Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Jaws (1975)

by on August 2, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Aug 2 at 6:30 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]

On set, it was a disastrous production that burned through twice the planned budget and three times the planned shooting schedule (the crew quickly began referring to it as Flaws.) But on screen, it is a work of ruthlessly efficient formal economy, of cattle-prodding mechanics that are thrillingly visceral in their effect.
It was a movie that revolutionized corporate Hollywood, decisively ushering in the era of high-concept blockbusters: “front-loaded” release schedules, saturation booking, prime-time TV promotions, expansive ancillary tie-ins, and a focus on summer releases (previously considered a slow season by Hollywod).
It is the movie that made Steven Spielberg an industrial institution unto himself. But it also a triumph of collaboration; shot by Michael Ballhaus, edited by Verna “Mother Cutter” Fields, and scored by John Wiliams.
It delivered the most famous orchestral motif in film history (Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum…) and the second most famous trombone shot (after Vertigo).
It contains some of the best button-pushing scare sequences ever assembled (an appraisal that is often delivered as a back-handed compliment, followed by charges of “manipulation,” “infantilization”).
But its characterizations are far richer, its Amity Island setting more immersive and densely detailed, than most critics are willing to credit. It is a very funny film, shot through with a waggish, deadpan wit that Hitchcock himself would have appreciated.
It is, in short, a great movie–a masterpiece–and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a sensationally effective action picture, a scary thriller that works all the better because it’s populated with characters that have been developed into human beings we get to know and care about. It’s a film that’s as frightening as “The Exorcist,” and yet it’s a nicer kind of fright, somehow more fun because we’re being scared by an outdoor-adventure saga instead of by a brimstone-and-vomit devil.


John Caps on John Williams’ score, for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 2003):

Jaws thrust Williams to the forefront of screen composers and made an entire generation suddenly aware of film music. By transmitting a prehistoric, Stravinskian sense (“Le Sacre du printemps“) of fear, relieved by sprightly sea shanties, Debussian underwater music that’s both looming and luminous, and, of course, the famous accented cello motif that warns us every time the shark is near, the score gets visceral, manipulates the audience at will, and swims away with the whole film. It was virtuoso symphonic writing, too, easily and thrillingly transplantable to the concert hall.



It is incredibly, shockingly, difficult to find intelligent praise for this film online. If you’re interested in Spielberg, we can enthusiastically reccommend two books: for a critical study of the films, see Nigel Morris’s Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light; for a critical biography of the man, see Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg (reviewed by Alt Screen editor Paul Brunick here).
In the meantime, enjoy the remixed trailer, “Must Love Jaws”:

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