Saturday, July 10, 2010

My Holiday Obsession: Cinematic Sharks

Robert Shaw as Sam Quint, in Jaws (2005).

On America’s annual Fourth of July this month, I lazily tuned into a late-night cable broadcast of the ultimate Independence Day movie: Jaws, which haunted my visits to the beach – and that of countless others – long after it was released in 1975. This time around, adrenaline-fueled insomnia kept me glued to the TV for the film’s next two sequels, which I’d never seen before. But I was too pooped by 2:45 a.m. to keep my eyes open for Jaws: The Revenge. I can only assume that a franchise getting sillier by the year had reached an apex of silliness by its fourth go-round.

This guilty-pleasure marathon came despite the fact that Steven Spielberg’s career-making hit (he only directed the first one) and George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars forever altered the landscape of cinema in my country. (Or should I say the seascape and galaxyscape?) The more introspective narratives with gravitas of the early 1970s gave way to action and adventure, a scenario that bombards us with one mindless summer blockbuster after another, few of them ever as original as their lower-tech antecedents of three decades ago.

What kept me riveted to Jaws, though, was Robert Shaw’s portrayal of Sam Quint, a shark hunter with an ego almost as big as the 25-foot Great White that proves to be his undoing. I once read the Peter Benchley bestseller on which the script is based but can’t recall many of the details. This character’s history, revealed in a drunken moment of truth-telling aboard the rickety boat, provides a depth that makes his ghastly death in the deep all the more tragic. In July 1945, Quint had been aboard the USS Indianapolis, a ship that delivered essential parts of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, it sank. Out of the 880 survivors, only 316 were rescued alive. While floating for four days, the rest perished from starvation, dehydration, hypothermia and attacks by tiger sharks. Now that’s a patriotic tale rarely heard when the successes of the Revolutionary War are celebrated on July 4th, as the movie’s little island resort town of Amity is attempting to do when a gigantic fish with serrated teeth and an insatiable appetite disrupts the festivities.

Roy Scheider as Chief Brody in Jaws.

Another clever Jaws bit is the struggle between Roy Scheider’s savvy police chief, Martin Brody, and the slimy mayor, Larry Vaughn, whose profound state of denial is supported by this village of the damned’s business community. God forbid a measly monstrous predator in the ocean should get in the way of tourism dollars. That anti-establishment sentiment, a popular one in those heady counterculture days, continues in Jaws 2. The 1978 production brought back Murray Hamilton as the politician, who apparently hasn’t learned a thing from the bloodbath of a few years earlier. Once again pooh-poohing Brody’s instincts that a second enormous shark is trolling for victims, he’s even embroiled in an ambitious real-estate development scheme that probably would turn Amity into a less amicable place to live. The story also focuses on heedless teens in peril, a favorite premise for today’s regurgitative slasher market.

By 1983, the old gang is gone. Jaws 3 - D unfolds in a Florida water theme park, where Brody’s grown son Michael (Dennis Quaid) seems to be Mr. Fix-It under the auspices of a greedy boss (Louis Gossett Jr.), who keeps putting everyone else in danger to maximize profits. The script sucks and the acting’s not far behind, as people do the stupidest possible things for no apparent reason. The flick doesn’t even resolve its own subplots but, as with the two predecessors, nothing can deter the marauding shark except an explosive of some kind shoved into the creature’s conveniently wide open mouth.

I was in dreamland as better night owls than me presumably endured Jaws: The Revenge (1987) starring Michael Caine, who on other projects -- such as Mona Lisa (1986) -- has rivaled Quint’s menacing aura. But I’m guessing that’s not the case in the pathetic fourth installment. The cast, as I recall, was stranded in the Bahamas for weeks, waiting for the faulty mechanical shark dubbed Bruce to work. Caine even wound up missing that year’s Academy Awards ceremony, where he won an Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

The late Robert Shaw was never honored with a statuette, though his masterful performance as Quint arguably deserved one. Forever seared in my memory is the robust British thespian and novelist, whose blue eyes glint on screen with deviltry and dogged determination, periodically singing the 18th-century English shanty “Spanish Ladies.” He even may have penned the monologue about that horrific shark feast after the Indianapolis sank; some sources say so, though others attribute the work to John Milius, a screenwriter who claims Spielberg brought him in for that purpose. Either way, Shaw was a guy well worth missing a few ZZZs for while becoming reacquainted with an escapist summer thriller. 

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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