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A Study of Jaws' Incisive Overture

To Close Off the Century

by Alexandre Tylski

A good musical overture at the beginning of a film is like an appetizer before a good meal. It gives the audience a 'taste' of what to expect and, if properly executed, an anticipation of the delights and thrills to come. It is no surprise then that movies from a series often have great, and instantly recognizable, overtures: the James Bond, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Naked Gun, Lethal Weapon series, to name a few. More recent examples include the Jurassic Park or Scream series. A few exceptions to this rule are the Alien or Godfather series (since these do not begin with striking musical introductions). Still, even in these films, the audience can feel the directors' extreme attention to the mood of the first scenes, an almost crucial element of audience reception. One thing is certain, when a movieis successful on many levels, its introduction is always well made and highly symbolic. Steven Spielberg's motion pictures (but also Stanley Kubrick's) are particularly fascinating for this reason - the most recent and compelling example being the first ineffable half hour of Saving Private Ryan.

To close the curtain on this century, let us then take another look at one of the most unforgettable and universal motion picture overtures ever made : Jaws. The opening sequence of Jaws (which lasts nearly five minutes) has inspired not only the other sequels of the series and Steven Spielberg's own movies (such as 1941, E.T. or Jurassic Park), but also other directors' films (such as Airplane or, more recently, Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea). Jaws is one of the most successful movies of the century and arguably one of the most compelling works ever made dealing with the struggle between Good and Evil, Man and Nature. As a result, it is one of the most intriguing movies on the twofold aspect of things. The Jaws prologue overtly announces these themes in a very effective and imaginative way (though old horror films have influenced this type of scary overture). John Williams' Ives-like and incisive score deals with the energy and mythical aspect of this significant introduction. As the movie opens, the Universal logo appears. We hear mysterious and disturbing sounds, underwater sounds, sonar blips perhaps (as is clearly heard later in the film). Nevertheless, the ambiance prepares us to dive. The logo disappears and we remain in the darkness for several seconds (Spielberg is obviously aware of the primal aspect of a darkened theater). After the sonar-like sounds, two notes: F then F sharp, low and performed by a cellist, permeate the theater then suddenly disappear, exactly like a shark slowly circling its prey, vanishing without warning, then attacking abruptly from an unknown quarter. Another silence, following which the producers' names appear on the screen in response to the shark motif. (This association between the shark and the producer is amusing since the film often criticizes the power of money.) The same two notes then return, followed by a short silence and two other notes, doubled, as in a mirror. Another silence. Two more notes, still the same, then six more notes performed crescendo. We feel that something threatening is coming closer and closer but we can see nothing. Williams, by using the crescendo, creates an idea of distance and movement, transforming rhythm into a highly visual element - which has always been one of Williams' most effective skills.

The movie makes us dive into a world of sounds before showing us images (though what is heard can conjure up many images to an imaginative mind). In fact, this overture clearly announces how the whole film will be organized: some sounds often lead to the introduction of music and the music often leads to images (the music enables us to see beyond the images). For instance, when Brody's assistant discovers the corpse of the first shark victim, he uses his whistle to call Brody (Roy Scheider) and then we hear Williams' score, as the extension of the whistle symbolizing a cry for help or a reaction to the horror. The music also starts after the whir of the fishing reel tells Quint (Robert Shaw) he has caught the shark. If the sound often comes first in Jaws, it is likely due to the invisible presence of the monster which we see only in fragments throughout the movie. Music thus brings an existence to the void (this is true in some movies and also in some lives). This musical overture also reminds us of a ballet overture. The composer tries to capture our attention, giving us the tone of the spectacle before the curtain opens. In any case, the music here ends as the darkness breaks, as we burst forth into the opening shot of the movie.

It is an underwater image. We see colorful seaweed in surrealistic close-up, moving in the ocean current like a panicked crowd, giving us the impression that we're moving through a jungle (symbolized and reinforced by the primitive use of percussions in the backdrop of the orchestra). The movie title appears on screen and the music becomes a little faster and more frightening. The tone of the score and the visuals at this point tell us that our point of view is that of a monster rather than a swimmer as we move along with the camera (we become the hunter, seeking prey). This atonal music (more or less invented by Charles Ives), underscores this opening shot which is, to a certain extent, a sort of 'inner landscape', a representation of the id, in which the chaotic movement of the seaweed foreshadows the disorder and the danger to come. This image is also 'obsessive' since there are no cuts. It is a one shot-scene and Williams' score, through the motif of repeating two similar notes, is a minimalist symbolization of a primal Evil. We hear no melody, in order to strengthen the primitive dimension of the scene. The harshness of the composition is used to depict the wilderness of the underwater world. F and F sharp, these two famous notes signify duality. As we mentioned earlier, duality is the thematic core of the movie since it describes the battle between Good and Evil, Man and Nature. The hero, Brody, embodies this duality. He is childlike (afraid of water and a novice) but adult (a father and cop; he represents authority). Brody denotes the duality between strength (the body) represented by the sailor, Quint, and knowledge (the mind) represented by the scientist, Hooper, (Richard Dreyfuss). At the end, Brody's duality comes into balance when he succeeds in killing the shark (the music at the last is harmonious and sweet). We can say that Brody's duality symbolizes Spielberg's movies: a mixture of childhood and maturity.

Still, beyond all these intellectual considerations, the binary rhythm reminds us most of all of a man's breathing. It 'mirrors' our own body, as if we were inside the film. This technique is not new in motion picture history but Williams has pushed it further, and with more violence, than anyone before. Bernard Herrmann used this respiration-like rhythm in his scores for Taxi Driver or North by NorthWest, but above all for Cy Endfield's Mysterious Island for which he composed the surprising "bee motif" (very similar to the shark motif). Perhaps Williams used his shark motif as a reference to Mysterious Island. The link between both movies would then be really interesting when we consider that Jaws' story also takes place on an island - called Amity. We can compare Amity to a mythologic or prehistoric place, haunted by heavy secrets and giant monsters, like an imaginary jungle or a lost world. In both movies, we observe the visual and musical description of one of our worst nightmares as well as one of our most frightening dreams: the return of prehistoric creatures. The giant shark in Jaws seems to have come back from prehistory.

Jaw also tells of another struggle: that between the past and the present. The musical references in Williams' score are also part of this. In this story, all the characters seem to be haunted by their pasts: Brody was terrified in the water when a child and seems to regret his New York life, Quint continually tells stories of his past (notably his terrible adventure in the ocean during the Second World War), Hooper says a girl broke his heart and admits he is now a shark specialist because he was attacked by a shark as a child. The characters seem to suffer from their pasts and it makes them 'broken'. Throughout the movie, we can see broken fences (the fences along the dunes look like the teeth of a monster), broken windows, close-ups of torn legs, skins covered with scars, pictures of bodies bitten by sharks, and so on. Williams has perfectly understood the 'broken aspect' of Spielberg's movie by using a harsh and constantly 'decomposed music'. The rupture is another crucial theme in Jaws (the title itself reflects an idea of a 'split'). As a result, the first image of the movie is violently cut and interrupted. The sharp orchestration and the end of the crescendo (the whole film builds, as a crescendo) seem to 'tear' the screen. (It is amusing that, at that moment, we see the name of the editor - whose job is to cut into the film with scissors.) And, to underscore further the idea of deep rupture, the next shot has nothing in common with the very first one, just as in the films of the "French New Wave" (which have deeply inspired Spielberg's work) in which the shots were edited that way.

Spielberg makes us dive into a cold and scary underwater world (but, oddly, seemingly lit by daylight) and then makes us face the exact opposite, an image (shot by night) depicting young lovers around a fire, unaware of the immediate tragedy. This is also the aim of the first shot, to inform the audience of the danger while the characters still do not know what is about to happen. A young harmonica player performs a melody which also starts on a crescendo, another important leitmotif in the film. (This is, perhaps, a reference to Sugarland Express or, more likely, to the Western genre since Jaws sometimes has the breadth of some old westerns.) Meanwhile, another young man plays the guitar in the backdrop. Both instruments do not at all evoke the violence expressed by the main title music, yet reinforce the frustration of the audience, unable to do anything about the impending slaughter. Consciously or not, Williams uses an ironic harmonica at the very end of the scene when the girl eventually disappears in the ocean. As in every Tragedy, things have come full circle. All the sounds in this scene are particularly well thought out (an example today's young directors, who use more sound effects than ever but, perhaps, less subtle and compelling sounds, would be wise to follow). The most amazing example is, without doubt, the cry of a sea gull that makes the future shark victim turn her head in its direction. We will hear sea gulls again later in the movie at two crucial moments: when the girl's body is found and, at the very end of the film, when Brody and Hooper come back home. As if the sea gull had 'called' her, the girl gets up and runs to the ocean. Again, it is the sound that leads to the movement, which is a strong characteristic in Spielberg's movies. Spielberg once said about the Raiders of the Lost Ark score (one of the most intelligent remarks I have ever heard from a film maker's mouth): "Jones did not perish, but listened carefully to the Raiders score. Its sharp rhythms told him when to run. Its slicing strings told him when to duck. Its several integrated themes told adventurer Jones when to kiss the heroine or smash the enemy. All things considered, Jones listened . . . and lived."(1) A sound or the sound of one or several musical instruments is very often the origin and the core of Spielberg's motion pictures, as well as of the best movies of this century, if one listens to them carefully. The young woman gets undressed while running to the ocean and starts swimming completely naked. She is as 'naked' as Williams' music for this scene, since the latter is atonal, almost minimalist, deprived of any melody, simply primitive. The music, just by its return in conjunction with the underwater image (a visual leitmotif), suggests that something terrible is about to happen. The simple 'eruption' of music is often enough to scare us because we know, unconsciously, that if a director has gone to the trouble of using a whole orchestra (which is quite expensive), very spectacular things are likely about to happen on the screen. The sudden presence of music when we are caught up in the "reality" of a motion picture disturbs us because the intrusion of this element is impossible, almost supernatural. We do not know where the music comes from or who is playing it. It is an element coming out of nowhere, having no face or identity, and thus, as with things we cannot see, it makes us afraid. Paradoxically, one has to admit that an action score breaks the realism of a scene whatever its tone or quality. Even a score composed to be reminiscent of a certain time in order to bring a sense of "realism" to a movie breaks that realism by it's very presence. Hearing music at all creates a distance between the audience and the movie. Being an intangible or 'unreal' art form, music reminds us that what we see is nothing but fiction. Here lies the grandeur of film music and its limitation.

Yet, the musical entrance remains an effective way to engage the attention of the audience. This is even truer when the composer decides to use just one or two instruments, as in the swimmer scene. Composer Mario Litwin has stated that: "a symphonic orchestration creates a physical and psychological distance vis-a-vis the audience and it can thus lead, in a cinematic context, to a very discreet musical presence."(2) For this Lagoon, Williams uses, in a musical close-up, sweet harp glissando (symbolizing the dreamlike apparition of the girl) bringing a fairy tale atmosphere, which starts as a dream but it ends as a nightmare.

Then, we can hear an exchange between the harp and the low and scary, cello (immediately associated with the shark in people's mind thanks to the main title). The rhythm goes faster while the camera gets closer to the girl (Spielberg's camera being deeply linked with Williams' score). Just as Bernard Herrmann's music in the Psycho shower scene was, figuratively speaking, symbolizing what Hitchcock did not show us, that is the knife's contact with the victim's body, Williams' score gives a reality to what Spielberg prevents us from seeing: the shark's jaws. We can hear a series of weird sounds, such as strident strings, a sort of whistle and an anvil symbolizing the Evil, the shark's jaws. The anvil is the spearhead of young composers today but, back then, it was surprising to hear such an instrument in an action cue, though Miklos Rosza, Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone were among the first film composers to have used this style of sound in motion pictures.

In this scene, Williams' orchestration is nothing but a call for disorder, a clarion to our animal natures and basic instincts. These reactions bypass our more rational and reasonable responses as we become "caught up" in the events on screen. The chaotic aspect of the score is reinforced by the small intervals of silence (strengthening them) and by the noisy buoy bell that the girl grabs onto and shakes violently. Her shouting 'God, God!' also plays a role in the cacophonous (and almost religious) dimension of the scene. Williams' score eventually seems to vie with the movie sound effects, creating violent sounds through his music, intensifying the powerful emotions aroused by the scene. Williams uses a harmonica to conclude the overture as a highly ironic reference to the beginning of the scene. The young woman suddenly disappears in the ocean, swallowed by the monster. All the chaos disappears as well. A terrible silence replaces music. The end is harsh. This style of sudden cut is, in itself, a leitmotif, an even more significant leitmotif than the shark motif. In effect, the true leitmotif in Jaws, as announced in its overture, is nothing other than the split, the rupture.

Williams has succeeded in evoking the harshness of Nature through these 'broken sounds' and a decomposed score, asking his musicians to play as violently as they can, pushing their instruments as far as possible (as if the instruments were ready to break). The xylophone, an instrument usually used for fairy tales, is played vehemently here, becoming a nightmarish instrument of death, recreating the movements of the victim in a surgical way. The strings are played so quickly and violently that they sound like percussions. percussions. This technique has been influenced by the famous ballet, called "Rite of Spring," composed by Igor Stravinsky at the beginning of the century. This ballet has been, and still is, the most considerable source of inspiration for movie composers. Stravinsky wanted to express the intense struggle between Man and Nature through the roars and bursts of his music. It was a wild and unheard-of result. Williams took this approach for Jaws (where it was a question of the same kind of duel) distorting the nature of the musical instruments so as to symbolize the natural world. The Jaws score, and particularly its overture, shows us that Music never evokes Nature better than when the music is, paradoxically, anti nature. A good film composer can reveal to us our nature, what we are deep-down, because he enables us to experience a movie on a primal level. In fact, one might say that when the audience sees an actor's face, they see what they want to be, but when they listen to a composer's score, they see what they are. As Jerry Goldsmith once pointed out, "A good composer should not illustrate what you see on the screen, but rather what you do not see, what is deep-down."(3) It has never been as true as with John Williams' Jaws score, which shows us what is hidden in the dark. Eventually one thing becomes clear, the most revealing light in movies may not be the light one sees but the light one 'hears'. To dazzle us directors hire, oddly, the most obscure artists of moviedom, the painters of the invisible: the film composers. May the next century continue to bring us brilliant motion pictures. And, may it also keep bringing us brilliant film scores, these magical submersibles in which we can explore the enchanting beauty of the 'ribbons of dreams', the seaweed of the imagination.


(1) in the Raiders of the Lost Ark CD booklet

(2) in "Le film et sa musique" by Mario Litwin (1992, Editions Romillat)

(3) in a CNN interview (March, 1998)

Courtesy of Trax Zone http://www.traxzone.com

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