Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Cue the music. Hard to believe it has been 42 years since this movie splashed across cinema screens during the summer of 1975. In those days there were very few cineplexes, so lines stretched for blocks to see Stephen Spielberg's deep sea thriller. He was a hotshot 28 year-old director who had found the perfect vehicle in Jaws, a huge bestseller the summer before.
That's pretty much forgotten now, as James Kidd notes in this article, but Peter Benchley actually appeared in the movie, a little bit of Hitchcockian pretense. Kidd offers an interesting survey of opinions on the book. I liked Kingsley Amis' comment best, Jaws was about a bloody shark that could eat you alive.
Benchley had a great pedigree, but parlayed his family name into ready-made cinematic novels. It was a bared-bones narrative, as I recall, taking bits of The Old Man and the Sea and Moby-Dick and turning it into a thrilling page-turner meant to scare you out of the water.
The movie was no great shakes either. It had a relatively low budget of $9 million and it showed. Richard Zanuck was looking to make a buck not a masterpiece. He had already bankrolled Spielberg's The Sugarland Express, which had returned him $4 on every dollar he spent, and decided to up the ante a bit for Jaws. Securing the book rights was probably the most expensive part of the project. I don't think either Zanuck or Spielberg could have dreamed what came next. The movie grossed well over $100 million in its initial release, and has since raked in over $470 million worldwide.
What surprised me, as I watched it again the other night, was how little tension there was in the movie, even in the climactic final series of events. Spielberg had done a much better job with Duel four years before. Jaws was pretty much a paint-by-numbers retelling of the book, with the only notable exception being that Spielberg saved Matt Hooper in the end. I guess Steve thought Benchley's scene with Sheriff Brody getting back to shore on a boat cushion too much a stretch of the imagination and decided to have Hooper help him by making a raft out of the two remaining barrels. I found Benchley's scene quite amusing and an appropriate end for this beach novel.
Just the same, the shark became the newest in existential threats. Speilberg had turned the monster of the deep into a slasher film. Rather than scare people out of the water, the movie spawned a whole new industry - the great shark hunt - much to the chagrin of oceanographers everywhere.
Destin, the little town I grew up in, soon had a shark rodeo, drawing a great number of deep sea anglers hoping to hook the big one. Most of what came into port were sand and nurse sharks, but occasionally there was the Tiger, Thresher or Mako to draw "oohs" and "ahs" from the assembled crowd. No Great Whites. The gulf was too warm for them.
Maybe it was the rodeo that attracted Zanuck and company to Northwest Florida to film the sequel. If anyone was expecting a social commentary on this new obsession with sharks, none was forthcoming. Jaw 2 dredged up the same old story with an even bigger shark terrorizing poor Amity all over again. Spielberg was smart enough to pass on this project.
The shark has gotten a bad rap. More people died of shark attacks in the Jaws franchise (four movies all together) than all the persons killed by sharks in the US over the last 60 years. They are not man-eaters, and they certainly don't go hunting on the scale "Jaws" did. The USS Indianapolis story that Quint told is true, but it is impossible to know how many of the sailors were eaten by sharks or simply drowned at sea.
The naval story feeds right into the Moby-Dick subtext. Quint is Ahab returning to do battle with the great white beast that had devoured half his crew. Like the white sperm whale in Melville's book, the shark is smart, often outflanking Quint in the long sea battle. Benchley quickly shifts to The Old Man and the Sea as Quint tries to drag the shark back into shore, only for the beast to destroy his decrepit boat with him in it. Hooper made the obvious Ishmael but Brody was the only one left alive to tell the tale. However, nothing remains of the shark to say if it is dead or not. Amity will go on being Amity.
Despite the many attempts to revive the story in one form or another, Jaws stands alone 42 years later. However, it would be fun to see someone with a quirky sense of humor take another shot at the novel. See if he or she can plumb the depths of the human psyche a little deeper and give us something that has a little more emotional power. Too bad Stanley Kubrick is no longer around.