Jaws (1975)

I never consider what I write here to be reviews. They’re more celebrations and my thoughts on films. Most criticism is abhorrent to me — how dare someone who created nothing tear down the work of hundreds of artists, all following the call of the auteur — when they are simply throwing a few words on the internet? Even past critics — Ebert, Kael, Lester Bangs — created art within critique and didn’t simply start a blog. They studied, they put in the sweat, they wrote and wrote — in short, they earned their pedigree to speak as much shit as they freely wanted. I don’t see myself in the same category as them, but it’s something to aspire to. What I want to do is celebrate film, these moments that flicker into our minds and help us escape the everyday ennui.

That said — how does one discuss Jaws, a film that defines ubiquitous? Everyone knows the theme and the beats. It is the very definition of blockbuster, a film that started the trend of wide release, big ad campaigns and merchandising.

The film was originally offered to John Sturges, who helmed The Old Man and the Sea, a film that this parallels. Then, Dick Richards was considered, but he kept referring to the shark as a whale, which cost him the job (this has to be apocryphal and one of those only true on Wikipedia stories). Finally, Stephen Spielberg’s name was gaining steam in La La Land and his work on the TV movie Duel, where an everyman battles an unseen and indestructible force, showed that he was the singular talent who could transform Peter Benchley’s quick read novel into a suspenseful film.

To do that, Spielberg had Benchley write three drafts of the screenplay that ultimately became the mechanical parts of the script. But he jettisoned so much of the book’s subplots, like the affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper (there are some hints of this during the dinner and wine drinking scene, but they’re very subtle) and made the characters more likable. It’s Spielberg himself who suggested that Brody be afraid of the water.

He wanted more character and humor than the grim tone of the book, so he brought Odd Couple sitcom writer Carl Gottlieb on board (he also plays newspaper editor Meadows). That said — there are so many writers that pitched in, including John Milius, Howard Sackler, Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper — it’s hard to tell who wrote what. Gottlieb was on set for most of the film, rewriting scenes after dinner each night, using the actual words of the cast for their dialogue at times. That’s where “we’re going to need a bigger boat” comes from. And some claim that Robert Shaw took a page of dialogue and pretty much created his speech about the wreck of the Indianapolis himself. Again — this film gets closer to how movies are made today, with teams of screenwriters and script docs in the teens, all to make one film. Luckily, Spielberg was able to present these various voices as one distinct vision.

Nine days before filming, no principal roles had been cast. Spielberg had a vision that big stars would take away from the everyman aspects of the film, one in which the shark would ultimately be the star. That’s why Charlton Heston and Robert Duvall were passed over. Quint was almost played by Lee Marvin or Sterling Hayden. Hooper could have been Jon Voight, Timothy Bottoms, Joel Grey or Jeff Bridges before Richard Dreyfuss was suggested by George Lucas. Eager to escape what he saw as a bad performance in his last film, Dreyfuss accepted the role no questions asked. He’d ultimately become the person the director would most see as his alter ego in the film, a role he’d carry on into Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

There’s a famous Dreyfuss quote that the movie started with no script, no actors and no shark. Worse — the film went from a $4 million dollar production to nearly $9 million. The sharks didn’t work, so that left more time for script rewrites and improvising, which leads to a more frighting film. The less you see, the better — plus when you add in the two note John Williams shark theme, you have ready-made suspense.

$1.8 million went into promoting Jaws, including a$700,000 on national TV spots. And the poster itself was played with for six month, all to make it more menacing. And it worked — a $7 million dollar opening weekend meant that it made back its costs within the first two weeks. Until Star Wars, it was the most successful movie ever. And the first showing of the film on ABC led to 57% of all TVs in the nation being turned in.

Like I said above, everyone has seen this movie. So how can I find something new, something unique to say about it?

Because I had a moment watching it last night. That’s how.

It’s after the politics of Amity are left far behind. It’s when only three men stand against the shark: the new day of science and more evolved man represented by Hooper; Quint’s warrior man of the past, unafraid of ever needing to fit into polite society and unashamed of itself; and the common everyman, eternally between the two worlds in Brody. Only Brody can truly succeed — Hooper will be forever changed by the experience, showing that his way can only take him so far. And Quint’s the last of a dying breed who must simply die; when his survival is questioned, all Brody can do is say, “Quint? No.” He can’t survive. He is the sacrifice which enables the return to the surface of Hooper and Brody’s one on a million shot that blows the shark to heaven.

In that moment, when the boat that surrounds them and gives them shelter is but splinters against the true terror of nature; when even the boat itself betrays Quint and delivers him into death; when Brody must confront his fear of the water as he tries to climb above it, out of its way, only to sink deeper. In that moment, I sat with my mouth open, awed that a movie over forty years old has the power to make me forget the bombs and rockets blazing outside. In this moment, only the battle between man and beast mattered.

Any film that can do that — whether or not it destroyed the early 70s artistic Hollywood or invented the modern day blockbuster — is one to be celebrated.

 

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