Jaws premiered 35 years ago today, and the internet’s abuzz about it. Plenty of articles, blog posts and e-partying, which I think is really great. Turns out there are many of us out there who call it My Favorite Film. It’s a nice community to be in. (I’ve included a few links below.)
This film is a part of me on a molecular level1, and I’ve already done two posts on it (Before and After and The Many Faces of…). I have many more Jaws-related posts in me, however, I fear they’ll all quickly devolve into bitching about the bad sound mix done in 2000 (see my Before and After post if you don’t believe me). But I don’t want that kind of anger to taint this wonderful anniversary.
Tell you what: my post today will be predominantly about a great moment within Jaws—and towards the end of the post, maybe I’ll grumble a little about what it sounds like in the theaters today.
OK, here’s the scene, which I’ll call the Whale Song scene: Brody, Hooper and Quint are on the Orca, and Quint’s just finished his Indianapolis story. The mood is as quiet as the film will ever get—on the Orca at least—and the silence is interrupted by the sound of a whale in the distance. Naturally, this freaks out Brody, land-lubber that he is. Pay attention to the whale’s interaction with the others…
This is as beautiful as it gets. Gentle, haunting. Let’s break it down, since I think it gets even better under scrutiny:
-Quint’s story ends. The guys are humbled by his tale. All of us (Brody, Hooper and the audience) have a better understanding of what drives this shark hunter.
-The whale cries; Brody reacts; Hooper explains, “It’s a whale.”
-Quint sings with a small smile, “Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish lady…”
-The whale cries again.
-Quint joins the whale, continuing, “Farewell and adieu, you ladies of Spain…”
-The whale cries the last time.
-Hooper picks up as soon as the whale is done: “Show me the way to go home…”
In a nutshell, Quint duets with the whale, making his spiritual kinship with the sea even more pronounced than his Indianapolis story did. In fact, you could say that, yes, he’s got issues with sharks but not with the ocean. It’s obvious this is a man who plans to die at sea.
And the fact that Hooper follows his lead—singing a song that asks for “the way home”—could be seen as foreshadowing Quint’s ultimate demise2 a couple of reels later. (Tellingly, in the first version of the script to include the singing, it’s Quint who begins “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”)
I don’t normally read this much into films, but Jaws is so chock full of subtleties, nuances, and idiosyncrasies I’m inclined to think everything is there for a reason. By all accounts—Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log; Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent “The Making of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws”; comparing the few drafts of the screenplay floating around the internet against the end result—this was by-the-seat-of-their-pants filmmaking, with re-writing and improvisation happening at every turn—and yet the young director had a vision and a clear focus on the characters’ purpose within the scheme of the story. Therefore, it’s very likely (to me) that Spielberg directed Robert Shaw to imagine he was singing with the whale.
It bears another viewing…
Of course, a sound effect this distinct prompts questions from an old sound editor like myself: Who picked the actual sound? Who placed it in the film, timing it the way it is? I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Spielberg, perhaps even choosing it prior to shooting. At the very least, a sound effect this important would have been settled upon in the editing room, with input from editor Verna Fields. I can’t imagine the film going through the entire picture edit without any whale sound there, waiting for a sound editor to dig up something appropriate. It’s just too important a sound effect.
But I do have an idea what the scene would sound like without that whale sound. As I wrote in my first post, Jaws was originally mixed in mono (for which it won an Oscar), and when it came out on DVD in 2000, it was remixed for surround sound. Yet for some still-unknown reason, many of the film’s juiciest sound effects were either missing or replaced by something noticeably different or inferior. Sadly, the Whale Song scene, one of my favorite sounding scenes in the film, has been decimated…
I know I said I wasn’t going to bitch too much in this post, but here goes:
1. The interplay between the whale and Quint and Hooper is gone. Instead, the whale now cries the same time as Quint, which leaves those pockets of silence wide open. The average ear, hearing a film for the first time, is trained to listen to the characters, and any sound placed beneath them will be a distraction. When I used to sound edit, we had a basic rule: it was OK to have sound FX/design wedged in between lines of dialog. (Joe Sixpack, when hearing a sound effect snuck in between some dialog, isn’t going to say, “Hey, they stuck that sound in there because nothing else was going on!” Trust me on that.)
2. This new whale sound is creepy and happy at the same time—but definitely not mournful in the way the original is. It also sounds like the whale was miked closely when it was recorded and it still sounds that way. Gone is the feeling of distant crying.
3. Where are all those great boat creaks and groans?! Now the scene sounds like it was filmed on a soundstage (it wasn’t). Check this out. This short clip begins with the new mix and then crosses over into the original, personality-filled mix. (You may have to crank this up for full effect.)
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why any of this was done. But I do know this: if Jaws ever gets its long-overdue theatrical re-release, it will have this anemic mix—and that’s a shame.
But, hey! Enough of my old man grumblin’! Back to the celebratin’!
I’m going to leave you with a couple of gifts. First, here’s those links to some very interesting Jaws-related blogs and articles:
–Radiation-Scarred Reviews has been doing a week-long Sharkathalon, which includes posts about shark films before and after Jaws as well as links to other blogs posting about the film.
–Too Much Horror Fiction has some great samples of Jaws in print; and its sister blog Panic on the 4th of July has equally exciting examples of Jaws posters.
–Hunting Bruce, or, on the Trail of the Jaws Shark, an NPR piece about a journalist fulfilling a life-long dream of literally touching the mechanical shark
And lastly, a song. The song. And this might be the version the guys were referencing:
I suggest you crank it up, grab a friend or two, and sing along.
BACK TO POST 1 Obviously, Jaws is the Big Mac Daddy of Quotable Films. Oh, sure, there’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and “Back home we got a taxidermy man–He’s gonna have a heart attack when he sees what I brung him!” Y’know, the quotes we hear peppering our everyday lives. But I’m talking about a deeper layer, like “(inhale).” That’s when Brody gets out of bed, inhaling and standing up straight, which is how I’ve gotten out of bed most days of my life. Or this old chestnut: “(sniff).” Of course, I’m referring to Brody walking down the street of Amity, sniffing sharply then looking up at the birds. I do that one every Fall day.
BACK TO POST 2 Or is it “demeeze”?