When I was five years old, my parents got a babysitter for me and went off to see what was, at the time, the most terrifying and jaw-dropping movie experience of the day. Before Star Wars corrupted me completely and before Close Encounters Of The Third Kind let me know that there might be little skinny people riding around in cool ships made out of Lite-Brites, the movie that was on the tip of everyone's tongue was JAWS.
And on this great and momentous occasion, marking the 40th anniversary of the film that created the Summer Blockbuster, I'd like to thank my parents for not taking me with them that night. Too often, I'll see today's parents dragging their five year old into The Hobbit or Max Max: Fury Road and think to myself "This might be the film that creates that permanent scar. Should I call Child Protective Services? Nah! Eventually, once they learn to start sleeping with the light off, it will become part of their character backstory." I remember looking through the magazines and finding those full page ads for JAWS and being absolutely horrified. At five, no one told me that it wasn't ever safe to go in the water. I didn't know that there were monsters that were lurking in the deep. There was no Discovery Channel back then, no Shark Week and no one to explain "Hey, you know that poster isn't to scale!" But still, the image stuck with me and still remains one of the most bone-chilling pictures I have ever seen.
I never got to see JAWS in the theaters until this year. Looking back, I don't think it's because my parents were concerned about what I would see or the eventual trauma it would cause, I think they just wanted to have a 'date night' alone, without the kid. After all, they let me go to a double feature of Funhouse and Halloween 2 when I was 9 years old...that was not a fun birthday party! So, when JAWS came out on VHS and I chose to pop it into the VCR one evening, I didn't really check with them to see if it was okay. My parents JAWS, after all, was rated PG. PG? Sorry, but was that a joke that some guy slapped on the movie posters?
"Hey, come here! Look what I put for the movie rating! I just did it as a joke, but the posters already went to the printers. I don't know what I'm supposed to do."
Anyway, with the Motion Picture Academy Rating giving me the green light I popped in the tape and began the journey that would provide me with a steady stream of nightmares my entire life.
But not only did JAWS ruin me from advancing to a new category in my swimming lessons (the final was swimming across the deep end of the pool), it categorically changed the way I experienced film. It embedded in me such a deep love for cinema and great storytelling, it gave me the benchmark for which all future films would be judged and it set the bar high. Even to this day, I am in absolute awe of the craftsmanship and beauty of it all. It's really our first look into the mind of the genius of Spielberg and how he turned what could have been an absolute campy fish flick into one of the most celebrated films of all time.
I've heard tales of the young jaded audiences who decide to go back and experience JAWS for the first time and how they roll their eyes and bellow at how "the shark looks so fake" or "sharks would never come out of the water like that". Yes, perhaps Shark Week and all of that Discover Channel knowledge has ruined their ability to enjoy the film from a scientific perspective...but I guarantee you, the next time they are out swimming in a lake or the ocean and they imagine what their feet look like from below the surface of the water. They will have the same reaction that many of us have...their heart rate will quicken, they will start to panic a little and they will see the beast from that iconic poster rising up from the depths to get them...and they will get the hell out of the water too.
My experience, seeing JAWS in the theater for the 40th Anniversary was a thrilling as it was seeing it for the first time. It was almost a 'Rocky Horror' type of experience in that the people in the theater with me, were true fans. They knew that they were shelling out 12 bucks for a ticket to see a film that they had seen so many times they could recite Quint's monologue verbatim...but that didn't matter. As I looked around, all I could do was imagine what it was like for those audiences back in 1975...sitting down with their .75 cent bucket of popcorn and TaB soft drink and hearing John Williams' epic score for the first time and then coming out of the theater into the summer sun and not wanting to ever dip a toe in the water ever again. There are few films that were made 40 years ago that can withstand the test of time. Few that can create the same visceral reaction today that it created 40 years ago...but JAWS certainly rises to that occasion.
I'm sure that, this summer, for reasons passing understanding, I'll be out swimming in a lake here in Washington State (where no Great White sharks have ever been sighted or have ever lived) and my completely irrational fear will take hold and I'll hear those two notes echo in my brain...and that will be that. It's etched into my subconscious and my heart as one of the greatest and most terrifying films I've ever seen and so I say "Happy 40th Anniversary, JAWS! May you continue to keep everyone out of the water!"