Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is, in my mind, the perfect summer movie. Which makes sense; after all, it’s generally agreed to be the prototype for the Big Summer Blockbuster. I try and watch JAWs every summer, either in a theatre or at home (the transfer on the recent blu-ray release is amazing and you should own it). This time around, I was lucky to discover Brooklyn’s video store/bar/screening room Videology was playing the movie last Saturday in an event sponsored by Narragansett (the beer from JAWS!). For two bucks, you got two free beers (one before the movie and then a can mid-movie from a cheerful Narragansett rep). They also raffled off an old paperback copy of Peter Benchley’s original novel. Everyone there had a good time.
Having seen Jaws as much as I have, it was fun to see what really jumped out at me during this viewing. I’d always enjoyed the “soldiers at war” uneasy camaraderie between Brody, Hooper, and Quint, but this time around I feel like I got a really good grip on these characters. The film does a great job of establishing all three of them as weird outsiders from the beginning; Brody especially isn’t accepted or seemingly even liked much by the townspeople he protects (the conversation between Ellen Brody and another wife at the beach early on springs to mind).
Once they get on the boat, you really appreciate how it’s the three of them that pose almost as much threat to themselves as the shark: Hooper and Quint’s mutual antagonism has them almost coming to blows, while Brody’s gross incompetence at seamanship nearly gets them killed repeatedly. All of them have a unique relationship with the sea: Hooper views it with curiosity after a boyhood accident; Quint’s trauma from surviving the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis traumatized him so badly his only pastimes are murdering sharks and crushing beer cans.
The film never spells out for us what Brody’s particular deal is, but this conversation says everything, doesn’t it?
ELLEN BRODY: Martin hates boats. Martin hates water. Martin…Martin sits in his car when we go on the ferry to the mainland. I guess it’s a childhood thing. It’s a…there’s a clinical name for it isn’t there?
MARTIN BRODY: Drowning.
Everybody in Jaws feels like a real person and I’d argue that, and not the passable animatronic effects, is why the film remains suspenseful and frightening almost forty years later. When Brody jumps back after getting his first real glimpse at the shark, you completely buy his terror. Quint is one of my all-time favorite movie characters and I always appreciate new little things about his character each time I watch; this time it was how Spielberg occasionally shoots him in an all black silhouette aboard the Orca. It’s just enough to highlight how sinister and unhinged he is. A lesser movie would have had him go full-on villain.
Speaking of “Bruce,” something that Spielberg does with this movie that really holds up is how the shark is so completely…inhuman. Most of the time, it feels more like our heroes are being chased by an omnipresent, underwater Mack truck or something (which, hey, this was Spielberg’s first movie after Duel so…). We never get any insight into the shark other than it appears when it’s hungry and it’s almost always hungry. When it bursts through the cabin to try and devour Brody, you don’t really know how to respond to its almost child-like expression. It’s a brilliant way to play against the movie’s too-human-for-their-own-good shark hunters.
Unlike most directorial debuts, I think Spielberg’s Jaws has endured the test of time because it stays with you. We see ourselves in Brody, paralyzed by fear in the face of unfeeling, bloodthirsty nature. And while it’s a horror movie driven by dated special effects, the real scares (stock photos of grisly wounds, brief glimpses of a mutilated corpse, the shark’s way-too-sudden appearances) cut deeper than any model or CGI creation could. Like its namesake monster, Jaws is an old design that hasn’t gotten any less effective or merciless with age.
Jaws played at Videology on June 8th, 2013