Saturday, October 30, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: JAWS

Jaws is my favorite film. A bold statement but there it is.

For me it is just leaps and bounds above all others in my DVD library simply because I love it so much. Funny thing is, it's a PG rated movie, which by today's standards usually means some mediocre thrills. But in this case however, Jaws has struck a chord with audiences world wide and made nearly everyone with a brain in their head think twice about ever getting into the water.

Called the 'father of the summer blockbuster', everything about Jaws is perfect, in particular the flawless, unequaled score by John Williams. I'm a true movie score enthusiast - I won't embarrass myself telling how many I own, it's ridiculous - but I've never found a more definitive score than this one. In a word, brilliant. And probably the most recognizable piece of music set to film ever. Everyone and their mother knows the da-dum, da-dum of Jaws!

What you don't see in Jaws is possibly more frightening than what you do. Williams' score generally permeated the scenes prior to the shark attacking someone, so you had a pretty good idea when ol' Bruce was heading your way. But in a key scene - the first in which we actually see that big bastard, the two note indicator was left out - so that the element of surprise was unforgiving. And damn, it works!

There are so many classic lines in the movie that it would be impossible to list them all. Obviously the "We're gonna need a bigger boat" line, as well as the "Smile you son of a ...." were no doubt the most famous. But the ones like "That's some bad hat, Harry" and "Here's to swimmin' with bow-legged women" are pretty damn cool as well.

I also love the human emotion of Jaws. The bit when Martin and his youngest son sit at the dinner table and play a little game of monkey-see monkey do is just so touching, breaking up the violence at hand with a little bit of family time as Ellen Brody looks on. The hard edge of Alex Kintner's mother after her son's death are viable and warranted, and leave a burn on the screen as Brody feels his guilt overwhelm him. Equally as resolute are the feelings of the three men on the Orca as they bond over the story of the Indianapolis and later as they face their greatest fears and imminent death at each other's sides.

So what else on earth can I say about Jaws that hasn't already been said? Nothing. So onward ho with the obligatory recap. And quite obviously, spoilers are forthcoming.

The lovely Chrissie (doesn't help matters that she has the same name as me, but I can tell you only two people in my entire life dared call me Chrissy and they are both dead. True story.)

Moving on, Chrissie is with a gathering of friends having a bit of a party on the beach when she decides to grab up the nearest male and go skinny dipping. Unfortunately, he's not much for swimming while plastered. Hence her solitary dive into the ocean and her unlucky run-in with our title character.

The opening ten minutes of Jaws are just legendary, aren't they? They suck you in and terrify you right down to your very soul. I'm sure I was entirely too young to be watching Jaws the first time I saw it, but it stuck in my head like glue. I don't live near the ocean but I love it - I travel 12 hours south to swim in the waters near Cape Hatteras every year for god's sake. But swim is more of a generalized term. I don't actually swim. I walk in the water at the edge, maybe let a few waves come up to perhaps my knees... but there will be NO swimming.

Besides all the disgusting other things in the ocean -like seaweed wrapping around your feet, those skate creatures, jellyfish, slimy things I don't know the name of, and the urine of the people around me (don't tell me that doesn't happen, I know better) - there are sharks. Big effing sharks. Who am I kidding - little sharks suck too. Now it's not that I am petrified of them like André over at The Horror Digest or anything, but I have a modicum of common sense, and I'm sorry but the ocean isn't ours, folks. Not by a long shot.

So after the gulping, thrashing, screaming death of Chrissie, we meet brand new police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who has taken a job tending to the seafaring citizens on one Amity Island ("It's only an island if you look at it from the water") in New England.
Martin is utterly terrified of the water which, all things considered, is rather ironic. Setting out on the beach to look for the reported missing girl, the men search up and down the coast until his deputy, Lenny (Jeffery Kramer) finds the oogie remains of the presumed missing girl.

Immediately labeling the death a shark attack, Brody and the medical examiner are forced to change their tune when pressured by the mayor (Murray Hamilton, in a lovely polyester suit boasting embroidered anchors! So rad!), who doesn't want a panic in the area because they depend on tourism to keep the town afloat. The M.E. renames the attack a boating accident and they move on, Brody still reluctant to allow citizens in the water.

Soon the young Alex Kintner is killed in a brutal shark attack in front of a beach-full of people, including Brody. (And no, I don't want to relive the fact that a black lab was frolicking in the water and disappeared just prior!)

A town meeting is called in which it is announced by Brody that the beaches are going to be closed. An public outcry occurs, with everyone in agreement that closing the beaches puts their livelihoods at risk. The fourth of July being right around the corner, they cannot afford not to have their businesses open. But Brody won't relent.

Mrs. Kintner puts a bounty on the shark and the townsfolk go apeshit, each fisherman anxious to make some extra dough and get his name in the paper. Also in the mix and offering up his services is Quint, a salty old dog who knows his way around the ocean and says he can catch and kill the shark for ten grand. The town officials don't bite though (no pun intended) and the rest of the men discuss hunting the shark amongst themselves.

As hoards of men leave the harbor in overflowing fishing boats, we meet Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), an ichthyologist sent from the Oceanographic Institute to investigate the claim of a shark attack. He asks to see the body of the first victim, and when he does he incredulously points out that it was not a boating accident that killed Chrissie Watkins, it was most definitely a shark.

When the locals return from their hunt with a large tiger shark, Hooper does a few quick calculations and informs Brody that the shark they caught was most likely not the one who killed Chrissie, and probably not the Kintner boy either. When Kintner's mother (looking very much like she could actually be his grandmother) finds out the town officials knew there had been a shark attack and they still allowed people in the water, she has a justified hissy fit and slaps Brody.

Hooper convinces Brody to allow him to cut open the tiger shark and check for the little boy's remains. When all they come up with is some tin cans, a few fish, and a Louisiana license plate, Hooper regretfully fills in the blanks for Brody. The tiger shark is not their culprit, and the shark that is can only be one kind: the Carcharodon carcharias. For those of you not in the know (and really, who are those people?), that would be the Great White shark. A nasty hunk of fish that doesn't, in reality, prefer humans as food at all. That being said, if someone swims into its way or attracts it somehow, well - dare I say you're fish food? Also of note is that once a shark has developed a feeding ground - that is, when food is offered up like a buffet - they will stay in that area and feed until the source of food is gone. Not exactly a pleasant thing for a crowded beach town.

Hooper drags Martin out onto the water to scout around the area where the big fish has been feeding. When Hooper scuba dives into the water to check aboard an abandoned boat belonging to one of the local fishermen, he finds a huge shark tooth embedded in the boat. Alas, he loses the tooth when the fisherman's disembodied head floats into his field of vision.

Unable to prove that the shark is a Great White or even exists in the first place, the beaches are reopened on the fourth of July and a huge crowd arrives. Martin watches as his children head into an isolated estuary to swim with a bunch of others. In the ocean, two boys pull a prank involving a fake shark fin and a panic ensues, with everyone getting out of the water. Meanwhile, a young woman points to the estuary and starts to yell 'Shark!" After what seems like forever, people finally take notice - but not before a man paddling a small boat gets taken under and killed. Brody's eldest son escapes near death but goes into shock after witnessing the gruesome attack.

Obviously, it's time to do something. Enter Quint.
Brody convinces the mayor to hire Quint to kill the shark and Brody and Hooper board Quint's boat, the Orca, to head out on a shark hunt.
Quint is your typical life-long fisherman, a sometimes hilarious combination of arrogance and experience.

When Brody is delegated to throw out the chum line, he finally comes face to face with the immense Great White in question, all twenty-five feet of him. Nearly too stunned and terrified to react, he simply walks up to Quint and utters the famous line, "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Quint and Hooper join him in staring out at the ocean at the giant predator coming near them. The first time you see him glide past the boat is such a thrilling scare. Your adrenalin spikes and you get a lump in your throat - it's really such an incredible moment. Put it this way, you can feel your heart beating. Loudly.

The three men valiantly struggle in an attempt to get near enough to the big oaf to harpoon a line onto it so the attached flotation barrel will keep the shark afloat to track it, and are eventually able to secure one barrel. The Orca sets off in pursuit as the men all take a short breather. Just when they think they've got it made, the shark is able to take the barrel under the water and disappears.

That evening, as the men sit around below deck and tell tales of love lost and scarring bodily harm, Quint shocks Hooper and Brody by relaying the story of the USS Indianapolis - the WWII era vessel that went down after a direct hit from a German sub. As if that isn't awful enough, the men were surrounded by sharks, who picked them off one by one. Obviously Quint has a bit more experience than the others, who are rattled by the history lesson. It's a sobering moment, and as they try to relieve themselves of some of the melancholy drifting over them, they begin to sing 'Show me the way to go home'. As they get louder, the shark is seen reappearing outside the boat, and it starts to literally attack the Orca. After wreaking a bit of havoc and damaging the hull, the shark disappears yet again.

In the morning they attempt to make repairs on the Orca when the shark emerges yet again. The men are able to secure yet another barrel but Brody, in a panic, decides to call the Coast Guard. Quint, in the heat of the moment, slams the radio with a baseball bat when Brody tries to call for help, rendering them relatively helpless out on the open sea.

Attaching yet a third barrel to our finned friend, they turn the boat and follow the shark as best they can with a compromised engine. Unbelievably, even as they try to drag the shark to shore to beach it, the shark counters, able to still submerge with three barrels. At this point Quint has just about trashed the engine, running it too hard.

Quint, headed to shore and utterly pissed off, taxes the engine to the point that it quits before they can get back to Amity. Stranded, Hooper brings up the idea of using the shark-proof cage he brought along to attempt to get close enough to the shark to use a poison spear to kill it. He gears up, gets in the cage, and though obviously paralyzed with fear, submerges.

Under the water, he waits for the shark to come to him, and when he does it is an inspired piece of film making as the shark comes straight at him (seriously fucking scary!!) and attacks the cage for all its worth. He wrestles with the cage, seemingly pretty darn pissed off. Hooper drops the spear in the fray but is able to slip through the cage and sneak off to hide as the shark obliterates the cage. Realizing the ruckus below, Brody and Quint heave the cage up and fear the worst after taking one look at it.

But the Great White isn't finished. In truly the most horrifying part of the movie, the shark immediately just flat-out blitzes the boat, causing both men to fall to the slick deck and Quint to slide right into the jaws (!) of the beast.

This film would never, ever have gotten a PG rating if it were released today, if only on the merit of this one scene. Quint's death is a sickening, nightmare-inducing misfortune of the worst kind. Spurting blood when the shark bites down, Quint loses the ultimate battle at last. Brody watches, too shocked and overwhelmed to do anything but fight for his own survival at this point. He slams shut the door of the cabin but the shark, apparently not sated, comes back to finish the job.

This is one bad ass shark, dammit. As unstoppable as Michael Myers on his best day! With the ship sinking quickly, it slams into the side of the cabin, nearly reaching Brody, who in turn grabs one of the pressurized tanks floating nearby and throws it into shark's open mouth. The shark backs away, unsure of what he has been given and leaving Brody enough time to grab a rifle and climb the mast to the highest point.

In hot pursuit and chomping away on the air tank in its mouth the shark comes after Brody, who begins shooting at the pressurized tank. After several unsuccessful shots, he finally has direct aim and utters the second most famous line in the film, "Smile you sonofabitch!"

Hitting his target, Brody screams in excitement as the shark explodes, falling in chunks and pieces into the deep blue (now blood-soaked) sea. We hear what sounds like one last guttural roar from the Great White, and it is over.

Hooper, aware of the shark's demise, surfaces and finds Brody clutching to the last remains of the Orca. They laugh for a moment about their luck, commiserate over Quint, then tie a few barrels together and rig up a makeshift raft to paddle to shore with.

Again, I don't know how to reiterate any stronger my love for this film. Anyone who hasn't seen it is missing out on what I consider to be Steven Spielberg's finest work (yes, even above Schindler's List, at least for me) and Williams' Oscar-winning score sets the mood and pacing like no other composer could.

So at the risk of getting too sentimental, I'll just leave you with a quote. "It's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, "Huh? What?" You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."


Andre said...

Phew. I had to read that extra, extra slowly so that I wouldn't be surprised by any scary shark pics!!!! Good stuff though, and even though I despise it due to my fear, I can still recognize its greatness---so no worries!

Christine Hadden said...

I kept you in mind when I wrote this post, so I didn't want to get too shark-nasty! But seriously, any shark pics are scary, right? ;o)

Glad you still have room for appreciation down in your terrified little heart!