Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Cutting Edge: Jaws

Even though Stephen Spielberg's blockbuster hit, 'Jaws' (1975) is just over 40 years old, there is no doubt that it still celebrated and enjoyed today. Despite its now dated effects, after watching 'Jaws' it is difficult to go swimming without imagining a monstrous creature stalking you from below, especially if you feel something brush across your leg. This feeling of fear is contributed to Spielberg's ability to present simple, likable characters quickly along with limiting the amount of time the shark actually has on screen. The audience is left to create their own mental picture of the shark as it terrorizes its victims.

Fig. 1 'Jaws' (1975)
'Jaws' was notoriously difficult to film for Spielberg. It ran over budget, the mechanical sharks rarely worked properly, the crew had to film and manage equipment on the temperamental ocean waves, and the actual filming process took longer than expected. Despite all of this, 'Jaws' made a massive impact on its audience and on the overall way the film industry worked. "It was a complete nightmare that invented the 'summer blockbuster', launched the genius on a global scale and delivered an astonishingly effective thriller built on a very primal level: fear. Somehow it all fell into place," (Thomas, 2012).

One of the many reasons why this film was such a success is because of how it plays with the feeling of fear, something that every human being can relate to. It is difficult to imagine that someone wouldn't be horrified if an abnormally large shark with black dead eyes was circling them from beneath. Spielberg uses very few shots of the actual shark, most of it is implied through the use of P.O.V. shots, objects (such as the yellow barrels), or the iconic score that symbolizes the creature.

Fig. 2 The Yellow Barrels
Similarly to the score that accompanies the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (1960), the theme for the shark in 'Jaws' became instantly recognizable. "If ever there was an important example for how music can enhance a film, it is 'Jaws'. John Williams' memorable score is used sparingly but its tone of impending terror is more responsible for the power of the film than the sightings of the beast itself," (Haflidason, 2001). Even people who haven't seen the films can easily identify it.

However, if Spielberg failed to present us with likable, relatable characters then 'Jaws' may have been a very different type of film. Instead of feeling fearing for Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw), and Hooper's (Richard Dreyfuss) lives, we might be inclined to root for the shark to succeed at ruining Amity's tourist business. However, we care for the characters as we know Brody is attempting to save lives by closing the beaches while the selfish mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is more interested in making money. Of course, once the shark affects Larry's own family he tries to think of ways to convince himself he was doing 'what he thought was best'. He then finally agrees to hire Quint to kill the shark with the help of Brody and Hooper.

Both Quint and Hooper are also very charming characters in their own ways. Hooper is an intelligent young man with a genuine interest in marine biology and ends up doing all he can to warn the mayor and the citizens of Amity the dangers the shark presents. It is as frustrating for the audience as it is for Hooper when all of his warnings and expert advice go ignored. Hooper also seems to desperately try to get respect from Quint, a harsh, experienced shark hunter. Quint is a very stern and serious character but also has a more humorous side which can be seen as he sings drunkenly and compares scars with Hooper.

Fig. 3 Scars
Excluding Quint's monologue about his past (and his reason for hating sharks) we don't know much about their backstories. The characters are very simple, their history didn't need to be expanded on much for the audience to comprehend their role within the story. They are very recognizable archetypes, making them more understandable to a larger range of people. This is why they are so successful within the film, it doesn't take much time to make the audience recognize who the characters are and what they are meant to represent. While Spielberg could easily choose to elaborate and create more complex characters, he chooses not to.

This appears to be a recurring theme with this film. Both the story and its characters are simple but there is obviously much more beneath the surface. "There are no doubt supposed to be all sorts of levels of meanings... but Spielberg wisely decides not to underline any of them. This is an action film content to stay entirely within the perimeters of its story, and none of the characters have to wade through speeches expounding on the significance of it all. Spielberg is very good, though, at presenting those characters in a way that makes them individuals," (Ebert, 1975). 

To this day people continue to contemplate the real 'meaning' behind this film, for example some may say that the shark represents misogyny and violence towards women while others debate it represents the fear men have regarding castration. Some may see it as a film about how sometimes money and business is regarded more important than human lives. Either way, it feels very unlikely that there isn't some deep hidden meaning within 'Jaws', perhaps Spielberg even meant to have it symbolize multiple things. Whichever it may be, 'Jaws', despite its nightmarish filming process and cryptic meaning, managed to become the first summer blockbuster and remain a classic 40 years later.

Chilton, M. (2015) Jaws, Review: 'Brilliant and Terrifying' At: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/jaws/review/ Accessed on: 9/2/2016
Ebert, R. (1975) Jaws At: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/jaws-1975 Accessed on: 9/2/2016
Haflidason, A. (2001) Jaws At: http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2000/07/14/jaws_review.shtml Accessed on: 9/2/2016
Thomas, W. (2012) Jaws Review At: http://www.empireonline.com/movies/jaws/review/ Accessed on: 9/2/2016

Illustration List:
Figure 1. Jaws [Poster] At: http://static.comicvine.com/uploads/original/11/119238/3658491-2793285307-zbmry.jpg Accessed on: 9/2/2016
Figure 2. The Yellow Barrels [Film Still] At: http://movie-screencaps.com/jaws-1975/70/ Accessed on 9/2/2016
Figure 3. Scars [Film Still] At: http://movie-screencaps.com/jaws-1975/58/ Accessed on: 9/2/2016

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear! An engaging, authoritative review, Dee :)