Monday, 21 June 2010

Get Out Of The Water!

On June 20th 1975 Jaws was released into cinemas across the United States and Europe. It was the first film to ever open countrywide on thousands of screens, and was the first true summer event movie. In five months it become the most successful motion picture of all-time, a record held until the Star Wars came along in 1977.

Jaws, in my opinion, is a perfect movie. In the 35 years since it’s release a lot of box-office breaking pictures have come and gone, and very, very few have had the cultural impact that Steven Spielberg’s simple little monster movie has. I can clearly remember my first viewing. The movie had been re-released in 1980 and I begged to be taken along. My Father, a keen film fan and supporter of my blossoming obsession with films agreed. I was hooked from the opening bars of John Williams iconic theme, nervous by the time the skinny-dipping girl was pulled under the water, and terrified when Ben Gardener’s head came bobbing out of the hole in the boat. By the time the credits rolled I knew three things: I hated sharks. I was never going to go in the water. I couldn’t wait to watch it again.

It’s perfect because Spielberg knew that character was the key ingredient. In Roy Scheider’s police chief Martin Brody we get a sympathetic hero to follow - the audience is Brody in the film. He’s our anchor, and despite flaws one of the best leading characters on film in the 70’s. You see his fear of the ocean. You see his love for his family. We are given time to really explore these emotions before the second half where the film opens up with an impossibly young Richard Dreyfuss as Matt Hooper and the wonderful, grizzled old bastard Quint, played with utter perfection by Robert Shaw. They are total opposites - one studies sharks and one kills them - but they are constantly at odds on board the tiny fishing boat Orca, with Brody as the balance between them. As we’re drawn out to sea in pursuit of the monster we are drawn further into the story, and as with all the best films, drawn into the world. During the classic moment when Shaw tells the story about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis it’s like we’re sitting at the table with him. These characters totally take you along for the ride. You’re frightened with them, want them to live and survive.

And then there is that shark. You don’t need to see it to be scared of it. Quint fires three barrels into the animal and for a while all you see are those yellow barrels, bobbing menacingly along the waves, following the boat, and you know that whatever is attached to those barrels is seriously, deeply pissed off. Hooper goes down in the cage and the fish smashes it apart, effortlessly, like it was made of balsa. Salty sea-dog Quint gets bitten in half, and then there is just Brody… who hates the water, can barely swim, climbing up the mast of a sinking boat while that fin speeds towards him. The fish is a machine, unstoppable.

It’s perfect because Spielberg stripped Peter Benchley’s best-selling source novel (which is at best a poorly written pulp thriller with too much scientific explanation and cheese ball dialogue) down to the basics. The plot is one line: A giant killer shark is killing the locals of an Island and the chief of police has to stop it. From that simplicity is built an incredible film, which went drastically over-budget and over-schedule. Storms stopped production. The shark sank. The studio didn’t believe that a shark could be scary. Dreyfuss and Shaw clashed on set. But from chaos came genius - everything came together on this one. Steven Spielberg was firing on all cylinders, operating with the drive of a young man trying to make his mark. John Williams gave the film the perfect heartbeat. Carl Gottlieb gave it the perfect pace. Bill Butler gave it the perfect, real-world look. Every single actor was perfectly cast.

Jaws is lightning in a bottle. Spielberg couldn’t make that same movie today even if he still had Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw. It’s a product of its time that is, in its own way, timeless. It’s entertainment with brains, a summer blockbuster that is anything but hollow. In short, it’s a classic and will live long past its makers.

Happy 35th Anniversary, Bruce.


Mr. PaulSubPopMan said...

Hey Rich, good shit you got here on this Blog! Love it!! Bava Doing Batman?