Why We Still Watch 'Jaws'

Roy Scheider in "Jaws." (YouTube)
Roy Scheider in "Jaws." (YouTube)

Forget “The Meg.” Forget Shark Week and “Sharknado” parts one through six. There's still one reigning shark story that keeps people out of the water. It's local, and it's not part of this week's headlines from the Cape. More to the point, we have “Jaws.”

Shot on Martha’s Vineyard, the classic 1975 thriller "Jaws" still makes film professor Sarah Keller jump. “I’ve seen it… I won’t say 100 times, but it still works on me every time,” she confesses, explaining, “It has that undercurrent of dread and natural forces you cannot control and do not understand.”

It holds enough interest that after all these years, screenings pop up all summer long. The Coolidge Corner Theatre's yearly showing, which started in 2008, nearly always sells out. (Keller, who frequently shows “Jaws” clips to her University of Massachusetts Boston students, will be giving a lecture as part of the 35mm screening at the Coolidge on Mon. Sept. 3.)

The staying power of "Jaws" is in part due to its "high concept" — a premise that grabs you in a sentence or two — says Keller. “There’s a shark, it terrorizes a village that depends on the beach for its livelihood,” she sums. The characters do not grow, it’s not about a larger theme like environmental destruction or something you might expect from an action film today. And yet she qualifies, “the concept is simple but there’s nothing simple in way that concept is explored. It is meticulous, well-planned filmmaking.” Keller says she could analyze nearly any scene for its expert, multi-layered craft.

The film’s opening sequence, for example, is a study in sound. It cuts from underwater ambient to the tension-mounting (and now iconic) score, to an easygoing beach party where one couple locks eyes and follows each other into the surf. Only Chrissy dives in first, queuing the score again — or Jaws. Things don’t end well for her but the scene’s sound ends brilliantly, with lapping waves and a clanging buoy that for Keller “punctuates that idyllic ocean moment with the layers of violence hidden underneath the surface.”

The opener is just one example of the kind of storytelling that put little-known director Steven Spielberg on the map. Just his second feature, “Jaws” earned critical praise (including Academy Awards for sound, editing, and score) and broke box office records. Keller says that “Jaws” is also considered the first blockbuster for saturating the market with TV ads and posters, opening on nearly 500 screens at once, and raking in an astonishing $7 million on opening weekend. After that, “’Star Wars’ used the same strategy,” she says, and that’s usually recognized as the wide release tactic we have today.

But does “Jaws” explain what seems to now be an insatiable desire for shark stories?

Shark expert Greg Skomal says not exactly. An ardent fan of “Jaws,” Skomal saw it when he was just 14 and says Richard Dreyfuss’ character, the marine scientist, inspired him to become one too. Skomal leads white shark research for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and is frequently interviewed by media about shark incidents. You may have seen or heard him talking about his own viral shark jump video earlier this summer or the Cape’s recent human shark attack.

As for sharks on TV or in movies, Skomal says, “Hollywood’s been doing this a long time. Even before ‘Jaws’ there were a number of shows about sharks. In many cases they demonize the animals because those concepts sell. Hollywood knows how to make money and sharks helps them do it.”

In the great sea of shark bait on YouTube and elsewhere, Skomal recommends “How Jaws Changed The World” which was part of Discovery Channel’s 2012 Shark Week. He appears in it along with “Jaws’” novelist Peter Benchley’s wife Wendy and one shark hunter who loves to kill the animals so much, he says he’d like to kill the last one. The show suggests that “Jaws” triggered a vengeful fury that led to mass shark hunting, which Wendy Benchley laments led to a diminished population.

Skomal acknowledges that “Jaws” probably helped popularize recreational shark fishing in the 1980s but he attributes regional drops to an explosion in commercial fisheries that target sharks for fins and as protein. These declines, he says, are driven by market forces not by revenge. “I don’t personally see any empirical evidence that ‘Jaws’ caused a collapse,” says Skomal.

But what about the primal fear that “Jaws” ignites, perhaps better than any other shark story?

“The fear of sharks has always been there,” reasons Skomal. He disagrees that a swirl of “Sharknados” are a sign that we’re in a heightened state of fear of sharks, saying, “If anything, we’re in a heightened state of awareness.” He points to the development of tracking technology as just one way in which “we’ve come a long way since ‘Jaws.’”

Skomal confirms that when “Jaws” came out, scientific data on shark anatomy, reproductive systems, and how they travel in time and space, for example, was limited. And though the movie inspired his career choice he says it was the government, not “Jaws[,]” that prompted research, out of concern for airmen and seamen ending up in the water.

Even with the progress, no amount of data will likely quell Keller’s fear of diving in. “I just don’t even go. I don’t want to get into the ocean specifically for this film,” says Keller. For her, and countless others, the “enormous psychic effect” of “Jaws” has never lost its power. Just think of the music. It alone can grip your insides with dread. My stomach hurts just thinking about it.

Jaws” is screening on Monday, Sept. 3 as part of the Coolidge Corner Theatre's education seminars.

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Erin Trahan Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.



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