With Jaws being one of Steven Spielberg's most iconic movies, and with me being pretty well-steeped in film culture from a young age, I have almost always been aware of this movie, but never watched it. For a while I was too young for its scary and maturity level, and for another while I believed I still was. But I always figured I would watch it someday, and that day has finally come.
|Okay. Don't look now, but... you're in an iconic movie moment.
Watching this film after so long a time made me realize some things: I realized that avoiding seeing it because I was afraid it would make me scared of sharks was a completely moot point, and I'd been delaying for no reason. The reality of the matter is that the moment I learned that this film made people scared of the water, it had its effect on me. Fortunately I have great parents who explained how sharks really work and how unlikely shark attacks are, and fortunately I'm a reasonable person who believed them, and fortunately I love the ocean so much that the idea of sharks will not deter me from the water, but the fact remains. Just knowing that this film scared people was enough to scare me.
Maybe it would have scared me more if I'd actually seen it at ten, but at the ripe old age of twenty-three, there was no more effect to be had. And this is an excellent example of what Spielberg himself discovered with this film; that the unseen is scarier than the seen. Because boy, that shark is at its scariest when it's represented by a POV camera, or moving barrels and docks, or the fear on a character's face. Just like the shark didn't need to be shown to scare moviegoers, for me even hearing about not seeing it was enough; my imagination did the rest.
|"I used to hate the water." "I can't imagine why."
I imagined a ton about this movie, by the way. Not purposefully, but knowing about it and being interested in it for so long, I could hardly do otherwise. Hearing bits and pieces of plot or filming trivia, and lines like, "you're gonna need a bigger boat" or "this was no boat accident" all added up to an idea of it in my head. One that I never really realized I had until it was shattered into pieces. My preconception of it wasn't terribly far off for a good portion of the film, but it's worth noting that for most of my life I thought that Richard Dreyfuss was the lead, and didn't even know who Roy Scheider was. Besides that not much was unexpected for the first two acts of the film.
I did, however, have a childish apprehension that it would be too scary. I knew it was silly, but it was a bit of a relief and extremely satisfying to have been able to relish the fear element that the film offered up so beautifully, instead of feeling regret and worry for my future sleeping abilities. That was a smaller side of my wrong expectations. Here are some of the bigger ones:
|Show me the way to go home / I'm tired and I want to go to bed / I had a little drink about an hour ago / and it's gone right to my head!
I didn't know that the whole last act of the film would be the three men, one boat and the shark. Having them be cut off from the world made everything so much more personal, which increased the suspense wonderfully. I didn't know that all three of the characters would be main characters; I expected a few red-shirts to be present. I thought that they would actually get a bigger boat! That one seems ridiculous now, but I honestly thought that if they needed a bigger boat, they would go get one. I didn't know that the character to say that line wasn't the biggest expert on either boats or sharks, but in my defense, (and his) he was right.
I didn't expect Quint to get eaten. I don't know why, but all the named characters seemed off-limits for some reason. So that whole scene really got me. I knew that there would be some personal, human drama going on with Brody, but still that climax was the biggest change to my expectations of all. Just him and a sinking boat vs. the most vicious shark a fish story has ever invented. I recently read Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, and the parallels between it and this sequence really struck me. Except here it was a younger, inexperienced man who knew nothing about the sailing or the ocean who found himself face to face with the terrifying, otherworldly power that the sea houses within its depths.
|I always look for the Spielbergian wonder in his movies, and this one is shot beautifully of course, but that's not all of it. Here, appropriately, the wonder comes from the ocean. And I saw it in this scene.
I even knew that the shark was killed by being blown up. I knew that, yet I knew nothing about the film's hero, hardly anything about his arc and the personal side of his struggle, and absolutely nothing about the circumstances of his victory. Isn't that strange? That was the part that made the film good! It's what makes the film great as well, but seriously, without Brody (and even Hooper and Quint too) and the human, emotional element he brings to the story, this film would probably be long-forgotten by now. Just an aged monster film with a good score. Even the score wouldn't be so effective if it weren't for the acting, which was excellent all-around, creating the lovable characters that we don't want to see get eaten.
Maybe that's just me, because I never saw it coming and wasn't prepared for how much I would love those characters and the depth they brought, but there it is. It really surprises me, considering it now: All the things I heard about this movie -- from various sources that loved the film -- were the superficial things that didn't really make a difference to me in the end. Maybe they were avoiding spoilers? And it was probably my fault too, since I was more interested in the neat tidbits and trivia and technical aspects than I was in remembering characters I didn't know played by actors I'd never seen. But my conclusion is this: my original idea of it wasn't mine at all; it was just an average; a general overall perception of it from the general movie audience, culminated inside my head. Now, it's been replaced by a personal view; and what will stick as important has been completely flipped around.
|Before, I saw a shark. Now, I see a shark, and a man.
Of course, the action and technical side is as impressive as ever, especially now that I've seen it all working! I will always respect practical effects more than CGI effects, even when the practicals become noticeably dated. There's just no replacing the realism that doing things in camera creates. And no one does practical effects like Spielberg. Actually watching the film hasn't dampened that legendary status I've always attributed to it even slightly.
I still have that feeling, that I mentioned in my Jurassic Park review, where I feel almost unqualified to love a film that's a classic because I'm new to it, but in the case of Jaws, the feeling of being new to it seems like a positive thing in a neat way. Like I've gotten rid of some baggage and am free to move forward in my own direction. I still have a little while to go to develop a full personal love, and I look forward to adding to that, and to my familiarity with it, but one thing will probably never change: I've always thought of this film as a masterpiece.