Retrospective: Jaws

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A lone, triangular fin crests the surface of an ocean’s deceptively calm surface. Though an uncommon sight, during the summer of 1975, that sole image had enough power to scare the bejesus out of audiences all across America, and result in one of the highest grossing films ever made. Ever since, the reputation of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws has grown over the years, and its power to frighten and thrill has not diminished in the slightest. Sharks, after all, have existed since the age of the dinosaurs, so their fearsome appearances have always remained a constant in the human psyche. It has likely been over ten years since I first saw Spielberg’s breakthrough, and it was only just recently that I got to see the film again in its entirety. To view it again through the eyes of a filmmaker is to understand not only how the film became so popular commercially, but also to appreciate the film’s cinematic depth.

When I first saw Jaws, it was the most terrifying film I’d ever seen. The image of an enormous man eating shark navigating open water with such ease and terrifying speed haunted me enough to keep me from getting in the bath tub, as I’m sure it did many other kids who might have seen the film at a similar age. Even from such a young age, Jaws had the overwhelming power to evoke fear even when jumping into a swimming pool. Years later, it’s a wonder how effective the film still is, even when one knows that the majority of the shots contain a pathetic, mechanical shark.

What makes Jaws work best is that we, as the audience, barely even see the shark at all, yet its presence is felt from the very beginning. Instead, there are substitutions which allude to the shark and therefore allow for the suspense to slowly creep in. The most obvious of these is the point of view photography from underwater. Be it the opening shot of the camera gliding with determination over the bottom of the ocean, or especially the shots representative of the shark’s point of view, looking up at the legs of its quarry dangling freely. These are perhaps the most terrifying images in Spielberg’s film. Aside from the obvious fin cresting the water’s surface, another great device implemented in Jaws are the yellow kegs harpooned into the shark. For the entire second half of the film, anytime they appear on screen, it is apparent that the shark is on the move.

Of course, the combinations of all of these shots work in conjunction with actual reveals of the shark, providing us with a master class in editing. The filmmakers reveal the shark only when absolutely necessary. Though there are quite a few deaths in the film, only one is quite explicit. For the rest, Spielberg and his editor, Verna Fields, only suggest at what happens to the departed. A woman disappears forever under the depths of the ocean. A boy’s blood stains the shoreline in red. This type of editing allows for the killings to remain more powerful in the mind than what the eye actually witnesses. This is similar to the pivotal shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Though we see the woman murdered in the shower, not a single shot actually shows the knife stabbing her. There is only blood and screaming, which is how several of the deaths in Spielberg’s film play out as well.

Now, how was it that Jaws, a breathtaking adventure with hair-raising suspense and bloody terror, was able to appeal so effortlessly to the masses? One could point to the inherent fun and excitement of hunting down a predator of man, and consequences of doing so. Monster movies, after all, certainly had their charm in the preceding decades, but Jaws was taken quite a bit more seriously, enough to garner an Academy Award nomination for the Best Picture of 1975. What makes Spielberg’s film stand out among all the other movie monsters? It is Spielberg’s devotion to his audience. What I mean is that the characters in Jaws are representative of his audience. For much of the early part of his career, the Spielberg’s characters thrived in American suburbia. Along with Jaws, films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T. feature protagonists who come from middle class America, the very audience Spielberg’s films are targeted towards. Therefore, it makes sense why Jaws appealed to so many people: the audience saw the victimized townspeople in themselves. The film was just as much about them as it was about the killer shark. This is what separates Spielberg from many other directors of the genre: characters come first and the shark comes second. In far too many horror films, the characters are little more than an afterthought.

In retrospect, Jaws is just as fresh and alive as it ever was, showing little age and displaying some of the finest editing cinema has to offer. What is most remarkable is how the film has maintained its popularity over 35 years. After all, the shark continues to hunt for its prey, the next generation into which it can strike fear and terror.

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~ by romancinema on October 17, 2011.

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