Stream of Consciousness: Jaws

Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, and various other streaming services have revolutionized the way we consume movies and television, and each week I’ll highlight the best these services have to offer in this segment: Stream of Consciousness.

The 1970s were quite possibly the most revolutionary period of time in cinema history since the introduction of the “feature film” in the 1910s.  The turn of the decade saw the 60’s studio system that aimed at pleasing all four quadrants give way to the group of outsiders and young directors who sought to revolutionize the way films are made due to the rise of Television and the decline of studio profits at the end of the 1960s.  This “New Hollywood” era began with the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde and the film’s critical and commercial success despite the disdain it received from distribution and chief studio executives led many studios to grant control of motion pictures to this new crop of directors and filmmakers as opposed to the traditionally studio controlled system.

Chief among this group were the “Movie Brats”, which consisted of young, film school-educated, directors and writers who would go on to completely change the way films are made.  Unlike previous generations of directors, these “Movie Brats” grew up with film being a constant in their lives, and they lived and breathed cinema.  This wave of “Movie Brats” included legends such as George Lucas, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg, who is arguably the greatest American director in the history of cinema.

Having previously directed a series of TV films for Universal, Spielberg was tapped to direct the feature film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws.  The film proved to be an intense undertaking, going both over budget and past schedule due to the on-location shoot and the now infamous malfunctioning mechanical shark.  Despite these setbacks, the inexperienced Spielberg managed to create a box office sensation that completely changed the way films were released in theaters while also setting precedent for how horror and action movies play out today.

Set in the fictional New England town of Amity Island, Jaws is a man vs. nature film in which three men, Amity Police Chief Martin Brody, oceanographer Matt Hooper, and professional shark hunter Quint, attempt to hunt a 25 foot great white shark after it has devoured multiple residents of the town.  Having read Benchley’s novel, Spielberg determined that the majority of the book’s first two acts should be omitted with the exception of the broadest strokes and that the film should center on the three men’s voyage to defeat the shark.  Benchley and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb removed many of the lurid subplots of the film (including one revolving around Hooper having an affair with Brody’s wife) and instead focused on the interactions and relationships between the three main cast members.

This decision to focus on the interactions of the three lead roles goes a long way to taking a novel that was considered a  “cliché and crude literary calculation” and transforming it into an Academy Award winning film.  Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss each convey a sense of individuality and both a chemistry and tension that makes these relationships at the heart of the movie tic.  Scheider’s Brody is a neurotic mess whose uncertainty and inexperience are contrasted by Robert Shaw’s steely and rugged Quint and Dreyfuss’s young, intellectual, and brash Hooper.  These characters and actors get a great number of chances to bounce off of each other and display these traits, particularly in the memorable scar display and USS Indianapolis scene as the men spend a drunken night at sea.

In addition to these story structure changes, Spielberg’s other masterful decision is to hide the shark, both out of necessity and in order to create a sense of unknown.  The malfunctioning Bruce, as the shark was jokingly named, caused an incredible amount of frustration on the set, but Spielberg used this difficulty to craft some of the finer scenes of the film, especially the horrific opening scene in which the unknown force attacks a swimming young woman.

Jaws, along with the works of Hitchcock, are oft the most cited works when dealing with modern horror films and fathered or popularized many techniques we see in today’s movies. The clearest example of this is Gareth Evans’ 2014 monster film Godzilla.  In this film, the monstrous beast is obscured or hidden from the audience’s view in order to build up our anticipation and fear of the creature.  This technique creates a tension within the audience as our imagination is allowed to run wild and allows the filmmaker to create more with less.

Historical importance aside, the film is a masterwork by one of the titans of cinema.  Spielberg uses the camera in both overblown and subtle ways, but always in the service of the story.  He lets the camera tell the story in ways that hint at the terror at hand.  Things like the underwater shark POV shots, the sweeping camera in the pond attack, and the iconic dolly zoom during the Kitner attack are such strong choices on a visual level that Spielberg uses to tell the audience things about the animal or the characters themselves, and help tell the story without using dialogue.

Spielberg is also a master of tension and escalation, showing a strong sense of character and storytelling that lets each scene and set piece tell a miniature tale.  Each time the shark appears to the crew of the Orca is a short film within itself, which lets the film grow and develop the characters through action rather than words.  Things like Hooper’s recklessness in tying his tracking equipment to the first barrel and Brody’s inexperience when he drops the compressed air tanks and his heroism as he saves Hooper when he gets caught between the ropes and the stern of the boat are fine examples of the subtle character beats Spielberg lays into his action scenes. Less subtle, but equally effective, are Quint’s Ahab-like tendencies when he destroys the only radio on the ship and overtaxed the engine in an attempt to drown the shark in the shallows in his infatuation with slaying the shark.  

In what might the single most iconic moment in all of film, Spielberg does an incredible job of introducing us to the shark for the first time.  For one of the first times in the film, there is zero hinting that the shark’s appearance is nigh, and the quick rearing of his head and the subsequent reaction by Brody immediately let us know of the hugeness of what we’ve witnessed.  Seeing how each character reacts to their first sighting provides additional insight to their mindsets (Brody’s shock, Quint’s rage beneath the surface, and Hooper’s pure awe).  This one scene encapsulates what makes Spielberg one of, if not, the greatest filmmakers of all time.

On top of utilizing his cinematography and actors, Spielberg adds sound design and music to his tool belt, with John Williams’ score enhancing the frightful vibe of the film.  Williams is one of the great composers of the modern film landscape, having provided the scores for films such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and Superman (1978), but, at its best, his score for Jaws is far more simplistic than the majority of his other work.  Relying on a mere three notes, his main theme strikes fear into the heart of the audience by merely increasing in tempo.  Spielberg also maximizes elements of his sound design, such as the crashing waves and the creaking of the Orca to his advantage, allowing these elements to be amplified in order to create an ambiance to mesh with the visuals on the screen.  This, in addition to the cinematic techniques discussed above, provide the backbone of a film that, to this day, has burned itself into the minds of viewers and forever makes them afraid to jump in the water.

As previously mentioned, Jaws is a seminal film in terms of how films are released into theaters.  Prior to the release of Jaws, films tended to have limited releases that were toured around the country, and rarely were the films a studio heavily invested in released during the summer.  Universal, however, saw the potential in releasing a film like Jaws during the summer months and to as many screens as possible, and the company released Jaws in nearly 500 theaters on June 20th, and accompanied this wide release with an unprecedented television marketing campaign ushered in the modern blockbuster landscape.  Universal reaped the benefits of this transcendent approach as Jaws would gross $260 million on a budget of $9 Million, becoming the highest grossing film of all time, a record it would hold until Star Wars in 1977.

Jaws is a legendary film from the eye and mind of one of the most important figures in cinematic history, and as such is mandatory viewing for anyone who respects film as both an art or as a vessel of entertainment.  Spielberg utilizes all of the tools at his disposal, and the young director showed a distinct touch and adept storytelling skills that few other directors ever develop, let alone begin their career with. It’s a taught two hour film that is a touchstone of both the horror and adventure genres, and is just as fun as it is a cinematic textbook.  Spielberg is America’s finest populist filmmaker, directing films whose artistic flourishes are always in service of making films that are a joy to watch for all audiences, and Jaws is a perfect example of this alchemy.

Jaws is available to stream via Netflix.  Next week, we will continue to look at the films that captured the hearts and minds of audiences on our top-of-the-box-office timeline with another Spielberg: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.