How Spielberg's seafaring adventure changed the industry
In Showtime’s new comedy discussion show “The Green Room With Paul Provenza,” it’s suggested that Richard Pryor “ruined three or four generations of black comics.”A similar argument exists regarding “Jaws,” which established — for better and worse — the modern template for summer blockbusters. Steven Spielberg’s seafaring adventure will commemorate the 35th anniversary of its maiden theatrical voyage on June 20. “Star Wars” erupted two years later, and the movie-going world has never been the same. Looking back at the “Jaws” phenomenon — thoroughly dissected in an entertaining Bio channel documentary bowing June 16 — illustrates not only the dramatic impact of the original film, but its ripple effects from both a creative and commercial perspective. Part of that has to do with a generation of directors who came into their full creative flower in the last decade or two, many of whom were adolescents when “Jaws” made its debut. Kevin Smith named characters after those in “Jaws.” John Singleton wrote nostalgically for the DGA Quarterly about seeing it in a drive-in theater as a youth. Steven Soderbergh told the New York Times his first encounter with “Jaws” at age 12 represented a “turning point” for him: “It was the first time I started thinking: ‘Somebody made this! This didn’t just appear spontaneously.’ ” Soderbergh added that he became “obsessed” with the movie, carrying around a tattered book on its making. Bryan Singer borrowed a line from the movie in naming his company Bad Hat Harry Prods. “It fundamentally altered the way a generation looked at bodies of water,” the “X-Men” director told me, adding that its enduring influence is “a complete testament to the film. … That’s a very rare thing when you can grab hold of an audience like that, and own them.” Landing roughly in the same demographic, I can personally attest to how powerful that first shark sighting was. Like Soderbergh, I was 12, and there was considerable debate in an otherwise permissive household whether I should see “Jaws” at all. My brother, 10 years older, took it upon himself to check out the movie and assured everyone the experience wouldn’t scar me for life. (It didn’t, but “Jaws” was the first movie that inspired me to read the book after seeing it, and like many others, my relationship with the ocean changed forever.) “Jaws” terrified all kinds of moviegoers, but its effect was doubtless amplified among those who saw it at such an impressionable age. In similar fashion, when a beaming Tom Hanks presented an honorary Oscar to special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, he praised “Jason and the Argonauts” as “the greatest film ever made.” And if you were a kid Hanks’ age when that epic was released in ’63, it surely was. “Jaws’ ” legacy to filmmaking, however, is more complex. In the documentary, several descriptions liken “Jaws” to a roller-coaster. Spielberg relates an anecdote about a man racing past him at an early screening and vomiting in the lobby. Grainy video within theaters shows audiences collectively screaming at key moments. The result, though, as filtered down for a generation and a half, has been a tide of movies preoccupied with replicating such visceral thrills, too often at the expense of character and plot — a sacrifice, notably, that “Jaws” itself didn’t make, with its great trio of actors aboard that boat. Indeed, as Singer notes, his favorite aspect of the movie hinged on the interaction among those characters — a mismatched group joined in a grand adventure whose appeal he likens, in some respects, to “Star Trek’s” Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Director Eli Roth has said, “Anyone who wants to make big Hollywood blockbuster movies was certainly inspired by ‘Jaws.’” Viewed in that context, it’s not just purists and old fogies (though perhaps that helps) who wince when extrapolating about the future of summer entertainment — and what kids weaned on today’s tentpoles will be downloading into their personal bio-chips come 2045. “Jaws” might have set the wave in motion, in other words, but moviegoers are still riding that roller-coaster. And at this point — especially around the summer solstice — there’s no getting off of it.
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