Written by: James Gelet
Directed by: Erik Hollander
Starring: The cast and crew of Jaws
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The Impact and Legacy of Jaws
Jaws is arguably the great American movie. With each revisit, it becomes more strikingly clear that Spielberg crafted a film thatís a slice of Americana magnified into a mythic New England fish tale about a melting pot of heroes (the everyman police chief, the scientist, the rapscallion fisherman) who pull themselves up by their bootstraps to slay a beast. It sounds like the stuff of legend, but itís filtered through a thoroughly American lens and is even set around the 4th of July. That it revolutionized American cinema seems appropriate--the movies were never quite the same after Jaws roared through the summer of Ď75, and its influence (for better or worse) is still felt today.
Of course, Jaws roared far beyond its own shores and is still quite a phenomenon because itís resonated with so many folks around the world on a personal level. For many people (including myself), itís a landmark film that helped to start a lifelong love of cinema itself. I probably wouldnít be here right now if not for Jaws. The film has inspired generations of filmmakers and fans alike, and itís probably more impossible to measure just how impacting Jaws has been for millions of individuals. The guys behind The Shark is Still Working, a documentary that ended up being a multi-year labor of love, articulate both this and the filmís larger cultural impact rather well in their doting look back at this cultural icon thatís become an institution, yet still remains one powerful film underneath it all.
The long-delayed documentary takes its title from the sharkís infamous reluctance to work, and thatís also its starting point, as it delves into the filmís notoriously difficult production. The cast and crew includes all of the usual suspects--Roy Scheider (who also narrates), Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Steven Spielberg, Joe Alves, Carl Gottlieb, Richard Zancuk, and David Brown, all of whom reflect on that fateful 159 day shoot. A lot of familiar anecdotes are recounted, many of which are old hat for Jaws fans. The actual shoot itself is recounted in depth and is accompanied by archive footage that takes viewers back to Marthaís Vineyard in 1974; while this will be a bit of a retread for most, itís always fun to go back and see a fresh-faced Spielberg out there on shooting on the ocean, an approach that was considered a huge folly at the time. As I watched this, it occurred to me that a troubled production like Jaws would be written off in this era of over-saturation, where movie shoots are hovered over by both the media and fans.
This familiar stuff is just the launching point for The Shark is Still Working, though, as it moves beyond this to examine the scope and scale of Jawsís impact. It of course revolutionized the way films are marketed and released, and no matter how many times I hear this, itís amazing to consider just how much of a presence Jaws was--not just for a week, a month, a summer--but for years. There have been few films in my lifetime that have even had a modicum of the presence this film had, and going back to see that feels like traveling back to some ancient time when movies were allowed to be more than the next digestible piece of pop culture for a couple of weeks. Titanic is just about the only thing that can compare to this phenomenon that I can recall, at least in terms of staying power. The archive footage of throngs of people huddling in line for weeks on end is astounding, and itís interesting to note the quaintness of the filmís release pattern. With a 400 screen release, it was the biggest of all-time (in comparison, most big films get four times as many screens now), and that was after Universal cut it down so people would have to seek it out.
Along with its focus on the filmís release, The Shark is Still Working also delves into all corners of the marketing, such as the infamous trailers and TV promos (voiced by Percy Rodrigues, who makes an appearance here), which have their own legacy. Even the poster has an interesting anecdote behind it that I donít think Iíd heard before. From there, the documentary touches on how the phenomenon was kept alive through merchandising--a lot of folks attribute massive merchandising to George Lucas and Star Wars, but Jaws licensed itself out to tons of items back in its heyday, and itís obviously continued to the present day, especially if some of the fan collections on display here are any indication. The Shark is Still Working paints a comprehensive picture of just how big a game-changer Jaws was, from the marketing to the behind-the-scenes stuff that was rare for the time. This documentary is so thorough that it even covers another documentary, the landmark one by Laurent Bouzereau thatís been around since the Laserdisc days (Bouzereau makes an appearance, of course--few stones were left unturned).
The Shark is Still Working canít help but pilfer from that documentary and other sources (like Carl Gottliebís Jaws Log) when it comes to some of the other anecdotes and reminiscences about the actors on set. Famous stuff like the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech and its conception are recounted along with Robert Shawís on-set shenanigans in general. Whatís really cool is how the documentary really explores Marthaís Vineyard and Spielbergís use of those locals, many of whom get a lot of screen-time here. A revisit to the famous setting also reveals that not much has changed, and itís great to see that Marthaís Vineyard has basically adopted Jaws (a festival is held there each year, and props from the film are scattered about the island). Other neat asides also add some flavor to familiar stories--just about everyone knows that Spielberg shot the famous Ben Gardner jolt in Verna Fieldsís swimming pool, but this documentary takes you right to that house, where Fieldsís old rusted Moviola that was used to edit the film still rests.
Little touches like that give the documentary a real homespun quality, and the focus on the minutiae is eventually what wins one over. For all its recounting of the worldwide phenomenon that Jaws was, The Shark is Still Working gets that this movie has resounded with individuals for over 30 years. Be it average Joes like myself or filmmakers who were inspired to go into filmmaking because of it, Jaws has had an unbelievable impact, and we can perhaps thank it for the careers of Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer, Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, and M. Night Shaymalan (this roll-call of ďitĒ directors might date it more than anything else). The testimonies provided by these guys and others really drive home the magic and wonder that Jaws has instilled--and will continue to instill--over the years. The poignancy of The Shark is Still Working often did something I thought to be impossible: it reminded me of just how much I love Jaws, and thatís no small feat considering this film has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It was certainly among my first cinematic loves--in fact, everything else since just might be my cinematic mistress.
As such, it suffices to say Iíve waited to see this documentary for quite a while--it was announced several years ago and started screening festivals way back in 2007. The film has finally seen release as part of Universalís recent Blu-ray, where itís been dumped as a special feature. Unfortunately, it hasnít been given the best treatment--its transfer is non-anamorphic, and itís been chopped down from to 100 minutes from its original 180 minute runtime. Any minor quibbles I have with the documentary could be traced back to this; in particular, I wish it discussed the sequels more in depth (they get a token mention). While itís difficult to complain about this since itís an extra, I hope Universal releases it in full someday because the team behind it poured a whole lot of devotion into it, and it shows even in the truncated form. When combined with Bouzereauís documentary (also included on the disc), it arguably provides the most comprehensive look at a filmís production and legacy. You have a complete portrait of a film that redefined American cinema (and beyond) while simultaneously striking a chord with millions of people--between the two, you have the head, the tail, the whole damn thing. Buy it!
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