Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our special summer series begins with what Adam and I both consider to be our all-time favorite film, 1975’s Jaws. The first true summer blockbuster, it spawned three sequels (more on those in later columns), began Steven Spielberg's meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest American films ever made. But, you know that. We’re not here to review Jaws or explain why it’s good. You’re a smart person. You know Jaws is good. We’ll probably approach the sequels a bit more critically, but trying to say something new about Jaws (as The Pope of Film once so eloquently pointed out) would just be foolhardy. What we’d like to do instead is highlight ten things we love about it and encourage you to share your own favorite bits in the comments.
Adam, why don’t you start us off?
Rob: Totally agree. Spielberg has spoken at length about his desire to find a relatable cinematic shorthand to communicate the kind of dread he was going for, and the water-level POV stuff is key. I remember the director saying that while not all of us has hunted sharks or been out on the open ocean, we’ve all gone swimming, so we’d all understand what he was doing. I also remember cinematographer Bill Butler speaking in an interview about the box they invented to keep the cameras dry for these shots, and I’ve been fascinated with this simple and effective approach ever since.
All that aside, the reason the scene really sticks with me is that my grandfather (who looked a ton like Roy Scheider) used to play similar games with me at the table, and they’re some of my favorite childhood memories.
Adam: I never looked at the scene like that, but it’s an interesting take. Also, I need to see a picture of your Roy Scheider grandpa next time I come out to Philly. In my grandpa’s old wedding photo, I thought he looked like Clark Gable. This is why we’re friends.
One of the aspects I love most about Jaws goes along with your previous comment about taking matters into your own hands. Jaws is the story of a big problem that won’t go away and the ordinary people that have to solve it. On a subtextual level, I think the normalcy of the heroes makes the story more relatable. Speaking of which, another thing I love about the movie that I want to point out are the locals. In the documentary The Shark is Still Working, they talk about how the extras were mostly residents of Martha’s Vineyard and that local color makes the movie so much fun throughout. My two favorites are the guy who goes “A whaaaaaaaaat?” when he’s told he caught a tiger shark and the guy who tells Richard Dreyfuss to walk straight ahead when he asks the boat of fisherman where there’s a good restaurant on the island. I wish more modern-day blockbusters had wisdom enough to work in local residents as a way of making their films feel less generic.
Jaws 2 (more on that later). All that said, I totally agree that the local color provided by the residents is one of of the reasons the film feels so lively.
My next favorite bit concerns the extra steps Spielberg and his crew took to ensure that the audience always felt isolated while the was out on the ocean. Though it hopelessly delayed the already weeks-behind production, Spielberg insisted that no footage be filmed in which the audience could see any land or ships anywhere near the Orca. He wanted us to be totally at the mercy of the shark and feel like there was no escape from our confrontation with it. The making-of documentary on the anniversary Blu-ray (a longer cut of the one included with the original DVD release) goes into detail about how the crew had to learn about tides and sea levels, and how they’d often wait half an hour for a ship to pass out of the shot only to realize that they’d drifted so far out of their light that no footage they shot would even be usable. Today we’d just CGI out the other ships, of course, but like you said with the Martha’s Vineyard locals, there’s something to be said for doing it for real. Even if it makes your entire crew insane.
Adam: Since you brought up the shark I’m going to skip ahead to the climax of the movie, which is where the shark (Bruce) is seen the most. There are a number of aspects about the ending I really love, so I’ll combine a few under a simple “The Shark” heading. First is the foreshadowing of the shark done throughout the movie, but never more effective for me than when Quint describes the shark as having “black eyes, like a doll’s eyes” and how they roll over white when the shark bites into a person. It’s very creepy and really drives home for me one of the reasons I think the shark is so scary - it doesn’t make any vocal noise. Other predators will growl or screech, but one of the things that terrifies me about fish (I’m serious...I hate fish because they scare the shit out of me) is that they can sneak up and attack you and you’d have no idea unless you saw it or felt it. It gives me the creeps. The rest I want to mention about the shark are mostly just shots I love: a) the full frame of the shark’s open mouth as it halfway jumps onto the deck of the Orca, b) the jump scare of it breaking through the glass towards Roy Scheider as the Orca sinks, c) Robert Shaw kicking at the shark before being eaten, which makes the moment so much more chilling, d) when the shark is blown up and there’s these giant chunks falling from the sky back into the ocean (it’s very satisfying) and e) the great great great shot of the fin in a cloud of blood (with that little roar/rumble on the soundtrack) as the remains of the shark sink to the ocean floor.
My third highlight is simply a shout-out to film editor Verna Fields, an absolute titan in 1970s American cinema. Known as “Mother Cutter” to Spielberg and contemporaries like George Lucas and John Milius (the latter two learned film editing from Fields at USC), she’s cited as being instrumental in the film’s eventual success. Spielberg has even called her Jaws’ co-director in some interviews, and it’s clear that she was a huge maternal influence on this rag-tag group of film students. She’d cut (among many others) Medium Cool, American Graffiti, and she’d go on to be an executive at Universal after winning the Oscar for Best Film Editing. I think there’s a ton to be said about the importance of female film editors in regards to the success of the New Hollywood era (era), and Fields was most certainly essential.
Adam: I have no idea how editors can do what they do. It’s a gift and Fields’ work in Jaws is without peer. Earlier I mentioned a line from the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech, and something I love is the 30 or so seconds before Robert Shaw starts that speech where all three guys work in home-run level bits of comedy business. First, while Shaw and Dreyfuss are comparing scars, Scheider lifts his shirt up for a second and then decides not to say anything anymore because he knows he’s clearly alpha’d in this trio. Second, when Dreyfuss is about to tell his “She broke my heart” joke and Shaw interrupts him and calls his chest hair a sweater. It’s great because that type of thing happens in real life so often (especially on the podcast) where a person is winding up for a joke and then is undercut with something much funnier said by the other person. Third is how hard Dreyfuss laughs at his own joke. He’s so (in 1975) clearly an actor who is the dorky kid in high school that got contacts senior year, a girl smiled at him and he’s super into himself now. I love it.
Rob: Those are all great moments. I also love how, in that scene you mention on the Orca, Brody is practicing knots with a tiny piece of rope. No one really draws any attention to it, but it’s a nice little background (or in this case, foreground) detail.
Adam: When you asked me to bring your tap shoes, I didn’t know it would be to dance on his grave.
Rob: I want to apologize to Benchley’s friends and family for my cruelty. It’s worth noting that the author spent significant time in later life working with conservationists to change the negative stigma about sharks that his novel’s success helped foster. I’m sure he was a nice man. I just hated his shitty book, and I think every copy should go in the trash.
The last thing I’ll mention that I love about Jaws is the end credits. They’re fast! I love that older movies didn’t have credits that were 10 minutes long. It makes the viewer sit with the events they just saw and not the featured songs and MPAA seal. But what I love most about those end credits is that we get to see Brody and Hooper paddle all the way back to shore. The credits do not end until they are walking onto the beach. It’s so gratifying. I wonder if they hung out the rest of the day. Like, immediately afterwards, did they go to breakfast and just talk about how awesome they just were? Did they erase it from their Vision Board? I wish Jaws 2 was just Jaws: The Morning After.
Rob: I was thinking the exact same thing! That’s amazing. On this rewatch, I imagined you and me as Brody and Hooper paddling back to shore and then having to go explain to Mayor Vaughn what the hell happened. Do you think everyone ran back onto the beaches in celebration? Do you think shark chunks floated up onto the beach a few days later? What happened to Quint’s fishing business? Are there Flat Earther conspiracists in Amity who think the shark never really died? So many questions.
You’ve already mentioned the last thing I wanted to bring up, which is the 2012 fan documentary The Shark is Still Working, narrated by Roy Scheider. I tried so hard to see it in theaters, but it never came anywhere near me. Honestly, I only picked up the Jaws Blu-ray because it was included on a bonus disc. It’s a really fun look at the film’s legacy and fandom, and I’m glad I eventually got to see it.
Adam: To answer one of your questions, I imagine that Murray Hamilton’s character and the whole town were watching from the docks and the beach and let out a giant cheer when they saw the explosion. Then shark sympathizers on Amity said there was blame on both sides.
The Shark is Still Working is great. Don’t hate me, but I did see it in theaters at a festival and the filmmaker was there in person. True to my life, it was not an awesome experience. At the Q&A, I asked what he thought of the sequels and the emcee goes “Midnight crowd” and laughed at me. Then I said “I’m actually being serious. That wasn’t a joke question. You made a documentary about Jaws so asking about the sequels isn’t really that out of bounds.” Then the filmmaker answered and said he liked Jaws 2. I was pretty annoyed.
Rob: This is why I don’t leave my house.
Adam: A bird flew past my head and buzzed me again at the lake yesterday. It was like Top Gun but I wasn’t drinking coffee.
Rob: Your life is so magical. Should we go All Pacino next week? I think it’s your pick.
Adam: Sure! Did you want to start the summer of The Godfather movies or wait until July? I feel like watching Insomnia.
Rob: Let’s go with Insomnia! I haven’t seen that one in years. Al on no sleep? Classic hijinx will surely ensure. Until next time…
Adam: These seats are reserved.