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losing it at the movies: jaws (steven spielberg, 1975)

Picking this up after a break of three months, this is the seventh in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Jaws:

It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you. The film belongs to the pulpiest sci-fi monster-movie tradition, yet it stands some of the old conventions on their head.... When the three protagonists are in their tiny boat, trying to find the shark that has been devouring people, you feel that Robert Shaw, the malevolent old shark hunter, is so manly that he wants to get them all killed; he’s so manly he’s homicidal.... The director, Steven Spielberg, sets up bare-chested heroism as a joke and scores off it all through the movie.... The fool on board isn’t the chief of police, or the bookman, either. It’s Shaw, the obsessively masculine fisherman, who thinks he’s got to prove himself by fighting the shark practically single-handed. The high point of the film’s humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they’re tougher than anybody. The shark’s cavernous jaws demonstrate how little his toughness finally adds up to. This primal-terror comedy quickly became one of the top-grossing films of all time.

Kael also told the following anecdote:

While having a drink with an older Hollywood director, I said that I’d been amazed by the assurance with which Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, had toyed with the film frame. The older director said, “He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.”

I thought about that latter quote while watching Jaws again. I'm not positive I understand the point, and it's likely we don't see the revolutionary nature of Spielberg's work because in the last 44 years, it's become the norm. Still, let me give it a try. Spielberg blocks his scenes for the camera, not for the stage. He uses the camera as an aid in that blocking. He doesn't simply tell the actors where to stand ... he tells them where to move within a shot, and then moves the camera to solidify what he wants on the screen. Sometimes you notice what he is doing, but other times, he makes what we are watching seem "natural", as if no one was actually directing. His skill at changing points of view allows the audience to feel a part of first one character and then another, along with the occasional omniscient angle. In the case of Jaws, credit is due to editor Verna Fields, but often, it seems that Spielberg is editing in the camera so there is nothing left to do in the editing room.

Jaws is one of four Spielberg films I consider classics, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (my favorite), Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Yet Jaws also changed movie history in what seems to me to be unfortunate ways. As Wikipedia notes, "Jaws was the prototypical summer blockbuster, regarded as a watershed moment in motion picture history, and it won several awards for its music and editing. It was the highest-grossing film until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Both films were pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which pursues high box-office returns from action and adventure films with simple high-concept premises, released during the summer in thousands of theaters and heavily advertised." Jaws is a great film, and it wasn't the last great one of Spielberg's career. But this movie marks the beginning of the end of the "New Hollywood" era that began with Bonnie and Clyde. There have been many great American movies since Jaws, and however you define "New Hollywood", it still had plenty of life. But I've spent a lot of my life blaming Star Wars for what happened to Hollywood, and it's only fair to note that Jaws was there first.

Since this is a Pauline Kael-related post, I should include a link to one of her most famous essays that addresses some of the above: "Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers" from 1980.

#91 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

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