October 27, 2008 § Leave a comment
DURHAM, N.H. – With the approach of Halloween, those seeking a scary thrill might want to watch the classic horror movie “Psycho” instead of modern gore-filled slasher movies. When it comes to horror films, less gore is more, according to a cinematic studies expert at the University of New Hampshire.
Delia Konzett, assistant professor of English at UNH, says although horror films are still very popular, many of her students tell her that today’s horror films have lost their edge because they show too much gore. Instead, students say they are more frightened when the scariest moments take place partially off-screen, leaving what happens to the viewer’s imagination.
“Classic horror/thriller films engage the viewers and their imaginations. Hitchcock was great at this and never underestimated the imagination of the typical moviegoer. His famous “Psycho” shower scene from 1960 did this in a masterly fashion. We never see the knife enter flesh; it’s shown from various angles going through stabbing motions filmed in fast-paced and fragmented montage style that are alternated with close-ups of the shower and parts of Marion Crane’s body and her face as she’s screaming. These images are accompanied by stabbing sounds (knives plunged into juicy casaba melons were used for realistic sound effects) and Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable, expressionistic sound track with screeching staccato sounds mimicking stabbing sounds played by violins and other string instruments,” Konzett says.
“Even though we actually see only a small amount of blood (chocolate syrup going down the drain) and very little gore, if any, in this short two-minute scene, it has profoundly scared several generations of people, especially women, with many saying they are afraid to take showers for days. Very few horror scenes have had this kind of impact,” she says.
“Psycho” was ranked the No. 1 thriller by the American Film Institute on the 100th anniversary of the thriller in 2001, and the shower scene often is considered the most memorable scene in film history.
According to Konzett, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 “Jaws” inspired a similar reaction with people worldwide afraid to enter the water for fear of shark attacks. Spielberg showed very little of the shark, but combined with a memorable soundtrack (by John Williams), the film engaged the viewer’s imagination and has now become synonymous with lurking danger.
“Films such as ‘Psycho’ and ‘Jaws’ capture the helplessness of people, catching them when they are most vulnerable. This is why many decades later, they are still popular among the younger generation in spite of contemporary horror films that are more sensational and filled with blood and gore,” she says.
June 20, 2008 § Leave a comment
Today marks the 33rd anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Depending on your take, it’s remembered as one of Spielberg’s best — probably still his best, in my opinion — or the film that redefined the contemporary movie-going experience as meaning little more than box-office take.
For me, it’s commercial success doesn’t undermine its dramatic success. “Jaws” still has a few lessons left to offer.
1. Wisdom can be overrated.
I find it reaffirming, sometimes aggravating and occasionally depressing that Spielberg made his masterpiece at 26 years old. We’re often told that learning our craft takes time, lots of time, and filmmakers or writers mature over time. Certainly there are wisened old filmmakers and writers forever aiming for the swan song, the project that sums up and defines a life’s work. But there is something to be said for youthful abandon, where the rules are both important as a guide and just as easily disregarded in the throes of creativity. “Jaws” remains a solid example of inspired filmmaking. I’ve not seen that kind of hardened inspiration since. No, not “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan.”
2. A bad story can sink your ship
Although Spielberg’s faux shark did sink, several times, it was more than a setpiece. The shark fit the story. That’s not to say the book was a masterpiece, because it isn’t, but its transformation to film made for strong drama under even direction. Without the architecture of a good, solid story, no movie can stay afloat for long.
3. Cast it or cast away
“Jaws” boasts solid performances across the board. Little needs to be said about the likes of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Lorraine Gary, but Spielberg was also able to create a convincing setting with local nonactors. Perhaps some of that is a bit hokey — “A whaaaaat?” — but we bought it. Don’t populate a movie with actors. Populate it with people. Good actors, playing real people.
4. Sometimes a blockbuster is worth the ride
It’s OK to have fun at the movies. Really. “Jaws” may be inexpensive by today’s standards, but no small budget for its time. And that money bought the picture a memorable score and just enough gee-whiz props to take viewers on a rollercoaster of a movie. Not to mention the first three lessons.
So, happy anniversay “Jaws” and thanks for showing that movies can still have teeth.
Here’s the original theatrical trailer:
February 12, 2008 § 1 Comment
Roy Scheider starred in two bona fide American classics, “The French Connection” and “Jaws”, but it was not his presence that gave these pictures their stature. So, in a way, I start this essay seemingly negative, but only to make a point.
His acting in “Jaws” is far more substantial than it is in that esteemed New York crime flick, and he gave to his Chief Brody a nice, calm human element. He was also the actor who gave voice to a true American classic line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”, but it was his rendering of another line that I always thought was more enjoyable. At one point in “Jaws”, when it seemed the hunt for the shark was a futile venture, Quint (Robert Shaw) says to his hapless crew that they were going to head back into shore.
“Thank Christ,” says Brody, and he says it with such defiant joy that every time I hear it I burst out laughing. It’s also a line that I repeat to this day. Every chance I get to agree with something that someone says or does, I say, “Thank Christ.” This is how movies sometimes actually shape who we are.
I never actually thought his performance in “The French Connection” was all that great, but maybe that was because he was sitting next to an actor, Gene Hackman, who gave one of the truly flawless acting jobs in any American movie.
But Scheider, who died this week at the age of 75, made one great movie even greater than it might have been, and that was in 1980s “All That Jazz.”
In it he plays Joe Gideon, the director/choreographer based solely on the director of that film, Bob Fosse. I like to think of one scene in particular, and it is when, in a quiet and reflective moment, he gives a dancing lesson to his daughter, and they talk about their lives together, and separately, and girlfriends and love. And all through the conversation Scheider is dancing with his daughter and he offers, in a totally natural way, advice on the techniques on how to be a better dancer. It’s a thrilling, joyous scene, and it is so because the writing is quite beautiful, and Scheider’s performance matches every beautiful word with his every beautiful move.
I have no idea if Scheider had any training as a dancer, and he didn’t seem like he was built like one, but he gave to me, in the audience, the sense that he was a dancer to the very core of his being. And while Joe Gideon had trouble communicating with everyone in his life, he opened up in the dance studio, the place where you knew he felt most comfortable and honest and at home. That’s what he brought to that role and that movie. I adore that scene, and so many more in that movie. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for that role, but sometimes that accolade seems paltry to the actual achievement.
It’s by no means a perfect film. The musical ending, the death of Gideon, goes on too long, tipping ever so slightly what should have been an exuberant finale into something bordering on self-reverence. I know people who have seen the film will think that’s being too generous, but I can’t help it if the film works so well for me. It’s something I can watch over and over, and part of that unending enjoyment is watching Roy Scheider, in an atypical role, shining, shining not just like a movie star, but also like a very great actor.
It may not seem like much, as it is in the shadows of “Jaws” and “The French Connection”, because everyone this week has been focused on those two films. But those classics were made, and belong, to other people. “All That Jazz” is, finally, Scheider’s own, and he owns every bit of it. It is nice to give him that, and it is even nicer that Roy Scheider gave that to us. His performance is the kind of gift American movies bestow upon us every once in a while.
September 18, 2007 § 1 Comment
Directors who navigate early success over troubled waters — Steven Spielberg with “Jaws” and Phillip Noyce with “Dead Calm,” for example — are rare. Waterborne productions are hard on cast and crew, and for fledgling directors, such films can jackknife a career. (Has anyone heard much from Kevin Reynolds since “Waterworld?”)
Polanski would move on to helm masterpieces like “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “Chinatown” (1974) and “The Pianist” (2002), but in many ways, “Knife in the Water” remains his best.
On a trim budget with three little or unknown actors, Polanski’s nautical thriller about a squabbling married couple who pick up a hitchhiker and invite him sailing is a stark and tense dissection of jealousy.
The three set sail in the couple’s small yacht on a cold and desolate Polish lake. The husband, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk), is a cocky sportswriter who brings the young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) on board to unsettle his peeved wife (Jolanta Umecka).
Instead, the wife, Krystyna, is merely accommodating, if not disinterested. The two men begin vying for her attention. Her husband boasts often of his own proficiency at sea. The young hitchhiker has only his good looks to flash and an uncanny affinity for a switchblade he carries at all times.
When Andrzej begins to treat his guest as a subordinate, the relationship begins to sour and grow reckless.
Although Polanski carefully frames each shot to build tension, he doesn’t anticipate the conclusion prematurely. If you have never seen “Knife in the Water,” the ending is a remarkable and unexpected twist.
Polanski is always at his best when navigating the tattered fringes of relationships. Without set pieces or melodrama — not to mention a rigorous shoot that involved strapping crew to the side of the boat — the director captured what remains his most intense psychological thriller. By the way, the new digital transfer from Criterion is gorgeous.
“Knife in the Water” was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Fellini’s “8½.”
The DVD also includes an insightful video interview with Polanski and co-screenwriter Jerzy Skolimowski; a collection of rare publicity and production stills; and an English subtitle translation by Polanski.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review appeared in Foster’s Sunday Citizen.