A Short Excursion into the Role of Setting in Movies
By Marc Gilson
“I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.”
—Francis Ford Coppola
Have you ever fought terrorists in a skyscraper? Traversed a scorching Arabian desert and battled Turks on camelback? Hunted a man-eating monster shark in the Atlantic? Walked the shadowy rain-soaked streets of a futuristic LA? Trudged through the snow in the upper mid-west to solve a murder mystery? Played baseball with ghosts on an Iowan cornfield?
Well, I feel like I have, thanks to a handful of movies that have managed, somehow, to transport me from a theater seat to another place and time.
All movies have their own “feel” whether we’re talking about Citizen Kane or Animal House. A good movie imparts something visceral; something that can impact one’s very physiology. I remember seeing Die Hard in the theater and leaving with so much adrenaline I nearly knocked the theater door off the hinges on the way out. Die Hard is probably not on the list of any movie critic’s “Top Ten Greatest Films.” Fair enough. But it sticks with me because of how it made me feel. And that feeling is, for me, what bridges the gap between merely watching a movie and feeling a part of it.
Critics have educated the movie-going public as to what to look for in a good film. We notice good acting, cinematography, direction, writing, and special effects. These, and other ingredients, go into the making of a screen gem. When blended together artfully, they become – like a great meal prepared by a talented chef – a memorable experience.
But what interests me more than the traditional elements that go into great film making is what I might presumptuously call the “ambiance” of a movie. How does it make you feel while watching it and after the credits roll? What it is about a great movie that somehow reaches out, envelops you, and absorbs you into some alternate reality for a couple of hours? Why do certain movies etch themselves into your memory for a lifetime? How is it that a simple story translates into a visual and aural spectacle that elicits such a range of real emotion? That’s the magic, isn’t it?
In thinking about why some movies grab me while others fail to have much impact at all, I’ve realized that there is an often overlooked element – a secret ingredient in the meal – affecting my appreciation of a film. And it really has nothing to do with the acting, story, or even the directing per se. It’s the place, environment, the “spatial character” of the movie. It’s the ability of a movie to move me from the “here and now” to the “there and then.” Take a moment to think about some of your favorite movies and in most cases there will likely be a place or locale, that somehow becomes subtly attached to the feel of the movie itself.
Think about the cornfield baseball diamond in Field of Dreams. Or the high school library in Breakfast Club. Or the kitschy, frigid Fargo. Or the hallowed halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. And as for the movie that had me ready to take on Hans Gruber in Die Hard? Well, who can forget the Nakatomi Building?
Beyond this, I would argue that some movies, whether intentionally or not, create a relationship between the characters of the movie and the place within which the story unfolds. How is the setting reflected in the characters? In what ways are the internal conflicts and outer actions of heroes and villains driven by the environment within which the story unfolds?
In this article, I’d like to explore the kind of visceral and emotional sensations that can be derived from watching movies, with special attention on the places created or filmed that don’t only influence but define the movie itself. The only honest way I know to do this is from a purely personal perspective. So I want to highlight three of my favorite films that illustrate this relationship of character to space.
“Certain things leave you in your life and certain things stay with you. And that’s why we’re all interested in movies- those ones that make you feel, you still think about. Because it gave you such an emotional response, it’s actually part of your emotional make-up, in a way.”– Tim Burton
The movies I’ve chosen to discuss are not exactly obscure. Even so, each one is very different from the others, and the only thing really linking them, other than their powerful use of place or location, happens to be my own attachment to them and how they’ve impacted my life. I mean this neither as some sort of narcissistic joyride, nor as an implication that I am, by any stretch, qualified to discuss the finer points of film criticism. I intend to approach these films as nothing more or less than as one enthusiastic film buff, although I do hope that in some ways, you might also relate to my observations, especially if these films have impacted you in some way, like they have for me. So I hope you have at least half as much fun reading this as I’ve had thinking and writing about this interesting aspect of “place” in film.
– Lawrence of Arabia – Sand and Blood
To provide an example of the way a movie can impact one’s psyche, I can think of no better case in point than Lawrence of Arabia. Released in 1962, this epic, directed by David Lean, tells the story of British officer T.E. Lawrence and his experiences in Arabia during World War I.
Played with almost Shakespearian extravagance by Peter O’Toole, Lawrence is an ideal – yet complicated – film protagonist. By turns blindly confident and painfully conflicted, humiliated and heroic, O’Toole’s Lawrence is a walking, talking blend of outcast, idol, and everyman. Lean’s semi-factual depiction of Lawrence’s Homeric experiences in the desert present a treasure-trove of psychological twists, constantly calling into question the real motives and loyalties of this singularly fascinating man.
Lawrence himself is a kind of psychological chore, constantly constructing some sort of vague egoistic edifice to himself, and then purposely knocking it all down. He’s like that kid from school for whom success came too easily and who was always cycling from over-achievement to self-sabotage just to keep from getting bored.
The film itself is not confined to Lawrence alone, of course. It’s a complex journey of contrasting cultures, overlapping agendas, political scheming, and all the darkness that goes with war. But somehow, scene by scene, Lean makes what would otherwise be a series of clever conversations, occasional and tremendously massive battle scenes, and tedious self-aggrandizing (mainly, but not solely, on the part of Lawrence) utterly fascinating in ways no film has achieved since.
Lawrence of Arabia is a nearly flawless film and continues to be regarded as one of the two or three best movies of all time by a majority of film critics. While the acting, script, music, and editing are all stellar, the real star of the film is something far less apparent, and this is where my interest in the feelings the film elicits begins to concretize.
It’s a feeling, or sense, derived from the almost unbearable degree of footage shot in the desert. Putting it frankly, there are a hell of a lot of wide-shots of nothing but sand, accompanied by Maurice Jarre’s Academy Award-winning score of sweeping strings and swelling brass. For younger movie-watchers, this is usually the main complaint (an ex-girlfriend, whom I talked into watching the movie with me on two different occasions, fell asleep both times only halfway through, saying later she dreamed of camels). In a nutshell, the knock against Lawrence is that there’s just too much desert. That, I counter, is one of the most important reasons the film succeeds. It’s what gives Lawrence of Arabia that overwhelming sense of vastness and aridity that reaches from the screen into the theater.
There is plenty of suspense and action in the movie. But it’s almost overshadowed by seemingly endless vistas of the expansive desert, both day and night. I’ve always imagined that Lawrence of Arabia must have sold more theater soft drinks than any other film; it’s easy to be overcome with thirst even in a comfortably air-conditioned theater thanks to David Lean’s immersive desert scenes.
The fact that the desert is the real star of the movie is one of the few disparaging jabs at Lawrence. But it is true, and I think, both intentional and beautiful. For the desert is more than a mere backdrop to the story. A character in its own right, it’s both friend and foe to Lawrence. It’s an outer land, to be sure; a place to explore and conquer. But is it also reflective of the inner desolation of Lawrence’s own soul? We’re almost compelled to believe that without the desert, there would be no Lawrence to challenge it. And without Lawrence and his exploits, who cares about the desert? So the film is, perhaps more than anything else, a love story between Lawrence and the vastness of this most featureless, barren place on Earth. Why would a man of means, education, and status so keenly seek out such a bleak environment? For an answer, let’s explore a couple of scenes in more detail.
In one of the most iconic scenes in film history, we see Lawrence in the British army headquarters in Cairo, preparing for his journey into the desert to locate Prince Feisal; a potential ally to the British against the Turks. Lawrence is contemplating the journey that lies before him. It will be harrowing, he is warned. It’s not for wimps! For the average Joe the desert is “a burning, fiery furnace.” Lawrence, insisting that it will be “fun,” strikes a match, brings it up to his face to observe the flame slowly burning its way down to his fingers, and then, with a slight smile, simply blows it out. Instantly, the scene cuts from the sterility of the Cairo offices to Lean’s famous sunrise scene. At first we see only a dark horizontal bar against the golden predawn sky, a little like a Mark Rothko painting. Then, the sun, starting as a tiny yellow dash along the featureless horizon, expanding and breaking upon the desolate expanse, accompanied by a climactic orchestral surge. We are treated to our first views of the colossal windswept dunes and only then do we remember to resume breathing. A truly remarkable scene.
In another scene more directly illustrating Lawrence’s relationship to the desert, an American reporter, played by Arthur Kennedy, is interviewing Lawrence after one of his raids on a Turkish railway. He is trying to figure out why in the heck this well-educated British gentleman is spending his time charging around on an ornery, smelly camel, engaged in bloody combat, while trying to unify the hopelessly contentious Arab tribes rather than living the comfortable life of a tweed-clothed academic, teaching archaeology to a classroom of sweet-smelling English coeds. “What is it,” the reporter asks him with genuine bewilderment, “that so attracts you to the desert?” There follows the expectation of something profound…something of a speech Lawrence could make about his deeper, more philosophical, feelings regarding the desert and its remarkable people. Instead, pausing for a moment, Lawrence stares at the reporter as though patiently abiding a silly child and replies, “It’s clean.”
Lawrence is not an easy man to decipher. Those who hope to gain some understanding of him and his inner motives by watching the film are likely to leave with more questions than answers. It is a movie that demands a certain degree of patience. But the rewards are great. Lean manages to replicate with film, as close as must be possible, the actual sensation of being alongside Lawrence and his Bedouin companions as they cross the daunting and deadly Nefud desert to surprise the Turks at Aqaba.
Interestingly, Lean’s film does not present the story of Lawrence through Lawrence’s eyes (which can be found by reading Lawrence’s own stirring account, “Seven Pillar’s of Wisdom”). Rather, it attempts something even more audacious, to create a film juxtaposing the shifting inner conflicts of a man hungry to manifest his own greatness and impose it on others (though is it on the Arabs or the British?), with the expansiveness of the desert and the mysteriousness of its inhabitants. This blend of inner and outer worlds is what makes Lawrence so appealing and unique to me. Lawrence is not always the likable hero one wishes to root for, and yet, like the desert itself, he’s immensely compelling. Still, the blistering sun-baked quality of the desert overshadows even the massively egoistic Lawrence, and dominates the experience of watching it from start to finish. All the dry desert metaphors aside, it’s an exotic and exhausting movie comprised of something somehow both foreign and familiar.
My first viewing of the film was at the age of 12. I had virtually no understanding of the historical and political meanings of the film at that time. It was only later, upon many repeated viewings over the years, that I began to understand the complexities of the story. And admittedly, this deeper political knowledge diluted the magic for me somehow. There is, after all, something romantically mysterious about the desert, with it’s robe-clad inhabitants, lush oases, and caravans in the moonlight. Lean somehow fulfills this need for childhood enchantment while conveying a very complex and mature story. Even as a pre-teen, I was awestruck and enthralled by the sheer epic scale of Lean’s creation. Today, no one would even toy with the notion of replicating such a production; epic battle scenes and remote shooting locations are more often produced digitally now. This, to me, makes the film’s achievement all the more stunning.
It’s tempting to delve further into the political and cultural implications of the movie (and many books have been written that do that very thing). But the real feelings Lawrence of Arabia imparted to me are simply those of solitude, wonderment, and dehydration. That may be an unusual thing to say about a movie, but I’m serious when I say that just writing about the film makes me thirsty. Beyond that, Lawrence challenged many of my childhood notions of what a hero is. It matured my ideas of success and illustrated some hard lessons about how when you set out to find yourself, you also run the risk of losing yourself. In fact, there is no gain in life without sacrifice. The only question is: what are you willing to give up to have what you really want?
David Lean achieved what every director must strive for: to make a film one sees, and wants to see again and again, with new rewards with each new viewing. Steven Spielberg, among countless others, considers Lawrence of Arabia the best movie ever made and credits it as his inspiration for becoming a director. I can’t argue with that.
-Blade Runner – Dystopia in Neon
From 1962 we jump twenty years ahead, to 1982, and another movie that somehow imparts a sense of something both intangible yet nearly tactile. It’s a dark, intense, sci-fi film noir, set in 2019 Los Angeles, though with a few alterations could just as easily be a hard-boiled detective story of the 1930s starring Humphrey Bogart. Instead, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner features the modern-day Bogart, Harrison Ford, playing the role of Rick Deckard, a futuristic cop tasked with the “retirement” (read: execution) of rogue bio-engineered androids called “replicants.”
With Blade Runner, Scott proves himself one of the most visually compelling directors of our time; from beginning to end, it casts a dark, oppressive spell over its viewers. It’s been called “cyber-punk,” “futuristic eye candy,” and “relentlessly dystopian.” But from the opening scenes, with the ominous, washy strains of Vangelis’ spectacular score accompanying a nighttime vista of neo-gothic LA skyscrapers and the flickering lights of various flight craft cruising over the dark metropolis, Blade Runner makes one thing clear from the beginning: this is not a happy, bright vision of humankind’s future. It’s dark, shadowy, and dangerous.
Whereas I described the desert being the star in Lawrence of Arabia, Blade Runner gives us a very different environment but one just as imposing and dangerous to contend with: Los Angeles in the year 2019.
On the street level, a steady drizzle of acid rain pools on surfaces and reflects a plethora of multi-colored neon advertising signs flickering and buzzing from virtually every available surface. Shadowy figures move quickly along the streets, from and to where is anybody’s guess. Denizens of this darkly electric metropolis speak a range of hybrid languages. Skyscrapers stretch upward into the dark while the city steams and hisses below. It’s a place of plastic, metal, and shadow. The entire city seems stuck in perpetual nighttime, and desperation is more of a scent or sight than a mere feeling. It’s implied that most people, at least those with means, now live off-world – safely away from the reek and haze of LA. Above the streets, strange, slow-moving blimp-like crafts, blare out an advertisement:
“A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies! The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.”
Within moments of the opening scenes, viewers find themselves absorbed into this intriguing, but uncomfortable world. It’s visually stunning, but oppressive, like being in some dark dream in which nerves are on edge and yet numbed by some kind of drug. There is a texture to the Blade Runner world, and it’s a rough one. Still, for BR fans like me, it’s somehow beautiful in its murky, edgy bleakness.
As for the protagonist, Rick Deckard is perfectly matched with his environment. He’s brooding, lonely, and ultimately defined by his job as a Blade Runner, a job he’s already tried to put behind him until a new threat pulls him back in. Being a Blade Runner means being responsible for the “retirement” of rouge replicants – life-like androids that occasionally develop ambitions to violently rebel against their slave-like status. When they do, things can get nasty. That’s when Blade Runners like Deckard are called in to address the situation. Blade Runners are all guts, no glory, and Ford’s Deckard is the quintessential picture of a man with nothing to lose but time. Although once part of the police force, it’s clear that Deckard is an outlier. He lives – and acts – alone.
Deckard is portrayed with Harrison Ford’s typical understated but magnetic performance. The role seems built for him, although at the time – only a year after the blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and five years after Star Wars – moviegoers were unaccustomed to seeing Ford in something quite so dark. Gone is the wisecracking, grinning renegade hero Ford fans were used to. Instead we find him detached and asocial. Blade Runner, it could be argued, was the first time we saw Ford in such a light, and for those who pay attention to his nuanced performance, it’s obvious that his imminent stardom was no fluke. Everyone now knows that Ford can act, and Blade Runner was perhaps the first vehicle in which his talents were really showcased.
Another standout performance (among many) is Rutger Hauer’s role as Roy Batty, the absolutely terrifying replicant leader and Deckard’s chief antagonist. Hauer, one of the truly underrated actors of his generation, creates an unforgettable character, capable of slitting your throat while wearing a creepy grin. The aptly named “Batty” is a bizarre combination of precocious child and murderous brute. He’s the best – the strongest and smartest – of his kind. But Batty doesn’t like his lot in life – an escaped replicant with an expiration date: a preprogrammed four-year life-span. And he’s running out of time.
The end of the film is dominated by an unforgettable cat-and-mouse thriller of a scene in which Deckard and Batty pursue one another up through a mostly abandoned derelict apartment building. Incidentally, this building, The Bradbury, is often presumed to have been named in Blade Runner as a tribute to the great science fiction author Ray Bradbury. The building is, in fact, an actual Los Angeles landmark but is not named after the legendary author. It’s been used in numerous films and television shows over its long 110+ year history and even today you can find hardcore Blade Runner fans visiting the place as a kind of shrine. Even so, this building becomes quintessential of Ridley Scott’s vision and is, to me, the first image that comes to mind when I think of the film.
Film buffs have had a field day discussing the myths and rumors about the film’s production. Ridley Scott’s attention to detail and unrelenting demands upon cast and crew are legendary if not notorious. Scott was nothing if not uncompromising, according to the thick lore surrounding the making of the film. Even Harrison Ford, the most proficient and uncomplaining workhorse of Hollywood superstars, is rumored to have resented the merciless strain of Scott’s commitment to turning his vision – originally penned by famed sci-fi author Philip K. Dick – into a living, wheezing reality.
It seems that spending countless hours in Scott’s dreary world did little for morale during filming. This, complicated by constant script changes, prop and set challenges, and bickering actors, writers, and executives, make the mere completion of the film something of a miracle. While Scott may have made few friends among the cast and crew due to his overbearing manner, no one can argue with the outcome. Blade Runner spins through its reels like some kind of wild cyber-punk, nocturnal fantasy gone wrong, and it’s one of the most darkly beautiful two hours ever committed to film.
Still, Blade Runner failed to impress very many people upon its release 30 years ago. Despite the attention to detail, the film was plagued with rather obvious production problems (visible cables, dialogue mis-matched to scenes, etc.). Adding to the confusion, a total of four versions of the film were released, including the notorious “voice over” version in which Harrison Ford was reluctantly obliged to narrate the film in hopes of making the story more comprehensible to American viewers.
For me, none of these problems dimmed my adoration of the movie. I regret to say that I did not see Blade Runner in the theater on its first release (I was still too young to attend R-rated films). In fact, I don’t think I even remember seeing a movie poster for it. That summer of 1982 was, in fact, dominated by the release of another very different sci-fi movie: E.T. (not to mention Tron, Tootsie, Poltergeist, and a number of other successful films). It was only years later when I finally rented the VHS tape, sat down alone after a long day of work and school, pushed “play,” and had my mind turned inside-out that I felt its impact. The film seeps into you somehow. It’s a visual feast of a movie, despite its pervasive darkness. The characters are entirely weird and fascinating. The story is philosophically challenging. And the score! Vangelis’ atmospheric music compliments the film so well that it’s entirely possible to listen to it all by itself and watch the movie play out in one’s mind’s eye.
But as with Lawrence of Arabia and the desert, the lasting impression Blade Runner left on me was the environment. Ridley Scott created such a depressingly believable vision of the future, I can’t help but expect and fear that in 2019 – just a few short years from now – LA might not look and feel much like it does in Blade Runner.
-Jaws – The Depths of Fear
The last of our film trilogy I’d like to explore fits neatly in between Lawrence of Arabia and Blade Runner in terms of chronology. It’s 1975’s Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg. Jaws is widely considered to have launched the “summer blockbuster” genre of movies and its influence is still felt today. Based on Peter Benchley’s frightening novel, Jaws exploded into theaters of the summer of ‘75 and so terrified moviegoers that many refused to ever swim in the ocean again after seeing the film.
It’s the story of a small east-coast tourist town called Amity that becomes the favorite snack bar for a single, monstrous, man-eating shark; 25 feet of razor sharp teeth, insatiable appetite for human flesh, and a really bad mood.
The movie opens tenderly enough: a group of young people enjoying a warm night on the beach with some drinking, music, smooching, and a nice bonfire. One young couple runs off from the rest, intoxicated with beer and lust. The girl, Chrissie, strips off her clothes in the moonlight and dashes into the surf for a late night skinny dip in the ocean. The boy, a little too far gone, fails to struggle out of his pants and ends up dropping in a drunken heap on the beach while Chrissie swims a few dozen yards off shore. We get a glimpse of her legs from beneath the surface as she treads water and beckons the guy to join her. But he’s already passed out.
Moments later, Chrissie feels something brush close to her. Concern now replaces her carefree expression of a moment ago. The music tells us something is wrong and about to get much worse. We see her gasp, then, in one of the most violent moments in film history, we see her scream in pain and get yanked from side to side like a dog toy in the mouth of a Rottweiler. We never see what’s beneath the surface, but we know what it is…it’s a shark. And not just any shark. Chrissie disappears beneath the waves and the beach is again quiet.
Amity is a nice town. A quiet town. A clean town. Amity is the kind of place anyone would love to live, with lovely Cape Cod homes, good people, and a pristine beach. Summer in Amity is beautiful. While summer means the beaches fill with noisy tourists, these same tourists contribute thousands of dollars to Amity’s modest economy. Amity needs beach tourists and tourist dollars. Amity does NOT need what it has this particular summer. A great white shark.
Amity also has a new police chief, Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider. Brody is not a local. He’s from the big city. He knows nothing about the ocean or sharks. Even so, he knows that Chrissie’s demise is unusual and unnerving. He calls in a marine biologist, Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss, for some explanation as to Chrissie’s grisly death. Hooper takes one look at Chrissie’s remains and confirms Brody’s worst fear: there is a large great white shark prowling the waters off Amity. Brody’s response is to close access to the beach – just as tourist season is set to get into full swing with the big 4th of July weekend.
This does not sit well with the Mayor, who is intent on downplaying all this silly shark talk and presenting a warm and welcoming smile to the tourists. You can almost see the dollar signs in his eyes. He views the whole situation as just an overreaction by a new police chief who doesn’t understand the importance of tourist dollars to a small town, and a marine biologist anxious to get his name into National Geographic. So Brody and Hooper, with their beach-closing plan, are overruled. Amity is great! Amity is beautiful! And Amity, most definitely does NOT have a shark problem!
This becomes a harder sell when the shark strikes again, this time chomping a little boy in front of a beach-full of stunned sunbathers and waders. Things like that bring down everybody’s mood. Now people finally take Brody and Hooper seriously. Now people want action. Now they want blood – shark blood.
A town hall meeting is called to decide what to do about this little shark problem. There’s a $3,000 reward posted for anyone able to rid the seas of this monster. People are worried, angry and there’s much finger-pointing and shouting going on. During the meeting we meet Quint, a local fisherman played absolutely brilliantly by veteran actor Robert Shaw. Quint – squinty-eyed, wind-worn, sea-wise, and every bit the grizzled sailor, he looks like he could single-handedly kill the shark himself with nothing more than a pocket knife and a choke hold. And that’s practically what he intends to do. Quint announces his presence at the meeting by dragging his fingernails along a chalkboard in the back of the room; the horrible screeching noise effectively silencing everyone else. Quint sits back, with a satisfactory smile on his face, and everyone waits to see what he has to say.
Quint explains that when it comes to killing sharks, he’s their best bet; a far sight better than those so-called fishermen who spend more time on their recliners than on the sea. But he makes it clear that 1) it won’t be easy, and therefore, 2) it won’t be cheap. But for the low-low price of $10,000, Quint and his boat, The Orca, will take care of this mean old fish who’s taking a bite out of the local economy – and the local population – once and for all.
Despite the costs and his own apprehensions about Quint, Brody eventually convinces the Mayor to hire Quint to get the job done so long as he and Hooper can go along and make sure the job’s done right. So, Quint, Brody, and Hooper prepare for the sea hunt of a lifetime and it won’t be a pleasure cruise.
It’s clear from the beginning that Quint has a dim view of Hooper, what with all his sciency equipment and his soft, city-boy hands. The feeling is mutual, as Hooper regards Quint as something of a machismo simpleton whose only real talents are drinking himself into a stupor and singing off-color sea shanties all day long. (There was, in fact, real-life tension on the set between Shaw and Dreyfuss, and it shows up on film.) Brody is caught somewhere in the middle, and is busy playing peacemaker. But Brody, as it turns out, has a fear of the water. So between the discomfort of being on a boat and listening to the bickering of the other two men, he’s about as happy as a tabby at a Doberman convention. He’s the proverbial fish-out-of-water and really has no business being on this particular fishing expedition.
Once the threesome set out on The Orca, the hunt is on. The rest of the film is shot on the ocean, and it’s here that the film, for me, becomes something special. Leaving the safe harbor of Amity, we find ourselves on the open water, where the only constant is the moodiness and unpredictability of the sea.
Spielberg, probably the most visionary of modern-day directors, filmed the rest of the film on the ocean. And like Scott’s Blade Runner, Jaws was a film plagued with production problems. There was the unpredictable weather of Martha’s Vineyard, the challenges inherent in filming both on and beneath the sea, and the three pneumatically powered fake sharks that always seemed to spring a leak or otherwise create almost as much havoc as a real Great White. Cast and crew were often seasick and tired of the constant time spent on the water. Camera and sound equipment malfunctioned and became corroded by salt water. Shaw drank, well, like a fish. Dreyfuss sulked and wondered aloud what in the hell he was doing there when he could have been in New York enjoying himself. So much went wrong, the crew began referring to the film as “Flaws.”
It went horribly over-budget. Principal photography was originally scheduled to take 55 days. It took 159. Studio execs were losing patience, and Spielberg, plagued with exhaustion and insomnia, was certain he’d be fired at any moment. All in all, the production was a total catastrophe and the 26 year old Spielberg was in over his head, no pun intended.
But somehow, in the end, the film would be a triumph for Spielberg and Universal. Problems aside, what remains is a silver screen thriller worthy of something Hitchcock might have produced had he made a shark movie. It went on to totally smash box office records that summer, and launched a tidal wave of Jaws-related merchandise (I was the proud owner of a Jaws T-shirt back then – a shirt I was not allowed to wear to school).
Most would insist that the shark is the star of the film. Hard to compete with a 25 foot man-eater who even has his own iconic theme music, thanks to the brilliant John Williams. And if not the shark, the trifecta of Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw made for a brilliant cast. But more than that, the film makes an unlikely star of the ocean itself. In hindsight, Spielberg was the first to admit that he bit off more than he could chew by insisting on filming most of the movie on the ocean. But this realism is not lost on the audience, and there is simply no denying the impact the sea has on the film.
I had the pleasure of seeing Jaws on the big screen many years after its original release. I can tell you that there is simply no substitute for that experience. The feeling of being on Quint’s boat, rolling and pitching on the seas, one can almost smell the rancid chum used to bait the shark. We can sense the tension on the boat, the uncertainty of Brody, the neurotic scientific fetishism of Hooper, and the cock-sure but eroding bravado of Quint. In a sense, the shark preys on all three men, but in different ways.
On the surface of things, Jaws is a story about a shark and the men who want – need – to kill it. But the real feel of the film comes from the relational experience of being on The Orca in the Atlantic, miles from shore, with nothing around but the blues of sky and ocean merging into some kind of ganzfeld – a diffuse experience of wind, water, and motion. This adds to the already tense feelings Spielberg creates – feelings of both confinement (the boat) juxtaposed with the timeless expansiveness of the sea. The ocean, or more precisely, what lurks beneath its surface, is a kind of metaphor for the strange mix of fascination and fear all three men have. The waters The Orca sails are a place of isolation; a watery desert seemingly populated solely by predator and prey, although who’s who is another question. The scenes shot on The Orca give viewers that strange sense of being at once exposed to the vastness of the sea and yet stranded on the tiny, vulnerable island of the boat. It’s an unnerving viewing experience, punctuated by moments of genuine, adrenaline-infused terror. Spielberg would later say that he knew the film had a punch when he saw preview audience members scream, faint, and on at least one occasion, vomit.
In the end, Jaws is not just a film, but a testament to the vision of Steven Spielberg, the tenacity and talent of crew and cast, and the power of a damn good horror story with razor-sharp teeth.
Ever since William Lincoln patented the Zoopraxiscope or “wheel of life,” in 1867, (a device through which a sequence of photos or drawings were viewed through the slits of a spinning wheel, creating, in effect, a movie) imaginative directors, actors, technicians, and writers have endeavored to push the limits of the medium. With advancements in film making that defy our ability to discern reality from digital fantasy – from 3D, and CGI to virtual audio surround sound systems – it seems there’s no limit to the worlds, creatures, and tales that can be projected onto the silver screen. Some say these advancements yield a better product. Such would be the case in most industries. But advancements aside, the backbone of a great movie is, and always will be, a great story told by great storytellers.
They don’t give out Oscars for “place” or “setting” in movies. But maybe they should. The famed critic Roger Ebert said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” (It’s okay if you have to read that one twice). I think that sentiment is very true of these three films I’ve talked about, even the most recent of them (Blade Runner) is now over 30 years old. By today’s standards, the special effects and technology used to make those films is antiquated. Even so, it’s “how it is about it,” that makes me appreciate each one so much. Regardless of how technologically advanced they become, I’ll continue to approach movies as I always have, as a portal to another place and time, where I put aside my chores and worries for awhile and, in the cool darkness of the movie theater, immerse myself in the magic and mystery that unfolds on the big silver screen.
“No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight of the soul.” — Ingrid Bergman