Jun 8, 2010

Jaws 35th Anniversary: "She was the first"

‘We entered the bicentennial year having survived some of the bitterest times in our brief history. We longed for something to draw us together again’ — America’s Bicentennial report, 1976
‘She was the first...’ — Jaws poster, 1975
What was so different about Jaws? In one sense, nothing at all. “This is Universal’s extraordinary motion picture version of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel....” intoned the trailers, with the sort of silver-platter flourish that now seems as quaint as three-colour disco lights: they thought Benchley was the attraction? The book? Benchley’s novel was that most curious of seventies artefacts: the misanthropic best-seller, full of such loathing for the common herd, you wonder why on earth the common herd bothered with the thing: “They had no body odour,” notes police chief Benchley of the bathers he watches over. “When they sweated, the girls smelled faintly of perfume; the boys smelled simply clean. None of which is to say that they were either stupid or evil...” Peter Benchley, please step forward and accept the 1975 People’s Friend award! Spielberg cut out the sourpuss posturings and gave the part of Brody to Roy Scheider, telling him “I don’t want to feel that you could ever kill that shark.” Charlton Heston had wanted the part, but as Spielberg’s screenwriter, Carl Gottleib pointed out, Heston had just saved a jetliner in Airport 75 and he was going to save Los Angeles in Earthquake, so “it just didn’t seem right for him to be wasting his time with a little New England community.” The blockbuster would eventually become synonymous with the effortless accomplishments of singular superheroes, but Jaws, from the outset, was an exercise in dramatic downsizing, attuned to the scruffy, low-slung heroism of ordinary men, and engaging in pitched battle with just a single shark, which kills only four people in the entire movie — and not at a single stroke, like an earthquake, but in four separate courses, from soup to nuts. It was, in other words, a repeat offender, in whom Spielberg had found a perfect reflection of his own restlessly kinetic instincts as a director. When the Orca is going at full throttle to catch up with the shark, Richard Dreyfuss’s admiring head shake of disbelief is entirely genuine: “fast fish!”

He should know. Dreyfuss’s reaction times — the flash flood grins that light up his face, the octave-vaulting scat of his line readings — are the second fastest thing in the movie, and from the moment Dreyfuss set foot in Jaws, he told audiences all they needed to know about how different a movie this was going to be. He steps onto the jetty, while all the bounty hunters are heading out in their overcrowded boats to hunt the shark, laughs that Daffy-Duck-on-helium laugh of his, and says to no-one in particular, “they’re all going to die!” — a prognostication of doom sung in the happiest of sing-song lilts. And there you have Jaws, a film buoyed up by more high spirits than any movie about killer sharks ought by rights to be. Barrelling along beneath cloudless skies that are a perfect match for its director’s temperament, Jaws picked up its audience, wiped them out, and deposited them on the sidewalk, two hours later, exhausted but delighted. What stays with you, even today, are less the movie’s big shock moments than the crowning gags, light as air, with which Spielberg gilds his action — Dreyfuss crushing his styrofoam cup, in response to Quint’s crushing of his beercan, or Brody’s son copying his finger-steepling at the dinner-table, both moments silent, as all the best moments in Spielberg are, and both arising from the enforced improv session that arose while he and his crew waited for his shark to work. You simply didn’t get this sort of thing from The Poseidon Adventure: no ironic machismo moments involving Styrofoam cups, no tenderly-observed finger-steeling at the dinner able. This didn’t feel like a disaster movie. It felt like a day at the beach.

To get anything resembling such fillets of improvised characterisation, you normally had to watch something far more boring — some chamber piece about marital disintegration by John Cassettes, say — and yet here were such things, popping up in a movie starring a scary rubber shark. It was nothing short of revolutionary: you could have finger-steepling and scary rubber sharks in the same movie. This seemed like important information. Why had no-one told us this before? Spielberg had completely upended the pyramid of American film, ridding the blockbuster of its rather desperate bids for “prestige” while also visiting on it the sort of filigree dramatic technique normally associated with films much further up the brow. The effect on audiences was properly electric, for now we knew, and we would never go back, willingly, to the old system of cinematic apartheid which had existed before, dictating that popular movies must be dumb, and high-brow films boring. Spielberg had upped the game for everyone. Now, there would be very little excuse for the sort of over-inflated middle-brow ponderings we had accepted in the name of popular entertainment up until this point, and at the other end of the spectrum, even art films would have to have a very good excuse not to try and entertain us just that little bit more. An entertainment revolution was underway.

If you’re going to remodel the entire industry on a single movie, Jaws is, on balance, a pretty good movie to pick: its fast and funny and tender and oblique and exciting in an intriguingly non-macho way, although most critics at the time didn’t see it like that. “A coarse-grained and exploitative work which depends on excess for its impact,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “You feel like a rat being given shock treatment” said the Village voice. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons,” intoned the critic of Commentary. It’s not too hard to understand their dismay. The upper registers of the box-office had, until 1975, remained completely free of great whites, man-eating or otherwise, for close on a century; the top-ten had been a matter of Biblical mountains, parting seas, the rise and fall of Rome, all supplanting one another with the speed of a glacier; and suddenly here was this rubber shark, devouring all before it. It had to be a fake — an instance of moviemaking voodoo, mass hysteria. “Its symptoms are saucered eyes, blanched faces and a certain tingle anxiety about going near the water”, wrote Newsweek of ‘Jawsmania’, with the tone of concerned doctors at a 1964 Beatles concert. Elsewhere, the cynicism took on more seventies, Watergate-era tinge. “Audiences who think they made Jaws a success are pitifully naive about the mass media,” wrote Stephen Farber, in a New York Times article entitled ‘Jaws and Bug: the Only Difference is the Hype’, a theme later continued by Michael Pye and Linda Myles in their book The Movie Brats, which claimed Jaws effected the “the transformation of film into event through clever manipulation of the media.” For of course, all manipulation of the media is “clever” manipulation of the media, particularly if you happen to work in the media, for what other sort would get past your finely-tuned radar?

What is most striking about ”Jawsmania” today, however, is what a grass-roots operation it was, driven not by the studio but by private profiteers, pirates or just entrepreneurs with a single goofy idea. A Jaws discotheque opened in the Hamptons, complete with with a wooden fake shark; a Georgia fisherman started selling jawbones for $50; a New York ice-cream stand renamed its staple flavours sharklate, finilla and jawberry; a Silver Spring speciality dealer began selling strap-on styrofoam shark fins, for anyone who wanted to start their own scare in the privacy of their own beach. Meanwhile, up and down the coast towns of America, hotels reported a spate of cancelled bookings, as people caught wind of the sudden rise in reported shark attacks: which is to say, commercial interests lost actual money because of the release of Jaws. So much for synergy. In fact, the official Universal merchandising was minimal — t-shirts, beach towels, posters — and when Spielberg proposed a chocolate shark, he was turned down — the first and last time in the career of Steven Spielberg that he would be refused a merchandising opportunity by a studio.

“Jaws opened up a vein in the public consciousness,” says David Brown. “Movies used to be a solitary experience. You sat in the dark, alone, no matter how many people surrounded you. But with Jaws people started to talk back to the screen and applaud shadows. On a screen that couldn’t hear them. The whole notion of applauding a movie would have been ludicrous in the 20s and 30s.... Zanuck and I could walk by a theatre and know what reel was playing by the sounds that came out. That was a new experience. Audience participation. The new word is interactive I guess.” It marked a crucial advance on the decade’s previous blockbusters. Say what you like about Love Story but it was not really an audience participation film, unless you counted the synchronised smooching going on in the back row; nor was The Godfather, which was essentially a study in collective isolation; you left the theatre eyeing your fellow movie-goers with new unease, uncertain whether you would care to share a cinema with them again. But Jaws united its audience in common cause — a shared unwillingness to be served up as lunch — and you came out delivering high-fives to the 600 new best friends you’d just narrowly avoided death with. And then you came back the next day to narrowly avoid it again. Thanks to these repeat viewings, Jaws stayed around all summer, becoming in turn the thing millions of Americans most remember about that summer. A Colt 45 Malt Liquor commercial offered the first of many Jaws parodies; Bob Hope quipped that he was too scared to take a bath: “My rubber duck was circling me”, while political cartoonists seized on the shark as representing — variously — taxes, unemployment, inflation, male chauvinism, Ronald Reagan and the Hawaii Media Responsibility Commission. That’s what America did in the summer of 1975: it watched Jaws.

“One of the wonderful things about Jaws was that was that the cultural impact was greater than you could make today” says Sidney Sheinberg, Spielberg’s mentor at Universal. “Nowadays, the release of movies most resembles a television show: the whole idea is, get all this money, get all the people you can to see it the first weekend. I’m not sure you could make that sort of cultural impact with today’s blockbusters, which everyone sees so quickly and which then disappears from consciousness. Compared to the impact you could make when it sits there all summer, and more and more people are seeing it, and it’s feeding on itself, as Jaws did.” If you went back to the film, in fact, as many were doing that summer, you noticed that it told two stories, only one of which happens to be about a giant shark. The shark eats the girl, then the boy; but then look what happens: the town reacts as if it school was out. It erupts into a boomtown of petty profiteering and casual lawlessness; kids start scrawling graffiti on billboards; bounty hunters head out to sea in a big crazy flotilla, shooting guns into the water, and Spielberg is on fire — hopped-up on the whole crazy spectacle, just as he was by the flotilla of cars in Sugarland Express, and the whole media circus that trailed his outlaw couple. The bounty-hunters come back with a shark that does get their picture in the paper, and the next thing you know, the story has gone national. The national networks arrive, and are soon crawling all over the beach with their cameras, just in time to catch the next shark attack, which turns out to be a hoax: two small boys, wearing a wooden fin, who are pulling, dripping, from the water. If you want a trenchant analysis of Jawsmania, in other words, your best bet has always been to check out Jaws itself. It’s all there, up on the screen — the hysteria bleeding into hoopla, the hoopla into hype and the hype into hoax.

“We need summer dollars”, pleads the Mayor, anxious to play down the threat. “We depend on the summer crowds for our very lives. You yell ‘shark’ and we got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July”. Which is when Dreyfuss delivers his great speech. “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. Its really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim, eat and make little sharks...” For those who care to see it, there was an allegory there for what all that was about to happen to Hollywood: “Panic on the 4th of July” would, henceforth, be the motto pinned up on the door of every marketing executive, while a “perfect engine” for making more sharks the dream of every producer. The first July 4th movie was also, in some strange moebius-strip way, a prescient allegory for all the other July 4th movies to come. It’s one of the reasons why Jawsmania, with its nods to “Beatlesmania”, was always a bit of a misnomer, unless Newsweek meant mid-period Beatles, around the time of Sergeant Pepper, when Paul McCartney fabricated an ersatz super-group to deflect and channel back into the ether some of the Beatles’ own fame: Jaws is of exactly the same order of self-conscious pop craft. The object of national hysteria; national hysteria was also its subject, its object, its very method. When audiences honked their horns at Drive-Ins, or strapped on their fake shark fins, they weren’t buying into the hype; they were buying into the movie, which contained its own hype within it, like an echo waiting to be born in the summer haze that hovers above Spielberg’s island.

“Inside the movie, its a national media event,” says the director. “I know. And I was the last to have predicted that that was what was going to happen with the film’s release. I had no idea. All of us, including Richard Dreyfuss, who never believed this film would float, we were phoning each other reporting these experiences we were having in all these previews wondering what went right, because for nine months of principal photography, everything went wrong, and we could not believe that some chord was about to be struck. Lew Wasserman was showing the movie in fire-stations and barns — anyplace they could put up a projector. I actually thought Lew had lost his mind when he told me he was going to go out in almost 500 theatres. That hadn’t been done by any Universal film before. Today, art films are released in 409 theatres, and Jaws certainly was not an art film. I never took that story so seriously as to think I was making Melville. I wasn’t.”

— reprinted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004)


  1. You really are a very good writer.

  2. You really are a very good writer

  3. Brilliant. I'm a big fan. You've been an inspiration to my own review work!

  4. Hey Tom, so sorry it's taken me four days to read this. We've been getting dozens of submissions and Ryan and I have been scrambling to read each of them as quickly as possible.

    About Spielberg making an effort to state that Jaws was "not an art film", I respect his modesty, but I actually disagree with him. In the piece that I submitted for the film two days ago, I argue that Jaws, while no doubt important in the history of blockbusters, is truly a work of art in the "New Hollywood" tradition: I'd lump it in with Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Coppola's The Godfather, De Palma's Carrie and all those other Americans classics by Spielberg's fellow "Movie Brats". If Jaws is often overlooked as such a film, that's probably because of--as you've described here--the media excesses that were spawned in the wake of the movie that sort of gave it a bad name. I read a quote by Robert Towne once (can't find it on the Web) in which he declared that there was nothing wrong with the film itself--just that "the wrong lessons were learned."

    You were talking about an article by Newsweek that attempted to interpret the film psychologically. I think I've heard of this article; was there a contribution to it by a psychiatrist named Alfred Messer? I haven't actually read the article, but Spielberg's biographer, Joseph McBride, quotes Messer as saying the film was a metaphor for the "helplessness and powerlessness’ ordinary folk in the United States feel in their everyday lives—just this once with a happy ending." Huh.

    I'm not surprised the people at the Village Voice hated the film, though. J. Hoberman currently writes for them and he has detested Spielberg for years.

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