An Appreciation – Jaws
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”
Here is the moment that would forever change how movies are made, marketed, and watched. It’s hard to fathom – all these decades later – how much of an impact Jaws (1975) would have in popular culture. With its release the landscape of cinematic entertainment would dramatically shift. With Jaws (and bolstered by Star Wars two years later) the personal, artist-driven films of the late 1960’s and early ‘70s would make way for the arrival of the modern blockbuster, which would dominate from the ‘80s onward. The summer season had officially arrived, where the buzz and excitement of “The Event Film” made audiences compelled to go to theaters. For better or for worse, it’s no mistaking that this marked a turning point. Things would never be the same.
Steven Spielberg is a director of the highest order, without question the most successful filmmaker in history. But that’s not much of a surprise, now that we are able to look back at the entirety of his work. Spielberg, almost from the outset of his career, has an innate ability to draw us into his stories. He is a meticulous craftsman, working with collaborators at the top of their respective fields. He connects with audiences on a personal level, whether through drama, horror, suspense, or comedy. Everything he does is with complete sincerity, we never get a sense that he despises his characters or doesn’t believe in his material. Even in his failures, Spielberg takes the challenge with honest conviction.
He’s often been criticized for being schmaltzy, angling for broad gestures instead of subtlety to generate a reaction. Yes, Spielberg goes for dramatic high points, but that is because he understands that film is an emotional experience. The stronger the emotional reaction we have to what we see on screen, the better it will resonate in our minds. This awareness is the foundation of Spielberg’s directorial approach. People tend to forget that he was one of the “Cinema Brats” of the American New Wave, close friends with artists such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and George Lucas. But where his contemporaries were influenced by the Italian neo-realists, the French New Wave, and Japanese cinema, Spielberg drew his inspiration from classical Hollywood: John Ford, David Lean, and Frank Capra to name a few. And it was that very inspiration that helped him blossom into the mainstream.
Spielberg was only twenty-six when he made Jaws, but even then he had a control and style that felt mature, an astonishing feat given how problematic the production was. Along with screenwriters Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (adapting Benchley’s novel), the structure of the narrative is crisp, clean, and moves at a brisk pace. The sentimentalism that has been unjustly put upon Spielberg doesn’t belong here, as his direction creates a sense of impending dread. We know sooner or later that shark will jump out of the water. Even though the runtime is a full two hours, the storytelling is so efficient that it flies by. One scene flows into the next with no unnecessary fat. Consider that, within only thirty minutes, we get two shark attacks, we have a clear-eyed understanding why Brody (Roy Scheider) – the new sheriff of the beach community Amity Island – wants to close down the beach to the public, and we understand why the town’s mayor (Murray Hamilton) wants to keep it open for financial reasons. We realize how dangerous the shark is by the trail of destruction it leaves behind, and we get introduced to Quint (Robert Shaw) the gravely voiced fisherman who lends his services to capturing the shark. Given that all of these components are presented so early on without being convoluted is a testament to Spielberg and his team’s expertise.
It was well documented that Spielberg ran into constant difficulties during production. His insistence on shooting on location, out on open water, exposed the cast and crew to the unpredictability of Mother Nature. They had no control over the changing tides and currents, they had to wait for the weather to change to maintain consistent lighting, and every so often shooting would be halted while passing boats came within view of the camera. The budget ballooned as the shooting schedule extended from 55 days to 159. And of course, the mechanical shark (nicknamed “Bruce” after Spielberg’s lawyer) malfunctioned multiple times once submerged in the water. The production was a nightmare, chronicled in Gottlieb’s now famous book “The Jaws Log.”
But as is common in many beloved pictures, the difficulties of the production – while traumatizing to Spielberg and others – proved to be a blessing in disguise. The numerous obstacles forced them to utilize their ingenuity to find a solution. Because the shark broke down so often, it was decided that the danger would be implied through cinema. Instead of just showing the shark, we feel its presence through other means. It takes well over an hour for us to finally catch the shark in full view and even then it only takes up about four minutes of total screen time. But we are always aware of it through suggestion. The first attack scene, in which a lone woman gets dragged through the water, is horrifying in the way her body moves back and forth with jerky, unnatural movement. Since the violence and gore happens underwater where we don’t see it, the effect is amplified through our imagination.
Spielberg does this constantly throughout Jaws, using his creativity to build tension. It’s been said that not seeing the monster is far scarier then if we were to see it. While that idea may not always apply – there are certainly effective horror movies where we get to see the monster in all its glory – it certainly worked in this case. The use of flotation devices, such as the yellow barrels, was a stroke of genius. When the shark gets attached to the barrels via a rope, it made for a perfect way to pin point its location without the need to see it. We understand how fast it’s moving by how fast the barrel moves above the water. The same technique is used when two men try to capture the shark from a dock. When the dock breaks off the pier, we grasp just how powerful the shark is, and when the remains of the dock turns around and starts heading back toward the men, the suspense is all the more palpable.