****/**** 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 mentioned in very many conversations about Jaws is the pleasure it takes in work. That it's one of the most influential films of all time--a picture commonly identified as the one responsible for the studio summer-blockbuster mentality--is a given by now. The miracle of it, though, is that it gets better every time you see it. I have the movie memorized at this point; I can recite it like a favourite song. 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--a master of the easy moment. (They're artists I've conflated in my head for their popularity with and influence on a generation of people my age.) It's a little nasty, too, Jaws is, in throwaway moments like the one on the beach where, after a giant fin appears in the water, Spielberg cuts to a group of old men picking 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 character beat expressed with Spielberg's savant-like visual genius. But above all, Jaws is about function and work--not unlike Star Wars, the final nail in the New American Cinema, will be two years later.
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. Read in a certain way, Jaws is the literalization of Brody's fear for his children--the idea that there's no place you can hide from the terror you feel for your kids. The ocean works the same way it does in Melville, then: great white shark or white whale, they're 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, never better than when dealing with children, has also never been particularly shy about placing them square in harm's way. He establishes that he's willing to kill them if it serves the purposes of the film (almost more shocking than "the Kintner boy"'s death, though, he kills a dog), so that when he threatens Brody's oldest child Mike (Chris Rebello), we have every faith he'll feed him to the grinder, too. It's extraordinarily sensitive and complex about parental anxiety: Look to a moment where his wife (Lorraine Gary) sends Brody off on the kind of assignment she'd hoped to escape as well, ending with her running away as soon as he's out of sight. She asks Brody before he 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 destined (as one of the townspeople promises, in a benign way) 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 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" 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. As they--Brody, Quint, and Hooper--set out on the water to kill the shark, helpers lay out implements of war on a cloth in exactly the same manner that Fathers Merrin and Karras did two years prior.
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 give him busywork. 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 once the trio, in a badly-listing and soon-to-be scuttled Orca, bands 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 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 bit of that "Cloudy" swagger resurfaces as Brody says "Smile, you son of a bitch" through gritted teeth. I'm fascinated by the amount of time Jaws dedicates to building or locating instruments: a pen to sign a voucher, lumber and paintbrushes to create signs, a knife (completely unnecessary) with which to pry a shark's tooth from a piece of wood.
Of all the things 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 themselves 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. It's 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 to survive, Brody is also the only one without any preconceived understanding--he's the one trying to run away. Yet what makes Jaws the film it is is that Spielberg combines these things we do to stave off the night--building shelters, 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, we can never stave it off for our children, either.* Its triumphant ending is temporary, even hollow, because Jaws has done too good a job of 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 out, thrashing, into the open air.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers 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 (though not alter) colour and contrast. While Spielberg himself says in the extras that the Blu-ray image actually looks better than a print would have in 1975, I think in some respects it may look too perfect--a little airless. It's beautiful, however, 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 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 for the climax, 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, yet 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 after 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 talent--save, of course, the long-departed Robert Shaw. If you've read Carl Gottlieb's The Jaws Log, most of this will play like an illustrated version of that, but it ain't all redundant--Spielberg's discussion of the Ben Gardner head-scare, for instance, demonstrates 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. Similarly exclusive to this doc is Spielberg's detailed account of a screenplay draft he wrote for himself that Gregory Peck, at least, did not appreciate.
Also on board is Erik Hollander's 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 the festival circuit since 2007. Narrated by Roy Scheider--who at one point during an onscreen segment 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 glory hog), it shifts focus twenty minutes in from the troubled production to a post-Jaws world, looking at everything from the iconic poster design 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 in which Spielberg confesses to sneaking aboard Quint's boat when it was dry-docked at Universal, where he would privately reminisce 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 and even has the wit to interview Percy Rodrigues, narrator of the film's indelible theatrical trailer ("It's as if God created the Devil, and gave him...jaws"), something that would never occur to old Boozy.
"Jaws: The Restoration" (8 mins., HD) is mostly the good folks at Universal back-patting themselves on their "commitment to preserving and restoring [their] film library." It is to laugh, although it's obvious that Jaws, the crown jewel in the studio library, is an exception to the rule. 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, well, 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 the B-roll here covers a scene--the discovery of Ben Gardner's corpse--that was later 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/4x3 letterbox) 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, purchasing piano wire from a music shop, proceeds to mock-accompany the poor kid trying to squeeze out Beethoven's Fifth on a clarinet. Although these elisions are in good condition, it's too bad Universal didn't see fit to remaster them in HD, or at least bump them up to anamorphic widescreen. Rounding out the disc, "The Jaws Archives" offers access to four galleries sorted by storyboards, production photos, marketing, and "the phenomenon." The keepcase additionally contains both a DVD and a Digital Copy of the film.
*By the third sequel, the tagline is "This Time It's Personal." Buddy, it was always personal.
When I read that JAWS was going to be a special one-night only re-release on the big screen, I told my kids "we WILL be there." And we were, including a friend of the kids who (!) had never seen the movie before.
It's one thing to see the movie on a big TV surrounded by fans and friends, but it's quite another to be "alone" in the dark, with no visual escape from that big fish.
Posted by: Brett N | August 25, 2012 at 04:45 PM