Monday, March 19, 2012

Dave's Movie Guide: Jaws

If you weren’t around in the summer of 1975, it’s hard to imagine the impact this movie had on everybody. Not just audiences, but society in general, including my mother (who didn’t actually sit down to finally watch it with me for a couple of decades). The first true summer blockbuster (yes, kids, even before Transformers), Jaws scared the bejeezus out of damn near everybody, so much so that many won’t even venture into the ocean to this day (including yours truly). I was 11 when it came out, and based on what my lucky friends who saw it had said, Jaws was numero uno on my gotta-see list.

My mom, however, shot down my plans pretty swiftly. “You are not going to see that. My friend at work told me a dog gets eaten, and a dead man is floating in the water with no eyes.”

This was still a few years before questioning her authority was an option. So, as an already obsessive movie geek, I was heartbroken. There it was, the mother of all movies, the cinematic Holy Grail, playing at the Southgate theater only five miles away, rendered forbidden fruit by my mother. Sure, I knew the whole story of the movie already, enthusiastically told to me by friends whose parents had no objections to letting them see it. But I wanted to see it myself. With Jaws rendered off limits, it became the only movie I wanted to see. And in ensuing months, I would occasionally ask Mom again, hoping she’d change her mind, but was always met with a stern no. She’d offer pretty-much the same reason every time: “That’s not the kind of movie a kid should see.”

On rare occasions when I felt brave, I’d counter with, “But it’s rated PG. You’ve let me see PG movies before, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

“Butch Cassidy never devoured the Sundance Kid,” she said, probably proud of her response. On a side note, having read numerous biographies over the years, many of which claimed Newman was secretly bisexual, there is the speculation that maybe Butch once did devour the Sundance Kid, so to speak. Anyway, Mom would always add, “Jaws is a horror movie, and you’re not going to see a horror movie about a fish that eats people. It‘ll give you nightmares.”

It was at this time I’d usually sulk back to my room, not understanding her reasoning. Even though I’d watched lots of horror movies before, for some reason she had a problem with Jaws. And with my limited debating skills, I was unable to convey how much it meant to me to actually see a fish eat people.

It helps at this point to know a little about my mom. She’s a wonderful person, and I know she has always looked out for me, feeling the need that most good parents do of keeping their kids protected from things in the world which could harm them. Yeah, as I got older, I sometimes felt like she was a bit overprotective, and I was often bewildered at the pieces of pop culture she decided I wasn’t ready for. I bought an Alice Cooper record once, and was listening to it one evening when she suddenly popped into my room, right when Alice was singing about keeping a dead woman in a refrigerator. Grabbing the lyrics sheet, Mom was aghast, and instantly forbade me from buying any more Alice Cooper records. Funny thing is, I was just a kid and didn't care about the words, and had no idea what the offending song (“Cold Ethyl,” by the way) was actually about. I just thought it sounded cool. The only reason I discovered the subject of the song was because she pointed it out. This new knowledge actually made the song even cooler.

Okay, as a parent myself, I cannow  understand her concern about what her son was listening to. And even though I thought Mom was being a bit overzealous, it was her right as a parent to express her concerns.

However, when I later got into a band called Emerson, Lake & Palmer, she and my dad eventually forbade me from buying their records simply because they personally hated the music. It had nothing to do with what they sang about. But again, since they were paying the bills and I was living under their roof, doing so was still their right (although, somewhat amusingly, as my musical tastes eventually turned to heavy metal, I distinctly remember, during a shopping trip when I planned on snapping up the latest Judas Priest album, Mom suggested, “Why don’t you buy an Emerson, Lake & Palmer record? You used to love them.”)

What Mom declared forbidden became increasingly random. She decided I couldn’t go see Phantasm because of the tagline, “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead,” yet she had no problem dropping me and two friends off to catch Dawn of the Dead, a movie so gory that it was released unrated, at a seedy little theater whose employees never checked IDs. If you’ve ever seen both of these films, you’d know that you must be already dead, because Phantasm isn’t all that scary, but Dawn of the Dead is one of the most brutal and vicious movies ever made. Even more perplexing was her decision to forbid me from seeing The Gauntlet, a fairly minor (and stupid) movie in the Clint Eastwood canon, but simply something I had expressed an interest in watching. Yeah, that movie was rated R, but I’d seen rated R movies before, including Blazing Saddles, which they took me to see (if you’ve never seen Blazing Saddles, let me just tell you that the liberal use of the ‘N-word’ would probably shock modern audiences). Mom even had no problem with dropping me off at the Southgate to allow me to engage in the illegal act of sneaking from theater to theater to watch all the movies playing at this four auditorium theater for the price of one ticket. During this time I remember seeing such gory movies as Death Race 2000, where drivers compete in a cross-country race and earn bonus points for running over pedestrians. Still, for some unfathomable reason, while sneaking into movies without paying was okay, The Gauntlet was forbidden. And of course, being more rebellious at the age of 14, I went and saw it anyway, telling Mom I was gonna see something else. But, because I still respected Mom’s law, I later informed her of my crime, and was promptly grounded.

Anyway, back to Jaws. In November, on my 12th birthday, for reasons I still cannot fathom, Mom suddenly decided it was okay for me to invite a couple of friends to go see Jaws. By this time, the film had been out for six months. Everyone else had already seen it, including the friends I invited, but it didn’t matter. After months of hype, months of hearing from friends how awesome and scary it was, I finally got to see this pop culture phenomenon for myself.

Jaws takes place in the fictional coastal town of Amity (in real life, Martha’s Vineyard), where a 25-foot great white shark starts attacking swimmers. In order to save this vacation town from financial ruin, sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and loony charter boat captain Quint (Robert Shaw) set out on a rickety fishing boat to kill the shark. That’s the movie in a nutshell, and while it doesn’t sound like much on paper, how the story is so masterfully told that it rightfully made a superstar out of young director Steven Spielberg. We don’t even see the shark until about halfway through, which made it even scarier (it has been well-documented that the decision not to show the animal too much stemmed from the fact the mechanical shark built for the film broke down pretty often).

The final act (onboard the fishing boat) is still one of the most relentless and entertaining third acts ever made. And who really cares if you can’t actually blow up a three ton shark by shooting the scuba tank lodged in its mouth? It’s no more ridiculous than Jeff Goldblum destroying an entire alien civilization in Independence Day by firing up his laptop, and is sure as hell a better ending than the one offered by original Jaws author Peter Benchley, where the shark simply rolls over and dies. By the way, if you never read the original novel, don’t bother. It sucks.

For me, Jaws is one of the few movies that lived up to all the hype…and then some. We’ve all gotten amped-up to see uber-promoted blockbusters only to walk out of the theater thinking, “So what?” But Jaws was everything I hoped it would be: scary, funny, surprising. It was not the shocking gore-fest Mom feared - only five people are actually killed - and the poor little pooch she was so worried about doesn‘t die onscreen…in fact, it’s only implied that he dies. There is that jolting scene of one victim’s head popping at the screen with an eye missing, which scared me so bad my popcorn went flying, but Jaws was always more than just a “gotcha” horror movie. Leaving the theater, I felt like I saw just something special, more than just another flick my parents dropped me off to see while they went shopping. In ensuing years, not too many movies gave me that same rush. Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Escape from New York (I’ll explain that last one later) immediately come-to-mind, and the last movie to hit me with the impact of Jaws was Pulp Fiction.
But, just like my mom feared, the movie did give me nightmares. After coming home from the movie on my 12th birthday, some time during the night I crept into my parents’ room and crawled into bed with them. Man, that guy with his eyeball missing really did freak me out.

By the is still my favorite movie.

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