What to do on a Friday 13th – “Get out of the Water”!

I have just had a wonderful day. Really, truly delightful – so delightful, in fact, that I forgot the date. What’s in a date, anyway? It’s just a number, after all.

However, without dates and holidays and big, pertinent events, blogs would probably dry up. There’s only so much that I can draw on from my actual life (it isn’t that exciting) without sounding pedestrian or, well, just annoyingly self indulgent. Nobody wants to read about adventures in laundry or women on the verge of a midlife crisis all the time. We already live that. It’s good to know that someone else is enduring from time to time but I’m not Liz Jones and that just ain’t my bag.

On the other hand, it’s good to share a little bit of me that might add to your entertainment and even perk up the odd evening. On the Sophie’s Voice Facebook page Saturday night movie marathon recommendations have been very popular so, to compliment the well thought out advice of today’s Instagram post, I thought I’d give you one for today.

Jaws came out precisely 15 days after I was born. It was a game changer in terms of the film industry. It was released at the end of June – traditionally the start of a low point in terms of revenue for any business – and ended up being the highest grossing film of all time (until 1977’s Star Wars, but let’s gloss over that) and the prototypical summer blockbuster. It’s difficult to imagine that one of the most acclaimed movies of all time can also be ridiculously profitable. It’s unheard of nowadays. You get money or significance – very, very, very rarely both.

It spawned 3 sequels – all terrible and none directed by Steven Spielberg. They’re absolutely forgettable – but people still watched them. The momentum from the first iconic film drove them an astonishingly long way.

It is also the cause of numerous arguments about – of all things – genre. That’s not a word that pops up in many pub conversations but it divides people. Is it action, thriller, disaster or what?

Well, let me give you my interpretation. I think it’s horror and I would elevate it and say it deserves to be discussed with the type of language we use for Hitchcock. The budget and the schedule were extended repeatedly yet still Spielberg couldn’t make his shark look like an actual shark. That seeming failure gives the film everything that makes it a masterpiece…more importantly, it gives it everything that makes it terrifying.

Spielberg worked around that vacuum with better dialogue, better characterisation, better cinematography, better music…better everything. It’s a tribute to making do with what you’ve got and making it work. Not just work – but excel. With a million shots of shark dentistry, the film would have been an enamel and plaque ridden cliché of maritime digestive plumbing. With almost none, any appearance is enough to make you jump out of your seat. The looming shadow of the monster in the water makes your skin crawl.

Interestingly, Spielberg lays off the infamous Jaws theme in most of the boat shots. You can almost hear Quint, Brody and Hooper sweat. You can certainly hear their breathing – even as they attempt to silence it with their growing belief that they can be heard by their nemesis. It’s a study of the ridiculous way humans react in the face of absolute fear. The boat scenes show men frozen in terror then jettisoned into murderous action by necessity. Or, in Quint’s case, by greed.

Hooper has good intentions for his studies but they’re erased by relentless attacks from the fish that fascinates him. He goes from advocate to volunteer executioner in the space of a single boat ride – and he is not at all motivated by any desire to protect the citizens of Amity Island. Quint is almost as horrifying as Jaws. He offers to hunt for a sizeable reward but we are left in no doubt that he loves the kill as much as the thrill of the chase. He is the most memorable victim, because it’s impossible to feel sorry for him. We should – his nemesis doesn’t strike because it’s a victim of constant attacks, but because it’s a bloodthirsty, indiscriminate killer. The victim is a war hero who never really came home.

Hooper makes sure that we don’t see Jaws as typical. It’s an unusual specimen – freakishly huge and with a peculiarly singular taste for human blood. Only Brody thinks of the community.

Ironically it’s not one that he holds any real love for. A ‘blow in’ to the island, he makes no real attempt to hide his frustration at the parochial lifestyle and the local officials’ lack of urgency. And that’s before he has to try to persuade Mayor Vaughn (played with brilliantly observed venality by Murray Hamilton) to shut down the resort’s main source of income. He only seems to hold his family dear – he tolerates his colleagues, but barely – and his wife, Ellen, serves as a mirror to the viewer’s reactions. She’s sharing the narrative and supports her husband as we root for him too.

Of course, in the end, this hardboiled city cop – who left New York because he hated the mean streets – ends up killing the shark with a hastily improvised plan and a perfect shot. We always knew that only he had the right skills, requisite patience and slick speed to succeed.

Like his presence on Amity, the process is full of contrasts and contradictions. Very few of us are both stoic and fleet. Most people don’t defend something they don’t like. Brody doesn’t board the boat for glory. He does it because he’s capable of managing two people who are so much at loggerheads that they threaten to be a danger to the community he serves. Alone together, Quint and Hooper would obviously have been doomed to failure.

The entire escapade costs one life, one boat, most of the participants’ respective dignity and the survivors’ previous perceptions of themselves. All are forced to face themselves and their fears and two will have to live with the mental scars. If you can imagine them staying in touch afterwards then you’re watching a different movie. You know Hooper goes back to the safety of a library – no more scuba cage for him – and Brody returns to Ellen, the only person who understands his turmoil.

I love this film. Parenting in the 70s and early 80s was a different story. Back then parties involved parents together and children separate. Often a television was left on with a video playing – it might even have been Betamax. The inevitable options were Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In that chronological order as I aged. I love them all but Jaws is the only one that I cannot part myself from. If it’s on, I’m in – and I’m not leaving the room until it’s finished.

I found out recently that children only recall the things they understand. It’s nature’s nifty means of ensuring that we don’t get scarred by things that are inappropriate. Well, I didn’t understand the underlying subtleties of Jaws but I do know I’m never going to swim in dark water. And I don’t think that’s a bad lesson to take from any film.

Happy Friday the 13th, dear readers. Don’t have nightmares. I still do, actually – and they’re almost all about drowning. It looks like I understood the implications of that danger even at a pre-school age. Incidentally, I’m also a strong swimmer – a skill that I fostered at a young age by training for a mile long swimming badge. You know – just in case I ever have to swim back to shore on flotsam.

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