This evening I watched Steven Spielberg’s Jaws for something like the umpteen bajillionth time (but the first time in probably a few years) and I saw it as I never have before; in stunning HD quality. At long last, Jaws was finally released on Blu-Ray this week and I can say that, for fans of the film (or just for film fans in general) it is well worth the price of admission buying this film again.
I’m old enough to remember when Jaws was originally released. I saw it in the summer of 1975 when I was seven years old. Like pretty much everyone else who saw it at the time, it scared the piss out of me. I saw it at the drive in, the same way I was forced to see so many other movies back then, because my parents always preferred the ease of the drive in to actually taking the family to a real theater where they had to pay an actual ticket price for each of us. The drive ins we frequented back then typically charged by the carload rather than the individual viewer, so the wole family could see a flick (or two – they were usually double-features) for somethng like three bucks. It was the 70’s. So what if the picture always seemed washed out and the crappy little speaker that you hung on the car door sounded worse than a transistor radio (that’s what we had back then instead of iPods, kids), this was the way my family saw almost everything when I was growing up. I saw Star Wars at the drive in. I saw The Godfather, Part Two at the drive in. I saw The Empire Strikes Back at the drive in. I saw Airplane! and Friday the 13th and… well, you get the picture.
Anyway, I was saying that Jaws frightened me as a child. It did, a lot. Sure I was afraid to swim in the ocean for a time after seeing it (and, truth be told, I never did again until just a couple of years ago), like most of the country at the time, but I mean something far more basic. The movie scared me. Part of the brilliance that Spielberg brought to Jaws lies in the fact that, for about two thirds of the movie, the audience doesn’t see the shark. We see the victims and potential victims from a shark’s vantage point, under the water and looking up. We see the attacks themselves as sudden disturbances in the water coupled with lots of screaming and flailing about followed by the ocean turning red. Once we finally do lay our eyes on Bruce, the mechanical monster constructed for the film (this was way before CG, kids. If you wanted it in your movie, you had to physically make it and figure out how to get it to do what you need it to), it has been significantly built up that Spielberg could have shown us almost anything and I’d have soiled myself. What he showed us was Roy Schieder continuing to dump chum into the ocean, as it seems he’d been doing all day, and complaining about it when suddenly Bruce, Jaws, the fuggin’ SHARK emerges from the waves, teeth all sharp and jagged and we see the beast full on for the first time. I closed my eyes tight and didn’t open them again until the credits were rolling.
Watching the film this time around with Aurore, my girlfriend Tara’s ten year-old daughter, I related that same story to her as that pivotal scene approached. When Boo (that’s what everyone around here calls her) saw it for herself, she said “but that’s not scary.” Maybe if I had already seen A Nightmare on Elm Street and Chucky Goes toSummer School (or whatever the last Child’s Play flick was called) before I saw Jaws I wouldn’t have been frightened either. As it was, all I could think to say was, “well, it was in 1975.”
Jaws is an important film in a number of ways. It was the first major motion picture (Duel, made for and first seen on television doesn’t count) directed by Steven Spielberg and it opened the door for pretty much everything he did afterwards. It’s safe to suggest that, had Jaws not achieved the success it did, there may have never been a Close Encounters of the Third Kind or an E.T. the Extra Terrestrial or a Schindler’s List or a Jurassic Park … there may not have even been a Star Wars.
“Wait,” you’re saying, “Spielberg didn’t have anything to do with Star Wars!” and you’re right. Jaws, however, created the concept of the summer blockbuster and all the big summer movies that followed, whether they were made by Spielberg or not, owe it a huge debt. We’re talking about everything from Star Wars and it’s sequels and prequels to The Avengers (Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor… not John Steed and Emma Peel) and Independence Day here. Every single major big time summer release in the past thirty-seven years rides in some way in the wake of Jaws. That’s pretty major when you think about it in those terms.
Jaws is also unique in that it showed how a movie can come within inches of not ever being made and still wind up one of the biggest hits ever. Carl Gottlieb (who appears in a small role in the film) writes in detail in his book The Jaws Log how myriad problems threatened to shut the production down time and again. The cost involved in shooting as extensively as Spielberg did on the ocean was an issue for the studio. Tax problems faced by the Irish actor Robert Shaw added to Spielberg’s burden. Shaw could legally only spend so much time working in the US without paying huge taxes to the government. When delays caused Shaw to be in the country past his allotted time, the studio was responsible for some of that tax burden, eaning Spielberg was responsible. The locals at Martha’s Vineyard caused problems for the cast and crew as well. And the mechanical shark had a nasty habit of not working. All of this caused major headaches for the young director (it still baffles me that Spielberg was only twenty-six when he made Jaws. At twenty-six I was probably still smoking dope and working at a convienence store.) and nearly led to him being axed from the project or having it scrapped altogether.
Spielberg preservered, however, and the end result is a movie that still stands up as one of the best ever made and serves as a considerable piece of cinema history, one that deserves a new look now that it is available on the best format to watch a movie at home.