Golden Bananas

"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.

Death Proof

"Look, I don't know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun."

"Look, I don't know what futuristic utopia you live in, but the world I live in, a bitch need a gun."

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 2007.

My wife is a self-proclaimed post-feminist. This means that she talks about things like "the male gaze" in movies while folding my socks very neatly. She says that Tarantino nails girl-talk, and I believe her. He also subverts genre and creates something new out of what might have been pure exploitation. We move from the celluloid fantasy of girls' asses swinging to jukebox rhythms to the reality of women who carry guns to avoid being raped while doing laundry late at night to women who are indestructible. Call them death proof. Zoe the cat and her infinite lives. Death Proof, a guy once said, is just the kind of movie you enjoy with friends. As I have no better friend than the woman who folds my socks, what can I say but, "This is true."

Ladies, that was fun.

White Dog

"You got a four-legged time bomb!"

"You got a four-legged time bomb!"

Written by Curtis Hanson and Sam Fuller. Directed by Sam Fuller. 1982

I envy Curtis Hanson, then just a young screenwriter who got to sit in a room with Sam Fuller and "co-write" this script. Fuller's style is usually described as hard-hitting --for reasons literal as well as figurative -- but no one talks much about his tender side. Like Kurosawa he seems noted for one thing, relegated to his own brand of greatness. Cigar-chomping, pistol-packing, etc. There's a great deal of beauty here --imbued with truth -- that might go unseen if you're not watching closely. Hanson lobbied against the window featuring St. Francis, but Fuller knew exactly what he wanted and why he wanted it. That's greatness among directors.

Movie Review: Excalibur

excalibur

Written by Rospo Pallenberg and John Boorman. Directed by John Boorman. 1981.

"On second thought," the Pythons tell us, "Camelot is a silly place. Let's not go there." To the Pythons I answer: but John Boorman's vision of it is absolutely extraordinary! Like a knight struck by a mace and whirling in circles upon the field, I'm dazzled by the costumes, cinematography, and acting. Performances momentous, among them Nicol Williamson's Merlin and Helen Mirren's Morgana. Yes, there is a goofy, sexed-up vibe to the production, but it's so in-check by the director's steady hand that Excalibur becomes much more than a sword-and-sorcery epic. It's a story of forgiveness set against the backdrop of memory. Simply incredible.

"...it is the doom of men that they forget." -- Merlin

5_long

Two-Lane Blacktop

"You can never go fast enough."

"You can never go fast enough."

Written by Rudy Wurlitzer and Will Corry. Directed by Monte Hellman. 1971.

Two-Lane Blacktop is a movie about the greatest of all movie subjects: loneliness -- in particular that sense of isolation that comes with and is symbolized by the changing landscape of the road. These characters "can't get no satisfaction," as the Girl sings to herself, playing pinball in Arkansas. The loneliest of all is Warren Oates as G.T.O., a magnificent and goofy liar whose fabrications are ultimately woven from the lives of the car-freaks he's racing. He tells his fantastic lies to the odd hitchhikers he picks up, one of whom, the Oklahoma Hitchhiker, is "H.D. Stanton." Harry Dean slips his hand onto Oates' knee. "I'm not into that!" Oates barks. "I thought it might help you to relax," H.D. says. The joke, of course, is that nothing will. G.T.O. has no time for momentary satisfaction. He wants the pleasure of beating another man in a race and stealing his girl, the sense of personal triumph that wins him loyalty and love. Possibilities not in the road unspooling behind these characters, but rather in the blacktop still before them. "Those satisfactions," Oates says, "are permanent."

As genuine and complete a vision as I've seen.

Punch-Drunk Love

"I didn't do anything. I'm a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me 'that's that' before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say 'that's that', Mattress Man."

"I didn't do anything. I'm a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me 'that's that' before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say 'that's that', Mattress Man."

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. 2002.

I believe the best love stories spring from lonely characters, and Barry Egan is as lonely as characters come. His and Lena's walk hand in hand down the hallway of the Princeville Hotel in Hawaii is the sort of scene you crave in movies: the consolidation of two lonely hearts observed discreetly. For much of the movie, we're in Barry's head. Not here. Here, the director knows it's time to step back and watch these wondrous characters from afar, to give them their privacy, and we're oh so happy for them. "Perfect for Romance" is the Princeville's motto. Punch-Drunk Love is perfect for it, too.

Twin Peaks

"Bobby, may I share something with you? A vision I had in my sleep last night—as distinguished from a dream, which is a mere sorting and cataloguing of the day’s events by the subconscious. This was a vision: fresh and clear as a mountain stream, the mind revealing itself to itself. In my vision I was on the veranda of a vast estate, a palazzo of some fantastic proportion. There seemed to emanate from it a light, from within this gleaming, radiant marble. I had known this place. I had, in fact, been born and raised there, and this was my first return—a reunion with the deepest wellsprings of my being. Wandering about, I noticed happily that the house had been immaculately maintained. There had been added a number of additional rooms, but in a way that blended so seamlessly with the original construction, one would never detect any difference. Returning to the house’s grand foyer, there came a knock at the door. My son was standing there. He was happy and carefree, clearly living a life of deep harmony and joy. We embraced—a warm and loving embrace, nothing withheld. We were, in this moment, one. My vision ended. I awoke with a tremendous feeling of optimism and confidence in you and your future. That was my vision. It was you."

"Bobby, may I share something with you? A vision I had in my sleep last night—as distinguished from a dream, which is a mere sorting and cataloguing of the day’s events by the subconscious. This was a vision: fresh and clear as a mountain stream, the mind revealing itself to itself. In my vision I was on the veranda of a vast estate, a palazzo of some fantastic proportion. There seemed to emanate from it a light, from within this gleaming, radiant marble. I had known this place. I had, in fact, been born and raised there, and this was my first return—a reunion with the deepest wellsprings of my being. Wandering about, I noticed happily that the house had been immaculately maintained. There had been added a number of additional rooms, but in a way that blended so seamlessly with the original construction, one would never detect any difference. Returning to the house’s grand foyer, there came a knock at the door. My son was standing there. He was happy and carefree, clearly living a life of deep harmony and joy. We embraced—a warm and loving embrace, nothing withheld. We were, in this moment, one. My vision ended. I awoke with a tremendous feeling of optimism and confidence in you and your future. That was my vision. It was you."

Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. 1990-1991.

David Lynch, like our hero Agent Dale Cooper, sees things: the horror in a ceiling fan winking in the dark or the slow, portentous change of a stoplight from green to yellow to red. Cooper sees Douglas firs soughing in the wind, a snowshoe rabbit, a hog reflected in a dead girl's eye. With his Old Hollywood love of femme fatales and drop-top cars, Lynch is, like Coop, at heart, a believer. In a town where murder and torment are commonplace, Agent Cooper shores up the darkness with coffee and pie. ("Harry," he tells the sheriff, "I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.") But Lynch also has a shadow-self -- the Dweller on the Threshold -- and his doppleganger is nothing if not a skeptic. In the final episode of Season 2, these two selves meet and do battle, just as Special Agent Cooper confronts his own dark self in the waiting room of the Black Lodge. Coop meets the challenge with perfect courage, offering up his soul as sacrifice for Annie's; the end result of that offer proves the Major's greatest fear to be prophetic: love might not be enough.

Or is it?

Lost Highway

"I had a dream about you last night."

"I had a dream about you last night."

Written by Barry Gilford and David Lynch. Directed by David Lynch. 1997.

"I like to remember things my own way," says Fred. "How I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened." Seems that's the key to figuring out the enigma of Lost Highway. You might say Lynch was working out an idea here that he would perfect in Mulholland Dr.: the murder of one's lover and the rationalizing fantasy that follows (only, in Mulholland Dr., the fantasy comes first and the murder is the reveal). Here, instead of killing himself afterward, Bill Pullman ends up in jail, and in jail he breaks from reality, is reborn innocent (complete with new body and identity), and proceeds to reconstruct the pieces of his past in order to justify the murders he's committed -- his wife's and her lover's, a man named Dick Laurent, aka Mr. Eddy. Or is Mr. Eddy, like platinum-blonde Alice, just a fantasy, substituting for Andy (Eddy/Andy), whom Pullman suspected of cheating with his wife at the beginning of the film (it's hinted at that he discovers their infidelity in room 26 of the mysterious Lost Highway Hotel)? Either way, the video camera wielded by creepy Robert Blake is a lot like the little blue box and key in Mulholland Dr. It's the signifier of memory, one that Fred ultimately rejects in favor of his own re-creation. It's creepy as hell.

Also: nobody makes sunshine and breezes as frightening as David Lynch.

Mulholland Dr.

"I had a dream about this place."

"I had a dream about this place."

Written and directed by David Lynch. 2001.

Mulholland Dr. is a movie about Hollywood. As such, it fits snugly into a category of films that's one of my favorites: the dream factory dreaming of itself. Lynch's major entry into this sub-genre is specifically about achieving some sense of identity in a place that subverts identity on a regular basis, promoting some to stardom and discarding others. For Diane, one of the discarded, it's about wish-fulfillment, dreams come true. Which is, in the end, if not reality, Hollywood. All the rest -- magic keys and scary old people and dimly lit apartments -- are just the trappings of truth.

The Last Picture Show

"If she was here I'd probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about 5 minutes. Ain't that ridiculous? Naw, it ain't really. Cause being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that's what's ridiculous. Gettin old."

"If she was here I'd probably be just as crazy now as I was then in about 5 minutes. Ain't that ridiculous? Naw, it ain't really. Cause being crazy about a woman like her is always the right thing to do. Being an old decrepit bag of bones, that's what's ridiculous. Gettin old."

Written by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich. From the novel by Larry McMurtry. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. 1971.

When I was in high school, I played trumpet in band. Every Friday night football game we played, we marched. Which meant heavy drilling during the week, after-school practices, an early end to summer -- all so the fans could come and cheer for everyone but us. A girl stood next to me in the bleachers, this freckled, brown-haired flag-twirler. She played first trumpet. So did I. We shared a lyre of music. Every now and then, her shoulder touched mine. I hated football games. Still do. Lately, I've been thinking about these things. Football games, that girl -- now married, someone's wife, mother, etc., a passenger departed from the everyday train of memory, like most of my hometown. How dull, the utterly ridiculous necessity of high school, the motions we were required to go through, the roles we were required to play. The pain we were required to endure. And yet, there is, from time to time, when the wind blows right and the light slants just, a caul of nostalgia over it all. It's comforting, somehow. I can't put my finger on it, actually. Youth.

I think, just maybe, this movie does.