Reactor

The Effects of Jaws, a Classic Turns 37

by Juan Vidal on June 19, 2012

A view of Damien Hirst's “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991) at the Metropolitan Museum in 2007 (via hragv.com)

Making its way into our collective consciousness in 1975, Jaws remains the ultimate horror flick. There are many sides to its genius and, at 27-years-old, director Steven Spielberg was at the helm. While the special effects of that time were certainly limited, Spielberg managed to keep an overwhelming tension running throughout the films 124 minutes.

Based on the novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws, as we know, is the story of a 25-foot fish terrorizing the small and otherwise quiet beach town of Amity Island. It all starts after a woman (while skinny dipping in the Atlantic, of course) is killed by the great white shark. The tragedy sets police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) ablaze and he commits himself wholly to catching and killing the man-eater. Jaws keeps at it. Naturally, the film draws us in and we place ourselves in its horrifying reality. We imagine ourselves confined to one of those inflatable banana boats, our stupid little legs dangling in the water as the monster approaches the surface for a mid morning snack. It’s chilling stuff and we’d rather not think about it.

The first film to move passed the $100-million box-office mark, Jaws‘s influence on popular culture is undeniable. From spawning scores of copycats (remember Great White?), to references in music, television, and art, the film is virtually timeless. Damien Hirst’s iconic “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” (1991), in fact, would have doubtfully been created had Jaws never been made. Hirst, speaking about his piece, is often quoted as saying, “I can’t deny it’s influenced by Jaws.” Given the polarizing views Hirsts’ works often provoke, the question (in this case) is not whether or not his shark-in-a-tank is actually exceptional art. The fact that it’s caused such widespread attention over the last twenty years makes it a noteworthy work by default.

We all know sharks are scary. This is no mystery or surprise. The creature, which has long been the topic of various studies and experiments, is still a source of great mystery. Why in the world does a shark need to grow the size of a school bus? Who is it trying to impress with that massiveness? Marine scientists have been analyzing their genomic DNA for years. And those teeth? They taught us in elementary school that a shark might use over 20,000 teeth in its lifetime. If one falls out, another replaces it. Easy. Say what you may about the special effects in Jaws, those teeth look real and they will eat your face off.

Jaws is regarded not only for the hysteria it caused upon its release, but also for its unique contribution to the world of film. After the success of Jaws, filmmakers and studios began to realize the impact their pictures could have on the public at large. It became the norm for summer releases to be preceded by astronomical marketing campaigns. Big-budget blockbusters were now events you anticipated on a scale higher than ever before. Truth be told, Jaws changed things.

One of the most recognizable elements of the film, no doubt, is the music. John Williams won an Academy Award for composing the score, its main theme becoming the unofficial soundtrack for impending doom. Dun dun……dun dun……dun dun. When you hear the dun duns increasing in speed, you know it’s about to get real ignorant for someone. A haunting piece of cinematic expression, it was the source of many a nightmare for 1980s babies the world over. The beach would never be the same. And while the Jaws generation can still enjoy a good swim from time to time, there are still those lingering thoughts deep in the corridors of our minds. What if I were to get eaten, right here, right now? What is that rubbing against my foot?

Enjoy your summer.

Jaws celebrates 37 years tomorrow, June 20, 2012.

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