Jumping the Shark
Thanks to Steven Spielberg these words are meaningless. Perhaps they were meaningless anyway but once, in those halcyon days, before blocks were busted, a film critic had a compact with their readers that meant something. They could be influential you see. A film’s release strategy didn’t just allow for this, it was part of the deal. A new movie would open on a small number of screens and expand gradually, subject to demand. Demand was driven by word of mouth and print buzz. If I liked a film I might talk it up, prod it, and the potential audience, being by and large mature, interested in criticism, perhaps even discerning, would take note and tell their friends, and maybe they’d go together and tell *their friends, and the studio, buoyed by a torrent of admissions, would book a few more screens, and the film would play for many months, having earned its place at your local film house.
Jaws changed all that. Modern movie truisms; that blockbusters are critic proof, therefore critiquing them is pointless, that scribes that can’t regress to inhabit the critical faculty of someone half their age are snobs; were born in the waters off Amity Island. Later, releases were frontloaded to achieve market saturation, to hoover up every dollar before patrons could compare notes. Simple, marketable concepts – so called high concepts, became the norm. Postage stamp pictures were born. Difficult, adult stories were fish food. By the time you read the reviews crafted by irrelevant old duffers with alien tastes, assuming you even bothered, you’d already seen the film three times. The generation of critics that followed, Spielberg’s bastards, courted relevance by only paying attention to these money spinners. Curiously they had nothing to say. None of this is Spielberg’s fault. He simply rolled the stone over. Who knew it was plugging a hole in the universe?
Universal were tossing a dime into a wishing well with their fin flick. Dropping it into the summer schedule, a necropolis, was an experiment; so too the simple campaign – an image of a giant shark swimming up to devour a naked swimmer; the concept distilled. The kids were alright but they weren’t in the habit of buying movie tickets. Innovative though the push was, if the film had been poor, it would have remained thus. But Universal’s punt had two alchemic elements, Spielberg and John Williams. With their intuitive understanding of what made audiences tick, they were made for each other, and legions of sensation seeking pubescents were made for them. These puppets liked feeling the tug on their strings and the two maestros revelled in pulling them. This young audience shared Spielberg’s reductive mentality; a taste for pleasure unburdened by unnecessary ambiguities and story complications; they were happy for the filmmaker to do the thinking for them. The public were soon to want what they got, whereas once, before Chrissie Watkins went swimming, it was still possible to imagine it the other way round.Pages: 1 2