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Fare well and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies...
A retrospective appreciation of JAWS by Camus
 

"Smile, you son of a bi..." – Jaws, 1975

 

What do all DVD Outsiders know about Jaws? Oh, it's a long, long, over-quoted list but here are six of the best.

Jaws initiated the 'blockbuster' and Hollywood would never be the same (more's the pity given what 70s American cinema was blossoming into).

    1. Jaws was the first movie to break the $100 million box office barrier.

    2. There were three full size model sharks (in 1974/5 there was no such word as 'animatronic'...) and all of them were named Bruce after Spielberg's attorney, Bruce Ramer. This is why you have a fearsome great white in Finding Nemo named Bruce. Nemo's Australian location makes the name doubly fitting.

    3. It is universally agreed that Roy Scheider improvised the line "We're gonna need a bigger boat," but no one seems to know exactly who wrote the Indianapolis speech (though the best case comes from Carl Gottleib's end notes in his updated and entertaining account of the making of the film, The Jaws Log).

    4. The Ben Gardner 'head out of the hole' was re-shot in the film editor's swimming pool, clouded with milk and paid for by Spielberg personally though Universal eventually absorbed the costs. How kind.

    5. Jaws was a long and damned difficult shoot. The principal star needed a bigger entourage than Jennifer Lopez and even then hardly ever worked.

These are the oft quoted Jaws 'well known facts' (feck, next year will be its thirtieth anniversary) and on the pretty comprehensive DVD there are many much juicier nuggets to be unearthed. It's true that a director's commentary on a Spielberg movie is more rare than nuance in a Simpson/Bruckheimer flick but I have a theory. I think Spielberg (by stating "I don't need to speak for the movie as the movie speaks for itself,") is carving out a specialist niche for his DVD output. He is creating a formal DVD identity by NOT providing a director's commentary. It marks his DVDs from 'the rest'. I'm sure that that stance is valid regarding works like Schindler's List (how do you crack funny about the Holocaust? "Hey, see this scene when he can't shoot the metal worker because his gun's jammed? Ralph had diarrhoea that morning... How we chortled." OK, an argument exists there but what about technical contributions? Steven, let some of your crew have a go.). But to wax lyrical about Jaws? I'd have thought that would have been a supreme pleasure. It will be for me.

So what else is there to say about this glorious movie that hasn't been said before? From my point of view, quite a bit.

Jaws is locked and loaded into my past like no other film. Versions of it sit on my shelves in several incarnations; battered, old VHSs - recorded off air in pan and scan, dubbed tapes from early postal-hire masters, pre-recorded in horribly limiting boxy 4:3 and several letterbox pre-recorded. For good measure, there's also a 20th anniversary 3 laserdisc box set (from which the Region 1 and 2 DVD have clearly simply pick pocketed), and rounding off the manifestations of all things Jawsian, a model of the good ship Orca in her death throes with Quint, blood and all, being swallowed by Bruce. I have the original 1975 UK poster somewhere...

Williams' extraordinary music (get past the 'Dun-dun, dun-duns if you please and go into what is a breathtaking adventure score - see side notes) was the very first L.P. of film music I ever bought. OK, some may be reading and shaking their heads; "What's an L.P.?" Learn some history. The score to Jaws was a revelation to me. Here was music that was emotive, exciting, rousing and just... just perfect. There is a strings bit (this is why I'm learning music. I don't want to use words like 'strings bit' anymore) that makes me almost giddy (track 7, One Barrel Chase, about 2 minutes 15 seconds in and get this, it's not even in the movie). I could admire this score despite the inevitable school peer ridicule. While my class-mates were all pretending to like what was cool at the time, I celebrated a balding, black polo-necked, bearded composer who'd worked out that the notes E and F repeated ominously was the perfect signature to the best thriller of the 70s. There was a lot more to Williams' Oscar(tm) winning efforts than "Dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, DUN dun-dun-dun DUN dun-dun-dun..." despite its subsequent rapid osmosis into the culture.

Jaws is also a permanent squatter in my movie-infested brain, a brain that regularly sweeps out older images and dialogue from less brain-attic worthy movies. Jaws resists the broom. All this film does is swim (in my head), eat (my memory) and make little marks. For such a popular movie, is there any need for another review? Call this an historical appreciation seen from a particularly personal perspective (see Slarek's Star Wars piece to get the flavour of this one).

Barry Norman said on Film '75 late that same year that Steven Spielberg was twenty-seven years old and will never have to work again, "...damn him." I was fourteen and eyes-wide struck by the "damn him." Why (thought the innocent mind of a fourteen year old) would a man be damned for making a movie? And then he played a clip - the first sighting of the beast by the threesome. "It's a twenty footer..." "Twenty five. Three tons of him." Oh and those glorious black lines, the 'letterbox' showing TV that by getting smaller 'the movies' can promise much bigger things. The music picked me up, enthused me beyond measure and made me want to devour this movie whole. My school friend's parents at the time, the Thorneycrofts, had tickets for an early sneak preview just because they owned a book-shop. Bastards! I considered a double murder but figured my friend Neil would have noticed.

So, the slightly nervous fourteen-year old, on Boxing day 1975, queues up for the ABC Cardiff's first showing of Jaws. Two things came to mind before I got into the auditorium. The first - it had an 'A' certificate. What? Thorneycroft had told me - out of context - about a gory bit at the end. How could it have got an 'A'? 'AA' more like (I mean I was fourteen). If 'A' and 'AA' are causing you confusion, as I said before, learn your history. Can't be bothered? 'A' meant 'the movie was fit for everyone but a bit meatier than a kid's flick'. 'AA' meant you had to be (or appear to be) fourteen to get in. On the poster there was a boxed addition to the credits and I believe Jaws was the first movie with such a proviso; "This film may be too intense for younger children" or words to that effect. Jesus. I was fourteen. To hell with 'younger children'! Nevertheless, I stepped inside feeling like I'd just entered the Roman Coliseum with "Eat Me" daubed in red paint on my chest. No question, I was nervous.

This was in the days of 'the cinema', singular. There was no such word as 'multiplex'. I entered the cavernous auditorium. I was placed in the furthest back left aisle seat. Why? Because this first performance of Jaws was a sell out (naturally) and my favoured seats were not available. No, you were herded into place for Jaws. I felt sort of grateful that the screen would not be overwhelming me as well it might for those sitting ten rows from the front. That day, I wanted my visceral horror once removed. I remembered a screening of Polanski's Macbeth and my being two rows from the front. It was an 'educational' screening. Yeah. I could cover my eyes but there were still severed heads in the periphery of my vision. JAWS would be nicely contained.

But what was this? A health worker?

A uniformed man worked the aisles but he wasn't selling ice cream or ushering the hordes into their seats. No. This guy had a sash. What did it say? St. John's Ambulance Brigade? St. John's? Ambulance? Was he kidding? No, apparently. Why? This is what he told me; "We've had faintings and vomiting in London so we thought we'd be more prepared if we were at the scene of the crime so to speak..." I buried my head in the promotional magazine - no sign of the monstrous leviathan promised by the poster but there was some blood coming out of someone's mouth with a huge fin behind him. I started a mantra; "Don't be sick, don't be sick..." I was scared now. Nervous had taken a holiday.

"Ba-ba, ba-ba, ba-ba, ba-ba, ba-ba-ba," went the screen and Pearl and Dean was at once overtly reassuring. What I would see here in a few moments was simply a long strip of coloured plastic and it wouldn't be this mindless creature that could do me harm. Horror in cinema is cathartic. Oh, how I held on to that before Jaws started.

Then Jaws started.

I know I may be wandering into the melodramatic but you really do remember your first...

"She was the first." Said the poster. We believed it. "Oh God please help..." was Susan Backlinie's final line. After God failed to help her (typical), she was pulled under the water by what must have been a team of stunt men and wire workers. But I didn't see the stunt men and wire workers. I just imagined a monster. They had the balls to put the creature on the poster. No flirtations with 'suggestion'. It was like Izzard's riff on Australian advertising; "Shark, big bastard. There. Right there." That design would never be done today, too obvious, too unsubtle. Well, screw that. It worked so well it hasn't changed from the original book cover in 29 years. I'd credit the original artist but my 1976 22nd reprinted copy of the novel gives no credit.

I shook. My hand was shaking. I was fourteen and vodka was way off in the future. I believe that the whole fecking audience was shaking. There was a buzz in the cinema that you could really feel. People bonded, friendships were forged. Promises kept. This was a thrill as thrilling as thrilling gets and we were merely five minutes in... As Brody gets up in silhouette the next morning, I remember a cloud of nervously exhaled cigarette smoke ascend to the ceiling, one side of the auditorium only. Those were the days. People were savouring a group experience even if it was the terror imagining what that fish had done to that girl.

Next, I knew that Chief Brody would find her remains and I got nervous again. I didn't want to see the remains of the attack that I had just witnessed. But then, of course I did and was bowing before Spielberg for making that a relatively easy image to look at.

And you know the lines that resonated from that 1975 viewing, the lines that stayed with me? If any of you reading are real Jaws fans, you may recognise the following:

"Let Polly do the printing."

"He's the little guy with the crew cut."

"Give us a kiss." "Why?" "Because I need it."

"You might wanna let that breathe... Never mind."

Those lines - those memories - are character memories. They are lines that prove to me time and time again that Jaws's principal strength was in character. Heaven knows it wasn't the special effects. Brody, the sea-fearing, guilty policeman whose inactions had inadvertently caused the death of a young boy; Hooper, the ichthyologist (try spelling that while you're drunk... Hey, I just did) who's a rich kid and a shark fan just trying to be in awe of what nature throws up once in a while; Quint, the shark-hating hunter whose war-time experience has entitled him to kill as many sharks as he can. Three characters drawn with such devoted conviction... These three men made Jaws what it was.

You cared.

You really cared who lived or died. The fish was the fish and we'll come to Bruce in a paragraph or so but when, while watching Jaws did you ever question the goals of the men sent to kill the shark? You knew each of the men's reasons for being there and therefore you knew why it was important to each of them. Therefore it was important to us. All this singular character acting was born from malfunctioning animatronics. The truth in the performances has been credited to many things but I believe that the time spent together in frustration at Bruce's 'will he work/won't he work?' topsy turvying graced the actors with an unheard of rehearsal period, time to get under the character's skins. They knew their roles as they knew themselves.

Brody wanted the shark dead. Quint wanted it dead to atone for its war-time brethren's past sins. Hooper didn't want it dead but before that accepted inevitability, he wanted to document it, to photograph it, to prove this extraordinary being's existence. Each actor (in masterful performances) imbued their characters with such resonance that it was impossible for an audience member not to feel involved. Not on that Boxing day in 1975. I felt I was at the birth of a "We Were There" society, such was the power of that first viewing. I almost had badges made up.

Jaws won three Oscars; music, sound and editing. The latter could not have been in any doubt if there were real movie Gods smiling down on Martha's Vineyard. Verna Fields, affectionately known as 'Mother-Cutter', was a legend. Spielberg was blessed with her presence on Jaws. She had cut Spielberg's directorial debut, Sugarland Express sharing the credit with Edward Abroms. If Spielberg was the Saturn V rocket of movie making then his launch gantry was this extraordinary woman who cut JAWS. She pared that fish movie down to its bones. There is not one wrong editorial move in the entire picture. There are the glaring continuity gaffs of sea colour (who cares?) and a startling line cross (Chrissie runs to the beach to the right of frame. Her new boyfriend tumbles on to the beach that is now on the left where it remains for the rest of the sequence). But editing is effective story-telling and JAWS is streamlined like no other movie. I've seen racing cars more sluggish than this film.

As a trivial aside, one of Verna Field's nicest transitions is ruined by the limitations of dual layered DVD technology. We are all familiar with the pause triggered by the layer change. What I didn't know until scrutinising my Region 1 copy was that you also lost frames. The scene is at the Brody's dinner table. The line preceding the layer change is Brody's; "I'm the chief of police. I can do anything." He then lifts his glass and in the movie the light reflects off the bottom of the tumbler linking to the next cut of about 12 frames of a torch light shining into camera which then swiftly cuts to the glint off a knife held by Hooper. Guess what? The frames of light reflection from the bottom of the tumbler are not there on the DVD. This is annoying as it's such a masterful transition.

Throughout his career, Spielberg seems to have been very editorially monogamous. He began working with Michael Kahn in 1977 and he's still his editor of choice. So where was Verna on Close Encounters? You don't make a movie and then dismiss your past colleagues who won Oscars(tm) for your next. Or do you? There are two opinions floating around. The first puts Verna as an executive at Universal, therefore out of the hands-on editing business. A more mean spirited theory suggests that many in the industry believed Verna Fields 'saved' Jaws. Spielberg did an amazing job so it must be a little galling to hear scuttlebutt that his own butt had been saved by 'the editor'. I mean Spielberg wasn't even nominated. Yes. Read that again. Not even nominated. The relationship between editor and director is a vital one (I know, I've been both and sometimes simultaneously) so to go on to another film with the tiniest inkling of resentment towards one of your principal collaborators would have been foolish. Spielberg is a lot of things. Foolish ain't one of them. Cut 'Mother-Cutter'. She died in 1982 and was justly honoured by her peers.

So how does a movie like Jaws work so well when its star hardly worked at all? Let's be brutally frank. Bruce was not convincing. No great white shark has an overlapping hinge on its jaw. No great white shark can swim backwards. No great white shark has 'see through' gills. No great white shark looks as open-mouthed phoney as Bruce. I mean, Joe Alves' and Bob Mattey's shark was not convincing as a real shark by any standards. But all credit to the pair of them. Bruce was 'enough' of a great white.

You cut to Ron and Valerie Taylor's real great whites during the climax of Jaws and apart from the question "Where are all the barrels on its back?", you notice immediately the streamlined nature of the real thing. There is simply no comparison. Even Spielberg nicknamed the already nicknamed Bruce, 'the great white turd...'

Did we care? Did we give one tuppence ha'penny?

No. Bruce was a movie monster and behaved as a movie monster should behave. It ate children and dogs, menaced the principals and even swallowed one whole in front of us. We knew it was phoney but when it launched itself at Chief Brody, we had a collective heart attack. We knew it was phoney but we cheered when it blew up. Oh, how we cheered. I came out of the ABC cinema on Boxing Day 1975 believing I had just witnessed probably the most perfect cinema experience of my life. I had wringed dry every emotion the film was made to wring. I had been suitably scared shitless. I had laughed nervously. The entire audience became friends for the next ten minutes having been through such a harrowing experience en masse. I bowed before the God Spielberg. I never went near the water for years...

Fight Club director David Fincher said he liked movies that damaged you. Jaws damaged a lot of people and I for one am immensely glad about that.

Slarek's Side note

This is one of those films that sits so high in the estimation of those of us here at Outsider that we see little point in arguing with anyone over it. You don't like Jaws? Close the door on your way out. On top of that, we all have a history with the film.

I actually missed it on the first run for silly reasons. I was young, man - in those days film hadn't completely taken over my life. Not quite. I was at art school, and having plucked up the courage to ask a girl I fancied out to see the film, and had her say yes, she told me (she told me!) the day before our date that she had been to see it with someone else the previous evening. "It's great," she told me, "you'll really enjoy it." Yeah, but not wiith you, you two-timing rat. Just to show her, I made a point of staying clear of the cinema until it had gone. When I finally caught the film almost a year later, I was not expecting to actually enjoy it. Two-timing rat memories aside, by then I had heard everything about it, how violent it was, how shocking the head in the boat was, how fake the big fish was, how the opening theme went. But it still blew me away. I left the cinema in a daze. The thing is, despite at least 10 cinema viewings, a whole load of TV and video screenings and a few on DVD, it still does.

In these days of formula Hollywood film-making, and when Spielberg himself just can't seem to do a thing right (The Lost World: Jurassic Park may be the stupidest big budget monster movie ever made, and as for bloody A.I....), it's all too easy to forget what a very great director this man once was. I know many still claim he is a master of cinema, but you'll find little sympathy with that view here. Back in the late 70s, if you had told me Spielberg was going to direct War of the Worlds I'd have jumped with joy - now, frankly, the idea fills me with horror.

A note on interest on the music score. Camus's comments on the "Dun-dun, dun-dun" theme is an important one. This is such an excellent score that it is a shame it has been almost obscured by the opening theme. But its iconic status was not lost even on its composer. In 1979 I saw John Williams interviewed at the National Film Theatre, and having covered his early work, the interviewer brought up Jaws. Williams immediately let out a laugh. "Oh yeah," he said cheerily, "dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun!"

And while on the subject of quoted lines from the film, true Jaws fans will have spotted one of the most memorable ones making an appearance as a production company in the opening credits of The Usual Suspects.