Saturday, September 22, 2018

Things I Love - Jaws

The idea of a summer blockbuster did not exist until 1975, when a little-known director named Steven Spielberg put the fear of ever going in the ocean again on an unsuspecting populace. 

Jaws is a thing I love.

On the podcast The Rewatchables the hosts agreed Jaws is probably the most “rewatchable” movie of the past 50 years, and I could not agree more. I have watched some or all of Jaws dozens of times. It is a film that literally grabs you by the ankles in the first minute and does not let go until Chief Brody’s well-placed rifle shot blows Bruce the Great White Shark out of the water. 

On the surface, the story seems pretty simple. A man-eating shark menaces the small beach town of Amity (which means “friendship”), killing several people before the heroic Chief of Police (Martin Brody) dispatches the beast with the help of a cantankerous ship captain (Quint) and a snarky oceanographer (Matt Hooper). In fact, the book Jaws borrowed its basic plot from a real life series of shark attacks that occurred on the New Jersey shore in 1916, but it was that hard-to-define combination of storytelling, casting, and kismet that made the movie version of Jaws a sensation. 

Today, the movie’s brilliance is axiomatic, but at the time of shooting, there was no guarantee of success. The director (Spielberg) was an untested twenty-eight year old helming a film being shot on location with at least one of his lead actors constantly in the bag (Robert Shaw) and the movie’s main special effect (the shark) not even available for use until well into the shooting, which ran three times as long as scheduled. This type of horror movie was also unheard of at the time but became so iconic that its mimicry has stretched from the sublime (Alien was pitched as Jaws in outer space) to the ridiculous (Sharknado anyone?)

So what is it that makes Jaws so great? Of course, much has been written about how Jaws made a virtue out of necessity, that the delay in getting Bruce the Great White Shark operational accrued to the film’s benefit as the unseen menace lurking underneath the water was not revealed until the final third of the movie. Then there are the story beats, which condition you from the first scene to be prepared (thanks to the iconic John Williamson score) that things can go from peaceful to apocalyptic in the strain of a few violin notes. 

Spielberg taps this theme over and over again, carnage appears out of nowhere and swiftly recedes, from the brutal attacks on Chrissie and Alex Kintner to Charlie’s near-death experience when he and his fishing buddy go on a late-night jag trying to catch the shark. The remnants of these attacks, the blood-stained water, the shredded raft, the destroyed pier, impart a level of fear that makes the visual of the shark unnecessary. It all comes together impeccably, whether it is the now-famous “Spielberg shot”  - zooming Brody back and forth on the beach - to Ben Gardner’s head popping out of the destroyed hull of his boat. 

Jaws also serves as an allegory for what happens when we are exposed to something we cannot fully comprehend. This would be a theme Spielberg would go on to explore throughout his career, be it in regards to extra terrestrials or the horrors of Nazi Germany. But in Jaws the fault lines are quite clear - Mayor Vaughn and the town elders are far more concerned over lost tourist dollars that would result from closing the beaches than the well-being of the people who visit (or live) in their town. Chief Brody, on the other hand, is the Cassandra, identifying the risk at its earliest stage only to be shouted down by the mob until they are forced to reckon with their shortsightedness when an attack occurs in broad daylight.

The closing chapters with Brody, Hooper, and Quint on the Orca are a movie-within-a-movie, a master class in interpersonal dynamics, the toggling between anger, frustration, joy, and fear. It is male bonding of the most primal order, Quint’s hypnotic tale of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, Brody seeing the shark break the surface, his cigarette falling from his lips as he utters the now famous line “you’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Hooper so nervous before entering the shark cage he tells Brody “I got no spit.” It is pulse-pounding and exhilarating at the same time, a tour de force by all involved. 

Not all was perfect. In addition to heralding the summer blockbuster, Jaws also started the lamentable pattern of sequels, each, successively worse than the one before and none coming close to the original’s high standard (Jaws 3-D? Hard pass.) But for one summer at least, the beaches were full, but the ocean was empty.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Things I Love - Oasis Unplugged

In the 1990s, there was no greater rite of passage, no greater marker of a band’s success, than an invitation to perform on MTV’s Unplugged. The show was an opportunity for musicians to reinterpret their own songs (and those of others) using a stripped down sound in an intimate performance space that gave off a coffee house vibe. Of course, MTV did not invent this genre, early 1960s folk was probably the first to appropriate it, but when Eric Clapton’s 1992 Unplugged set went on to sell 26 million copies while garnering the Grammy award for Album of the Year, the format became iconic. A few years later, the biggest band in the world at the time, Oasis, almost self-immolated because just before showtime, the band’s lead singer, Liam Gallagher, refused to perform, leaving his lead guitarist brother Noel to step in and perform a set of music so flawless, the former’s jealousy over the latter’s success has (allegedly) precluded its commercial release for more than twenty years. 

 Oasis Unplugged is a thing I love. 

In the mid-1990s, few bands achieved the worldwide success of Oasis. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the rapid end of the grunge era, Oasis’s modern Brit Pop sound quickly raised the band’s profile. Their first album, Definitely Maybe was released just months after Cobain’s death and immediately established the band in England, but it was the group’s 1995 follow-up What’s the Story Morning Glory? that shot them to superstardom. The album sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and the best known song, Wonderwall, is one of the defining ballads of the decade. 

And so it was that on August 23, 1996, the band was set to perform a set for MTV Unplugged at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Except they almost did not. An hour before showtime, Liam bailed out, claiming he had a sore throat. Power play? Possibly. He and his brother Noel were constantly feuding in that pissy, juvenile, oh-so-rock-n-roll way that has its roots with Jagger and Richards, Tyler and Perry, and, when it comes to siblings, the brothers Davies of Kinks fame. 

So what did the band do? Did they turtle in fear. No. Noel Gallagher, who was so small it looked like his Gibson guitar would swallow him whole on stage, confidently strode out of his younger, but more charismatic brother’s shadow and redefined what it is for one brother to dunk on the other, basically, for eternity. The sibling drama played out from beginning to end. As Noel strolled on stage leading the band, he casually mentioned that “Liam’s got a sore throat, so you’re stuck with the ugly four.” (a dig not only at his brother’s last minute drop out but his pretty boy looks). And then, without further ado, launched into a stunning performance of Morning Glory’s first track, Hello with confidence and brio. 

It was pretty much all over after that. Noel, his voice strong even as he carried both the lead and backup vocal duties, WHILE ALSO PLAYING LEAD GUITAR made quick work of the band’s still modest catalogue. Don’t Look Back in Anger is performed with wistfulness and longing while Some Might Say is invigorated by a zesty horn section and Live Forever is given a magisterial reading replete with violins and grand piano. 

Later, when Liam appears in a suite well above the stage, beer in hand and cigarette dangling from his fingers (you know, just the kind of things a man with a sore throat consumes), he starts heckling his own band. I mean, it does not get much better than that for debauched rock ’n’ roll behavior. Not to be dissuaded, Noel needles his younger brother, “oh there you are” he sniffs with a bemused tone in his voice before twisting the knife a bit further by introducing Cast No Shadow as “one that I wrote” (the joke being, Noel wrote ALL of the band’s songs). 

And when Noel brings the show to a close with a letter-perfect version of Wonderwall as the credits roll, you cannot help but be awed by the moment. Pushed into the limelight at the last minute, the second banana stood tall, nailing every last song in performances that are as compelling to listen to today as they were twenty-two years ago. But here’s the thing, for most people, this high water mark is lost to history. Because Liam did not perform, the show was never released commercially. In the early years of file sharing, you could find tracks on Napster and the like, and imports from Europe circulate if you look hard enough, but otherwise, all fans are left with is the occasional re-airing on cable TV and wonky You Tube clips to relive this brilliant night. 

Oasis Unplugged also stands as a cautionary tale about fame and success. At the time, there were few bands at Oasis’s level, but the very things that rocketed them to the top - the creative friction between the brothers Gallagher, led to the band’s demise. The band’s stay at the top would be short-lived, as internal tensions spilled out into the public and subsequent releases fared worse and worse. But that one night at the Royal Albert will live forever. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Other things I love …