Tuesday, 23 June 2015

One Mega-bite memory

Even after four decades, what mid-seventies blockbuster glides into everyone's jittery subconscious, when you find that your feet are no longer touching the ocean floor..?

It's no exaggeration that John Williams grinding two-note refrain will always be with us when we take to the open water... but the box office predator of yesteryear has surfaced in a big way recently.  Firstly, Jaws is forty this month, an astonishing thought in itself.  Bruce the shark (named by Steven Spielberg after his lawyer) emerges from the same murky era as Abba and the Wombles, although neither of them scare us when we're swimming.

Personally, i ran into the shark unexpectedly in my last two posts.  While researching Christopher Lee, I found that he insisted on giving Spielberg's breakout film Duel the first prize when the actor appeared on a prestigious film festival judging panel.  Duel's success led directly to Jaws and fame for Spielberg, and indirectly to Lee's appearance in the grateful director's comedy 1941 (say what you want, I think this film is funny).

And then a flippant remark from Spielberg caught my attention when I was gathering information for the Jurassic World infographic, where he claimed that Jurassic Park was his attempt to make "a land-based sequel to Jaws."

Many facts have emerged , or at least been retold in the media to mark Jaw's birthday, but I had no idea that the film was so nearly a disaster.  The shark (s) almost never worked and one actually sunk to the bottom on its first test.  Robert Shaw's fondness of the bottle was problematic and he fought constantly with Richard Dreyfuss.  The film ran vastly over-budget and trebled it's allocated shooting time.  The director was a very worried, and harried, man.

Spielberg first emerged from the depths of despair at a test screening where he saw the entire audience jump with fright twice, and vowed to insert a new scene which would make it happen a third time.  The resulting moment, shot in the film editor's swimming pool and featuring a prosthetic head drifting out of a submerged porthole, still makes us scatter our jaffas all these years later.

The anecdotes could and no doubt have filled several books. But to have been ten years old and sitting in a cinema when the film was first released was very special.  We didn't have summer blockbusters in those days, and the cable-operated giant octopus attacking James Mason's Captain Nemo might have been the scariest deterent the sea had to offer up to this point. Jaws was a film that you were 'dared to see', promising on-screen viscera never glimpsed by a PG Audience before.  They got that right.

I'd never seen a naked woman on the big screen before either.  I'm not the only one: actress/stuntwoman Susan Backlinie fondly recounts that still has fans tell her she was their 'first', too.

Technical difficulties forced Spielberg to realise that what you don't see...

... is so much scarier than what you do
Box Office fame and studio glory became inextricably connected to what we might call 'genre films' these days: science fiction, horror (because that's what Jaws essentially is) and fantasy somehow over-took mainstream cinema to become the huge money earners - where once they were regarded as a niche market.

A delighted Universal poured an unprecedented amount of money into a marketing campaign after seeing the finished film - another hallmark of the new  'summer blockbuster' phenomenon which began with this film.

The following year's box office behemoth: Dino DeLaurentis' Kong remake, was unfairly dubbed a failure because it failed to out-gross Jaws, despite tripling it's own budget in takings.
 "Nobody cry when Jaws die", went De Laurentis's often-spoofed proclamation, "but everybody cry when Kong die!"
That may be so, but it took the year after that for Jawas to finally beat Jaws.

Profit is all very well, but it's not lightsabre wounds I secretly fear when I'm swimming out beyond the fountain in Oriental Bay - but the swift unseen lunge from the depths, a speeding fin cutting the waves and those dread two notes inexorably churning through the decades.
Happy Birthday Jaws.

Bruce carries Steven to success.

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