Jaws is not a perfect film, like some say -- I tend to agree with Peter Benchley that any dummy should know that a compressed air tank will not explode like an oil refinery if punctured by a bullet -- but flaws aside, Spielberg's masterpiece is, I believe, a rather important and uniquely American work of art. The idea of a small-town flatfoot realizing that his duty requires him to step on a boat and head off to sea is a metaphor that not only resonated with WWII veterans in the 70s, but still resonates today with anyone who's had to leave the comforts of home to go confront a threat. Also, with its entire story circling down to that amazing moment when the grizzled old seadog Quint has gotten a look at the beast he's going to be confronting and decides to unpack and assemble a fearsome harpoon, the film strongly echoes Melville, as well as all the other literature and art that's been inspired by America's centuries-long quest to tame the Atlantic ocean. This is one of our touchstone movies that won't go out of style until people have lost their fear of sharks, the ocean, drowning and the unknown in general -- in other words, never.
Respect for Jaws from the opinion makers in film academia has not come easily, however. The AFI's list of the Top 100 American Films, compiled in 1998, gave Jaws the questionable ranking of #48, behind such titles as the dated anti-war film The Best Years of our Lives and the entertaining but not exactly earth-shaking Bogey-Hepburn adventure The African Queen. Since then, the astronomical growth of the Internet and the general democratizing of cultural taste-making that it brought has allowed for a rebellion of sorts against Jaws' place of relatively low esteem in film theory. Case in point: the website Jawsmovie.com, which went live in 1995, and has since grown into a sophisticated forum for legions of Jaws fans of all stripes to come and express their love and admiration for the film. Now, the creator of Jawsmovie.com, together with three other producers, has taken things to another level, producing The Shark is Still Working, an epic documentary about all things Jaws -- the making of, the fan community, the legacy, the whole damn thing.
The film boasts interviews with almost every surviving Jaws principal, including Spielberg and the always entertaining Richard Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss puts on a good show, but its a little disappointing that he insists on being diplomatic with memories of Robert Shaw -- the two hated each other, by almost all accounts. Still, his candor about not wanting to be part of Jaws while he was making it is refreshing, and his willingness to sit down for a Jaws interview at all suggests that he's come to accept that the film is his legacy, more than Close Encounters, The Goodbye Girl, or any of the other good movies he's been in. People who played smaller but important roles in the film are also given lots of time in the documentary, like Percy Rodriguez, a voice actor who did the vocals for the famous Jaws trailer -- the one that begins "there is a creature alive today" and ends with "it's as if God created the devil, and gave him ... Jaws." The special effects experts, the producers, the film's minor actors -- The Shark is Still Working allows everyone to be heard.
That everyone also includes the fans, big-time. The original idea of this film was to focus on 1995's Jaws fest, the 30th anniversary Jaws celebration on Martha's Vineyard, which included a public screening, appearances by cast and crew members, displays of movie props and various fan events. That impulse -- to document Jaws fandom and give a voice to the film's most impassioned followers -- is one of the biggest threads of the film, sometimes to a fault. While it's interesting to see what some dedicated hobbyists have done to commemorate Jaws in their own way -- building replicas of the Orca and of the shark, and so forth -- by the time we're visiting the people who bought editor Verna Fields home, we're to the point of diminishing returns. Also, the film spends no more than five minutes or so discussing the film's sequels -- an exploration of them could have made for fascinating viewing, in a car-crash sort of way. However, the producers, in their defense, have pointed out that unlike with the Star Wars films, there's no serious debate over which Jaws film people care about.
Still, those are minor complaints in a film that overall delivers the goods -- there are new outtakes, fresh memories from Spielberg about his experience of being a novice director thrown into an unexpected trial by fire, and in-depth examinations of previous Jaws documentaries and retrospectives. There is a ton of footage of dry tests of the never-working shark, which Spielberg nicknamed "the big white turd," and also a smart and insightful examination of the advertising of the film and how it was instrumental in hyping it in just the right way to get the public primed. "Jaws is the greatest poster of all time," director Eli Roth says during his interview. We meet the artist who created the famous image of a mammoth shark barrelling up through the water like a torpedo towards a horizontal swimmer. The bleeding through of Jaws' popularity into other areas like politics, where Jaws metaphors became common, is also touched on. If there's an angle to the Jaws story that isn't examined in this giant, sweeping documentary, I'm at a loss to put a finger on it.
For Jaws fans like myself, who still have a VHS copy of the film, taped off of network television so long ago that the commercials are now completely vintage, watching The Shark is Still Working is proof that we are not alone. There's something about this timeless man-against-nature story that bears endless viewings, the same way your favorite song on the radio is listenable even though you've heard it so many times that you know what note is coming next. If you feel the same way about the film, and the thought of spending three-plus hours delving into the complicated history of the film and meeting people who are even more obsessed over it than you sounds like heaven, then you should be first in line to go see this film. The Shark is Still Working is a film that hasn't yet found a distributor, so its not going to be released to the public in the immediate future, but the film's quality and its attention to detail will no doubt ensure a wide release sometime soon.