September 22, 2010

#56: Jaws

"Baaaaa bump."

Some might scoff to see Steven Spielberg's 1975 shark-infested horror-thriller on this list, but Jaws is a well-crafted chase film as well as a major cinematic milestone. It marked the emergence of one of the most formidable and successful directors in movie history and changed the way we go to the movies. Plus: it has the most recognizable film score of all time. Not bad for a movie that filmed 100 days over its original schedule and cost twice as much as it was supposed to from a director no one (at the time) had ever heard of.

Company: Kecia, scream queen; RPK, afraid of sharks

Cuisine: homemade pizza and Smirnoff Raspberry with D-Co. A delicious, summery feast!

The film opens underwater, lurking through weeds as though hunting its audience prey. Then, a glimpse of teenagers on a beach on a murky night. No good can come of a group of teenagers on a beach at night, right? Soon, two PYTs galavant to the water's edge, and while the guy drunkenly fumbles with his clothing, the girl is ravaged by an unseen underwater force and finally pulled beneath the water. The scene is effectively terrifying because we just can't see how it's being done. No CGI either, just a couple guys yanking her back and forth with ropes. Oh, the days...

After this first attack, we are spooked by what lies beneath, and every time someone approaches water, we tense up. Congrats, Spielberg. The incident is hushed up by the town of Amity, which relies on beach tourism to survive, and with a sunny 4th of July weekend approaching, no one is especially keen on shutting down the beaches because of one unconfirmed and isolated mauling. This troubles the new chief of police (Roy Scheider), who can't shake this crazy feeling that the mauling wasn't so isolated. His paranoia so shapes the first act of the film that it becomes its own character, and John Williams wisely leaves much of this section tacet, as though daring you to break the silence.

Soon enough, a young shark expert (a very young Richard Dreyfuss, only a year or two after American Graffiti!) inspects the girl's remains and concludes that this isn't just a shark, it's a humongous shark. And he seems relatively certain that the shark will strike again, if given the chance.

And suddenly we're nearly an hour into the film, and we haven't been breathing. Tension is running high, and Spielberg knows to keep it running high, he can't shoot his wad. At 28, he's already a master of suspense. This largely unscored sequence is one of the most effective in the film, in which wary beach-goers finally venture out into the water.

... and more fishy horror is unleashed, bit by bit by bit. I love this shot of the girl seeing us -- supposedly over half of this film is shot at sea level, which puts the audience so close to the shark that we think maybe he's right behind us. (Turns out this was just a copycat. Blurg!) But the panic is real, and soon, on a mission from God, the shark scientist and the police officer head out with a wacko expedition leader (played with ... um, drunken aplomb, by Robert Shaw) to take down the menace for the latter half of the film.

Here, fishy fishy fish...

It's much to the credit of the three actors left to battle with the giant sea-menace that the second act of the film feels as fresh and exciting as the first half. The pace is different: not slower, just different ... more delicate with just a couple men on a boat enticing the monster. Soon, they're gonna need a bigger boat. And of course, the film has to end happily to please audiences and to get them to leave the theater wanting to see it all over again.

God, look at those teeth.

Jaws was one of the first "high concept films," in which everything an audience needs to know is in the title. This is "the shark movie." You don't really need to know anything else, and once you've seen it, that's what you remember. It's a brilliantly simple way of marketing. Other prime examples of this include Alien (pitched as "Jaws in space"), Jurassic Park and Speed, all owing their place in thriller cinema to the shark movie. Jaws was also one of the first films to use a wide-release strategy to entice audiences, and as a result, it broke box office records all over the place (only to be beat two years later by Star Wars) and recategorized the summer months as prime moviegoing season. No longer were films unceremoniously dumped into theaters during the days when we should all be outside -- now the must-see films are strategically placed to lure us indoors on a sunny day -- and it's all thanks to the shark movie. Not bad.

A lot of these tidbits were things I didn't know about Jaws, but knowing them now, it's fascinating to go back and study the film as a turning point in the movie-theater experience, and what it means (and takes) to get butts in the seats. The next time you watch this (because it's so rewatchable), keep all this in mind.

Next up: Cary Grant is mistakenly mistaken in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

#57: Rocky

"Gonna fly nooooow..."

#57 is Rocky, which with its rags-to-riches story and production tale managed to beat out other AFI honorees Network, All the President's Men and Taxi Driver for the top Oscar prize (the only Best Picture nominee that didn't make this list is Bound for Glory, which I probably have to see now just on principle). The film had a budget of less than a million dollars, and took a huge risk by casting a then-unknown actor named Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, but it went on to make $225 million and won three Oscars (eerily similar to the next movie on the list, Jaws). We Americans sure do love our Cinderella stories.

Company: all alone ... like Rocky ... in life ... until Adrian

Cuisine: Homemade spinach, tomato and leek soup with goat cheese and garlic bread ... mmm ... fall.

The film opens on the word ROCKY, which scrolls by the screen, too large to fit all at once: an omen of what's to come. Rocky Balboa (acting AND screenwriting Oscar nominee Sylvester Stallone -- honors that only he, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles have received in the same year) is a sometime boxer who is a down-and-out debt collector on the side, a guy with huge potential who never got his big chance... that is, until reigning world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers! From "Arrested Development!") needs a last-minute replacement sparring partner for an upcoming match. He chooses the Italian Stallion, mostly on the basis that "Apollo Creed vs. the Italian Stallion" sounds like "a bad monster movie." This worldwide celebrity seems like a shoe-in to win against a single guy who talks to his pets in his way-too-small apartment.

In fact, everything in Rocky's life seems too small for him, including the girl he develops a crush on, Adrian (the wonderful Oscar nominee Talia Shire), who he woos by taking her to a skating rink which has closed down for the night. According to history, the production team didn't have the money to hire extras to film a scene in the rink, so they did it after the place closed. Genius. Shoestring. And it makes this scene so much more intimate, and allows Rocky's mumbly jumbles to take focus. More often than you'd hope, you can barely understand Stallone, but I think it's key to the character that he's a man who is so rarely listened to that he doesn't much bother to enunciate anymore.

Details of this movie are more dear to me after having slept on it, such as Adrian's sheepish, incredulous admission in Rocky's apartment ("I don't think I belong here") or the way their first kiss causes both of them to crumble slowly to the ground. So much more gentle and intimate than I imagined the movie would be.

This is America, baby, and in America, as some character says, "everyone's got a chance to win." Rocky's got his chance now, and his old trainer Mickey (Oscar nominee Burgess Meredith), days after kicking him out of the gym and lecturing him on squandered talent, crawls back asking to manage him for the big fight against Creed. At first Rocky's pride gets the best of him and he sends Mickey away:

Rocky: I didn't have no favors from you! Don't slum around me. Talkin' about your prime. What about my prime, Mick? At least you had a prime! I didn't have no prime. I didn't have nothin'!

But he quickly reconsiders before Mickey gets too far, and he gets to training. Thank God: elsewise the movie would be over, and also lame.

What's magnificent about this sequence is that it charts so specifically (to the tune of "Gonna Fly Now") Rocky's persistent psyche but out-of-shape physique. Watch the scene and notice that by the end of it, we finally see Rocky as too small instead of too big. The city looms over him and he looks weak. But he doesn't give up (like America!) and he makes it to the end scene, somewhat self-deprecating but still hopeful (like America!)

And of course, the girl he's with goes through a parallel transformation, from put-upon, bespectacled sister whose Thanksgiving turkey gets thrown outside into the snow by her bully brother (Oscar nominee Burt Young) to empowered woman, standing on her own without the help of the much stronger Rocky:

Paulie: You're such a loser! I don't get married because of you! You can't live by yourself! I put you two together! And you - don't you forget it! You owe me! You owe me!
Adrian: What do I owe you!?
Paulie: (crying) You're supposed to be good to me.
Adrian: WHAT DO I OWE YOU, PAULIE? WHAT DO I OWE YOU? I treat you good! I cook for you! I cleaned for you! I pick up your dirty clothes! I take care of ya, Paulie! I don't owe you nothin'! And you made me feel like a loser! I'M NOT A LOSER!

Suddenly, she's not a loser because she says she's not. That's all it took. And then ...

... the fight, which ... well, it's a supah-famous scene so I won't spoil it but the ending is satisfying and heroic and heartbreaking and cheer-worthy.

It's interesting to me that boxing usually makes a pretty good sports movie, but other sports have a little harder time. I would suggest that maybe it's because you don't really need to have a working knowledge of boxing to understand the rules. It's fist-to-fist combat. I know it's more complicated than that, but at its basic, primal core, it's a fight, and humans pretty much understand that the guy left standing is the winner. And this ending delivers the best of both possible outcomes. Fascinating. How did I leave liking a sports movie this much? It's not my favorite film of all time but it's very solid. Well done, y'all.

Next up: baaaaaaa-bum, baaa-bum, baaa-bum, baaa-bum ... Steven Spielberg changes how everyone on the planet feels about sharks with Jaws.