Friday, June 03, 2005

Musing Pictures: Jaws

When Chief Brody first sees the killer shark in Jaws, he turns in fear to captain Quint and says, I think were gonna need a bigger boat. In the summer of 1975, it wasnt a bigger boat that the folks at Paramount needed, but bigger theaters Spielbergs daring project was on its way to the history books as it packed movie houses across the country. This summer, the film celebrates its thirty years of scaring beachgoers and thrilling audiences across the globe.
Although the film predates me by several years, I did manage to catch it in its original big-screen glory at the Coolidge Corner Theater several years ago. It was at this screening, where the shark was life-sized, and the reluctant heroes even larger, that I began to realize the full power and mystique of Jaws. From the first two, ominous notes of John Williams haunting (and surprisingly complex) score, the crowd in the packed theater broke in to enthusiastic applause and they were not all fans. Even those in the audience who had never seen the film knew to recognize the music, which has been quoted and parodied in everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Shark Tale. From that moment, the atmosphere in the theater was downright electric. Fans of the film sat at the edge of their seats, eagerly getting swept up in the swashbuckling adventure flickering before them, while folks seeing the film for the first time sat back, slouched low, occasionally peeking through splayed fingers, searching the on-screen waters for the hidden, toothy monster.
I was there expecting to see the same film I knew and loved from TV, and from that well-worn VHS from the library. I was amazed to discover that despite the fun I had watching Jaws at home, the film ebbed and flowed with a shocking force and a terrible beauty in that theater in ways that I had never experienced. Spielberg shoots from the minds of his characters, and on the big screen, the full force of his cinematic storytelling comes through most clearly, where every angle of every shot, designed meticulously to reflect and project a mood or a sensation, dominates the field of vision.
I left the theater that evening realizing that I had been very dramatically moved by the film not to tears, but on a longer emotional journey, through suspense, fear and excitement, to a final, relieved joy, and to that mysterious feeling I occasionally get when I am told a story that is bigger than myself. I got that feeling when I looked around, and saw that it was shared by all of the theatergoers around me.
But what makes Jaws such a powerful film? Most of its younger fans never saw it in a theater, where its full, almost visceral force is unavoidable, but on TV, often chopped up by commercials.
When it comes down to it, I think it's all about the characters: A police chief who hates the water but lives on an island ("It's only an island if you look at it from the water"), a trust fund kid with cool toys who wants to swim (but not sleep) with the fishes, and an adventurer with dark tales and a temper. They're each a part of us in a way, representative of something we all share. The film is about them much more than it is about a shark. It's a lesson to modern filmmakers, with their new, special effects gadgets and toys: Tell a good story, and when the gadgets get out-dated, the story will last.

FYI: This weekend, the most significant of the films many 30th anniversary events begins on Marthas Vinyard, off Cape Cod, MA, where much of the film was shot. The island is expecting thousands of visitors, including younger fans who only caught the shark on television or home video, to gather at what will become an annual celebration of everything Jaws.