A BIGGER BOAT

JAWS, based on Peter Benchley’s high-end pulp fiction bestseller about a great white shark on a feeding spree off the shore of a seaside town, was released in cinemas in 1975.

We put on the blu ray just a few weekends ago, on the exact day of the 45th anniversary of the film’s original release. It was the first time my wife had seen it, but it’s something I’ve viewed on countless occasions. Though I am old enough to be a member of the inaugural ‘Star Wars generation’, it is JAWS I tend to return to from that particular era. Steven Spielberg’s film has been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember.

I was six when it first came out and I remember some buzz. JAWS was a big deal, even before it became a big deal.

I recall my Mum and Dad going to see the first showing at the local flea-pit, and the next day me proudly relaying news of their cinema trip to my infants school teacher Miss Dawson.

I remember staying in the classroom one play-time and crudely replicating the film’s iconic poster artwork in coloured pencils in an exercise book. The beast in grey and his environment in blue… and red.

I remember somebody – perhaps my Dad or my Grandparents – buying me the Official Magazine. I just checked, and it was a whopping 40p in its day. It’s scarce… and if it ever appears on Ebay it can sell for approaching one hundred times the original cost.

I remember reading Benchley’s novel when I was about ten years old, and being thrilled to find there was ‘naughty stuff’ in it. Swearing, death and sex. In that order.

I also remember seeing the film for the first time. Its UK TV premiere, in October 1981, was a bona fide event which attracted 23.25 million viewers, despite it being broken up by adverts. Blood and washing up liquid! It remains one of the largest British TV audiences ever.

Alas, there were no domestic video recorders in those days. Well, there were some, but in very few UK households. Not in ours for another four years, and it was actually five or six before I saw JAWS again.

The film is still a bit of a thing in our family. My stepdad (who has sometimes gone shark fishing in a tiny boat off the coast of Scotland, and has some awe-inspiring photos) loves it, too. If not James Bond or golf, his birthday and Christmas presents from us are always to do with sharks. So I don’t doubt that JAWS will end up chewing itself into our child’s life at some point, too.

For a start, there are cartoon-like four-inch figures of Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint on display in our bathroom. No shark. Just the Orca triumvarate. They’re there, bold on a shelf above the toilet, to bring a moment of amusement to anyone whose recognition dawns. To take the piss out of anyone taking a piss.

In 1979, film critic Andrew Britton essayed on JAWS. His summary was that at a fundamental level the story concerned the “vulnerability of children and the need to protect and guard them”, and that that in turn generated a “pervasive sense of the supreme value of family life”.

Even if there is a smidgen of dysfunction, Spielberg’s films regularly present family in a wholesome way – whether that is as a traditional unit (Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) or single-parent (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial). His films not only amplify “the supreme value of family life”, they also represent children themselves wonderfully.

“Never work with animals or children,” they say – and while some directors would have found their auteur ink smudged by the potential chaos of kids on set, Spielberg always had half an eye on the margin. He would sometimes ‘keep in’ bits of unscripted action or dialogue uttered by his child actors during takes.

From the mouths of babes and all that.

Think of the drawled “I hate these potadoes! There’s a dead fly in my potadoes!” by the four-year old daughter during the family dining scene in 1977’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind… And think of Chief Brody’s son at the dining table in JAWS, silently mimicking his Dad’s gestures in a scene which bonds generations so sweetly. Neither moment was planned.

Spielberg films have regularly featured kids in prominent and positive roles. Off the top of my head I recall alien-befriender Elliott in 1982’s E.T., Indiana Jones’s precocious eleven-year-old Chinese sidekick Short Round in 1984’s The Temple Of Doom, and Richard Attenborough’s character’s grandchildren in 1993’s Jurassic Park. Several others.

Of course, there has been horror lurking beneath the surface on occasion. Think of the child slaves working the jewel mine in The Temple Of Doom (though ultimately there is hope, as Indiana Jones liberates them).

And think of Alex Kintner, the other most memorable child from JAWS. Poor Alex Kintner, the boy savaged by the great white shark as he paddled on a lilo in the sea. Alex’s cruel death prompted an extraordinary ‘pull focus’ shot of Roy Scheider and black-veiled heavyweight grief for Mrs Kintner.

The killing of a child was anarchy. A brutal signifier of the adults’ total lack of control. A shocking plot device to trigger the audience’s primal fear, and panic. To stimulate acceleration of dread to terror.

The filmmaker’s dynamic gear-change storytelling and on-the-fly style of direction paid off, and since 1975 Spielberg has been recognised as one of the greats. His work is woven in heavy threads throughout pop culture, and so he has therefore influenced a couple of generations.

Think of the premise, tone and pace of the recent Netflix series Stranger Things. It is, basically, a love letter. A carefully crafted distillation and bottling of all that is great about the romp and childlike enthusiasm of Spielberg’s family / fantasy movies.

His stories have certainly also provided much source material for aspiring minds to debate. The brother of an acquaintance wrote his University dissertation on a theory he’d developed. It was that E.T. was an allegory for the second coming of Christ, and a demonstration of how the establishment would be threatened by that and militarise it down.

The Kintner kid aside, I think Spielberg has always presented a quite hopeful view of, and for, children and young people. When the right time comes for our child, the films could be really useful tools for my wife and I to press into service. For, in a safe ‘Sunday afternoon family TV session’ sort of way, they are empowering.

They offer constructive examples of children developing the courage to ask questions and the confidence to take on challenges. Getting on with the brain-work or the action that the ‘grown ups’ are too distracted or too lame or too stiff to get on with. Thinking smart. Showing pluck. Doing the right thing.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, they encourage the open mindedness to accept magic…

… even if, sometimes, magic just means a mechanical shark.