Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Movies: Jaws

I wasn't yet born in 1975 when Jaws came out, and all through the 1980s when it might have aired on television, I was too young to watch such a scary movie. Throughout the 1990s it must have seemed embarrassingly hokey, because I never heard a thing about it, and plenty of people, more than 30 years later, still find it embarrassingly hokey, because, when I announced the other day that it was being screened at the old Ziegfeld and I that I was going, I received a variety of unimpressed and sarcastic responses. And so, as usual, I went by myself, and I had a grand old time.

Since I wasn't even born until the 80s, it can't be simple nostalgia speaking when I say that they just don't make movies like this anymore. I screamed out loud four or five times, but my screams were of delighted, delicious terror (the distinction between a scary movie (like Jaws)and a horror movie (like The Hills Have Eyes, listed under IMDB keywords "gory violence" and "mutilation") has something to do with whether the fright attacks your spine (that tingle means it's scary) or your stomach (that feeling that you're going to puke means it's horror)). While plenty of people refused to swim in the ocean after watching Jaws, I doubt that anyone puked in the theater; the "gory violence" is generally off camera (all we see is blood-red water, and few already-dead body parts), and when on-camera, never sustained (screams, yes, but mastication, no).

It might be safe to assume that you know the plot of Jaws, but I didn't know it walking into the theater, so there might just be one or two of you out there who, like me, grew up under the rock of extreme youth. And so, here it goes: Brody (a likably nerdy Roy Scheider) is the new Police Chief of Amity Island, an Eastern Seaboard summer resort; he has just transferred with his family from New York, and this is his first summer on the job. When the remains of a missing girl point to a shark attack, he tries to close the beaches, but the mayor, worried about preserving tourist income, won't let him do so. The shark, though, keeps attacking; soon a little boy is eaten alive, then a few fishermen. Hooper (a young, bumbling Richard Dreyfuss), a young shark aficionado from the Oceanographic Institute, arrives on the scene to tell the fishermen that the shark they've just caught is not the shark responsible for the attack. Ultimately, he, Hooper, and kooky old Quint (a salty Robert Shaw) sail out to catch the beast; it's quite a battle of wills, and after the shark chomps more than halfway through the boat, and all the way through Quint, man finally prevails.

What's really so delightful about Jaws is the intense aestheticism. I was warned about a "mechanical shark" that would make me laugh with embarrassment, but I found myself screaming and squealing instead of laughing, even at the end, when we see its giant head up and out in plain air. In fact, this film is never visually wanting; Spielberg creates a number of stunning tableaus, often of the lone mariner/man against beast/allegorical variety (what I really feel like he does here is make Moby Dick accessible, giving nobility back to the humans). Toward the end, the tilted sails and rigging of the sinking ship stand in silhouette against a darkening sky, with Brody's exhausted body perched in elegant exhaustion at the top. You never would have imagined that the ocean could be so peaceful just minutes after the explosion of a giant shark (and it probably wouldn't actually be so; I imagine all the blood and fresh carrion would bring on a swarm of sharks and carnivorous fish). This accomplishment, resolution, sigh of relief is key to the scary movie (the horror movie would have ended with the threat of continued violence—a shark fin following the two heroes as they swam home); it frees us to walk out of the theater happy, satisfied, reassured, and ready to swim in the ocean again.

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