Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Norman Wilner on Jaws

Jaws screens at the Toronto Underground Cinema on Thursday, June 9th at 7:00pm and Sunday, June 12th at 9:30pm.

Norman Wilner is a local film critic that has been involved in the film scene for years. Norman has previously worked for The Star and Metro and currently can be found writing for Now, MSN Canada, and on his own website. He has a love for film that could most easily be described as boundless even when it comes to talking about a movie that he doesn't really care for all that much. People who have attended our Defending the Indefensible screening of Freddy Got Fingered can attest to that, and audiences will get a chance to see Norman square off against The Grid and Cinemascope writer Adam Nayman on Friday, June 24th for The Butterfly Effect. Norman has also crafted credible defences for Alien Resurrection, MacGruber, and Observe and Report.

Unlike the films he has merely defended or attacked at the Underground, Jaws holds a special place in his heart as one of his all time favourite films. This past fall when Jaws was named as part of the TIFF Essential 100, Norman was honoured to present the film as it was meant to be seen on the big screen.

Jaws comes to the Underground this weekend not only as part of a weekend with other animal attack films (Grizzly screens as part of the Exploitation Alley series Thursday at 9:30 and the Mexican Jaws rip-off Tintorera screens Sunday at 7), but also as a kick off to the summer movie season as Jaws is often credited with being the first ever summer blockbuster. The Underground recently talked with Norman about his own personal memories of Jaws and why the film still captivates audiences to this day.

Toronto Underground Cinema: Do you remember the first time you saw Jaws and what it was like?

Norman Wilner: I do, in fact, my dad taped the movie. I think it was back from the ABC airing because he had cut out all the commercials back in the day when you had to actually sit there with the remote control and press pause. This was on Beta, so this was, like, '79 or '80. I was 12 and I didn't actually get to see it in a theatre until I was in my 20s in around '95.

I actually saw it in the worst way imaginable because my parents had decided that the first hour or so of the film would be too intense. I don't think I was that impressionable, but maybe I was. For the first 15 or 20 times I saw it, I was only seeing a one hour and ten minute version of it. I remember you had to start the tape from 675 on the counter on the VCR and it starts with the shot of The Orca leaving shot through the shark's jaws that are hanging in Quint's hut. It was a perfect opening because that was the second half of the movie. It's where the movie stops being about the domestic and municipal drama and becomes about the adventure and all the rest gets left behind. Then when I talked them into letting me watch the whole thing, I must have watched it another dozen times.

Then I spent the 80s waiting out the terrible, terrible, terrible pan and scan transfers until the letterbox version became available in '92 on laserdisc, and I had to wait until the Toronto Star strike was settled to get back in the building and even get the fucking package which had arrived weeks earlier. (laughs) It was an absolute nightmare for me to wait for it because I had never seen it in widescreen before that point. I had composed the frames in my head because I had watched it in pan and scan dozens of times. I have honestly lost count of how many times I have seen it. I know I have seen it 5 or 6 times theatrically.

TUC: Jaws is a film that usually comes up whenever someone makes up one of their 100 best films lists. What do you think it is about Jaws that makes it so iconic and scary to this day?

NW: I think the reason why it was the first ever summer blockbuster is the reason why it works. It's the absolute mercilessness of the film. It's primal.

When I introduced it last year at the Lightbox as part of the Essential Cinema series, the only line I knew I was going to say going in was that it's the greatest accident in the history of cinema. Had the shark actually worked it would have just been like Grizzly or Prophecy or any number of creature or monster movies from the 70s. There were a lot of those that were terrible and forgotten because it's a guy in a suit or a rubber monster like It Came from the Darkness and things like that.

Jaws didn't work. Bruce the Shark didn't work, and Spielberg had to radically rework the film on the fly. I once interviewed Richard Dreyfuss and he told me this great story about going down to the set and he was walking down the beach in fall and winter on Martha's Vineyard and in the three block walk from the bed and breakfast where the actors were staying to the Amity set, every few feet he would walk past someone with a walkie talkie and he would just hear people in a panic saying that the shark wasn't working. And he would get to the set and wonder what they were going to shoot and sometimes they had no idea. They found a way to make pieces of the shark seem convincing. You see the fin, you see the tail, you see the flanks at one point, but because we never really get a good look at it, the entire ocean ends up becoming the real monster.

It's shot so beautifully to keep the water line in frame, and you are always aware where people are in relation to the water, and it creates this sense of malice, panic, and terror even when there is nothing to be afraid of. The shot of the kids in the boat in the first half is wrought with horror because we have just seen Brody looking at pictures of shark attacks. And that's the other thing, too, that the film creates characters that we can invest in as a moviegoing audience. We are safe in the dark, all of us millions of people removed from being near the water, there is no real threat to us that the shark is going to jump up and get us. But then you have Brody who is afraid of water and he is our surrogate, so we have to sit there and squirm with him. We're afraid for him.

The best moment I ever had at a live screening was watching it with about two or three hundred people at the Uptown at a midnight screening and there's that moment in the third act where Hooper's foot slips on the gunwale as he's running across the side of the boat and it just goes "squeak!" and his foot goes out over the water and everybody gasped. They sucked in their breath and this was 20 years after it came out and almost everyone in there knew that he was going to be fine, and yet you're in the moment and you feel it so profoundly that the water is going to get him because that's where the shark is. By that point you have a sense of the scale of the shark and it's bigger than the boat. It's going to do bad things to you. If you go in the water, it's going to win. It's a brilliant use of landscape and location.

It's part of this incredible, intuitive cinema that Speilberg has kind of mastered now. What he does in War of the Worlds is very similar with this sense of a threat that you can't fully comprehend. By making it aliens, it kind of detaches it, but with Jaws, it's just a fish. It's going to be a bigger, meaner, nastier fish than you've ever encountered, but that's all it is. That's terrifying on a scale that CG monster and rubber aliens aren't. You can detach yourself from the idea that the maniac with the butcher knife is coming for you because you shoot him once and he slows or falls down; none of this stuff is really happening. But Jaws is something that in our lizard brains got us to get out of the water for some reason.

TUC: Jaws started a new wave of animal attack films. What is an example of another good animal attack film and what are your feelings on the Jaws sequels?

NW: The only other animal attack film I am really even thinking about now is Open Water, which is not about the animals, and that's really the key to these type of films. Just as Jaws isn't about the shark, Open Water is more about dread than it is about the attacking and direct horror. And I have a soft spot for Deep Blue Sea because it's just so stupid. Super intelligent sharks and LL Cool J running around. It's inane, and I don't think Renny Harlin knew it was fun, but it is a lot of fun. It was a great experience.

Beyond shark films, Cujo is a pretty intense film that works on the same level as Jaws in many ways. It definitely uses space in the same way. There's that moment where the dog rears up in the rearview mirror of the car and you have shots of it through the window, and it's so terrifying that you can't look at the screen. Something could be looming at any second. It's a very claustrophobic movie that uses confinement well and in a way that not many movies would dare to. Today it's kind of a gimmick to have people in one room the whole time, but at the time these were much higher stakes when it came to being trapped, being hot, and being without anything that could save you. You can see things that could save your life, but they aren't within reach and you can't get to them without having this monster rip your face off. The car in Cujo is basically The Orca in Jaws.

One of the other things that was great about Jaws is how you have Quint who has a death wish and Brody who has anything but that. You have Quint and Hooper who both want to touch the shark for different reasons and Brody who would rather be anywhere than on a boat with these maniacs. It's a beautiful dynamic and I don't think movies have really been able to do that since because they took away the thrill of the actual attack. You look at Jaws 2, which is just a disastrous misunderstanding of what made the first film work. Then 3 and 4 barely even merit consideration as sequels because they are just awful.

It's sort of a weird comparison, but Jaws has the same approach to screenwriting that Pixar has in many ways. It focuses everything in character. Brody is driven by responsibility, then guilt, then fear, then more guilt, and he assumes the mantle of hero because there is literally no one left. That's the ordinary guy, that's the audience surrogate and everything he does is about protecting his family and his town and ultimately just to save himself, but it is still this rousing and incredible moment. It's such a great, subtle arc that people should be copying that instead. You know, extraordinary situations that breed extraordinary people. But instead we end up with shortcuts to spectacle and whatever effect is available that week.

When Jaws came out, there was a run on nature movies. When Terminator 2 came out, there was a run on morphing effects. The morphing effect thing almost works better because you can use it and plug it into something else as a tool. A shark is a tool in the same way, but because no one wanted to make that same movie or wanted to make a knock off shark movie, they just made hollow films about animal attacks. What they missed is that we don't care about the animal. I hate to admit it, but Dino De Laurentiis was right when he said that no one cried when Jaws died. That's because it was always about Brody living.

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