Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thoughts on seeing "Jaws" on the big screen

It's no secret to anyone who knows me well that Jaws is one of my favorite movies. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's pretty much a perfect film. It's got a well-balanced three-act structure, a compelling story, deftly sketched characters, and excellent acting. Plus it's damned entertaining and still scary after all these years.

I got the chance to see it on the big screen for the first time ever, and it was a wonderful experience. Much as I love movies on DVD/Blu-Ray in the privacy of my own home, there's no substitute for seeing a film with an appreciative audience. (The audience at the showing of Jaws was particularly good, applauding at the famous "You're gonna need a bigger boat" line and respectfully awed at the Indianapolis monologue.)

If you're at all a fan of the film, you should seek out one of these 40th Anniversary showings put on by Fathom Events. In the meantime, here is my review of it from my book A Nerd Girl's Guide To Cinema:

I try not to throw around the words “masterpiece” or “perfection” too often, but I really have to use them when I talk about Jaws. Everything about it just works so well. The terror it instills in the audience. The three-act dramatic structure. The performances, especially by the three leads. John Williams’ famous score. I could go on and on. And it’s still being ripped off and paid homage to more than thirty years after its release.Jaws is one of those movies that is so embedded in the American culture that even people who haven’t seen it know the basics, but here goes. A great white shark decides to make the New England island of Amity his lunch buffet, his first victim being an unlucky skinny-dipper. Water-phobic sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider in an underrated performance), a New York City √©migr√© who’s still settling into his role as Amity’s leading lawman, wants to close the beaches but the mayor (odious Murray Hamilton), who’s thinking only of the dollars the summer tourists bring in, won’t have it. More deaths happen, and it’s up to Brody along with ichthyologist Hooper (hyper Richard Dreyfuss) and fisherman/shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) head out to sea to kill the shark.It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Jaws so effective after all these years. Certainly there’s the unease all of us have, consciously or not, at being in the ocean where we are (literally) out of our element. The ocean is big, its motion is out of our control, and most of the time you can’t see what’s around you. There really is no way to know what’s swimming just beyond you or beneath you. And it’s not easy to escape it, as the scene of panicked beach-goers fleeing the water demonstrates: people flounder, get knocked over, and no matter how fast they move they’re no match for the predator that’s after them.
That’s a major factor, but what really makes Jaws work is how real it feels. If the movie was made today, the beaches of Amity would be packed with pretty hardbodies. But the beaches of Jaws are full of ordinary people. Families, people of every age and variety, from the partiers in the opening scene to the wannabe landscape painter who sees the shark in the estuary. They’re people just like us and we identify with them.
Of the shark-hunting trio, it’s Brody we meet first, and though he’s the least entertaining of the three, he’s the one we relate to. He’s a man who’s decent — even honorable. He’s left crime-ridden New York City behind and, despite his deep fear of the water (notice during the second shark attack scene, he runs down to the water but doesn’t get his feet wet) has moved to an island to give his wife and children a better life. He’s “not an Islander” and is still finding his way among the town’s petty politics; it’s not his fault that the beaches aren’t closed and more deaths occur, but as a lawman he feels responsible. And when his own son has a narrow escape from the shark it’s his duty not just as a lawman but as a father to help find and kill the shark. Always an underrated actor, Scheider gives an excellent performance, particularly when the action moves to Quint’s boat and he is completely (and literally of course) in over his head, relegated to “chum duty” because he doesn’t know which rope to pull. Probably his best acting moment is during a night-time attack by the shark when Brody draws his handgun and wears a look of fear as he realizes that the weapon that may have served him in the past will do no good.
Fear and bravery are two themes that come up often during the movie’s third act, from Brody’s last stand against the shark to Hooper’s descent into the shark cage. Throughout the shark hunt scenes we’ve seen Hooper’s boyish enthusiasm over the shark become increasingly manic in response to the “arrr, I don’t need a city boy on me ship” taunts from Quint. (It’s interesting that Quint never taunts Brody but rather treats him with a sort of benign pity.) But all of Hooper’s bluster goes away when he’s ready to go into the shark cage, and is unable to spit into his mask because the fear reaction has dried up his saliva. Likewise, all of Quint’s “here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women” banter goes away, first when he gives his haunting monologue about the USS Indianapolis, then when he realizes that of the hundreds of sharks he’s hunted, this one may be his match.
Today’s blockbusters are so big, so loud, so focused on the next big thrill that they’ve forgotten how to tell stories and get audience members involved. Jaws could be made again. Yes, the shark would look better. But the soul of the movie — ordinary people against the terrors the deep can hold — would be lost. If you need your faith in the power of cinema restored, watch Jaws again.


  1. An excellent overview of yes, a damn near perfect film!

  2. Oh, meant to add: I saw JAWS on the big screen for its 35th anniversary and yes, it was magnificent still!