Thursday, June 10, 2010

What Happens

When Richard Dreyfuss' Matt Hooper, cinema's original Badass Marine Biologist, enters Jaws, it's as much to buoy the narrative as to sink a shark. His deadpan humor and immediate, easy camaraderie with Roy Scheider's Chief Brody quickly marks him out as the film's wry heart. In spite of his comforting presence at Chez Brody and aboard the Orca, however, Hooper is most at home at the autopsy table, fully exposing the bloody horrors that tug at the Chief's eyes and mouth. From a narrative standpoint, Hooper's first dissection (of the nameless dead girl) merely confirms what we, the omniscient audience, already know: "This was not a boat accident. And it wasn't any propeller, it wasn't any coral reef, and it wasn't Jack the Ripper. It was a shark."

Then, of course, Spielberg cuts to a dead shark, and we're allowed to cheer along with the crowd of fisherfolk for a moment before Hooper again goes to work. But step back to the autopsy. A curtain is pulled back and Hooper is shown the mangled body, which lies below the camera's gaze, momentarily out of our sight. Hooper barks jargon, gulps back vomit, and scolds the Chief for not calling the Coast Guard and for smoking.


And then Spielberg cuts.


"This is what happens."

And then he cuts again.


Those first and third shots, only six seconds apart, are nearly identical: the Chief smokes in the background, bemusedly looking on as Hooper stares down at the table. Taken together, as part of a continuous framing, they neatly carry along the humorous, sanitized feel of the scene.

Those six seconds, however, irrevocably alter the scene, and arguably the film as a whole. It's the clearest example of the Eisensteinian influence Pauline Kael saw coursing through Jaws: the pure montage, using shots not as discrete building blocks but as cells of an indelible whole. The Chief, his cigarette, Hooper, his glasses. Hooper raises an arm, the Chief is horrified as all his worst fantasies are realized, Hooper murmurs "This is what happens" from offscreen. The Chief, his cigarette, Hooper, his glasses.

It's such a palpable, horrific intrusion, left so unrecognized once it ends, that it becomes difficult to believe. I'd re-watched Jaws on a two-to-three year cycle for my entire life before these cuts recently jumped out at me. Certainly, the film contains several such montages, but none are so jarring, so insidiously surreal. Compare Spielberg to his New Hollywood peers, and this triptych recalls less de Palma's multi-tiered POV fantasies than Scorsese's slow tracking shots in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: not suggesting dreams or multiple perspectives, but moments of crawling intimacy. Thrown off the blockbuster train tracks, this scene is the closest the audience comes to being fully integrated into the Chief's/Spielberg's horrified fascination.

was the launching pad for one of the most successful careers in entertainment history; Spielberg would later seduce millions into watching Nazis liquidate a ghetto and soldiers being blown apart on the beaches of Normandy. But this moment of purest cinema: like no other, it chills me to the bone.

1 comment:

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