One of my favorite side effects of watching movies is the fact that where and when and with whom you watch a film becomes embedded in your relationship with it. I became a film lover early on, so many of my favorite films to revisit are soaked through with nostalgia for childhood and the freedom of Summer.
When the last day of the school year rolls around, there are several movies that sneak into my thoughts along with the smell of mowed lawns and plans for day trips, but the first DVD I reach for is always the same: JAWS.
The earliest memory I have of watching the film is during a family vacation to a rented beach house in the mid eighties. It was being aired while we were not 100 feet from the briny deep, and it seemed to my 9 year old self that it must be fate. I remember the ethereal glow of the moon visible through the windows, the distant grumble of the waves, the feel of my skin -sore from too much sun – as I laid on my stomach on the brown shag carpeting and I remember being terrified and loving every minute.
Originally released in June of 1975, we have a lot to thank JAWS for in regards to the modern concept of a Summer Blockbuster. It was one of the first films to be heavily marketed with advertising and merchandising (I still want The Game of JAWS) and the resultant frenzy must have been something to see first hand. The film cost only $9 million to make and brought in over $470 million at the box office. Impressive for a production wrought with script issues and plagued by a mostly non-functioning mechanical shark.
I would argue, and have on more than one occasion, that it was this malfunctioning prop that saved the film from becoming just another schlocky monster movie. Without a reliable antagonist to shoot, Spielberg was forced to rely on other tools to create the building suspense and fear. John Williams’ benchmark score became a crescendo of doom, dark underwater shots that literally showed the viewer nothing, have us biting our nails. The build up became so long and tense between shots of the actual shark that he just had to show up and look pretty. Some of the camera work in this film still gives me chills, and it’s not because of the shark. The dolly zoom on Brody as he realizes that the shark is just offshore is so good it makes me wish I could go back in time and be responsible for the shot.
The casting of what has come to be known by those who probably think too much about such things as ‘The Big Three’, is glorious. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw perfectly embody their thematic elements as Chief Brody (man), Matt Hooper (science) and Quint (spiritualism) and they all work seamlessly to draw the viewer into their epic struggle against the unknown/nature.
We all know the story. Even if you have never seen the film, you recognize it’s imagery and score. We see it referenced in books, TV, Memes, apparel, etc. By this point, it has become old hat. Nonetheless, every June I find myself visiting Amity Island again. I must be one of those ‘Summer Dinks’ the islanders always talk about.