Tag Archives: Jaws

Surf and turf

Since Island Beach State Park is one of my favorite stretches of the Jersey shore, I’ve noticed that an awful lot of untamed nature has been going on there. First there was a sighting of a 12-foot Big G in June, and now here’s this video of a feeding frenzy that actually came within the surf line. My first thought was that they wanted the new Blu-Ray of Jaws (which I wouldn’t mind getting, either) but they were dining on menhaden, which is already a popular bait fish — I guess the sharks decided to cut out the middleman and eat ’em before they became bait. The sharks in question were apparently browns and sand tigers. Not species that are usually dangerous to people, but you wouldn’t have wanted to be swimming when this buffet rush started.

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Portrait of the director as a doting dad

I never liked Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I didn’t care for it at all when it opened in 1977, the various recuts left me cold, and when I watched it again on a whim a few months ago I found myself actively detesting the thing. It was Steven Spielberg’s pet project, made possible by the phenomenal success of Jaws (a film I loved when it first came out, and continue to love to this day) and its somewhat less phenomenal success paved the way for the commercial belly flop of 1941, but I wish Close Encounters had taken the fall. Behind the whizbang effects and the golly-gee wonder of it all, it’s a pretty nasty movie. I even think Spielberg realizes that now, and while I can claim no special access to Spielberg or his thoughts, I think his reimagined 2005 version of War of the Worlds bears me out. Close Encounters is a movie made by a director who was essentially still a kid. War of the Worlds is a movie made by a man who has kids. Boy, does that make a difference.     

The aliens in Close Encounters look harmless enough when they finally come out of that big mothership, but throughout the film their treatment of those humans unlucky enough to catch their attention ranges from criminally careless to downright sadistic. They are particularly brutal with single mom Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), snatching away her toddler son after an extended bout of psychological torture, but they also do a pretty thorough job of messing with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), planting a vision in his head that ultimately destroys his marriage and family. And then there’s the collection of World War II airmen who were snatched out of the sky and held captive for decades because . . . well, because the aliens thought it would be fun, I guess. When they are finally returned to Earth, the airmen haven’t aged a day, which should be a great comfort to them when they try to look up their family and friends, or find work with generation-old job skills.  

But none of this would occur to a boy wonder filmmaker. He was probably thinking of the toddler boy who wanted to play with the fun aliens. He certainly didn’t spare a thought as to why a species that mastered godlike technology would reveal itself to mankind in the middle of nowhere, issuing an invitation in the form of a vague mental image more apt to land the invited in the insane asylum. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a nice tease of a title, but in this case it would be more appropriate to go with something like Douchebags from Outer Space.  

Credit the aliens in War of the Worlds with honesty: they’re not on Earth to make friends or trade smiles with Francois Truffaut. They have come to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and it looks like their bubble gum ran out sometime back in the Pleistocene, or whenever it was they buried their three-legged ass-kicking machines. When I argue the virtues of this flat-out frightening movie, I come up against the same kind of resistance I get when I talk up Lord of War. With the latter, some people just can’t get past their dislike of Nicolas Cage; with the former, they’ll have nothing to do with Tom Cruise. But Cruise, like Cage, is an underrated actor — go watch Magnolia and tell me that isn’t a fine performance — and in War of the Worlds he is quite good as a father trying to keep his kids safe and sane as all hell breaks loose again and again.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the tormented mom simply looks relieved when the aliens return her kid — caught up in the coolness of it all, we’re supposed to think. See, the aliens are nice after all. They just wanted to make her life a complete and utter hell for a while, until the special effects finale was ready. A real-life mom would have made sure her kid was okay, then stepped up and given one of the aliens a knuckle sandwich. When Tom Cruise’s character gets close to the War of the Worlds aliens who made off with his daughter, he spoon-feeds them some payback with a clutch of grenades. In other words, he acts like a parent. That’s why I prefer the malign War of the Worlds to the benign Close Encounters. The guy who made War of the Worlds knew a thing or two about life, and what it’s like to be a doting parent in troubled times.  

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That toothsome summer

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.            

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