Saturday, August 8, 2009

There's Something About JAWS

At my nine year old son's insistence we watched Jaws again the other night. It was the second time I watched this movie with him. We saw it together last summer as well. Jaws is definitely a summer movie.

I can't say how many times I have watched this movie; probably somewhere between 50 and 75 times, there is no way of knowing at this point.

I had some hesitation to watch it with my kid. We always enjoyed body surfing in the big waves of Port Aransas beaches together, and I didn't want to screw that up. I am still being vilified by my sister for having scared one of my niece's out of any desire to swim in salt water for having shown her merely the clip of the shark rising to Chief Brody's chum.

But Joey has a remarkably clear-eyed view when it comes to all things involving Nature, and has never suffered under any illusions about where humans are on the food chain. He is also a big fan of "riding the whoppers", the big waves, so it's all good.

Watching Jaws again made me think about the first time I saw it, when I was about Joey's age back in the summer of '75. My oldest brother Mike went to see it with some of his friends when it finally came around to our small town. It was already a huge sensation around the country and the airwaves were filled with Jawsmania. It is weird to think of it now, but back in those days we rarely got first-run movies on their opening week at our local theaters. Many movies never came around at all. And of course there was no video market then, so if you missed it, you missed it, at least until it came out in horribly edited versions on TV. You had to seek out the almost universally horrible movie adaptation paperbacks, called novelizations, or on some rare occasions, a Fotonovel, which was a video image cartoon version of the movie. Not to get too far off the main subject, I recall that the novelization of the Jaws/killer -giant -animal ripoff movie Grizzly, was much better than the actual movie which I finally got to watch on video years later, so not all novelizations were bad.

Anyhow, back to 1975 and my brother. He came home from watching Jaws brimming with excitement and inspiration. Sitting around in our bunk beds he regaled us with an amazing almost frame by frame narration of the tale, from the opening prowling music accompanied shark's eye view cruise through wormy beds of sea grass, to the last shot of the exhausted survivor's drifting onto an abandoned Amity beach. It was a virtuoso telling, many of the phrases he used to describe the story stick with me to this day, and I hear them in my mind whenever I watch the movie. I was deemed a little too young for the movie at that time, which in a way was a relief for me. Up to that time, the only movies I saw in the theater were Disney movies, or pioneer family movies like Against a Crooked Sky.

In the meantime there was Peter Benchley's novel to investigate. We found what looked like an old library copy of the book at a garage sale. It bore the familiar shark bearing up on a swimming girl cover, but instead of the awesome great white image of the movie poster, the shark more closely resembled a giant lemon with a mouth slit carved in it. This was the first book written specifically for adults that I ever read, and beyond the classically corny prose-"The great fish moved silently through the water-", there was plenty of potboiler sleaze involving lesbians,extramarital affairs, and the like. Considering I had been reading the Gold Key Comics adventures of Andy Panda and Little Lulu right before it, this was truly hot stuff.

Finally my turn came. Jawsmania had raged all summer long, and by popular demand, Jaws returned to the Palace theater late that summer for one more lap at the box office. This time after much begging, wheedling and cajoling I convinced my Mom to let me accompany my older brothers to the theater to see what all the hoopla was about. I remember my oldest brother Mike was wearing Ice Blue Aqua Velva when we went to see the movie, and the smell of this after shave still reminds me of the experience. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the experience. The shark of course was scary as hell, but what scared me the most was the grue of the shark's victims, particularly the remains of Ben Gardener, the hapless fisherman who met his end in a mysterious attack on his boat. I remember my brother Mike could send me running in fear, simply by chanting "the little head popping out of the hole!" I always wondered what happened there; had the shark attacked his boat and given Ben Gardener a heart attack? Did scavenging fish nibble out one of his eyes or did he lose it in the attack on his small vessel by the shark? I guess it doesn't really matter, but I always wondered. I was also always prone to brooding on little thoughts such as "Gee, that estuary victim whose severed leg drifted to the ocean floor put that shoe on that morning like any other not knowing it would be the last time he would do it."

Most of all I was sad for Quint. I remember viewers of the time always referred to Quint in a negative way, mostly based, I am sure, on his heavy macho attitude and initial berating of sensitive 70's guy Matt Hooper. I always saw Quint in a different way. He reminded me of my Dad, and certain old uncles, all veterans, all fishermen and/or hunters who had a personal relationship with the life and death struggle. It made them all a little crazy, (Quint was certainly a loon, his blustering blabbing at the wharf as they are setting out on the hunt was almost embarrassingly over the top), and it made them all a little scary. But there was something sad there, too, an unfinished business that they all pursued and that could only end one way. If Quint had a Death Wish, then he certainly got what he wanted. It was interesting how the book and movie differed. Hooper, who brought on his comeuppance in the book by bedding Brody's wife, was spared death in the movie , and was much more of typical "correct" hippy hero of the times. Brody, as the Everyman, survived, as he did in the book, but was given a much more heroic part to play by causing the shark's exploding death. The shark in the book had the really disappointing end by simply expiring of old age ,exhaustion , or harpoon stress at the last minute as it was about to consume Brody. I guess it was in keeping with the whole Moby Dick implacable force of nature thing, rather than a boffo popcorn movie ending, but it was still a bit of a letdown to end a novel with. This was one of cases where the movie version of a story was a vast improvement on it's original source material.
The fallout of such a huge cultural phenom continues to this day. I read (and loved) all of the myriad Mad magazine, Crazy, Cracked etc. parodies. When the sequel came out I read the Hank Searls novel and saw the movie. (Both disappointing.) From there on it got worse and worse as it usually does, and I skipped most of the other sequels until years later on a bored video rental whim.
The original film, now almost 35 years old, still packs a punch. The shark still looks pretty darn cool to me. All of the bizarre side characters in Amity are much beloved or behated icons on par with Mayberry's little world of small town folks. The Mayor's anchor suit still brings a smile to my face. (Does he wear that thing ALL of the time?) And it still brings me back to that awkward time when both book and movie formed a bridge from my childhood to my adolescence. The horror is all still there, although I now feel more of the parental terror that the Brody's and the Kintner's experienced than I did before.
I am sure it will hold up well over the next 50 to 75 viewings...


Brer said...

Huzzah! The Boy is back! I closed my eyes when the head popped out, and so squinnied one of those seminal moments of our childhood. Quint's over the top performance is exactly how that generation loved to embarass and scare the youngsters. And it's Shark Week on Channel 30 now...

Brer said...

I must admit when the head popped out I squinched, and so missed the full impact of one of the big events of our childhood.