Jaws

Jaws ★★★★★

“Yeah, he was a perfectionist, and I have to hand it to him for sticking to his guns. The situation was very agitating. By the same token, when he knew there were no solutions, he would find solutions. He had to prove himself to a lot of the crew members. Steven can be rough on a crew. He's very demanding. He does some very unorthodox things. Everybody was older than Steven, and a lot of them were very skeptical of him. They weren't seeing the dailies.” - Richard D. Zanuck, co-producer of Jaws with David Brown.

It would be easy to reduce Jaws to a mere sociological study, as so many have done in the past - typically for a film of such historical importance and magnitude - and say that Jaws reflects the anxiety of an idyllic middle class and those middle class values under strain upon the arrival of an unknowable force. And Jaws does at least immediately open with a quick but brief portrait of a certain idyllic pleasure under attack - the sweet little resort town of Amnityville, framed through flowers, hit with the sudden trauma of shark related deaths, seemingly unstoppable - with the shark itself being metaphor for whatever external force, and so on. But the shark isn't a metaphor, or if it is, it can only be a metaphor for force itself. Regardless, we only get this vision of an idyllic community for a very very short period time - maybe less than five minutes even - before we already start to see the in's-and-out's of the communities dynamics. The public moans in disappointment in the idea that the beaches would be closed for even 24 hours, even after another child dies. Even worse, the town's mayor can just barely even entertain the idea of closing the beach - it's almost the 4th of July, you see, and if the beaches are closed even through the 4th, the community will lose all the excess profit they expect to subside on from tourism, ruining the summer economy. Are these social dynamics even remotely the reason why we go to see Jaws? The answer is an unequivocal no, but Jaws is all the more richer for it.

Writing about Jaws poses a very interesting challenge, namely because the film is "about" very little more than the fear of being eaten by a large shark. Yet as far as construction goes, Jaws may very well be perfect and perhaps the best complement I can give it is that even after spending hours reading about it's production process shortly before watching the film once again, I found myself completely sucked back into the picture well before the film had reached its mid-point. On the surface, Jaws only works because it's designed to do nothing but work - a film that's so completely functional that it leaves no room for anything beyond the most literal impression, yet appears to so completely succeed in spite of its lack of subtext or metaphorical air because of its sheer flawlessness in design. I could call it a day and say this is simply a demonstration of near unparalleled formal mastery - which in all honesty, is true. But if Jaws was all form alone, how does one explain what pulls people back to Jaws after all these years, in an era where just the idea of watching old films seems to be responded too with revulsion?

Regardless, much of the films belaboured production troubles should, I think, mitigate any notion of a work overtly calculated to be "the most successful film," "the biggest hit in Hollywood history," etc - the facts state otherwise, namely being too busy trying to finish the film at all to be worrying about how well it would do, with Spielberg himself wondering if he'd ever work again in Hollywood following the shoot, and even - according to a number of those around him at the time (via Joseph McBride's biography) - starting to believe that the critics may have been correct and that the films tremendous success was a total fluke based on external factors surrounding the films release. Yet one has to wonder how the altered production process because of endless delays made the final product into what it is - the shark not working properly, numerous difficulties of shooting on water - yet on-set these appear to have been flipped into advantages, the delays allowing for the actors to get to know each other better, work on their characters together and come up with new dialogue, while Spielberg found himself able to both edit the film as he shot, and also rewrite whole sequences unrushed after working the edited footage and seeing what worked and what didn't - a dynamic he uses till this day. It's interesting because the films production process almost seems to mirror the film in its initiative to bring control and stability to chaos (one of Spielberg's great themes), one can see this is so artistically satisfying as well as literally successful because of Spielberg's own unwillingness to not just compromise on his vision, but also his incentive to improve on it, even against the behest of the studio and the crew, putting the future of his career at risk.

There's so much to admire in Jaws beyond it's mere formal exactness, and what impresses most on reflection is that - until the last 20 minutes - how much tension is actually not provided by the shark but rather by the human drama, particularly how Schinder and Dreyfuss appear as though the last two reasonable beings in a world no longer with reason. Perhaps a shade of Spielberg's own cynicism, but even the masses themselves want the beach to remain open - they're just as irrational as the shark itself. Although he is the chief of police, Schinder's Brody is one of Spielberg's most likeable protagonists; maybe the perfect example of what Spielberg has termed as "Mr. Everyday Regular Fella" over the years, what elevates Brody from this otherwise fairly endearing trait is his openness to reason and his willingness to change his mind. Jaws - ostensibly as mechanical as a film can get - actually begins one of the most important inclinations which moves throughout Spielberg's entire career, which is about making the right moral and ethical decisions. And furthermore, the journey taken to stop the shark itself, which, as visceral as it is, is less about the shark than it is about a small group of people learning how to work together as a team in service of reaching a common goal. Not unlike Spielberg's own devoted producer's read of the production itself, they find solutions when there are no more solutions.

Why Jaws works does indeed come down to its construction, yet to a far greater extent than formal choices alone - the performances seem perfectly calibrated, but most importantly it's the character work which shines through - indeed Jaws works because everything is designed too, as successful machines tend to. But in this construction too is both the depth of characterization and the dynamics between character established, so the film can have all these elements converge with each other increasingly upon and in response to the growing threat of the external force. But it's the sheer richness of it all that makes it so effective - like the class distinctions and tensions between Dreyfuss's brilliant nerd from a rich family and Shaw's working class seaman, the only one who can get to the shark - only for them to not just set aside their differences but recognize the similarities within each other, in that they are both in pursuit of the same thing. Almost cliche to say (yet it works so well!), Schinder literally sits in between the two in terms of virtually everything, from temperament to class position. There's an almost blink and you'll miss it moment (all within Schinder's earshot) where Dreyfuss notes that the oxygen tanks can make a large explosion, and Shaw notes that the tanks are probably useless, maybe the shark will eat it. Schnider will see that both happens, becoming the synthesis between the other two both in character and in action. There's much to like here in terms of its world-building - something see too much in blockbusters today and not enough in smaller movies (oft-forgotten fact: Jaws was made for only $9 million). Amnity Island is filled with its strange characters - we've noted the mayor already, and the conflicts provoked can lead to some interesting moments, like the wonderful (and very well observed) moment where Dreyfuss's Hooper can't respond with any notion but laughter to the Mayor's insulting presumption that Hooper's only reason for catching the shark (therefore preventing any more deaths) is merely to get himself into the National Geographic. The amazing tension that develops when no one is willing to listen to the smartest people in the room - how wonderful this once became the highest grossing movie in cinema history! You can replace the shark with anything really, because what you're left with following the 4th of July sequence isn't with the fear of the shark, but the emotional weight of the consequences from when one only comes to their senses when it's far too late. How many casualties does there need to be before making the morally sound, ethical and straight-up obvious decision?

Jaws is as terrifying as movies get, yet remains inimitably rewatchable because what it's really about is rising to fear and conquering the impossible. To win against all odds, as tough and as ruthless as the journey may be. The fact that we barely see the shark until the films climatic moments is one of the greatest examples of adapting to conditions in movie history, because by not seeing any literal figure (even though we know it's *supposed* to be a shark) we are psychologically provoked to create a mental image which in turn will inevitably lead us to thinking about the dynamics of a situation. It's a traditionally reflexive technique that you do not often see in commercially minded work, yet here it is in one of the biggest movies of all time. Is it really a reach to say that Jaws is about conquering nature when it becomes a threat to humanity, especially in the years since it has become one of Spielberg's most pervasive themes? Regardless, this is far more than a mere appeal to our baser instincts - as opposed to something like Duel, for example. But Duel is really just the skeleton of what Spielberg does here - Duel gave us just mechanics alone, now Jaws gives those mechanics reason to function. It seems it's become easier these days to compare the two films, as though Jaws is merely Duel v2, but by the end the core difference should be clear: Duel concludes with mere survival, Jaws concludes with success.

However, for such a tremendous box-office phenomenon - one that as we know, began the era of the blockbuster - it's almost appropriate that the films original trailer gets to the heart of the matter as the narrator exclaims: "There is a creature alive today that has survived millions of years of evolution without change, without passion, and without logic. It lives to kill." While the film does conclude in triumph, Jaws's ultimate timelessness is also because it shows us the fear of not necessarily the unknown, but of the irrational - the irrational fear of irrationality. Because remember, everyone turns a blind eye to the shark until it's too late - it's too "far-fetched," it disturbs the basic harmony of their lifestyle, it gets in the way of the area's business profits. The true terror in Jaws is that of being the last reasonable person, the one reasonable enough who can recognize the obvious threat and perceive the irrational as well.

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