Saturday, August 23, 2014

Movie Review: Jaws (Part II)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

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

8. Brody's Studies

We don't know a lot about sharks and neither does the main character, so the movie needs to educate us both. How? It's useful to stop a moment and reflect on how, if you were directing the movie and needed to educate your audience, you would do that. Maybe he's watching a television documentary or he goes to a museum, but then how do you make that scene not only educational, not only educational and interesting, but also a scene into which the character belongs. Spielberg decided to have Brody sitting in his office going through books on sharks.

The scene educates everyone, in particular seeding us a few pieces of information.

First, the shark can sense activity in the water, telling us that we can't hide or swim away. Second, the shark is very big. Third, you're not safe on a boat. Finally, the picture of the shark eating a scuba tank sets up the final scene of the movie.

The scene isn't just bland education, though, for in learning about sharks Brody starts to deplore the ignorance of the people who just want it killed. Except for Quint, the people don't respect the power of this creature and simply want the inconvenience of it removed from their lives. Brody's not advocating shark rights, but his attempt to educate himself reinforces his status as outsider to the townspeople. The scene also wisely continues its slow introduction of the shark. The first attack didn't show the shark at all. The second showed us only its fins. The third appearance was Quint's chalk drawing in the previous scene. Now we see the shark in full, but in the pictures of a book. We're slowly being fed information about the shark, letting our imaginations draw the picture.

Two things especially distinguish this scene, though. The first thing is its quiet. There is practically no dialogue about the sharks, rather we look on as Brody flips through the books. The second is the way it is edited into the second scene. Instead of cleanly cutting the scene and ending it, Fields intercut Brody's flipping through the book into the beginning of the next scene. The result is that the images of the shark more closely anticipate the attack of the next scene by being woven into it.

9. Holiday Roast

There's another anticipation from the previous scene to this one, though, and that's the presence of the jetty. In the previous scene the jetty is set up as a safe place, where the boys go when their father tells them to get off the boat. We know the shark can attack a boat, but not a whole pier, right?

Like many other scenes in Jaws, this one also begins on a note of comedy, with two islanders trying to cash in on the bounty with the hair-brained plan of tying the shark to the pier. When the beast takes the bait, though, and the boobs cheer on the fleeing shark, we have no way to expect what happens: the shark rips end of the pier clean off, taking one of the men along for the ride. The whole scene pivots off of one ingenious moment when we see the end of the jetty, ripped off by the shark, turn round in the water. Spielberg uses the tip of the pier, now tethered to the shark by the chained bait on which the shark has chomped, as a proxy for the shark itself. To amplify this shock, it turns around nice and slowly to the sound of a metallic screech, a slash harsh and alien enough to tell our subconscious that something unfriendly is approaching even though we can't see it.

In the heat of the moment, we seem to see the shark, so strong is the suggestion of its presence. Of course there is still a man in the water, and Spielberg shoots his frantic swim back to the pier from below the water line, so we can practically feel the water rushing down our own throats.

With the wide establishing shots, we feel like the man in the water with the shark on one side and our pal calling from the pier on the other. This is also the first moment in which we hear the Jaws theme in full swing.

Spielberg wisely tunes down the carnage, though, and as the man escapes the scene ends on a light note as the near-victim asks his pal, "Can we go home now?"
10. More Like the National Enquirer

It's quite understated, but I always thought the opening of this scene was hilarious. After al the buildup so far, and after seeing just how big and dangerous this shark is, and after seeing the grizzled sea-dog Quint, this scene opens with "Harbor Master Frank Silva."

Is this guy going to handle the situation? With his pipe and breakfast cereal? This is the point in the movie at which we'll probably meet a new character, but this is a false start, and a pretty funny one.

The jokes keep coming, though, as cutting through the shot Brody's deputy makes light of last night's near attack. Like most in this scene, the shot is also a longer one of about 30 seconds, just enough to establish the largess and busyness of the space and give us a little room to breathe after the tense preceding scene. By visuals alone, we know we've entered a new segment of the movie. What a good time for a new character.

Meet Matt Hooper, shark expert from the Oceanographic Institute. It's not a glorious introduction, but it's effective. Hooper's not a native either and arrives off his little boat face-to-face with local expert fisherman Ben Gardner, who dwarfs him in size. The shot's like the one of the harbor master, with the new character walking up to the camera front and center, but Hooper is actually going to be a main character. Unlike the harbor master who sits down to eat breakfast as chaos descends on the docks, Hooper's walking around talking about sloops and luffing, helping out Brody, whom he doesn't even know yet.

It's a nice touch how when Hooper, at Brody's request, asks a group of fisherman not to overload the boat and after they tell him not so politely to buzz off, Hooper sarcastically asks if there's a good restaurant or hotel on the island. When they tell Hooper, who is standing at the edge of the dock, that he can find one straight ahead, he chuckles to himself, "Ha ha ha, they're all going to die." What's the point of this? It establishes Hooper as an outsider too, and hints that he and Brody will get along just fine.

11. Introductions

I'm a sucker for a shot through a window, but this one by looking good and providing an opportunity for a little humor, juices up an otherwise boring and purely expository telephone call. There's another nice detail in which the deputy, when Brody peremptorily takes the cigarette from the guy's mouth, immediately motions to bite his nail. It's not a defining moment in the movie, but the director and actor thought enough that this minor character should be realized and not just a stock one who is there purely for convenience. Similarly, the characters talk over one another, a naturalistic detail which makes the characters feel real and prevents the movie from feeling too heavily sequenced, with one thing mechanically following the next. And Brody starts to smoke that cigarette he took. . . a nice touch, but again sensible because he's stressed out.

12. Crazy Fisherman

This is a bit of a throwaway scene, but sells two things. First, we feel the movie getting bigger. We don't feel confined to the docks, houses, and beach with the townspeople, but see an array of fisherman speeding around the island looking for the shark. The busyness sells the sense of escalation. Second, we realize that they're idiots. Who doesn't know what chumming is, one can't divide $8,000 by 4, and they don't know where the rocks are around the island.

What are the odds that these bozos catch the shark?

13. It Wasn't Jack the Ripper

This scene too has a limited purpose, in this case selling the fact that Hooper as an expert. With his fancy recorder and the technical jargon he spouts into it, we're persuaded he knows what he's doing. That fact is reinforced when Hooper chastises Brody for smoking in the room as he examines the remains of the victim.

Even here, though, there are enriching details, like the sheepish glances between Brody and the medical examiner when they realize that their complacency in the mayor's lie about this first victim is about to come out.

14. Not the Shark

The previous scene ends on the line, "It was a shark," and this one begins with the sight of the shark caught by those bozos. Smooth.

Anyway, the scene develops familiar themes–the fishermen are dimwits, the mayor is dishonest, Hooper is an outsider–but you know what I like about this scene? The way they shot the taking of this picture.

We never actually see the picture which the cameraman in the movie takes. Instead, Spielberg uses the occasion of the picture in the script to develop the fact that everyone is denying Hooper's claim that this isn't the shark by having him get shooed out of the picture. It's a smart way of avoiding the obvious and driving home and important point.

The next shot is also dynamically framed, with Hooper entering backwards from the right foreground, harassed by the fisherman who don't like being told that this isn't the shark, and Brody escorting the mayor forward from the center.

The scene is also a contrast of dominance: Hooper is correct about the shark and standing tall in the foreground, but he's entering backward and has no authority. The authority figures enter from the background, front and center, but small. They're also wrong about the shark.

All of this is moot, though, first because this is of course not the shark, a fact about which we're reminded by two shots of Quint chuffing out on the Orca and laughing at these third-rate fisherman. Second, because whichever shark this is, the victims are dead, a fact which we bitterly recall when the mother of the little boy shows up and berates Brody for not acting sooner.

The shot of him walking off, with the bloody shark dripping in the extreme foreground, as if over him, reflects the burden of his mistake.

John Williams' mournful, dirge-like horn solo here transitions from Brody's defeat to the next, warm scene at home. There Williams achieves a delicate moment of repose from a soft theme with the scoring of harp, celeste, and piano. We notice the percussive reverberations as warm space around the plucked melody, here the weary meandering theme of Brody's mind at the end of a tough day.

15. Dinner at Home

This scene plays like its own little movie, Brody coming home to dinner from a long and bad day at work. The opening is surprisingly touching: as Brody rests his weary head in the palms of his hand, he spies his son mimicking him. His wife looks on from the background at her men.

Here too are crafted details which distinguish this scene from the common attempts to infuse action and thrills with cheap, stock drama. When Brody makes a scary face which his son mimics, the boy doesn't make the same gesture but his own, as if they've played like this before or as if the boy is doing his own little version of scariness. Also, when Brody leans in for a kiss from his son, the boy backs off a little at first, and when the dad asks for a kiss, his boy asks why. These gestures aren't fraught with portent, but they're realistic details of life which give the scene authenticity.

When Matt Hooper enters in the deep background, neither the camera nor Brody budges, suggesting his ill temper. When Hooper says he'd like to talk with the chief, she replies that she would too. How smart is that of the script, keeping her in the dark up until now? It not only allows us to see her reaction to the news, but it feels real. How often do we not talk about what bothers us until after dinner?

All the rest of the scene has to do is get us to the point where we resume the hunt, the caught shark being the wrong shark. Instead of a hasty throwaway scene, look at the details of characterization which we find:

  • Bachelor Hooper helps himself to the leftovers.
  • Brody rolls his eyes at his wife's naive characterization of Hooper as being "in sharks," as one is "in siding" or "in insurance."
  • The reactions to Brody pouring a towering glass full of wine: his wife purses her lips, then looks up at him at him, mouths his name, forces a smile, and then looks as if she's about to burst into tears. The awkward guest, Hooper just laughs.
  • Brody's disappointed reaction when he realizes Hooper is having only a little wine.
  • Brody's indifference to his wife touching his arm, and his curt reply to her description of his fear of the water.
  • How later in the film, Brody forgets what a thresher is, even though Hooper mentions the shark in his story here.
I'm not saying these characters could have walked off a Shakespearean stage, but the script and performances are rich in details which bring them to life. They feel real and because we empathize with them, we care about them.
16. Cut That Shark Open

The cut from the previous scene is not the prettiest, but there's a reason for it. When Ellen asks her husband whether he's allowed to go cut the shark open and he replies, "I can do anything I'm the chief of police," we're suspicious about the legality. The cut here, from a pleasant domestic scene to the sight of a beaming flashlight and a glistening knife, suggests they're thieves in the night.

The final shot in the scene a much smoother transition, darkening in preparation for the night-time search for the shark.

17. Ben Gardner's Boat

This scene begins with another bit of humor: Brody is delivering an inebriated rant, bottle in hand, about crime in NYC, to which Hooper responds, snack in hand, "Want a pretzel?"

Are these bozos going to catch the shark? Not quite, and more importantly, not alone. Humor aside, the ridiculous opening to this scene hints at the fact that they'll need someone else to bag the shark. What follows, though, is a masterful scene of suspense.

A foggy night on the ocean and the two men spot the derelict boat of Ben Gardner, one of Amity's fishermen.

The tone here all owes to Williams' sinister music of fluttering harps and simple alternating string figure beneath a cautious three-note figure in the flute which seems to peer out with us over the wrecked hull. The music grows more dissonant as Hooper dives beneath the wreck to investigate, until he pops out a tooth from the hull to just a hint of the Jaws theme and those wild brasses. It's a brilliant touch here that after he examines the tooth, Hooper looks away from the boat into the deep murky water. First, since he's the expert, he now knows the shark in question is a huge Great White. I very much appreciate that he has this instinctive reaction now, rather than when it's more convenient to talk to us. Second, it reinforces the fact that underwater we'll never see the shark coming. Third, it's a misdirection away from where the impending surprise is actually going to come from.

Hooper shines his light into the hole in the hull and with an ear-piercing whine Ben Gardner's head floats through. Hooper's reaction shot not only reinforces the horror at the sight, but it amplifies the disgusting disfigurement of the dead man's face by showing us a healthy face in immediate contrast. The jump from the rumbling basses to the high-pitched screech amplifies the shock as if by a physical jolt.

These techniques have all been endlessly copied, but they're seldom more potent than here. There's even fine attention to the color palette here, with the underwater lights from Hooper's boat casting a urine hue on the water around the boat. The light not only provides necessary illumination, but its sickly cast sets us on edge.

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

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