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Summer of ‘87: Jaws: The Revenge: This Time, It’s (Im)Personal

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Summer of ‘87: Jaws: The Revenge: This Time, It’s (Im)Personal
Summer of ‘87: Jaws: The Revenge: This Time, It’s (Im)Personal

“This time, it’s personal.” So reads the tagline for the ill-fated Jaws: The Revenge. Never mind that in each of the three previous films the sharks died. Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D may have foisted hopelessly contrived plots on viewers, but neither went as far as to imply that their respective sharks were exacting revenge on Chief Brody and his family for past crimes. We weren’t led to think that the sharks were in the same family or part of a hive-mind network. But here is a premise that—while no more implausible than the other films in the series—actually seems to acknowledge the folly of a franchise chronicling one family’s long saga of encounters with great whites. That’s why I give the writers (or the marketing team?) of Jaws: The Revenge credit for understanding at least one thing: If you’re going to serve up the absurd, don’t hold back. In fact, pour it on. Both the title and tagline of Joseph Sargent’s film more than meet this standard. The movie itself is another story.

The Conversations: Jaws

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The Conversations: Jaws
The Conversations: Jaws

Ed Howard: The sudden resolution at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is one of those great, absurd movie moments that makes me really giddy, that never fails to put a grin on my face. It’s a (literally) explosive climax to a film that, despite its reputation as a nonstop fright-fest, isn’t liberal with these kinds of grand, cathartic gestures. I realize that’s maybe an odd thing to say about a movie that’s credited with being one of the very first summer blockbusters. In 1975, buoyed by a massive national marketing campaign and one of the earliest applications of the “wide release” distribution strategy, Jaws quickly achieved unprecedented commercial success, becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Although Jaws’ record was surpassed just two years later by George Lucas’ Star Wars, another harbinger of a changing Hollywood, the success of Spielberg’s film was a big factor in shifting movie distribution from slow release patterns and word-of-mouth hype to huge marketing pushes and national saturation.

In retrospect, Jaws the film (as opposed to its marketing) is an unlikely candidate for such an important place in movie history. It is a thrilling, scary, often darkly funny movie, a great and entertaining movie, but its sensational content aside, it doesn’t have a whole lot in common with what we now think of as summer blockbusters: grandiose effects spectacles with massive budgets, amped up as loud and fast as possible. In comparison, Jaws feels like a very classical film, a taut thriller where the first half is a succession of build-and-release suspense/horror sequences, and the second half is exclusively about three men in a boat, alternately bullshitting in the cabin and chasing a killer shark. The special effects are rough, the shark is often unconvincing, and indeed Spielberg and his crew were plagued with problems involving the mechanical sharks. The effects limitations led to what turned out to be a brilliant aesthetic as well as practical decision: the shark is often not shown, especially in the first half, where the briefest glimpses of a fin or a tooth-filled maw, coupled with indirect evidence of the beast’s viciousness and tremendous size, are sufficient to induce dizzying terror.

This is a long way from Transformers: technologically of course, but also in spirit. Although Jaws wound up ushering in an era where bloody, explosive spectacles dominate the summer moviegoing season, Spielberg’s film is clearly working on a much smaller scale. The film is rooted in Hollywood classicism, populated with idiosyncratic characters who have plenty of room to speak and interact in between the action/horror set pieces. About the closest the film comes to modern blockbuster territory is the improbable mayhem of the climax, but by that point a moment of excess after two hours of simmering tension and restraint feels more than earned. That climax can still make me giddy, over thirty-five years after the film debuted, because it’s a true catharsis, a product of an era before blockbuster filmmakers strove to make every moment seem cathartic and overpowering. Unlike successors that pummel viewers with nonstop “thrills” for two hours or more, Jaws modulates its violence and action with Hitchcockian suspense and quiet character moments, and as a result its bigger notes (like that irresistibly grin-inducing final showdown) hit that much harder.

"On Broadway" and All That Jazz

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“On Broadway” and <em>All That Jazz</em>
“On Broadway” and <em>All That Jazz</em>

Bob Fosse directed five features in 15 years, starting with 1967’s Sweet Charity and ending with 1983’s Star 80. This pace suggests that Fosse was very deliberate in choosing his material, like Stanley Kubrick or Sergio Leone. Yes and no. Fosse was an obsessive artist, but not about movies—or rather, not just about movies. Seeming to believe that dance was the purest way to express joy, Fosse used moviemaking to exorcise joy’s opposites: not just pain, but the obsessive nature of artists—particularly the way attention to detail can cause men to shut themselves off from the rest of the world. On stage, choreographing sexual-playful spasms of intricate movement, Fosse seemed to revel in his naughty-boy sense of play. But on film, he examined the self-destructive component of celebrity and asserted that self-loathing was the driving force of show business.

Caveman Valentines: The French Connection, Dirty Harry, & Straw Dogs

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Caveman Valentines: <em>The French Connection</em>, <em>Dirty Harry</em>, & <em>Straw Dogs</em>
Caveman Valentines: <em>The French Connection</em>, <em>Dirty Harry</em>, & <em>Straw Dogs</em>

William Friedkin’s The French Connection, about ruthless cops chasing ruthless drug smugglers, is a sensationally effective and vastly overrated movie, and I doubt I’ll ever want or need to see it again.

Even on first viewing—as a movie-crazed teenager in 1986, courtesy of VHS—its slot in the pantheon of great ’70s movies struck me as unearned. I dug its unglamorous violence, grubby locations, energetic camerawork and superb lead performances (by Gene Hackman as volatile NYPD detective Popeye Doyle, Roy Scheider as his level-headed partner, Frederic de Pasquale as the chief smuggler and Tony Lo Bianco as his Brooklyn contact). But the film—now playing in a new 35mm print August 31-Sept. 6 at Film Forum—struck me as very calculating, not in a Hitchcock/Spielberg way (i.e., perfectionist, hermetic, mechanical) but in the manner of a street hood who stages a distraction so his partner can snatch a purse. The average Adam Sandler comedy has more integrity than Friedkin’s Oscar winner, which lovingly protracted scenes of police brutality for left-wingers, pre-Miranda-ruling nostalgia and tangible law enforcement results for right-wingers, and an ending that makes hash of both positions—not to complicate viewers’ reactions, but to provide rhetorical cover to the filmmakers no matter who gripes. How could such a pandering film be described as uncompromising?