Jaws prowls the big screen again, stalking new fans and reminding us of its cinematic greatness

click to enlarge Jaws prowls the big screen again, stalking new fans and reminding us of its cinematic greatness
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

Calling myself a Jaws superfan would be a bit of an understatement. My second bedroom prominently features a large framed version of the iconic poster for the 1975 blockbuster. As if the poster wasn't enough, its image, a rendering of a giant shark, saw-toothed mouth agape, ready to clamp down on a swimmer from below, adorns at least four graphic T-shirts in my wardrobe.

Several years ago, I even bought a shark costume to be "Jaws" for Halloween, while my husband dressed as the film's devilish, misunderstood fishing boat captain, Quint. Speaking of Quint, in middle school, I did a presentation on sharks that included me acting out part of his famous USS Indianapolis monologue to the confusion of my entire class.

There's more, but I won't bore you.

As Jaws prepares to grace IMAX screens, a format befitting the nearly 50-year-old film's own mammoth legacy, I reflect on why it still resonates so strongly, and how my views on it have changed. The IMAX run, screening for one week only, should contrast starkly with how I first encountered Steven Spielberg's career-making megahit — watching it repeatedly on a grainy VHS tape. My parents, like many people in the 1980s, taped it off the television, more specifically the ABC Monday Night Movie (sorry, FCC), complete with commercials and all.

As a landlocked farm kid in north central Pennsylvania who had never seen the ocean, never mind a shark, Jaws offered something completely different from anything I'd experienced. Unlike other horror films to which I was prematurely exposed, like Children of the Corn (which, as someone who was literally surrounded by acres of towering corn stalks for much of the year, became a source of mild trauma), Jaws was fascinating, romantic even, with its quaint seaside resort town.

Over the years, I continued to watch the film in its entirety or in bits and pieces, especially during the 1990s when, for some reason, the cable channel TNT seemed to play it on a loop. Like many girls around this time, I had dreams of becoming a marine biologist, but unlike my sea-life-loving peers, who were typically super into dolphins, I wanted to emulate the Richard Dreyfuss character Matt Hooper by studying sharks.

My marine biology dreams quickly died when, at around 13, I finally made my first trip to the ocean and, upon seeing the terrifying vastness of the water, noped right on to something else. That something else would later turn into studying film at the University of Pittsburgh, where I learned the language of the medium, both academically and visually.

My pursuit of a film degree — and later, a career as an arts critic and writer — allowed me to see my favorite film through a new lens. Unlike the many, many summer blockbusters the film would inspire, Jaws stood out with its arthouse sensibilities. Its status as a product of the Movie Brat/New Hollywood movement — which saw desperate studios giving projects to young, formally educated directors — became more apparent. Besides the neo-realist elements, Jaws features overlapping dialogue and stylized, heavily subjective camera techniques, as Spielberg combined the aesthetics of cinematic greats like Alfred Hitchock with innovative new ideas being put forth by contemporaries like Robert Altman.

The writing also shines, despite being adapted from a book that, in my opinion, hardly warrants a mention beyond resulting in one of the greatest American films ever made. Reading the 1974 best-seller as a teen, I wondered how they managed to turn the salacious, yet often boring narrative into something I enthusiastically watched dozens of times.

The story of how Jaws came to be adds a level of off-screen mythos to the film — it's a beautiful phoenix that rose out of a chaotic production. Jaws did not come easy, as the mechanical shark (nicknamed Bruce) often malfunctioned. The long, arduous water shoots took their toll on the film's budget and timeline. Luckily, it would more than make up for the costs by becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

As I changed, Jaws, to some degree, changed as well. In 2012, the film received a much-deserved 4K restoration and theatrical rerelease. I had to see it on the big screen. Tears filled my eyes when the familiar underwater intro began — only this time it was crisp, clean and bigger than life. No more grainy VHS lines or poorly transferred cable television formats. I was finally seeing Jaws the way it was meant to be seen.

If you're a Jaws superfan like me, or seeing it for the first time, the IMAX run should more than illuminate why this film still endures as a masterpiece nearly half a century after its initial release. ♦

Jaws screens in IMAX at AMC River Park Square starting Sept. 1.

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