The Real Blockbuster

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Since today will be the last day of screenings for the re-release of Jaws in American cinemas, I thought I’d chime in with a few personal thoughts on this 40th anniversary of the Original Blockbuster.

Spielberg’s monster-shark movie was the film that shaped my cinematic world, because it was one of the earliest movies I saw in my childhood that left a deep impression on me. I can still see it in my mind, the day my father took me to the cinema, where there was a giant (hand-painted back then) billboard of the famous triangular shark-head. And the lines were mad! People were practically clambering over each other to get to the ticket counter. My father, of course, always bought me the best seat in the house, up on the balcony, so we never had to fight the long lines for any movie.

After I saw the movie for the very first time in my life, everything changed. Everywhere around our house, you could find drawings (badly done ones!) of sharks. I read up on everything about sharks; I became obsessed. I also suspect the movie has something to do with my love of the sea, even though I can’t swim.

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Here, I’d like to point you to a review that was originally published in 1975 in the LA Times, in which the reviewer Charles Champlin wrote about how much he disliked the film and its violence:

Careful studies by the Children’s Film Foundation in England have confirmed what common sense suggests: Children identify most strongly with what happens to children on screen, are most impressed and terrified by the violence done to or endangering other children. “Jaws” is nightmare time for the young.

I’m glad to say, Champlin was dead wrong. Even at 5 years old, I didn’t have nightmares. I was, in fact, fascinated by the way the shark chomped on Quint. And I wanted to see the film again, but that was not yet the age of VHS, so I had to wait a few more years.

It also took me a good few years before I could appreciate Jaws for its blockbusting artistry, after I outgrew my childish fascination.

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Now, this is the thing about blockbusters nowadays. If you take Jaws, the grandfather of modern blockbusters, and put it side-by-side with Jurassic World, a blockbuster sequel of Spielberg’s dinosaur movie, you will see all that is wrong with blockbusters nowadays.

Jaws worked and is still remembered and acclaimed today, because it is more than just about the shark. Actually, it’s not even about the shark. It’s never explained why the rogue Great White entered the shallow waters of Amity. It’s a threat that came out of nowhere, and symbolised the fears and the precarious nature of a small community and its economy.

A friend of mine said of that other monster film, Spring: “I came for the monster, and stayed for the couple.” And this is exactly how a good monster film works. It’s not about the monster.

The same can be said of Jaws: “I came for the shark, and stayed for the three men in the boat.”

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The characters in the movie are no mere fodder for the shark. They are not thrown into dangers and threats after a brief introduction. They have a certain way of life to maintain in the face of the threat, and they are deeply connected into the community collectively facing the threat.

If Jaws were made today, Mayor Vaughn would just be an annoying villain trying to keep the economy going at the expense of lives, and then later get eaten by the shark. But take the scene in the hospital right after the big attack on the beach where Brody’s son was almost a victim. Brody is trying vehemently to get Vaughn to sign the order to close the beach, and a visibly shaken Vaughn tells him: “My son was on that beach, too!” That one line (and scene) alone makes Vaughn a much more complex and conflicted character than just a mere villain.

And each of the three shark hunters are also complex characters. Brody is the police chief of an island town, yet he hates the sea. Quint is a survivor of vicious shark attacks after the USS Indianapolis sank, and lives with the horrible memories of that day. Yet he goes out everyday in the Orca to face and hunt the very things that feed his nightmares. Hooper, for all intents and purposes, is the perfect foil for Quint, and a wealthy, nervous nerd who is far from a macho shark-hunter yet jumps head-first into anything involving sharks.

You really want to stay and see if these three will survive not only the shark, but each other. There’s a real feeling that they are going to slit each other’s throats before the shark gets them.

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It’s the people that, in the end, stand out more in the film. Even as a kid, I was hit in the gut more by the scene of Brody’s public humiliation when confronted by the dead boy’s mother, than by Quint’s grisly death.

With Jurassic Park, Spielberg tried to replicate everything that made Jaws a runaway success. He held back showing the T-Rex till after one-third of the film. And he built complex characters that felt like real people. Still, Jurassic Park was more spectacle than Jaws ever was.

Jaws has always been credited (or blamed, depending on how you want to look at it) for starting new ways of marketing and releasing big summer releases. For all the merchandising that came after (I did have a toy rubber shark that I treasured so much), Jaws was still about filmmaking and about telling a ripping good story. But over the years, blockbusters have been increasingly about the bottom line, leaning more and more towards the Cinema of Spectacle. The recent Mad Max: Fury Road has almost no quiet moments. Jaws has plenty, and it is the careful orchestration of the big moments and the contemplative ones that creates a huge impact.

 

Here’s a more positive review from 1975, from The Hollywood Reporter.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic takes a look back at 40 years of Jaws.

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