Sunday, January 09, 2011


One of my all-time favorite books is Geoffrey O'Brien's THE PHANTOM EMPIRE: MOVIES IN THE MIND OF THE 20TH CENTURY - a wonderfully geeky exploration of the idea that the movie-watching experience affects many of us just as deeply as real life experience. O'Brien writes:

Films get their hooks into you by propping up memory, or perhaps more accurately by substituting for memory. You can trace each image back to an original encounter; various rooms, theaters, even nations exist primarily as the place where a particular image first emerged. "Ankara is where I first saw PILLOW TALK." More than anything the pictures serve as reminders of the people who watched them. That's the post-apocalyptic science-fiction movie about giant cockroaches in Los Angeles that so deeply and inexplicably disturbed Michael. That's the doomed starlet on whom Frieda modeled her youth. That's the sentimental wartime fantasy that Dave has spent his adult life attempting to reenact. That's the comedy that Patrick watched on Channel Nine the night before he jumped. There were movies endured during all-night sieges of insomnia, movies left on while making love, movies clung to in the wake of disaster as a substitute for grieving. There were movies used as a focus point, to give the group something to laugh at or to dream about, or simply to allow them a brief respite from being so endlessly involved with one another...

I thought about this a lot while I was making my documentary on horror films -- in fact, it's the note that I ended on: Movies and reality are hopelessly conflated in the minds of many contemporary viewers. Most of us will always remember where we first saw our favorite films, who we saw them with, and exactly how we reacted to key scenes. My favorite films are burned into my brain - not necessarily because they're brilliant pieces of art (some are; some most definitely are not), but because they caught me at a particular time and place in my life, and held me there for two memorable hours. By the time the end credits rolled, those movies had become part of who I am as a living, breathing, thinking human being. This might sound a little over the top, but I'm going to try to show you what I mean.

A few months ago I changed the title of my blog to MOVIES MADE ME, with the idea of devoting this space to a series of essays on my favorite films. My plan is to work my way down a long list in the upcoming year or so. I'm kicking things off with a movie that's been a formative influence in the lives of countless moviegoers: Steven Spielberg's JAWS.

JAWS didn't keep me away from the beaches as a kid. In fact, just the opposite. I used to watch JAWS on video at the beginning of each summer -- it was my way of preparing for our annual trip to Virginia Beach, and a ritualistic way of ringing in the season. That's probably because, when I first saw the film, I wasn't half as captivated by the shark as I was by the three characters who hunt it. For me, JAWS was less of a horror movie and more of a heroic epic -- a modern-day version of MOBY DICK or 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. In high school, I even wrote a paper comparing JAWS to BEOWULF.

The key difference between JAWS and those other epic adventures is that Quint - the modern-day equivalent of Ahab, Captain Nemo and Beowulf - is not the main hero. The hero in JAWS is Police Chief Martin Brody, an everyman and a very sympathetic father-figure. I remember thinking, even as a six year old, that he wasn't that different from my own dad. How could anyone fail to love him after the scene where he's sitting at the dinner table with his son, making faces for the boy to mimic? God bless Roy Scheider.

Here's how I remember it: My father had just gotten a membership at the new video store in my hometown. After recognizing how I gravitated to the horror section of the store, he rented MICHAEL JACKSON'S THRILLER and JAWS. I think he chose the former because it featured a long making-of documentary. Those behind-the-scenes features showed his ridiculously impressionable six-year-old son that movie monsters are simply the result of makeup and special effects. I'm not sure why he chose to rent JAWS... maybe to test my nerve. All I know is that, when it came time to watch the second feature, the rest of my family disappeared to a back bedroom and left me alone in the living room to tackle JAWS.

About a year ago, an interviewer for Fangoria TV asked me to identify my favorite horror movie scare scenes. The interviewer suggested "the scene in JAWS where the shark pops out of the water for the first time." I responded that those kind of "jump scenes" aren't usually what scare me in horror movies. I explained that the scene in JAWS that affected me most profoundly is the one where Quint, Brody and Hooper are on Quint's boat at night, sharing war stories. I still think this is one of the most brilliant sequences in modern film history.

There are basically four parts to this sequence. The first part begins with the otherworldly sounds of a whale song -- a subtle cue that we've crossed over into a kind of mythic realm. Quint and Hooper begin comparing "battle wounds," prompting us to think about the possible repercussions of a shark attack while keeping things disarmingly light with their competitive humor. The conversation culminates with Hooper's drunken reference to the girl who broke his heart. Then the tone shifts suddenly as Quint recounts his experience on the U.S.S. Indianapolis. For me, Quint's monologue was more unsettling than the scene where a kid gets attacked by a shark and erupts in a geyser of blood - because it haunts the imagination rather than simply shocking the eyes.

I remember listening to Quint's story for the first time, and imagining myself in his situation. At the time, I was sitting in an old recliner in the middle of the living room floor. To a six year old, that living room was HUGE... I might just as well have been in the middle of the ocean. And it was dark. In the hour since I had begun watching the movie, night had fallen outside and suddenly the only light in the room was coming from the television. The only light in my world was the light on that boat... and Quint was slowly stealing it away with his haunting memories of being alone in the water at night, while hungry sharks were circling around him.

Spielberg lets the tension in the scene build for an excruciatingly long time. Then, because he's a master craftsman, he lets us down gently... A few moments later, the jovial atmosphere returns and all three heroes start singing drunkenly. That's when the shark finally attacks - literally pummeling the boat and prompting us to expect the worst. A slight leak suggests that the boat is far from unsinkable, and at that point our brains can't help gnawing on the fresh details of Quint's story... particularly the part about waiting to die. The heroes listen and wait. We, the audience, listen and wait. The night is silent. After a few moments, it becomes clear that we've survived... for now. But the drinking games are over, and you can bet that no one on that boat or in the audience will be sleeping too peacefully in the hours that follow.

It was only after that scene ended that I realized how immersed in the film I really was. I had lost all sense of self-awareness. I had surrendered my own reality in favor of the story's reality. Right away, I realized how effectively the storyteller was manipulating my emotions. For me, that moment of realization was profound. If I had to identify a single moment when I became a movie geek, that would be it.

How did I respond? I eagerly dove back into the movie and didn't come up for air until it was over. At that point, with my adrenaline finally starting to wane, I felt utterly euphoric. After JAWS, I was like a 6-year-old heroin addict, eager for more... and to this day, every time I sit down to watch a movie, I'm still waiting for my next fix.

(Note: The JAWS illustration above is by Justin Reed. You can check out his amazing portfolio on his website, Justin Reed Art.)

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