Show Me the Way to Go Home

Jaws celebrates its 35th anniversary this week.

There are all sorts of things worth remembering about Jaws; its fabulously rocky production history, its massive impact on the business of selling movies and the culture at large, and its composition, which is really about as good as it gets, a paragon of the “nothing is wasted” school of efficient storytelling. Take any sequence, go through it shot by shot, and you’ll see a Jenga tower of suspense on film. Removing a single block would likely topple the whole thing.

But for all of that, Jaws has something more, something we don’t often talk about when we talk about scary movies – it cares deeply about its people. Take another look: this is a movie about community. Not just Amity Island, but smaller bands of friends and families, which run through the picture like a vast chain of interlocking arteries. There are the Brodys (Roy Scheider’s family); The Kinters (boy Alex was last seen on the inflatable yellow raft); the intrepid team of Brody, Quint, and Hooper (Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss); and most tantalizingly, the off-screen, long-dead members of the USS Indianapolis, whose story is related in chilling detail by Quint himself.

The film goes to great lengths to ensure that we really feel close to these people. It wants us to understand them as individuals and also as members of groups bound together by – a funny word when talking about Jaws – love. Take another look. The reason the shark is so dangerous, and indeed frightening, is that, unlike regular old monsters that just kill, Jaws tears people apart – in all senses of the term.

This is unquestionably Spielberg’s achievement. Casting the right actors and giving them the right moments is the job of any director, but it are only directors of Spielberg’s sensitivity – a funny word when talking about Spielberg – who think to find those moments where no one else would look. E.T., for instance, is full of such moments; it’s what gives the film its inner illumination, the sense that all of the unreal really is real. Credit is due to everyone on a great film, but in the case of Jaws, it was the captain who ensured that the whole thing, moment to moment, was reduced to its common denominator: feelings of fear and loss. And everyone, no matter what sea they swim in, can understand that.

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