Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jaws Turns 35

This month, 35 years ago swarms of people rightfully stayed out of the water for one reason: they were at the movies celebrating what would become known as the first Hollywood blockbuster: Steven Speilberg's Jaws.  It's time for a personal confession-- I viewed this nifty horror flick for the first time at about age 5 or 6, and to this day it's probably the only film in history that has the ability to still, at the hearty age of 25, haunt my dreams.  I know I've seen more frightening, certainly more graphic films since, but the palpable terror of Jaws has stayed in my blood for a solid two decades.  I've lived a healthy, fairly regular life, but if anyone ever needed to know the reason why I won't step one foot in an ocean, the cinema is to blame.

Of course, the film over the course of it's 35 year history is so much more than just a personal terror.  In many ways the film molded the summer cinematic structure as evident today.  It was the first film to be aggressively advertised on television, the first film that opened on the widest number of screens simultaneously, and by the end of the it's theatrical run, it would become the highest grossing motion picture of all time (it surely was the Avatar of 1975, in fact it built the template for such numbers to become realistic.)  It would, of course drop into the bridesmaid position a mere two years later to a small film called Star Wars.  And while many should hold a grudge against this movie for that very reason, it wouldn't be fair, because honestly, I write with a brave front here, it's an amazing piece of pop entertainment that doesn't neglect the art of filmmaking.  It chills me to this day (I've only seen the film about 4 times all the way through; it's too hard, my 5-year-old self is still screaming) because of the precision and tension of it's cuts, the screech of the John Williams rift, the mere tease of a fin provoking terror for all for no reason-- the scariest of all-- think on the level of Hitchcock's The Birds.

It works as horror, but it's Hitchcockian flair is what makes it classic.  Only a few efficiently frightening shots are ever put on the shark itself.  Of course a lot of this is largely due to fact the the much-maligned production had a horrendous time getting the mechanical beast to work.  But it all builds the tension more, making the fin, and Williams' screech all the more effective.  Mostly shot from the point of view of the beast himself, the camera work tethers up and down like the waves themselves.  It's a rare film in which you feel very much apart of the action, it's the very meaning of participatory cinema, which is why it's so gut-wrenching to watch.  Even by today's standards, it's suspense is as nervy as ever, just because you never quite see that much of the violence.  There's a few choice shots, particularly at the climax, but it's the tease and control that haunts-- I imagine my 5-year-old self filling in the holes with pure terror, leaving me somewhat paralyzed by it to this day.

Much of the credit at the time was bestowed on film editor Verna Fields, a veteran of American Graffiti, for making the film an invaluable horror flick, since at the time young Mr. Speilberg had pretty much only Duel and The Sugerland Express under his belt.  Of course history has provided that Jaws was the promise of an un-paralleled filmmaking career.  But there's a great sense of play at least visually with Jaws, however troubled the production was.  Famously filmed at Martha's Vinyard, Speilberg also did re-shoots in the swimming pool of Verna Fields; I dare anyone to really notice the difference.  As well as the relatively seamless crosscutting of the fake shark (named famously Bruce) and the real sharks filmed.  Plus the famous shot of Brody (played by Roy Schneider, looking very much like Atticus Finch) after the attack at the beach-- the opposite of the groundbreaking shot in Vertigo.  It works brilliantly because it's so unsettling, and odd, creating a sense of panic in its immediacy.

The other examples are Goodfellas, Poltergeist, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Jaws wons three Oscars the year it came out, for film editing, original score and sound, but lost the big award to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Speilberg was, however, not nominated for his direction.  To celebrate I suggest staying as far away from the water as possible, and sleeping with  the lights on for the next couple of days.

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