Tuesday, June 20, 2023
June 20, 1975. The Captain and Tennille are on top of the charts with Love Will Keep Us Together. A Czech football player is born and a Mexican violinist dies. The moon is in a waxing gibbous phase.
And Jaws is released in theaters for the first time.
It’s summer blockbuster season, when movies from Grease to Independence Day, The Sixth Sense to Top Gun became part of our cultural lexicon.
And the summer blockbuster as we know it was born from the jaws of that Steven Spielberg hit.
I am not as interested in movies as I am interested in things about them. I love the trivia and the cultural impact, the disasters-turned-classics, and the way you can trace social evolution by the dialogue it spawns.
Ralph is a huge movie buff. He studied film in college long before he picked up a computer keyboard, where he worked on the sets of some more obscure but artistically influential films, even did a special effect for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
He loves movies. He loves “film” which is what movie snobs call movies. I guess it’s like calling a book “literature” for us book snobs. Not every movie gets to be a “film” the same way not every novel gets to be “literature.”
It’s in the telling and the art.
But his love of movies has led to my seeing of them. If not for him I suspect I would not be as versed in the Marvel multiverse, nor would I be able to discuss the moral underpinnings of El Topo.
For all that, I don’t think I could name five movies that I love, but if I could, they’d probably be 80s movies with John Cusack.
Unlike books, I tend to forget movies very quickly, however much I enjoyed them. I can be riveted to the screen, spend a half hour animatedly poring over the details with Ralph in the car afterwards, then in about a month I will be scanning Netflix and ask Ralph, did we see that movie?
Also unlike books, I tend to not want to repeat them. Ralph can – and does – watch the same movie a billion times (on average). He watches them in the shower. On the treadmill. On the Peloton. He plays them in the background while he works.
He can quote a truly absurd number of movie lines, and thanks to him I have a few up my sleeve even though I usually never remember where they’re from.
If I ever spew out a random quote at you, it’s probably from a movie I don’t remember.
Ralph also loves the art of film. He can talk to you all day about camera angles and the use of a G-flat in the music score during the second act.
Yeah, he knows a lot about movie scores, too.
When he is not playing a movie he is playing a movie score.
I know what the Wilhelm Scream is thanks to him, and can pick it out every time.
So when I saw that today was the birthday of Jaws, and subsequently the birth of the summer blockbuster as we know it, it seemed only fitting that I write about movies.
Not specific movies, because I’m not kidding when I say I don’t remember them, except for a few iconic ones that I have, in actual fact, seen about a billion times, things like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ghostbusters, and quite possibly every John Cusack movie.
But I want to write about movies in general, things I remember about the experience that is movies and how they inserted themselves into my life.
Starting with… Pete’s Dragon. Do I remember this movie? Only vaguely. What I remember more is that I went to see it on a class trip. My mother chaperoned, and we went in all our grandeur to Radio City Music Hall.
I remember the dragon. I remember the music because Helen Reddy. Come on.
I remember crying.
That is what I would call my first moviegoing memory. I don’t think we had movies back in the day the way you have movies now. Nowadays there is a new talking fish or an animated yellow gob with goggles every five minutes.
For me as a kid it was mostly about Willie Wonka and Herbie, but I don’t recall if I saw those in theaters or just on TV when they came around.
I do remember the first R-rated movie I didn’t see.
I was 14.
A friend was having a birthday party, and a gaggle of teenage girls was hanging out eating chips and talking about boys. Then it was movie time, and my friend’s mother put on Trading Places.
I raised my figurative hand and told her that I was not allowed to watch R-rated movies.
Yes, this is the kind of kid I was. Could explain a few things about how many people liked me back then, but what can you do.
I called my mother so I could ask if she’d make an exception for the birthday party. My mother did not make an exception.
So what does any self-respecting teenage girl do?
Hangs up the phone and goes into the living room to watch the movie anyway and then tells mom later that she didn’t see it.
I’m kidding. I sat in the kitchen and spent two hours talking to my friend’s mother.
I bet that’s exactly what she had in mind when she plugged the birthday party into the TV screen, but we all bear our crosses.
I can tell you two things with certainty. One, I did not ride the Dragon Coaster until I was one inch above the height line. Two, I did not see an R-rated movie until after I turned 17.
Jaws was rated PG. I’m just saying. Shark. Eating people.
I didn’t see Jaws, either, not until much later in life.
At the time of its release it struck terror into people’s hearts. That didn’t turn out so well for sharks, who were reviled and feared and murdered with impunity.
I’m not saying that the movie was responsible for the mass hunting of sharks, I’m just saying people are irresponsible. On the plus side, it also sparked a bit of a fascination with them, so they were killed off then subsequently studied and protected.
Do you know what your risk of death by shark is? One in more than four million.
You’re exponentially more likely to die by firework, which puts your odds at one in about 350,000. Happy Fourth Of July. You’re better off deep-sea swimming than lighting a sparkler.
Number of fatalities from shark attacks, on average, in the United States each year: one.
And if you live in Wyoming, you can reduce that by one.
I don’t remember if I found Jaws scary. I think by the time I saw it I had seen so many Chucky movies and chainsaw massacres that it didn’t even register.
I used to hate horror movies. But you see enough of them and you hate them for totally different reasons.
I do remember the most terrified I’ve ever been.
In college Ralph and I went to a midnight showing of Silence of the Lambs. The theater was a few blocks away, and you got to it by walking a back street up a hill through a deserted residential area before reaching the main street.
This was all fine and good until the movie credits rolled and we were one deserted side street too many away from our dorms.
In high school I failed gym class because I could not run a mile in under ten minutes. But my speed in getting back to a lit dorm that night was Usain quality.
I have always loved scary books. I’ve read every Stephen King novel, sometimes twice. I lost a lot of sleep after reading some of them, too, but I loved them nonetheless.
I could not, however, bring myself to watch the bathtub scene in The Shining probably until I was about 45.
Even then I closed my eyes and only peeked to see if I wanted to see, which I didn’t. To this day I have literally never watched the thing in its entirety.
I’ve seen every Halloween and Amityville horror, but I still close my eyes when the face melting thing happens in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think I made myself watch that scene once, probably in a “face your fears it’s an 80s movie” moment, but then never watched it again.
These are the things I remember about movies.
Bonus trivia: Jaws takes place on the fictional Amity Island, with Martha’s Vineyard as its stand-in. Amityville is a real place in Long Island, and the house was a real house where a brutal series of murders took place. They are not related.
Do you know why Jaws was so scary? It was because the shark broke.
Before computer generated animatics, the Jaws was an actual mechanical prop. A 1.2 ton pneumatically powered prop. That did not approve of being dumped into the ocean.
It failed so infamously that a great deal of the movie’s ethos is derived from the fact that no shark makes it onto the screen until an hour and twenty one minutes into its two hour runtime.
But genius is born on the back of strife, so Steven Spielberg went with a Hitchcock-style plan. And it worked because it’s never what you can see that is terrifying. It’s what you can’t.
Only movie I ever walked out on: Tree of Life. It was so inexplicably boring that between the two of us we couldn’t take it.
Movie where I had an actual panic attack: Tenet. We saw it in a Dolby theater where the chairs are rigged so you can “feel” the special effects. When things explode, your chair booms. When there is gunfire, your chair vibrates. I truly hate this experience. I want to watch a movie, not be in it.
We didn’t get tickets to that theater on purpose, we just got tickets, and they happened to be in that theater. In the opening scene a concert hall is under siege from terrorists who come in with machine guns blazing. This was mid-Covid, the first movie we had seen since lockdown, and sitting in that theater, everyone with their masks on, volume at deafening levels, gunfire coming from everywhere, chair rattling my brain, was… what do the kids say? Triggering.
Movie tropes I hate: when something interesting happens then the scene cuts to “two years earlier.”
I don’t care what happened two years earlier! I want to see what’s happening now! Just start the movie two years earlier!
Other movie trope I hate: when everything stops so a character can tell you a story.
I’m already watching a story! Shut up and get on with it! This is usually a poor excuse for an info dump, or else it’s character building gone awry. Think grandpa-got-stuck-in-a-chimney-on-Chritmas from Gremlins.
Often, though, I enjoy bad movies as much as I enjoy good ones. Boring movies, that’s a whole other thing. But bad movies are great. If Jaws is a paragon of brilliant moviemaking, Sharknado is its idiot step-twin. I enjoy them both for different reasons.
Best worst movie I have ever seen, many times: The Room. Seriously, look it up. Watch it. Let the confusion roll through you. I promise you will be quoting it for the rest of your life.
Type of movie I would never see again if I didn’t have to: anything with, about, or set during a war.
Type of movie I will see every time no matter what: anything with Harrison Ford.
Type of movie that is almost always disappointing: anything based on a book I liked.
Type of book I will never buy: one with a movie poster cover.
I feel like I’ve given movies their due today, in a rather sufficient number of words. Now it’s time to make a cocktail and… probably not watch a movie.
Photo: some kitties trying not to look at the scary parts.