Any "Jaws" fan worth their sea salt knows the production horror stories that nearly snuffed out the 1975 blockbuster before it even had a chance to scare the pants off moviegoers and alter the face of movie exhibition forever. The highs and low of the suspense classic have been presented over and over, in all forms of media, to rabid fans for decades now and I thought we'd seen the last of those shark tales. "The Shark is Still Working" proves me wrong. Gloriously wrong.
"Shark" is a stupendous documentary divided into two sections, running an extravagant three hours in length. That's a Jaws-sized space to fill with an already well-traversed subject, yet director (a better term would be "footage cowboy") Erik Hollander has come to us, the patient viewer, with a cornucopia of delights that could sustain 17 documentaries, not just one. Hollander is a supreme "Jaws" fanatic, and his white-hot love for the feature is the engine that makes this outstanding valentine to a movie miracle feel just like Christmas morning.
You see, "Shark' is no ordinary recap of the troubling events that befell the "Jaws" production back in 1974. Those are enthralling anecdotes of ego, futility, and the breech birth of a sublime filmmaker, but fans have been to that party, and they know all the dance moves. Instead, Hollander's creation insists on the funky corners of "Jaws" lore; the dusty sections of historical minutiae that have rarely been ingested by the public. Take some amazingly rare footage, pepper the film with impossible interview "gets," and stir in a feverish adoration for the subject matter that goes to unheard of lengths for new information, and you have a film that speaks fluent geek and speaks it remarkably.
The first chapter of "Shark" ("The Impact") burns through the colossal tale of the "Jaws" production in a mere 20 minutes. Interviewing author Peter Benchley, actors Roy Scheider (who also narrates), a rascally Richard Dreyfuss, and stately director Steven Spielberg, the doc sprints though the ungodly troubles the film faced when placed in the open water without ignoring the details. We hear familiar stories about mechanical shark "Bruce" and his refusal to be of any actual use to the production, the interplay between the Hollywood whores and the lovely locals of Martha's Vineyard, and the drawn-out days where grabbing mere seconds of usable footage would be cause for a celebration; however, using home movies and outtakes to augment the recollection, "Shark" paints a brand new picture of the atmosphere on the set, humanizing those once thought untouchable by movie myth. It's clear that simply tracing over known quantities is not the business "Shark" wants to conduct. Retelling the famous horror stories is only the beginning of this documentary: the first kill of the day.
Frankly I was shocked to see where "Shark" dared to go. Being a wild fan of "Jaws" myself, but still woefully uneducated in all facets of trivia, the film is a mindblower, consistently dredging up puzzle pieces of the shark world that few could fully appreciate before. "The Impact"discusses the effect of Carl Gottlieb's making-of bible, "The Jaws Log;" the legendary score; the international success that introduces the world to Roger Kastel, who designed the killer one-sheet for the picture; Percy Rodrigues, who lent his chilling voice to the influential marking of "Jaws;" and the pop culture sway, giving birth to the websites (such as jawscollector.com) that help to keep the fandom torch lit. It also documents the creation of a Bruce replica by special effects wizard Greg Nicotero and chats about the strangely praised "Jaws 2," but turns a curious blind eye to the other two, infinitely more interesting sequels.
The crown jewels of this first half are two passing bits of "Jaws" illumination that are critical to any deep appreciation of the film. The first nugget is archival footage of Spielberg with a camera crew in his office on the morning of the 1976 Oscar nominations; the director is anxious and cocksure that "Jaws" will sweep the awards. When the announcements roll in and Spielberg is left without his nomination, the split-second reveal of ego-soaked disbelief is critical to understanding how much the filmmaker grew in stature over the two years "Jaws" invaded his life. It took Spielberg from studio stooge to the overlord we know today nearly overnight.
The second piece of trivia is a look back at the seminal 1996 "Jaws" laserdisc box set, more specifically at the two-hour documentary on the making of "Jaws," produced by Laurent Bouzereau. A hurried appreciation for the production info the LD supplement provided, it's wonderful to see "Shark" pay reverence to both a spectacular and informative documentary (the very reason why "Shark" dodges retelling production stories) and the sorely missed specialty subculture of laserdiscs.
Interjecting throughout "Shark" with effusive comments is a slew of filmmakers with careers inspired directly from their "Jaws" memories. Names like Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth, and the always entertaining Kevin Smith sit down to sing the film's praises, adding dimension to "Shark" and the wide reach of its informational net.
Part two ("The Legacy") takes a vacation to "Jaws Fest," a 2005 celebration of all things sharky and Quinty. It's a real treat to see fans from all over the globe descend on Martha's Vineyard to extol the virtues of their favorite film, enjoy outdoor screenings, devour Alex Kintner sandwiches, tour the locations, engage in costume contests, meet the peripheral actors (Susan Backlinie, Lee Fierro, and Jay Mello to name a few) and tour prop collections (Spielberg tells a great story on the demise of The Orca). Frankly, I'm insanely jealous of these nutty people as they get to live and breathe "Jaws" for a long, humid, beautiful festival weekend.
"Jaws Fest" eats up a great deal of "Shark" screentime, but once past the merriment, the documentary gets back to business. The second half of the picture is a little more schizophrenic in tone, but contains so many little gems of info, one hardly notices the seams. Delving into the fringes of fandom, "Shark" visits the various incarnations of the "Jaws" theme park ride at Universal Studios; discusses the impact of Quint's powerful U.S.S. Indianapolis speech; pays tribute to the late, great Robert Shaw; investigates the rainbow of "Jaws" fan art (models, paintings, sculptures, tattoos); shows us the tiring world of parody films that have water-skied in the film's wake (yet contains no mention of "1941"); and asks the eternal question, just where did the real Bruce swim off to after all these years?
If a simplistic listing of subplots and tangents that make up "Shark" seems rotund and excessive, that's because it is. The film stops just short of tossing in a literal kitchen sink, but that's the charm of the piece. It's doesn't know when to quit, thus allowing entry into sections of "Jaws" history that would have never seen the light of day under a studio-led documentation effort. Bursting with shifting perspectives on the legacy of the classic, "Shark" trusts the frontal assault of info will be its own reward: an adrenaline rush of nostalgia and sloppy fanboy kisses that packs more historical perspective in its dorsal fin than most retrospectives spend a lifetime chasing.
What the colossal undertaking of "The Shark Is Still Working" boils down to is this: it's a fan-made production, with little in the way of Hollywood resources and coin, and the appreciation for "Jaws" gushes throughout. This isn't simply a love letter to "Jaws," it's a labyrinthine, kick-the-door-down tribute to a lifestyle and legacy that refuses to abandon its cultural seat. Sure, the argument could be made that there's simply too much to sort through, but I would rather have too much than too little. A picture like "Jaws" deserves the microscopic attention, and this miracle of information and affection should be a must see for anyone with a fondness for the picture or continues to sing "daaaa-dum...daaaaa-dum...da-dum, da-dum, da-dum" in the bathtub to this day.
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