Movies JAWS and the Mostly Forgotten Allure of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances written by Robert Reineke June 8, 2015 JAWS turns 40 this month and without it virtually creating the summer blockbuster it’s possible that this site, and everything we try to cover, wouldn’t exist. Not in its current form anyways. There have been myriad think-pieces on the effect of the summer blockbuster on cinema, with more than a few being very critical, but almost everyone assesses that JAWS itself is a beloved masterpiece. JAWS has remained beloved for many reasons, the memorable score, the tension filled set pieces, Spielberg’s sense of humor, the hidden, lurking presence of the shark, the sense of both horror and adventure, memorable lines of dialogue, and strong performances among those reasons. All of those reasons are worth exploring in their own right, but I’m going to focus on one aspect that I see as contributing greatly to the lasting appeal of the film, the everyday quality of the characters of JAWS. Cinema today is filled with superheroes and supervillains, dystopian resistance fighters, street racers, wanderers of the wasteland, aliens, robots, Jedi knights, hobbits, wizards, swashbuckling archeologists, dinosaurs, extraordinary thieves and con men, and globe trotting spies. For the most part, the stars of these films are exceptionally fit and beautiful. Current blockbuster cinema is, to a large extent, the progeny of JAWS, yet the characters could not be more different that the everyday people that are at the center of JAWS. Hollywood has always been pulled towards the allure of romantic fantasies, and JAWS itself has a sense of adventure and escapism in it, but JAWS features characters that you don’t fantasize about being, but rather that feel like they could be living down the street. We can start by noting that Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gray, and Murray Hamilton were nobody’s idea of the “sexiest people in the world” when JAWS was shot. Or subsequently. The most attractive cast member, Susan Backlinie, gets eaten in the opening scene of the movie and reduced to body parts that bring with them disgust and nausea. Martin and Ellen Brody talk of getting drunk and fooling around, but JAWS isn’t interested in “sexy, fun time” at all. JAWS also isn’t really interested in larger than life heroes. The film spends as much time skewering macho posturing as it does in creating those macho poses in the first place. Richard Dreyfuss crushes a Styrofoam cup in parody of Robert Shaw crushing a beer can in his hand. Roy Scheider spends time learning to tie basic knots and shoveling out chum and his most iconic shots show him in shock, sometimes with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. These are adults, but not larger than life badasses. And the film loves these characters all the same. How many films can you think of when just when the action gets well underway will take a break for the three main characters to get drunk and bond? We get backstories on Hooper and one of the most famous speeches of all time from Quint and his USS Indianapolis tale. That’s all great stuff. What’s sneaky about that scene though is that we learn nothing about Brody except that he has a scar from an appendectomy. And earlier we learn that he left New York City to raise his family in a safer place, which all sorts of people who left the city for the suburbs can relate to. That’s all we know about the backstory of Martin Brody. What’s more, that’s all we need to know. Because, at heart, Martin Brody is just a guy trying to do his best in a difficult situation. He doesn’t have any special skills. He doesn’t have a tragic backstory. He’s just a relatable, decent, everyman. He’s the kind of guy you can see in the corner bar on a Friday having a beer before heading home to his family and be glad to see. He could be standing next to you at anytime. Heck, he could be you. Spielberg seemed to be aware of this thread, instinctively or otherwise, during the casting of the film. The film is full of actual residents of Martha’s Vineyard. There are attractive women in the beach scenes, but no shots of bikini-clad Hollywood starlets parading themselves. Amity Island is a place populated by ordinary people. Spielberg even goes beyond the book and makes even the mayor, with his chamber of commerce mentality, sympathetic. The mayor notes, and Martin Brody acknowledges, that his kids were on the beach too. There are no human villains in JAWS. There are just people, with various flaws, and an extraordinary force of nature. That’s the heart of the film and why the film still works as something other than a thrill ride. In the end, the two less common men, the macho, posturing Quint, and the nerdy, intelligent, Hooper, are disposed of, Quint more harshly than Hooper, leaving only Brody to confront the force of nature. Even the high mast which Brody tries to use to his advantage is brought low signaling just how down to earth Brody is. The film isn’t interested in elevating Brody, there are no speeches about finding your inner hero, rather there’s talk in the film about how frightened these men have been at various points in their life including the USS Indianapolis story, but rather in simply watching a common man confront a problem and struggle to victory. JAWS isn’t necessarily a deep film, but it’s a film with elemental power simply because as much as any blockbuster the characters are a reflection of the audience. JAWS has certainly been passed in regards to special effects, gore, and raw scale. But the film has lost none of its power, to scare and entertain, simply because the audience can find itself in the characters of the film. The humanism of JAWS is the secret weapon that keeps people coming back for more. Hollywood hasn’t completely forgotten featuring ordinary people in films, although it’s perhaps a lesson that they should do well at trying to incorporate more. It’s part of the core appeal of DIE HARD, and why none of the sequels will ever be as appealing as the original. It’s part of why BRIDESMAIDS had great legs a few years back. It’s why many horror films, especially HALLOWEEN, strike a chord. Heck, it’s at the core of what made Amblin a notable success. I wonder if it’s not merchandising driving the storytelling away from everyday people and towards larger than life figures. It’s hard to imagine the further adventures of a Martin Brody action figure, most days I imagine he would go home after an uneventful day and eat dinner with his wife and kids, but it’s perhaps easier to imagine the further adventures of raptor trainer Chris Pratt. But, perhaps there’s a version of JURASSIC WORLD that would connect better with audiences if it featured not raptor trainer Chris Pratt but rather ordinary guy Chris Pratt taking his family on a vacation to JURASSIC WORLD. A version where the everyday people, like you and me, aren’t just food for the dinosaurs but rather active participants in the story. If INSIDE OUT connects, I suspect that the fact that it’s about an ordinary girl will be a large part of why. There’s no right or wrong here, part of the magic of the movies is taking us to places that don’t exist, now or ever, and seeing larger than life characters doing great things. But, part of the magic is also seeing people like us on the big screen. Heck, that’s the whole point of Italian neo-realism. JAWS is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between blockbuster and small drama. A blockbuster can be carried by a set of people as ordinary as ourselves. The characters don’t have to be cool. They don’t have to be sexy. They don’t have to be destined for greatness. They just have to be interesting and have an adventure. As such, JAWS is a timeless picture because it’s so at odds with much of today’s franchise building. JAWS feeds the mind and soul in ways that aren’t necessarily better than other blockbusters, but in different ways all the same. I think we’ll see its like again, but right now we’re about as far away from it as we’ve ever been. We’ll have to see if the pendulum still swings away or if it starts to swing back. JAWS and the Mostly Forgotten Allure of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Circumstances was last modified: February 21st, 2016 by Robert Reineke Related Jaws 10 comments 0 Facebook Twitter Google + Pinterest Robert Reineke previous post Spielberg And Hanks Build The BRIDGE OF SPIES In New Trailer next post See 6 Minutes Of Marvel’s ANT-MAN In IMAX, Beginning Friday! You may also like Watch Two Clips From BRIDGE OF SPIES September 25, 2015 Open Forum: SELF/LESS July 9, 2015 Moving Forward, No News Is Good News... March 3, 2017 SNOWPIERCER Speeds to VOD Today (and the... July 11, 2014 Spielberg And Hanks Build The BRIDGE OF... 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You are absolutely correct in your assessment of current cinema and its characters who tend toward the miraculous. One of the problems with San Andreas is that you have a character in the Rock, who’s already a everyday Superman hero. Compare that to the rather cheesy Poseiden Adventure, and you can see the inherent charm in having a guy like Red Buttons be a hero in a block-buster movie. Jaws has that as well, as the guy whose least likely to succeed is the guy who ultimately prevails. Its a tight movie, with its limited 3 main character arc. Quint, I would argue, is the closest person in the flick to a real hero, extremely flawed, but bigger than life. He’s a certifiable war hero, and he’s also just certifiable! His dock-house is filled with relics of his obsession with killing sharks, and his tale of the Indianapolis, is arguably, the most terrifying scene in the movie. And when he gets scared on the boat, that’s when you get scared. Its said that Dreyfuss and Shaw did not get along at all, and, in fact, that get a single drink in Shaw, and he suddenly went from Charming Irish Rogue to Truculent Irish Drunk. Dreyfuss recently broke down talking about him, because I think he feels he’s always been a bit harsh whenever he spoke of Shaw. I would argue that there are no villains in the movie, as Mayor Larry has only a bottom line view for his community that blinds him completely, until he’s left a gibbering mess saying “his kids were on that beach, too.” Before that, he’s lying on camera about “some swimmers supposedly being injured,” in a seriously political habit of downplaying a danger. That, in my mind, is a villain. Once I was able to watch it through my little fingertips on HBO, Jaws became my favorite movie. Quint, in his looks and vivacious view of life, reminds me of my Dad, who passed that very year, and I often have felt like Brody in my job as a charge nurse in a OR. If we’re having a bad day that looks like its gonna get worse, I often will tell my anesthesia doc, “Were gonna need a bigger boat.” Robert Reineke Whether or not we regard Murray Hamilton is a villain, I think we can agree that he’s not evil so much as negligent and mistaken. Like many politicians, he simply doesn’t want to believe inconvenient facts. stock Not mustache twirling, but he knows the truth of the matter. It’s he who pushes the coroner to call an obvious shark attack a boating accident, and it’s he who supersedes Brody’s authority in closing the beaches. In today’s Hollywood, Hamilton would be playing the greedy oil executive who pushes fracking on an unsuspecting community, building a neighborhood on an Indian burial ground, or poisoning the water supply with nuclear waste. He would be the uncaring corporate entity. In Jaws, it’s his refusal to face facts that costs lives. It’s funny, in the book, you could also view Hooper as a villain, since he sleeps with Brody’s wife. Pays for it, too. I like the movie version better. Robert Reineke I think willfully ignorant is perhaps most accurate. No doubt he’s doing the wrong thing, but I think it’s also clear he wants to believe the most optimistic scenario (the shark has moved on, the fishermen got the shark) rather than he truly understands the consequences of his actions. After all, his kids are on the beach too. Given that Jaws is a post-Watergate film, distrusting the government was certainly a theme of the time. And the government has never really regained that trust. That’s helped Jaws age well, while some of the genre films of earlier times where the government rides to the rescue at the end don’t have the same resonance. stock Absolutely. Jaws is too good to be done again in a straight remake, but I’ve often wondered if Spielberg couldn’t CGI a more convincing shark. Not that I’ve ever really cared now that they’ve finally eliminated the motor sound when the shark hits the cage. I can cut Larry some slack for supporting Martin after Mrs, Kitner slaps him, but I want to slug him when he says, “Love to prove that, wouldn’t you? Get your name in National Geographic ?” All the major characters are perfectly cast. They caught lightning in a bottle. Jaws is one of the greatest flicks ever made, IMO, flaws and all. Daniel Van Cortlandt Thanks for the article Robert! I was born in ’81 so I can’t remember the first time I saw Jaws, but it was undoubtably on home video some summer day when my older brother and I were home alone. Since then my love and admiration for the movie has only grown with each viewing. It is such an iconic and influential film, but it is also effortlessly enjoyable even by today’s standards. I plan on celebrating the 40th anniversary by watching it again today! Michael “We can start by noting that Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gray, and Murray Hamilton were nobody’s idea of the “sexiest people in the world” when JAWS was shot. Or subsequently. The most attractive cast member, Susan Backlinie, gets eaten in the opening scene of the movie and reduced to body parts that bring with them disgust and nausea. Martin and Ellen Brody talk of getting drunk and fooling around, but JAWS isn’t interested in “sexy, fun time” at all.” I kind of feel like that’s a product of 70’s Hollywood that hasn’t really survived. It seemed to be an era where really eccentric character actors were being turned into movie stars. You still had your pretty people – Warren Beaty, Paul Newman, Robert Redrod. But then there were guys like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacciono and Jack Nicholson (Who was playing guys like George Hanson and Robert Eroica Dupea before Chinatown turned him into an icon). Gifted actors all, but they weren’t “pretty” and I don’t think they’d have the success now that they did in the 70s. Robert Reineke I think it’s a little bit to do with the 1970s film culture, although I think it’s also Spielberg understanding the story. There’s nothing preventing a Redford or a Faye Dunaway from being in the film, but they chose to go another way. It’s probably worth noting that at this point in his career, Spielberg had some Altman in him. There certainly is more than a little overlapping dialogue in the town scenes and in the town meetings. I think talent still has something to do with it though. There was still room for Philip Seymour Hoffman to get regular work and big parts. But, yeah, those types aren’t really leading blockbusters. Maybe you could make a case that Daniel Craig is kind of craggy, but otherwise nobody instantly pops to mind. At least in action/drama, comedy you can still get away with unconventional looks. SeanLM I think the Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson represents me and the proverbial “Everyman” pretty well. Aren’t all adult males about 6 foot 5 inches tall with 20 inch biceps? We can all bench press at least 400 lbs., right? But seriously, I think it’s all cyclical. The 1960s and 1970s had Everymen as a rule. Even a larger than life actor like Charlton Heston from an earlier era had one of his best roles playing an average police detective in Soylent Green in 1973. He wasn’t part of some elite task force where he’s the best there ever was. He was just a guy with a job caught up in larger circumstances. The 1980s swung to larger than life actors like Stallone and Arnold and I would seriously dispute that Bruce WIllis ever played an “ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances”– bleeding feet notwithstanding. The 1990s swung the pendulum back somewhat (for example Sam Neil in Jurassic Park, Frances McDormmand in Fargo, Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan). The 2000s had the Star Wars prequels and the Matrix Trilogy and the LOTR trilogy all basically going on and on about destiny and fate and Campbellian archetypes and blah, blah, blah. Relateable characters are pretty much impossible when the phrase “chosen one” is used. And no, Hobbits are not ordinary. They’re weird and quaint. The 2000s also saw the comic book boom. Some of it might just be related to technology finally allowing filmmakers to show whatever they want; the drunk bonding scene in Jaws was in there because they couldn’t get the shark to work and so Spielberg had to shoot something while they were working out the technical problems. If the Shark worked perfectly from day one, we might have ended up with a much worse film. I guess the lesson is to be careful what we wish for. A lot of it depends on the director of course. Hitchcock was an expert at creating ordinary characters in bad circumstances or seemingly ordinary ones with something to hide. Whereas other directors (I’m looking at you Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich) seem more concerned with creating caricatures (often crude and embarrassing ones) rather than characters. It also depends on genre. Successful horror is almost predicated on everyman characters which is why movies like Doom, Resident Evil and Aliens (1986) simply don’t work as horror. I think the found footage genre in horror has been a largely unsuccessful attempt to create characters “like us” in extraordinary circumstances; it usually ends up creating characters “like us” only much stupider and more annoying. stock I would dispute only 2 ideas there. One, that Hobbits aren’t normal. Of all the characters Tolkein created for Middle Earth, Hobbits are the ones most designed to represent normal (predominately late 19th to early 20th century small English village) lives. Quaint is fitting, because they have no longing for the wheels of industry to invade their home. Two, Ripley is a normal person up against insurmountable odds even in Aliens. Her only advantage is facing one down before. Even the military, with all its inherent bravado and macho posing is filled with normal people. The only sentient being with any special abilities in Aliens is Bishop, who gets ripped apart. Other than that I completely agree. During the 60s and 70s, comic books were still mainly for young kids. Movies were for adults. Now it’s come around where the two are similar in scope and attitude towards “heroes”.