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Twenty-five years later, we have 'Jaws' to thank--or blame-- for the summer blockbuster

By Rob Nelson

JULY 31, 2000:  Simply put, Jaws turned the tide of American cinema--irrevocably, and not for the better. Mass-released to 500 theaters on June 20, 1975, Steven Spielberg's killer-shark epic swallowed the likes of Altman and Bogdanovich and Cassavetes by inventing the very concept of the summer movie. It did this, at least partly, through an unprecedented $5 million publicity campaign--complete with a blitzkrieg of TV clips and those phallic print ads of the shark bearing down on a naked female swimmer--confirming that it was good business to spend as much promoting a movie as producing it.

Thus pushed down the public's throat, the film grossed $60 million in its first month and beat out The Godfather as the biggest hit of all time (a title it held until Star Wars in 1977). It inspired a Saturday Night Live parody ("Landshark!"), a theme-park attraction at Universal Studios, and a Jaws discotheque in the Hamptons. With the aid of such tie-in products as Great White beach towels and shark-tooth pendants, Jaws forever turned Hollywood movies into kids' movies--not for nothing did Jaws 2 sic its shark on an ensemble cast of obnoxious teenagers.

Nowadays, this is blockbuster business as usual. But did I mention that Jaws--newly rereleased on videocassette and DVD--is also something of a great movie? Opening with a dark, dreamlike tracking shot through the ocean depths, accompanied by John Williams' carnivorous "dum-dum-dum-dum" score, this man-vs.-animal shocker seems to define primal fear, with director Spielberg staging the early attacks on a woman and a child with an almost sadistic glee. (The Nation's Robert Hatch considered Jaws "a kind of pornography.")

But of course, once the film's trio of guys (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss) heads out to sea for retribution, the movie shifts course--from nihilistic horror to inspirational adventure en route to a showdown between the Great White and the Great White Male. With its explosive, vigilante-style climax ("Smile, you sonuvabitch!"), Jaws made literate studio films into an endangered species and prefigured the country's rightward turn toward escapism. Publicity (and proficiency) aside, Spielberg's film grossed big, one might argue, by restoring faith in authority figures and exorcising our defeat in a war so painful that the movies could scarcely acknowledge it--at least not literally.

In other words, the shark carried heavy symbolic weight, a fact not lost on commentators of the time. Countless political cartoons had the Great White representing everything from taxes and unemployment to, presciently, Ronald Reagan. William F. Buckley jokingly complained to the press that his wife "won't even go into the goddamn swimming pool anymore"; and The Washington Post's George Will naively expressed his shock that in the nation's capital, "where the Congress is regularly on view, people are paying to see this movie about a small-brained beast that is all muscle and appetite." Indeed, muscle was lacking in the government: Even a Newsweek puff-piece from July '75 interpreted "Jawsmania" as an antidote to the spectacle of Nixon's decline and fall two summers earlier. Spielberg was thinking about mere "suspense" when he contrived to keep the evil below the surface for most of Jaws. But this strategy also enabled the shark to manifest all manner of fears, especially those echoing from Vietnam: the enemy who can't be seen, who attacks without warning, who won't give up.

Making the first true post-'Nam disaster film, Spielberg answered the underlying question later posed aloud by Stallone's Rambo: "Do we get to win this time?" In Jaws, we did, and what a relief it was. But the movie can also be seen as much as a reaction to the rise of feminism as to the need for new heroes. It begins with a "free-spirited" young woman whose attempted seduction of a hippie dude coincidentally results in her getting chewed to death, and ends with two toughened-up regular guys paddling home toward a New Morning. Along the way, the director isn't subtle in his suggestion that women are part of the problem: Police Chief Brody (Scheider) is distracted from preventing the shark's fatal attack on a young boy because his wife (Lorraine Gary) has been snuggling up to him (that seduction thing again). And when the boy's grieving mother proceeds to blame the chief, Spielberg retaliates by characterizing her as a hysterical bitch. "I wanted to do Jaws for hostile reasons," Spielberg said in '75. "It terrified me, and I wanted to strike back."

In more ways than one, this is the story of wimps transforming themselves into supermen. Still, like most blockbusters that aim for mass acceptance, Jaws is full of contradictory messages: The shark is the film's ostensible villain even as its feeding patterns help to create a new world order. And despite being pro-male bonding, the movie is also hypocritically anti-capitalist (the town mayor is greedy for "summer dollars") and vaguely anti-aggression--insofar as Shaw's salty Captain Quint pays a stiff price for his machismo. (One of the film's more hilariously savage moments is Quint's toast to "drink to our legs.")

Ultimately, one takes pleasure from Jaws at the expense of the countless movies not made because of it. The content is endlessly fascinating, but regrettably, its lasting legacy is its form: the stripping of pop cinema to pure technique and basic instinct, commensurate with the Dreyfuss character's definition of the shark. "It's an eating machine," he says. "All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks." Not unlike summer blockbusters that open wide, gobble up money, and spawn sequels. --Rob Nelson


Jesus on the mainline

Jesus' Son is the title of a 1992 collection of short stories by Denis Johnson, and now it's also the title of a film by director Alison Maclean, who has streamlined the multitude of characters and fevered visions in Johnson's stories. With the help of screenwriters Elizabeth Cuthrell, Dabid Urritia, and Oren Moverman, Maclean has shaped incidental tales into something like a narrative, centered on the observations of a junkie known only as "Fuckhead," as he tries to keep a relationship together while coping with his increasingly fragmented state of consciousness.

Billy Crudup plays the nameless hero, and he also voices the narration in a halting delivery that suggests a man editing his dream journal as he reads it aloud. Crudup is a magnificent actor, and one who may never get his proper due because he has such an undistinguished look--he's not especially handsome, nor does he have the odd-angled face of a character actor. His best tools are his soulful eyes and an agreeable voice, which he puts to good use as he relates offbeat, funny anecdotes about his character's life. Crudup is ably supported by Samantha Morton as the lovely, dangerous Michelle, and by sharp passing turns from Denis Leary, Jack Black, and Dennis Hopper, among others.

The episodic nature of Jesus' Son--highlighted by actual chapter titles that appear onscreen between sequences--is off-putting at first. Some of the stories are amusing, but others seem aimless, and impatience sets in during the film's first hour. But a plot of some sorts falls into place eventually, as Fuckhead struggles to get clean and to find a place where he feels at home. Toward the film's end, he lands a job at a home for the aged and infirm, where he's encouraged to touch the patients as much as he can.

Johnson's original collection of stories took its title from a lyric in the song "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground--"When I'm rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus' son." The author wanted to illustrate the dreamlike state of the drug addict, where fantasies and reality dovetail, and a higher plane of existence feels like it's just beyond the user's grasp. The filmmakers explore some of the hallucinatory imagery from Johnson's stories--talking cotton balls, flying nudes, and whatnot--but they also play up a latent spiritual angle implied by the title.

The film version indulges religious imagery with sacred hearts and crucifixes popping up and providing both an attraction and a deterrent to Fuckhead's fleeting plans. But the central religious theme in the movie concerns the transition between life and death. Fuckhead states early in the film that life and death may be the same thing, and that if we realized this we wouldn't be afraid. Then he spends the rest of the film either passively killing things (including his unborn child and a handful of baby rabbits) or failing to save them (including several people who come to violent ends in his presence). His job at the end of the film--"laying on of hands required"--also seems pretty loaded. A coworker actually asks Fuckhead at one point if everything he touches turns to shit--which would seem to be the opposite of Christ's healing touch, unless one considers delivering people into death as a kind of healing in and of itself.

Jesus' Son has a fundamental flaw in that its lead character tends to make observations about other people but keep himself away from the scope. But Maclean and company are to be applauded for finding their own meaning in Johnson's slim, poetic volume, and for translating it with such assurance. When the film pops into lucidity in its final half-hour, the effect is like sobering up from a bender, or perhaps passing on from a muddy reality into a state of spiritual clarity. --Noel Murray


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