“No one gets wet anymore.”
When the rest of the civilized world was drooling over the long-awaited The Dark Knight Rises, I treated myself to a special screening of Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws. The choice was symbolic. The older I get, the more I long for the films of the past—my own past, but also our shared past. Y’know, back in the day… when people got wet and tired making movies, and horror movies were actually trying to be scary.
With the rise of the digital age of CGI, downloading and mobile movie-watching, I feel increasingly drawn towards the films that pre-date computer technology. I know that this will come off as heavy-handed and snobbish, but I have to say—they really do not make movies like they used to. I am referring to both process and product. Sadly, movies are demanding less and less attention from their audience, and leaving little room for viewer intuition.
Jaws took a very long time to shoot—159 days. This was due mostly to some uncooperative on-set special effects (the shark) and weather challenges. Jaws was not filmed, as most things are now, comfortably tucked away on a sound stage in front of green screens. The actors and crew were out there on the water for the better part of six months. When you watch Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, you can actually feel the tension; it has a physical presence. The fatigue has shaped their body language and facial features, and gives the viewer a potent visceral experience of their plight. These are wet and tired men.
Jaws is also remarkably inventive in its visual design. There are several well-choreographed long takes, and some tricky on-the-water camerawork. Much of the film is shot at water level, adding to immediacy of the water-bound threat. A lot of Spielberg’s early films were surprisingly arty. Ever notice how much of E.T. is shot in silhouette?
There is also an underlying faith in the audience’s basic ability to intuit important information. There is a quiet yet potent sequence that follows the first incident when our main character (Chief Brody, Roy Scheider) begins to feel the threat of the shark on a personal level. His son has narrowly escaped being killed by this monster shark and, standing over his recovering son, chief Brody looks out at the open water. There is a point-of-view zoom-in under a bridge and out into open water. Nothing overtly threatening is visible, there is just calm water. The music is strangely upbeat—hopeful. The score suggests possibility, rather than explicit threat. What makes the moment ominous is our knowledge that the possibility being acknowledged is of a large and dangerous predator that has come within feet of our protagonist’s own family. There is no need for an obviously deep and foreboding score, or an ominous dark shape in the water. Spielberg trusts his story and the audience.
Those were the days.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Stars: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw