Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Olde Review: Jaws

I was looking at an old work-book from a UW course I took on Film (Cinema 201-Section AB) way back in 1975. The assignment was to keep a journal of films you saw/film-related things you were doing. And I found this entry for October 5 (with errors intact):

"After putting it off all Summer I went to see the summer's most lucrative film, "Jaws." Despite the fact that it was a matinee showing with what seemed like Western Washington's entire pre-teen population running up and down the aisles, and despite a projectionist whose religion must have prohibited properly framing a film, one was able to glom some sort of satisfaction out of the efforts of Steven Spielberg. I haven't seen much of Spielberg's work on television or theater (I didn't see "Sugarland Express" or many of his "Columbo" episodes) but those I have seen shows him to be a concentrator on montages, and a manipulator of audience reactions through erratic editing.

First of all, I have to say that the movie is a darn sight better than the novel it is based on. Spielberg and his screenwriters Gottlieb and Benchley have taken out the unnecessary sub-plots and gotten down to brass tacks by concentrating on the shark and its influence on the denizens of Amity. 

The first half of the film deals with the suspicions and final confirmation that there is a chomping monster out there in the water. The second half deals with the attempts of Brody, Quint and Hooper to subdue the beast. The fact that the movie is so clearly divided into two sections leaves them open to be compared with each other. As such, I prefer the first half. In this section, Spielberg moves logically from one incident to the next, playing on the suspense of the viewer. Also in this section is Spielberg's best sequence in the picture. As people mill and swim along the beach, Scheider sits on the beach watching for any shark activity in the water. Using passers-by as a blind to soften the jolt and heighten disorientation, Spielberg cuts closer and closer to Scheider as his (and our) tension mounts. Spielberg cuts back and forth between the various people of interest and Scheider, teasing the viewer with a gliding swimming cap (an example of perverse humor running throughout the film, something totally left out of the book, and an improvement) and some underwater shots of splashing limbs (a previous visual signal that the shark was ready to attack), a piece of wood floating in the water that a now-deceased dog had been retrieving. Spielberg builds until when the shark attacks, Brody's horror is shown in a "Rear Window" type of space ripping that brings Brody closer and the surrounding area farther away, separating him from his surroundings. This final scene might have been done faster for my taste, but that Spielberg thought of using it at all, is to be admired. The whole sequence is well-coordinated, tightly edited, and completely effective. As such, it is representative of the first half as a whole: logically scripted, meticulously photographed and planned, tightly edited. Of course, in the first half Spielberg concentrates on proof of the shark's existence. We never fully see it and Spielberg plays on our suspense in anticipating another attack.
With the second part, the suspense leaves. Spielberg, in the scenes in (sic) the Orca, Quint's boat, must rely on grotesque shots of the shark's maw, and sheer savagery, such as Quint being chewed alive. Subtlety leaves the picture. So does the execution that was so effective in the first part. Sequences are slip-shod, the editing, ragged and choppy (this for those action sequences in Part 2 to replace the suspense of Part 1). And Spielberg throws crisis upon crisis ("Let's see, is the boat on fire this time or is it taking on water?") Sure, the second part is tense like the first part, but it is also nerve-wracking. I reacted much more differently to Part 2 than to Part 1. The Orca sequences consisted of horrifying images and situations. I reacted with a horror that I also had from watching the various human torches in "Towering Inferno," a very inferior film, that relied solely on such horrors, for its shocks. Part 1 had much fewer than these, and instead of giving us a jolt from an unexpected violent action draws it out by making it expected and making us wait for it. Hitchcock can draw out such a scene expertly. Spielberg shows signs in Part 1 that he can also. But for now, he also must depend on sudden violence for a shock; a common weakness in films today."

Teacher's Remark: "Best treatment of the film I've yet read anywhere."

Well, as generous as that comment is, I still sound like a little snot, reading this. It's interesting to note this was at the beginning of Spielberg's career...long before he became "Dreamworks SKG"...and was still looked on as a novice film-maker, even by one such as me. And I agree with just about everything I said here. But then, Spielberg shot the film this way because he didn't have a working "mechanical shark" that he could use for the majority of the film's shooting, forcing him to use floating barrels, and to shoot an awful lot of peripheral stuff...and when he did use "Bruce," as the "shark" came to be known, well, it just didn't look very convincing. Hence the look and erratic nature of "Part 2"--the Orca scenes. Recall Orson Welles' line: "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations."

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