Sunday, August 3, 2014

Movie Review: Jaws (Part I)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV coming soon

As our 100th movie review, it had to be Jaws. Every kid has a favorite movie: The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the Disney classics. My favorite was Jaws, and it was my favorite from an early age. The legend says I started watching it when I was five and, finishing the movie as I festooned books with pictures of sharks and boats, I would rewind the tape straightaway to watch over again. Scientists and philosophers wonder what permanent effect stimuli like art have on the brain. I'm undoubtedly the result of watching Jaws.

Like a lot of film buffs–wannabes and the real deals–I went through a period where I repudiated, or at lest relented, my passion for my first favorite. It was saved in editing, I would say. Even watching the Blu-Ray transfer last summer I was struck only by the quality of the image. After another annual viewing, though, which is always around July 4th, I realized that Jaws really is a great movie. It's well known that the movie is terrifying, so instead of adding another line to the chorus I thought to break down some of the choicest techniques in each scene which create the film's famous thrills.

As such, this will be more of an analytical photo essay in several parts than a review.

1. Opening Credits

Opening credits as they should be, short and sweet. We're introduced to two related ideas which will be repeated throughout the movie. The first is John Williams' theme for the shark, the Jaws motif. You can assign various meanings to these alternating notes in the deep bass–the human heartbeat, the shark's chomping–but it is the primal simplicity and unrelenting repetition of this pair which strike us. It's the other brassy figures over the primeval ostinato, though, which instill fear in us, with their wild shapes splaying up from the deep. The second feature which Spielberg will repeat is giving us the predator's perspective, which we'll see has the effect of making the victims look like prey. These are two simple techniques which terrify at the gut level. 

2. Beach Party

Then, of course, hippies. This is an unexpectedly effective scene and not because one feels bad for hippies, but because it too feels primitive. We've seen the animal primitive, and this is the human primitive. We've gone from water to fire, blue to red, and a simple primal bass figure to a wailing folk tune on the harmonica. This contrast is not much relevant to the plot, but the primal visual and aural cues rattle our hindbrains. 

When a free-spirited girl at the beach party runs off followed by her hopeful fling, the sexual dimension adds not only another primitive element, but also one of vulnerability. Hardly are humans ever more exposed, and when the girl decides to make a skinny dip in the sea, all the primitive elements align. The fact that her would-be lover for the night is passed out on the shore when she dives into the shark's domain only amplifies our sense of impotence against the beast. 

The rest of the scene owes its effect not o visuals or music but to the foley and sound effects. The girl's screams yes, are frightening, but more so the sound of her being dunked under water and the way her shouts for help just gurgle in the water rushing over her. Her cry, "Please God help me," hits us with less power today after decades of profanity in movies, but this is man's most fundamental and desperate cry, an appeal to a higher power to have mercy on us not only in a dangerous world, obviously represented by the shark, but also in an uncaring one, represented by the pitiless clanging of the buoy which she clutches in vain. 

3. Chief Brody

The transition from that buoy on the calm night sea to the shore from the main character's window the next morning is a brilliant edit. Not only does it establish place, the fact that the island is small and the beach is omnipresent to everyone, but the transition subtly suggests who will eventually kill the shark.    
This scene's a quick, effective setup for Brody. We know he's a family man, clearly, but from the way he and his wife joke about the local accents we know they're from out of town. We see that with two phones he's obviously of some importance, and we learn a moment later that he's a bigwig on the island when his wife calls him chief and his truck is marked Amity Police. Those are subtle ways of giving us information without cliches like strapping on a gun, which would have been out of character and place here anyway. It's striking how the tiniest bit of thought can give a scene authenticity, character, and consistency with the rest of the movie. 

Brody's outsider status is picked up again when on the beach he's interviewing the young man who reported the girl's disappearance last night. Yes, it is possible to have ideas recur throughout even blockbuster thriller, horror, and action movies. When a whistle cuts off their chat they run over to the deputy. The blocking and staging here is surprisingly detailed for a throwaway scene: the water is lapping forward in the background, Brody is walking left to right in the middle ground where the young man is still on the left, and the deputy is in the foreground right. For a little more variety and visual tension, there's a rickety fence crossing the scene at a diagonal with its jagged, toothy peaks. 

Then the first of many foretastes of the shark's violence as the camera pans to a hand which has washed up on shore. A descending, chromatic figure underscores the grisly sight and musically connects the still unseen predator.

4. Office Work

I like this little scene in Brody's office for two reasons. First, it sets up all the petty, comic issues which occupy Brody's life, like the store owner who minutes later chases Brody down the block with a bicycle tier complaining about marauding karate school students. Second, it introduces the whole premise of the movie–shark attack–by means of the words being typed on a typewriter. In the same way Jaws keeps the sight of the shark a secret to be revealed, it even keeps the word shark under wraps.

5. The City Fathers

One of the great filmmaking lessons of Jaws is to invest in anticipation. All this scene has to accomplish is to show us how the city fathers squelch Brody's plan to close the beaches. Instead, we have a complex scene in which Brody, leaving his office to go buy supplies to make the "Beach Closed" signs, is followed by all the town officials running out behind to catch up with him, with everyone walking through the town's parade. The visual, aural, and logistical complexity give a sense of escalation to the delayed delivery of the line, "We've got a shark attack," which the deputy shouts over the marching band.

Even the scene in which the city bigwigs persuade Brody to calm down about the attack, which they'd like to brand a boating accident, takes on a life of its own because they staged it on a ferry, visually surrounding Brody on a little boat with all the political pressure. It's a small touch, but keeps the visuals moving along with the plot, and even mirrors the tone of the scene.

6. Beach Scene #1

This scene is a triumph of visual and aural storytelling. The setup is simple: Brody is sitting in his beach chair, nervously scoping the scene for the impending shark attack. As he gets more agitated, so do we.
The sights stir us by cutting around to the various false alarms: the woman floating on her raft, a head bobbing out of the water, the couple horsing around, a man playing fetch with his dog in the surf. Our ears take in the din of shouts in the distance, multiple conversations, and several radios, one playing the Allegretto to Mozart's G Major Serenade, KV. 525. The fact that people come over to Brody and keep asking him questions serves not to distract him or us from our fear of an impending attack, but only heightens the tension by making us sense that we can't see what's going on.

In a brilliant edit, the scene shifts from apprehensive to tense, cutting from the innocuous sight of Brody's son singing The Muffin Man and playing in the sand, to the man looking for his dog, and then to the underwater predator perspective of the shark. The Jaws theme revs up and the shark lurches up at a boy on his raft. This tiny tease of the shark has terrified movie goers for years simply because of the alien look of the shark's flippers, upturned in the beast's feeding frenzy. Then the force of the attack lifts the boy out of the water in an implausible, Tarantino-esque effusion of blood, a sight horrible for 1) the unnatural sight of being lifted up out of the water, 2) the contrast of red blood and blue water, 3) the sight of human skin against the shark's gray body. The subsequent shot of the boy being dragged down, screaming amongst his own blood billowing in the surf, shows us the helplessness and terror of the deep which was only implicit in the opening scene.

After the quick shot of the attack, the camera cuts back to Brody's perspective and the infamous dolly shot seems to zoom in on his horror. The famous effect, achieved by effects guru Irmin Roberts (1904-1978) to depict Jimmy Stewart's vertiginous fear in Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo, relies on the tension between simultaneously zooming and dollying in opposite directions. The effect in Jaws is that Brody gets bigger as the background seems to get sucked behind him, with Brody and the audience pulled into the horrific sight.

The scene is five minutes of anticipation, 17 seconds of musical buildup, and about 10 seconds of actual attacked inter-stitched with reaction shots.

7. Town Meeting, Quint

This scene is duly famous for Robert Shaw's brilliant delivery of a great cinematic monologue, but the context, details, and visual style are noteworthy too.

First, how clever is the fact that Quint drew the shark on the chalkboard. This is technically our first full sight of the shark. It's exactly what the film needed: a way to plant a seed in our mind of what the shark looks like. It's just enough to give our imaginations something to play with. It's also amusing that Quint evidently drew the shark himself, presuming to educate the landlubbers who these days who had gone soft since his days growing up.

Second, Quint is a connection to an older, rougher, way of life. We identify with Brody and the townsfolk who are all soft, modern people. Quint is a sharker, a harpooner. He'd have fit in on the Peaquod better than Amity Island. His speech drips with disdain for the commercial interests of the townsfolk and the thought of the people being on welfare for not paying him to kill the shark and save their businesses. Quint's also the movie's connection to an older genre of seafaring pictures and gruffer leading men.

Third, the camera peers around the people, as if trying to get a good look at Quint for the first time. It's the cinematic equivalent of, Hey who is this guy?

Continued in: Part IIPart III | Part IV coming soon

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