“It’s like House Hunters for guys,” I said, trying to explain to my wife why the TV always gravitates to a telecast of Jaws when she’s not in charge of the remote. Not that one of the biggest fish of all time at the boxoffice is exclusively a guy thing; while not a fan of shockers she enjoyed it quite a bit when I took her to see it at New York’s plush Ziegfeld Theatre a few years ago. But there’s something (actually, many things) about Jaws that reels me in every time, just as apartments of varying sizes and configurations in San Antonio or Barcelona keeps her coming back to HGTV for more. It’s comfort food–with bite.
I know I’ve done my history with Jaws before, so indulge me for (probably) the last time. I was ten when it came out in 1975, and my parents, who knew I loved summers by the beach as much as I loved horror movies, kept me far away from it despite the family-acceptable PG rating. (Different times.) Quite sensibly, I think, not that my tender young mind wasn’t already fraying from a steady diet of Universal and Hammer horrors. The specificity of Jaws to my suburban life in New Jersey might have thrown me for a loop, just as the preceding generation refused to shower after Universal’s other era-defining thriller, Psycho (1960).
I saw it two years later, on HBO, at my aunt and uncle’s house, as we didn’t have cable then. (I saw a lot of formative years movies there, like the boobalicious Big Bad Mama. Thanks Patty and Joe!) Even on the small screen, panned-and-scanned, which is how I watched it many times thereafter, it ruled. Why didn’t I include it on my Sight & Sound ballot? (A post for another time, perhaps; I do know it came down to Jaws and the original King Kong, and with only ten slots I had to make the hard choices.)
[Since I’m already digressing, the rest of my Jaws log is as follows: In summer 1978 I was allowed to into the water, as it were, for Jaws 2 and it was OK, a standard monster-on-the-loose picture, no worries. No one cared what my nine-year-old sister thought, as she was dragged into the theater. Lured by the deadly siren’s song of three dimensions we all took another, unwise swim with Jaws 3 in 1983. Like poor Lorraine Gary I soloed with the unspeakable Jaws: The Revenge in 1987, which I endured on a twin bill with the equally dire Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.]
The time has come, however, to write a new chapter in my Jaws saga, I daresay a final one. My Jaws tapes, laserdiscs, and DVDs are dumped into the drink, as Mayor Murray Hamilton says of the unfortunate suspected tiger shark (“A what?“). Honey, the TV’s all yours–now that I’ve seen Universal’s new Blu-ray of Jaws, there’s no going back to random channel surfs, not even HD ones. For its 100th anniversary celebration the studio has given Bruce the shark’s pearly whites a good hard scrubbing, and the film just gleams. I knew cinematographer Bill Butler did spectacular work on the Atlantic–everyone rose to the challenge of an arduous ocean shoot (and you thought James Cameron and Waterworld‘s Kevin Reynolds were the first to have liquidity problems)–but this is the first time in maybe 100 viewings that I noticed how colorful the film is. Look at the flowers on the trellis in an early scene–beautiful. The Brody living room, the Orca interior; all restored to vivid life. True, we lose a little bit in the high intensity of the high definition–the day-for-night shooting of the opening sequence is revealed more obviously–yet the gains are far more plentiful.
Who can forget “that scene?” The one that made my Aunt Barbara (RIP dear lady) throw her Coke high into the air, dousing a good chunk of her audience in 1975? I didn’t think it could surprise me, I thought I knew exactly when the porthole would reveal its secret…but a knockout combination of pristine 1080p image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and a fully immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack made me gasp. That whole sequence has always given me the willies–I’d never go scuba diving at night, with or without a 25′-long shark in the water–and I was startled by its renewed impact.
This is the compleat Jaws, bringing back many of the supplements from prior editions, including an exceptional making-of (almost as long as the feature) that was part of the special edition LD, a 1974 featurette, and some unspectacular deleted scenes and outtakes (though we do hear from that otherwise unexplained guy who’s with Quint in one scene). New to this set is a look at the restoration and the debut of another terrific documentary, The Shark is Still Working (2007), that concentrates largely on the film’s enduring impact, and includes testimonials from directors like Robert Rodriguez, Bryan Singer, M. Night Shyamalan, and the ubiquitous but always sharp Kevin Smith. Between the two documentaries just about everyone is heard from, and it’s sad to note how many have passed. Talking heads include the principal actors save for the long-gone Robert Shaw (only Richard Dreyfuss survives), recently deceased producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown (who describe it as a seat-of-the-pants “guerrilla production”), and, among the living, Butler, the hereby immortalized composer John Williams, co-writer Carl Gottlieb, and supporting players Susan Backlinie (who spoofed her role as Chrissie in 1941) and Jeffrey Kramer (who went from being Hendricks to an Emmy-winning producer).
DVD and Blu-ray enthusiasts complain that Steven Spielberg (you knew I’d get to him eventually) has never recorded a commentary; to watch him age from a callow, self-confident filmmaker of 28 to an elder statesman of 65 in the documentaries, however, says it all. With so much left to come in an extraordinary career, if he had retired after Jaws he would be considered a master filmmaker. Enjoy the master and the maestro in a clip from The Shark is Still Working, written by Jon Burlingame:
In a fine essay on Jaws, Dave Kehr says its absence of sexuality torpedoed the New Hollywood of the 70s. As you see I had a few words about that. (I mean, really, think about terrible those tacked-on scenes would have been.) No, what helped kill the New Hollywood was the plethora of spinoffs, knockoffs, and ripoffs that followed every hit like Jaws, The Exorcist, and Star Wars–some of which gained their own cult reputations and have been remade, including 1978’s funny Piranha (I was a little melancholy to see Dreyfuss parody Hooper in its redo, but once you’ve starred in a Poseidon Adventure remake you’ve gone off the deep end). The “Syfy” (groan) network is particularly dependent on genre gene-splicing, and so you can relive memories of Jawsfest and the Discovery Channel’s 25th annual Shark Week (the shark is always working on basic cable) with Jersey Shore Shark Attack when it bows on DVD and Blu-ray on Aug. 28.
Like most of the remoras that cling to Jaws, it stinks. But if you’re in a mood to waste time, and with judicious fast-forwarding (hint: any scene with the preppy characters) it’s kind of funny, too. Albino bull sharks loosed by greedy developers off the Jersey coastline head toward Seaside Heights, where, in a Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters way, they rub fins with a group of screechy, steroid-happy, hair-and nail-obsessed “guidos” not unlike the ones on MTV. The kids (one named “Nooki”) take time out from their active social lives to throw firecrackers at the beasts; when this tactic somehow fails to work, and a consult with visiting dignitary Joey Fatone goes badly (“I’ll bet this doesn’t happen to Justin!”), they take to the ocean with their preppy frenemies and sheriff Jack Scalia, where…well, not much happens. It’s like the budget ran out somewhere past Point Pleasant.
That said one in every 25 or so lines concocted by the four writers, who knew they weren’t adapting Timon of Athens, is amusing (“It’s like Moby-Dick with fins!” says one onlooker; think about it…) and they earn props for spoofing 1941 in one elaborate sequence that, like the rest of the movie, seems to have been filmed far from the Jersey Shore. That couldn’t have left much money for the sharks, which are short, squat, abysmal things. I think they’re albino because the CGI staff didn’t know how to render color on their Compaqs.
Other than their appearance in The Three Stooges I know little about the Jersey Shore gang, but one of their number, Vinny, gets a chuckle or two as a newscaster. (That’s more than guest stars Paul Sorvino and William Atherton, who look as if they want to escape into witness protection, and a stray Soprano or two.) Just when you thought it was safe to turn on your player there’s Jersey Shore Shark Attack–but keep Jaws handy as Shark repellent.