The first time I encountered Jaws I was five years old. My mom had the book and I often found it lying around the house with the top corner of the page she was on folded over. The cover image struck me in an unusual way. Unusual in that it was incredibly terrifying to me but it didn’t scare me. I was engaged, I wanted to know more and it stayed with me for years.
A few years later we had a new babysitter named Kitty. Kitty was fun and she was kind and she liked candy as much as we did so she basically ruled. I remember Kitty had this beige and cream macramé handbag with a long shoulder strap; it looked like a leftover from the summer of love. I always imagined it had been forgotten about at Woodstock by a love struck teenager. One day the Jaws book appeared in this bag and I recognised the striking imagery of the cover even with just a couple of inches of the book visible in the bag I knew instantly what it was. I asked Kitty about the book and she said my mom had loaned it to her, I asked her if it was a good book and she said it was scary. My interest grew exponentially.
Another incident a couple years later brought Jaws back into my life, this time via a poster which my mother bought and put up in the basement of our house which doubled as a play room for my big brother and I. The place was littered with Lego, GI Joes, skateboard wheels and Lite Brite pieces. The walls covered in Bob Marley posters, Norman Rockwell prints and now a brand spanking new Jaws the movie poster. I loved the poster; it still terrified and amazed me. How could a shark be that big? And why was the water so deep? And why is she swimming naked?!?!? I mean, enquiring ten year old minds really wanna know.
As with my previous encounters with Jaws I wanted to know more but I figured I was way too youngplus this was the 80s so it’s not like the movie was readily available so I didn’t press the matter. I never did see that book again after Kitty stopped babysitting us and time went by, as it does, and Jaws receded into my memory bank until one cold and sunny winter day in 1987.
I was 12 years old. For some reason my mom decided to take my brother grocery shopping with her that weekend instead of me, I was miffed to say the least but remember being excited at the prospect of being home alone for the first time ever. I don’t recall a lot of what I did that special winter day but eventually I turned the television on and after some time surfing between the five channels we had at the time I saw something that caught my attention. It was dark on the screen and with the curtains wide open on a particularly sunny day in Montreal I ran across the room to shut them. Turning my attention swiftly back to the screen my eyes began to re-focus and I saw, who I later came to know as Chrissie, throwing her clothes off and running through the reeds on Amity Beach. I sat on the floor just a couple of feet away from the big old wood panelled TV that doubled as a shelving unit and I watched. The suddenly as Chrissie bobbed under water it hit me… Could it be? Is this finally happening? Then the title card appeared and it was like a chorus of angels began singing… I was actually watching Jaws. Luckily I had the wherewithal to pop a VHS into the VCR and hit record because this was always going to be repeat viewing for me.
I have spent the past few months trying to remember every detail about my first experience with Bruce the Shark and I have to be honest there isn’t much there apart from what I have already mentioned. I remember being struck by the difference between the characters and confused as to why they didn’t all love Sheriff Brody like I did. I hated Quint and cried with excitement when I realised Hooper had survived. Side note: Richard Dreyfuss was known as Hooper to me from that point onwards, even when he made Mr Holland’s Opus which I still call Mr Hooper’s Opus.
I remember vividly the contrast of the bold, bright colours on the sunny beach juxtaposed with the murky darkness of the ocean, not that I would have described it as such when I was 12! But those juxtapositions in the film between characters (the warmth of Sheriff Brody against the coldness of Quint, the sadness of Mrs Kintner compared to Ellen’s playfulness) and in the aesthetic really struck a chord and informed my opinion on film for many years afterwards. I grew particularly fond of films set in the summer, films set in sea side towns, films made my Spielberg, films starring Roy… All because of Jaws. Later in life Jaws became the reason I was, and still am, fascinated with monster movies.
On the downside, I have not set foot in a natural body of water deeper than a foot since I saw Jaws and have panicked and nearly drowned twice in pools when I thought a shark was coming for me. It’s called irrational fear and yes, I know. My husband has a great time randomly shouting out ‘Kimberly, floor sharks!!!’ at me then watching me freak out and jump (often unsuccessfully) onto any surface I can find.
I have also seen EVERY shark movie I have ever come across and will watch any shark documentary I can find. As it turns out I am still terrified and fascinated all these years later. But most importantly, not a month goes by that I don’t sit and watch Jaws since that day. It has become a mainstay in my life and continues to impress me as it ages so gracefully against the Shallows’ and The Reefs of the world. I genuinely can say I have NEVER seen a better shark film in the past thirty years. Jaws remains the pinnacle and the reason why is, the titular shark is really not what Jaws is about.
No matter what Spielberg says or what your take on it is (the decline of masculinity in society, fear of communism/red fear, Watergate, Aliens, etc.) I truly believe that Jaws is a movie about our shared humanity. It is a movie that speaks about the struggle of the every man in the face of adversity and overcoming it no matter how big (25 feet long) or dangerous (240 razor sharp teeth!) this adversity might be. But that’s just my opinion. Maybe it is just a ‘film about a shark’ but I think we all know it’s about something more human than that. Smile, you son of a bitch.
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