Virgin Viewing: ‘Jaws’

When I first launched this feature last week, most of the people in my life had one response: “You’ve never seen what?!” Usually, my argument against seeing a particular classic film is “Well, I already know how it ends.” That’s what happens when movies are so hugely relevant in our cultural zeitgeist – we’ve seen enough parodies and caught enough references that we feel like we’ve seen a movie, even when we haven’t. But there was another reason for me not having seen Jaws – I don’t like scary movies. In other words, I am a giant fucking wuss.

Jaws is a scary movie. But it’s also a lot more than that. From the opening sequence with the girl’s legs kicking in the water to the ending with the two remaining men paddling back to shore, it’s a well-made, well-shot movie. I did jump straight in the air once or twice, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be going near any bodies of water anytime soon (which is a problem since the train I take to work every morning goes over a river), but I am glad that I finally sucked it up and watched the movie. Unlike a lot of horror movies, Jaws relies more on surprise and shock than on blood and guts. There is gore, of course, but it’s not the centerpiece of the film. Spielberg’s fake-outs and camera work keep you guessing about what’s going to happen next, relying on psychology to make the film scarier. What I didn’t really understand before seeing the movie was that there’s so much more going on here than just shark attacks – it’s a story of a small town dealing with tragedy.

And that brings to me to the thing  that struck me the most about this movie: not everyone is beautiful. The people in it genuinely look like salt of the earth regular folks who live on an island in the 1970s. They’re not perfect, slender, white-toothed supermodels, and that extra realness gives the movie a hightened sense of fear. It takes away the “Oh, it’s a movie” artificiality that keeps a horror movie from legitimately scaring the shit out of you and makes it feel like the very next time you go in the water you could end up like Quint’s friend, bobbing up and down in the water because a shark ate your bottom half. The realism is what makes it so terrifying, and it’s why the film has endured all this time.

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