Monday, December 5, 2016

Better In Your Head?--JAWS

SPOILER ALERT, 'cuz it ain't safe.

Peter Benchley

"Goddamn son-of-a-bitch shark."

The book almost titled The Jaws of Death has sold in excess of twenty million copies over forty-plus years, but the movie rights were sold before the first hardback even hit store shelves. Some scribes just get lucky that way.

Some directors, too.

But back to the book.

I'm sure you know the story, more or less? After reading a news report about a Long Island fisherman who'd caught a great white, Benchley became intrigued by the idea of the fish as "enemy of the people." So he began writing about a great white preying upon the residents of a fictional New England resort town named Amity.

When a skinny-dipper is made a meal of in open waters, Police Chief Martin Brody orders local beaches closed. Mayor Larry Vaughan overrules him, fearing the negative impact on summer tourism. The cover up is on and poppin', but a few days later, a shark takes out two more people near the shore. Fisherman Ben Gardner's noble quest to apprehend the killer ends with his corpse sunning in his boat, a shark tooth embedded in the vessel (calling card?)

The tiny, tidy community is thrown into tumult. The privileged populace struggles with the realization that their world--a place where time is measured in seasons rather than months--has been violated by something even greater and whiter than they.

Brody, alongside grizzled man-of-the-sea Quint and strapping, snotty young marine biologist Hooper, take to the waters in Quint's boat. It's a good thing they come back to land at every setting of the sun, since Quint shouldn't fall asleep around Hooper and Hooper definitely should not be sleeping with Brody nearby. At no point does the younger man blurt, "Hey you fat cop bastard, not only am I gonna catch this shark and save the town, I'm gonna make you suck my dick and taste your wife," but it's pretty much there. (More on that later.)

And on the third day, God goes, "Let there be some blood in this here ocean." Bye, Hooper.

Day four, the shark goes on the offensive, ramming the vessel and leaping onto the stern. Bye, Quint. By this time, the shark's been harpooned four times but shows no signs of slowing. Floating on a seat cushion in the middle of the friggin' ocean, Brody watches and waits, resigned to his fate. Mere feet from the Chief, however, the menacing fin sinks into the water.

Bye, Jaws.

Artless, but readable. The rare beach book that keeps you firmly planted on the sand. 

Director-Steven Spielberg
Writer-Peter Benchley & Carl Gottlieb (Howard Sackler, uncredited) 

But, that wasn't Benchley's intent. Enter the baby visionary.

Actually, producers at Universal beat him through the door, showed him where the door was, in fact. Richard Zanuck and David Brown caught a whiff of the book and knew the story deserved the big-screen treatment. Universal threw 175K at Benchley (in retrospect, a steal for them) and placed up-and-coming Steven Spielberg on the chair.

Spielberg was not exactly a fan of the novel. He disliked the characters as well as the subplots, admitting later on he rooted for the shark throughout. That's on Benchley; his characters are incidental to the story, and I didn't get a clear vision of any of them, aside from Hooper as a single-minded stud with a daunting magnetism. (At least another major player, actor Robert Shaw--himself a prolific author, although good luck trying to locate his work--hated the thing: "Jaws was not a novel. It was a story written by committee." Despite this, Benchley was given first crack at the script. He wound up taking three. Playwright Howard Sackler drummed up a faithful adaptation before finally Carl Gottlieb stepped in to give it the needed life and depth.)

Spielberg knew that Brody needed to remain heroic throughout; he couldn't risk audiences feeling the same way about any of the characters that he himself once did. Hence the focus on family, specifically the scene of Brody's son witnessing an attack. The shock is sufficient to hospitalize the poor boy, and now it's personal you goddamn son-of-a-bitch shark.

I don't care if Robert Shaw was choice one, three or thirteen, no one else could have played Quint. One of the most magnificently cantankerous pricks to not actually exist, those stunning blue eyes seeing things other men cannot, he was the best in the book (well, next to the shark) and is the best in the movie.

Film Hooper had to be likable (no cuckolding or dying), and Spielberg lucked out in finding the effortlessly affable Richard Dreyfus. 

(Quote me: Had Hooper and Brody not been significantly changed, Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be remembered as Spielberg's breakthrough.)

Another marked departure is to keep the boat out on the water till the deed is done. Thus, no respite for the characters--or the viewers. The incompletely-defined tension between Brody and Hooper was transferred to Quint and Hooper, young vs. old, Luddite vs. Science Nerd, played mainly for guffaws.

Foreshadowing certainly is not restricted to film, but only the film was savvy enough to use it. How many people, before 1975, really appreciated pressurized scuba tanks? Implication certainly is not restricted to film, but only a film could be stuck with a mechanical animal so unbelievable-looking that it could only be seen sparingly!

The Daddy of the Summer Blockbuster is also a thoughtful, gorgeous film. The camera establishes people and their motivations. The framing is masterful throughout, and all in service of the story being told. 

Don't look to the book for Quint's entrancing speech, or Brody's classic quip, or any sort of male bonding. And while I shouldn't punish a novel for not having a soundtrack, much less one by John "The God" Williams, here I am with a switch in my hands.

I was thoroughly spoiled for the original story going in, and I'd seen the movie a handful of times, so my primary concern was in seeing how Benchley pulled it off. He brought nothing new, didn't surprise except for one time I really wish he hadn't. Spielberg, again, birthed the summer blockbuster and crafted a film worthy of study. My personal favorite sequence is the mass exodus from the water inspired by a supposed shark sighting. Featuring water level shots, that scene affected me more profoundly than the vaunted first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, since I'll sooner be on a beach than a battlefield.

The subplot of the Mayor and the Mob ain't as worthy of derision as the "gaping twat" side story in The Godfather, but both of those ill-advised digressions helped Hollywood defy conventional wisdom.

Oh, Petey ain't done. The Eileen Brody/Hooper affair is predictable and weird. New England gal misses her bygone affluent life. Hours pass in a haze of reflections, refractions, regrets and recriminations. Then, in saunters the younger brother of an ex, dashing and successful and alluring. Flirting ensues, until one afternoon Ellen sneaks off to join Hooper for a seafood lunch, during which lurid fantasies are exchanged. I thought--hoped--Benchley had written the scene in lieu of a sex one, but nope! Soon enough, readers are treated to a mattress tag's view of Hooper's O-face. Won't lie, the shark ain't scarier by much.

Spielberg trimmed the fat and grilled the meat to mouth-watering color and texture. Sure, I wish the shark had met a Kananga-esque end, and Roy Scheider is very unnerving with his James Woods/Perry King mash-up of a face, but dudes! Traumatized children! Nails on chalkboard!

To the disappointment of the man responsible for Jaws the book, Jaws the movie tainted the reputation of the shark. 1975 saw a precipitous drop in beach attendance nationwide, along with an increase in shark sightings.

Of course it also made possible such things as Shark Week and Jaws a Libra, I stress the wisdom in consulting the scales.

As an animal lover, I relate to Benchley's dismay. Sharks are fascinating. Instead of focusing on the rare acts of aggression towards our kind, why not marvel at the mouth of the rare basking breed? Wonder at the mystery surrounding the goblin shark. Appreciate that we share a world with the tiger shark. Just say it aloud: tiger shark.

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