Classic Film Review: Jaws (1975)

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The sound of waves crash against a small fishing boat floating on the waters of the ocean. The character of Quint, played by Robert Shaw, bites down on a biscuit. He is seated next to a giant fishing reel. The splashes of the ocean and the creaking of the boat are interrupted by slow, low notes from a string section of an orchestra. The reel begins slowly ticking, coming into focus and catching the attention of Quint. Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, sits at the edge of the boat, trying to tie a bowline knot. Quint slowly grabs the rod as the camera focuses on the large reel. Suddenly, Brody shouts “Hey, I’ve got it!” as he finishes the knot. This break in tension segues into a frenzy as the line begins rapidly pulling forward, propelling the film towards its next thrilling sequence. This brilliant moment is one of many that exemplify the brilliance of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, Jaws. I’d never seen the movie until now, but a classic is a classic for a reason. Jaws is a tightly-wound masterpiece. Its narrative and characters feel as if they leaped off the page of an intricately-woven literary novel. If that isn’t enough, its cinematography, music, acting, and production cement the film as one of the greatest examples of cinema in history. It is also, in my opinion, one of the best-directed films ever made. Though this is only Spielberg’s second directing gig, he manages to rival Hitchcock in his ability to build suspense and keep the audience’s attention on what he wants. Jaws is also commonly accepted as one of the most influential films in history. The anticipation, release, and success of the film made it essentially the first major summer blockbuster. The sheer amount of accomplishments that this film was able to garner is astounding when considering its troubled production, filming drama, and costly budget for the time. Spielberg insisted on filming at sea, and the entire second half of the film was shot completely on a small boat. The amalgamation of production and budget restrictions that hindered Spielberg’s vision for the film ended up benefitting the film, as Spielberg was forced to think out of the box and employ new and revolutionary tactics in filmmaking and direction.

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Jaws, as most people know, is the story of a giant killer shark that terrorizes a small beach town and is pursued by the chief of police, Martin Brody. Brody is an honest man with a wife and two kids. The brilliance of Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody is that despite having the outward appearance of a stern and hardened man, his demeanor is actually soft and reflective. It really feels like he’s just an ordinary guy trying to do his best to protect the people of the town. When casting for the film, Spielberg didn’t want to have big name actors appear in the movie since he wanted the events of the film to “believe this was happening to people like you and me”. In fact, Charlton Heston was originally interested in the role but Spielberg felt his grand image would detract from the ordinary every-day setting and the terror and connection that the audience would feel for Brody. As much of a thriller as Jaws is, the first half of the film is actually dedicated to building the character of Brody, and in analyzing the fear and paranoia of the townspeople in response to the shark attacks. A difference in ideologies takes place early in the film between Brody and Mayor Larry Vaughn, one of the many colorful characters in the movie. The mayor has his eyes set on continuing the beach tourism that drives the town’s economy while Brody is more concerned with the safety of its citizens. Brody’s anxiety is depicted through close up shots of Roy Scheider’s concerned expressions. In a particularly memorable scene, Brody sits on the beach, and as other people cross the screen, the camera cuts in closer to Brody’s face. Even during the shark attack sequences, the camera focuses on the movements and reactions of the people as a brilliant depiction of fear and panic. It’s as if the conflict doesn’t come from the shark itself, but rather the people’s fear of it, and how it causes them to act.

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But to cite the fear of the shark as the main conflict in the film would do an extreme disservice to the shark itself. Even without actually being on screen, the shark’s presence is always felt. Originally, Spielberg had designed several mechanical sharks, but they all constantly malfunctioned. To film around this issue, Spielberg showed only portions of the shark at a time. In some scenes, its tail or fin could be seen, and in others, it would be shown as a prop shark head. Aside from the practical effects, the shark’s terror came from its unseen presence more so than what was actually seen. Spielberg would have a large barrel, or a log slowly move towards the characters to represent the shark’s movement. The greatest fear comes from the imagination of the audience, and so by hiding the shark, it’s appearance could be hyped by the audience as more terrifying than what could be shown in a practical prop. Of course, none of the terror would be possible without John William’s excellent score. The simplicity of two alternating notes in a minor 2nd interval proves to be so impactful in its ability to indicate the presence of lurking dread. The increasing speed and volume of the notes as they crescendo into a symphony of cacophonous sound only further builds the suspense. Aside from the ominous main theme, Williams’s score is quite upbeat, with a sense of adventure created by animated and energetic violins.

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As the film progresses, more and more interesting characters get featured, such as oceanographer Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Hooper adds some levity to the film with his slightly more buoyant personality. He provides just the right amount of quirk and humor to not distract from the film’s serious tone. Robert Shaw’s Quint, the shark hunter, is another character that is rich with personality. His pursuit of the shark comes off as very Melvillian, often harkening to the literary obsessiveness of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.  The second half of the film relies on the strength of the character interactions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Jaws can actually be considered two movies with two separate environments. The first hour introduces the shark and focuses on the town, whereas the second hour is a shark hunt on a fishing boat that takes place entirely out in the ocean. This is where the acting really shines. The scientifically inclined Hooper comes into conflict with the hardened Quint while Brody acts as a straight man to both. Eventually, they feel and function like a unit and bond as they try and hunt down the shark. Scenes between the three involving Quint and Hooper comparing injuries, followed by the three characters singing chanteys are some examples of the excellent character moments in the film. The action and adventure also heighten in the second half as more of the shark is seen and as the fishing boat becomes more and more damaged after each run-in with the creature (even some live footage of actual sharks was integrated into the filming). These scenes, with the combination of brilliant acting, character development, music, and directing are some of the greatest examples of movie magic that you will be hard-pressed to find replicated in most movies today.

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When I finished watching Jaws, I had this great feeling, as if I had just come back from a big adventure. There are not one, but several scenes that can be considered some of the best scenes in film history. The camera and the music felt like characters just as much as the actors did. The selective views of the shark along with the initial point-of-view shots from the shark’s perspective cement it as one of the most iconic creatures in horror. There’s no point in reiterating how impactful this film was to Hollywood, but what I can say is that it more than earns its status. It’s a carefully constructed and thoughtful yet wild adventure that builds to an epic encounter between a terrifying force of nature. It’s an inward look at human psychology and response to fear. It balances its narrative in just the right ways and rewards and punishes characters in a way that consistently aligns with their actions and choices. At the end of the day, Jaws is one of the greatest movies ever made.

 

 

 

Thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Tomb”

It has come to my attention that I have not written about any novels. Though I love the visual splendor of movies and video games, I am still a fan of the printed word. However, since reading a book requires more time commitment than watching a two-hour movie, I have only managed to read a short story.

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Many quandaries are spinning through my head after having read “The Tomb”, by HP Lovecraft, one of the most well-renowned and brilliant writers of the twentieth century. What initially hooked me was the way the first paragraph was established. It began with the words “In relating the circumstances which have led to my confinement within this refuge for the demented, I am aware that my present position will create a natural doubt of the authenticity of my narrative. It is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of humanity is too limited in its mental vision to weight with patience and intelligence those isolated phenomena, seen and felt only by a psychologically sensitive few, which lie outside its common experience. Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal;that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them, but the prosaic materialism of the majority condemns as madness the flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil of obvious empiricism”. What is fascinating about this premise is that before even telling the story, the narrator gives a reason for deniability in his account. Often times in stories we are presented with an unreliable narrator, but one that is always unraveled by the reader at some point during the story. It is rare to see a story in which from the beginning we as readers have reason to doubt the narrator’s account. This statement, however, is followed by the narrator’s declaration that the “bulk of humanity” is often too easily dismissive, due to its limited scope and understanding of its environment, of phenomenon that would be deemed supernatural or out of the ordinary. He goes on to state that individuals of greater understanding are aware that there is no true distinction between what is real and what isn’t, and that which is tangible to the individual can be viewed as reality. Everything that the individual sees is only a combination of the physical senses and its perception by the human mind. The tragedy highlighted by the narrator is that in a society of matter and “obvious empiricism” where only seeing is believing, the “flashes of super-sight which penetrate the common veil” are condemned as madness. The premise introduces the reader to the narrator and his mentality. The narrator believes himself to be of heightened intellect and understands that everything that he sees he can acknowledge to himself to be real, and that the rest of humanity is misguided in its attempt to deem him insane.

    The narrator introduces himself as Jervas Dudley, an unnecessarily wealthy daydreamer who would spend his childhood “apart from the visible world” and instead buried in books and ponderings. Dudley considers his company to be among the non-living and spent his time by a wilted and haunting hollow tree. By the tree, in the darkest of the hillside thickets lies a tomb of a great and exalted family whose last descendant died long ago, the Hydes. The door to the tomb was rusted shut with the door slightly “ajar”. The family’s mansion was burnt in a fire and only one man perished and the ashes were brought to the tomb. Jervas forms a bower by the tomb where he would spend time sleeping and thinking. He eventually discovers that he is linked to the Hydes family on his maternal side. This stirs the notion that the tomb is for him. One night he finds an old chest in his attic containing the key to the tomb. He unlocks the tomb and finds a grave marked with one word, Jervas. He feels a sense of belonging in the tomb and a realization that his peace and final resting can be found only within the tomb. On one particular visit, he is seen by an unknown observer, but Jervas continues to the tomb anyway. However, upon visiting the dark hillside thickets, Jervas comes across an astonishing sight, the old Hydes mansion was rebuilt and brimming with light and reveling guests. Jervas enters with comfort and familiarity and takes part in the revelries, however at some point, a bolt of lightning strikes the ceiling and the house is set ablaze. Jervas attempts to escape but is burnt to ash. He suddenly finds himself struggling in the arms of two villagers and sees his father looking disdainfully at him. Before being whisked away, Jervas notices a chest containing a statue of a mirror image with an inscription “ J.H” Jervas is taken to an asylum where his father tells him that his visits to the bower were familiar to everyone and that the lock to the tomb was rusted shut and had been for ages. Jervas concludes that he would have resigned to being mad had it not been for his trusty servant within the asylum who broke the lock to the tomb and found within a grave marked with only one word, “Jervas”.

    An easy explanation is that Jervas is clearly insane. On the surface, this story can be seen as a depiction of a troubled mind driven mad by an unsightly tomb. Or it can be seen as the classic story of the person who may be crazy but may be telling the truth, but if we recall the first paragraph of this story, we would be falling in line with the bulk of humanity, dismissing the phenomena that exist outside the common experience, and declaring the perpetrator of the super-sight to be mad. The truth of the story is that whether the events are supernatural is irrelevant, because the story is about only one individual, Jervas. Jervas is the sole pair of eyes by which we witness the events, and from his perspective, everything he has seen exists. If we step back from his view and observe as a skeptic of society, he is crazy. However what Jervas sees is what we see, and what he sees is real to his senses, therefore by the transitive property what Jervas sees is the truth. “The Tomb” is an exploration of thought and perspective as it pertains to the existence of the individual and the faith in society that we uphold. It begs the question of what real truly is. Perhaps there is no real. An individual cannot live in the body of another individual, therefore cannot know if the other individual truly exists. All he knows is that he himself is conscious and him alone. Therefore, on account of his consciousness and existence, everything that he sees and feels can be deemed real to him.

 

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Responsible for such works as The Call of Cthulu, and At the Mountain of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft is known as one of the greatest horror-fiction writers of all time.

 

Miniblog: The Cloverfield Paradox Spoiler Review

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Before I go into the review, I want to say that I didn’t see the ad for The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl.  I watched the trailer afterward on YouTube and only then saw the big marketing ploy: it was airing that very night on Netflix. The last Cloverfield movie, Ten Cloverfield Lane, was advertised maybe a month or a few weeks before its theatrical release. The Cloverfield movies have had unique marketing campaigns that draw attention to the strange concepts and seemingly different genres of each film. In this case, the marketing campaign succeeded again. I was totally surprised when I saw the release date and immediately wanted to watch it. It was Sunday night though and I had class in the morning, so I watched it Monday and…
The Cloverfield Paradox is an otherwise straightforward isolated space thriller with interesting elements of mystery and visual appeal, however, in regards to its story, characters, and the answers to questions it sets up, it simply falls flat.
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Let’s start with the fact that we don’t get any interaction or development for the majority of the crew members. The only identifying feature is that they come from different nations. Given the incredibly talented cast including Daniel Bruhl and David Oyelowo, it’s unfortunate that a film with such good performances provided such little detail to its characters. The only character with a backstory is the protagonist, Ava Hamilton, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. I know that in typical space thrillers the crew ends up dying anyway, but at least one moment of comradery between them establishes that what is happening to them is tragic. In Alien the crew is laughing and joking around right before the alien rips out of Kane’s chest. In this movie, the crew members are at each other’s throats in the very first interaction they have on-screen.

 

Once the story gets going and the crew fires a particle accelerator, it’s obvious when we see a flash from the earth that the will be transferred to a different dimension. This leads me to my second point about the film, it’s incredibly predictable. The fact that they were transported to an alternate Earth was predictable, the fact that the gyro compass was inside the Russian character was predictable, the fact that Elizabeth Debicki’s character (the one from the alternate Earth) had sinister intentions was predictable, and the fact the Cloverfield monster had ended up on their Earth as a result of the firing was predictable. Elements of the film come out of nowhere, the plot point of the main character’s children burning down in a fire because of her decisions is expositioned out towards the end of the film for dramatic effect. The entire sub plot with the main character’s husband where he finds a little girl is entirely pointless and boring. The sci-fi elements, once they get going, are interesting enough. There are exploding bodies full of worms, sentient hands, and gruesome mutilations. However, none of these incidents are ever explained, they are simply chalked up to “quantum entanglement”, the two worlds are messing with each other because they are close. That doesn’t explain how an arm can just gain sentience and start writing instructions, or someone could collapse and die then explode worms. Once the movie ends with the giant Cloverfield monster attacking the ship, there is no context to the situation. Is it the same Cloverfield monster from New York but grown up? Is this the same world as Ten Cloverfield Lane with the alien mothership? None of this is explained, and the ending just feels tacked on for thrills.

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As a film, it has narrative problems and its characters are thin. As a space thriller it has enjoyable moments and pretty good visual effects. It contains some sci-fi movie clichés like the dumb scientists, in this case the comic relief character is so enamored by an incident of magnetic interference that he stares at it and lets the metal material he was using behind him swallow him up. Elements of the film are very derivative of other sci-fi films like Alien, Life, and Event Horizon (although really all of these films derive from Alien).

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It is definitely the weakest of the Cloverfield movies but I enjoyed watching it. Maybe I’m just desperate for semi-decent science fiction films by major studios, a topic that will be explored in an upcoming blog.