Why Steven Spielberg's Jaws Still Has Bite, 41 Years Later

Bathers flee in a panic from the shark horror in Jaws, playing at FilmBar on June 6.EXPAND
Bathers flee in a panic from the shark horror in Jaws, playing at FilmBar on June 6.
Courtesy of Universal

When Joe Fortunato was 7 years old, he refused to get into the bathtub. Or go swimming in his cousin's pool. Or join the family's annual summer beach trip.

"My mom took me to see Jaws," Fortunato says, before adding with a laugh, "We can question my mother's parenting skills."

Forty years later, Fortunato is a full-time professor at ASU's School of Film, Dance, and Theatre. He has gotten over his fear of the water, but not his obsession with Steven Spielberg's first big hit. In collaboration with FilmBar, Fortunato will show and comment on Jaws on Friday and Saturday, June 10 and 11, as part of the Film School series he inaugurated at the downtown Phoenix movie house a year ago. (Originally, the film was to be screened just once on Monday, June 6.) During the event, Fortunato will give a short introduction about the importance of the film and then screen the movie, stopping on occasion to point out iconic shots or movie trivia associated with the production. The evening ends with a Q&A between him and audience members. 

Film School is a program Fortunato developed back in his undergraduate days at Yale and continued years later in the Valley, after a 15-year career in Hollywood as a development executive and a writer. He screened iconic films in social settings, living rooms, and clubhouses in the Phoenix area, before he approached FilmBar about holding it there. Not knowing just how it would be received, FilmBar set Fortunato up in the lounge for a screening of Citizen Kane.

"People are showing up, and soon the lounge is full and it became a fire hazard," he recalls. The manager refunded the handful of people who'd shown up for an actual movie in one of the theaters and moved the Film School crowd into the auditorium. 

"I think we've done about five or six now. So far, they've all sold out or come close to it."

Past films have included Casablanca, Singin' in the Rain, The Graduate, and Charlie Chaplin's City Lights. Film School runs every two months, and the next session's movie is announced at the current screening. Jaws has been highly anticipated by Film School regulars, partly because they know it's Fortunato's favorite movie.

"As a film professor, I get asked what's your favorite movie literally almost every day. Sometimes people are surprised by [the answer]. They expect me to say Citizen Kane or something like that."

In the popular imagination, Jaws has a camp quality to it, possibly because of its risible sequels, but return to the original, and you'll be pleasantly surprised by the storytelling, script, acting (Robert Shaw's mesmerizing war survival speech is a stellar moment), and a subtle, incremental increase of tension that makes today's suspense films feel like the fumblings of an inexperienced lover. 

"Spielberg was, as were most of his contemporaries, a Hitchcock fan," Fortunato says of the way the director slowly built the fear through shadowy visuals of the monster before the big reveal. "This was a tremendously difficult production ... because the shark [machine] wasn't working so often. They had to improvise. They used the yellow barrels that become the Hitchcockian hook."

In one of the film's most famous sequences, the three main characters, played by Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss go hunting the great white shark a la the ship-bound men of Moby Dick pursuing the white whale. They shoot the beast with harpoons tied to air-filled, yellow barrels that are supposed to keep the devil afloat and alert the men to their quarry, but soon the barrels become terrifying tells of the shark's pursuit of the boat and the creature's ravening hunger for human flesh. 

The filming of Steven Spielberg's iconic suspense film came up against major problems from its toothy star.EXPAND
The filming of Steven Spielberg's iconic suspense film came up against major problems from its toothy star.
Courtesy of Universal

The movie is, arguably, a boys' film with classic heroes tackling the monster of the deep as the women either get eaten or wave proverbial hankies at the men going out to sea, which means there's a lot of debate about whether Jaws is misogynistic. But Fortunato doesn't think there's a clear-cut answer.

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"At that time and going back even further, fishing and the ocean were male-dominant arenas," Fortunato says of the film's context. "There's not grizzled old fisherwomen. The subtext [of sexism] is there, so I'm not going to deny it. The trope of a woman in trouble in a horror movie has always been there, from Marion Crane in the shower [in Psycho] to every low-budget horror movie that comes out today."

Women don't get total short shrift, though. One of the town leaders who vociferously protests the closing of the beaches is a woman, and the mother of a child chewed up by the shark gives Scheider's character a moral comeuppance that propels him into action. There are women who join their menfolk in going out to chum the waters, capture the beast, and collect some big reward money. So, no, Jaws isn't exactly Thelma & Louise, but it's not Fight Club, either.

Roy Scheider plays a police chief who leaves New York City for a quiet island town. Maybe he should have stayed in the Big Apple.EXPAND
Roy Scheider plays a police chief who leaves New York City for a quiet island town. Maybe he should have stayed in the Big Apple.
Courtesy of Universal

Aside from its thematic and political implications, Jaws was a catalytic movie for business end of the movie industry. 

"It's the first summer blockbuster," Fortunato says. "It inaugurated what we now take for granted as the way movies are marketed. It was one of the first movies to have a wide release."

Before Jaws, most films were rolled out slowly, from theater to theater, but Jaws went to more than 400 screens upon its release. 

"Prior to [Jaws], summer was the doldrums. Big movies came out at the holidays. Now, summer is the prime moviegoing time of the big tentpole pictures." 


So if this summer's fatuous flicks (Captain America, can you hear me?) leave you underwhelmed and slightly deaf, go to FilmBar, and watch the pros at work. You'll get a little cinematic history, learn how movies get made, and remember why Jaws still has a killer bite. 

The Film School presentation of Jaws takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 10, and at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 11, at FilmBar, 815 North Second Street. Tickets are $5. For more information, visit www.thefilmbarphx.com

Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version to reflect a rescheduling of the Jaws screening.



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