Sharks Belong on Bigger Screens

Last weekend I settled in to an old-fashioned movie theatre (right down to the Art Deco trappings) to watch a restored print of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.

I came for the restoration (4K resolution HD remaster – it is a thing of beauty), but I left enamored with the experience. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better time in a cinema.

Filmmakers and executives today (James Cameron and Peter Jackson, I’m looking at you) are fixated on drawing audiences back to the cinema with bells and whistles – 3D, 48fps, IMAX. But I don’t think having Navi body parts bulge out before your eyes or seeing every last one of Gandalf’s hair follicles is the best argument for leaving the safety of your home. Jaws reminded me of the exhilarating experience you get from seeing a film on the big screen with a passionate audience.

Ever since VHS, DVD and Blu-ray made films accessible long past their release windows, we’re retreated to our plasma TVs and surround sound systems. As the home theatre experience has gotten better and better, the urge to see films, especially the old ones, on the big screen has wilted. But films are designed to be communal experiences, not private ones. Great films deserve to be seen that way.

And damn, the screening reminded me that Jaws is a truly great film.

I get a little defensive when a film I love goes before a new audience. I worry that the newbies in the crowd will laugh at the wrong moments – or not laugh at all. That they’ll talk and shuffle and scoff. That, basically, they won’t respond to the movie the way I do.

I need to have more faith. Jaws played.

And not only that – Jaws plays its audience perfectly. Sometimes we make a little too much noise about how everyone has a different experience of a great work of art. The craft involved in a filmmaker inducing the same response in an entire audience is also worth some serious applause. To anticipate and toy with the reactions of a theatre full of people was always Hitchcock’s greatest strength, and on that front Spielberg at his best is second to no one.

You could tell who in the cinema hadn’t seen the film before. They were the ones who screamed when the Shark’s head first jabs above the water (and were then, like Chief Brody, too tightly wound to find the laugh in “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”). For every other beat, the audience clenched teeth and drew breathe as one.  Tension boiled over every time the yellow barrels broke the surface of the water, or swiveled towards the boat. There were shrieks for the head of Ben Gardener (I jump every damn time at that one. I can never pinpoint exactly when it’s going to pop out!). Every beat worked as perfectly now as it must have in 1975.

Even smaller moments felt richer with a whole audience at play. Take Quint’s introduction. At the sound of the nails on the chalk board, the camera dollies towards Robert Shaw’s grizzled sailor. As his first muttered lines spill out, the cinema was giggling. At first glance, there’s something inherently funny about that character, that archetype. But the film hadn’t lost the audience – with supreme confidence the camera holds, and pushes in ever so slowly on Shaw as his speech goes on, and the laughter dried up. Thirty seconds later, the cinema was deathly silent for “I’ll find him for five, I’ll catch him for ten.” The spell Quint casts on the Amity citizens on-screen is replicated on the audience at large simply by putting faith in an actor’s performance. That simple moment played out in a packed cinema felt more immersive than the entire running time of Avatar.

There was emphatic applause once the film was over. The whole night was exhilarating, like the rush you get from a great concert, the surge that comes not only from the band’s performance, but the crowd’s full-throated response. Unless you’re an all-singing, all-dancing Rocky Horror fan, the cinema audience gives a lot less – we don’t interact, we react – but the communal experience has a lot of power all the same. Movies can be a personal experience, but they shouldn’t have to be.

These are uncertain days for classics on the big screen. The accelerated death of the century-old film format and the conversion to digital projectors is going to make screenings of old 35mm prints rarer and rarer with every passing year. On the other hand, the new bout of 2K, 4K and 8K (Lawrence of Arabia, I’m looking lustily at you!) restorations for Blu-ray might just keep sending popular masterpieces like Jaws (if not the obscure ones) hurtling back at our cinema screens. Here’s hoping. There’s no better test of whether a film is still working than to see it in its natural environment.

For fellow Sydney-siders, if you’re interested in seeing great films on the big screen, keep an eye out for weekly screenings at the Chauvel Cinema (Coming Up – Colonel Blimp, Frankenstein Created Woman) and NSW Art Gallery (Rififi, Le Samourai). The Hayden Orpheum and Popcorn Taxi are also fantastic for films long-since relegated to DVD.

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4 thoughts on “Sharks Belong on Bigger Screens

  1. “I get a little defensive when a film I love goes before a new audience. I worry that the newbies in the crowd will laugh at the wrong moments – or not laugh at all. That they’ll talk and shuffle and scoff. That, basically, they won’t respond to the movie the way I do.”

    Haha. I know have an image of you going before a crowd with a slideshow entitled “STOP, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG: HOW TO APPRECIATE THE CINEMATIC FEAT THAT IS JAWS 101, WITH STUART BEEDIE.”

  2. Seeing older films on the big screen is a terrific experience. In Wellington, people seem to have appreciated the chance to see E.T (among other things) in the Embassy Theatre (soon to be Ground Zero for hair-follicling Hobbit-driven action).

    But I am also interested in the assertion you make that films are designed to be communal experiences. Cinema seems to epitomise the private to me – though a member of an audience, you cannot interact (as you say, reaction is the only possibility); cinemas are generally privately owned, profit-making venues; films themselves are usually the product of a studio system also designed to generate profit…

    Nevertheless, I am also pleased at the renaissance of the boutique cinema experience, because I also feel that films are best seen in this habitat. And, it’s entirely possible I overanalysed what you meant by communal anyway – nevertheless, interesting, thought-making post.

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