Monday, October 31, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.1: Steven Spielberg's Jaws

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. First up, his 1975 breakthrough Jaws.

Grade: 96 (A)

It has become popular in certain circles to bash Steven Spielberg as the man who killed the New Hollywood movement of the 70s by infantilizing the audience, giving them mindless, risk-free entertainment, and bringing power back to the studios in an era of directors. One of his most prominent critics is fellow filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, who holds Spielberg responsible for today’s brainless box office hits. There’s a number problems with Godard’s accusation. Firstly, Godard was accused by former friend Francois Truffaut as a man who puts down the work of others in order to boost opinion of his own work. Then there’s the fact that, well, there should be enough room for both challenging films like Nashville or Taxi Driver AND well-crafted, exciting entertainment like Star Wars.

But there’s one issue that towers over all of the other problems: Godard’s accusation that films like Jaws are mindless and without challenging moments is just flat-out wrong. Jaws is not an explosion fest, a death-a-minute movie, or mindless. Rather, the film is deliberately paced, often with long, killer shark-less stretches of characters slowly losing patience with each other. And although the film is extremely thrilling and often action-packed, there’s a real exploration of 70s era mistrust of authority and failure to save innocent lives.

The film’s plot is as well-known as they get: A killer shark roams the beaches of seaside town Amity, New York. Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches to keep everyone safe, but the mayor (Murray Hamilton) and others maintain that the town needs the lucrative Fourth of July weekend business. That oceanographer and all-around shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) agrees with Brody and thinks that it’s even worse than they thought doesn’t faze anyone. But as the body-count ratchets up, the mayor eventually relents and sends Brody and Hooper out with colorful fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt and kill the beast.

The film’s opening scene, in which the shark kills a young swimmer, is so famous that at this point it’s difficult to see just how brutal it is. The violence isn’t as graphic as most monster-movie fare, but the girl’s frantic screams as she’s dragged and jerked around the bay is nightmarish stuff by any standards, and that her ostensible lover is too drunk/high to notice her screams makes it all the more terrifying. The other shark attacks are similarly horrifying, from the ending assaults on the boat to the death of a child 18 minutes into the movie. And yet nothing feels gratuitous. The child’s death isn’t shown up close and personal. In fact, things get very quiet as the kid goes under; it isn’t until people see it and panic that the music starts up again (Spielberg’s willingness to kill a child character rather than tidy up the narrative is another proof against the easy “does not take risks” claim).

The film’s use of the shark’s point of view, originally a clever way of disguising that the mechanical shark didn’t work very well, has become one of the most famous aspects of the film. Spielberg uses old-fashioned moviemaking techniques (this one borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock) to sell the danger, making for a more interesting film than he had planned. Hitchcock had always said that suspense wasn’t someone saying “There’s a bomb” and then the bomb exploding, but rather showing the bomb (in this case, the shark’s point of view) and having the characters unaware. Even when everyone’s on guard, it’s never clear where the shark is until it’s too late.

Hitchcock isn’t the only Old Hollywood director Spielberg pays tribute to. Just as great an influence is Howard Hawks, whose “men on a mission” and “men vs. force of nature” storylines made for some of the most exciting films of his era (Rio Bravo, Red River). Like Hawks, Spielberg assembles a diverse cast of characters to solve the shark problem, from bigwig Murray Hamilton as the mayor to Scheider’s stoic but out-of-his-element police chief to Dreyfuss’ neurotic intellectual. The shark’s invasion of an idyllic location plays into the themes Spielberg would go on to explore for the next decade. The film’s final act gives way to an exciting modern Moby Dick story to rival the best of classic adventure films. Shaw’s Ahab-esque ship captain leads the hunt, but it becomes clear that this mad-eyed loon didn’t really think this chase through. Hooper and Brody, meanwhile, don’t have enough experience with this line of work to question Quint’s methods.

Peter Biskind’s scandalous, wildly entertaining book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is among the most prominent sources of criticism for Spielberg’s “safe” choices. But Biskind isn’t entirely correct. Jaws, for all of its mass appeal, is very much a piece of 70s New Hollywood. The film’s rhythm is not unlike other shaggy 70s films like Dog Day Afternoon: Action set-pieces are bookmarked with long, talky sections of people butting heads. The use of overlapping dialogue, while not at Altman-levels, still gives the film a lively, New Hollywood feel and prevents the film from feeling like “just a movie”. The film’s use of deep focus also allows the audience to choose which exasperated character to pay attention to at each moment.

Here’s the big one: the 70s were full of films questioning authority (really, too many here to list), and while  Jaws’ examples might not be as readily apparent as, say, All the President’s Men, there’s still some sly cracks at government in there. Early on, the film establishes Brody’s place in Amity as an outsider: he may be chief around here now, but he’s really a big city cop (Scheider had previously played a New York cop in The French Connection). He doesn’t know or consider just how important the beaches are to local businesses; his focus is on keeping people safe.

But Brody’s still not “one of them”. This way, his word doesn’t count as much; he doesn’t know how things work around here. It’s only his first summer. It doesn’t help that the mayor doesn’t think much of Hooper either; to his eyes, the intellectual young college grad radiates arrogance and impatience for small-town folks, so his “expert” opinion doesn’t count for squat. Murray Hamilton plays the character well; he isn’t an all-out villain only concerned with money. He just doesn’t realize the consequences of his attempts to control a force of nature.

Equally great is how flawed the two heroes of the film are. Hooper really is an arrogant, impatient man, and that he’s ultimately right doesn’t change that this shaggy-haired, disrespectful youngster is exactly what small town folk don’t trust. Brody, of course, sees danger around every corner because he’s a city cop, and his minor mistakes or willingness to go with the flow early on leads to tragedy. Even Quint, for all his weirdness, is a local, and he thinks very little of Hooper’s “science” or “facts” because Hooper is an educated know-it-all without life experience, and he isn’t from around here (that Dreyfuss and Shaw reportedly hated each other only helps sell the relationship). The three lead’s conflicting attitudes (sold by their great performances) add to the tension on the boat at the end of the film.

Perhaps what makes Jaws so remarkable, above all else, is the sense of loss and genuine feeling in the film. Brody’s guilt at the death of one child is clear, and there’s a real sadness in many of Scheider’s scenes. One of the best is a tender moment between Brody and his young son, Sean. Brody has just been publicly humiliated after a victim’s mother blamed him for the death of her son. Sean has no idea the gravity of the situation around him. His making faces at his father gives a brief reprieve from the weight on Scheider’s character, and it gives him a simple but powerful moment of humanity that sells his need, above professional duty, to save the day. Spielberg’s interest in parents and their children grew more pronounced with his subsequent films, but his first great film plants the seed that would sprout into one of the defining characteristics of his works: intelligent popcorn films with genuine heart.

This week on Director's Spotlight:

Thursday: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Saturday: Duel/The Sugarland Express

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