"Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women," I told Abbie in a voice not entirely unlike that of Robert Shaw's1.
"Mrp?" Abbie said, then put a paw over his head and went back to sleep.
"Bad fish," I later told Martha as I was getting ready to leave. "Not like goin' down the pond and chasin' bluegills and tommycocks. This shark'll swallow you whole. No shakin, no tenderizin. Down you go." Martha blinked, then ran away before I could tell her that I wasn't going to stand there and watch that thing cut open and see that little Kintner boy spill out all over the dock. (Quint doesn't say that one, no, but it's one of those lines that sticks in your head like a marlinspike.)
By the way, under the cut I'm going to make two assumptions: One, that you've already seen Jaws and know all about the good scary bits or that you haven't and don't care if I talk about 'em, and two, that you've either already seen Spielberg's War Of The Worlds or you don't care. Or you saw it and you still don't care. Okay.
eeka13 and I saw Jaws last night at the Coolidge Corner. I'd actually never seen the film on the big screen, only on television and even then it was usually through a set of fingers over my eyes. Jaws, Alien and Poltergeist made up the Big Three Scary Movies for me as a kid, movies I never actually saw all the way through in one sitting. Lucky for us video rentals lasted a week, so I at least got to see all the scary parts once or twice. And it was okay for me to be scared of 'em. When my age was in the single digits I was scared of a lot of things -- loud noises, loud dogs, the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, Nancy Reagan -- and because she was sick of the crying jags, Mom had embarked on a crusade to de-wussify her first-born son. That's another topic for another time, but suffice to say that Mom couldn't give me grief for being scared of scary movies because when we watched Alien together, she spent the last forty-five minutes of the film with a blanket over her head, asking me to tell her when it was over.
So does the film hold up after thirty years? Very much so. Proof of that was evident in the reaction of the full house. Great shrieks, gasps and that nervous cathartic laughter after particularly shocking scenes. The tension was great, even when you've seen the film a zillion times and know what's coming. I even used the good ol' Finger Filter once. Or twice. But not because I was geninuely scared, no. Because it's fun to feel that tension. And when a movie gives you the opportunity to really feel that tension, it's a keeper.
What is it about this film that made it the first real Summer Blockbuster? How'd Steven Spielberg do it? How'd he take a garden variety help-help-a-scary-monster story and get something so compelling and accessible and frightening beyond belief out of it? Because he did two things: One, he tapped into the primal fear of the dark. Everybody's gone swimming and everybody's at least once entertained that dark, horrible thought "what if there's something lurking under me in the water?" It could be seaweed, it could be jellyfish, it could be discarded medical waste, or... yeah. Could be a shark. Two, Spielberg used regular normal people as sharkbait. Granted, some of 'em were colorful characters, like Quint and Ben Gardner the fisherman, but they were still presented as real people, not one-note stereotypes as later used in formulaic horror films. (Stephen King used to do this as well, to great effect, before he got old and complacent like Spielberg.) So yeah, here we go: accessible people we can identify with getting into deadly situations we could also identify with. Bam. There you go. No supernatural froo-frah, no alien death rays, just a goddamn shark. We don't have to identify with the shark, we don't have to have it explained to us just why the shark is doing it -- it's a rogue shark and people wrigglin in the water make it think of dinner. There's your explanation, now we don't have to dwell upon it. It's simple and it works.
With the real people you also get some classic New England conflict, too: islanders (townies) versus mainlanders (outtatownahs), blue-collar versus whiter-collar ("Don't give me that working class hero crap!" Hooper, a nerdish sort, snaps at Quint early on -- and spends the rest of the film trying to earn Quint's respect by showing off his scars and marine prowess) and status quo versus change. I love the scene early on where Brody goes marching down the streets of Amity, the town he thought he had under control, underscored by the local marching band drumline. Because it then leads into the scene on the ferry where the coroner just up and changes his opinion on the cause of Chrissie Watkins' death -- from "OMG SHARK!!1" to "BOATING ACCIDENT OKAY" so that the beaches can remain open. By the time the ferry reaches the other side, Brody knows he's up against a brick wall, and it makes the subsequent scene when Mrs. Kintner tears into him for leaving the beaches open so that her son could get et that much more frustrating and tough to watch.
The Kintner beach scene, by the way, is one of the best goddamn pieces of modern cinema. Not because it has that track-out-zoom-in shot of Brody, though that makes things that much interesting. It's because all the shit I just mentioned about Fear Of What's Underneath and Real People come into play. The scene's set up with various types of real people heading into the water. Fat lady, guy with dog, kids -- any one of these people could be next! While we're busy guessing who'll get it, we watch the locals do their chattering thing (Spielberg borrowing heavily from Robert Altman's layered dialogue, though not quite reaching the level of saturation) as Brody watches the coast obsessively. I love how passersby in front of the camera form the cuts, especially during that three-part zoom on Brody's face. Then up comes the score, the shark's eye view, more toying with Brody, now we start cutting from subject to subject: fat lady, she's okay, kids are okay, Alex Kintner is okay, the dog is... wait, where's the dog? The guy with the dog is calling for him from the beach... oh no, where's the dog, is he okay, shark's swimming up underneath someone, where's the do-- BAM!! The little Kintner boy gets it! OMG! WTF! BBQ! Spielberg FTW!
He really wore that wunderkind mantle well in the 70s, didn't he? I'm not going to entertain the usual candy-coated "just a kid and a camera tellin' stories" nonsense about Steven because while it sounds nice, there's got to be more to it than that. Spielberg is a freakin sadist. F'rinstance, after the preview screenings, he wasn't satisfied with the scene where Ben Gardner's disembodied head pops up in the boat and scares the bejeezus out of Matt Hooper. So Spielberg re-shot it in his editor's swimming pool, a gallon of milk helping to cloud the water. Why wasn't he satisfied with the scene? Did nobody scream? Oh, yes, they screamed. But he didn't feel the preview audiences had screamed enough.
And when the scene happened at Coolidge Corner last night, even those of us who knew what was coming were all tensed up, muttering to ourselves in our seats, then ZOWIE HERE COMES THE DEAD GUY'S HEAD BRAAAAAAAAAAAAGH and everybody shrieked. Then we spent the next few moments recovering and laughing at the release and our folly (while nothing important happens onscreen, which is what is necessary after a big blammo reaction.)
The pace of the film slows once Our Heroes board the Orca and head out armed for shark, but at that point it doesn't matter. They're going off on an Adventure, and we're right with 'em. At this point we as an audience were primed for anything and everything. Any time someone's foot slips on the deck of the boat? Someone gasps. We watch Quint do his fishing thang. We watch Hooper do his thang. Brody gets over his fear of boats pretty quickly, and thankfully so. They chase the shark around, stickin barrels to it so it won't surface, it's all pretty menacing but fun, and the action stops entirely so that Quint and Hooper can compare scars (who can resist that scene's punchline? "Mary Ellen Moffat. She broke my heart!") and then Quint can tell the story of the shark attacks on the USS Indianapolis survivors. Robert Shaw was credited with writing his own monologue there. Stops the film cold, but every second's worth it.
And then we get to Spielberg's treatment of the old standby "He's Dead! But No, He's Okay!" He handles this in such a good fashion that it makes his use of it in the crappy War Of The Worlds telling that much more craptacular.
This is, of course, the scene with Hooper in the shark cage. Man goes in cage, cage goes in water, shark's in water, our shark, and then shark bashes hell out of shark cage. Hooper escapes from the cage and lays low while the shark goes nuts above him. Eventually, when Quint and Brody haul the cage up, it's mangled... and empty.
Now d'you see what's happened here? Our Heroes think that Hooper's dead, but we know he at least didn't get et just yet. When Quint eventually becomes shark food, Brody now believes himself to be alone (and he is! That coward Hooper's still hiding out in the seaweed!) and so his actions on the sinking mast of the Orca are charged with that last-man-standing desperation. Once the shark goes kablooie and the day is saved, Matt resurfaces, does a hilarious "wait, where's the boat" take, and everything's OK. Our emotional investment was in Brody's struggle. Hooper at this point was an afterthought.
Compare this to the scene in War Of The Worlds where Tom Cruise tries to keep his teenage son from running off to watch a totally wicked alien doods-versus-army doods battle. "I wanna SEE IT!" the kid whines. Jesus, the carnage and explosions he just witnessed for the past 48 hours weren't enough? It's not like the battle he was at was anything pivotal or important, really. But no, the kid wants to go off and See It All, and Tom lets him go, and just as the kid disappears over the ridge, BLAMMO!! There's a huge-ass explosion and fire and shit and everybody over on That Side is dead. Oh nos, poor Tom, better grab up Dakota Fanning and go hide out in creepy-ass Tim Robbins' creepy-ass basement.
Anyway. This scene happens about halfway through the film. It's the Tom & Dakota Show from then on, as they gasp and run and have good old-fashioned daddy-daughter bonding, eventually making it to Boston to meet up with his ex-wife. There she and her folks emerge from their nearly Beacon Hill brownstone, all dolled up and looking nothing like survivors of an alien attack should. That much is nearly tolerable, if a bit funny, but then, right as the film's about to end, who should also come out of the brownstone but HEY! THE TEENAGE SON! HE WAS OKAY ALL ALONG. And there's a hug and reconciliation and all Daddy Issues are absolved, but there's just one niggling little detail that's left out. The detail of, oh, HOW THE KID SURVIVED AND THEN NOT ONLY MADE IT TO BOSTON ON HIS OWN, BUT BEAT TOM & DAKOTA TO IT. It's disgusting, it's shameful, and it was tacked on to the end just to round out the Happy Ending we're supposed to feel. It's not story driven in the slightest, and, well, it just goes to show how Spielberg has slipped from master manipulator and sadistic bastard to sentimental crudhopper with daddy issues galore.
But hey. As long as he doesn't screw around with Jaws like he did E.T. I will be happy.
1. My voice is not unlike Robert Shaw. I mean, it's less unlike Robert Shaw that it is unlike Shelley Winters, at least.