Don’t Go Near the Water

I discovered last week that the original Jaws was on Amazon Prime, and since I’d never seen it (believe it or not), I decided I should watch it. There have been a lot of memes relating to the pandemic comparing it to Jaws, and while I more or less got the jokes, I didn’t have a full understanding of all the cultural references.

Strangely enough, although I hadn’t seen the original, I had seen Jaws 2 multiple times. I made my dad take my friend and me to the base theater to see it when it came out. I had decided that I was quite mature and able to handle a scary movie, and I wanted to test myself. It was actually more silly than scary, and for that reason it became a popular slumber party movie. It was just scary enough to have a few screams, but it was so silly that there was no chance of having nightmares or being truly frightened. That was how I ended up seeing it at least two more times. The only thing I remember about that movie is that there’s a scene with an indoor swimming pool, and the camera zooms in on the pool as though something is going to happen there. At slumber parties, we’d all start singing the Jaws theme, as though the shark was going to appear in the indoor pool somehow — and as silly as that movie was, that wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

But the original was supposed to be a far better movie and is considered a classic. So last Friday I made popcorn (to get the proper movie theater experience) and watched Jaws. I knew a lot about it and had seen clips, so I suspect the full impact of the shock didn’t quite work. I’m not a big beach person (though I did see a shark very close to shore on one of my few beach vacations — close enough, though small enough, that someone caught it in a handheld net), so it’s not as though this was going to affect my life all that much.

My friends have found it amusing that my main reaction to the iconic opening scene, in which the girl skinny dipping in the ocean gets attacked by the shark, focused on the fact that she ran along the beach, shedding her clothing on her way to the water. I knew she was going to die, but I still imagined her shivering and dripping as she went back along the beach, looking for each item of clothing she’d flung away. It was summer, but it was cool enough that she was wearing a sweater while sitting by a bonfire earlier. If the shark hadn’t killed her, she’d have died of hypothermia while she searched for her clothes in the darkness.

I found the first half of the movie the most interesting, largely because of seeing the way the town reacted to the threat of the shark. Those memes that compare the town’s response to the pandemic response were pretty spot-on. First, it’s not a threat at all, the danger is something else. When there’s proof it’s something else, ignore the scientist and keep covering it up. When it’s obvious there’s danger and more have died, people rush right into the danger. Then declare it’s all over before you’re sure it’s over and force people to go into the dangerous situation just to prove it’s over.

That was also where the suspense worked best because we seldom saw much of the shark. It was hinted at, just shadows under the water and that ominous music. Apparently that was because the mechanical shark didn’t work well, so they had to work around it. They used the shark more in the second half, and it was pretty cheesy looking, so the second half, when we saw the shark, was less scary. That made me wonder how that movie would have come out if it were made today, when the shark would have been CGI. The first half wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if they’d been able to show as much of the shark as they wanted to.

The other problem with the second half was that it was essentially a fishing trip, and watching other people fish isn’t all that interesting to me.

I didn’t have shark-related nightmares afterward, though I did have a nightmare about being on a crowded beach. I guess crowds are scarier to me than sharks are.

I can see where that movie was groundbreaking for its time. It’s just not really my cup of tea. It was interesting hearing that theme in context. One cool trick John Williams used was that the rest of the score was pretty light and sunny, proper beach music. That made the dark, ominous shark music stand out more in contrast. I hadn’t heard the rest of the score before.

I followed that up with a viewing of the original Muppet Movie the next night. That’s a lot more my speed, but it did get me pondering whether there’s any kind of Muppet Cinematic Universe or whether the Muppets are merely a repertory company who sometimes play characters who are fictional versions of themselves. But that may be fodder for another post.

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