One of my favorite movies of all time is Jaws (1975) but I can’t name an African-American in the film so that’s messed up, but then Steven Spielberg made The Color Purple (1985) so he’s cool. My other favorite directors are Martin Scorsese and also Woody Allen so if you total up all the African-American characters in their films you end up with ‘Stacks’ in Goodfellas (1990). Too bad about Stacks, he got high and left his prints all over the getaway van. In Goodfellas, ‘Two ni**ers just stole my truck’ was the excuse for the paid-off truck driver as he complains to anyone who will overhear him, “Can you believe that?” he asks incredulously, Charles Stewart-style. There were no black gangs in New York in the 1800s, apparently and Sugar Ray Robinson isn’t even given a line in Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull, (1980) yet he’s still my favorite director. Scorsese himself plays a racist in his film Taxi Driver where he brags to DeNiro’s Travis Bickle that he’s going to kill his wife because she’s cheating on him with a ‘ni**er.’ Marty, time’s up to make your Black Narcissus.
Anyway, in Jaws, the story revolves around a killer shark, terrorizing a little island on the 4th of July and if you think I’m going to write a post comparing the caronavirus to a killer shark at a time when humor is seriously frowned upon, prepare to turn that smile upside down. Jaws is probably used as an analogy more than any other film in history and that speaks to the incredible storytelling power of Steven Spielberg. He was at the center of a movement in early 70s film that was a reaction to the free-love drug culture that was hungover from the 60s, where young and dynamic filmmakers such as Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Scorsese were redefining cinema, with an eye on the French New Wave created by Francois Truffaut and the neo-realism of Frederico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica in Italy, these young Americans created some of the greatest movies of all time. Scorsese however, also looked to directors such as the English director Michael Powell and the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, employing a documentary-style realism that shaped 70s film into an art form all by itself. Director William Friedkin’s The French Connection; Coppola’s The Conversation and The Godfather; Sidney Lumet’s Network and Dog Day Afternoon; Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and other groundbreaking films of the 1970s opened a new way for artists to connect with audiences and Hollywood took note, based mostly on the East Coast with the exception of the great director Robert Altman, a combination of that 70s cinéma vérité style with the commercial and artistic power from Hollywood was why Jaws was such a great movie. From The Morning News:
Jaws is a spectacular film, one of the greatest to come out of American cinema. It is rightly catalogued in the Library of Congress, where it has been preserved as a major cultural milestone. It also belongs in the very small club, alongside Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht and Friedkin’s The Exorcist, of “monster” pictures that are simultaneously true artistic achievements. After the movie opened, Steven Spielberg would become the household name he has remained ever since, but he would never again—forgive me for saying so of a billionaire with a shelf full of Oscars—make a film as seamless, and as dramatically accomplished, as this.
Author Peter Benchley, son and grandson of Algonquin tabler Nathaniel Benchley and the quintessential working writer also really loved sharks. He might have become a marine biologist if his father and grandfather weren’t writers and was troubled that his book and Spielberg’s film demonized sharks, which led directly to a precipitous decline in their population. Based on a 1914 series of attacks off the coast of New Jersey, the real-life Jaws wasn’t a single shark eating lots of people, but many sharks eating a few people and we’ve found that sharks don’t particularly like the taste of humans and usually enjoy us for a snack, just an arm or leg before the main course of a poor, cute harbor seal.
The caronavirus, or SARS-Cov-2 is not like a shark in a few ways: 1. this virus is super, super tiny (not ‘invisible’ as our idiot VP thinks) and 2. far less scary on a movie poster than a killer shark and 3. can live outside the water, in fact it really likes to float in the air, landing in your nose to move down your throat, chewing into your lung tissue like the killer shark chewing into ‘Ol Ben Gardner. The films 28 Days (2000) and Contagion (2011) are both scary movies, with good movie posters, however competing with ‘Bruce,’ the shark (extremely scary), is only bested by Jason at the lake and Michael on Halloween. If you’re Crissy out for a midnight swim or some poor sailboat instructor who loses his whole damned leg, the big shark makes as fine an analogy to COVID-19 as any, after all, wasn’t Jaws really a film about a public health crisis made worse by the ‘town fathers,’ making Chief Brody reopen the beaches to swimmers even though it wasn’t safe to go back in the water?
Chief Brody: Larry, we can re-open the beaches in August.
Mayor Vaughn: August! Tomorrow is the 4th of July, and we are going to open for business. It’s going to be our best summer in years. If you’re so concerned about the beaches, you two, you do whatever you have to to keep them safe, but with you or without you, those beaches will be open for this weekend.
Chief Brody and his family are outsiders in the movie because they ‘Weren’t born in Amity’ and told they’ll ‘never’ be an Islander. He works within the community and yet will never be a part of it and African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans know this feeling very well. They’ve fought in wars for this country and served with distinction, hoping to be recognized as equal to any other American, but since they’re ‘not white,’ they’re viewed as an outsider to the larger white community — no matter what their achievements — take President Barack Obama as a prime example. In Jaws, the outsider police chief is trying his best to protect the townspeople, including tourists, from the threat they’re facing and the Amity community, from its citizens to the mayor to the medical examiner actively work against his ability to do his job effectively. It’s with the July 4th collapse that Jaws’ final, third act begins and as today the community’s true driving force is commerce.
The Jaws script went through three drafts, reworked by playwright Howard Sackler, nutty screenwriter John Milius and actor-writer Carl Gottlieb, who would write himself out of one job and into another, creating the final shooting script, which was revised continually on location until the cameras started rolling. As Spielberg told one Boston journalist during the shoot, “We’ve been making it up as we go along…” Benchley’s original concept proposed to his editor was, “to explore the reactions of a community that is suddenly struck by a peculiar natural disaster [that] loses its natural neutrality and begins to smack of evil.” Jaws was set in a vacation tourist trap, Amity Island — an American utopia — with the welcoming name meaning ‘friendship,’ so ex–NYC cop Brody brought his family there so they could finally live somewhere safe.
Chief Brody, the New York cop looking for an easy job on the quiet island was met with far more challenges than just a shark in the water in Peter Benchley’s original book published in 1974, the manuscript was painstakingly forged together by the author Benchley and his patient editor Tom Congdon, the movie rights bought by Hollywood based on the opening four chapters, Benchley won the contract to write the full book yet would spend the advance before the book was completed and needed to be walked to the third act by his editor and publisher, inserting typical 70s book homages to Updike’s sex and Puzo’s mob (in the book, Brody’s wife gets down with Matt Hooper and Mayor Vaughn is in the pocket of the mafia), but Spielberg saw through the murky plots, with Carl Gottleib, and created the best popcorn movie of all time.
You hope a good movie will always follow a great screenplay (it should) but it doesn’t always, with a great screenplay it’s almost impossible to make a bad movie, like an architect with an elegant plan, the beefy union builders are the ones who are actually going to let you build the damned thing. The greatest directors know this and take the core story of what they want to tell you and thread the details around it until you are totally lost in the story and two hours have passed. That’s called entertainment and Jaws delivers on all fronts. If the film drags at all, it might be when Matt Hooper says “and this is what happens” when showing poor Chrissy’s chewed-off arm to the audience, but folks love that scene for the gore, matched with poor Ben Gardner’s head popping out of the hole of his sunken boat (filmed in editor Verna Fields’ swimming pool) providing the other big highlight for the thrill-kill crowd before Quint gets bitten in half at the end. Back in ’74, Steven Spielberg had directed only one feature, the unsuccessful Sugarland Express (1974) and had only done the TV-movie of the week Duel before that (about a crazy truck driver chasing down Dennis Hopper), Spielberg got the offer to direct Jaws, then named the mechanical shark Bruce after his Harvard-trained lawyer Bruce Ramer, which became the nightmare of the characters and filmmakers alike (the mechanical shark, not the lawyer) and is legendary in the film business for forcing Steven Spielberg to rely on the careful editing of Verna Fields to make the shark appear scarier, as well as the music and scoring of the best film composer of all time, John Williams of the Boston Pops.
The relationship between a film director and the director of photography, or ‘DP’ is the most important in the making of any good film, beyond a good script. If film directors usually start as production assistants on a film set (PAs), DPs usually start as camera operators but the greatest DPs such as James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Owen Roizman, Haskell Wexler and Gordon Willis recorded the images they are known for with the employ of great camera operators. Camera operators (unionized) have created all the magic of the movies, minus editing, sound and score, of course and the film producer must start the process by hiring the director, who then hires the casting director and then the fun begins, but the images are recorded by the camera guy or gal. One of the first hires on Jaws was for the role of ‘Meadows’ and Carl Gottleib won the role as the local reporter who covers up the first shark attack in the book and who better than an actual writer with an Emmy to his name (kept in his fridge, so no one could miss it) working for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, going on to write for the Bob Newhart Show, All in the Family and The Odd Couple, in Jaws he practically wrote his character Meadows out of the script, giving him thoughts on which career choice to follow, yet after seeing The Jerk, (1979) with Steve Martin (which he co-wrote) I am eternally grateful he remained a screenwriter, even though I also liked him as a character actor, especially as Balls McGinty, Gottleib, unlike Benchley, was a born writer.
The DP on Jaws, was Bill Butler, a TV cameraman for WGN Chicago who shot the early Coppola film The Rain People (1969) starring James Caan and Shelley Duvall and would later to collaborate on The Godfather, Butler then met with Spielberg, going on to shoot the greatest monster movie-on-the-water Butler knew he needed a great camera operator for the harrowing job and that’s when he reached out and hired the great Michael Chapman, who would film almost all of the great images seared into our minds since, keeping us out of the water for decades. Chapman was the DP on The Last Detail (1973) with Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid, then he worked with Scorsese on some of his finest films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull; also Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Woody Allen’s The Front (1976) directed by Martin Ritt and Chapman even worked for the dearly-departed Carl Reiner on Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and The Man With Two Brains (1983). He shot everything from The Fugitive to Space Jam and also helmed 1983’s under-appreciated All the Right Moves (Tom Cruise’s first lead performance after his first film Taps) and also Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) with the great Dutch DP, Jan de Bont.
Bill Butler, Steven Spielberg’s DP of choice after Allen Daviau, would record some of the other great films of the 70s, a replacement to Haskell Wexler on two occasions: The Conversation (1974) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), also first camera operator on the film Deliverance (1972) with Vilmos Zsigmond and The Godfather with the great Gorton Willis, also doing Stripes (1980). Spielberg’s DP for The Color Purple, Allen Daviau was raised in LA and was one of the most highly-regarded DPs in Hollywood after Spielberg tapped him for the groundbreaking E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) he also recorded Raiders of the Lost Ark; Twilight Zone: The Movie and Empire of the Sun for Spielberg as well as Defending Your Life (1991) starring Meryl Streep for director Albert Brooks and also worked on John Schlesinger’s spy flick, The Falcon and the Snowman starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton (both also in Taps).
On April 16th, DP Allan Daviau died from the effects of the caronavirus at 77 years of age while a resident of the MPHA, a home where many Hollywood character actors end up and a place where character actor Allen Garfield also died of the effects of caronavirus, a wonderful actor who made his name in the 70s who reminded me of another great character actor by the name of John Cazale, who was married to Meryl Streep, you may remember him from A Dog Day Afternoon or The Deer Hunter by director Michael Cimino, John was from Revere, MA and died in 1978 and I take any opportunity to celebrate his life and work, as short as it was due to the killer disease known as cancer. In Jaws, Chief Brody is awakened to his moral failure by a hard slap across the face from Mrs. Kintner, who took out ads in the local papers to fund the shark hunt, the mother of the boy who becomes the second shark attack victim (along with ‘Pippit’ the dog), Lee Fierro, the actor who played Mrs. Kintner, died at 91 of complications from COVID-19, she was a drama teacher on Martha’s Vineyard when Steven Spielberg cast her for the role in 1974.
A recent National Geographic report has indicated that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease is “50-100 times more deadly” than the common flu and where only a few people in the movie Jaws die in the end, we are now approaching 150,000 American citizens dead as a result of this awful and weird virus, more than double what the Trump Administration predicted back in March when the terrible Dr. Birx (called ‘Deborah’ by our president*) estimated 65,000 total dead Americans by August. This pandemic has revealed the utter incompetence of this man and we are now living in a real-time horror movie where our president* is trying to get us all killed. This 4th of July, when we Americans are tempted to go back into the water and enjoy the holiday after finally stamping out the virus, just remember the immortal words of Amity’s Mayor Vaughn:
I’m pleased and happy to repeat the news that we have in fact caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers. But as you can see, it’s a beautiful day, the beaches are opened, and people are having a wonderful time.
As we all know, he was dead wrong.
July 4, 2020