Thursday, July 16, 2015

AFI Top 100: #56 "Jaws"

Roy Scheider & the Shark in Jaws (1975)

This is one perfect movie. How could I possibly critique perfection? Eh, I'll give it the old college try.

I mentioned weeks ago that #56 on the AFI Top 100 list, Jaws, was being re-released in theaters in honor of its 40th anniversary. Unbelievable that this Steven Spielberg-directed flick has been thrilling and inspiring audiences for that long... and there was no better time to go witness its impact firsthand than in a sold out screening on Fathers Day. Dads were surrounding us with kids in tow, recounting stories of seeing this for the first time at eight years old back when parents were oblivious to movie ratings. This specific conversation happened between a giddy father and his equally bright-eyed 10-year-old daughter behind us, whose reactions were far and away the icing on an already delicious shark cake. Oh to be a kid again seeing Jaws for the first time...

The scene is Fourth of July weekend on Martha's Vineyard Amity Island. Just days from being descended upon by dozens of thousands of holiday tourists, a young girl is killed by a giant shark, and newly appointed Sheriff, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), calls on the Mayor to shut down the beaches, to no avail. "We're a tourist community," the Mayor says... so Brody bites his tongue until the shark strikes again. Now it's all hands on deck, and the island is swarmed by amateur shark hunters seeking the bounty on its head. Brody sends for Oceanographer, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus), to determine exactly what they're dealing with, and together they team up with experienced fisherman and shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw), to hunt this creature down once and for all.

We are treated to only glimpses of the shark at firsta fin here, and tail there... but when the men come face to face with the Great White out on the open water, no truer words were ever spoken: They're gonna need a bigger boat. This line in that crowded theater may have equaled the loudest audience applause I've ever been lucky enough to experience. A remarkable moment, and one of the most rewarding movie scenes ever.

This film is a prime example of a filmmaker so aware of the movie they were making, every effort was madethrough music, editing, cinematographyto make feel real what was remarkably fake. The Oscar-winning score by John Williams, especially, was used to downplay the imperfections. Have you ever watched any of the sequences with the music removed? Probably better than you haven't, because it isn't the same movie. In fact, it's almost stupid. That Buh-duh... buh-duh... it defines Jaws.

Spielberg made the same efforts to punch up the flawed story, which is melodramatic and wishy-washy, a story full of hot-heads clashing and egos tail-spinning that risked having no heart or emotion at all. Oh, and they're battling a Great White that, in case you need to be reminded, isn't a danger unless you're determined to take a swim. It's downright silly. This isn't a Sharknado-level disaster, you guys. But what every member of the cast and crew managed to accomplish in creating a masterful thriller that is, at times, unquestionably scary, is beyond reproach. The shark-cam perspective alone gives us a whole new world to experience.

Jaws is true horror in the traditional sense. It builds tension, offering momentary releases through small frights (how about that underwater shot of the dead body floating past that porthole?), or bloody attacks. It all leads up to the first appearance of the shark, and from that moment on, it never lets up. Scheider is an ideal protagonist whose fears inform much of the tension, and Dreyfus is an unexpected catalyst, with Hooper's rich-kid intellectualism unexpectedly counter-acted by his scarred exteriorBrody appears soft by comparison. They offer bits of comedy and entertainment that distract from the fact we're all stranded out in the middle of the ocean, with no prospect of escape. It's a heady brew that, when combined, created Hollywood's first summer blockbuster. We've never been the same since.

For a movie that sets such a high expectation during its first scene, it's difficult to think of another that delivers in more ways. The young 10-year-old, first time viewer sitting behind me was overcome with the fearful delight that reminded me of what we all try to recapture every time we journey back to Amity Island. It wasn't until Dreyfus' Hooper crawled desperately into the metal shark cage that the little movie-goer was overcome enough to cover her eyes. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted to do the same.

No matter how old you are, Jaws will make you feel like every frightened kid scrambling out of the water onto the safety of the shore. It is more of an American classic than most of the other movies on this list. If I were a decider, it would be in the top 20. Perhaps the AFI will one day agree with me.

Rating:  ★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next week for #55 on the list, North by Northwest — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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