Film Reviews

Jaws of life

In his discomfiting 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind painted a none-too-flattering portrait of a post-Jaws Steven Spielberg. The author portrayed him as a raging egomaniac who wanted a writing credit on the film, though he contributed very little to the script. Indeed, the film's most famous monologue, Quint's speech about the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, was penned by an uncredited Howard Sackler and rewritten by the man who delivered it, Robert Shaw. Biskind also writes of how Spielberg was so sure he was going to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award that he invited a television crew to his office the morning the nominations were announced "to film his reaction to the good news." Only, there was none: Jaws was nominated for Best Picture ("because of the grosses," Biskind opines), and editor Verna Miles received a nod for her superb editing work, but the director was passed over for the likes of Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Robert Altman (Nashville), Stanley Kubrick (Barry Lyndon), Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon), and Federico Fellini (Amacord). "I can't believe it," Spielberg groused to the camera crew. "They went for Fellini instead of me!"

Biskind also writes of how Spielberg tried to get out of directing the film during the six months of pre-production, as he was convinced he was making little more than Roger Corman schlock--"an exploitation movie," the filmmaker says in the book, "Moby Dick without Melville." (Peter Benchley, author of the novel and collaborator on the screenplay, told the Los Angeles Times that the director was "B-movie literate," so perhaps there was something to it.) Spielberg even tried to figure out how to frag himself, to literally break his own leg, so Universal would be forced to find a replacement.

Such unbecoming revelations are nowhere to be found on the July 11 DVD release of Jaws, the first of Spielberg's seminal films to be released in the format (cf. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark). Instead, the hour-long making-of documentary, condensed from the two-hour version that appeared on the 1995 laserdisc, celebrates the collision of brains and balls--the right man at the right place at the right time. Spielberg speaks of how, as a young man making what would become the first summer blockbuster, he was "more courageous, or I was more stupid--I'm not sure which." He talks about how he was drawn to the story because it had a great deal in common with his 1971 made-for-TV Duel, with Dennis Weaver being stalked by the unseen driver of a monstrous semi. Both films, Spielberg believed, were about "leviathans preying on Everyman," and he went to great lengths to connect the two: The same sound effect, that of a roaring dinosaur, was used in Duel's climactic crash and Jaws' finale, when the bloody, blown-up shark sinks to the bottom of the sea.

In the end, issues of credit and blame matter little. In this digitally restored version--available in anamorphic widescreen, in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS formats, with deleted scenes and outtakes and a handful of trailers presented for the first time--Jaws remains the perfect film, at once hysterical and terrifying. The "born entertainer," as critic Pauline Kael once referred to Spielberg, turned pulp into gold, mocking old-school Hollywood (Robert Shaw, whose death becomes a screaming, bloody punch line) while ushering in the era of the New Hollywood blockbuster (it made $129 million, a record box-office take until the release of Star Wars in 1977). It was art house (hand-held camera) meets big budget (a mechanical shark that never worked), a comedy that became a horror film until the two elements are inseparable.

Every scene sticks somewhere between your heart and your throat, until you have no idea whether it's meant to be taken straight-faced or as parody; as Kael wrote in the New Yorker in November 1976, "though Jaws has more zest than a Woody Allen picture, and a lot more electricity, it's funny in a Woody Allen way," referring especially to the scene in which ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint compare battle scars on board the Orca. Spielberg would never again make a film loaded with such rich characters, so dynamic a cast, or so engaging a tale. After Jaws, his inner child took over, only to fly to outer space and return all grown-up, a maker of serious, thoughtful epics (Meaningful Statements) and disposable pop art (Meaningful Camp). Never again would his movies, not even Raiders, be so much fun.

To see Jaws in its widescreen format again after so many years of watching it on HBO and TNT, shrunken and expurgated, is to be reminded of how thrilling it can be to see nothing at all. The malfunctioning shark isn't seen during the first half of the 125-minute film. Before computer-generated effects allowed filmmakers to show off their sterile technology, Spielberg lucked out by being forced to hint rather than reveal. And though he always insisted the shark was the star of the film, the DVD allows for humanity that history has always obscured. One of the deleted scenes, taken from early in the movie, shows Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) and her husband, Amity police chief Martin (Roy Scheider), at home, sorting through a bag of his old New York City belongings. "I used to wear this to the Garden," Martin says, wistfully. Then, he is reminded of why he moved his family to this quiet, seaside town: "Locked doors, muggings, dog dirt" (Scheider dubs the last part, as his mouth says, "dog shit"). He tells her to sell the old clothes, to be rid of the lousy past.

Most of the DVD's deleted scenes deserved to be excised; there's little here among the 10 minutes of cutting-room-floor material worth remembering, save for an excruciating scene in which Quint terrifies a music student who can't quite play "Ode to Joy." The expunged frames contain needless exposition, empty small talk. A scene in which Hooper whines to Brody about a girl who likes to make obscene phone calls on his credit card is funny but goes nowhere. On the other hand, the two outtakes, or bloopers, are short and sweet: In one, Scheider repeatedly tries to fire a gun, only to find the prop is jammed. Finally, he becomes disgusted: "Aw, fuck!" he shouts, as he's clearly a man who lost his sense of humor somewhere off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.

But the documentary contains the most revelatory outtakes: excised footage of the malfunctioning shark and scenes in which the ominous fins come out of the water and reveal harnesses and wire below. Spielberg also talks about why he deleted some of the more graphic scenes from the movie--including one in which Brody's son Michael (Chris Rebello) is nearly dragged to an underwater death by one of the shark's victims, which retains its gruesome impact even with the director's voice-over--in order to preserve its tension. The making-of film, which also features interviews with all of the stars (save for Shaw, who died in 1978) and producers and screenwriters, serves Jaws far better than any director's commentary, of which there is none, because we see what other filmmakers only talk about.

The 75-plus minutes' worth of bonus material--which also includes production photos, storyboards, and a trivia game--is among the best to be found on a special-edition disc; among the major studios, Universal is a leader at providing warts-and-all packages. But it's all gravy: Not since Jaws appeared in theaters on June 20, 1975, has it looked so vivid, so alive (even the blood looks as though it's fresh from the victims' veins). But this release is a small step for major studios, which have yet to catch up to the demand for the new technology. Not only do Spielberg's best and most popular films remain unreleased on DVD, but The Godfather and Star Wars movies--not to mention Citizen Kane, Some Like it Hot, Lawrence of Arabia, Rear Window, and Sunset Boulevard--likewise are not slated for DVD release anytime soon. This cleaned-up, souped-up Jaws can only frustrate those forced to watch America's best films on deteriorating videotape or on television, which snips and trims history to fit it onto the small screen. Audiences, and movies, deserve better.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky