Notes From The Program Director | Week of June 30th, 2023
Notes From The Program Director
Week of June 30th, 2023
This week, the utterly delightful Wes Anderson triumph,Asteroid City,continues, as does the inspiring documentaryThe Last Riderfor one final week, appropriately riding right alongside the opening days of the 2023 Tour de France. And back on our screens for one last encore run, we’ve gotYou Hurt My Feelings, a warm hug of a film that is no less sharply incisive in its observations and a film that is definitely on my list of “2023 Favorites So Far.”
Also this week, our monthlyGhibliseries returns with the irresistiblePonyo, a film that is as accessible for very young viewers as it is joyous for older movie lovers. Ponyois a wonderfully imaginative retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” butPonyoturns the tragic romance into a sweet childhood friendship and the sad mermaid into a buoyant goldfish. Hayao Miyazaki, thus, takes Andersen’s original story and does something very different from the catchy-tuned Disney adaptation, offering both a warm-heartedness that is gentle enough for little children and a profundity complex enough for adults. And, as we’ve come to expect with the Ghibli collection, the film also offers the most dazzlingly gorgeous hand-drawn animation, sure to enthrall every viewer. I recall, with pleasure, the exuberance of the late Roger Ebert’s original review ofPonyo, a review, where his enchantment with the film is so overwhelming, he finds he must resort to exclamations and the rare exclamation point, mid-review: “There is a fluid, organic quality to [Miyazaki’s] work that exposes the facile efficiency of CGI. And, my God! — his imagination! The film opens with a spellbinding, wordless sequence beneath the sea, showing floating jellyfish and scampering bottom-dwellers. The pastels of this scene makePonyoone of the very rare movies where I want to sit in the front row, to drown in it. This is more than ‘artistry.’ It is art.”Ponyo, thus, is an utter delight to the eye as well as a tender tale of friendship, and, like so many of Miyazaki’s films, it is also a gently urgent tale about the necessity of caring for our natural world. What a joy to have such a film on the big screen again.
Finally, in honor ofIndependence Day, on July 4 at 1:30 pm, we’re bringing back to the big screen the film that launched the tradition of the American blockbuster and the film that kept everyone out of the water and off the beaches in the summer of 1975:Jaws. Jawsis a film that is indeed perhaps best-remembered as a blockbuster, a crowd-pleasing film that packed out the theaters and understandably so: the film boasts a gripping first act that functions like a hybrid of a Hitchcockian thriller, a horror film, and a police procedural, and it features a rollicking second half, where the story turns into a riveting sea chase and an adventure film. And who can forget that iconic score, featuring those two deep, visceral notes that electrified audiences and stamped their place forever in film music history? All hail, John Williams, whose imagination understood the power of those two notes, even when Spielberg didn’t, at first, and thought Williams must be joking when Williams first played the musical theme for him.
But the crowd-pleasing visceral accessibility of the film should not overshadow the fact thatJawsis a master-class in filmmaking on every level and thus justly should be recognized as one of the all-time greats of American cinema. It remains an outstanding achievement for Spielberg, who was only just beginning his film career, and while, to be sure, he originally intended to show a great deal more of the monstrous shark on screen (and technical difficulties with the mechanics prevented him from doing so), the film, nonetheless, shows such a masterful and mature restraint that the shocks, when they come, hold a power they would not otherwise have. Spielberg understood that to make a film about a ridiculously-sized shark feel real, everything surrounding that ridiculous fantasy would need to be fully grounded in the real world. We see, then, that Spielberg chooses to use virtually no score in the first half of the film, except when the shark attacks: the movie’s world contains only diegetic, real-world sounds and music, so that any music the audience hears is just the radio the characters themselves are listening to or the band that is marching along the street. Spielberg refuses to let the score tell us how to feel or what to anticipate, and thus, just like in the real world, we cannot predict from moment to moment what will happen. Spielberg also opts for Robert Altman-like dialogue, where characters speak over and under one another, just like we do in real life. And Spielberg takes the time to give his characters a lived-in feel. There is no reason, for example, from a plot perspective, to give us that wonderful moment between Roy Scheider’s character and his son, where the young son playfully imitates the movements of his father at the dinner table. There’s no plot reason for it, but it serves both to underscore the film’s world as very much like our own world, where children and parents show playful love for another even in the midst of tragic circumstances, and it serves to make us love Scheider’s character more deeply so that we are utterly invested in his success. .
And Scheider’s wonderful performance is a reminder that Spielberg’s direction can only be as good as the film crew he worked with.Jawsis as great as it is not just because of Spielberg, but because of the fully realized performances of Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw (whoseU. S. S. Indianapolismonologue is one of the all-time greats), Lorraine Gary, and the inimitable Murray Hamilton, who plays Mayor Vaughn, a character who is, arguably, the real villain of the story: the politician who refuses to listen to scientific experts, refuses to admit the danger, and, for the sake of profit, deliberately puts people’s lives in danger. (Thus his character is yet one more reason whyJawscontinues to resonate today.)Jawsalso features the cinematography of the great Bill Butler (One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest, Grease, Deliverance), whose “Vertigoshot” of Scheider on the beach, when he suddenly realizes a swimmer is being attacked, so beautifully captures purely through the visuals, Scheider’s simultaneous shock, horror, and nausea, so that we feel in our very bones what the character feels.
Finally,Jawsincludes the stellar work of sound designers John R. Carter and Robert L. Hoyt and of brilliant film editor Verna Fields (American Graffiti, Paper Moon, What’s Up, Doc?). Take any given scene from the film, and the sound choices and sound layerings as well as visual cuts are simply awe-inspiring in their effectiveness at world-building and in the development of narrative tension. When you watch the film again on the big screen this 4th of July -- or watch it for the very first time -- you might pay extra attention just to the very first scene, in terms of its sound and editing choices: we open with a beach scene of cheerful chatter, bright, crackling fire, and music, young college kids enjoying themselves on a warm night by the ocean. The scene slowly shifts to a focus on just two young people, including the ill-fated Chrissie, and as we do, the cheery light of the fire and the sounds of chatter and company slowly melt away as the couple runs away from the bigger group to go for a swim. The shift from light and sound to darkness and silence -- a silence eventually pierced by panicked, lonely screams -- is one of the most effective set-ups of all time, and an ongoing testament to the film crews that make the cinematic art we love so much, a reality.