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A blog for poetry, prose, and pop culture.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Movie Time: Rewind: Jaws

Hey all,

For this month's edition of the Rewind we go back to the last year of eligibility for this column, 1975. A year that gave us perhaps the first true summer blockbuster and the film that launched maybe the most important director of the past three decades, Steven Spielberg. That movie, of course, is Jaws starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, and Lorraine Gary.

Jaws is a film a lot of people HAVE probably seen, so I won't spend a great deal of time on the plot of the film. Suffice it to say that it is set in the resort town of Amnity Island and concerns itself with the local police chief Martin Brody (Scheider) trying to protect it's citizens from a bloodthirsty great white shark. He tries to close the beach but is overruled by the city council in an effort to keep the profits rolling into the town from the tourist trade. After several attacks by the great white, Brody enlists the help of a marine biologist named Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss) and a shark hunter Quint (Shaw) in an effort to hunt down the beast and kill it. Lorraine Gary plays Brody's wife Ellen.

Jaws was an important picture in many ways and laid the groundwork for a very common practice for movie studios today, summer blockbusters. It is often described as one of the first "High Concept" pictures, something that could be made as a single film, but with potential for additional films. It is at least the first modern one if you don't count the serial reels from the 30's and 40's. Jaws also tested so well with advance audiences it was released on more screens than any film in history to that point, something that studios would build on in '76 with The Omen and especially in '77 with Star Wars. Based on this success, Jaws became the first film to be released nationwide on hundreds of screens coupled simultaneously with a huge marketing campaign, a then unheard of practice. It became a "tent pole" film for studios to release around and established the summer as the time to do it. Jaws was a gigantic blockbuster for the studio and the leader to modern day film practices.

This film was also Steven Spielberg's second film, having directed The Sugarland Express for producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who were also producing this film. Based on the novel by writer Peter Benchley, who cameos in the movie as a reporter, Benchley also wrote the first three drafts of the film before bowing out, establishing much of the films feel. Spielberg did cut several elements from the book, wanting to focus on the three mens struggle against the whale and the camaraderie that comes from that struggle.

Jaws, for all intents and purposes, was plagued with delays and shooting difficulties, even earning it the nickname "Flaws" during production. Plagued with script problems after Benchley left and technical difficulties, it was a highly stressful shoot. Three mechanical sharks (nicknamed Bruce) were created for the film and after construction, they were flown to the location shoot in Martha's Vineyard. Unfortunately they had never been tested in water and didn't float or work right. Shooting at sea also held several complications with unwanted sea vessels wandering into the shoot, weather problems, even problems with the sea worthiness of Quint's boat, The Orca, which began to sink once the actors boarded it.

Still the production difficulties provided Spielberg time to tighten up the script, making it much more Hitchcockian in spirit, turning it into a tense and deadly thriller. He really lays on the taunt suspense by not even showing the shark for the first hour of the movie, making "Bruce's" first showing that much more scream worthy. Even so most of the cast and crew were tired of the production and tension was high as the film drew to a close.

All of that was forgotten as Jaws was released to the pubic in July of 1975. It went on to shatter box office records and become the first film to gross 100 million dollars at the box office. World wide it made over $470 million and is one of the first films to truly have sequels in the modern era, though Benchley and Spielberg would not be a part of them. The film helped establish Dreyfuss as an up and comer in the industry (he would go on to team with Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and helped make Scheider a leading man. Robert Shaw, an industry veteran, was a notorious drunk during film making and difficult to work with, though his turn as Quint may have been his most memorable performance thanks to his monologue about being in the water at the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, easily one of the highlight performances of the film.

For Spielberg, this film launched his career and he obviously went on to become one of the most important directors in history. Without Jaws, films like Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, are not possibilities. It was his vision and dedication to making the picture that works, without him Jaws wouldn't be the movie that it is today. it should also be mentioned here that Spielberg's long time composer, John Williams, worked with him on the film (both having been together for Sugarland Express) and his score also went a long way in establishing the mood and tension on the film. Williams famous score only highlighted the terror and suspense of the unseen shark, and created a sound universally recognized as something of dread and foreboding. It was Jaws that established him as the premier composer in Hollywood as well, allowing him to work on scores for such movies as the Superman franchise, the Star Wars films, Indiana Jones, even Harry Potter. His contributions are just as important.

The films impact over the years cannot be ignored, influencing filmmakers from Ridley Scott (who pitched his 1979 horror/thriller Alien as Jaws in space) to JJ Abrams (who shot 2008 Cloverfield much in the same vein as Jaws; not showing the monster until the end; only in flashes). Despite the release of several lackluster sequels, the original Jaws is still a much beloved classic. A movie who's impact and resonance still holds after nearly 35 years. This is in fact my room mates favorite film of all time, and with his birthday this month, this column was dedicated to him and his love of great classic films. If you haven't seen Jaws you are in for a treat, if you have, blow the dust off the copy and treat yourself to a truly classic film by one of the masters.

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