A good story. That’s what I came away from a screening of JAWS with, this afternoon. Although I’ve seen it a thousand times, I don’t recall ever seeing it on the big screen. JAWS has become a piece of pop-culture that people take for granted. And more people should get the chance to see this film in a theater. I was four years old when the movie was originally released, and while I kind of remember my father taking me to see Jaws 2, I can’t remember seeing the original until it aired on television. As for the remaining sequels … 3D was an embarrassment, and 4 (also known as Jaws: The Revenge) was simply sad. By the way, don’t let that ‘4’ on the ticket above scare you, this was in fact the 40th Anniversary screening, hosted by film critic Ben Mankiewicz (son of screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz) that I watched.
And though I cannot write anything new about a film that has been written about 1,000,000 times over, there were a few things that caught my attention or occurred to me during the movie, that I ‘personally’ wish to make comment on.
1. Best movie I’ve seen all year. Strike that: best movie I’ve seen in a lot of years.
The last few films I have seen in a movie theater, I have reviewed on this site. And based upon how I responded to a screening of a 40 year old film that I have seen many, many times — I think most, if not all of the films I have reviewed here, have been given slightly better letter grades than they deserved. I would even go so far as to call JAWS one of the absolute best stories ever committed to film. And I probably would not have had the guts to say that before seeing it projected. Audience ‘event’ or not, this was an amazing experience. When comparing this 40 year-old icon to other films, the current state of movie making and box office commerce, becomes painfully real-world, soul-sucking-crunching depressing. It has both forced me to invent a new letter grade, simply to give the film it’s true place on the scale. And additionally to humble my former opinions of previous releases.
Recent releases have a lot of lead time on JAWS. They have decades of advancements in cinematic techniques and technology. They have further insight into human sophistication. They have … so much. And yet, in comparison with JAWS — they resemble nothing less than made-for-cable, fast-food, forgettable nonsense. And the critics in 1975 didn’t even think much of JAWS. Not in comparison with what they then called ‘the classics.’ That means the art form of cinema is deteriorating in quality at an exponential rate. Faster and faster, as time goes on. Which is something we should all be taking note of.
2. I’m now officially ambivalent about the entertainment industry’s increasing reliance on computer generated imaging, compositing, grading, and general enhancement of all images captured by cameras.
One of the many reasons I thoroughly enjoyed JAWS in a theater (a movie I own on blu-ray,) was the lack of artificial enhancement of the visual image. It was nice to see something real for a change. Without all that digital crap to complicate what I’m looking at. ‘Nuff said.
3. Sequential storytelling (as in comic books) is a significant asset to JAWS’ storytelling. And that is something I had honestly never taken note of before. And Spielberg additionally mastered the art of overlapping (or dual) dialogue in this film. And that is something I had only partially taken note of before.
When Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, he and his cinematographer Gregg Toland reportedly went down to a local newstand and picked up a stack of comic books to use as reference. They were looking for angles and ‘shots’ that neither of them had seen overused in movies, up to that time. What Steven Spielberg did here was take an adjacent avenue to that rational. He studied Alfred Hitchcock’s economical, visual storytelling style, and coupled it with his (Spielberg’s) own penchant for match cuts, match dissolves, etc. A technique Spielberg used quite extensively in his more recent film, The Adventures of Tin Tin. Once Orson Welles’ own technique gets filtered with Hitchcock and through Spielberg, it ironically comes out looking more like the sequential art form that comic books and graphic novels are well known for. And regardless of the 2 hour runtime, the story just zips along. Pumping out necessarily and relevant story details, in what amount to small hints. And seldom has that been done better.
Spielberg’s penchant for what I will term here as, ‘dual-dialogue,’ is also in full evidence. In fact he completely mastered it in this one film. Several scenes in the film, almost from the beginning when Chief Brody takes a phone call from his office while his wife talks to his son and dresses his wound, absolutely define one of the perfect ways to achieve the suspension of disbelief in a motion picture. Creating further reality by evidencing the true nature of people, amongst one another. i.e. overlapping dialogue. Something Howard Hawks was also known for playing around with. Two discussions happening in the FRAME, at the same time. As stated, it’s used in this film several times. And few other films have used the technique as effectively, as Spielberg utilizes it here.
4. JAWS was known for many years as more of a fantasy/science-fiction premise. However, that was generally based on the size of the shark. And over the years, a handful of great white sharks have been caught, and or identified, that exceed the 25 foot, 3 ton mass of the masticating fish featured in the film.
This, in my mind, now places the film firmly in the mold of ‘thriller.’ Without much of a hint of fantasy. And that gives the movie much better ground to stand on, in the mind’s eye. Making it easier to suspend one’s disbelief, and simply enjoy the story. Many experts will tell you that sharks do not actually seek to attack people, repeatedly; and/or in the relative quick duration of only a few days time. Clearly, these experts do not live in Australia.
5. Robert Shaw was one of the greatest actors who ever lived.
Shaw had a certain reputation. Hard drinking, etc. But watching his performance in this film on the big screen, in comparison with so many others, truly displays his talent. Certainly there is method acting at work here. And while it caused problems between Shaw and actor Richard Dreyfus, it’s obvious to see now, that this was a very precisely designed performance, accomplished by a true professional. Anyone who knows his work can tell you that he completely vanishes into the character of Quint. Method acting is controversial, to be sure. Reference Christian Bale’s performance in the film, ‘The Mechanic.’ But here, Shaw does it right. And by doing so, the character he portrays stands among us as a real person.
6. To be perfectly fair to modern cinema and advancements in technology, the limitations of the Panavision (Scope) style in the early 70’s, are revealed when projected.
At first, I thought it was cinematographer Bill Butler’s hazy photography. But after about half an hour, I began to realize that the camera simply could not maintain focus on more than one focal point within the frame, simultaneously. As a result, in several shots where multiple characters or elements are intended to be featured, there is only a single focal point, in actual focus. This is one of only three imperfections I spotted within the entire film. The other two being the oddly-cut scene when Matt (Richard Dreyfus) Hooper inspects the scant remains of the initial victim, within what appears to be a bed pan. As anyone who has seen the film knows, at a certain point in this scene, Hooper holds up a dismembered hand and says, ‘… you see this is what happens …’ This line and cut are not attached to either the shot before or after it. Then there’s my personal quibble over Chief Brody’s line, ‘blow up’ at the penultimate moment in the film. You don’t really need that. All you need are the visuals of the tank in the shark’s mouth, and Brody shooting at it. ‘Blow up,’ was overkill.
7. The score by John Williams, is the main character.
It makes me chuckle a bit when I realize that Williams had to know when he was working on the score, that the score itself was not only propelling the film, or identifying, or underscoring, but in fact, telling the story. The score for JAWS is quite literally one of the perfect storytelling devices in any movie I’ve ever seen. Nuance by nuance, pitch by pitch, the impact cannot be considered negligible. Take it away, and the story hides behind a lot of pomp and circumstance. People give Spielberg all the credit, but seeing this movie in a theater makes you realize that neither author Peter Benchley, nor filmmaker Steven Spielberg are actually telling the story we’re watching. John Williams is.