Tuesday, October 1, 2013

JAWS (1975)

It's finally October, lift up your head and be glad!  To celebrate this month of horror, the blog will be carrying on the old pagan tradition of watching 31 films from various horror franchises to ensure that our Wiccan forefathers will be smiling in hell.  Unlike last year, I'm not dropping massive mega-posts on you, since I know you all have a lot to do this month.  Instead, we'll do one per day, to make things manageable.  Starting with JAWS:

SYNOPSIS: Roy Schneider is Martin Brody, the hydrophobic chief of police for Amity Island.  It's pretty boring on Amity until a shark puts down stakes in the nearby waters and turns the beaches into a human buffet.  It's always shrewd to build your entire economy around one industry and Amity's tourist-centered business is certain to be imperiled while the shark's out there.  So a scientist from the Oceanographic Institute (Richard Dreyfuss) and a grizzled sea salt (Robert Shaw) join the Sheriff and attempt to slay the monster.

WHAT WORKED:
Lots of what are called "nongenre narratives" are really just melanges of many genres all smooshed together—comedy, drama, all that.  JAWS has a blended structure, too, but the first half of it is undeniably a horror film.  In the very first scene, an unseen something drags a girl underneath the water after demonstrating its power by slapping her all around the waves.  The deepest fear, fear of the unknown, takes center stage right away.


Then, in defiance of the usual path horror films take, we get tons of interesting characters and unimpeachably solid acting.  Sheriff Brody is established as a sympathetic character immediately—we share his eye-rolling over townspeople who think karate-chopping schoolkids and trucks parked in front of businesses are major emergencies.  But he also gains our awwws through good-dad deeds and shows vulnerability through his fear of the water.  


If I were held at gunpoint and forced to pick an MVP here, I'd have to go with Robert Shaw as Quint, though.  When we first meet Quint, he's scratching his nails across a blackboard and sitting like an elegant lady, proof positive that he doesn't even rly care what u think.  His mini-class war with privileged 1%er Hooper and his blue-collar rantings about zoning problems endear him to the viewer at once.  JAWS is a fantastic character movie, bolstered by great performances from top to bottom.


Even the supporting actors provide unforgettable scenes (PS Spielberg really loved dividing the frame into thirds at this point in his life).


(See?)  It's pretty telling of the acting triumphs that JAWS can sometimes steer into comedic waters, as we see below in the ridiculous suit affected by the Mayor (Murray Hamilton) and the rakish graffiti.  Sure, kids are being eaten alive, but sometimes you just have to laugh!  One should also credit director Steven Spielberg for being able to pull off these momentary diversions into lighter territory, then shift right back into tense action.


So, yes, the directorial choices are a major asset here.  I know that Spielberg is widely reviled now because he's considered Hollywood's crowd-pleaser or too cloying or whatever.  But JAWS wouldn't have been JAWS without him.  The way that stuff is shot and composed reveals his professional hand—daytime scenes have bright, appealing colors and nighttime scenes are shot with mystery and menace in mind.  Plus, he's clearly trying out some innovative techniques here, like the famous dolly zoom cuts during the false alarm at the beach.  And some of the visuals here cannot be denied.


The music, of course.  Everyone knows the main theme, but John Williams's score is perfect all the way through and is utilized to especially great effect once we've left land and headed out to open water to kill a giant fish.




The shark, partially.  When it's barely glimpsed during the first half of the film, it's excellent and terrifying.

Even in the second half, we get tons of great (real! underwater!) shark footage that's both beautiful and skillfully inserted into the film.


The writing!  JAWS is so confidently-written that it plants overlapping dialogue right in the early scenes (I mean the one in the Sheriff's Office) AND IT STILL WORKS.  In a lot of ways, the writing is the best part of this film with great actors and great whites.  What do you remember most from the second half of the film, the half with all the blood and smashed ships and bones?  It's Quint's speech about the Indianapolis, right?


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
The more you see of the fake shark, the more it looks like a fake shark.  Thankfully, its major nude scenes don't really happen until the very end of the film.  And, if you are reading this blog and watching the kinds of movies it covers, you had damn well better be experienced at overlooking effects that have problems.


This isn't a problem for me, but I could see viewers who adore the horror-film feel of the first half being let down by the second, which clearly becomes more of an action/adventure movie.  The more you see of the shark, the less of a horror movie JAWS is.  But these scenes are true to the characters! And the crew of varying backgrounds using technology to overcome monstrous nature is as much Moby Dick as thrilling serials.  So smile, you son of a bitch!


Any potential flaws here are so minor and quibbling that I don't feel like picking nits.  JAWS looms large and looks especially great after a month of imitators that lacked good acting and cinematic style.  Let's see how quickly the series can completely waste all the good will that the first film built up!!!


RATING: 10

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