Many critics have long viewed Steven Spielberg's shark tale as an effective shock machine, pushing the audience's buttons with a streaming supply of jolts and scares, while Universal's marketers did a similarly effective job of manipulation by releasing the movie in hundreds of theaters nationwide at once, an unheard-of practice at the time.
With 'Jaws,' Hollywood supposedly hit on a formula that all but destroyed the thoughtful, grown-up, personal filmmaking prevalent at the time and replaced it with the soulless, cynical, flavorless, pre-packaged, market-tested moviemaking Hollywood practices now.
It's really not a fair rap. Watch 'Jaws' again, and then contrast it with today's blockbusters, which really are the thrill-per-minute, assembly-line products that 'Jaws' was accused of being. By the standards of today's relentlessly paced summer action and horror spectacles, 'Jaws' seems like an art-house film, full of long, talky stretches where seemingly nothing happens and nary a fin is seen.
Today, 'Jaws' looks a lot more like the other director-driven films of the early '70s, full of richly developed characters, memorable dialogue, intimate drama, and personal, idiosyncratic touches that make 'Jaws' appear less like the film that launched the blockbuster era than one of the last great masterpieces of the auteurist golden age of 1970s American filmmaking.
That golden age that 'Jaws' supposedly chewed up and swallowed was pretty short-lived, about 10 years. It began in the late '60s, with the rise of the counterculture, the collapse of the content restrictions of Hollywood's Production Code (and the birth, from the Code's ashes, of the movie rating system we still have today), and the realization by the studio chiefs that their favored fare (big-budget musicals, Westerns, historical epics) was hopelessly square and out of touch with public taste.
A power vacuum arose, which was quickly filled by visionary directors who did seem to have their finger on the pulse of the times, Some were older and had learned their craft directing television (Arthur Penn, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet), some were younger and were among the first generation of directors trained in film as an academic discipline (Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Peter Bogdanovich). Most of them spent the early '70s making movies that were highly personal and quirky. Critics saw these directors as the long-delayed American counterpart to the art-house filmmakers of Europe and Japan, but their movies, full of both dazzling technique and personal subject matter, still often managed to be accessible, commercial hits as well (movies like 'Easy Rider,' 'MASH,' 'The Godfather,' 'The Last Picture Show,' 'Chinatown' and 'American Graffiti').
'Jaws' may have been a movie about a shark, but it seems to have more in common with these '70s auteurist movies than with the more blatant exploitation fare that was playing at drive-ins and grindhouses in those days. Or, for that matter, the big-budget, all-star disaster movies that were popular at the time, movies like 'The Poseidon Adventure,' 'The Towering Inferno,' and the 'Airport' films.
Charlton Heston, who played the heroic leads in two such films right before 'Jaws' was made ('Earthquake' and 'Airport 1975'), wanted to play Chief Brody, but Spielberg turned him down in favor of someone who seemed less conventionally heroic and more human-scale, Roy Scheider. Like co-stars Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, Scheider plays one of the heroes of 'Jaws' like he was playing one of the ordinary, talkative, barstool-dwelling guys in a Scorsese or John Cassavetes drama. The movie builds in disaster-movie fashion toward the panic of a whole community, but it winds up being the story of three guys talking and drinking on a fishing trip.
Unlike today's blockbusters, 'Jaws' spends a tremendous amount of its running time developing its characters. Peter Benchley's novel, almost misanthropic in its view of the tourists unwittingly lining up to be shark snacks, becomes in Spielberg's hands a lighter, funnier romp, (Spielberg hired TV comedy writer Carl Gottlieb to rewrite Benchley's screenplay) full of revealing moments and tiny details, so that you actually care whether or not these characters get eaten. Chief Brody spends many quiet moments playing with his kids and bonding with his wife. Shaw's Quint tries to intimidate Dreyfuss' Hooper by chugging a beer and crushing the can; Hooper responds by crushing his own styrofoam coffee cup.
Comparatively little time is spent actually showing the shark (granted, that's a virtue of the film that was a happy accident, since the mechanical sharks built for 'Jaws' frequently broke down). Spielberg uses suspense techniques (clever misdirection of the audience's attention, scaring viewers with what is not seen) more suited to an Alfred Hitchcock film than a conventional monster movie.
Even John Williams' famous two-note musical score owes a conceptual debt to the minimalist, stabbing, shrieking, strings of Bernard Herrmann's music for Hitchcock's 'Psycho.' The little-seen shark is practically a MacGuffin, Hitchcock's term for the arbitrary catalyst of the plot, a device that provides an excuse to learn more about the characters by the ways they respond to an external threat.
The scariest sequence in 'Jaws' doesn't feature the shark at all; it's Quint's lengthy monologue about the shark attacks on the survivors of the USS Indianapolis. That monologue marks the first screen appearance of Spielberg's career-long fixation on World War II, as seen in his movies from '1941' and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' to 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Schindler's List,' as well as the Spielberg-produced HBO miniseries 'Band of Brothers' and 'The Pacific.' 'Jaws' may have come to Spielberg as a genre piece, but he transformed it into a chamber drama about quirky characters, informed by the director's own personal passions and interests -- all of which make 'Jaws' a companion piece to the films his fellow film-school-grad auteurs were making during that period.
The mass-marketing of 'Jaws' was indeed innovative, but even that doesn't account for the complete stranglehold 'Jaws' had over all of popular culture in the summer of 1975 and through early 1976. As Tom Shone noted in his 2004 book 'Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer' (which includes an excellent chapter on 'Jaws' that you can read at Tom Shone's blog), the phenomenon was a grass-roots one, well beyond anything Universal could have planned.
Entrepreneurs from disco owners to ice cream vendors came up with shark-themed goods and services. Shark fins started popping up in editorial cartoons. Within months, there were 'Jaws' parodies in commercials, on record (Dickie Goodman's novelty hit 'Mr. Jaws'), and on a brand new TV sketch comedy called 'Saturday Night Live' (remember Chevy Chase's "land shark" sketches?).
Unlike today's "event movies," each of which is designed to grab a lot of money the first weekend, before the next one comes to take its place, 'Jaws' had legs. It played in theaters for a year. (I remember being too young and scared to see it when it opened in the summer of 1975, but by the time I felt ready to see it, in mid-1976, it was still playing, and the theater I saw it in was packed, probably with people who'd seen it many times over.)
Even after its run ended, 'Jaws' continued to loom large in the popular imagination, having filled our heads with so much misinformation about sharks that many people are still afraid to go swimming. (Another cottage industry spawned by 'Jaws': corrective documentaries about sharks, like the ones that populate the Discovery Channel every August during "Shark Week," or National Geographic's 2000 offering 'Great White Shark: Truth Behind the Legend,' which you can watch in its entirety for free at Snagfilms.)
The decades that followed saw Hollywood learn from the TV and music industries how to divide audiences into smaller and smaller demographic groups and market by niches. Hollywood pretty much gave up on making movies meant for everyone and just decided to hit certain niches especially hard. Instead of trying to repair the fragmentation of public taste, the entertainment industry exploited the rifts. The studios wrested control back from the directors, whose work had become self-indulgent and expensive. Movies jettisoned character development and personal style, anything that slowed down the action. They become more efficient thrill machines, but they also become more disposable and forgettable.
No wonder that such universally shared pop cultural experiences as 'Jaws' are rare these days (James Cameron's 'Avatar' and 'Titanic' are some of the only recent examples). It's easy to forget that once they were a lot more common. There was Coppola's 'The Godfather,' breaking box office records in 1972 and setting off a Mafia vogue that continues to this day. A year later, there was William Friedkin's 'The Exorcist,' another record-setter and the template for every occult horror film that's followed. And then there was 'Jaws.' All of these were genre pictures made from pulpy best-sellers, whose directors turned them into character-driven dramas full of idiosyncratic personal touches. But their massive success made them event movies well before the phrase had been coined.
By those terms, 'Jaws' wasn't the first modern-day blockbuster at all, just one of the last of a wave of all-encompassing pop culture events that centered on genre movies that were actually highly personal films made by visionary directors, great auteurist films that consumed the movement with their own success.
Actually, 'Jaws' was the second-to-last. The last? George Lucas' 1977 'Star Wars,' of course.
Buy or rent 'Jaws' on DVD
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