A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Jaws” (40th Anniversary) (1975)

Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” is one of those films that is forever etched into my brain ever since the first time I saw it as a kid, only to revisit it several years later as a teenager when it was shown in my Film Studies class. What’s so unbelievable about “Jaws” was and is its impact on the shift in cinema that started in the mid-seventies, with “Jaws” being the “first” real summer blockbuster, paving the way for films like George Lucas’ “Star Wars” which came out only a couple of years after it. “Jaws” was such a success, both domestically and globally, that it catapulted the then 29-year old Spielberg as the “IT” director of the new generation of Hollywood Blockbuster cinema. As well as making him a household name overnight. Besides its undeniable impact that it had on cinema at the time, Spielberg (and author Peter Benchley) were single-handedly responsible for making an entire generation of people think twice before going into the water. In modern-day society, one can only imagine but can’t possibly understand the cultural significance of something like that. Here we are even forty years later, and you can still hear people say that they’re afraid to go in the water. All because of one single movie that was made four decades ago. Besides both the impact it had on launching Spielberg’s career as a director as well as the impact it had on cinema overall at the time. One of the greatest components about “Jaws” is its ability to stand the test of time and not seem even the slightest bit outdated or obsolete. That and its universal appeal. For someone who likes mostly art house cinema but can appreciate more commercially viable motion pictures, particularly the ones of old, I am amazed, like I was tonight, to see a fully sold out theater of people, some wearing “Jaws” t-shirts, but everyone there for the same reason. To bear witness to what is still the scariest ocean motion picture ever made.

I don’t feel that it’s entirely necessary to provide a synopsis of any kind as probably and any everyone you know, no matter what generation, has probably seen the film at least a handful of times. But very loosely it revolves around  killer shark terrorizing a fictional East coast seaside town in Massachusetts (the movie was filmed almost entirely in and outside of Martha’s Vineyard) called Amity. The town’s chief of police (played by the iconic Roy Scheider), after a series of shark attacks where people come up dead, decided to put a ban up to stop the beach goers from swimming in the water, much to the chagrin of the town’s mayor. He soon meets an oceanology expert (who was and still is my favorite character in the film played by Richard Dreyfuss) and an old sea-captain Quint (a rather eccentric but wonderful Robert Shaw). And once the situation gets too out of control for the local authorities to handle (in one of the film’s many unforgettable shots of Scheider looking straight through the gates at the sea). The three men team up on the sea captain’s boat on a Moby Dick-like quest to take down the infamous shark.

This film remains such a classic staple in cinematic history that to discuss only a couple of its components would be to do it an injustice. What it does do masterfully, is play against audience expectations, playing up to out notion of the fear of the unknown. Spielberg slowly builds up the tension by revealing the shark scenes set to one of the most recognizable and effective film scores in history by the great composer John Williams. It constantly keeps you on the edge as the three men voyage into the ocean of uncertainty, not knowing when and if they’ll ever come back. This tension I speak of is a hard feat to pull off, but Spielberg does it with a certain deftness and Hitchcock-like hand that the picture builds and builds and builds, especially in its second half, to its Captain Ahab/Moby Dick like showdown that comes in the last act of the film. It’s one of Spielberg’s most impeccably staged and shot films that it truly is a marvel to sit back and watch how it all unfolds and is executed. As the three men stand off against the killer shark, and the shark against them, it climbs to a level of suspense like no other film. Certainly no other film of its time. This was my who knows who many times seeing it, but my first time on the big screen with a packed audience. And one of the thrills of seeing some of these great older, cinematic masterpieces on the big screen for the first time, like tonight, was that you can almost feel a certain kind of energy radiating off of the crowd. It was one of the most communal, shared experienced films I’ve seen in a long time. With the packed house laughing (with Quint/Shaw providing a lot of the comic effect), sitting at the edge of their seats, ooing and awwing at every sight they see of the shark as the chase and plot thickens. Then there’s the climactic line where Scheider’s character, looking through the barrel of his gun at the shark as his ship sinks into the water, shouts “SMILE YOU SON OF A” before he finally shoots the tank in the killer whale’s mouth and then it completely blows up. This had almost every single person in the crowd clapping in their seats. Which to me exemplified this “universality” piece I speak of about the film perfectly. The film has the uncanny ability to engage us all in the same fight together, so that when the shark is finally killed, you can do nothing but sit back and cheer as so much had been built up to it. This is one of the most important and influential works in cinematic history. And I for one feel incredibly grateful to have experienced it with a group of people on the big screen. An experience that is now embedded in me forever and one that I will truly never forget.


A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)

I found it interesting that in the 100 or so+ reviews I’ve written since this blog’s inception in August of last year that I’ve not once discussed or shared how I feel about the works of the most important filmmaker of the past 50 years, Steven Spielberg. It’s probably because well, I can’t say I’m that big a fan of his as guys like him and George Lucas of the “Star Wars” films were single-handedly responsible for the death (I know that’s a big word) of the Golden Age of cinema, the 1970’s, and are noted for giving birth to the rise of the popcorn fare summer blockbusters which ultimately led to the art of film itself becoming commercialized. However one could say film has always been “commercialized” in a sense if go all the way back to the early days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Where the artistic side of the film was taken out and reduced to a mere form of entertainment. Though never was this contrast more apparent in the “change” from art film to that of the more mainstream that occurred towards the end of the seventies and early eighties with films like “Star Wars” and “The Indiana Jones” movies. Both hugely successful franchises that made a large imprint in terms of cinema history. And I deeply admire and respect both filmmakers for their vision and for the way in which they revolutionized the art form of film itself.

But if you look at the rather large filmography of Steven Spielberg (54 films and counting) and take a deep, hard analytical look at them, you’ll see why he’s the most important filmmaker of the latter half of the 20th century. And what interests me the most is more than any other filmmaker maybe ever, is the way in which he has the ability to straddle the line between commercial film and much more personal work, which to me is the most commendable attribute about the guy. I’ve always been a much bigger fan of the latter kinds of films that he’s done – films like “The Color Purple” (1985), “Empire of the Sun” (1987) “Schindler’s List” (1993 – a film I consider to be one of my top 5 favorite films of all time), “Amistad” (1997), “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), and “Munich” (2005). I’ve always favored these films over his more commercially viable films like the “Indiana Jones” series, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), “Hook” (1991), “Jurassic Park” (1993), “War of the Worlds” (2005), etc. The latter being all great works in their own right but with a considerable amount of mainstream appeal. While the former, seemed to be more personalized works that were deeply important to him as a filmmaker. And at least from my background as a student of film, are the kinds of films that I have a tendency to admire a lot more.

Within this large cannon of films Spielberg has made within his long and varied career are two of what I consider to be his best films are the ones that seem to be able to tow this “straddle the line” concept between mainstream and art film that I mentioned above. That being the enormously successful and influential “Jaws” (1975) which is really the first film that put him on the map and made him an almost household name. And his follow-up, this film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), both of which stay within a commercial context but showcase Spielberg the filmmaker’s more artistic side. While both films are very entertaining in their own respect, they’re also impeccably done from an artistic standpoint. I learned this first hand when I watched “Jaws” for the first time in high school at the guidance of a teacher of film. It was one of the seminal works in film that made me almost never look at the art form the same way again. And hit me on such a guttural level that putting it into words would be a bit too much of a daunting task to describe in words.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, while a much different kind of film in terms of genre than “Jaws”, is coincidentally not only his follow-up film to that but also my third favorite behind both it and “Schindler’s List”. It has been on my bucket list for quite some time now of movies that I chase to see on the big screen if given the opportunity. And boy was I excited when I saw that one of our local theaters in town was releasing it as a one-week engagement.

What’s so great about CEOTTK is that with the exception of maybe Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) it was the first film to deal with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. At least on the same kind of scope and level as that film. As I watched the film this time around on the big screen closely, I came to the realization of just how well executed it is from almost every single film-making component. The character and acting of Richard Dreyfuss as your simple-minded Joe Schmoe, who, after an encounter with a UFO, goes on the ultimate personal quest searching for answers is both compelling and thoroughly engaging throughout. As is its spectacular special effects and light show, which had my jaw gaping to both hear John Williams’ terrific score and see its astonishing visual imagery projected onto the big screen, with a story that produces both an undeniably compassionate and human one with an emotional core about an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

I also love the film’s timelessness and it’s appeal to both adolescents and adult thinkers alike. And more than any other Spielberg work, it feels deeply definitive in both its style and substance as well as being iconic and timeless. Finally, in what is maybe one of the single most greatest climaxes in film history – the alien mother ship sequence, is a technical delight, which had me looking up at the screen marveling collectively in awe at the brilliance of what I was seeing. This is one of the best Science Fiction films of all time that also works equally well as a thriller, and is a glimpse into the mind of Spielberg’s psyche, whose greatest gift as a filmmaker has always been his ability to grasp a hold of his viewers and allow them access to be able to marvel and wonder at the possibilities of the infinite.


 photo VTS_01_4_20090418163025.jpg