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I once read an interview with David Fincher where he said "I like movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is that I haven’t been able to swim in the ocean since". He is far from alone. Beach attendance plummeted across the globe in 1975, the year of the movie’s release, and four decades later one could argue that it has never fully recovered. Some people even admitted to being anxious about entering swimming pools. Few films can claim such power.

Personally, I was never traumatized by Jaws. I just adored it. Sure, I jumped and gasped as much as the next person the first time I saw it, but the thought of entering the ocean didn’t repel me, quite the contrary.

I developed a mild obsession with sharks and marine life which has continued to this day. I saw it at quite a young age, twelve or thirteen maybe, and in the years to come, I became a shark geek. I bought two books about sharks and borrowed others from the library, including one by Ron and Valerie Taylor, the second unit specialists who filmed real great whites for the film. I got a fish tank and naturally had one specimen called Jaws. I visited every aquarium in every city I came across, especially if they had sharks (I still do). I even considered studying to become a marine biologist. Later on, I decided that I wanted to be a writer and a filmmaker more than I wanted to study fish, but my fascination with the great predators of the sea is still with me. When I visited South Africa some years back, my first order of business was to go on a shark cruise and pit myself Hooper-style in a cage. I go in the cage. Cage goes in the water. Shark’s in the water. I got to be inside when an eleven-foot great white smashed into the bars right in front of my face. It was one of the greatest thrills of my life.

It should be clear by now that I am not particularly afraid of sharks. I would rather avoid being eaten alive of course, just as I would like to never get hit by a bus or be trapped in a burning building. But the fear is a rational one, not phobic, unlike that of spiders, which is a different story. So why am I so in love with a movie which at first glance seems to have no other purpose but to make me crap my pants at the sight of a giant shark? The answer is that the movie, in addition to its shock value, is a near flawless piece of entertainment cinema. Jaws is simply screaming good fun.

If someone asks me what is so great about Jaws, I never know quite where to begin, but you can be sure I will be talking for some time. Few movies are easier to gush about. For one thing, it is far more cinematically sophisticated than one would expect from a blockbuster horror movie. Watching it with the sound off is a masterclass in visual storytelling, with director Steven Spielberg guiding us through the story in a series of meticulously staged setups that are as accomplished as anything done by Scorsese or Kubrick, only you never noticed because they were designed not to draw attention to themselves. Well, you did notice once, when Spielberg used a travelling zoom to show Chief Brody’s horror upon witnessing a shark attack. It was so effective, it instantly became a cliché.

The storytelling is perfectly paced, never boring, frequently funny and gleefully exciting, thanks in large part to the script by Carl Gottlieb and Verna Field’s impeccable editing. The story, based on Peter Benchley’s novel, is deceptively simple: An idyllic ocean town is under siege by a monster shark and the sheriff has to deal with the problem. However, taking inspiration from Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in the first half and Melville’s Moby Dick in the second, the filmmakers craft something more complex. Brody doesn’t just get to fight the monster, first he has to deal with an obstructionist local administration in denial of the problem, and later he has a battle of wills against an unhinged Captain Ahab - figure who is determined to catch the shark himself and will sabotage any attempts to bring in reinforcements. Throughout the film, Brody’s instincts are always right, but he is too unconfident and submissive to assert his will. His journey goes from being an aquaphobic pushover to a dragon-slaying hero. It is a story about having the courage of one’s convictions in the face of adversity.

Of course, critics and academics will project all kinds of hidden meanings onto a story with this level of resonance, and the shark in Jaws has been interpreted as a metaphor for Ronald Reagan, sexual predators and communist invasion among other things. I choose not to overthink it too much. Jaws does not need such learned dissection to explain its greatness. It stands above the petty squabblings of mortal men.

There are too many wonderful moments to list. One that rarely gets mentioned is the tender scene between Brody and his son in the kitchen, when the boy mimics his father’s gestures to get his attention. It is both heartwarming and a little sad, and only a few words are uttered. That’s intimate cinema at it’s best, in a film known for scenes of people getting ripped to shreds by a monster predator. A moment that does get mentioned, is the one where Hooper discovers the floating head in Ben Gardner’s boat. This may very well be the greatest jump scare in film history. All who claim they didn’t jolt the first time they saw it, are lying through their teeth. And, of course, there’s the Indianapolis speech by Robert Shaw.

Characters explaining their troubled past and thus their motivation in monologue have, like the travelling zoom shot, since become a cliché, but don’t hold that against the film. In Jaws it works sensationally, creating a quiet, haunting moment before the storm. Credit for the speech is still being debated, with Spielberg saying John Milius wrote it and Gottlieb attributing most of it to Robert Shaw himself. We may never know for sure, and I love the mystery of it.

Then there’s the casting. Brody is perfect as the tormented and insecure police chief protagonist, Hooper could easily have become an expository geek stereotype but Richard Dreyfuss makes him rounded, funny and believable, and Robert Shaw as Quint is so good it hurts. Even smaller parts, like mayor Vaughn played my Murray Hamilton, are so spot-on it all seems predestined.

And the music. Oh, lord, the music. Can you even imagine a more perfect score?

The story of the troubled production only adds to the allure. Jaws was one of those nightmare shoots that became part of Hollywood legend, wonderfully chronicled in Carl Gottlieb’s book The Jaws Log. The constantly malfunctioning mechanical sharks were just one of a number of problems. The locals in Martha’s Vineyard, where the movie was shot, could be uncooperative to say the least, bogging the production down in bureaucratic disputes while vandals plundered the crew’s equipment and poured water into the gas tanks of the boats. The weather was constantly changing and sailboats kept appearing on the horizon, ruining shots and continuity. Actors and crew were slowly losing their marbles as the punishing conditions and the endless waiting got to them. At one point, the Orca sank, taking two cameras loaded with shot footage down with it. The list goes on. When they finally finished, they were $ 2,5 million over budget and the shooting time had nearly tripled. Spielberg allegedly had nightmares about being at sea for three months after he wrapped.

You would think that setbacks of that magnitude would tarnish the final product, but miraculously, it was better for it in the end. Limiting the appearances of the shark made the film more suspenseful, and the actors’ real life frustrations made their characters’ exasperating struggle against the predator more believable. The result is true movie magic. The power of Jaws is such that it can make you gasp at the sight of a floating plastic barrel and believe that a neoprene fish with inaccurate mouth mobility is a terrifying, maneating beast. I will contend that if you dislike this film, then you either haven’t seen it in long time or there is probably something wrong with you. In fact, if you are ever in the position of having to talk someone down from a ledge, you could do worse than remind them that if they jump, they will have seen Jaws for the last time.

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