Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part V: What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine


Already the purest monster movie of all time, if you also wanted to call Jaws the greatest, you wouldn't be able to find too many able to muster a particularly passionate argument against that, either.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb, and Steven Spielberg (based on the novel by Peter Benchley)
With Roy Scheider (Martin Brody), Robert Shaw (Sam Quint), Richard Dreyfuss (Matt Hooper), Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody), and Murray Hamilton (Mayor Vaughn)

Spoiler alert: severe

In the twilit waters of Amity Island, a young woman meets something in the ocean, and she is no more.  They find her corpse the next day, giant bites torn from her flesh, bites that could only have been caused by a shark attack.  And indeed, that is exactly what New York refugee and current Amity Chief of Police Martin Brody writes in his report.  But according to the mayor, it looks more like a boating accident, and that's what the coroner lists as his official cause of death.  After all, it's almost the Fourth of July, and reports of a shark infesting their fair waters during the summer season would be devastating.  The mayor, of course, is wrong, and his inaction leads to two more deaths in the meantime.  But soon a pair of saviors arrive: the first is local grizzled fisherman and probable anti-Semite Sam Quint, who has offered to catch this shark, but not for less than $10,000; the other is rich city boy Matt Hooper, a man fueled by an abiding passion for elasmobranchology, stoked in a childhood confrontation with a murderous thresher shark.  With Brody in charge of the case, he brings Quint's salty experience and Hooper's scientific acumen together, and presently the trio venture out upon Quint's fishing vessel Orca to either kill the great white shark, or die trying.

When it comes down to it, one of them doesQuint himself, eaten on the deck of his own sinking boat.  But Brody hatches a desperate plan that, by an outright miracle, works: he detonates a pressurized oxygen tank within the shark's gullet, causing this monster of the deep to fucking explode.  Triumphant but stranded, and paddling landward on a piece of the shattered Orca, Brody and Hooper realize that they're so amazingly cool that they need not just one but two of the best final dialogue exchanges to ever end a movie.  And thus, it being impossible for their writers to decide between pure existentialism and a piece of more conventional but nonetheless incredibly bad-ass irony, they chose both.  The first,
"Think the tide's with us?"
"Keep kicking."
is followed immediately by the second,
"I used to hate the water."
"I can't imagine why."
And they are fantastic lines (that also manage not to step on each other).  But this does no more than scratch the surface of what amounts to an essentially flawless screenplay.  Really, think about how immaculate Jaws is, in comparison to the bloat that characterizes movies of its ilk today.  It is radically efficient, to begin with.  Scarcely a single stray line fails to either reveal character or advance the plot.  It's effortlessly-paced, and never repetitive though an hour of it is spent on a boat, chasing something which, by definition, we usually won't be able to see.  And most importantly of all, it fills its three leads with more personality than most avowed character studies ever manage to do.  The tiniest little details herelike the gunshot wound Brody that won't talk about, while the other two men proudly display their scarsspeak enormous volumes; while the truly epic momentslike cinema's greatest monologue, Quint's tale of his service aboard the U.S.S. Indianopolispass immediately into the realm of honest-to-God legend.

And that's just the pure text.  That's long before we get into the brilliantly subtle tripartition of America's neverending class war between these three men; it's long before we get into Jaws' examination of American masculinity by way of some of the best male bonding (and quarreling) ever witnessed on a movie screen, too.  (It is not only possible, but altogether probable, that Jaws is the best-acted monster movie of them all.)

And it's definitely before we get into all the dubious metaphors for Vietnam and Watergate and all that, which many commentators have found lurking beneath the ocean in Jaws.  In fact, I guess I don't actually have much time at all for any specifically symbolic interpretations of Jaws, especially not when our beleaguered mayorthe ancestor to every self-dealing local politician in every similar movie since—is himself revealed as a flawed man with a real conscience.  And maybe that's just my dull literalism at work—after all, my personal reading is that it's a movie about a shark.  If its exemplar of an authority figure blinded by his own bullshit also happens to perfectly reflect the world of A.D. 1975—well, it's rather obvious that, in this regard, 1975 was not exactly unique.  So let's just skip that part, for Jaws is simply far too much about itself to ever be anything less than a tale for all people, for all time.  Jaws is a universal myth.  It's no surprise, therefore, that it created the Steven Spielberg we love, the maker of universal myths.

(Warning: universal mythmaking may not apply to women, Indians, and Arabs.)

Now, the word on Jaws is that its genius is bound up in what it doesn't show the audience.  Well, let's first put aside the fact that it's a little difficult to ascribe any kind of "genius" to a decision that was forced by circumstance, for—rather famously—Steven Spielberg had originally wanted to show the audience everything.  Of course, the unreliable animatronic shark that was delivered barely worked, compelling him to shoot around the beast's limitations.  In 2005, he remarked that if he'd made his breakthrough hit then, it would've been all-CGI.  To paraphrase the director, it also would've been crap.  Given that the glimpsing style Spielberg brings to shark wasn't his first instinct, and also given that it is the most prominent, most praised element of the movie that saved cinema from the New Hollywood doldrums, ushered in the Second Golden Age, and made the 2016 equivalent of over a billion dollars, we must entertain the possibility that Spielberg, while certainly the greatest, is also the luckiest filmmaker alive.  (Luckiest dead filmmakers include Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but that's neither here nor there.)

So, like I said: let's put all that stuff aside, because the stupidly reductive statement, "Jaws is great because it doesn't show the shark," says far too much while simultaneously saying far too littlenot least because, in point of fact, we actually do see an awful lot of that damn shark.  It is the combination of the unseen and the seen in Jaws that afforded it its industry-shaking power.  Consider Spielberg's craftsmanship, in collaboration with Verna Fields, who delivered (on her final job) the unimpeachable, Oscar-winning editing which ties together shots of three different puppets, three leads (and all their many stand-ins), and the custom-made nature footage shot by the documentary naturalists Ron and Valerie Taylor.  All of this, when combined, gives you a completely unambiguous perception of the sea monster against which our heroes battle.  Obviously, you could talk for days about the tricks Spielberg used to get around his dysfunctional prop, like the piece of the pier it tears off, the underwater POV shots, or the use of the barrels (which Spielberg and company present with uncommon respect for the audience's intelligence, by the way, by refusing to tediously explain exactly how they work); and, just as obviously, these tricks effectively build the atmosphere that Jaws needs for its climax to function as well as it does.

But, please, let us not just repeat the big lie about this film: for there is no Jaws, and no summer-devouring hit, without Robert Shaw shoved halfway down that robot's mouth, slashing madly at the thing's face while shrieking madly and drooling red-dyed corn syrup.  (Indeed, the basic inoperability of the shark, aside from forcing Spielberg's hand, serves as something like a strength even when it is fully in the frame.  It's an alien, this monster.  It looks "fake"—but only to the extent that old, expensive effects ever could look "fake," because no matter what else you might say about them, they're still made of whole atoms, and not just electrons on some CGI artists' hard drive.  That kind of fakeness, I think, makes it almost seem more real, for its undeniable soullessness aligns so perfectly with the idea of sharks that we all carry around with us: a gaping, ravenous maw, wrapped in a plasticky skin, topped with black doll eyes, pursuing its prey with implacable, algorithmic zeal.)

And again, it really is in the frame a lot: when it eats the man in the pond; when it bites through Hooper's less-than-100%-effective anti-shark cage; when it leaps right up onto the boat.  And that's not to even mention that nature footage, purporting to depict the beast thrashing around most frighteningly against the cage, itself a miniature prop.

Jaws, you see, is simply distilled movie magic.  I've seen it described, rather often, as the best-directed film Spielberg ever managed, which is saying something indeed.  And while I'm not entirely sure I agree, it's certainly one of the runners-up in that very competitive race: for all that Jaws might well be a horror film, and deeply reliant upon suggestion, it's one iconic image after another, from the opening kill to the long, lingering, mordantly beautiful shot of the shark sinking through its own blooda shot lifted body and soul from the climax of Duel, mind you, and even more vivid for its contrast of the blue of the ocean and the red cloud that Brody's made of his nemesis.  Even shots that are probably naught but placeholders attain an ineffable majesty: Quint on the prow of his ship at sunset is probably the most memorable shot of a man on a boat since Douglas Fairbanks tore ass down a sail.  Bill Butler, Spielberg's collaborator on Something Evil and Savage, served him again, as Jaws' DP.  Filming largely in handheld once the shoot moved to the ocean (although you'd hardly notice that fact), I shall not recount the stories of its rigors, except to say that the results are, in every sense, beyond believable.

If you're interested in such matters, I strongly recommend watching Richard Dreyfuss recount them instead.  He's a treasure.

Butler was a good cinematographer whose career peaked right here: but if a great cinematographer needs but a single great film to claim that title, then Jaws is surely his ticket into DP heaven.  (And, because it needs to be fit in somewhere, in Jaws we find a young Joe Alves, who would later prove himself the absolute king of found production design in Escape From New York, preparing to take the crown by locating some of the quaintest parts of Martha's Vineyard; though the one major original set, Quint's house, is also an ecstatically good bit of design-from-scratch.)

So, if I had to pick just one example of Spielberg's dominion over the art of filmmaking in Jaws, with Butler faithfully executing his vision with utmost panache, I want to call your attention to the scene where the shark takes its second victim, the Kitner boy.  The cinephile trickiness of it alone is deeply impressivefrom split diopter shots (pretty magnificently representing Brody's split attention, as he keeps seeing sharks where there aren't any), to the unbelievably subtle hidden wipes that keep ratcheting up the tension on Brody and upon us, to the lurking, terrifying notes of the unforgettable Jaws theme, accompanied by stalker-POV from the shark's eyes, and finally punctuated by the Vertigo push-pull upon Brody's frozen, traumatized reaction.  This is godlike filmmakingand it's in service of narrative content that operates on the exact same fearless level, for Spielberg ends this scene only once he's turned a small child into a Goddamned geyser of blood.  (Jaws, you know, is the first film to feature Spielberg's special exemption from R ratings.  Recall that Carpenter, pulling the same trick in Assault on Precinct 13, courted not just an R, but the dreaded X, whereas not even one year earlier, Jaws' super-producers, Richard Zanuck and John Brown, had argued the MPAA down to a PG by noting that the only murderer in their movie was, essentially, nature itself.)

And, somehow, the suckers actually bought this.

The missteps in Jaws—I mean, no film is truly flawless—are nevertheless so minor as to be almost invisible: the only one I can really name offhand is that John Williams' score is sometimes too, well, jaunty, something that works fantastically the first time he starts riffing on a happy-go-lucky sea shanty, but feels slightly inappropriate once we're past the Indianopolis, and we're deep into the horror of the natural world in the film's last quarter-hour.  And maybe I'd switch around those two last exchanges in the script, and end on "Keep kicking," which feels a little more right for a movie where a third of the cast has been eaten.

But when that's the kind of deep, insane-sounding nitpitcking you have to stoop to, just to find anything that's wrong in Jaws, it's clear what you're dealing with: an all-out masterpiece.  No wonder it changed everything.

Score:  10/10

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