Books and Movies

Last Year's Best in Books, Movies, Intentions, Etc.

2017. The hits.

Let's start with the unexpected: documentaries. My picks for best of the year:

Electric Boogaloo and The Toys That Made Us go hand in hand, if you're in the mood for stories about mavericks who broke the rules and had great success doing so. Kedi is an amazing testament to humanity, of all things. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond and David Bowie: The Last Five Years make for an exceptional double-feature about the power of art, how it shapes the life of the artist from start to finish. Best watch them on separate nights, though. They'll both make you weep.

All of the above I saw on some streaming service, be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBO NOW. Same goes for the TV below, my top 6 (because I couldn't stop at 5):

We saw the return of Twin Peaks, a limited series event that blew our minds, defied all expectations, and broke our hearts. As a third season to Twin Peaks, it's an utter failure. As an 18-hour experimental film, it's a smashing success. Dark had me from the get-go, turned compulsive after the first episode. Stranger Things 2 didn't disappoint -- except that one episode (you know the one). And, hey, have you heard of Maria Bamford? If you haven't, put your ear to the ground for Lady Dynamite. Master of None: Season 2 proved a comedy for romantic cinephiles, and Game of Thrones: Season 7 showed us the chilling meaning of "A Song of Ice and Fire."

Movies. Best I saw:

No, Golden Globes, Get Out is not a comedy. What it is is the best thriller to come out of Hollywood in a very long time. It's also a horror film. The Shape of Water is achingly beautiful moviemaking. The Last Jedi isn't perfect, but it's great, nevertheless. Rian Johnson is the breath of fresh air the saga needed. The scariest movie I saw in 2017 was on Netflix: The Blackcoat's Daughter. Wonder Woman left us all believing that superheroes might be super again. And the sweetest moment of the year in any movie goes to the most successful horror film of all time, when Beverly Marsh opens Ben Hanscom's yearbook and finds the signature pages blank.

Speaking of horror, let's talk books. Nonfiction first:

Skal's biography of Bram Stoker is about as intimate as such a book can get, the highlight being Stoker's letters to Walt Whitman, a friendship that was forged in words. Grady Hendrix and Will Errickson have reignited an old hobby with Paperbacks from Hell: my paperback collection grew considerably this year. And At Home with Monsters has served as a true inspiration, offering up Guillermo Del Toro's very personal answers to the perennial question, "Does horror matter?" (Spoiler: of course it does.)

Here are a few great fiction writers who would agree with me.

I don't read novellas often, but Mapping the Interior was a one-sitting blaze. This is a remarkable book by Stephen Graham Jones. Philip Fracassi's Behold the Void came in the mail as a friendly thank-you from the author, and I couldn't put it down. And while Michael Wehunt's Greener Pastures may not have been published in 2017, that's when I read it, and it remains the single greatest collection of modern literary horror I think I've read. The Changeling is a powerful novel about family and monsters, as is Kevin Catalano's Where the Sun Shines Out, though his stories have no need of supernatural creatures. Kevin's monsters are the plain old human kind, and plenty scary. Finally, I discovered Jeremy Robert Johnson's fiction because I've been paying attention to the people I should be reading. In the River is mythic, poetic, and utterly terrifying.

Last of all, a brief note about best intentions for 2017:

These are just a few of the books I didn't get around to, and the only reason for that is, well, what a busy a year it's been. Still, I'm making these my priorities, and 2018 will see them read, among others not pictured, including those I've yet to buy that I don't have room for. You know how it is, right?

Finch v. Finch: or, the Strange Case of Harper Lee's GO SET A WATCHMAN

So: it’s a little over forty hours after the release of Harper Lee’s new-old novel, Go Set a Watchman, and by now, like me, like the rest of the world, you’ve either read the book or an article (or even just a headline) from TheNew York Times or The Guardian, preparing you for the eventuality that you aren’t going to like the way the story shakes out.

Wherever you fall in the conversation, you’re no doubt attempting to make sense of a few things. Me, I read the novel over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, via iBooks, and my own initial reaction to the text itself hewed pretty close to the five stages of loss and grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance. Even now, having finished the book and numerous reviews, most of which are being mildly generous to the text, I can’t quite settle on any one emotion.

Ultimately, the only way I can join the conversation is from the perspective of a writer. With Go Set a Watchman, we find ourselves at a strange juncture between the literary past and the literary present, and the effect is a kind of reader’s vertigo. In a way, we’re through a looking-glass, and nothing is what it seems.

But It’s Not a Sequel.

Before Tuesday’s release of Go Set a Watchman, here’s what we thought we knew, a la To Kill a Mockingbird: Jean Louise and Jem Finch come of age in the summer of 1936, when their father unsuccessfully defends a black man on trial for the rape of a nineteen-year-old white girl. Their lives are put in jeopardy by this defense. Their father, Atticus Finch, is a principled man who believes all are equal in the eyes of the law. He also believes his children should never presume to know another person’s mind or heart until they’ve walked in his or her skin.

Now, after Tuesday’s release, here’s what we think we know: Atticus Finch, later in life, is a pro-segregationist and a member of Maycomb’s white citizens’ council, and when Jean Louise and Jem were young he successfully defended a black man on trial for the rape of a fourteen-year-old white girl. His defense was successful based on proving consensual sex between the two. He openly loathes the NAACP and its political agenda, which has led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision threatening Alabama's right to maintain separate but equal facilities for whites and negroes.

But remember: nothing is what it seems.

My initial concern, before reading the book, was that Americans would not be able to hold in their heads two separate notions about such a sainted figure as Atticus, that this evolution of his character would be a dose of cynicism too strong for most to swallow. That no intelligent conversation would emerge from such a disappointing characterization of one of the great fictional heroes in American literature. Basically, that To Kill a Mockingbird’s themes would be undercut and served up on a plate to a cynical age when, in reality, America is in desperate need of racial healing.

One thing to keep in mind: this fear was predicated upon the notion that Watchman was a direct sequel to Mockingbird, a continuation of the same characters' stories. The book was sold to the public as such, complete with unrealistic expectations bound up in Harry Potter-esque midnight release parties, Atticus impersonators, and potluck read-a-thons (picture a moment when readers at coffee shops all over America spat hot lattes late Tuesday afternoon when Jean Louise discovers a racist pamphlet in her father’s pile of reading). But Go Set a Watchman is simply not a sequel. As the history of Mockingbird reminds us, it’s essentially a rejected manuscript that the author never visited again over five decades. At best, it can only be an alternative history to the one established in Mockingbird, as it presents a portrait of Atticus that is largely inconsistent with what came before.

Writing for Mashable, critic Hillary Busis posits that Go Set a Watchman could be the true account, that “Watchman is Jean Louise (a.k.a. Scout) Finch’s reality, while To Kill a Mockingbird is a gauzy imagined past." A “memory play that Jean Louise chose to write down after learning the heartbreaking truth about her father.” In her thoughtful piece, she calls Mockingbird a “cleaner story told by a nostalgic narrator.” While I do appreciate the challenges and conundrums such a re-visioning of Mockingbird entails, as a fiction writer who tends to emphasize process (a series of ordered steps: outlining, drafting, revising, publishing), I tend to think that what was published was final, unless, of course, the future text deliberately attempts to subvert the original (which Watchman does not and cannot, by virtue of being a scrapped project written before Mockingbird).

In the end, Go Set a Watchman just doesn’t jive as a sequel. Ultimately, it's far too mature a work to be re-jiggered via the "It was all a nostalgic fantasy" reading. And if certain crucial details of this book had aligned with Mockingbird’s (e.g. the outcome of the Tom Robinson trial, the presence of the Radley family, etc.), it might have started a conversation about fictional characters and their place in our hearts and lives, what happens when they let us down, but this is, factually, just not the same Atticus. Nor is it the same timeline. It’s not an extension or a deepening of the story; it’s a contradiction.

Finch v. Finch

In some ways, Go Set a Watchman would be a more interesting novel if To Kill a Mockingbird had never been written. Just getting over the emotional baggage of what it does to our beloved Atticus from Mockingbird gets in the way of talking about the progressive ideas in Watchman, and I don’t necessarily mean the book’s heavy-handed preoccupation with racism. Watchman presents in Jean Louise a Southern hero with a nuanced and intellectual point of view, and through her the book deals deftly with the subjects of feminism and classism. All men in the novel—from Jean Louise's doctor-uncle to her suitor Henry to Atticus himself—condescend to her and treat her as if she requires protecting from herself. Even the novel’s climax revolves around the notion of men enabling Jean Louise to become her own person. But throughout the book she maintains a fierce individualism and takes her Maycomb peers to task for their small-minded points of view about men, sex, religion, and, of course, civil rights—though she is hardly a crusader for the last of these when the novel begins.

Of particular interest to me was the book’s climax, in which Jean Louise and her father face off in a courtroom-style argument, Finch against Finch. At first, the argument concerns itself with the law, with the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the resulting fallout for states’ rights, which Jean Louise is actually a proponent of. (Curiously, Atticus, who believes in the law above all else, fails to see the validity of the Supreme Court’s decision and cannot abide it; this is a prescient moment in the novel, with our current climate of “religious freedom” advocates opposing the recent Supreme Court ruling with regard to same-sex marriage.)

Jean Louise, faced with the moral contradiction of Atticus’s racism, cannot confine her arguments to the Constitution, though, and soon father and daughter’s back-and-forth devolves into a verbal attack against Atticus, in which Jean Louise accuses her father of being a coward, a snob, and a tyrant. “You deny [negroes] hope,” she says. “Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart.” In her fury, she goes on to imply that Atticus Finch is no better than Adolf Hitler. “You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies,” she says.

Atticus remains calm and unflappable throughout, insisting that he loves his daughter, even as her trust in him completely dissolves. When she tells him she despises him, his answer is: “Well, I love you.”

This interplay is followed by a final scene in the Finch household between Jean Louise and her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, who attempts to put his niece’s confrontation with Atticus into perspective. After slapping Jean Louise twice and giving her a bit of whiskey to calm her down, he accuses her of being, by definition, a bigot herself. “What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions?” Uncle Jack wants to know. “He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.” This is the most complex moment in an altogether challenging and difficult novel, when a man whose viewpoint Jean Louise (and we) oppose turns the hero’s righteous indignation against her.

In this way, Go Set a Watchman is a heady work. It offers no easy answers and deals in shades of grey, whereas To Kill a Mockingbird painted in starker contrasts. The novel's release now, with the recent controversy over the Confederate flag in South Carolina and the ongoing civil rights struggle of same-sex couples, makes it a genuinely timely work—if not a timeless story, as its predecessor remains.

Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins

“Prejudice,” Uncle Jack says to Jean Louise in the final scene of the book, “a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” Go Set a Watchman takes us to the end of reason when Jean Louise has no words left for her father, when his wrong-headed thinking has exhausted her, has killed her spirit. But at the end of reason she also finds an end to a lifelong faith, faith in her father’s godhood. Her journey mirrors the reader’s, in this regard. And it is a dreary and fitting end, to be sure, given this Atticus Finch’s pro-segregationist views. There is hope, too, that in recognizing her father as human, there will come some type of reconciliation between them.

“I called you some pretty grim things,” she says to her father in the final pages. Atticus replies: “I can take anything anybody calls me, so long as it’s not true.” And one page later, the book ends, with Jean Louise's reflection upon her father as a flawed individual she must continue to love, in spite of her own watchman, her conscience. “I can’t beat him,” she thinks, “and I can’t join him—” And so the novel ends in emotional stalemate.

To Kill a Mockingbird also takes us to the end of reason, when Tom Robinson, an innocent man, is shot on the fence of a penitentiary. This defeat is no less dreary than Scout’s loss of faith in her father in Watchman, but Mockingbird understands the enduring power of defeat, how it shapes us, reveals the ways we can improve. Mockingbird gives us, in Atticus Finch, a man whose very ideals—his reason and devotion to the law—are ultimately inadequate to protect the lives of those he is sworn to defend, especially his own children. And here, in the final pages of the better novel, when a ghost saves the Finch children from the inevitable outcome of their father’s wrong-headed assertion that Old Man Ewell will not make good on his threat of violence, faith has its beginning, not its end. “Thank you, Arthur,” Atticus tells Boo Radley, “for my children.”

Go Set a Watchman makes no mention of Boo, and the narrative is lesser for it. Boo, after all, is the central mystery of Mockingbird. He is the unseen force in which the children place their faith, and their faith, ultimately, is rewarded, reminding us, the readers, of the dignity of all people. For this single thread, if no other, the story of Mockingbird is inherently more powerful, and this was something at least one good editor—and Harper Lee herself—understood over fifty years ago.

Not all novels are intended to reflect only the stark realities of the world in which we live. Some show us a world in which we’d like to live, and this is no small thing. In fact, a compelling, successful story set in such a world is a far greater achievement. Such a story is not the stuff of fantasies or childhood fairy tales, but the stuff of hope. The stuff of faith, which steps in to save us when reason cannot.

Batman and Me: On Tim Burton's BATMAN Turning 25

Tim Burton's Batman came along the summer I turned eleven and awoke my creative soul.

Looking back, of course, it also introduced me to consumerism, just as Star Wars had done for the first wave of my generation only ten years prior: I bought lobby cards, comic books, a novelization of the script, posters, action figures, rubber masks, rubber gauntlets. I had the breakfast cereal. The Batwing. The Batmobile. Bob the Goon. I asked Mom to order a copy of the Warner Bros. catalogue and checked off three pages of merchandise for Christmas that year. Pins. Playing cards. A laugh-box that, to my great disappointment, looked nothing like the Joker's in the movie. Mom also made me a homemade costume out of a gray sweatsuit, black fabric, and cardboard (for the ears). There's a picture of that somewhere, God help me. And, to this day, I still have a wooden fridge magnet I made myself at my grandmother's house with the bat-logo painted in acrylic. I was swept up in the rising tide of what the media called "Batmania." These days, we just call it fandom, which is, by turns, one of the great social movements of the twenty-first century or, more or less, a correct term for a marketing demographic.

Batman the movie brought with it a resurgence in the character's popularity. He was in demand, and he wasn't just for kids anymore. He was dark, he was brooding. He was Gothic. He was, in essence, Frank Miller's nightmarish vigilante, a hero of the modern psyche. I remember the first time I saw the leather-bound collection of Miller's Batman stories on display in the window of a Waldenbooks in 1988: The Complete Frank Miller Batman. Before this moment, as a kid, I had not paid much attention to anything called a "graphic novel." I doubt I even knew what a graphic novel was back then, but here was a beautiful, black, adult-looking thing with pages trimmed in silver, and when I priced one, I was thrilled. Sixty dollars! Serious stuff. Had I ever paid sixty dollars for anything at that point in my life? Moments later, I overhead two twenty-somethings talking about how great the book looked on their shelves at home, and that, I suppose, was how my epic Christmas list started. I couldn't pick the book up and flip through it because it was shrink-wrapped, and so the mystery of what lay inside was a tantalizing one. The reveal when I finally opened my copy was nothing short of a revelation: The Dark Knight Returns. Thirteen years later, I would place this book a reading list of influential fiction for my creative writing comps at Ole Miss. It was a book that taught me to take the fantastic seriously, to see the world not as a child sees it but as an adult, to look beyond the surface of a symbol and see the myriad complexities and contradictions at work within. I devoured it, read it and re-read it so many times the spine began to crack. There were other books that came along, among them Bob Kane's somewhat questionable autobiography Batman and Me, a book less interested in truth-telling, you might say, than myth-spinning. But it was filled with full-color panels of original 1930s storylines, and at the time, those weren't so easy to come by.

I began to draw around this time, too, at first just reproducing the character's various poses in the artwork that permeated the culture. Eventually, once my parents started paying for lessons, I came to art for its own sake, not to create color-pastel reproductions of Jack Nicholson's eyebrows and hairline but to make art as a fundamental expression of my own inner life. I never came to enjoy sketching as deeply as writing, which had come a few years earlier for me, but I did understand the connection between the two, the visual and the written: after all, Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and Frank Miller had also written their stories. So Tim Burton's Batman goes deep, I suppose, the whole phenomenon surrounding it, as well as the thrill of the film itself. Every year, as more and more Marvel movies come out, each more bombastic and labyrinthine than the last, each so determined to say something but clueless about what that something is, Batman grows more refined, more artful. Its chief pleasure stems from its timeless, mythic qualities: the city in decay, order out of chaos, the orphan hero. And beyond the superficial trappings of the merchandise I amassed and eventually lost or sold in so many garage sales, beyond its place as a touchstone of my childhood, it's a flashpoint of creativity: the moment when I understood the difference between standing on the outside of a display window looking in and wanting to make art for myself.

A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2014.

"The Film is a Poem..."

The first line of Roger Ebert's autobiography, Life Itself, is the kind of opening line most writers wish they had written: "I was born inside the movie of my life." It's an elegant, humble start to the story of a writer who became the only movie critic to ever win the Pulitzer prize. The only movie critic, it is said, that many people ever read. Well, for the sake of movie critics everywhere—and here I think Roger Ebert would agree with me—I hope that's not true.

Ebert left behind a lifelong career of loving movies, a body of written work unparalleled, save maybe in the works of the great Pauline Kael, a body of work he planned to continue building even as his own body was failing him. I knew him through his writing, and I found his prose always to be warm, witty, and eloquent, even when he was being downright acerbic. His criticism I sometimes liked less, as he occasionally got his facts wrong, misremembering or misquoting. Still, he always had an eye for the loving details, as in his review of Star Wars, where he notes Luke's landspeeder reminds him "uncannily of a 1965 Mustang."

A decade ago, when I began watching movies in earnest—which only means, with aspirations to write about how and why they move me—I usually disagreed with Ebert's overly generous, three- and four-star reviews of popular American films. His reviews of the great movies, though, I absorbed, so conversational and approachable was his style. As the years have gone by, I've mellowed in my own conversations, gotten more approachable myself when it comes to movies, and I see his work now in a different light. He was that rare and gifted writer who bridges the gap between his subject (cinema) and his readers (everyone). No small feat in a nation that still holds little respect for movies as art.

Tonight I watched McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of the greatest movies ever made about longing, isolation, love and loneliness. Ebert wrote this about it, in one of his finest reviews: "It is not often given to a director to make a perfect film. Some spend their lives trying, but always fall short. Robert Altman has made a dozen films that can be called great in one way or another, but one of them is perfect, and that one is McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This is one of the saddest films I have ever seen, filled with a yearning for love and home that will not ever come—not for McCabe, not with Mrs. Miller, not in the town of Presbyterian Church, which cowers under a gray sky always heavy with rain or snow. The film is a poem—an elegy for the dead."

It's a fitting kind of mourning, I think, to revisit this movie tonight. Ebert has been an undeniable influence upon this blog, just as another writer I once knew, Barry Hannah, was of immeasurable influence upon my fiction. I once thought Warren Beatty's achingly beautiful line—"I got poetry in me!"—might have been attributed to Barry, who spent some time in Hollywood in the seventies and worked with Robert Altman doctoring scripts. A friend chased that theory down and, straight from Barry's mouth, debunked it. But it's still the kind of line Barry would have written, probably wished he had, when he thought about it. And so McCabe & Mrs. Miller has always held a special place in my heart as the movie that reminds me of a writer who taught me, who teaches me still. Now, I guess, two such writers owe the film a debt.

In Life Itself, speaking of his own death, Ebert says, "What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins's theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, cliches that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting, and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes."

That list of memes seems like a thing McCabe might rattle off to himself, mumbling his heart out before a mirror, putting bullets in his pistol. Unlike McCabe, Ebert will be remembered for a much longer while, and he never mumbled.

A version of this post originally appeared via The Banana Tree of Jean Louis in 2013.

"Shark!" - Thoughts on JAWS Turning 35

"Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin and the hollerin they all come in and rip you to pieces."

"Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be livin. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah, then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin and the hollerin they all come in and rip you to pieces."

Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. From the novel by Peter Benchley. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1975.

In the first ten minutes of JAWS, Mayor Vaughn strong-arms Chief Brody into keeping mum about a girl killed by "probable shark attack" in the waters off Amity Island. His oily reasoning runs so: "You yell barracuda, everybody says, 'Huh, what?' You yell shark...and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

Lately, when I've told people that JAWS is -- and has always been -- my favorite movie, I've felt a lot like the guy yelling 'barracuda.' "Really?" people say, and cock their heads. "Huh." My wife tells me it's because people don't remember how good it is. They remember the movie, sure: the mechanical shark that sank to the ocean floor when the crew submerged it for the first time, the sharp decline in beach attendance in the summer of 1975, the famous line Brody utters upon first seeing the title character (everyone say it with me: "You're gonna need a bigger boat"). Lost in the fog of too few screenings, however, is what everyone's forgotten: like The Godfather or Star Wars or Casablanca or Gone With the Wind, JAWS remains one of the greatest of American movies.

I should point out how I intend the word "great" here: in the truest sense of the word, as in larger than others of its kind, remarkable, and important. Crystal and I were fortunate enough to happen upon a 35th anniversary screening at the Fox theater in Atlanta this past weekend. I'd never seen a theatrical print of the film before, so I suspected that to sit in the dark for two hours and see it projected wide and grainy and larger-than-life would be an experience akin to epiphany. It didn't disappoint.

Films like JAWS -- and there are so very few, perhaps not even one, when it comes down to it -- demand theatrical viewing if only because their scope cannot be contained. Spielberg utilizes a wide screen to its fullest potential, with foreground and background elements occupying extreme positions for maximum emotional effect: the chief's point-of-view shot past the head of a pestering city councilman, for example, his eyes -- and our eyes -- on a girl screaming in the water. Disparate images, the gulf between them emphasizing Brody's disconnection from the more mundane aspects of his job (why does a police chief have to get drunk and rail about the pressures of being a cop in crime-ridden New York when the simple political spaces one has to negotiate in small-town life seem so much less dangerous?). Nuances abound in this very large movie.

Something else: JAWS, like Star Wars, is a product of its director's youth and audacity. Spielberg hasn't really made great movies since the eighties. When asked by a college student whether studio support by way of millions of dollars in cash to fund his pictures might have hampered his artistic development, the late great Orson Welles famously replied: "No." Maybe that was true for Orson, a director who was never really less than successful even in abject failure. But for Spielberg the hunger kept him moving, much like the titular shark; sharks sink if they stop. Spielberg stopped being hungry sometime after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, his (and Lucas's) last movie born out of discontent, restlessness, and urgency.

I think I love JAWS most because it's virtually every arch-story the screen can hold: a stranger in a strange land ("Martin sits in his car on the ferry to the mainland..."), the ties of love and family ("Give us a kiss...because I need it"), a tale of friendship ("Why don't we have one more drink and sit down and cut that shark open?"), and a tale of pirates ("I'll never put on a life jacket again..."). It exploits the primal terror that lurks in all of us and somehow buoys the child in each of us.

I first saw the movie on television when I was six. There was a time -- I don't know if it's still the case, as I haven't subscribed to TV in almost a decade now -- when TBS ran JAWS once or twice a year. I recorded it and wore the tape out re-watching it. It wasn't until high school that I got my hands on the unedited film and saw, for the first time, a man's severed leg sinking to the bottom of the estuary, knotty and blossoming red. What violence it lacked the TV version famously made up for with scenes not in the theatrical release, like a little eccentricity of character, which serves to endear Quint (or is it to depict him as the madman he is?): he torments a young boy playing clarinet in a store.

JAWS is also a great movie, of course, because of what it did for the summer release schedule and the box office. Some might argue in this age of Michael Bay, well, that's no great legacy, but that would be unfair. Besides, in JAWS there is no blame to assign, only praise and fond memories. Cinematically speaking, it's a technical marvel and a milestone, a revolutionary work. A tough movie to make, and whenever I hear Spielberg weigh the challenges of making JAWS against the rewards -- "When I think of JAWS, I think of courage and stupidity," he has said -- I can't help feeling a surge of optimism regarding the infinite possibilities of popcorn movies.

JAWS is a great movie because it made me, a kid who hadn't seen very many movies yet, fall in love with the art form for reasons I couldn't articulate at six. I could only sit in front of the TV and gasp. It occurred to me, between similar gasps last weekend in the Fox, that had I been born a decade earlier, had I seen JAWS on the silver screen in the summer of 1975, my life might have turned out very differently. I might have been living in Hollywood today, trying my damnedest to direct movies. I like to think, though, that in the more intimate setting of my living room floor in 1984, from the moment the great white broke the water (and Quint's boat), I would forever be making movies -- and crying "Shark!" -- in my heart.