Friday, June 20, 2008

Not a Gummer Yet

By Mike Gillis

Today marks the 33rd anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." Depending on your take, it's remembered as one of Spielberg's best -- probably still his best, in my opinion -- or the film that redefined the contemporary movie-going experience as meaning little more than box-office take.

For me, it's commercial success doesn't undermine its dramatic success. "Jaws" still has a few lessons left to offer.

1. Wisdom can be overrated.
I find it reaffirming, sometimes aggravating and occasionally depressing that Spielberg made his masterpiece at 26 years old. We're often told that learning our craft takes time, lots of time, and filmmakers or writers mature over time. Certainly there are wisened old filmmakers and writers forever aiming for the swan song, the project that sums up and defines a life's work. But there is something to be said for youthful abandon, where the rules are both important as a guide and just as easily disregarded in the throes of creativity. "Jaws" remains a solid example of inspired filmmaking. I've not seen that kind of hardened inspiration since. No, not "Schindler's List" or "Saving Private Ryan."

2. A bad story can sink your ship
Although Spielberg's faux shark did sink, several times, it was more than a setpiece. The shark fit the story. That's not to say the book was a masterpiece, because it isn't, but its transformation to film made for strong drama under even direction. Without the architecture of a good, solid story, no movie can stay afloat for long.

3. Cast it or cast away
"Jaws" boasts solid performances across the board. Little needs to be said about the likes of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, but Spielberg was also able to create a convincing setting with local nonactors. Perhaps some of that is a bit hokey -- "A whaaaaat?" -- but we bought it. Don't populate a movie with actors. Populate it with people. Good actors, playing real people.

4. Sometimes a blockbuster is worth the ride
It's OK to have fun at the movies. Really. "Jaws" may be inexpensive by today's standards, but no small budget for its time. And that money bought the picture a memorable score and just enough gee-whiz props to take viewers on a rollercoaster of a movie. Not to mention the first three lessons.

So, happy anniversay "Jaws" and thanks for showing that movies can still have teeth.

Here's the original theatrical trailer: