Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Reserved Seating Jumps the Shark: JAWS

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who’ll show you the way to go home.

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?
Adam: The first one I’ll mention is the camerawork (by cinematographer Bill Butler) when characters are in the water. Obviously I love the shark POV underwater that opens and continues throughout the film, but I noticed on this recent rewatch how effective it is when it’s not the shark POV. When Chrissie is attacked at the beginning, water is splashing onto the camera lens and it feels like you are getting water splashed in your eyes violently and you’re witnessing something you’re powerless to prevent. In later ocean scenes (like when there’s a false scare and then a real scare as Chief Brody’s son looks to be shark food), the eye level POV of the camera always makes you feel like you’re a character treading water in the ocean which adds to the suspense greatly.

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.
My first highlight is purely nostalgic and emotional, but it’s part and parcel of my larger personal connection with Jaws. It’s the opening of the Dinner Scene, the moment when Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and his son Sean (Jay Mello) share a playful exchange before things turn serious. Brody has just been chewed out by Alex Kintner’s mother (Lee Fierro) for his culpability in her son’s death, and he’s deep in his head, barely responding to anything at all. He feels powerless. By imitating him and pulling him out of his funk, though, Sean is reminding Brody that he has the respect, love, and confidence of his family and reinforcing how necessary it is that the chief does what he believes is right. We often talk about it as a cute scene that was thrown in during production, but I actually consider it the catalyst that pushes Brody to Have One More Drink and Go Down and Cut That Shark Open.

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.
Rob: Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb wrote the definitive making-of story on Jaws, The Jaws Log, and he talks quite a bit about how angry and frustrated the residents of Martha’s Vineyard were during the extended production, which came back to bite Universal when they went to make 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.
Rob: With the T-Rex roar that Spielberg stole from Duel (which was stolen from another old monster movie, apparently)! It’s hilarious that you mention that the shark doesn’t make noise because, of course, one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments in Jaws: The Revenge is the giant roar it lets out right before attacking. How is that only like the fifth craziest thing in that movie? Yikes.

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.
Speaking of details, my next highlight concerns the writing and development process that turned Peter Benchley’s pulpy and unremarkable bestseller into the best film ever made by anyone. There’s nothing to be gained by disparaging Benchley’s character (especially since he’s no longer with us), but I need to be frank and say that Jaws just isn’t a good book. It’s terrible, actually. It’s sleazy and shlocky, concerned mostly with Hooper’s affair with Mrs. Brody and Mayor Vaughn’s struggle to keep Amity’s beaches open so that he can pay his debt to the local mafia. Also, the “shark hunt” sequence takes place over three separate days, each one ending with the Orca returning to port every night. It’s super lame. Last, and probably most famously, the shark’s demise is nowhere near as exciting or cinematic as the one Spielberg would eventually defy physics to pull off. There’s a lot of debate over who should get the most screenplay credit for Jaws, but I’m happy to look at it as a team effort that took the few genuinely great chunks of Benchley’s story and forged some serious movie magic.

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.
Adam: You know what I don’t like? Slim Jim. I had that for the first time over the weekend and after one bite I was like “What species eats these?” P.S. If you want to bring it in the comments, please don’t. That was in jest.

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.
Any final thoughts on Jaws?

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.

4 comments:

  1. Jaws is a perfect movie. I was lucky enough to see a pristine print last summer. The film curator of the museum where it was shown said it was an original print from 1975 that was one of the best prints he'd ever seen of any old filmer, and that it had just absolutely meticulously preserved. It was the cleanest, most beautiful version of the film (visually) that I can imagine. The bluray looks great, but that print, pause for effect, blows it out of the water. It was one of those movie theater moments I will never forget (and it was on a double feature day with JP, so it was a pretty great day in general).

    As Rob says, the transformation of the book to the film is a stunning; the storytelling instincts of Spielberg and company clearly were so right on. I was so shocked at, to use your word, schlocky it was. The film transforms Hooper into such a great character by dropping both the affair and the "Hooper is a rich boy local" angle.

    There are two things that I'd say are huge for me. One, which is related to the adaptation of the novel, is how simple the story is. It is so efficient and so uncomplicated. I imagine that the film had to draw some comparisons in the mid 70s with the disaster movies, and those films are all varying numbers of ridiculous plotlines. Jaws' plot is as simple and effective as the shark itself.

    Second is John Williams' score. I recently watched the documentary Score, and someone (I forget who) talked about how the shark's theme is like an engine and how the only time it shows up is when the shark is about to do something. I'm a soundtrack nerd and it's on my subway playlist, and I am always tricked by the main theme into thinking my music has stopped because it starts so quiet, and then ramps up. And then Brody's theme gets woven in. It's almost cliche at this point, because the Jaws theme is so deep into our collective pop culture psyche, but that movie doesn't sound like anything that came before or since. It's like a second version of the narrative supporting the main part of the visuals, dialogue and sound effects.

    Also, Adam, I sympathize with you because fish terrify me. They are, collectively, the worst.

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  2. I think that the main things that get me with Jaws actually weren't mentioned. The first is the structure. It's basically two movies that are perfectly put together...the first movie on land is an increasing amount of little things that lead inexorably to the BIG thing, them on the boat. And the big thing is more increasing little things until the REALLY BIG THING finally happens right at the end. To me it's beautifully simple but secretly elaborate storytelling at it's purest. The rhythm of it always delights me.

    The second you eluded to is Quint's death. The fact that he kicks...that his character survived the very real Indianapolis terror...and fucking Jaws gets him. It really moves me and is still one of the most horrifying movie deaths I've seen.

    Great article! Jawing about Jaws is always worthwhile.

    Also my grandfather looks like Max Von Sydow.

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