Once again, the American summertime has appeared, hovering above us like a plague of hot, wet blankets. What better way to cool off than to sit in a theater where the air conditioning is room temperature, making it not too warm but just warm enough that you’re literally sweating watching the trailer for Pete’s Dragon, as if you’re a Pete’s Dragon enthusiast who has a lot riding on the quality of the remake? As the old saying goes, “Beat the heat by becoming heat itself!”
This summer brings yet another deluge of grim, city-destroying blockbusters in a summer many box-office analysts have cutely nicknamed “The worst box office summer in recent history.” What happened? What has changed so wildly that our predilection for tentpole franchises – as American as apple pie and its sequel, Apple Pie 2: Just Desserts – has faded? Is it the quality of these movies? Surely that can’t be it; we’re at a time where telling a story has never been more engaging, thanks to the advent of new technologies and inspired young talent. So what could it be? The populist rise of Netflix, offering you the comfort of Frasier episodes in your own home instead of a multiplex?
No, it’s pretty much the quality.
A big argument that Hollywood bigwigs, mucklucks and hoosegows like to throw out is that making money in their industry these says is so goddamn hard thanks to those Cousin Olivers over at Netflix, who keep adding such good content at such agreeable prices. This idea, like a Hollywood executive, is a common misconception; it assumes that audiences would flock to theaters to see most of their original content, which (not counting original television) is meh at worst and meh at best. There’s a reason Adam Sandler inked an exclusive deal with them, and it’s not because there weren’t enough seats in theaters.
The only solution, they reckon, is to take that formula and apply it to their system: “Maybe,” they reason, stroking a cat who asked to be in a movie, “if we charged audiences an insane fee, they’ll want to watch our movies at home!” Missing the point in a confoundingly ritualistic way, they grasp that last straw of “it’s what they want” instead of “it’s what we need.” What audiences want is to be able to see a summer blockbuster that isn’t another grim spin on an inherently flamboyant franchise or a gross-out comedy that’s basically nine long improv scenes loosely tied together. Audiences want quality; they want original ideas and they want fresh talent to make it. Let’s look at the original summer blockbuster, Jaws.
Jaws was the first movie to make summer movies an event. Going out to theaters and seeing a great movie, sometimes more than once, made the trek to the cineplex more than just a way to pass the time – it became the time. In an age where summertime was traditionally reserved for going to vacation spots, a young director named Steven “Little Stevie” Spielberg gave America what it never knew it wanted: a reason to never swim at the beach again.
Jaws is quintessential Spielberg: not just because it was an early work of his (Sugarland Express and Amblin’ both had more reserved styles), but more so because every element came together flawlessly. For a 2-hour movie with a plot that could be easily summarized in 2 minutes, the pace is nonpareil. It flies by in a tizzy, yet holds onto you tightly for the entire ride. As a matter of fact, “ride” is probably the best way to describe the film: its location, events, characters and general atmosphere provide a level of escapism usually reserved for theme park rides. Look at how breezy this plot is:
Roy Scheider plays Martin Brody, a hapless police chief who lives with his family in the quiet seaside town of amity. When a giant shark begins killing people dangerously close to shore, Brody enlists the help of oceanographer Matt Hooper and aging seafarer Quint to help destroy the beast before the entire city becomes a figurative – and literal – ghost town.
Seems simple, right? Now, when you try to do that for many of this decade’s blockbusters, you get a jumbled mess of characters and motivations, festooning an overlong movie that uses visual effects as a means to distract you from its shitty storytelling, effectively eliminating the need for subtlety. Jaws takes the mantra of “less is more” and applies it full-stop to nearly every element of its production. Scheider plays Brody with a quiet contemplativeness that lets you know he’s a man of action who’s ruled by emotion. Scenes of him being eviscerated by the mother of a victim leaves you with the sense that despite his calm demeanor, he is capable of fault and missteps. One of my favorite shots in any movie is when Brody sees the shark bob to the surface while chumming; the simple, silent look of shock on his face paints the picture of a man who recognizes his spot on the food chain.
Robert Shaw’s performance as Quint is simply masterful. Quint and Brody present an eery juxtaposition through their similarities. while Brody tends to stay quiet in an almost pushover manner, Quint is quiet in a completely different way; his confidence and near-amusement at the town’s plight shows a man who – unlike Brody – has everything to lose, which makes him even more frightening. He’s at once someone you would want to avoid, yet he’s the first person you’d call on if your town had a shark problem.
Spielberg’s work on Jaws rightfully placed him by Hitchcock in the annals of suspenseful filmmaking. The masterful use of silence is something that, like the birds, keeps you on the edge of your seat. Unlike The Birds, though, this film takes a musical motif – one that’s about as simple as movie themes get – and uses it exclusively to create a feeling of claustrophobia and impending doom. The shark isn’t one with whom to be fucked, and that’s apparent after only 3 minutes of the film has gone by.
The absence of the shark wasn’t by design (although it was ironically due to the literal design of the shark, which was as mechanically sound as one of those elevator vending machines), though this refusal to show the shark save for a few minutes of overall screen time helps the movie immensely. I’m pretty positive that Jaws wouldn’t have had the same impact if the shark was more visible, as was Spielberg’s intent. The restricted use of the shark animatronic utilized a horror technique seldom used anymore outside of the horror genre itself: imagination. What you thought the shark looked like, or where you thought the shark could be at any given moment, made the shark that much more terrifying. One of the most ingenious things about the movie was taking a very real yet very improbable event – a shark attack at a public beach – and tapping into our most primal, base instincts as humans; doing this essentially reinforces the notion that we are all none of us above the food chain, despite how much more advanced we think of ourselves than dogs or ants or sharks named “Bruce.”
Just as Jaws swept onto the shores of the American consciousness and ushered in a new era of Hollywood, it also found itself as the progenitor of the modern blockbuster pickle we find ourselves in today. For every one Jaws, there were three Jaws sequels – each worse than the last – as well as countless Jaws knockoffs: Grizzly, Alligator, Old Housecat, and Jim Belushi all haunt our memories today more than ever. With that in mind, it’s important to remember the argument that it’s not the times that have changed; the times are perfectly fine. The problem is what hasn’t changed, and that’s the entropic attitudes and practices of an industry that just doesn’t get it. Maybe it’s time we got another Jaws. I’d be willing to settle for another Grizzly at this point.