Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Movies: The one I would save.


Arbogast, creator of what might be the closest thing to a definitive horror blog, started a blog-a-thon around the concept of those unfortunate horror victims that we wish we could save. Unofficially dubbed the "The One You Might Have Saved," the blog-a-thon results have been downright brilliant.
Check them out, but notice to those with coworkers or kiddies about, Arbo's own entry includes tits and a bush shot. Arbo's loves the ladies, what can I say?

I've never officially managed to throw my hat in the ring for either of the now two waves of entries for this thing because a) I'm a coward and fear the withering gaze of contempt and pity Arbo would give me if he ever read my writing and, more importantly, 2) I've never been able to decide between two victims that shout out for some saving.

Ultimately, I've decided on one.

The person I'd save is Christine "Chrissie" Watkins. You might not remember the name, but I guarantee you remember her: She's the skinny dipping hippie chick who becomes the shark's first victim in Jaws.

My reaction to Christine's death is visceral and always unpleasant.

One can easily over intellectualize the immediate experience of watching a film. Christ-ine (check the name) dies calling to God. Her death is, simultaneously, an act of delivering news to the town. The community will fail to heed the news and be judged for it. If you prefer your horror more secular: The young Christine enters the water on the promise of sexual adventure, when an unseen monster rises from the depths to pierce her body (the damage being localized in the nether regions) and destroy her. Not political enough for you? Reframe the rape fantasy as a class revenge fantasy. Christine is one of the summer people. Those rootless seasonal residents think their money entitles them to treat the island as their own private playground. Her lack of concern for the dangers of night-swimming is a facet of the privilege of the wealthy. Only this time, she pays for it.

But all that's bullshit. Write that crap in the margins of your Bordwell and Thompson to share with your Intro the Film class amigos.

The power of Christine's death comes from the fact that Spielberg frames it so powerfully as to make it something you experience before thought. Like the carpet/hardwood floor countdown scene of The Shining, the scene builds to a climax through the use of dozen nearly subliminal cues.

The scene starts with a subdued soundtrack. A harmonica and guitar are prominent, but they fade along the conversation, replaced by the sounds of the tide. There's a brief moment when the dialogue between Christine and her presumed conquest sticks out, but this is eventually replaced by alternating shots of the famous John Williams motif and a soundtrack where the slightest ripple of water sticks out. As we watch the boy chasing Christine falter, Speilberg even gives us a quick foretaste of Christine's fate. Christine is swimming a leisurely backstroke and, Bubsy Berkley style, kicks up one leg. Then she sinks and the leg, silhouetted against the early dawn sky's reflection on the water, sinks into the dark.

Her head emerges and she calls to the boy. The sun's behind her and the water glows. It's almost beautiful, but it casts her features in a dark near oblivion. You can't really read her face. She's simply a female form, calling out for somebody to join her. The nebulousness of her identity is revisited almost immediately: After we see the would-be drunken hook up collapse on the beach, we get a shot from Bruce the Shark's POV of Christine, just a female form, gracefully passing over the surface of the water. Her track across the dim blue background will mirror several shooting stars that appear throughout the flick.

There's that damn music.


We get another above surface shot of her. She smiles, she's happy, she's enjoying being healthy and young and playful. The music stops and all we hear is her deep breathing, from all the swimming, and her splashing.

Then another shot from under the water. She's just a dark shape, clearly female, but any female. Perhaps all females. The music starts again.

Cut to above the surface again. Before the trouble starts, we already know this is the end. The music, which has been a subsurface phenom up to this point, doesn't stop. Our brains our primed for the coming violence.

There's a little tug, and a shocked Christine is pulled down to her nose, but not completely under. There's a pause as she rises slightly and looks around. She looks vaguely upset, but not harmed. Though this only lasts a second. The next tug pulls her all the way under. It happens so fast, a tiny little whirlpool forms where she was. She emerges quickly, her breath, which is astoundingly loud on the soundtrack, is now ragged and uneven. She doesn't even gasp, just makes these uneven breaths before she's under again.

Then the scene explodes. As with the music between the attack shots, the sound acts as a sonic bridge between shots. Christine emerges nearly out of frame and begins to scream, "Oh God!" Her voice is unhinged. She drags the phrase out. Her scream acts as a link to the next shot. She's dragged across screen. There's a light buoy in the background. The light buoy isn't just some clever, ironic metaphor; without it, against the gray-blue dawn, we'd have no sense of her speed. Because we have a stable point of reference, we can sense the power of the beast dragging her.

She's pulled toward the light buoy (the beast must change directions between cuts). And then she stops and is thrown back and forth across the screen. The limits of her jerky movements are slightly past frame on the viewer's left and just right of center on the right. It's a sawing motion that evokes images of the feeling of worrying some meat or a dog working on a bone. Without showing us any blood or even the slightest bit of the shark, we know exactly what we're watching. Her shrieking is punctuated by her cries for help. She screams "help me," then "no," then "help me."

We get a shot of the boy, passed out on the beach. Her screaming vanishes from the soundtrack. I think, oddly, the boy is the viewer. As scary as Jaws may be, there's always a little disconnect. We're watching from dry land, as it were. When we watch the movie, we know we're safe. We always already back on shore.

The soundtrack, notably, doesn't just kick back in. When we cut back to the violently flailing Christine, the soundtrack quickly speeds back to her screaming. This odd stretching of the soundtrack produces a pig-like snort that rapidly resolves into a high-pitched scream. When you first hear it, it almost sounds like the beast is making some grotesque sound. (Notably, great white sharks do kind of snort when they come out of the water; the effect is, I suspect, intentional.) Christine's wailing - banshee-like, literally, in that is sounding doom for many others as well - is punctuated with her screaming, "It hurts."

"It hurts." It seems almost so obvious as to be silly. But that's the point of this scene. Without a clear source of pain, ripped from context, lit to become some ur-body, Christine hangs on our screen, like some image of a saint in the throws of martyrdom. She's embodied pain. She is hurt.

New shot. She's dragged, nearly thrown, against the light buoy. Suddenly, she's no longer being dragged. She holds on to the light buoy and repeats, with her head lowered against the metal frame of the buoy, "Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god . . ."

Suddenly she's grabbed again and dragged towards the viewer.

The first shooting star is seen behind her in the sky. It's a badly done effect, because it wobbles in sky a bit.

She screams for God now. "Oh God, oh god, please help."

Her request for God to help her will be the last thing we hear from Christine.She goes under and stays under. He has forsaken her.

I realize, as I write, I don't want to save Christine. Some better angel of my nature wants, of course, to reach out and stop her suffering. What I really want, though, is for God to save Christine. I want her cries for help to be answered.

Somebody once wrote that faith isn't the belief that everything will eventually make sense. It's the belief that everything will turn out alright.

Christine's death hangs there, an earnestly nihilistic image of humanity as a suffering body. Her death says to me, "No. Things will not be alright."

If I could save on victim in a horror film, it would be Christine. Because if she could be saved then, perhaps, then there would be the possibility for all of us that things might just turn out alright.

But we never can save her. She always vanishes under the water.

6 comments:

Will Errickson said...

Great, great post. Poor Chrissie calls out to a god that in all probability does not exist, as she is devoured by a monstrous animal created by the same blind evolutionary forces that created bipedal mammals who most emphatically do not belong in the ocean. Here we are meat, and nothing besides. I think *all* horror is ultimately about how things will not, most definitely, be all right.

Whew.

jm_kaye said...

Now I'm dying to know who the other victim was.

CRwM said...

jm_kaye,

The other was Amanda Krueger, but for considerably more dry and intellectual reasons. I decided my response to her would be less interesting to write.

cattleworks said...

Boy, this was great.
I wrote that one review of JAWS for Heather's blog-- you know, where I yakked and yakked forever?
Anyways, after reading this I felt like I didn't say shit about anything in that awesome movie.
Great-- thanks, CRwM!
Seriously, your description of the whole sequence was eye-opening.

I'm wondering how much of this movie was truly informed by the problems they had with the mechanical shark not working.
The way Richard Dreyfuss tells it in the one making of doc, the whole summer was simply hearing, "The shark is not working-- repeat-- the shark is not working..." and the producers knowing that you don't stop working on the movie, no matter what, so even if you shoot part of a page of script every day, you keep working on the movie.
So, I wonder if fate and necessity hadn't given Spielberg the opportunity to really mull over details of scenes that he initially wouldn't have dwelt on as much time and detail on (if everything went according to plan from the beginning and the shark worked), how different the movie would have been. Considering Speilberg's talent, I'm sure the film still would have been good, it still would have made money, probably lots of money.
But would it have made as much money? Would it have been the blockbuster it was? Would it have been the same film that transcended the horror/thriller genre that it is now?

Well, that's all geeky speculation on my part.

My point is, buried in all that crap I just wrote, is that other emotions color the scene (as you described), it's not just a "simple" first victim of a shark attack experience.
To go off on a tangent, but it seems related (well, to me): the shower sequence in PSYCHO.
They spent a week working on that scene. A WEEK.
This bit of information has always made an impression on me.
I know Hitchcock said somewhere that when he worked on his television series, because of the shortened schedule of working for TV, he focused on thos moments he felt were most important for an episode, and the rest he put together efficiently.
He had worked on his TV show prior to working on PSYCHO, and his experience with TV gave him the confidence and desire to make an inexpensive yet effective horror film.
He knew the shower scene was the most important scene in the whole movie.
His ideas for the movie prior to the scene are all with the shower scene in mind: the casting, the plot, etc.
So, this shower scene is more than just a woman gets killed in the shower.
I watched the sequence recently a number of times, and I was struck by the mood of the sequence before the murder's actually committed... the sense of Marion Crane (Janet leigh's character) washing herself clean of her sins (her robbery), preparing to make amends for her crime.
Also, the detail of the shower experience-- of being in the shower, recreating that moment so that everyone watching the scene relives their own personal shower experience because they see it so faithfully reproduced (okay, so she doesn't waste time trying to splash off any loose hair she happened to stick onto the wall...), which it occurs to me, helps create the private moment that eventually becomes violated by Norman's mother... which contributes to audience members' future paranoia about taking showers, just as JAWS contributed to audience members' future paranoia about swimming at the beach.
Anyway, both Hitchcock and Spielberg were focused on making a full, emotional viewing experience for their audiences.

Okay... you know what happened tonight? I fell asleep on the couch. Then I woke up at 4 am. Earlier I couldn't use the computer because there was huge-ass thunderstorm going on. But it's quiet nnow. So I went on the computer.
Apparently, I get even more indulgently verbose in such situations.
Sorry.
I'm going back to bed.

CRwM said...

Cattle,

I don't know if the decision to keep the shark entirely out of sight in the first scene was there from the get go or not. Though I've always heard that Jaws' editor, Verna Fields, basically saved the film from it's malfunctioning star. Whether she had to "save" this scene or not, the editing of it is masterful.

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