime novels or unabashed romances while baking in ultraviolet light, I never had a problem sticking to the air conditioning and taking in a “beach watch.” And nothing fits this bill better than Jaws. I say this not to demean the film, as if it was breezy trash designed to “take your mind off things” for a few hours. I instead use the term in the highest regard, because to me Jaws is a very nostalgic film. I saturate myself in its pastel compositions and its incredible ability to contrast the pictaresque townscapes of Amity Island with a more abstract, implacable leviathan of the sea, bringing them together at a shoreline that separates crowded bureacratic establishment and the uncompromising primal instinct of creatures of the sea. I am swept up in this conflict in new ways every time I see the film, but something about breathing in the ocean air on the beach and enjoying the laid back lifestyle of shore houses gives Jaws the extra edge that resonates with me so deeply.

Much has been written about Jaws, from its sexual imagery and symbolic gender relationships to its status as arguably the first true American blockbuster. (While on last year's beach vacation, I read Antonia Quirke's excellent book in the British Film Institute's Modern Classic book series.) The problem with writing on Jaws and countless other classic movies is that it's often hard to write with a fresh perspective since so many approaches have been exhausted, e.g. analyses of any of Alfred Hitchcock's films of the 1950's and 1960's. I devour many of these books and articles and learn a great deal from them, but in instances of films like Jaws or Psycho, much of the literature treads on familiar ground.

There are two opposing issues I have with this. First, sameness in perspective in the literature about a given topic typically breeds a very limited overall approach to the artifact (or movie) in question and makes it so that it would be almost impossible to approach it from another angle. But there is a flip side to this problem. Given the prominence of a certain broad approach to an artifact of study, the critical community may consciously attempt to operate on new ground and yield new perspectives and in doing so become numb to benefit of the dominant consensus. That is why it is much more difficult than it may seem to contribute to the overall critical persective of a film like Jaws. By simply acknowledging the overwhelming emphasis on certain key factors of the movie, I am positioning myself in relation to them and may tend to either assert them too superficially for the sake of comfortable familiarity or potentially pay lip service to crucial details that I don't allow myself to acknowledge due to my inability to really examine a perspective with which I have become so topically familiar. For these reasons, I have elected to focus on specific details about the film's images and how they relate to the overall structure and thematic depth of the film. I will attempt not ignore or privelage the well-tread critical ground concerning Jaws, but instead place them in perspective of some of the film's more subtle moments and compositions.

For many critics, scholars, and movie lovers, any reference to Jaws brings to mind some of the film's most memorable elements: the underwater "shark vision" perspective; the escalating two-note musical motif signaling the shark's closing in on it prey; a skinny dipping young woman violently dragged along the surface of the ocean, disrupting its calmness but not its apathy to her inevitable demise. All of these things are what we remember when recalling Steven Spielberg's 1975 movie. But in focusing on these aspects and examining them from a critical and/or thematic framework, the more subtly stated details of the movie may potentially go undetected, which I think is more likely to happen in a critical and cultural staple such as Jaws.

That is why I honed in on the images, the transitions, the temporal and spatial relationships from shot to shot, scene to scene, the elements of an individual shot, and the structural details of the scenes and how they build together to form a briskly paced and compulsively watchable film. Watching it again recently, the film has revealed to me a number of things. Firstly, minus the inevitable continuity errors of the sun's reflection on the ocean, which at times are glaring, Jaws is nearly compositionally perfect, representing the appropriate combination of deliberately placed elements -- i.e. color palettes, background and foreground stagings, visual thematic details, etc. -- and "accidental" effects, which are necessary for almost all great art to achieve greatness. It is both intensely calculated from a mise-en-scene and framed movement point of view, but it also feels somewhat gritty and natural.

The real beauty of the film is how all of its structural and visual motifs and components interact with each other to form two worlds in the consciousness of the viewer: an innocent vision of Amity island and a bleak nightmare that lurks beneath the surface of its waters in the form of a 25-foot, three-ton weighing shark whose physical presence is only felt in the visera of witnessing its hunt in the film's land based scenes. The spectator, in many ways, becomes the shark that it so desperately wants to see. Thus, Jaws seems to embody a tug of war between representation and embodiment. Are we supposed to identify with the shark or the victim? Do we feel the pain of being enveloped by its teeth, each "the size of a shot glass," or do we feel the pleasure of clamping down on helpless, squirming human flesh? The movie never remains consistent on this, which is partly why it is so effective.

While one could argue that Jaws cleanly adheres to a three-act classical film structure, it is really about the relationship of two distinct sections: a monster story of a relentless predator preying upon an innocent small-town community, and a high seas adventure of male comraderie with a "human vs. nature twist." Aside from the differences of setting, careful detail is provided to each section, in different ways but in similar manners as well. In the "land" section of the film's first hour (roughly), Spielberg builds a beautiful contrast between the recreational activity of a small community, (e.g. beach conversation in which everyone knows each other, a main street parade with kids playing their instruments poorly, and a cloudless sky) with the grisly acknowledgment of death and primal instinct that seemingly corrupts the very innocence that the film works so hard to create. But the shark hardly represents a force deliberately preying upon small town America, but rather an invasion of nature and instinct in a society of people who are "civilized." But the film illustrates that humanity, while distinctly separate from the primal nature of the ocean it so enjoys and builds towns around, is hardly civilized. Amongst the harmless conjecture of the townspeople, we see the slimy actions of Amity's mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), a bureacratic twit always thinking in the interest of the economic stature of Amity and the monetary gain associated with holidays and the "clean" image of the town.

All of this is established in what I will call the "land" half of the film. In this portion, a relationship is built between three characters, the aforementioned mayor, Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a family man so eager to make a difference, but touchingly naive in his grappling with his own inability to deal with the simple concerns of townsfolk, and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an oceanologist rich-boy who understands more than his appearance leads on. The focus in this half of Jaws is on the central relations of these characters, specifically Brody and Hooper, and how they team up to work against the arrogance of the mayor. Concerning the shark and its attacks on three individuals (Chrissie, Alex Kitner, and the man in the boat whose leg we remember more than the rest of his body or performance), its presence is always felt despite its surprising lack of involvement. Though the shark isn't in the movie very much in the "land" section, the characters' and spectator's constant acknowledgement of it juxtaposes nicely with the pleasant, sunny atmosphere of the Amity beaches. Even when the shark is devouring its victims, the spectator hardly ever sees it. Instead, we see from its own eyes, which brings to mind the tension of identification mentioned above.

Apart from compositional details, which I will discuss further in my discussion of the "water" portion of the movie, the structural straightforwardness of the "land" section is refreshing and is practically a self-contained movie in its own right, with the mayor finally coming around by the end. After he allows Brody to close down the beaches and go after the shark, mayor Vaughn exits the narrative and the shark hunter, Mr. Quint (Robert Shaw, whose character's first name is never given, or necessary for that matter) takes center stage. The first elongated scene with Quint in his shark sanctuary littered with countless trophies (shark jaws hanging on walls) represents the narrative morphing into almost an entirely new movie: the "water" half, or the ocean hunt. Interestingly, Quint does appear in the "land" section of the movie. Many critics and movie lovers will fondly recall his introduction, slowly scratching his nails down the chalkboard during the town hall meeting, literally and metaphorically disturbing the community culture in which he lives but takes no part. Despite the obvious purpose of the introduction to his character -- in very memorable fashion so that the spectator is more than aware and prepared for his real entry in the film -- Quint's presence on the land-based section of the movie doesn't feel right. He is not a land-based character in the slightest, which is why he doesn't fit. His only home is the sea, which is why his presence in th stagnant town hall feels strange in relation to his more natural environment aboard the Orca, his creaky old boat on which Quint, Brody, and Hooper reside for the remainder of the film.

Although the "land" half of the film represents one long setup due to its practically being a self-contained movie in the sense of the spectator's familiarity and connection to the characters and "world" of the film rather than the narrative arcs, its status as such presents the "water" half of the film as its own narrative as well. The only difference in structure is be the resolution of the two. In the visual depth and thematic unity, the "water" portion of Jaws is entirely different.

This is signaled by the brilliant shot of the Orca leaving the land and heading toward the open sea, as seen through the window of Quint's house, with the vessel framed within the jaws of one of Quint's previous kills. While the camera slowly follows the boat through the jaws, which eventually frame the entire shot, John Williams' music signals the onset of a mythological journey in its muted brass theme complemented by rising strings. But rather than arriving to an end of dramatic spirit and foreshadowing the "man versus nature" duel that makes up film's last hour, Williams instead opts to imbue the images of the Orca's departure with a sense of fun, which, given the preceding setup might seem inappropriate. But the strange thing is, it works. It's as if the narrative is reminding us that it is precisely that: a narrative. The images invite the spectator to take part in the brooding sense of darkness lurking underneath the film's first half as the protagonists now have decided to duel this leviathan in its own territory, but it also reminds the viewer that this will be, plain and simple, a fun ride.

This contrast is present throughout the film, which is reflected in the crisis of identification in the perspective of the stalking/attacks in the first half of the movie. The spectator is constantly torn between enjoying this narrative for pulp adventure and pleasure, and being subjected to a disturbing feeling of being eaten alive as suggested in its exploration of primal fear. But this is all suggested in the many dualistic tensions of the land-based end of the film, e.g. the representation/embodiment of the shark and its relation to its victims and the corruption of bureacracy invading small-town innocence. The simple halfing of "land" and "water" sections is evidence of two opposites coming together. While the two acts are separate, the overriding point seems to be that they take effect due to their individual relation to opposites and their constantly working against each other. The second narrative of Jaws explores these dualities more from the perspective of the viscera of pure adventure and a constant battle between the hunter and the hunted. It becomes a constant battle of strategy among the three members of the Orca but also between the shark and the three men.

The shark's first real appearance in the film is one of pure shock. it is the moment in which the film completely changes gears and is no longer in a "transition" stage. With the unannounced sight of the shark to quickly and unexpectedly, this one shot signals that the rules are now different and that this is the beginning of a massive duel that will dominate the rest of the narrative. In this shot (as seen at the top of the page), Brody stares back over the camera (presumably at Hooper, who is directing the boat) and utters a line that, in my mind at least, has always been more memorable than the one that follows it. Of course, Brody's "You're gonna need a bigger boat" line is one of the classic movie lines in history, I find that his "Slow ahead..." comment is more memorable, mostly due to the context in which it is uttered. The shot consists of his face foregrounded and occupying much of the right half of the frame and his chum tossing and the ocean in the background. A cigarette dangles from his mouth as he speaks comfortably for the first (and only) time aboard the ship. Immediately after he makes the comment "Come on down and chum some of this shit," a gray mass bursts out of the water, encompassing the rest of the frame as it lunges towards the Orca. For me, this is one of the most memorable movie frames I can recall and its purely for the quick burst of energy that was waiting to be unleashed. Before the shark even arrives (note that he does so without his two note motif or three note theme for the first time), there is something uncomfortable about the shot, almost as if it's preparing us for the shock it will contain.

Note that this shot does not resemble that of a contemporary horror film, in which the camera slowly pans over from a character's face to create empty space for an inevitable scare by a killer/monster; those instances are predictable in every fashion. But here, we are given just enough of the ocean in the background to not expect it, yet the elements the composition somehow suggest the inevitable appearance of the shark, perhaps because the nature of the shot differs so much from more elongated takes of the movie. While the movie features plenty of close-ups of Chief Brody, this particular shot is unique because it involves him and the water. By the point, the film has thematically and visually established his fear of water and has kept a distance between Brody and the ocean, but here in this shot they are connected. Another note about the shot is that it scares the hell out of me each time I watch it. I know it's coming, but the details of the frame itself somehow make me uncomfortable in my anticipation of the shark's appearance. There may be a few reasons for this. First, the nature of suspense (as David Bordwell observes in this essential piece) is much more due to how the viewer processes the elements of composition, i.e. editing, staging, background/foreground, in a film rather than the pure shock of something unexpected happening. Following this idea, the shot's ability to create suspense for me nearly every time I see it may be due to how the shark briefly appears, in full view for the first time, in relation to the viewer's previous knowledge of him based on a lack of sight. Roger Ebert observes in his archived Great Movies review of Jaws:

"When the shark does appear for its closeups, it is quite satisfactorily terrifying... The shark has been so thoroughly established, through dialogue and quasi-documentary material, that its actual presence is enhanced in our imaginations by all we've seen and heard."

This effectively captures the experience of the entire movie. Its motions and moving parts interact so fluidly and so brilliantly, so as to operate on conscious and unconscious levels, that they form relationships with the spectator to the extent that the images remain in memory, despite constantly moving and changing. The spectator's memory of these moments then interact with the present shots, giving them a power and viscera that they might not ordinarily have if seen alone. that is the beauty of cinema, and part of the reason why this film is so brilliant. Whether calculated or accidental, every composition (and its elements) is beautifully presented, working together to create a sense of atmosphere and character. Notably, the film rarely provides single shots of characters that are saying one thing at one time or of one place for the purpose of establishing its presence or purpose in the narrative. Jaws works so effectively because it always has so much going on and it creates an environment and a strong sense of the major and minor characters in its more naturalistic approach to editing and compositional details. Yes, there are one-shots of characters (for the purposes of reaction) here and there, but they are always deliberately and sparing placed so as to compliment the more important shots, featuring many characters, conversations, and events. Furthermore, the score is very restrained and seems to enter at just the right time so as to not call attention to itself. The film is more interested in building the essence of its locations through long, wide shots, the level of activity in them, and the authenticity of real sounds. Iit seems that none of the sound was added in post-production but that the natural sounds of the locations and actual organic sounds are what we hear in the movie.

The complicated activity and busyness of the shots work are so authentic, real, and alive not just due to the framing, design, and details within them, but with the surprisingly subtle performances (given the nature of the genre) coupled with the perfectly written dialogue in the screenplay. The dialogue in Jaws is among the best written for a movie. Whether it is expository exchanges or arbitrary background conversation, every word of it is genuine and unique, true to the characters and the world they inhabit. In discussing the complex details of the film's compostions, one must not ignore the pitch-perfect screenplay, both in structure and dialogue.

Regarding my previous point about the complex compositional details of each frame of the movie and how they build together to form a sense of the Amity Island community, Quint's creaking Orca, or the calmness of the ocean surface, these perfect compositions (along with the said dialogue) play a great role in building revealing moments of character. Sometimes, no diaogue is necessary at all. And this is the wonder of the film: it's amazing structural balance between quiet moments and intense moments, dialogue driven conjecture and character revealing asides. It all gels so smoothly, creating fluid movements and actions that complement each other and form a visual narrative that is utterly unique in its lightfooted ability to balance so many various elements and make them work together.

A great example of one of these small, character revealing moments is a scene in the "land" half in which Brody sits at his dinner table, stressed by the increasing danger of the town's waters. What starts as a wide shot of the dimly lit room pulls back and becomes an intimate moment between Brody and his son; the two positioned in either side of the frame with the foregrounded table in between them and the lit kitchen in the background. This is the establishing shot to a beautiful moment that Spielberg captures simple with the shot decisions and honest performances. (Like all great movies, Jaws is about moments.) After Brody realizes that his son is mimicking him, the film cuts between two one-shots of their reactions to each other as they share a playful, loving exchage underscored by John Williams' delicate and unsentimental music. Somewhere in between the editing between these two shots, Spielberg cuts to Ellen Brody, watching on from the kitchen. The moment ends with a return to the establishing shot -- this time with Mrs. Brody between them in the background with her as Hooper knocks on the door (one shot of her being interrupted by the sound him knocking). It's a scene that almost any other movie might have cut or treated as arbitrary "character development" material, but Spielberg makes it a character revealing scene, one with unique, subtle details that not amount of backstory to a character can create in building a sense of that character.

Jaws is full of these kinds of moments, in both the "land" portion and the sea-based half. In the midst of all the fun chases and silent bits between the chases of the "water" section, the heart of that section (and of the film) is night scene in the cabin of the Orca, with Quint's haunting Indianapolis speech bookended by lighter moments of drunken lunacy. After the great "battle scars" comparison between Hooper and Qunit in one beautiful long shot (with the occasional cut to a reactionar one shot of Brody), Quint takes center stage in the movie's most compelling sequence, an eerie speech which showcases many of the film's high points: beautiful compositions, sublime performances, perfect writing, subtle character interaction, and thematic depth. All of that is in Quint's story, and it's the heart of not just the "water" section, but of the entire movie.

The sequence breaks down in a series of long shots of him, with Hooper in a blurred background, as he recounts his memory of the day the USS Indianapolis sunk. The first shot is more clear, with an overall focus on the entire composition (Quint on the left), and lasts about 40 seconds as he sets up the sinking and what the soldiers did to survive. After a very brief reactionary shot of Brody, the next shot of Quint is similar to the previous one but is more focused, with Hooper and other background details more blurry and Quint more clearly in the foreground. The composition rests entirely on Quint's eyes and their expression as he goes on to talk about the "lifeless, like a doll's" eyes of shark, and the "terrible high pitch screaming" of the victims he watched die, all the while maintaining his steady, hypnotic mumbled speech patterns. Lasting more than a minute (76 seconds), this shot maintains such intensity because of its total locking onto Quint. After another reactionary shot of Brody (and then Hooper), the next shot of Quint puts him more in the center of the frame, practically erasing everything else around him, including Hooper, as he explains why he will never put another life jacket on.

This speech is riveting in its shot design, writing, and performance and exemplifies the coming together of so many brilliant elements to form pure cinematic feeling, which encompasses not just one or two emotions or bodily states but many sensations of abstraction and ambiguity. The mystery and mastery of great cinema is right there to be experienced in that scene and it's something to behold. Yet, for as dark as it is, it is bookended by moments of drunken bonding, which are just as genuine and moving but in a more lighthearted manner. In these moments and the speech, the characters and atmosphere come to life here in a scene that functions as both a self-contained moment of cinematic greatness, but a reflection of the movie; all its themes, relationships, and nuances, taking place in its own unique space (within a rickety cabin aboard Quint's vessel) and time (as it is the only night scene in this portion of the movie).

The remainder of the film is a more focused duel between the the Orca and the shark. Not that the film has ever been operating under any principles of logic, the sea half practically shuts off the entire world the film worked so hard to built in the first half, operating according to its own rules. In this section, as the shark becomes more visible, its personality becomes more vivid rather than its mythological presence in the first half. It is intelligent and relentless in its engaging the Orca in a game of strategy in a battle for the sea. Of course, no shark would exhibit such intelligence and downright vigor, but as it progresses the movie leaves logic aside and hones in on the experience of the adventure and the inevitable conclusion of the duel.

Apart from the outstanding first chase sequence, which follows the Brody/shark shot I analyzed above, there are a number of chase scenes that delve into a real sense of pirate fun that contrast so harshly with the quiet subtlties of Quint's speech and the growing relationship among the trifecta of men. But somehow, these strange juxtapositions seem right. The adventure, the chase, the ripping through the ocean surface in pursuit of "the barrels"; none of it infantilizes the more quiet, dark material, but it instead compliments it. When the music isn't riffing on the two note stalking motif, it's bouncing around playful pirate melodies which are more driven by strings and and winds rather than pounding brass. It's the right sound for all those barrel chases and it complements the quick-moving visual sequences to a tee.

These all culminate in an action-based final 20 minutes, in which the average shot length quickens, the attacks by the shark become more relentless and frequent. In the final sequence in which all three men are together (when they are putting the cage together in an irresistible montage sequence), few words are said. But we know that the trifecta relationship is at a close, and that the narrative is nearly at its end as well. There is a sobering sense of seriousness to the rest of the proceedings as we realize for the first time that we truly care about the fates of these characters. This is the result of the sublime visual narrative that has built to the wacky action-packed finale and the moments before it. In these final moments of the film, Quint's fate within the shark's mouth is sealed as he we him stripped of his armor (his coat and his hat), disheveled, angered, and beaten. Long before he is taken by the shark, we know what's in store for him. Interestingly, this process of Quint's breakdown and humanity begins with his Indianopolis soliloquoy.

I should note that the movie intelligently ends before our heroes arrive back to shore. Something tells me it would have lost something had we been treated to an epilogue. The final shot—a long shot connecting the land and the ocean one a peaceful beachline—represents the perfect finale and culmination of the film's themes, interestingly suggesting the triumph of humanity and "land" over the instinct of the water. The shot is at a distance from the land and ocean it presents, each of which take up about half the shot, in essence bringing together to film's two sections. From there, we can imagine for ourselves where Hooper and Brody go, what they do when they get back, how Amity reacts to the news; but the movie necesarily ends with the destruction of the shark and the suggestion of a more happy union between the land of the humans and the sea of nature.

I could go on forever recalling the small details that account for the movie's mastery and status as an American movie classic, e.g. the fabulous night sequence involving the discovery of Ben Gardner's boat, the many chase sequences, the shark's lifeless body bellowing a roar as it plummits to the bottom of the sea, filling the frame with a red cloud to the perfect descending piano motif in the score. But all of these moments, some of which I've rigorously analyzed above, can only be experienced in the two-hour experience that is Jaws. During its duration, Jaws exemplifies why cinema is such an evocative artistic and narrative medium. Its structural perfection, subtle character-revealing moments, precise but naturalistic compositions, and commitment to visually and viscerally exploring a variety of themes all work together to a build a movie experience that is justified for being such a cultural staple. It is entertaining and thoughtful, subtle and overt, terrifying and fun. Capturing all of this with a nostalgia for the never-changing waves of the beaches' oceans, Jaws may be Steven Spielberg's ultimate cinematic experience.


Damian Arlyn said...

Well done, Ted. Excellent article. I particularly liked how you singled out the famous "Indianapolis" speech (which I also wrote about back in January) as the highlight of the film.

You're absolutely right about its flawless structure. As I am go through all Spielberg's work I am noticing that much of it is rather episodic in nature (Duel, 1941, Jurassic Park, Temple of Doom, War of the Worlds, etc) with individual sequences/set pieces that are amazingly well-crafted, even brilliant, in their own right but without a good, solid over-arching structure with which they can function satisfactiorily. One of the great things about Jaws is that its individual scenes/moments are not only magnificent in and of themselves but they contribute to the organic untiy of the piece as a whole.

I suspect I probably will refer to this post in my own analysis of Jaws when the time comes because you have done a fine job of describing so eloquently many of the elements that make it a great film. Indeed, I am one of those who considers Jaws to be a "perfect" film.

Ted Pigeon said...

Good point about the Structure of Spielberg (I like the sound of that). Sometimes, I think the episodic nature of his action films really works; example: Raiders of the Lost Ark. When I took screenwriting, I remember talking to my teacher about Spielberg and he pointed out to me that Spielberg, Lucas and (Lawrence) Kasdan had all decided to move away from the tidy three-act narrative structure that had been a staple of classical Hollywood cinema. The movie really just chugs along with an ever-building plot and intensity that refuses to fit the three-act structure. That is not to say that the three-act framework is a bad thing. In fact, many of the best films of the Golden Age and today fit that classical mold. But Spielberg's films show the strengths and weaknesses of deviating from it, especially if many other elements of your film fit a classical style. (It almost calls for classical narrative structure as well).

But, as you point out, this approach sometimes fails too, but usually not due to the structure itself so much as the momentum of the scenes and how they build from one another. All of the films you mentioned (including 1941 and The Lost World have really great moments. As you know, Damian, I will be the first one to champion moments of sublimity over concise plot and narrative structure.

But this structural angle to Spielberg is fascinating, now that you mention it, and I am looking forward to how you discuss this in relation to Spielberg's body of work.

Damian Arlyn said...

Well, I didn't mean to suggest that it is necessarily a bad thing for a film to be episodic. In fact, in the movie you mentioned (Raiders) as well as Duel and even (arguably) the first Jurassic Park, I happen to think, like you, that the approach works quite well.

As you know, Damian, I will be the first one to champion moments of sublimity over concise plot and narrative structure.

Oh, I know that, Ted. I just think that when you can have all three (as in Jaws) then you've got something really special.

One other thing I forgot to mention about your post is that particular shot and line that you're so fond of. That's always been one of my favorite shots too and, as he explains on the Laurent Bouzerau-directed DVD documentary, Spielberg planned it specifcally so that the shot would start funny and then turn scary (the line would evoke a laugh that would then immediately turn into a scream). Apparently in those days the word "shit" was an easy gag and it thrilled Spielberg to see the audience react exactly as he anticipated.

What's fascinating though is that at that very same screening Speilberg didn't get nearly the reaction he wanted to the head coming out of the hull of the boat at Hooper. He felt he didn't time that moment quite right, so he went back, re-shot it (in a pool) and cut the new footage in. At another screening the audience screamed really loud (louder than they had at either scene earlier) and Spielberg was pleased. What bothered him was that later on in the film, when the shark comes out, the audience's reaction was only half of what it was at the previous screening. This caused him to ask himself "Okay. What did I do here? How did I, by making the scream bigger in this first scene to cause the scream at the later scene to be less?"

He eventually concluded that he got greedy. He learned a lesson through that experience that I wish more horror directors would learn. An audience can only scream at a movie so much. If you play the same trick on them repeatedly, before long they're going to catch onto you. He said that after the head-in-the-boat scene, people began to "mistrust" his movie. They become hyper-aware of what was going on and thus were, in a way, prepared for the moment when the shark first appears.

Adam Ross said...

Part of what makes Jaws a "perfect" movie for me is its source material: the true events that inspired Peter Benchley's novel. A series of bizarre shark attacks on the Jersey Shore and even inland New Jersey is something so fantastical it's hard to believe it's not fiction.

Another take on the land/water theme and Quint is that he doesn't communicate like anyone on the island, whether it be his accent, his words or simple lack of communication skills (smashing the Orca's radio). Quint is as much an alien to Amity as the shark.

Ted Pigeon said...

Damian: you said it best. Jaws exhibits that a film can be rigorously structured or episodic, be about moments, and offer an excellent streamlined plot... all at the same time! That's what I was hoping to convey: the movie is a cinematic experience that somehow balances all of these things, in doing so striking the very feelings, reactions, and thoughts that cinema is all about.

I now recall that documentary also. I have seen it a few times a couple of years ago, but didn't remember that segment until you mentioned it, Damian. I would like to go watch it again in light of this discussion of that shot.

Adam: I love how the movie is both real and unreal at the same time. Spielberg built such an honest portrait of the community and the recreational environment that the idea of a massive rogue shark seemingly enjoying the community's citizens for "his noon feeding" is both disturbing and scarily real (considering that the mere sight of the ocean inevitably forces one to think of "the unknown"). That movie taps into to many real experiences of American recreation and life that the shark can really take on strongly symbolic as well as mythological properties.

Recalling recent movies that attempt to scare the hell out of a viewer, I think many of these films, e.g. Signs are too emphasizing of the symbolic and not enough of the real presence of the creature. Neil Marshall's The Descent understood that the best monsters work on both levels, and I reckon it learned a thing or two from Spielberg's masterpiece.

To recall Damian's point about Spielberg's desire to terrify and scare people, something must be said for the amount of horror films that rely on this today as well. When I was watching Jaws the other night, I thought during the Ben Gardner scene that it was perfect for its creation of such a dark atmosphere (with an absolute perfect score by John Williams) and precisely because that shark doesn't appear. I have a sneaky suspicion that if the that kind of scene were made today, the shark would have come to scare them away and there would have been some close encounter. But the beauty of the scene is that they are in the shark's world, but the shark is not. Yes, we see his effects, and yes there is a "boo" moment, which it could have done without maybe, but its presence almost suggests that the rest of the movie will play by different rules, and almost precludes the Brody shock shot. Spielberg may think he was too greedy, but I think the film had just enough scares. But maybe thats because I'm used to an obsene amount of them in contemporary horror films. Another note on The Descent I'd like to make is that while that film also boasts a few "boo" moments, its scariness comes from the building anticipation (much like Jaws) and growing sense of dread and fear (again, like Spielberg's film). But Marshall's film is not interested in any contrasts or dualistic relationships. It spends precious little time in the "real world," and it makes us miss it fast the deeper the women travel into the caves.

Back to Jaws: Adam, regarding Quint, your comments hit on exactly what I was going for. He is an outsider in every way, totally removed from the happy little community with which the film accustoms us in its "land" section. That is why that scene in the town hall feels strange. Because Quint is so the extreme of what that community represents. Great observation in comparing his alienation to the shark's.

I'm very glad they decided to cut that scene of him in the store early in the film. It would have made him too much a part of the community and would have been all wrong with the rhythms of his character as seen in the second half.

Damian Arlyn said...

Quint is as much an alien to Amity as the shark.

Oh my God, Adam! I've seen this film a hundred times (no exaggeration) and I can't believe I have never realized this until right now.

Besides the fact that Spielberg's usual theme of isolation and alienation are again surfacing here, you are absolutely correct in that Quint and the shark are, in a way, kindred spirits, both coming from and belonging to the same world. Neither really belongs in Amity island and it seems almost necessary, perhaps even providential, that the two should perish together at sea. In that frighteningly bloody scene where Quint is eaten by the shark, he certainly fights for his life (kicking and screaming and resisting all that he can) but there's a moment, as he hangs out the shark's mouth with his arms wrapped around the beast, that it almost resembles a lover's embrace (this goes back to the sexual imagery you refer to in your post, Ted). It's as if they are being "united in death" (just as Quint and "the shark" were forever joined in life on that fateful day in 1945). It is no surprise that shortly thereafter the shark meets its own demise. Quint is, however, a reluctant "lover" while Hooper has no problem expressing his affection for sharks (three times in the course of a single conversation he uses the word "love" to describe his feeling for them and while photographing the shark he calls it "darling" twice). Throughout the film, though, Hooper's love turns to terror and Quint's hatred eventually ends with the two becoming consummated.

I don't mean to make too much of this, but it also seems very appropriate, again arguably providential, that the shark be destroyed not by Quint (or even by Hooper) but by Brody who may also be an outsider in the town but is a different kind of outsider. Brody is "land-lubber," as the nomenclature goes, through and through and it seems as if only a "non-sea-dwelling" being, someone who is not at all at home on the water, could possibly bring the shark's existence to an end (and he does so while still not touching the water, though just barely). However, he still had to venture out of his comfort zone and meet the shark on its turf so to speak in order to accomplish this. It's interesting to note that in the book, Brody is the only one who survives. Both Hooper and Quint are taken by the shark (I think Spielberg made the right choice in allowing Hooper to live) and that almost seems to reinforce the idea of clashing worlds (land vs. sea) and land ultimately winning out.

This truly is a great film.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

I don't think Stevesy ever topped this one. I don't think he could. Also, I don't know, now, if I should write about it for your event, Damian...

Ted Pigeon said...

I hate to compare great films to each other, as if we can begin to quantify their elements and rank them accordingly, but if I were to rank Spielberg's upper eschelon, it would include the following films: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Schindler's List, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Munich. I realize that this list of films accounts for more than one quarter of his filmography as director, but I would consider them all living, breathing, evocative works of cinema - all in different ways. To pick just one, I'm not sure that I could.

I have been criticized for my affinity for Spielberg's recent work, but I think films like A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and Munich are provoking works that really dig deep into conventions of classical cinema and narrative, challenging them and questioning them. Spielberg's eye for composition remains as striking as it was in Close Encounters and Jaws, despite it being manifest differently so as to accord to contemporary styles and digital technology with which he has evolved as an artist and filmmaker. He has moved into a very cerebral stage in his career and is becoming much more experimental than many viewers allow themselves to see. His reflexivity is stated in subtle ways, but the richness of his shot design, editing techniques, and narrative fluidity remains at such a high quality despite his stylistic and narrative sensibilities being so different.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

A.I. is curious, if not wholly successful. I'm just not sold on some of the overt moments (ahem, flesh fair).

Minority Report is fantastic for the first 2/3rds but then he gets literal (and overt) again and it falls apart under itself and its all-too-tidy third act. Still, it sits on my shelf for a few unbelievably excellent sequences in the first 100 minutes.

War of the Worlds, when it's on, is even better than Minority Report, but once they go down into Tim Robbins' hell-hole basement things do a quick 180. It looks like it might come to life again when Tom kills Tim and the subsequent abduction scene, but the abduction scene ends weakly (overt sentimentalism) and the last five minutes (despite the scare of the military attacking the faltering martian, and the excellent FX) are mostly a waste. But, as you can see, I still find a lot of intriguing passages in there.

Munich is, by far, his best work since Jaws. I know, right? For strictly structural reasons. Plus, Eric Bana is amazing, and so is the sex scene, in fact. At first I didn't know what to do with the sex scene but I saw it a second time and it made perfect sense. But the best since Jaws? Maybe not, but I'll venture that, for now. I mean, it doesn't have any T-Rex's or anything, but it does have Marie-Josée Croze for eye candy and cheap thrills.

Finally, Jurassic Park would have to be my overtly sentimental choice for a fave. At least, the one I've watched the most:
- No, Tim!
- *cough* 3.