June 13, 2010
'Jaws' turns 35 (for better or for worse)
It is true. 'Jaws' completely changed summer movies - for the better. It also changed the way people view sharks - for the worse. Hard to believe, but June 20 marks the 35th anniversary of this blockbuster's opening.
I think I was 13 years old when this movie came out. I remember watching it on the beach, at our club on the Long Island Sound. We kids lined the beach in sleeping bags on beach loungers, while the adults gnoshed in the club house. The movie was shown via a reel projector onto a large screen that was erected each week at the edge of the beach. In the distance danced the lights of Long Island.
The movie scared me to the core. Later that summer, while on vacation on Lord's Lake (it was a true L-A-K-E!), I refused to swim in the water. I knew that White sharks did not live in lakes (duh), but I was really shaken. It was a completely illogical response to a work of fiction. And that's why, as a thriller, 'Jaws' is a very effective movie.
Spielberg had fooled me, but I soon saw through the special effects. Because I was predisposed to thinking scientifically, and because I was taught to embrace living creatures, I saw the truth about sharks. I also saw the movie for what is was: just a movie; a very good movie - but just a movie. I was lucky.
Unfortunately, many still experience the irrational fear that 'Jaws' instilled. Even now, 35 years later, the movie is referenced by reporters in articles about shark encounters. This one is about a Basking shark - a filter-feeder - swimming near shore. What is so intersting is that the reporter doesn't seem to separate the shark in 'Jaws' from a real shark. The 'Jaws' shark was not a "man-eater" - it was a mechanical creation - a character in a cast of characters. This is the movie's legacy: it still warps people's sensibilities.
As an aside, Peter Benchley moved on to become an advocate for shark conservation. I wonder if this was due to any regret he had for vilifying White sharks? He eludes to this in at least one interview. But, could he possibly have foreseen the impact this movie would have on sharks in general? Could any one?