December 23, 2015

JAWS 2 and the Call of the Wild

Starring Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Jeffrey Kramer, Joseph Mascolo. Directed by Jeannot Szwarc. (1978, 116 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON
I love animals, even the scary ones (well, maybe not spiders).

I also respect them more than I do most people, because animals are 100% bullshit free. They never lie, have hidden agendas or waste time trying to be something they're not. There isn't a beast on Earth that gives a fuck about its image, political correctness or getting offended when shit doesn't go their way. Many species are forced to venture into the world with the daily knowledge they could be eaten, but you never hear them bitching about it. Kinda makes complaining about waiting too long for your glorified milkshake at Starbuck's seem rather petty, doesn't it?

They are unburdened by the moral, cultural and societal baggage which tends to weigh down the human race (and renders a lot of us total fuckheads). In the game of life, animals are strictly in it for themselves, exist in the moment and make no pretense suggesting otherwise. Not only that, they're equipped from birth with everything they need to make a go at living. That purity renders them supremely admirable.

On a daily basis, I witness a microcosm of the wild kingdom in my own home, which I share with a dog (Murphy) and two cats (Joesy & Stinky). Even in this domesticated environment, the awesome simplicity of their existence is pretty amazing.

For example, whenever a human being has to take a shit, it's a fucking event. We need plenty of privacy, toilet paper, a good magazine and about 15 uninterrupted minutes. As for myself, I also carry the burden of being pretty uncomfortable dropping a deuce anywhere but my own bathroom.

Murphy, on the other hand, simply runs to the door and lets me know "I gotta poo!" Once released, he sniffs around, drops his load and trots away. The whole thing takes about a minute and he doesn't even need to wipe afterwards (speaking of which...if we're such an evolutionarily-advanced species, why are we still incapable of dumping without thoroughly wiping ourselves?). Not only that, dogs have zero modesty; they shit whenever and wherever they feel the need, regardless who's watching. That's how they fuck too. If I engaged in either of those acts in public, I'd be writing this piece from the confines of a jail cell.

We hold animals to different standards, and personally, I find their egocentric traits rather endearing. Whenever I feed Murphy but he's still hungry afterwards, he'll venture to Joesy's bowl because...fuck Joesy. In turn, Joesy will eat Stinky's food because...fuck Stinky. Animals fuck each other over all the time, and whenever we pet owners attempt to scold them (projecting our own sense of right and wrong), they don't know what the hell we're talking about because it's their job not to give a damn about anyone but themselves. I love my animals because they're animals and don't view the world the way I do. I love the fact that most of their actions would be considered selfish and immoral by human standards. That's part of the fun of having them around the house; they're sort-of like perpetual toddlers.

For me, that's the inherent reason most horror movies featuring rampaging animals don't really work that well. When presented as creatures driven by pure instinct, it's difficult to really hate them. For a creature to be a true movie villain, you have to give it some human qualities.

The greatest example of this, of course, is Jaws.

In my humble opinion, Jaws is the greatest film of all time, the ultimate depiction of man vs. nature with the most relentless and terrifying antagonist ever presented onscreen. Not only that, the main characters are as well-rounded and fully realized as any 'serious' drama you'd care to name. But if you're even remotely knowledgeable about sharks, you're also aware Jaws ain't exactly a documentary. Sharks don't toy with their prey or have a particular craving for human flesh, nor would they spend a couple of days trying to kill the same three guys. Sharks don't really give a damn about people in general, and their relatively shitty eyesight accounts for more human deaths than a taste for human blood.

But Jaws cemented the public's perception of sharks as nefarious, crafty beasts lurking just off the coast in anticipation of the next poor bastard to stick his toe in the water. It's a credit to Steven Spielberg, John Williams and, to a lesser extent, Peter Benchley (his original book really sucked), that Jaws remains one of the scariest films of all time. Why? Because in reality, all we really need to do to avoid being devoured by a shark is stay the fuck out of the ocean, where we don't really belong to begin with, yet Jaws still had us convinced any animal with a dorsal fin was gunning for us.

There’s none of that visceral terror in Jaws 2, though it arguably presents sharks in a slightly more realistic light.

"Om-nom-nom," said Jaws.

Jaws was such a huge hit (the first summer blockbuster as we've come to define it) that a sequel was inevitable. But even as a naive teenager spending his hard-earned allowance and lining-up to see it in ’78, I knew the very idea of Jaws 2 was creatively pointless. Any sequel, now matter how brilliantly assembled, would simply be more-of-the-same.

Yet, it could never be the same. Like losing your virginity, the cinematic & cultural impact of a film like Jaws can effectively happen only once. The very nature of the film didn’t naturally lend itself to further chapters. Spielberg knew it, too, which was why he declined returning to the director's chair for this one. Not only that, only one character of the three that mattered in the original returned for Jaws 2: Roy Scheider as Chief Brody (who signed on because he was contractually obligated to Universal after dropping out of The Deer Hunter). With all these factors working against it, it's a minor miracle that it didn’t end-up being another Exorcist II.

Released four years later, Jaws 2 features a batch of obnoxious teenage boaters (including Brody’s dumbass, pussy-whipped son) who willfully ignore Brody’s suspicion that another shark is lurking off the coast of Amity Island. In fact, nobody believes him, not the town council or even his own wife. Brody turns out to be right, of course, movie. As directed by Jeannot Szwarc (most famous at-the-time for the creepy cheapie, Bug), there are no surprises, nor any real scares or new story elements which justify its existence... for one thing...

The original Jaws offered viewers a malevolent, conniving creature which (almost) seemed to have a distinct personality, with an uncanny knack for toying with people, especially during the masterful final act. On the other hand, the shark in Jaws 2 behaves more like my cats. Even though Joesy & Stinky often go outside and hunt, it isn't out of necessity, but simply because...fuck that bird (or snake, or mouse...whatever they're able to taunt to death and leave on the porch). And it's kinda fun watching them kill for no reason other than the fact they're cats and simply can't help themselves.

"Om-nom-nom," said Jaws again.

This shark chomps down on damn-near anything in the water...people, whales, boats, helicopters, teenagers (which aren’t the same as people), and we’re pretty certain the only thing on this fish’s mind is fuck those teenagers and fuck that helicopter. It certainly can't be because the damn thing's still hungry.

These sequences are fun and entertaining because, like my dog and cats, it’s just a shark doing shark stuff, 100% bullshit free, at-least as we understood these animals back in 1978. And since it's the only remotely interesting character in the entire film, I was cheering-on the shark from the get-go.

In the original, Steven Spielberg was forced to be creative because the mechanical beast was always breaking down. By seldom actually showing the shark, he cranked the suspense to almost unbearable levels. But the shark in Jaws 2 shows up early and often, repeatedly bursting from the water and mindlessly gnashing its jaws like my ill-mannered dog when trying to steal a scrap off the dinner table (because...fuck your meatloaf). We never feel the same visceral terror that we did with Jaws, and because of that, it’s hard to view the shark in Jaws 2 as a true villain. He’s just doin’ the animal thing that I’ve come to love and respect more than most bullshit people I regularly encounter in my life.

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