“I'm only trying to say that Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars.” - Mayor Vaughn
In reading about the productions of some of the most successful movies ever made, a noticeable trend arises pretty quickly. Nobody believes in the project, the shoot becomes mired with complications, some studio executive shouts “What is this shit?!” during the first screening, the director verges on a nervous breakdown, and then, out of nowhere, the premiere has a line wrapped around the block and everyone drowns in money.
If the story sounds familiar, that’s because it more or less describes the production of The Godfather, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Bonnie and Clyde, and pretty much every other movie you’ve ever seen. But for as many times as the troubled film makes it big story pans out in Hollywood, the movie that remains most famous for snatching success from the jaws of defeat is, well, Jaws--Steven Spielberg’s disastrous money-pit turned blockbuster defining super success. The movie also celebrated its 35th anniversary yesterday.
Growing up, I had a hard time mustering the courage to swim at the beach, a fear that usually resulted in my parents having to literally force my sorry ass into the sea. I was convinced that under the uninvitingly murky brown water lurked a gaping, toothy maw just waiting to clamp onto my leg like some sort of aquatic, living bear trap. This counted for swimming pools too, which doesn’t really make much sense, but neither does the fact that I was terrified of getting eaten by the shark from Jaws for most of my childhood and didn’t actually see the movie until I was about 12. The very idea of Jaws was enough to keep me firmly planted on a beach towel.
Since getting over the bulk of my irrational childhood I’ve become increasingly drawn to movies that deal with subjects that used to terrify me. With its well built tension, old-Hollywood compositions, and awesome scenes of children getting ripped apart by a gigantic f*cking shark, Jaws quickly became a summertime staple. For as much as I enjoy the craft of Jaws, it’s the film’s style and setting that keeps me coming back to Amity Island. I just like the way every thing looks. The waterlogged dinge of the Orca, the warm airiness of Brody’s house--I even like Hooper’s shoes.
Even though I hated going to the beach as a kid, my family dragged me to practically every summertime beach town along the mid-Atlantic, and each one of them could have functioned as a stand-in for Amity Island. I spent many an hour stuck on dirty ferries, browsing ramshackle sea-shell stores, and staying in cottages whose only piece of technology was a rotary phone. Everything felt permanently stuck in the Ford administration. It could be 1993 in the rest of the world, but as soon as you crossed that county line it was 1976 all over again.
Many of these beach towns have since caught up with the times. The crappy pink cinderblock stores have been replaced by gaudy Sandals retail outlets; the decrepit arcade whose ancient games either didn’t work or hit you with a brutal jolt of electricity, a Subway. So while the beach towns of my youth have largely been modernized and wiped away, watching Jaws immediately draws me back into that era. In setting the scene for a series of bloody shark attacks, Spielberg managed to capture a stripped down beach culture that lasted has since fallen by the wayside.
Of course, I’m looking at this era of my life through a remarkably thick sheen of nostalgia, so it’s likely that I’ve simply started supplanting actual memories with scenes from the movie. I do recall my grandfather catching a huge shark off the coast once, just like the yokels who caught the tiger shark in Jaws; but my grandfather’s shark was a hammerhead, so I’m pretty sure that at least some of this stuff actually happened. Like that time my dad sat around singing with his friends and then they blew up a great white shark with a low powered rifle and an oxygen tank. That was awesome.
Regardless of whether or not I’ve started to fool myself, Jaws represents that time of my life where all there was sun-bleached houses, men in remarkably short pants and an ocean that I didn’t like to get near. Ah, youth.
Next Week: It’s summer, so we’re watching 1987’s Summer School… again.