Thoughts & Views: ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’

6-24Op_webBelieve it or not, there once was a time when people didn’t think about sharks when they went down the shore. And when the mere sighting of some sort of fin was not fodder for the evening news. And when there was no such thing as the “summer blockbuster” movie; in fact, a summer release spelled sure death for a film.

All that changed in June 1975, when “Jaws” was released. Yes, it has been 40 years since a mechanical shark named “Bruce” chomped his way into our collective consciousness, and basically never left.

I was thinking about why that is, about what made this particular movie so compelling, and it dawned on me (after 40 years!) that the primary reason is that its most horrific details occur in our own minds.

Unlike the gore-fests of contemporary horror films, “Jaws” has minimal graphic images: A floating head. A severed leg. And the shark’s conspicuous consumption of Capt. Quint. But that’s about it.

In fact, for most of the movie, we never even see the shark. The story is that this was not in the plans, but there were so many problems with the mechanical monster, it could not be given the screen time originally planned for it. I cannot vouch for the truth of that, but it makes sense.

Hollywood wouldn’t have spent a fortune on “Bruce” if it hadn’t intended to make him the star. Irony is, he WAS the star anyway. Precisely because he was basically invisible. That music heralding his approach, the opening scenes of the girl swimmer being dragged to and fro, a dog disappearing in the sea off a crowded beach . . . . As director Steven Spielberg put it in a recent interview, the film required the audience to “bring its collective imagination” into the theater.

That same interview confirmed my own 40-yearslate insight: “It’s what we don’t see that’s truly frightening,” Spielberg noted.

Whether or not that was the original intention is now beside the point. Alas, the secret of the phenomenal success of “Jaws” appears to be lost on contemporary filmmakers. As noted above, the concept today is: The more graphic the violence, the better.

If “Jaws” were made in 2015, it would be far bloodier — and not nearly as memorable. There’d also be no need to deal with a quirky mechanical shark. Thanks to CGI (computer generated imagery), the Great White would have had more close-ups than Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss combined.

And speaking of sharky anniversaries: Next month marks the 99th anniversary of a series of attacks that reportedly inspired author Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” novel, upon which the movie was based.

Between July 1 and July 12, 1916, four people were killed and one was maimed by ravenous sharks — or perhaps a single shark, maybe a Great White — in New Jersey waters. The attacks occurred on swimmers in the ocean off Beach Haven and Spring Lake and in Matawan Creek, a Raritan Bay estuary near Keyport.

The Wikipedia account quotes a shark expert who, following the first fatality (the one off Beach Haven), told a Philadelphia newspaper: “Despite the death . . . and the report that two sharks having been caught in that vicinity recently, I do not believe there is any reason why people should hesitate to go in swimming at the beaches for fear of man-eaters.”

Sounds like the mayor on Amity Island, doesn’t he? After the second attack, real panic set in.

If you’re interested in learning more about the 1916 Jersey horror, there are non-fiction books about it, including “Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in An Age of Innocence” by Michael Capuzzo, and “Twelve Days of Terror” by Richard Fernicola.

Either one makes for nice beach reading.

– Karen Zautyk 

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