Thursday, February 19, 2015

Movie Review: Jaws (Part III)

Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

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

18. Persuading the Mayor

One of the most important parts of filmmaking is not just shooting good scenes, but putting the right scene in the right place. As with music and painting, it is often the transitions between elements which prove the most difficult. We ought not take for granted how much effort goes into seemingly inessential scenes like this little nugget, in which Brody and Hooper try to persuade Mayor Vaughn to close the beaches, because it is scenes like this which make or break the pacing of a movie. A few features make it stand out.

First, there is good visual contrast from the preceding scene. The last was night and this is day, the previous was on the water and this is on land, and the earlier revolved around two people, while this around three. Second, the shark is present yet again, but yet again only in the background as a looming threat. In the last scene we worried that it would pop out behind Hooper as he investigated the hull of the wrecked boat and here its presence and destructive power are present here in both the scientific descriptions by which Brody and Hooper hope to convince the mayor to close the beaches and by the vandalized sign which plants in our minds the same scenario which will play out later. Third, the energy of the scene is high but comes only from the intensity of the characters, from their emotion, and from the tight, close-up camera and blocking.

Notice how the men enter the frame from the back, and how the two benches, which will continue to frame the shot, funnel them together, as if circumstances have forced these unlikely men to be partners. The tension prefigures the tension Brody and Hooper will have with Quint and makes us think for a moment that the mayor might be the third major character in the movie. It's a false alarm, though. The camera is also tight, showing us up close and personal their aggression and frustration. There is also a lot of visual energy simply from the movement of Brody and Hooper around the mayor. They pivot around the mayor, who is as physically immobile as he is intractable in argument, moving back and forth and around him and each other as they repeatedly attempt new tacks of persuasion. The close up camera makes all of this relatively slight motion much more intense.

Finally, the scene is also a tease. We think the mayor might be the third main character in the movie, but he's not, and we think that they might be able to persuade the mayor, and they can't. The last shot of their argument belies our suspicions as the mayor walks off leaving only Brody, Hooper, and, of course, the shark in the background. The low angle suggests both their failure and the looming threat of the shark in the deep.

Several touches set off the final shot. Brody is again in the extreme foreground and thus large and the mayor is low in his card in the mid-ground, blocking which reinforces who is in the right amidst the debate. On the other hand, as the mayor off in his car, we spy a one-way road sign and a tall, especially phallic lighthouse in the background, each respectively emphasizing his stubbornness and authority. This detail contrasts Brody, who stands front and tall but impotent, limply lilting and looking down.

19. July 4th Montage

This is the threshold of the rest of the movie. Here Jaws expands to new dimensions and we see more of the island, islanders, beach, and characters. That these relatively limited forces seem so large is a testament to the small forces with which the director has been working so far. The restrained scale of the first one hour and fifteen minutes makes the crescendo here all the more effective.

The real star of this montage is Williams' music, though, which is just as varied as the visuals. We start with a simple, stiff, stubborn theme entering in what seems at first blush might be a canon or fugue, through the violas and then basses with harpsichord. The upper strings then take it over as the harpsichord and cello offer a jaunty counter-figure. This brief ditty ends and bumps up against this little pulsing bauble which might introduce a patter-song from Gilbert and Sullivan but makes way for the brass which enters and elongates the theme into a fanfare. Then the oboes take over for a moment and toy with it a bit, but they don't seem so interested and the brass returns before marimbas bring us a wide, woody timbre and cymbals crash us home as the theme rises up through the brass and strings for a fanfare finale.

What frenetic, almost attention-deficient variety, perfectly suited to the onscreen carnival, featuring arriving boats, Brody and Hooper crisscrossing the office while arguing on different phone lines, Brody's wife and son talking over them, and floods of tourists swamping Amity Island. As with the scale and complexity, the edits here, cuts short and frequent, are more effective at building excitement because of the relatively longer ones we've seen up to this point.

20. The 4th at the Beach

The opening of this scene is a brilliant  transition from the montage: a long, receding tracking shot on Brody walking through the beach simultaneously refocuses our attention on the main character and picks up on and emphasizes the new, greater scale of the movie.

This scene achieves its effect from the following:
  • larger scale
  • cutting between Brody on the beach and Hooper on the water
  • personal tension between the mayor and Brody
  • false alarms from the boats watching the bathers
  • underwater shots of bathers, shots which previously prefaced an attack
  • contrast between the silent underwater shots and the cheery boardwalk music 
  • false alarm from the boys with the cardboard fin

When the actual shark attacks, then, we are already hyped for it with our thwarted expectations. Beyond the previous reasons which elevate tension by suspension, the actual attack is hyped first by involving Brody's son and second, the attack occurring no one expects, by Brody and Hooper's inability to help. These twin tensions come forth in one shot as the shark silently sails in the background past Brody's youngest son in the foreground, into the pond where his eldest is on his birthday present of a boat. 

Before we continue, let us note the fact that the girl who cries out that the shark is going into the pond had a good reason to know that: she painting the landscape. She's not some random person who was looking at the water, just thrown into the script to tug it to the next important place, but rather the filmmakers took at least a moment to consider what she was doing there and why she would have seen what she did.

Anyway, the shark ostinato figure pulses in the bass and pound out a tense, urgent figure as Brody with hundreds of beach goers behind him, runs to the pond. The subsequent shot of the shark swimming toward us and the potential victims in the fore- and mid-ground is especially effective here because it instantly establishes that neither party sees the shark coming, an ignorance amplified by the fact that we and Brody and everyone else can see it approaching.

When the shark attacks, the fact that it overturns both boats drives the tension even higher, because we don't know who will be the victim. The parallel shots of the potential victims each splashing water out of their eyes reinforces that ambiguity. Williams' orchestration, dropping the heavy ostinato for ethereal scales on the harp, drives home their dazed confusion from the unexpected attack. That the victim turns out to be the man in the red boat disturbs us because of his ongoing calls to the boys, attempting to help them with their lines. The ignorance of the good Samaritan before his savage demise is deeply unsettling.

We now see in close detail the shark, first a bare shade of the shark's silhouette as it tugs the man off the boat, and then an unobscured profile of its face, all dead eye, bloody gums and pointy teeth. We also see a shark's victim in the greatest detail, the torn flesh of his severed leg and the froth of his final breaths churning his own gushing blood in the water. Worse than this, though, is one shot which has bothered me for as long as I can remember, and it's the following one of three sunbathing girls catching sight of the bloodbath in the estuary. 

Notice that no detail of the violence is apparent in the shot, but Spielberg overlays the audio of the man's agonizing howling. Our shocked memory of the fleeting sight of the attack is magnified as we hear it going on but see it from the limited point of view of these girls. They've done nothing wrong, of course, but we can't help feel angry because they don't know what's happening and cannot even sympathize with the victim. We take their ignorance for indifference and thus feel both indignant at them and empathy for the victim. The sight of them casually being arrested from their sunbathing slumber seems an insult and affront to the fact that we should feel sympathy. The sheer visual smallness of the attack, which we for a split second saw up close, at this distance makes it momentarily seem less important and this conflicts with our ears vividly recalling that it is gravely so. Finally, there's also a disturbing aesthetic contrast here between these attractive girls at leisure and the man in the throes of a vicious death.

21. The Hospital

This scene is not fraught with portent, but a few features commend it. First and foremost, the scene consists mostly of two unbroken shots, respectively 47 and 54 seconds. Second, when Ellen asks her son if she can bring him ice cream like a good mommy, he asks for coffee because he's an annoying teenager. Third, Martin is holding his youngest son and that son has no lines. Fourth, when Mayor Vaughn enters during the first shot, he walks through the rear of the shot but the camera doesn't immediately jump to him or to his interaction with Martin. This makes sense because the mayor is frantically concerned foremost with his image, but I also like it because it's more realistic: it would be ridiculous if Martin brusquely handed off his son to his wife after their trauma or if in the next shot the son was simply gone. This pacing is more authentic and more leisurely. As viewers, we also don't need to jump as soon as someone enters a scene. 

Fifth, when Martin confronts the mayor, it is the mayor this time frantically pacing large in the foreground, with Martin small but authoritative in the back, a reversal of Scene 18. Finally, the voiceover of Quint explaining his fee is overlaid onto the end scene as Martin leaves to find him and as the mayor leaves, not to be seen again is a smooth, smart transition. Quint officially becomes the third major character.

22. Quint

This is all the Great Robert Shaw as the old school sharker, Quint, of whom we've only had a hint at the town meeting where he offered his services to the city council.  Once again, Quint is respectful to Brody, but not intimidated by his badge, and he doesn't think very much of Hooper's softish disposition and moneyed upbringing. Quint's a relic from a bygone age when every kid "wanted to be a harpooner or a sword fisherman." Hooper's in awe of Quint at first, and the boiled shark jaws and sharking paraphernalia which festoon his garage at the pier, but awe at Quint's authenticity quickly gives way to disgust as Quint voices outright disdain for Hooper, whose scientific knowledge and skill acquired not in work but in leisure do not impress the old sea dog. To Quint, we gather, you learn by getting cut up and callused, not by researching on academic grants. 

The brilliant shot above sums up the situation. Quint in the background, hands bloodied with fish guts, hands Brody some moonshine through the staircase. "Here's to swimming with bow-legged women," Quint toasts and gulps the strong drink. When he sees Brody neither laughs at the toast nor swallows the drink, he cuts past him to check on the boiling bones.

Quint is sizing up the Chief. When Brody doesn't laugh at the risqué joke (bow-leggedness leaves extra space between the legs) and can't take the drink, Quint knows, or thinks he knows, Brody's mettle. The ladder between them is a not-so subtle reminder of the social barrier between them, and it also livens up and breaks up the shot with some tense angles.

Of course when Brody passes the drink to Hooper and cautions him not to drink it, eager to prove himself, Hooper downs it, causing him to gag when calling to Quint, who is not impressed by his knowledge or inability to take his drink. Shaw's ad libbing from the script is a great improvement, especially the vulgar, cheap way Quint runs down Hooper, calling his "Trans-pacs" (Transpacific yacht races) instead "transplants." When Quint starts derisively muttering about orcas and his word for hunted sharks, porkers–note that the two rhyme for Quint–after Hooper voices knowledge about shark species, we get Quint's drift: do you think you can hunt a shark? Do you really think you're an orca, like I am? Hooper's an insult to Quint, and his boat, the Orca.

When Quint grabs Hooper's moneyed hands in his bloodied ones and tells him that the shark will make mincemeat of them, Hooper steps back and Martin between them. He's going to be the glue between the antagonizing experts. The shot mirrors the relationship.

23. Disembarking

The tone as they pack the Orca picks up the tension and antagonism from the last scene as the three men load up their gear. Quint toting rope and harpoons gets a sight of Hooper's panoply of technology and gadgetry and calls him a half-assed astronaut. Brody shows up last with his wife reminding him to take his Dramamine. Now Quint may be a bully, but he appreciates sharking enough to know that sharing the work is significant. While still mocking Hooper's anti-shark cage ("You got a portable shower or a monkey cage?") he refers to the beast as "our shark," and we see the budding camaraderie of their sea quest.

Quint's ranting, cussing, bawdy jokes, and sea shanty singing are rough, authentic, and inspired, a world of improvement on the stiff script, a reinvention and owning of the character. So ingrained seem Quint's mannerisms and authentic does he sound–especially the rhythm and phrasing–that you need to hear Shaw out of character to appreciate the transformation. Speaking of authenticity, there was plenty of honest tension between Shaw and Dreyfuss on the set, but recently Dreyfuss remembered the actor as too soon departed, and "grand and large."  That he certainly was, and so was Quint, so large that for rest of the movie Brody and Hooper seem simply to revolve around Quint as he carries out vengeance against the shark in a finale that's part thriller, part sea-faring swashbuckler, and one of cinema's most exciting hours.

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

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