October 4, 2010
A few years ago, Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth co-directed a movie called The Five Obstructions, in which the former challenged the latter to remake his 1967 short “The Perfect Human” over and over again, subject to various arbitrary restrictions. (Example: No shot can last longer than 12 frames, or half a second.) The movie’s thesis—argued more convincingly in some segments than others, but hard to deny overall—is that limited options actually enhance rather than stifle creativity, mostly by forcing the director (or writer, or architect, or head coach) to come up with unusual solutions to difficult problems. Allowed to do anything they like, most people, no matter how talented, tend to fall back on whatever’s worked in the past, frequently with tepid or tedious results. Yanking some expected support out from under them, however much panic that instills, may well be doing them a big favor.
Steven Spielberg arguably had only one obstruction to deal with when he was making Jaws, but it was a doozy: His movie was about a killer shark, but the mechanical sharks he had built almost never worked. So he had to figure out some novel, visually compelling way to suggest many of the attacks, as he lacked the means to properly depict them. By all accounts, this setback seemed like a death knell to everybody on the set, Spielberg in particular. And yet it’s entirely possible that Jaws wouldn’t have become the phenomenon it did had it featured a fully functional Bruce The Shark, as the “compromised” film we have boasts a nearly perfect, nerve-jangling ratio of the in-your-face to the not-quite-seen. Tops in the latter category, in my opinion, is Bruce’s first open buffet at the fully crowded Amity beach, as supremely anxious Amity police chief Roy Scheider sees his worst nightmare come true.
Watching this scene for the first time in a bunch of years, I was struck by how elegantly it’s constructed, especially compared to today’s summer event movies. (Granted, there was no such thing as a “summer event movie” in 1975. Jaws almost single-handedly created that genre.) Spielberg immediately sets up the victims (and fake victims)—first following the fat woman into the water, then reversing direction to track along with the boy in the red trunks as he clambers back onto the beach, asking permission to get his inflatable raft. Now we know what the kid’s mom looks like, her memorable floppy hat included. That accomplished, Spielberg has the boy take us to Scheider, who appears in profile in the foreground, looking screen left, just as the kid disappears at screen right. In addition to which, the kid’s path along the beach horizontally bisects Scheider and a family reclining a few feet away, setting up the moment a bit later when the dad hits up Scheider for some municipal favor, blocking Scheider’s view of the ocean in the process. Then the dog. Then the floppy hat—hi, Mom. Then the boy hitting the surf on his raft. Back to the dog. Fat lady floating. Raft. Dog. More dog. Scheider.
And now comes one of the most subtly stunning effects in Spielberg’s entire oeuvre—way more effective, I think, than the much-celebrated dolly zoom when the shark strikes. (I will get to that.) In three successive shots, we move closer and closer to Scheider’s alert but still quasi-relaxed form, but with both cuts carefully disguised by the blurred motion of a random passerby. This creates the uncanny sensation that Scheider has somehow willed himself into greater and greater prominence in the frame, just by the sheer force of his unblinking hyper-vigilance. To his credit, Scheider doesn’t attempt to sell this moment at all. He lets the camera do all the work; nonetheless, viewers immediately project the sequence’s formal quality—which amounts to a sort of hidden jitteriness—onto the character’s mindset. Did Spielberg cook this up because he was aware that there wasn’t gonna be a whole lot happening in the water a few minutes later? No way to know for sure, but good luck finding any similar moments in, oh, say, Jurassic Park.
After some additional expert tension-building, we get our first indirect evidence of Bruce’s presence, in the form of the dog’s owner fruitlessly calling its name, and a shot of the stick the dog had been fetching floating sadly on the waves. Though it screws with my argument for this piece, I gotta admit that Spielberg’s decision not to show the dog become shark chow probably didn’t have much to do with mechanical failure. More likely, somebody felt like that would just be too much, as American cinema has a long, kind of ridiculous history of shying away from any overt depiction of domestic animals being killed—even in movies, like this one, that are totally willing to show giant arterial geysers spurting from innocent children. (To be fair, I believe Spielberg does have a dinosaur eat a dog in The Lost World.)
In any case, if the missing mutt didn’t clue us in that lunch will now be served and lunch is us, John Williams’ legendary duh-duh duh-duh now arrives to make it official. We get a long underwater shot of yummy kicking limbs, presumably from Bruce’s point of view, culminating in a view of the little boy’s raft overhead. When the attack finally commences, however, time it. It lasts 10 seconds. That’s it. You barely see the shark at all—even after watching the first shot of the kid being grabbed a dozen times, I’m still not sure whether I’m seeing fins or just corners of the raft flailing about. (Might be clearer on the big screen; I’m watching on an iMac.) There’s one horrible bloody instant, and then he’s just gone. Which is probably quite close to how such an attack would appear to observers in real life. Instantaneous absence. We’re left with Mom in her floppy hat, gradually realizing by process of elimination—well, and the raft with a hole chewed through the center—that she’s the big loser in today’s Shark Lotto.
As for the dolly zoom into Scheider at the moment of the attack, I don’t mean to hate. It just feels a bit gimmicky compared to the earlier invisible-zoom approach, which doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. On the other hand, one could argue that subtlety isn’t necessarily called for when you’ve just seen one of the citizens you’ve been hired to protect devoured whole. And again, I’m impressed by how Scheider underplays the moment. Most actors would feel compelled to signal their mounting horror, but he seems to understand that if the background is radically changing size while you remain constant (for those who don’t know, this is achieved by simultaneously zooming in and dollying back, or vice versa), that’s gonna be plenty charged enough—no need to help out via widening eyes or slackening jaw. All Scheider does (I think) is lean slightly forward right at the end, which more than suffices. We can manage the rest.
That said, I’m surprised nobody has yet created a YouTube parody in which the dolly zoom is portrayed as Scheider’s reaction to the truly frightening man-boobs on the elderly dude in the bathing cap. Giant and droopy is one (revolting) thing; tiny and round is just creepy as hell.