Collins’ Crypt: Thoughts On The Power Of JAWS

Imagine seeing this movie for the first time on the big screen?

Sometimes it's nice to be wrong. It seems my AMC theater wasn't expecting a big crowd for Fathom Events' two night re-release of Jaws, because they put it in one of the smaller screens they have there (out of 16), while other movies were still showing on the bigger screens to less than half-full audiences (which, last weekend, would be pretty much any movie that wasn't Jurassic World or Inside Out). So it was basically sold out, with only the front row left mostly empty (and I would guess those seats would be taken if they weren't SO close to the screen - you can't even see a 2.35:1 image in its entirety from that angle), and yours truly grabbing the last decent seat, near the back (but still more or less center, yay!). I don't PREFER to go to the movies by myself as often as I do, but in this case it was worth the solo journey - if I had someone else we'd be in that awful front row, or not seeing Jaws at all. And who would want that second option?

I feared the worst when I sat down, as the teens on both sides were looking at their phone throughout Ben Mankiewicz's intro (and the loud, wannabe comedian guy that annoyed me in the concession line was, of course, right behind me). Admittedly, I didn't feel like listening to Mankiewicz's non-trivia either (did you know the animatronic shark didn't work right?), but as both of the lads were with their parents, I ran the risk of getting an angry father yelling at me should I dare to do something so awful like ask them to put their phones away during the movie (it's happened before). Luckily, they did indeed put them away when the movie started, but then something worse happened - the kid to my right started snickering. It's a problem I see at every revival screening - people think old stuff is funny. I don't know if it was the clothes or the hairstyles or what, but he found that fairly benign beach party scene pretty amusing, and also blurted "She is UGLY!" at the first closeup of the girl who would soon become shark chow.

But then something magical happened. After that first shark attack, he shut up, and more than once he leaned in closer to the screen during a tense moment. Around the halfway point, when our heroes set out on the Orca, he went to the bathroom or something, and when he came back he asked his mom what he missed, at which point I realized he was seeing this perfect, classic movie for the first time. I had suspected it earlier, when he nearly spilled my drink jumping at Ben Gardner's head, but that goddamn scare still gets ME every time and I've seen the movie probably twenty times (plus, as explained over and over, I don't scare easily). It wasn't until he needed potentially missed plot points explained to him that I knew for sure that he was a Jaws virgin, and he had just turned from someone I thought I'd be annoyed by into someone I was actually jealous of, because he was getting to see this movie for the first time in its proper setting: a big screen with a full crowd.

To compare, my first time watching this masterpiece was probably a lot like many others my age: on TV with commercial breaks. My uncle showed it to me when I was about 8, and I'm not even sure if I saw the whole thing then, but I remember laughing like a loon at Richard Dreyfuss making faces at Robert Shaw (and my uncle rewinding it for my amusement). I'd catch bits and pieces of it on TV for the next near decade, but until Universal released a widescreen VHS copy in 1997, I'm not sure I ever actually sat and watched the entire thing from start to finish without commercials. By the time I actually got to see it theatrically for the first time, in 2005 (at the Coolidge Corner theater in Boston), I knew the movie pretty well, rendering the thrill of seeing it in the ideal setting a bit softer than it should have been.

Sure, Gardner's head still got me (who DOESN'T jump at that?), but so many other bits in the film that coulda/shoulda blown me away were too familiar to me. The shark popping up behind Brody as he angrily shovels chum, or when it first smacks against Hooper's cage... what I wouldn't give to be like that kid next to me, seeing these moments for the first time when the movie was engulfing my vision, with a hundred or so other people screaming along with me. Except for my uncle (and my sister, I think) on that first, probably incomplete viewing, I'm not sure if I ever watched it with another human being until that night in 2005. But the experience was still nothing short of magical; it's probably the first time I realized how damn funny the movie is, for starters. Nothing against Dreyfuss' face-making abilities, but there are much funnier, subtler moments, like Brody pouring himself a beer-sized cup of wine ("You want to let that breath- no, OK..."), Hooper's interactions with the locals when he first arrives in Amity, and Brody reiterating that Polly should do the printing. These things might elicit a smirk at home, but a crowd ramps up their entertainment value, and while no one will ever call Jaws a comedy, a good audience will laugh as often as they scream at it.

But it's actually Mrs. Brody who scores what's usually the biggest laugh in the film, when Martin is yelling at his kid, trying to get him out of his new boat (still tied to the dock in about a foot of water). At first she tells her husband to calm down and let the kid be, only to see a picture of a shark eating a boat, prompting her to yell even louder for the kid to listen to his father - this moment never fails to bring the house down. I mean, I'm sure I must have realized how comical that was even when watching it on TV by myself, but when you see it with a big crowd erupting in laughter normally reserved for a full-blown comedy, it's infectious, and when coupled with the intensified scare moments, it's easy to see why the film was such a phenomenon - it's great on TV and all, but it's downright transcendent with a crowd.

Because of this and other big moments (a big cheer for the "need a bigger boat" line, thunderous applause when that sunofabitch shark "smiles"), I've become a bit of a snob when it comes to watching Jaws - I now ONLY watch it when I can see it theatrically. I made an exception for the Blu-ray that came out a couple years ago, partially because I was sent one for review and thus kind of had to*, but otherwise I have opted to make up for my careless adolescent viewings by ensuring this masterpiece gets its proper respect. Especially now with a baby, it's nearly impossible to have a completely focused, uninterrupted viewing of a feature film at home (even a sitcom is dicey), and Jaws - being one of the few undisputed perfect movies there is - deserves that much (the sequels, not so much. I recently watched Jaws 2 over the course of a week - and that's the only one I actually LIKE!). For some this means they'd only be able to see it when anniversaries roll around and companies like Fathom make a big deal about it, but I am fortunate to live in Los Angeles, which has a healthy revival/repertory screening culture. Since I moved here I've seen Jaws I think five times including Sunday night's screening, and most of those were on 35mm. And always in different places! The New Beverly, the Egyptian, the Alex Theatre in Glendale (that one had a Joe Alves Q&A, with some of his sketches and props in the lobby)... I am actually kind of spoiled at this point.

Speaking of which, I should mention that, for once, I was happy with the presentation of one of these Fathom Events screenings. They usually look like shit, quite frankly, but instead of their usual simulcast presentations, Jaws was shown on a DCP - the same format that was being used for Jurassic World next door. And this theater doesn't always have the best projection, so I wasn't expecting much, but I had zero complaints. They are showing it again on Wednesday night, so if you heard the words "Fathom Events" and opted to skip it on Sunday, I assure you that unless your theater is screwing something up, only the most stubborn anti-digital types (rhymes with Schmarantino) will find fault with the presentation. And even then, would you really want to pass up a fine way to honor the 40th anniversary of one of the best movies ever made? Especially if you are, like many people, living in an area where good repertory theaters don't really exist? I think not.

In his intro, Mankiewicz tried to explain how Jaws gave birth to the summer blockbuster, but I don't think he did a very good job (he didn't explain that summer used to be the dumping ground for studios, sort of like what January is now). It was probably taped a few weeks ago, or else I'm sure he would have pointed out that Jurassic World is currently benefiting from a tradition Spielberg started in 1975 - the common desire for audiences to crowd together to enjoy something spectacular, something bigger than the sort of things they were seeing the other nine months of the year. Of course, Jurassic World and a hundred other major summer blockbusters before it are the subject of debate as to whether or not they're actually any good, which was never the case with this particular film. No one, NO ONE, dislikes Jaws, because it's a perfect movie. That's why 150 people were crammed into a theater to see it even though most of them probably own a copy at home, a remarkable feat for this day and age.

Oh, and the kid next to me? The one I was afraid I'd have to yell at for disrespecting the movie? He was the first one to applaud when it ended. Boom.

*Even then I watched it on my friend's giant projection setup in his home theater. Look carefully for a dollar bill on the time display - THAT'S how big it was for my one-time "small screen" viewing!