Aug 30, 2011

A Story With A Bite

Last night I relived a childhood experience by watching Steven Spielberg’s Jaws for the first time in probably several years.  I use the term childhood experience because it was one of those movies you watch as a kid in which there was life before you watched it and life after you watched it.  As an adult, I still feel a bit uncomfortable swimming in an open lake or the ocean and it’s probably for one of the main reasons why Jaws works as a movie which is because you can’t see what’s under the surface.  I keep waiting for something to bump into one of my feet below and then…oh, well you get the idea (Aron shudders).  The other big reason Jaws works as a movie in my opinion is because it’s a great piece of storytelling on several levels and I’ve taken the liberty of picking three strengths to focus on.

Start with a Bang
One of the best ways to grab a reader or viewer’s attention is a strong hook that sinks into your skin and yanks you along for the ride.  John Williams’ legendary two-note motif during the open credits acts almost like a musical exposition of things to come and coupled with the open scene of the unsuspecting girl (you’ll note the girl’s name which is Chrissy if you’ve watched this movie one too many times) being attacked just off Amity Island’s beaches is the equivalent of strapping the audience into a cannon and lighting the fuse.  From there on out we’re drawn in and want to know more: what’s going to happen?  Who will be eaten next?  What does the shark look like (the electronic shark may look fake, but it still creeps me out)?

Characters We Care About
There are a ton of monster movies out there, but a key factor that separates the men from the boys is characterization.  I don’t care how cool your monster is or how high the body count.  If the people fighting for survival are boring then what’s the point?  A comedian may be insanely funny, but it’s often the straight man they’re paired with that provides the frame of reference and sense of balance.  Jaws is not about a shark killing tourists, it’s about a group of people on a small island whose families and livelihoods are at stake, their perception of that threat and how they deal with it.  Roy Scheider is great as the down-to-earth afraid of water Police Chief, Martin Brody, and Richard Dreyfus is fun to watch as the quirky oceanographer, Matt Hooper.  Robert Shaw though steals the last act of the movie as Quint, the Ahab-like fisherman obsessed with catching the shark despite warnings like, “you need a bigger boat.”  Dialogue is also a chief component of Jaws’ success because in many cases a movie’s greatness is not judged by just the loud, flashy moments, but by the quiet, subtle ones as well, whether it’s Brody and Hooper’s argument with the Amity Mayor about closing the beaches or Quint’s chilling monologue recounting his experiences on the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

Up the Ante
As a story rolls along, quite often the stakes and risk for the main characters needs to increase.  Jaws starts with a random girl we don’t know whose death is disturbing enough, but then a teenage boy is eaten and we witness the grief of the parents, then Chief Brody’s son is almost attacked during the Fourth of July.  Finally, Brody, Hooper and Quint put their own lives on the line to battle the Great White shark.  The main characters begin as passive observers, but by the end of the movie are tossed head over heels into the center of the battle and forced to fight for their lives.  If the storyteller has given us a set of characters that we grow to like or find interesting then messing around with their lives begins to poke at our own existence and after awhile we find ourselves rooting for their victory because part of us somewhere inside feels that if they lose, then in some sense we will have lost as well.

Is there a particular movie or book that had a big impact on your childhood? What was it about the story or characters that pulled you in?