[box cover]

Jaws: 30th Anniversary Edition

Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw,
Murray Hamilton, and Lorraine Gary

Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Based on the novel by Peter Benchley

Directed by Steven Spielberg

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

Jaws is one of the greatest movies ever made.

It's also one of the truly great movies about the American experience. Like its colleagues in that genre — Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Hail the Conquering Hero, The World of Henry Orient, and North by Northwest to mention but a few — it's a blend of a surprising story that veers away unexpectedly from the sentimentality it threatens to embrace, and of a visual wit that shows the filmmaker is fully engaged in the craft of filmmaking.

Based on Peter Benchley's bestselling novel, Jaws (1975) blithely does away with the book's two major subplots, one having to do with an extramarital affair, the other with the Mafia. Benchley, the grandson of Robert, didn't take this well at the time and he was cast in a cameo in the film as a TV reporter which was something of a sop for hurt feelings (that they made him a reporter is almost as much an insult).

This film's stripped down, subplotless narrative should be well known to most people. After a series of escalating shark attacks that compromise the economy of the small New England resort island of Amity during the summer holidays, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a former New Yorker, hires a fishing captain named Quint (Robert Shaw) to kill the great white responsible for the attacks. Along for the ride is Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a scientist with a special interest in sharks. After a long cat-and-mouse game, the trio face the monster alone on an empty sea for a final confrontation.

From the first seconds of Jaws, the young Spielberg commands the audience, and they do his bidding. At his command they laugh, they scream, they cry. But even more important, from the first few frames the experienced viewer knows that he is in the hands of a master, a director who exerts the superhuman command that the medium demands from its best practitioners. Jaws also proved that Spielberg already, in his short career so far at that point, was a true student of film without being particularly flashy about his learning. Echoes of Hitchcock (the track-in/pan-out on the beach when Brody sees the impact of the shark) and the use of Langian synecdoche (the Kintner boy's torn raft, the stick Pippet was chasing) are integrated into the film to propel it forward and also move the audience, not to draw attention to the technique for itself. And John Williams's score is exquisitely Herrmannian in its isolation of melodies and instruments.

*          *          *

Jaws cost about $10 to $12 million to make, and it went on, after what first appeared to be a disastrous shoot, to be for a while at least the top money-maker of all time. In this situation, Spielberg proved to be more like the later career of James Cameron, another gung-ho-America director oriented toward family and sacrifice, and professionally able to stay focused during tense shoots (and whose Titanic also proved cackling naysayers wrong). And Spielberg showed himself to be unlike Michael Cimino, whose similarly grandiose, or at least similarly ambitious, career faltered after carefully orchestrated leaks from the studios to writers derailed his career during the supposedly "out of control" Heaven's Gate.

But, even with such a fine screenplay and cinematic expertise, why is Jaws one of the great American films? Besides the sheer technical accomplishment and Bill Butler's beautiful photography, the film presents a consistent moral viewpoint that is deeply moving. Far from being one of those typical movies in which the hero must "face his fear," Brody — the aquaphobe who never goes on the water — ends up being the only sane person on Amity able to slay the dragon. But he isn't just facing his fear, he is protecting a whole community, one that doesn't fully appreciate his dedication. At the same time, Brody is the embodiment of the family as a haven of solidity in a hazardous world. One of the best moments in the film occurs when his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) asks her exhausted and fearful husband if he wants to get drunk and fool around. This is one of the most profoundly intimate moments in all cinema, not just a celebration of mature human intimacy, but a paragon, a goal to strive for. And this from a man whose own string of broken families must surely have caused pain, and which he later examined in a series of shattered American families.

*          *          *

As I noted in my review of Universal's 2000 DVD release of Jaws (a single disc simply referred to as the "Anniversary Collector's Edition"), the studio took a great film and gave it a good home on DVD — but there was room for improvement. Universal's two-disc Jaws: 30th Anniversary Edition (released in June 2005) makes a few amends, although some fans doubtless will find cause to complain. The visual component of the disc remains excellent, with rich colors and great blacks and nary a scratch. However, it also remains largely unchanged — were it not for occasional moments wherein the image appears somewhat sharper, this very well could be regarded as an identical transfer, with color, brightness, and contrast all virtually indistinguishable from the original. Where fans are bound to be more pleased is in the audio department — the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix from 2000 is now joined by a DTS 5.1 track, which was on a separate DVD altogether five years ago. And for purists, who complained vociferously at the time, the original Dolby Stereo mix is also here as an alternate to the digital tracks from 2000, which Universal used to replace at least some sound effects.

But this is only the first hint that we're even looking at a new DVD release on Disc One. The menu designs and chapter selection are unchanged, while the "Bonus" section is the most drastically altered. Here, the original grab-bag of features has been broken down to just two: the original disc's "Deleted Scenes" and "Outtakes" reels have been (judiciously) combined into a single item running 13 min., including the ten short deleted scenes from the original disc, as well as Roy Scheider getting pissed off at a jammed pistol (punctuating a fourth busted take with a healthy "Aww, fuck!") and Robert Shaw shrieking and hacking up some fake blood. Also on Disc One — and the only entirely new thing on the platter — is the British featurette "From the Set" (8 min.), shot on Martha's Vineyard during Jaws's principal photography.

However, with Disc One two things still are missing from a genuinely comprehensive Jaws special edition on DVD — an isolated track of John Williams' score and a commentary from Steven Spielberg (who, it should be noted, is on record as thinking that such things destroy the magic of movies).

Nonetheless, Disc Two kicks off with the chief attraction of this 2005 DVD reissue — the feature-length documentary The Making of Jaws (122 min.), which was cut down to one hour on the 2000 edition and now appears in its entirety, as it did in the original Laserdisc box (a package that more or less is the source of Jaws on DVD as we know it). Appearing under the header "Jaws Archives" are the Storyboards and Production Photos from the original disc, as well as two new slideshows, "Marketing Jaws" and "Jaws Phenomenon." And filling out the paperboard slipcase is a glossy, full-color "Commerative Photo Journal" that's full of facts and photos.

True fans can decide for themselves if the "30th Anniversary Edition" of Jaws is worth an upgrade. Certainly, the original audio, DTS option, and complete documentary will be selling points for enough folks. However, before you trade in that old DVD, a few things have been dropped: the "Get Out of the Water Trivia Game," the textual supplements "Shark World," "Production Notes," and "Cast and Filmmakers," the DVD-ROM screensaver, and the Theatrical Trailers reel. Of these, only the lack of trailers on this two-disc set comes across as a damming oversight.

— D.K. Holm

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