Jaws (1975) - Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy
****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A
starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary
screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Benchley
directed by Steven Spielberg
by Walter Chaw What's not talked about much in most conversations about Jaws is the pleasure that it takes in work. That it's one of the most influential films of all time is a given by now, the picture most commonly identified as the one responsible for the studio summer-blockbuster mentality. The miracle of it, though, is that it gets better every time you see it. I have the film memorized at this point; I can recite it like a favourite song with beats and inflections, and I still jump when Ben Gardner appears in the hole in the hull of his boat--and I still laugh when Hooper helps himself to Brody's uneaten dinner. More than a fright flick, Jaws is a beautifully-rendered character piece, establishing Spielberg as--a little like Stephen King, oddly enough, artists I've paired together in my head for their popularity and their influence on a generation of people about exactly my age--a master of the easy moment. It's a little nasty, too, Jaws is, in little throwaway moments like the one on the beach where, after a giant fin appears in the water, a row of three old men, fully-clothed, pick up their binoculars. They're there to looky-loo; they're expecting carnage. It's not a Hitchcockian moment of audience critique (though it functions that way), but a brilliant piece of development expressed with Spielberg's savant-like visual genius. It's there, too, at the very end when Hooper asks after Quint before he and Brody swim to shore. But most of all, Jaws is about function and work in the same way Star Wars, the final nail in the New American Cinema, will be.
For the uninitiated, whose numbers are growing again, I'm sure, and I'm jealous, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) has moved to the New England island of Amity to escape from the Big City crime of New York City. Read in a certain way, Jaws is the literalization of Brody's fear for his children: the idea that there is no place you can hide from the terror a parent feels for his child. The ocean works the same way as it does in Melville, then: great white shark or white whale, they are both existential signs and signifiers. Later, mad captain Quint (Robert Shaw) will cripple his own vessel in only one of several referents to Ahab. Spielberg, who is never better than when he deals with children, has also never been particularly shy to place them square in harm's way. He establishes that he's willing to kill them when it serves the purposes of the film (a hapless 12yr old with a slap-happy mother; almost more shocking, he even kills a dog), so that when he threatens Brody's oldest child Mike (Chris Rebello), we have every faith that he'll feed him to the grinder, too. It's extraordinarily sensitive and complex about parental fear--look to a moment when his wife (Lorraine Gary) sends Brody off on the kind of assignment she'd been looking to escape as well, ending with her running away as soon as she's out of sight. She asks Brody before she goes: "what will I tell the kids?"
Jaws is timeless, no question, but it's not without contemporary resonance in that way: it's about mistrust of the government; Vietnam, too. But mostly it's about an outsider (and one of the townspeople promises, in a benign way) doomed to always be an outsider. Brody finds himself with a problem on the eve of the busiest tourist period in his new assignment's fiscal year. A great white shark has taken up residence just off his beaches, and though he knows that he should close them down, unctuous Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) can't be convinced, shark expert (Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)) or death of innocents be damned. Perhaps Vaughn's reticence can be explained in a way separate from short-sightedness and populism; perhaps Vaughn has a tough time understanding that, like The Birds' Melanie Daniels before him, Brody has brought this doom with him. Jaws unfolds as a crucible for the common man circa 1975. I like to imagine that Brody is Scheider's "Cloudy" character from The French Connection (another film concerned with function and work), trying to escape Popeye's madness in this nautical conundrum: the ocean of his unconscious alive with this monster and others. Brody fears for his children, he fears for the future, and a trust fund egghead and a psychopath carrying the full payload of war and homecoming on his shoulders accompany him on his quest to exorcise his demon. When they set out on the water to kill the shark (Brody, Quint, and Hooper), helpers lay out implements of war on a cloth in exactly the same way as Fathers Merrin and Karras did two years prior.
But the question of work, of function, of a blue-collar approach to a Jungian problem--I love the crannies and nooks on Quint's ship (the Orca), how every corner holds an instrument--machete, pump, hook, or barrel. I love the care that Spielberg takes in showing Quint quietly strapping himself into his harness with rod and reel as, in the background, Brody works on tying a knot that Quint's taught him to pass the time. John Williams's legendary score's largely-forgotten other component: not the two-chord DA-DUM announcing the presence of the shark, but the light-hearted "traveling" music that announces the pleasure of the chase and, more to the point, of work, comes up here. The chasing of the shark is fun at first. The work theme returns when the trio, in a badly-listing and soon-to-be scuttled Orca, get together to build the cage in which Hooper will be lowered into the subconscious. Hooper has his tools, Quint has his, and there's that moment at the end there where Brody the New York cop loads his standard issue and takes aim, impotently, at the thing in the deep. It's meaningful on a couple of levels, then, when Quint begins to destroy his instruments; it's meaningful when Hooper is almost bisected by Brody's inexperience with ropes; and it's meaningful at the end when a little of that "Cloudy" swagger surfaces as Brody says "Smile, you son of a bitch" through gritted teeth. I'm fascinated with the amount of time in Jaws dedicated to building or finding instruments: a pen to sign a voucher, lumber and paint brushes to create signs, a knife (completely unnecessary) with which to pry a shark's tooth from a piece of wood.
Of all the things that Jaws does well, the establishment of this tension between the implements with which men try to contain chaos and kill fear and the chaos and fear itself is the most key to its success. (Note the fences on the beach in the prologue, falling down, the fences kicked in by a karate class, the cordon of boats protecting vacationers...) Jaws is forever vital because it's forever about how man will never be the master of his own destiny. Hooper's sophisticated instruments and high-falutin' education ("Carcharodon carcharias"!) vs. Brody's street smarts ("Great white shark!") vs. Quint's boiler-room experience ("Porker!"): each equally incapable of explaining the ways of Nature and God. "Have you ever seen one act like this?" asks Hooper. "No," Quint replies. The only one of the three ever intended survive, Brody is also the only one who never had any preconceived notions of understanding--he's the one trying to run away. What makes Jaws the film it is, though, is that Spielberg combines these things that we do to stave off the night, building shelters, crafting tools, telling stories--and how poignant does it become that the film opens with a campfire against the open expanse of the sea, with the archetypal horror that not only can we never stave off the night for ourselves, but we'll never stave it off for our children, either.* Its triumphant ending is temporary, even hollow, because Jaws has done too good a job educating that the oceans are full of "all kinds of sharks," that a few of them are man-eaters, and that you can't escape them, because they're inside you until you pull them, thrashing, into the open air.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Universal brings Jaws to Blu-ray at last in a 2.40:1, 1080p transfer of the much-ballyhooed restoration. A combination of chemical and digital techniques were used to refurbish the film, such as a wet-gate scan to erase scratches and a new D.I. to recalibrate colour and contrast. While Spielberg himself says in the extras that the Blu-ray image actually looks better than a print itself did in 1975, I think in some respects it may look too perfect--a little airless. It's beautiful, though, and incredibly detailed: that's really some bad hat, Harry. An attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track doesn't replace sound effects like the controversial remix on the film's first DVD release did, instead applying some directionality to the original stems. The results are so restrained that I didn't even realize I wasn't listening to the mono soundtrack (also on board, in DTS 2.0) when I screened the restoration theatrically last month. At home the upmix has greater impact, but I waited in vain for the cello notes in John Williams's Jaws theme to vibrate my sternum. The rear and LFE channels are most pressed into service in the final minutes of the film, and as Spielberg himself says, the "dinosaur" sound that Jaws makes as he sinks to the bottom is quite a bit clearer in this incarnation.
Laurent Bouzereau's name may be a big red flag these days, but there's no denying his feature-length The Making of Jaws (123 mins., SD/1.33:1) effectively invented the DVD documentary as we know it and was for years afterwards the gold standard for the form. Originally produced for LaserDisc (a 1995 box set that retailed for $100, to give those of you who think Blu-rays are pricey some perspective), it's a low-key, slow-paced affair compared to today's hype-driven supplemental content, retracing the genesis of Jaws through a series of talking-heads with all the above-the-line principals save, of course, the long-departed Robert Shaw. If you've read Carl Gottlieb's The Jaws Log, most of this material will feel like an illustrated version of that, but it ain't all redundant--Spielberg's discussion of the Ben Gardner head-scare, for instance, reveals how his mind works, as well as a twinge of regret on his part that his "greedy" desire to goose the audience cost the famous reveal of the title character some of its power to shock. Spielberg additionally reveals a version of the script he wrote for himself and outlines many of the sequences he initially dreamed up that didn't survive for one reason or another, be it the budget or Gregory Peck.
Also on board is Erik Hollander's 2007 The Shark Is Still Working: The Legacy and Impact of Jaws (101 mins., SD/4x3 letterbox), a truncated but no less valuable version of a surprisingly-slick fan-made retrospective that's been kicking around on the festival circuit for ages. Narrated by Roy Scheider--who at one point during an interview refers to Brody as "Roy" in a fascinating third-person Freudian slip--and featuring many of the same interviewees as Bouzereau's doc (not to mention Bouzereau himself, nothing if not a shameless self-promoter), it shifts focus twenty minutes in from the troubled production to a post-Jaws world, looking at everything from studio-head Lew Wasserman's risky but successful releasing strategy to Martha's Vineyard's "Jaws Fest," a regular pilgrimage to the site of the shoot where fans get an opportunity to harass locals who appeared in the film. I love the archival footage of Spielberg watching the Oscar nominations (with "Maniac" himself, Joe Spinell!) and lamenting, somewhat good-naturedly, that Fellini took his spot among the Director nominees. Too, there's a really nice epilogue featuring Spielberg himself, who confesses to eating his lunch in Quint's boat when it was dry-docked at Universal and silently reminiscing about those good old days before people knew who he was. The Shark Is Still Working isn't necessarily better than The Making of Jaws, but it trods less familiar ground.
"Jaws: The Restoration" (8 mins., HD) is mostly the good folks at Universal back-patting themselves on their "commitment to preserving and restoring its film library." It is to laugh, although it's obvious that Jaws is an exception to the rule, considered the crown jewel in the studio library and treated as such. It was even treated to a new negative that will last "a hundred years" in the vault, though no explanation is forthcoming as to why the original negative barely survived three decades on the next shelf over. Lastly among the behind-the-scenes pieces, we have "From the Set" (9 mins., SD), a vintage report from the set hosted by Iain Johnstone, a British journalist who almost seems to be doing satire as he refers to the local "barks and chippies." What's interesting is that Johnstone covers a scene--the discovery of Ben Gardner's corpse--that was ultimately rewritten, reshot, rewritten again, and reshot again, long after Johnstone left the island. Seen dorkily applying lip balm and throwing deli meat at seagulls, a high-voiced Spielberg has more to say about The Sugarland Express than he does about Jaws, or at least Johnstone would rather ask him about Sugarland.
The contents of the "Deleted Scenes + Outtakes" block (14 mins., SD) are cherry picked by the documentarians, but it's nice having all this stuff in one place. Spielberg and editor Verna Fields made tasteful, instinctual decisions--and some commotion on the water between the various shark hunters isn't particularly well-directed--but I do love the scene where Quint purchases piano wire from a music shop and proceeds to mock accompany the poor kid trying to play Pachelbel's Canon. Rounding out the disc, "The Jaws Archives" offers access to four galleries sorted by storyboards, production photos, marketing, and "the phenomenon." The keepcase also contains a DVD and a Digital Copy of the film.
*By the time of the third sequel, the tagline is "This Time It's Personal." Buddy, it was always personal.