Here is the first in a series of reviews featuring dialogues about films in AFI’s Top 100. They’re in a random order, so today myself and Jon Harrison of A Cinematic Odyssey will be looking at number forty-eight on the list: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In the film, the New England seaside town of Amity is terrorized by a man-eating shark. The local sheriff, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), battles the shark and town politics with the help of marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw).
Hunter: While Jaws is known for many things, the thing that struck me most about the film was the reactions the town had to the shark, particularly the reluctance to close the beaches. The mayor and the government was able to sway Brody into keeping the beaches open because they need the tourist money. That was actually scarier than the shark for me, the fact that people could ignore the danger they were in so easily. Did you feel this way at all, or was the shark the bigger threat?
Jon: I agree that the actions the mayor and government did were much scarier than the actual threat of the shark. As soon as a shark was caught, the people all found it okay to go back swimming. As the mayor was being interviewed he reminded the reporter that the word Amity means “friendship”. I saw this as a reflection on society in general. The mayor gave a little speech on how he cares about the community, but risks the safety of the people, if it means he can benefit from it.
While filming Jaws, Spielberg had a lot of problems being able to use the shark because it kept breaking down, which forced him to find other options to impose fear. Do you think this benefited the fear factor? I believe this was a blessing in disguise. Spielberg had to rely on our imagination, which can often spiral out of control. This works perfectly towards horror, because what you imagine happening is always worse than what you actually see.
Hunter: Definitely. It makes it more suspenseful. I’d take suspense over substandard special effects any day. If he had shown the shark all the way through the film, it would have lost the great slow build that the picture does have. In the sequence at the beginning with the girl getting torn apart by the shark, the shark is never seen. That scene is a lot more effective than the one at the end with Quint getting eaten. That was the only time the shark seemed fake (for me), and it went on a bit too long, but every other shark thing in the movie worked for me. (Especially the part with Hooper in the cage, that part freaked me out!)
In terms of plot, the first half of the film is mostly focused on the town politics. The second half is most focused on finally hunting down the shark, and Quint’s crazed determination. I found the first part more compelling personally, but the second was still great. What did you think of his famous speech about the Indianapolis? Pretty riveting stuff.
Jon: This is my favorite scene in the whole film. I like that Spielberg chose to have the room lowly lit. It set the right atmosphere for a story to be told, because you are just focusing on the characters instead of stuff in the background. This is also another perfect example of the directing trusting in our imagination to envision the horrific story that Quint is telling. His acting here is great, there is a hint of pain in his voice as he tells the story. He employs descriptive accounts of what happened, and visual analogies which helps us feel as if we were there on the night the sharks attacked all those men. I feel as if this were done by another director, we may have seen flashbacks diminishing the power of the story. I was surprised when I read that this scene was only done in two takes.
As I mentioned above about Spielberg’s direction on this film, If done by another director of the time I don’t think it would have been half as successful. As a result of Spielberg’s innovative techniques in Jaws, and the success it was in theaters, would you have thought his career would lead to where it is now?
Hunter: Well, I’m no Spielberg expert but I believe this film made his career. It put him on the map,and it was his first big hit. He can arguably be called the most popular director in history; before I got into blogging, I had seen more films of his than any other director without even trying. While Jaws doens’t have the trademark Spielberg sense of childlike wonderment, it does tap into a pretty basic fear: sharks. It’s a evil that keeps coming without end or explanation. So thematically I’m not sure if I could have predicted back in ‘75 the films that Spielberg came up with next, but I definitely would have remembering his name and looked out for his subsequent pictures. Jaws was probably his first great film (I say probably because I haven’t seen any of his earlier ones), and while I don’t think it was his best, it only promises good for the ones that came after.
The film not only marks an important step in Spielberg’s career, but an important step in the film industry. Jaws is considered the first blockbuster, and it’s success paved the way for several others, many of which were directed by Spielberg as well. I don’t know if this trend is a good thing for cinema as a whole, but it definitely resulted in some great films along the way. As the first blockbuster, how do you think Jaws fits into the formula?
Jon: Since Jaws is the first blockbuster it may have fit formula back in the 70s but as of today I don’t think it would do too well. While watching the film I felt it lacked energy, but that may be just because it was a horror/thriller and worked a lot with suspense. The formula for today’s summer blockbuster is more so creating a film that’s faster in pace, large in scope, and a ton of action. Jaws lacked in those areas. However back in the 70s this was new to the audience, and it had huge success; so I think that’s how it inspired others to create their own blockbusters.
Steven Spielberg made his mark in cinematic history with Jaws, bringing horror and delight to the summer of ’75. The praise the film gets for its clever techniques involving the fear of an impending shark attack and solid story storytelling is well deserved. However, I was a little disappointed in the film. The story was one that I didn’t particularly have interest in. The story felt like it dragged on a little too long which caused me to lose interest, however from the Indianapolis speech on I regained interest, and wasn’t bothered by the mechanical shark. How do you feel about the film, and did it feel to out of date for today’s ever-growing technological advances in film?
Hunter: Well, I watch mostly older films, so I’m used to earlier technology anyway. Regardless, I thought the effects were very good, the only time it didn’t work on me was when Robert Shaw was getting eaten. I liked the film a lot overall. It maybe was a bit slow, but I remained interested throughout the film so the slower-pace (than most action/horror films) didn’t bother me. I really liked the themes about bad situations bringing out the good in some and the evil in others. How people reacted to the shark was fascinating. I think it holds up very well today and is deservedly called a classic.
That wraps up our first AFI Top 100 discussion! I liked the film a little bit more than Jon, but we both agree that the effects were good, the drama was there, even if the film was a tad slow compared to most of today’s blockbusters. Jaws is a classic for the ages, a great suspense film that is not only important in film history but is a great film in its own right. Stay tuned for our next AFI Top 100 review of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, which will be coming sometime soon on Jon’s blog, A Cinematic Odyssey.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
My Rating: 3.5/4 stars
Jon’s Rating: 4/5 stars
For Further Reading: