Ari reminds us all that something enormously important to pop culture and weather patterns in the Milky Way galaxy took place on June 20 of 1975. Of course I’m referring to the release of Jaws.
I didn’t get to see Jaws when it opened. In fact, it was a few weeks before I could even get into a theater to see it. Remember, sprouts, this was the pre-multiplex era when many theaters had only recently been split into two-screeners, and it was common for successful movies to stay in a theater for a few months. So I guess it must have been mid- to late-July when I managed to wedge myself into a screening at the Hyway Theater (which I’m happy to see still exists). By that point Jaws had had so much impact that Universal Pictures took out a two-page spread in the Sunday Times showing all the newspaper editorial cartoons that had played off the movie’s poster. The show was literally sold out — I got the very last ticket to be sold. the joint was packed.
Up until that night, whenever I’d seen a movie in a theater, the audience had served either as an irritant or a neutral presence. Jaws was my first theater experience in which the audience became a single entity, a great big nerve ending that Steven Spielberg played with virtuoso flair. When Chrissie met her fate out by the buoy, we all hissed through our teeth as the tension wound tighter and tighter. When the mayor erupted in rage at the way the Amity billboard had been vandalized, we all shouted with laughter. When Ben Gardner’s head came through the bottom of the boat, we all jumped. To this day I’m sure the entire building rose a foot into the air and came back down without any of us noticing.
(Dances With Mermaids, the older daughter, got her first look at Jaws a year ago. She still says, “You saw Jaws in the theater when it first came out? Wow!” the way somebody might say, “You helped Julius Caesar change the wheels on his chariot?”)
I’d actually been looking forward to the movie before the word got out. I was enough of a shark freak that when the original novel by Peter Benchley came out, I sprang for a hardcover copy. It was not a god read. I may have been an ignorant high school kid at the time, but I knew the creak of sclerotic Bestseller Writing when I heard it. All those subplots: the Mafia, Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife, bleah. Nevertheless, the power of the idea was such that the book carried you along, right up to that supremely unsatisfactory Moby-Dick type ending.
The film was directed the way the novel should have written: smart, quick on its feet, frequently quite funny and, best of all, unpredictable. Too many horror movies — and Jaws is, at bottom, a balls-to-the-wall monster movie — fall into a pattern of setup and payoff so predictable that you can set your watch to them. Not this movie. Jaws always had a joker up its sleeve. When the shocks came on, they usually went waaaay further than anyone expected — that scene with the Kittner boy is just plain mean. When the laughs came on, you were grateful for the chance to relax — which of course, meant you were about to get creamed by some new scare.
Even at the time, though, I could appreciate just how good Jaws looked as a movie. The trailer above reminded me of the scene in which Brody pages through books on sharks, and Spielberg has his cameraman light the shot so that the gory pages flicker across the lenses of Brophy’s glasses. or the way the appearance of the ocean changes in response to the story’s needs. When Chrissie runs down the beach, the water is flat and opaque, the perfect hiding place for a predator. As soon as she’s beyond the reach of help, the point of view changes and the water is now a shadowy trap in which the predator sees everything while the prey sees nothing. It’s still startling to think that this was only Spielberg’s second feature, and one made under extremely demanding conditions at that. I’ve had my problems with Spielberg’s work in the past, and his growth as an artist has been erratic, but right from the start his craftsmanship and technical expertise were beyond question.
One of the greatest things about Jaws as a film was the way it left people feeling gassed. The tension and release, always delivered in the most unexpected way, was exhilarating. You walked out of the theater jangling and charged up. For weeks afterward, whenever you encountered somebody who’d seen the flick, you automatically fell into reminiscences of some great moment. For a movie with so many intensely scary passages, Jaws was a remarkably benign movie. It plumbed some of the darkest terrors imaginable — the fear of being eaten, of dying horribly only a few yards from safety — and yet it left you feeling cleansed and caffeinated at the same time. Quite a trick. I went home from the Hyway Theater feeling lighter than air, chuckling and grinning as my legs moved twice as fast as normal. It’s a rare kind of movie that can send its viewers off with that kind of feeling.
The summer of 1975 was loaded with artistic discoveries for me. I’d just become a Bob Dylan fan, and 1975 was a great time to be following Dylan: the year started with Blood on the Tracks, the summer peaked with the official release of the Basement Tapes, the Rolling Thunder Revue toured New England that fall and Desire appeared like magic after the New Year. Patti Smith’s debut came out a little before Christmas, and I was just starting to hear about something called punk rock I was inhaling books and music at a rapid clip, working my way through Hemingway and Hesse, and in the middle of it all there was Jaws. A great memory, and for that I have to thank Steven Spielberg.