Spielberg: Jaws Act IV

In Act I and Act II of Jaws, Chief Brody struggled with the forces of The System. In Act III, the three men on the Orca struggled amongst themselves. Now, they will struggle against the shark, and only one of them will triumph.

In another post I mentioned that Jeffrey Katzenberg refers to the final act of a movie as “a race to the finish line.” Thus it is with the final half-hour of Jaws. There is no more exposition, no more character development or plot complication — all that has been efficiently cleared away to make way for an act-long action climax, a series of mechanical problems to be solved. This is, of course, where Spielberg excels, where he feels most at home, the poetry of movement and mayhem. In the realm of action, Spielberg is rivaled only by James Cameron and the final act of Jaws is his earliest masterwork.

1:34:45 — The shark attacks the Orca. The boards bend inward and water spurts inside the hull. Our breathing stops because THE WATER IS COMING IN THE BOAT, and Spielberg has done such a masterful job of establishing that THE WATER itself is an object of dread. Seconds later, the shark rams the boat and Brody FALLS INTO THE WATER. It’s only a couple of inches of water, but he reacts as though it’s acid, and so do we, and this is why.

The overhead light spins with the impact. Spielberg would later go on to use “things dangling from the ceiling” as a visual cue, but it’s worth noting that he got mileage out of the same spinning overhead light in Something Evil.

1:35:58 — Brody comes out on deck and loads his gun. A meteor passes through the sky, traversing his eyeline. Pure genius. I remember the first time seeing the movie thinking I was imagining it — exactly like when you see a meteor in the night sky. I know that meteor showers take a prominent place in Spielberg’s life story, but 30-odd years later I still have to sit and wonder at the presence of mind it took to put, at considerable expense I’m guessing, an animated meteor into the background of this shot. Was the shot planned that way, or did Spielberg decide to put the meteor in in post? In any case, in the midst of this already extremely-heightened experience, it takes a special kind of mind to say “Oh, and let’s have a meteor go by in the background — because the scene where the shark decides to attack the boat isn’t interesting enough.”

The shark, of course, at this point is no longer a shark, it’s an actual bad guy, with an actual Bad Guy Plot. The shark, fully confident of its abilities, is going to taunt the men on the Orca, get them to squander their resources, pick them off one by one, and then I guess proceed to eat every person on Amity Island. (It jumps up on theboat — I can easily imagine it leaping up onto the dock, stealing a car and driving to City Hall to eat the Mayor. Or maybe it would let the Mayor go — professional courtesy and all.)

It’s important to keep in mind that Spielberg keeps his protagonist helpless and ineffective to the very end of the narrative. Brody watches and reacts to the very end — his one attempt at action, calling for help, is negated by Quint destroying the radio. Keeping the protagonist helpless winds up our anxiety about his predicament to such a high degree that when Brody finally blows up the shark the release of tension is so great it’s hard not to stand up and cheer.

Quint destroying the radio, of course, is an allusion to Moby-Dick, where Ahab destroys the sextant. In case the Moby-Dick fans in the audience don’t catch the reference, the screenplay calls for Hooper to exclaim, moments later, “Fast fish,” a reference to Moby-Dick‘s “fast fish and loose fish.” (The novel Jaws is even more explicit about Quint’s Ahab-ness — he dies in an almost identical manner.)

1:38:20 — Quint and Hooper have to lean out way over the water to snag the ropes on the barrels. Again our breath stops, as we equate the water itself with danger and unspeakable evil.

1:43:20 — The shark, stuck full of harpoons, pulls the boat backwards through the water. The oxygen tanks almost fall over again, our second reminder of them.

1:45:40 — The “machete beat.” Quint cuts the ropes and sticks the machete in the rail of the boat. This shot perplexed me for decades, until I realized later that Quint grabs the machete to stab at the shark as it’s eating him. Live and learn.

1:47:20 — Now that the shark has decided to wreck the boat, a plan is announced to lead him into shallow waters and drown him. Quint is visibly disappointed by this plan and proceeds to destroy the boat’s motor. Why does he do this? For the same reason he destroys the radio — he wants the boat to sink. He’s expecting to die, we can tell because he starts singing “Ladies of Spain”, his “goodbye” song.

Act IV of Jaws is all about “moments of truth.” Quint has been waiting 30 years to get back in the water with a shark, to see if, through his intense hatred, he can triumph over his nemesis. Hooper has brought along all his equipment to prove that, through his love of sharks, he has gained the scientific knowledge to destroy it.

And so he proceeds to try to do that. There is a short “preparation” montage where we get our third reminder of the oxygen tanks. (I love the shot of Hooper carefully measuring the poison into the syringe — careful, not too much.) Hooper goes into the water to prove his worth and fails miserably.

I love the shot of the interior of the boat, the wood a sliding to one side as the boat tips in the water. It strikes me as typically Spielbergian, an understanding of exactly the shot that will sell the physical reality of whatever the action sequence is trying to get across. A cousin to the screw coming out of the grate in Close Encounters and a hundred others.

The shark jumps into the boat. Quint, I think, would like to fight the shark, but this, it seems, was not his battle plan. He grabs hold of a table, but Hooper’s oxygen tank rolls over his fingers and he lets go. And so we could say that the “new idea” of Hooper’s science has triumphed over the “old idea” of Quint’s hatred. Which seems like a New Testament-Old Testament debate, but probably for a different movie.

Quint gets eaten, and Brody, who has been clumsy, inefficient and hapless throughout the second half of the movie, improvises a solution. He fuses Hooper’s science (the remaining oxygen tank) and Quint’s hatred (the rifle) and blows the damn thing up. Finally, in the last moments of the story, the protagonist Proves His Worth and shows that One Man Can Make A Difference. The tank and the rifle indicate that Brody has gained his triumph by paying attention to the warring warriors who went before him.

(In the book, they simply wear the shark down and it dies inches away from attacking Brody, apparently from exhaustion. Benchley’s protagonist is much more related to Melville’s Ishmael, an innocent bystander who survives through dumb luck — good enough for a book but a severe setback for a movie. I remember the cheers echoing through the theater when seeing it the first time, thinking “well, of course they went for the more spectacular ending, and the crowd seems to like it, so…”)

The shark sinks in a cloud of blood in an almost exact visual echo of the truck falling off the cliff in a cloud of dust in Duel. The visual parallel occurred to Spielberg and he put a modified version of the same sound effect from the truck scene over the shot of the sinking shark.


Spielberg: Jaws Act III

Chief Brody is moving toward a point of reckoning. He moved from New York to Amity to prove that One Man Can Make a Difference, and needs desperately To Prove His Worth. In Act I he Did What He Was Told, in Act II he Took Charge (but still did so while Working Within The System). Faced with the utter corruption of the System, he has come to the point where he realizes that, to face the monster, he must head out "into the woods," as it were, Face His Fear and learn the truth about himself.

Common moviegoers (that is, civilians) tend to like the second half of Jaws more than the first half. They say that the movie only really "gets going" when the three guys head out onto the water to hunt the shark. There is a lesson in this: an audience responds to an active protagonist, and up to this point, poor Chief Brody has been reactive, spinning his wheels and losing ground against the forces arrayed against him. The final shot in Act II, where Brody has gotten the signature from the Mayor and moves through the hospital corridor on his way to destiny, says it all. Brody’s attitude, shoulders back, head down, jaw set, stride confident, has been seen in many, many movies but is most recognizable in westerns: Brody is the quiet American sheriff, slow to anger but unstoppable once roused to action. The action cuts from Brody walking from left to right through the frame, and then directly to Quint walking in the door of his house, also from left to right, almost as though Brody has become Quint in the cut. (Quint also emerges seemingly from the mouth of a shark-head mounted near his door — foreshadowing in reverse!)

I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.

Spielberg: Jaws Act II

So. We’ve made it through Act I of Jaws. Chief Brody, the fish-out-of-water “new guy” in town on Amity Island, has been confronted with an unknowable terror and, seeking To Prove His Worth, has Done What He’s Told. This choice has led him to catching what is probably the wrong shark and getting slapped in the face by a grieving mother.

As Act II begins, we find Brody sullen and depressed, licking his wounds at the dinner table and getting drunk.

I can do anything I want — I’m the Chief of Police.

Spielberg: Jaws Act I

The protagonist of Jaws, Police Chief Martin Brody, wants to Prove His Worth. The banner he fights under, and the theme of the movie, is “One Man Can Make a Difference.” Act I of Jaws illustrates Brody’s first attempt to Prove His Worth, which in this case involves Doing What He Is Told.

1:00-5:15 — Chrissie Watkins is at a beach party. A boy, Tom, makes eyes at her. She teases Tom out of the circle with an offer of skinny dipping. Tom is eager but too drunk to follow through. Chrissie goes out swimming and gets attacked by a shark.

There is a temptation to give an unnecessarily sexual reading to this opening scene. Chrissie takes off her clothes as she lures her date along the beach, she is obviously after more than some swimming. The boy may be unable to attack, but the shark seems to be up to the task. This is the “Friday the 13th” reading, that the sexually promiscuous woman is “asking for it.” I think this is the wrong reading — the point of the opening scene is not that Chrissie is sexually active but that she, and the other teens at the beach party, are “free.” They are free to smoke, drink, do drugs, play music and go swimming naked. They are, in all but name, hippies. Like the US on September 10, 2001, they are living in an open, permissive society that takes its freedoms for granted.

Chrissie’s nakedness also happens to make for better drama, as she, like Marion Crane in Psycho, is presented in the most vulnerable light possible at the moment of the attack on her person. There’s no reason Spielberg could not have put her in a swimsuit, but having her naked raises the dramatic stakes that much more.

The scene establishes genre, announces This Is A Horror Thriller, and presents the primary antagonist, a brutally inhuman monster, unthinking, unreasoning, implacable.

5:15 — We meet Brody, as we meet many a protagonist, getting up in the morning. He awakens and looks out to the sea. Several times in the movie Brody will look out to sea, this is the first. The sea, we could even say, is Brody’s nemesis.

Brody’s state of being as we meet him is that he is disoriented — he asks his wife why the sun is shining in the window. Next he reports to her where their children are, and there is some dialogue that indicates that he’s new in town and not doing a good job of fitting in. (He’s a cop from New York, essentially the same character Roy Scheider played in The French Connection and The Seven-Ups. Here, he’s a — pardon — fish out of water.)

His older boy comes in from the yard. He’s cut his hand; this is the level of domestic turmoil Brody expects to find in Amity. He’s so new to the town that he picks up the wrong phone when it rings. Beautiful scene where his wife tends to his boy’s cut and he talks to his deputy on the phone in the foreground.

(A third reason for the opening scene is to create suspense. Generally, the writer wants to put the audience in the same position as the protagonist, unless for the purposes of suspense. If the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table but the protagonist doesn’t, the writer can wring out minutes and minutes of suspense as the audience gets more and more upset about the bomb. Here, we know what the phone call is about, even though Brody doesn’t, and his family in the background, still “free,” knows even less.)

7:30 — Brody takes off in his car to investigate the disappearance of Chrissie Watkins. There’s a nice shot of his car zipping along a country road. And I’m thinking “Hmm, an ordinary shot of a car traveling on a road, why is this in there?” Then the car passes the AMITY ISLAND billboard, which tells us four things: 1, the name of the town, 2, the fact that the town is on an island, 3, the fact that the town promotes itself as a swimmer’s paradise, and 4, that there is a “SUMMER REGATTA” coming up July 4th — which of course, turns out to be a ticking clock driving the narrative. So this one simple shot tells us a ton of exposition, without any dialogue, and raises the stakes without making a big deal out of it.

8:00 — Brody talks with Tom about Chrissie’s disappearance as they pick up her clothes from the beach. The concept of “Islanders” is introduced: the natives of Amity consider themselves a clan unto themselves and everyone else, it seems, is a second-class citizen. Tom “belongs” in Amity, Brody is the outsider.

Brody’s deputy Hendrickson, himself an Islander, sees Chrissie’s remains first — another good use of a suspense beat. Brody stands over the remains, clutching Chrissie’s purse, literally “left holding the bag.” Brody’s Gap opens here: his job has just gone from cleaning up after a drunken party to investigating a death.

9:00 — Polly, an elderly secretary to Brody, reports for work, unaware of Chrissie’s death. As Brody types up Chrissie’s death report, she tells Brody about the local kids “karate-ing” fenceposts. Again we see the juxtaposition of “business as usual” with the urgency of Brody’s predicament. (Spielberg even places Brody in the same place in the frame for both scenes.) The Medical Inspector calls and tells Brody that Chrissie died from a shark attack, and the news strikes Brody like a thunderbolt. As Police Chief, it his duty to protect the citizens of Amity from a threat and, seeking to Prove His Worth, he leaps into action.

10:00 — The newly-charged-up Brody heads into town to get supplies to paint “BEACH CLOSED” signs. As he’s in the hardware store, we hear a customercomplaining to the store owner about an order — he is going to be unprepared for the big 4th-of-July Regatta. This is to remind us of that ticking clock that will form the climax of Act II in another 50 minutes or so. There is a marching band rehearsing in the streets and, again, the “free” populace goes about their business, complaining to Brody about trivial things, and his anxiety set against the town’s blissful ignorance raises the dramatic stakes.

11:41 — Brody learns of some boy scouts out swimming and goes to warn them out of the water. As he takes the ferry across the bay, he is accosted by the Mayor.

It is impossible for me to watch the scenes with the Mayor without thinking of George W. Bush. Everything he does is straight from the Bush playbook. The town is under attack and the only thing the Mayor can think to do is ignore the problem, hope it goes away, cover it up and tell people to keep on shopping. There’s a great beat where the Mayor tells Brody that Chrissie may have been killed by a boat propeller, then turns to the Medical Inspector for backup. The Medical Inspector, the same man who told Brody that Chrissie was killed by a shark, stops to try to think of something to add to the Mayor’s comments, then realizes he can’t and instead simply parrots the Mayor, and Alberto Gonzales suddenly leaps to mind. The Mayor is concerned that, without summer dollars, the town is going to be on welfare come winter. He is, literally, willing to feed his citizens into the mouth of a shark for the sake of making money. The scene ends with the Mayor turning to the ferry operator and saying “Okay, take us back.” Indeed.

Brody, who only wanted to close the beach because the Medical Inspector told him that Chrissie was killed by a shark, is now powerless to act. One Man, it seems, cannot Make A Difference after all. But he wants To Get Along, so he Does As He’s Told.

(Of course, statistically speaking, the Mayor is correct — shark attacks are absurdly rare and the likelihood of another attack is a statistical impossibility. But that wouldn’t make a very good movie.)

13:40 — The beach. Later that day, I’m guessing. We meet Alex Kintner and his mom. Alex is destined to soon die, but we don’t know that yet. We also meet the guy with his Labrador Retriever. Brody, alone, watches the beach, a Man With A Secret. All around him, banality reigns. His neighbors discuss the “Islander” thing again, and one of them comes to pester him about some parking hassles. The frisson between the triviality of Amity life and the life-and-death struggle Brody is silently engaged in is unbearable. There’s the “Bad Hat Harry” scene, a false-scare that serves as a small misdirect. Brody thinks it might be a shark, but we, the audience know better, because we haven’t heard the shark’s musical theme. There is some more suspense as the guy calls for his dog, as Brody’s youngest son plays in the sand and sings “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” Again, we know more than the protagonist and the suspense builds. The music kicks in, we know what’s coming, and then little Alex Kintner gets it, in a spectacularly violent scene.

18:15 — The city council meeting. What is Brody going to do? He’s seen the monster for himself (in that dramatic rack/zoom), and he knows that the same shark killed Chrissie Watkins. He can’t pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And yet at the city council meeting, faced with the concerns of the local merchants, he caves. He is overwhelmed by commerce — the merchants of Amity don’t want the beaches closed for even 24 hours. In his pursuit of Doing What He’s Told, he is bulldozed by the very people he’s supposed to be protecting.

20:40 — Quint appears, in an all-time classic entrance. Quint tells the city council that he’ll catch the shark, but it will cost more than the $3000 dollars Mrs. Kintner is offering — he demands $10,000 and walks out of the meeting. He is dismissed by the city council, and again I can’t help but think of Bush, who not only doesn’t give a damn about the people he’s supposed to be leading, he doesn’t want to spend the money it takes to do a job properly. What does the Mayor do? He pushes the task of protecting the populace onto the “private sector,” secure that market forces will settle the problem and not cost him any money. And Brody is helpless — it seems that One Man is completely incapable of Making A Difference.

22:30 — Brody retires to his home and reads about sharks. Know Thy Enemy. There is a teeny bit of exposition as Brody commiserates with his wife about his burden and she offers to lighten his load. So again we see a juxtaposition between Brody’s problems and his family’s. His wife has come around to his side, a little anyway, but his boys are still “free” and innocent (even though they were on the beach that afternoon too). Brody orders his son off his sailboat, even though it’s tied to the dock, then worries that he’s pushing his authority too far — his job (as both father and police chief) is to protect his family so they can live freely, not to order them around and curtail their freedoms. As it happens, his wife, at just that moment, sees an illustration in one of Brody’s shark books of a shark attacking a fishing boat and screams for the boy to get out of the water.

So this scene, it seems, argues for a slightly more conservative viewpoint — the enemy is out there, and it’s better to instill a little fear into your charges than allow for the possibility of their getting injured or killed.

This scene, and specifically the illustration that provokes Brody’s wife’s hysteria, becomes an important cue in the movie’s visual schemata: the WATER, Spielberg tells us, is where the evil is. As long as you are NOT IN THE WATER, you are safe. If you are IN THE WATER, there is no hope for you. Again and again for the rest of the narrative, it is suggested that if you have even a finger or toe IN THE WATER, you are in danger.

24:30 — Like in this very next scene, where the two local clowns try to catch the shark with a holiday roast for bait (the “holiday”, of course, being the 4th of July, that ticking clock again). The shark takes the bait and heads out to sea, taking the end of the dock, and one of the clowns, with it. The second the clown goes into the water, we fear for his life, and we do not relax until his feet get out of the water. Spielberg even lets the camera linger on his feet scrambling over the collapsed dock, knowing that we are crawling out of our skin waiting for the shark to leap up and snatch the man away.

Of course, it does not, and the scene works as both a good scream and as good comedy. And let me add the beauty of the dock being towed out to sea, then turning around to come back for the clown as his friend screams on what’s left of the pier.

(There is a connection, of course, between the shark and the Mayor, and the visual design of the clown scene shows it. Jaws is about the largely-invisible forces that pull us around — we don’t see the shark in the clown scene, but we see the dock-end pulled around. Similarly, we don’t see the market forces that pull the Mayor around, but we see his discomfort at being in their grip. And, like the shark, the market forces in Jaws are brutal, unthinking, uncaring, inhuman, implacable and unanswerable. But more on that later.)

28:00 — The Yahoo Armada. Amateur fishermen from all over descend upon Amity. Market forces are allowed to run free, and the result is chaos. Brody is more overwhelmed than ever. (We could say that Brody is the US Forces in Iraq and the Yahoo Armada is Blackwater.) Out of this Yahoo Armada, Hooper appears. Hooper is, like Brody, a fish out of water, which is why his introduction in the midst of the Yahoo Armada works well. He is an Expert, and more to the point, he is a Reasonable Man, educated at some Eastern University. That is, he is the opposite of a Yahoo, and a “sissy” to boot, a bespectacled Academic, and he is here to Discover The Truth of the death of Chrissie Watkins. (I note that Spielberg takes the beard and glasses from Hooper, his Effete Academic in Jaws, and puts them on the face of Henry Jones, the Effete Academic in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)

31:15 — Hooper examines Chrissie’s remains and loses his cool. And I’m thinking “Why does this scene work? We already know Chrissie was killed by a shark, why do we need Hooper to declare it so?” The reason is, the act isn’t about “A Shark Comes to Amity,” the act is about Brody trying to Prove His Worth by Doing What He’s Told. And now here is an independent authority coming along and telling him, like a slap in the face, that he’s an irresponsible jerk who’s no better than the Mayor or the Gonzales-like Medical Inspector. Brody, who thought he was doing such a good job of Doing What He’s Told, has just been informed that his goals, as the protector of the people, should be higher than that.

33:00 — Back on the dock, a tiger shark is caught. We know it’s not the shark who killed Chrissie and Alex, but Brody breathes a sigh of relief: maybe he’s off the hook, maybe the system works, maybe Doing What He’s Told will turn out to be the wise move after all.

The Mayor comes along and, again, is concerned only with image and publicity. When Hooper expresses doubt as to the validity of the shark (like a good liberal, he feels a simple examination of facts will produce a sane response from authority), the Mayor dismisses him with talk about the “appropriateness” of cutting open the shark “in front of everybody.” His hope, of course, is that no one will ever cut open the shark, the problem will go away and everyone can make a lot of money.

36:00 — Mrs. Kintner comes down to the dock and has her brilliant scene where she confronts Brody, and Brody is brought face to face with Responsibility, and the true meaning of his job. He is on the island to protect the citizens of Amity from harm and instead he Did What He Was Told.   One Man could have Made a Difference in the life of Mrs. Kintner, but that One Man hewed to the beaten path instead.  And as Act II begins, we will see Brody go from being a man who Does What He’s Told to a man who Takes Charge.


Movie Night With Urbaniak: Amblin’, Jaws

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a fan of Spielberg from the time I caught his name at the end of an episode of Columbo, so I was primed to enjoy Jaws on its opening weekend in spite of the fact that the movie had huge buzz and everyone else in the nation was excited about seeing it as well. (I was also a fan of Night Gallery before that, much to the consternation of my older, Twilight Zone-fan brother, and remember the two episodes he directed clearly, but didn’t know he had directed them until later. Both of them are available at Youtube if you type in “night gallery eyes” and “night gallery make me laugh” — and Tom Bosley is in both of them!)

Anyway, I remember seeing Jaws opening weekend like it was yesterday. The drive to the theater, the feeling when we walked in seven minutes late (packed theater, the shot on the screen, the electricity in the room) the shrieks and laughs from the crowd. Jaws hookedthe audience in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience hooked since, except maybe Star Wars and Alien. Spielberg’s effortless command of flow, rhythm and tension jerked that crowd around like, well, like a shark jerking around young Chrissie Watkins in the first scene.

I had had the movie bug ever since The Poseidon Adventure in 1972, but Jaws hit my consciousness like an atom bomb. I was obsessed with the movie, saw it many times in the theater, bought, read and re-read the two “making of” books, cut out ads from the newspapers, bought the poster and had it up on my wall for many years, kept track of the grosses and how long it played in which theaters. Think of this: there were theaters in Chicago where Jaws played for over a year. I paid attention to the way scenes were shot and cut, wondered why some shots followed others, paid attention to the way the audience’s senses were manipulated. You could say that before Jaws I understood there was a thing called a movie, but after Jaws I understood there was a thing called making a movie.  I wrote a short story for English class about a screening of Jaws where the projector breaks in the middle of the movie and a riot ensues, and the teacher read it aloud to the class and gave me an A.

How successful was Jaws? It made over $470 million in 1975 — that’s $1.8 billion in present-day dollars. Jurassic Park, in contrast, made half that much.

I don’t know — is there a movie out there that can affect an audience like Jaws did in 1975? For that matter, is there an audience out there prepared to be affected like this by a movie again? Jaws, and Spielberg, was one of the few cultural things my father and I agreed on (Star Wars was another, and The Godfather). There’s the famous rack/zoom shot of Chief Brody on the beach, and my father took great care to explain to me that Spielberg had lifted it from Vertigo, but couldn’t believe that this kid had taken a shot that Hitchcock had used as the exclamation point of his masterpiece and essentially tossed it away for a minor Act I plot-point — even he understood that this was a serious filmmaking talent to be reckoned with.

I have a great deal to say about the script of Jaws, which I plan to do in several parts over the next week or so, with your indulgence. But to kick things off

  came over and we watched it on the big screen (which is well worth it — the 25th-anniversary DVD has a wonderful transfer) and we talked about the acting.

Urbaniak noted, first off, that the movie has some of the best extra work of all time, and I heartily agree with him. And as the first two acts of Jaws is about a man battling a society instead of a shark, that work is important. Spielberg always does well with crowd scenes for some reason (the crowd scenes in Sugarland and Close Encounters are similarly vivid) and he has an uncanny knack for casting and directing great masses of humanity, a much greater talent than, say, Cecil B. Demille, where the mass is always just that — a mass, not a collection of individuals. Spielberg’s crowds always teem with detail, contradiction and humanity. Whether it’s the out-of-town fisherman who’s never heard of a tiger shark, or Quint’s little fisherman-pal with the greasy orange hat and the dog, or the prim, dyspeptic motel-owning city council-woman, Spielberg somehow manages to find people who look and act genuine and put dozens of them in scenes and have them all interacting with each other, and I don’t know how he does it. The yahoo shark-hunting armada, the Fourth of July crowd scenes, the panics on the beaches, there isn’t a single false beat in them, and these are all hugely complicated scenes with a lot going on in them.

Take the scene on the dock where they’ve caught the tiger shark. There are a half-dozen brilliant, brilliant one-and-two-line performances in that scene, most from people uncredited. The rhythms and cutting in the scene keep going with what I’ve come to think of as a typically Spielbergian fluidity, even though only a couple of the faces on screen belong to trained movie stars. So many little moments pass by as Brody and Hooper move through the crowd, playing their own scenes, all the beats ring true, and in the middle of all this come Mrs. Kintner, the mother of the little boy killed a few scenes earlier. In one of the great one-scene performances of the decade, easily beating the one-scene performance of Beatrice Strait in Network, an actress named Lee Fierro walks into frame, with her black dress and veil, and strikes Brody on the side of his head. I’m guessing the script said that she slaps him, but she doesn’t really. She looks like she’s trying to, but her aim is off and she kind of clubs him on the ear instead. And then delivers this incredible speech about how her boy’s death is Brody’s fault and so forth. And she’s playing a mother who has just come from the funeral of her little boy but she doesn’t play the grief, instead she plays the composure. Her grief is there as a subtext, and sitting on top of her grief is her anger, but what she’s playing is a woman trying not to reveal either her grief or her anger. The results are devastating. This is the Act I climax, a crucial scene to the protagonist’s arc, and Spielberg gave it to an actress who had never appeared on screen before and, apart from being in Jaws: The Revenge, would never appear on screen again, and she knocks it out of the park.

Then there’s Robert Shaw. And given the depth and validity that every other performance in the movie delivers, it’s kind of weird to see Robert Shaw swan in halfway through the movie and give the peculiar performance he gives here. It’s a very “actory” performance, very “look ma, I’m acting,” and while he’s never less than compelling, he never feels like he’s really that guy, which I get no problem from Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. I suppose Quint is supposed to be larger than life, that that’s the whole point of the performance, and once the movie moves out to open sea Shaw takes over the narrative and drives the conflict for the whole second half. But in my mind I keep thinking of Sterling Hayden, who played General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye and was Spielberg’s first choice to play the part. Hayden was very much like Quint, lived on a boat and wrote books about the sea, and whenever I watch Jaws these days I keep imagining Quint’s scenes as performed by Hayden. And so, as both Urbaniak and I do passable Sterling Hayden impressions, we proceeded to do just that, reading Quint’s lines as Hayden, in his gruff, slurry, side-of-the-mouth delivery — something Shaw even approximates a couple of times himself, as in: “Chief — put out the fire, will ya?”

Scheider and Dreyfuss are, of course, splendid.

Oh, and as a warm-up we also watched Amblin‘, Spielberg’s first movie, his 24-minute short that got him the Night Gallery job (it is commercially unavailable — another item courtesy of my local cool video store). I’ll write about Amblin’ shortly, but let’s just say for now that Jaws is the better movie.hitcounter

The Jaws of Love

(Another piece from my monologue days.)

I’m a man, I’m an idiot, it follows.  I’m a man, I’m an idiot.

I’m human, that’s the problem.  I’m human, I’m an idiot, it follows.  I’m human, I’m an idiot.  You can’t teach me anything, I won’t learn, I’ll never learn, I can’t learn, I’m an idiot, I’m trapped and you can’t teach me anything.

You ever look into someone’s eyes and been reduced to the size of a pin?  A pin, a pinpoint of light, been reduced to a pinpoint of light?  You ever see someone toss their hair back and it made you fall silent?  You could be talking to someone — “Oh, yes, the third episode with the dwarf was the best” — and they do this –

[imitation of hair-flip]

— and you fall silent.  Because, you know why?  Because Something Important Has Happened.  Or, or, you’re talking to this person, this person, this certain person who makes your heart want to get in your car and turn on some rockabilly and drive somewhere, and you’re hanging on every word this person says, and then this person says something like —

…”that would be nice”…

— and it dislodges this rock, somewhere in the deep stream of your subconscious this rock is dislodged, and you find yourself thinking about things you haven’t thought about in years.  Am I ugly?  Do I need some mints?  How come I never read any Shelley?  Jesus, do I weigh that much?  This rock is dislodged, it sets off an avalanche in your head that wipes out everything else in your brain. 

And you fall silent.  It’s like you’re in church, it’s like you’re worshipping.  Because you are in church.  You are worshipping.  You are having a religious experience.

Why?  Why this person?  Who is this person?  What do you know about this person?  Doesn’t this person have terrible taste in music?  Doesn’t this person smoke?  Isn’t this person ten years older than you?  Isn’t this person not attracted to your sex?  Doesn’t this person think you’re an insignificant blot on an otherwise charming landscape?  Isn’t this person the rudest, clumsiest, most incorrigibly maddeningly frustratingly difficult person you’ve ever met in your lifeWell?  Then why?  Why are you talking to this person?  What is the point?  Why are you bothering?  Why do I find myself in this exact same position right now?!

Because —

[gesture to body]

— this, you see, this, you know what this is, this is flesh.  It’s all I’ve got.  It’s all they gave me.  I didn’t get a book of rules.  I didn’t get a wise old mind that could see into the future and tell me that these feelings would die, that lovemaking would become rote and tiresome, that I would lose interest, that we would get into fights over things like, like white-out!

I didn’t get that mind, my mind doesn’t say those things, my mind says things like YES!  My mind says things like NOW!  My mind says things like DANCE, like, like, KISS, like, like, GRAB THIS PERSON NOW!  GRAB THIS PERSON NOW!

I don’t know what it is, of course I don’t know what it is.  It’s not meant to be known, not by us, not by me, not in this life, not in this world.  It’s a feeling, that’s all, it’s a feeling, you know it when you feel it, it’s like these jaws snapping shut on you, on me, like they’ve shut on me, and I’m trapped, because, because, I’m a man, I’m an idiot, it follows, like I said, these jaws are as big as the fucking universe, and they’ll chew me up and spit me out, and I’ll never learn, I’m trapped, I’m an idiot, and I’m trapped in the jaws of love.

Copyright © 1993 Todd Alcott
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Some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Poe Dameron and General Hux














Tale as old as time: the younger generation repeats the actions of the older generation. Each generation thinks they invented the world, but, always, there is precedent.

When A New Hope came out in 1977, its success was driven by teens but it was also a perfect family picture — adults could get lost in the nostalgia for old-timey serials, and perhaps admire the classically-hand-tooled-leather-bound storytelling, while children and teenagers could be simply thrilled and amazed as they never had been in a movie theater before. It was the Beatles of my generation, the one thing everyone agreed on.

I had never seen a Flash Gordon serial in my life, as there was no Youtube at the time, so the vision of George Lucas was a searingly brand new thing for me. I didn’t know that he’d lifted things from Flash Gordon (and many other sources), from the title crawl to the names of his characters. Nor would it have mattered to me if I did. Clearly, clearly, Lucas had added something to his endless references. Kurosawa could immediately see that Sergio Leone had stolen A Fistful of Dollars from Yojimbo, but I’m guessing he’d be hard-pressed to identify the elements George Lucas stole from The Hidden Fortress, although he would have recognized his beloved screen wipes.

Today, The Force Awakens repeats the feat of A New Hope, with a twist: children are amazed and moved by the stories of Rey and Finn, and everyone else gets lost in the nostalgia, but instead of nostalgia for other movies, it’s nostalgia for Star Wars itself. The defining feature of George Lucas’s generation of filmmakers (Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Landis, Dante, Miller) was that they were the first generation of film-school directors: their movies were about other movies. Now, a generation later, filmmakers like JJ Abrams grew up on the movies of Lucas’s generation, and make movies about movies, about movies.  My father was shocked at Jaws, not because of the violence in it, but because the kid who directed the movie ripped off Hitchcock at every turn and didn’t even break a sweat to do it.  He took Hitchcock for granted. Now, that level of tossed-off cinematic reference is simply a part of the typical movie-going experience. In The Force Awakens, the Star Wars narrative, having launched a generation of imitators, has nothing to refer to but itself. What thirty-year-old genre could a new Star Wars movie refer to at this point?

A New Hope (God, I still hate that title) starred a cast of complete unknowns, with one special elderly guest star brought in to lend some gravitas to the proceedings. The Force Awakens repeats that trick, too, but in this case the elderly guest star is Harrison Ford, and he very much plays the Obi-Wan role, narratively speaking. The other actors are largely unknown, with the exception of Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron. Isaac, if you haven’t seen Inside Llewen Davis, A Most Violent Year or Ex Machina, is an incredibly serious capital-A Actor, the kind who, 30 years ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Star Wars movie. If you can imagine Al Pacino playing a minor role in A New Hope, maybe Jabba the Hutt, with his tail being tread upon by Han Solo, that’s the level of incongruity at work here. (Not to mention Max von Sydow — Max von Sydow! — showing up briefly.)

That’s another symptom of our current generation of filmmakers. A Star Wars movie, or a Marvel movie, or a Harry Potter movie, or a Hunger Games movie, is no longer considered an embarrassment on your resume, something you did “for the money,” like Max von Sydow doing Flash Gordon (as we come full circle). It’s a badge of honor, a sign you’ve “made it.” “Serious” filmmaking used to be done in the realm of drama, and Star Wars was science fiction, a gutter genre. All that has changed now, all the serious money, and serious talent, is drawn not only to genre pictures, but juvenilia, and “serious drama” is all on television now. And Star Wars is the engine that drove that change.

But, to the question at hand: What does Poe Dameron want? Spoilers within!

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Spielberg on Bond

Spielberg is in India at the moment, talking about things Indian (India, like China, is becoming increasingly important to international financing for movies), but took a moment to talk about his ambitions to direct a Bond movie:

Spielberg waxed on his earlier ambitions to make a James Bond movie. According to The Times, Spielberg said he twice offered to direct a 007 pic, but was turned down by producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli. “I spoke to him after making Jaws, which was a huge hit, but Cubby said I wasn’t experienced enough and they’d call me if they did a Bond film on water. After Close Encounters, I told him that by now I had two Oscar nominations. And he asked ‘Did you win’? And I hadn’t. So that was that.”

Spielberg: The Adventures of Tintin part 6

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Tintin, obsessed now, steers the plane carrying himself, his dog, Haddock and two bad guys into a storm Haddock calls “that wall of death,” leading to the first of Tintin‘s definitive set pieces, an action beat involving the plane, the storm, a boy pilot, a drunk, a bottle of medicinal alcohol, a sudden desert, a supercharged belch, a crash, an ill-timed parachute and a deadly propeller blade.  Definitive because it would have been unstageable in any convincing way outside of 3D computer animation.  The entirety of Tintin is gorgeous, but it’s sequences like this (and, to a lesser extent, the chase through the streets with Snowy after Tintin in the crate) where the movie comes into its own.  Note as well that the “wall of death” sequence is rooted in character (“We can’t go back” and “I can’t stop drinking”) and, as in any true action sequence, it changes the direction of the story while it’s happening.  Tintin and Haddock go into the storm as an obsessed boy and an unwilling coward, but the sequence ends with Tintin awakening Haddock’s courage and Haddock and Snowy rescuing Tintin from certain death — the first time anyone in the movie has shown a lick of responsibility toward anyone else.  The principals go into the sequence as a boy, a man and a dog, but the emerge from it a family, that most sacred of institutions in the Spielberg ethos.

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Spielberg: The Adventures of Tintin part 5

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Tintin and Haddock have escaped the clutches of Sakharine and are adrift at sea.  Tintin takes the moment to sit Haddock down and recite “what we know so far.”  There are three models of the Unicorn, therefore three scrolls hidden within them.  Sakharine has one, Tintin had one but doesn’t now, and Sakharine is on his way to get the third, from a sultan in Morocco.  Sakharine needs Haddock because the legend says “only a True Haddock” can solve the secret of the Unicorn.  Haddock, unfortunately, cannot remember anything, due to his alcoholism.  (“Legends,” and their close kins “prophecies,” are great for adventure tales.  They are always right and inarguable.)

This is a classic mid-movie pivot, not quite an act break, where the plot takes stock of itself and chaos begins to settle into manageable plot.  Again, because the movie is meant to welcome youngsters, the mystery is clever but not difficult to solve or even keep track of.  Clues are announced and always lead to correct deductions, and if they don’t (as in the case of “Karboudjan“, which was spelt out by the dying Dawes but led to no deductions at all) the plot steps forward to render deduction unnecessary.  The pivot here is that the movie begins to become about Haddock.  It’s not that it’s no longer about Tintin, because Tintin is still the journalist chasing the story, it’s that Tintin’s goal now becomes “to learn the story of Haddock.”  He’s now chasing a story about a story, in the same way that Spielberg is making a movie about chasing a story about a boy chasing a story within a story.

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