Episode 87: Jaws (1975)

Film chosen and introduced by Matt

How do we even begin to discuss, or write about our favourite films? Is Jaws the greatest ever? I can’t say—it’s so subjective. But it’s my favourite. I know that much. It’s perhaps impossible to express my deep-seated adoration for it, but let’s try. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (once level-pegging) has, as of this year, been relegated to second place in my rankings, as although it’s technically superior in many ways to Jaws—the cinematography, labyrinthine depths of the tale, its applicability—it still doesn’t provide the primal buzz; the effervescent emotion, and sheer joy of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic.

As a naive lad, I was daft enough to rate the films in the Jaws series according to the demise of the shark. Air tank canister explosion vs power line chomping vs incineration vs skewered by the broken bow of Ellen Brody’s ship. I couldn’t quite detect why people viewed Jaws: The Revenge as a poor entry, and rewatched Jaws 2 endlessly for its shark electrocution denouement. I was, however, always cine-savvy enough to know that Jaws 3 was absolute shite. I’ve perhaps seen it just one and a half times in my entire life. Not even my Innerspace hero, Tuck (Dennis Quaid) Pendleton could salvage, or get me even remotely interested in that abomination. But the first is, simply put, everything I look for in a film. I revisit it once a year on average, sometimes more, and it flaws me every single time. I laugh, cry, always cheer at the end of the incendiary third act, and if it’s ever on telly, I must watch it to its beach-side conclusion.

“The thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes—black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya.”

Quint, Jaws
My Jawsome sister, Anna, kindly made me this chocolate cake masterpiece for my 30th birthday.

Back in 2007, I was gearing-up to make the final, major production for my MA filmmaking degree. I was set to write and direct Sycamores—a vaguely amusing, but ultimately too cluttered, grandiose and ambitious, wannabe Wes Anderson (but British), Garden State-y, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude/Being There meets unintentional Preston Sturges story-steal (Hail the Conquering Hero) short film, that sadly fell apart when my producer (the only producer in my year, I might add) requested “changes.” So, I went back to the drawing board, and back home to Catterick Village—initially to sulk, and curse the film school, and then to regroup, rebuild, and rewrite something from scratch. I remember thinking, I’m 25 years old, and if this is the last film I ever make—it very nearly was, until recently (13 years later), when I wrapped The Self-Seers—what do I want it to be? What story do I want to tell, and what films and filmmakers do I want to draw influence from? The answer was undoubtedly Steven Spielberg and Jaws.

So, I dipped into a book I’d had since a few Christmases before—The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker, and the very first chapter was entitled, “Overcoming the Monster.” It sounded so enduring, made total sense to me, and the stories and films Booker referenced were among my all-time favourites. I combined this revelation with a hunt through my old primary school work from the late ’80s and early ’90s, seeking inspiration from my earliest attempts to write stories. Serendipitously, I stumbled upon an X-Files rip-off and my monster in one fell swoop—a large, predatory wildcat, akin to the legendary Beast of Bodmin Moor, et al. The Wilds was born—a 15-minute short, shot on Super 16 (with an Arriflex SRII), about a farmer, whose community is plagued—and son is eventually slain by—a black panther-like creature, roaming the Yorkshire Dales, and must vengefully venture out alone to hunt and kill it. I sought the council of my best friend, Sam Hollis, who generously co-wrote the screenplay with me, and we got a green light from Leeds Metropolitan University to produce it together. Fans of The Rewind Movie Podcast should note, I choppered in The Northern Film School’s A-team of Gali (1st AD), Devlin (camera assistant), and friend of the show Joe Mac (gaffer), to aid the production.

The Wilds is basically Jaws, but where I grew up. Chief Brody is now a farmer, a kid dies, the ending is an homage to/pinched from the “Smile, you son of a bitch” closer, with our protagonist firing round after round, in a hail of gunfire, towards an oncoming monster dashing directly towards him. There’s a slow-motion climax, before our hero returns home triumphant, albeit with unshakable trauma from the tragedy that befell the town, and his family, forever in his mind. It’s all there, and honestly, most of that was unconsciously stolen. Being forced to select what could be the last crack you ever take at filmmaking was enlightening, as it unveiled what perhaps always was, and now certainly remains my favourite film.

“Martin, it’s all psychological. You yell, ‘Barracuda,’ everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell, ‘Shark,’ and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July.”

Mayor Vaughn, Jaws

I used to think Steven Spielberg made all the films. Spielberg, Frank Marshall, and Kathleen Kennedy, to be more exact, as their names were present on just about every opening credit sequence I absorbed as a kid. Amblin’s films were ubiquitous to say the least. With a batch of shorts from 1959-’68, Spielberg directed telly episodes of Night Gallery, Marcus Welby, M.D., and Columbo, before blowing the doors off with the hypnotically captivating TV movie, Duel, in 1971.

I tried to articulate this exact sentiment when it came to John McTiernan, and specifically his films, Predator and Die Hard—to me, Spielberg is always trustworthy, thoughtful, and considerate in terms of the audience, and these traits are what elevate him above other capable but unexceptional filmmakers. He’s completely concerned with either providing, or hiding information—from how his images are seen and interpreted, to precisely when the music plays. He’s in control, and we’re in his safe, steady hands—viewers can’t relax otherwise.

“This is not a boat accident! It wasn’t any propeller, it wasn’t any coral reef, and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper. It was a shark.”

Matt Hooper, Jaws

The genesis of several key scenes from Jaws was particularly revealing. Spielberg was understandably skeptical before signing on to direct, but liked the third act of the book so much, that he wrote a whole draft of the screenplay himself. He scripted the nighttime scene on the pier with Charlie and his buddy, and their holiday roast bait, where the jetty is dragged out to sea by the shark—that was all from Spielberg’s initial pass. We see it suddenly stop, and then terrifyingly turn—along with our stomachs. Again, it’s a skillful cinematic technique, and one of many Spielberg employed to show the shark without showing the shark

I found it interesting that Spielberg chose to write and direct Close Encounters of the Third Kind next in 1977. I think he’s underrated as a writer—he’d already penned his short films, and cooked up the stories for The Sugarland Express in 1974 (which directly preceded Jaws), and following that, Poltergeist, and The Goonies, not to mention his A.I. Artificial Intelligence screenplay, and sole writing credit on his new film, The Fabelmans. Spielberg can undoubtedly write, but he intriguingly opts not to. He favours the vintage image of the Hollywood director, in the vein of his heroes—as overseer, as orchestrator—chipping in whenever he sees fit.

Could Jaws have been one notch better? A scripted, but never shot, suspense-horror death scene points to… perhaps. When reminded of this fabled would-be Jaws moment, I close my eyes and picture a gem that got away, featuring a harbormaster watching his TV, and in the background, we see the masts of the ships swaying outside—something is beneath, knocking them back and forth. One mast would lean, then another, and the next. We picture something travelling beneath the keels, but it remains unseen—much like with the barrels, it’s another shrewd method of illustrating the presence of the great white visually, without actually seeing the recalcitrant “great white turd” that was Bruce the shark (sorry, old friend)—instead, Spielberg merely suggests the presence of the creature. Of course, the harbormaster wanders onto the dock and leans down, towards the water, to clean out his coffee pot, and the shark takes him. That all sounds so Spielberg, and I wish it was part of the film. But maybe we should be careful what we wish for—with a film already at its two-hour maximum-satisfaction running time, and delicately balanced like a perfect meal, to be equally satisfying and nutritious, without leaving you feeling bloated, perhaps one extra ingredient could tip the scale, and sour an otherwise excellent dish.

Spielberg once famously said that without the now iconic score, Jaws would only be half as successful. Johnny Williams’ seesaw strings and swiftly plucked notes add up to a large percentage of why Jaws soars. Seemingly subconsciously stolen from the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” the deceptively simple theme has earned its longevity, universality, and never ending applicability. Listening to the score in isolation is really rewarding—the diversity of the cues does make me frustrated that many people’s memories of Jaws are reduced purely to those dual-noted dur-durs—although, the effective simplicity of it is equally admirable, for its articulation of an unerring primal pursuit, and the pitch-perfect personification of an unstoppable force of nature that is the carcharodon carcharias.

The “Shark Cage Fugue” is prettier than it ever needed to be. There’s an underwater majesty to something like “Ben Gardner’s Boat.” The “Montage” cue of the “summer ginks” arriving, is overtly playful and betrays the inescapable element of fun present throughout the film. One of my favourites, “Father and Son,” has hints of Raiders of the Lost Ark—another firm fave in terms of my all-time best scores. It’s a lovely piece, which delicately underlines and gently elevates an already beautiful scene between the Chief and Sean, during their mimicry dinner. “Out to Sea” blends beauty with foreboding, and underscores the suspenseful sequence of Quint getting a bite on his soon-to-be-snapped piano wire—the, “Marlin or a stingray” bit, and also has adventure elements, swiftly introducing character themes to follow, and crucially, the very end’s paddling away part. It’s textbook storytelling through music, and I can’t think of a time it’s ever been done better.

“Tell them I’m going fishing.”

Chief Brody, Jaws

Jaws is never afraid to be joyous and jubilant in its execution—it’s in the music, it’s in the performances, but the score is what ultimately lifts it, distills that energy, and exhibits such gleaming pride in being a movie that is unashamedly entertaining for viewers. That’s cinema—score and image colliding to make something incredible, unforgettable, and greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an intricate, detailed symphony from Williams. As celebrated and revered as the score is today, I still think it’s underrated and gets somewhat overlooked—the depth, melody, and tonal shifts, are reduced to the simplistic one-note dread of the key motif—that often becomes the takeaway.

The piece that hits me like a ton of bricks, every time, is the sublime “Man Against Beast.” It has everything, and features—towards the end of the cue, my number one, favourite score moment in Jaws, when Hooper ties the barrel on, just in the nick of time, then exclaims, “Free another barrel! I’m comin’ around again!” as the music explodes into a pirate’s adventure time crescendo. The Chief is smiling, Hoop’s smiling—who says shark fishing has to be depressing? There’s a terrific shot of the Chief here, as they’re running down the yellow barrel, and they’re grinning ear-to-ear. Williams called it, “A moment of fanfare—of triumph.” These musical motifs, where the score just erupts, are his favourite moments, and I wholeheartedly agree. People once divided by their differences, petty quarrels and disputes; characters firmly at odds with one another, are suddenly united in their quest to hunt and kill this beast. That’s the stuff that underpins it all—the quest.

“Between Attacks” pinches Quint’s, “Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies” sea shanty. “Blown to Bits” is an orgasm of sound, as Sir George Martin would say, and “End Titles” is a perfect, all’s ok with the world relaxant, gently accompanying the Chief and Hooper landing intact on Amity’s sandy beach.

Spielberg once said, “Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best,” and I feel like it’s often a race to the finish line—to harness that simple idea, do it first, before anyone else, and do it better than they ever could—to set a standard; a precedent. When you have that brilliant idea, and execute it perfectly—that’s hard to beat, and I’m absolutely fervently against any remakes or sequels of Jaws, whether they involve Spielberg, or not. They just mustn’t. In fact, I believe any attempts to regurgitate and spew out the remnants of what once made Jaws great, would act in direct opposition with the contemporary audience’s taste—it would only serve to tarnish the original.

For me, the only way a sequel would ever have been even mildly acceptable, is if Jaws 2 was a prequel—the Indianapolis story, and it was directed by Spielberg himself in his late ’70s heyday, in place of say, 1941. But not now. Please, not now. Jaws couldn’t be remade, re-imagined, or sequelised, because the audience‘s attitude towards sharks has changed so vehemently, that they’d likely invoke toxic masculinity and undue violence towards animals in the early script meetings, and “cancel” Quint, Hooper, and Brody for their harpooning antics.

It’s dangerous aboard the Orca, and ultimately feels like a blunt test of masculinity. I know I’d struggle, as, like Brody—I’d like to imagine I’d have determination and grit when it mattered, but it would be a completely foreign experience. I’d be pulling the wrong lines, and standing in the wrong place—getting trapped against the boat when the rope gets tight. I’d be that guy, because I know nothing about fishing. I know nothing about hunting. I’m, quite unusually for me, in total admiration of these three as hunters. Instead of resenting them for killing this, to quote Hooper, “Beautiful” creature, I’m fully on board with the fact that this “monster” must be destroyed. I don’t think that could ever be the angle today. There would be vocal, shark fishing protesters with placards reading, “Justice for Bruce,” and “Quint Had It Comin’.”

Spielberg pitches the vilification of the shark just right, and that’s precisely the problem. Not once do we feel for the great white—not once. We want it dead. We want it blown to smithereens. It’s a killer; a ruthless, horror character, and it must be stopped. I agree, there are moral implications in demonising sharks, and I’m positive the expertly-crafted fear created by Jaws has sadly perpetuated the ongoing cruelty, and it’s shameful that people can be so stupid—but it’s a horror film; it’s fiction.

Among what I call, The HorrOscars, Jaws rests in good company, alongside The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan, and Get Out, as the only “horror films” ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Although, it’s absolutely criminal that Spielberg didn’t get a nod. Absolute, categorical proof the Academy is a weird, arbitrary, political farce.

I maintain it’s a blind alley to judge a director on how expertly they can play a single note, and maintain that note throughout the running time—a true judge of a filmmaker is as a composer; as an artist, who can play our emotions as notes. In Jaws, one second we’re fearful, the next we’re belly-laughing, then we’re smiling to ourselves, recalling memories from our own lives, perhaps rolling a single tear, then we’re on tenterhooks once again, and it takes such delight in its cinematic manipulation.

“It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”

Chief Brody, Jaws

I truly believe that certain films are blessed. Not by a divine hand—that would, among other things, insultingly detract from, and cheapen the very real skill and devotion of the cast and crew. Whether it’s luck—when opportunity and preparedness meet, or simply fortunate timing, sometimes a shooting star will align. I’m not religious, but some movies live and breathe, and some don’t—in fact, most don’t. There’s something lurking within Jaws, something beneath, that elevates it.

Re-watching Jaws is as pleasurable as spending time with an old friend—a mate who says all the same stuff, but never disappoints us, never lets us down, and always makes us laugh. It’s a film that sits patiently on my shelf, and when I need it, it’s there—waiting for me. I watched it for—I’m estimating, the 50th time, on my own recently, and when the Chief blows up the shark, I was clapping and crying like an idiot—like a blubbering fool. To paraphrase Trent in Swingers, maybe it’s because I had my own things going on, but I caught myself in a ridiculous, teary moment and I just didn’t care. I wasn’t embarrassed—I was so happy. It’s everything I want in a film. It’s so daft—a bloke blew up a shark, and I’m sobbing. I don’t know what to do with that information, or how I can explain it—it’s simply a magical movie.

Rarely, but sometimes, the best-selling band is the best. Occasionally, the biggest hit is also the best song. Sometimes the highest-grossing film is also the most accomplished and well-made. These things can align—and it happened with Jaws. The images directly relate to the human condition—our deepest fears are manifested on screen, and the film is constructed in such a way that it gives us exactly what we want—a safe nightmare. It delivers in the most satisfying way imaginable, with no life jackets required.

Jaws: We Drink to Our Legs Drinking Game

Wanna get drunk and fool around? If the answer is, “Oh yeah,” then you came to the right place. It’s the Jaws… duh-duh… duh-duh… duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh drinking gaaaame!

Join us below for a feature-length drinkalong commentary track (it got a little messy).

Listen and download here!

As part of your Jaws annual drinkalong celebrations, why not polish off the wife’s holiday roast with green beans, and indulge yourself at any point during the 4th July weekend. For reference, I recently tested this drinking game at Chief Level, and put away one bottle of red exactly.

Unless your tolerance is sky-high, none of that, “Drink every time you hear ‘Chief’ or ‘shark’ or ‘beaches’”—this game is personally tried and tested. Sips will do ya. Beware: This can be a deceptive one. Be sure to pace yourself for the second half of the movie, when the permanently sozzled Quint appears.

Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women!

Level 1: Hooper

Water (teetotaller appropriate obvs, served in easily-crushable paper cups). Hungry? Wanna pretzel? If so, slow ahead.

Note: Multiple instances of blatant Coca-Cola product placement throughout the movie means you can enjoy a Coke and a smile throughout instead. Those among you with a sweet tooth the size of a shot glass could also pair your soft drinks with Michael’s ice cream of choice—coffee.

Level 2: Quint

(Ideally, but unlikely you’ll source it) Narragansett lager beer, swigged straight from the can—pros obvs pair it with saltine crackers.

Note: As an alternative suds level, the college kid beach bonfire version may be preferable, using plastic Falstaff beer cups and lobster (posh). Get yourselves a keg if you’re that way inclined/American.

Level 3: Chief

One bottle of red wine (ideally a Beaujolais—you might want to let that mega pint breathe), and one backup bottle of white (I wasn’t sure what you’d be serving). Cigarettes optional.

Level 4: “Wealthy College Boy”

Champagne, Iranian caviar, and pâté de foie gras (if you’ve got city hands, and have been countin’ money all ya life!)

Level 5: “You’re Certifiable!”

Two cases of apricot brandy, and serve yourself up a smörgåsbord (don’t forget the colour TV).

Drink (to your legs) when you see or hear any of the following:

  • Underwater POV
  • Jaws theme
  • Booze
  • Shark attack
  • “Let Polly do the printing”
  • Mayor misjudges
  • “Kintner”
  • Aquaphobia
  • Fin
  • Blood
  • Quint’s mate
  • Shark jargon
  • Ben Gardner’s head
  • A toast*
  • Quint taunts
  • Nautical lingo
  • Sea shanty
  • Quint yells
  • Shark pops out
  • “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”
  • Harpoon hits
  • Indianapolis speech
  • Barrel pops up
  • “Smile, you son of a bitch”

*Don’t forget to ape Quint (or Hooper) during the corresponding scene, by chugging and crushing your beer can (or paper cup)

Happy July 4th to you fair Spanish ladies! Scull it outta here, and please drink (to your legs) responsibly.

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