JAWS – Story Beats

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In the summer of 1975 as a six year old shark fanatic I begged my parents enough so that they took me to see Jaws at a drive in theater in North Plainfield, New Jersey. I have no idea what the OTHER feature was we saw that night – you always got 2 features at a drive in – but I do remember also begging my parents afterwards to stay and watch the second viewing – something you used to be able to do at drive-ins back in the olden days. Jaws has been in my DNA ever since and remains one of my all-time favorite films if not the favorite film. It is an incredible thrill ride of a movie that changed the entire course of how, and more importantly WHAT – gets made in Hollywood. After the major record breaking success of The Exorcist at Christmas in 1973 and then Jaws breaking all of The Exorcist box office records just a year and a half later in the summer of ’75 – people in H-Town realized that creature based high concept filmmaking was where the global money was at. They only had to wait for Star Wars to debut 2 years later in the summer of 1977 – to confirm this theory and add the insanely profitable merch marketing component to the equation and the movie making landscape was changed forever. The success of Jaws on the viewer however has little to do with seeing the actual creature – or motorized malfunctioning puppet shark (named Bruce) that was used, and more to do with the psychological manipulation that Spielberg pulls off with expert precision like a master orchestra leader throughout the film. This is most definitely his best – and quite possibly his most honest film, that does not resort to sentimental parlor tricks or corny plot devices to weave the story. This is the Spielberg movie where he kills the kid – on screen – in glorious blood spewing Technicolor – with the mother watching in sheer terror, and he makes no apologies for it. Never again would we get this brutal unfettered punch to the gut from Spielberg except for maybe bits of Schindler’s List and the opening half of Saving Private Ryan. And yes ET is the sentimental parlor trick that I am talking about – or – how to make kids cry 101. Though I guess you can make a case that by manipulating kids in to falling in love with a cutesy, bug eyed, benign pet alien and then killing the thing in his over the top gut wrenching melodramatic style, Spielberg is responsible for emotionally traumatizing and scarring an entire nation of children under 12. Fair to say he pretty much stopped killing the kid on screen after Jaws. And sometimes the kid needs to get eaten – as is the case in Jurassic Park. Now every Spielberg movie has to have an up ending and an emotionally gratifying base level pulse – and sometimes worse – an annoyingly precocious brat that somehow always manages to outsmart a bumbling adult. I think Spielberg had the most trouble with and took the most chances in Jaws and it paid off by spawning the era of the creature based high concept special effects blockbuster that we are stuck with now.  

Lets talk Story Beats. This movie is the one you want to study since it is possibly the best timed movie for action adventure that there is. And Jaws is definitely an action adventure horror movie at heart. Things hit in exactly the right spot in time and there is no part of the story that is boring, feels slow, or does not connect in some way. Spielberg uses his greatest asset here – his humanity – by revealing slices of his characters in small but powerful comic bits that show he is not only a master plot based storyteller – but one who understands that we as viewers want to connect with and empathize with the characters on screen. I can point to a few of my favorite bits: Brody with his son making faces after dinner – then begging for a kiss, Brody with the wine a few moments later, Hooper crushing the styrofoam cup with Quint, Hooper making faces after being derided by Quint for snapping the line, and finally Quint’s amazing monologue that reveals his past as a sailor on the USS Indianapolis. That monologue was written by the excellent uncredited writers Howard Sackler, John Milius, and actor Robert Shaw. These moments of humanity – some silent, some using dialog, all using the power of cinema and the language of film – are what Spielberg has repeatedly excelled at. Creating subtext with the small almost unnoticed character beats in his films is his trump card. Beyond any other filmmaker alive Spielberg’s greatest asset has alway been his ability to connect his character’s psyche to us and create a shared larger than life experience.  It is these particular story beats that are the secret to his success as being arguably the greatest American filmmaker alive. His deft ability to draw us in and add these comic bits of raw humanity to what is basically an action horror movie is what makes this film so powerful. And yeah – he gets first pick at the best material – Jaws was another film based on a bestselling book… So that helps. But the book is vastly different in tone, characters, and how things play out. These moments of humanity and pathos that pepper Jaws and most of Spielberg’s best work don’t seem pandering here and are the high point which make the film so endearing and so watchable upon repeat viewings. It never feels phony or forced and it balances out the horror of what we paid our ticket to see – people being eaten by a giant shark. That is why we are discussing Jaws and not any number of creature based knock offs. Clearly the proof is in the Directing here and all you have to do is look at Spielberg’s best imitator Ron Howard – who steals all of these devices liberally and unashamedly – to prove this. And that includes the “people talking over one another having different conversations at once” thing that Spielberg does in both Jaws and Close Encounters – to exemplify commotion and make exposition seem urgent. 

As expected in any action adventure all of the characters in Jaws are goal oriented, none more that Chief Brody who takes the obvious solution to what to do after a shark kills a swimmer and is blocked at every turn from doing the obvious: closing the beach. Spielberg brings humor at Brody’s frustration with his situation – tossing marbles at the window to get the attention of his deputy, joking with him about his handwriting for the beach closed signs, and even haggling with The Mayor about closing the beaches.  Hooper is goal oriented as the scientist brought in by Brody to thwart the shark and help prove his case for closing the beaches in time to save lives. Even Quint is goal oriented as our Ahab – possibly suffering post traumatic stress which has clearly dictated his lot in life as shark hunter eccentric – up to this point.  Note that as the situation changes in act 3 – the PLAN changes. Quint who would never conceive of admitting defeat to a shark is forced to head back in to shallow waters to try and get it on the sand. So the entire plot of Jaws is based on main characters achieving goals – and when their plan fails or blows up – literally – they change the plan of attack. Similar to The Terminator – The Shark is an ultimate foil – an unyielding oversized killing machine that is borderline supernatural. The shark is the manifestation of Brody’s fear of the water in the worst way and becomes our ultimate fear of horrible painful bloody water death as well. Jaws is the perfect villain for a man afraid of the water who is forced to save people from this unyielding beast. Brody finally outwits the shark in a set up that seems corny now 40 years later – but at the time was all too believable. And the end was set up from the moment Hooper does the autopsy on the Tiger shark – and reinforced casually throughout the film in some not so subtle ways- so it is not disingenuous to the world of the film and it feels satisfying and uplifting – yet somber when it occurs – another Spielberg trait that proves that he is a master storyteller and the beats of this film are ones to be studied to see how a master pulls it off. 

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