Movie night: No boating accident

Yesterday I did two things for the first time in a while: I made popcorn on the stove, and I watched Jaws.

I’d read in several places around the internets that the trick to not-soggy stovetop popcorn is to clarify your butter first (and/or use ghee); although my attempt at clarification seems to have been more of a thisclosetobrowning situation, I think I can mostly report a success here. Things sizzled and crackled and eventually settled into a lovely little golden-y pool with a toasted bit or two clinging to the bottom of the pan and just a fine layer of milk solids waiting to be scooped off the top.

Popped some corn in coconut oil, dumped it into a large bowl, ran a drizzle of clarified butter around the edge, toss, add salt, toss again, et voila. More popcorn than a sensible human or maybe even two sensible humans should probably be eating in a sitting, though as is the way of all popcorn it was disturbingly easy to scoop up and devour in great, salty fistfuls.

It made sense, then, with such a movie snack on hand, to settle in for one of – debatably the – original summer blockbusters. This movie is older than I am, older than my husband is; it takes place in a particular flavor of small-town New England that may not really even exist any more, one where the only way to really be of a place is to be born there. (One of the film’s many background conversations is about this very phenomenon: “When do I become an islander?” “Never; you weren’t born here!” I chuckled to myself, but I can relate to that a little. I wonder if I am properly of Toronto yet?)

Anyway. I’m not sure why I’m a little surprised to find that it holds up, but it really does. Oh, sure, by today’s special-effects standards the “practical” shark is a little creaky (though I do appreciate the sense of weight to it), but it’s also barely in the movie. Most of the film goes by without more than a fin, some ominous, groaning strings and the occasional panic-stricken swimmer.

The main draw here is the performances, really. All of them are great, from the Mayor (You guys. That. anchor. suit.) to Roy Scheider’s beleaguered Chief Brody to Richard Dreyfus’s Exasperated Smart Guy Hooper to…well. Quint. (And yes, that monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis is still a hell of a thing.)

Is there anything I can really say about this movie that has not been said ten thousand different ways by…everybody who has ever written anything about movies? Probably not.

Jaws isn’t a horror movie, not exactly, though it borrows some of the horror movie’s trappings. We know straightaway what the terror out there in the deep is – it’s right there on the damn poster. There is no real evidence for malice as humans know it or even particular intelligence here. We’re not gazing into the void of the cosmic unknown – we know exactly what that bigass shark is going to do. Hooper tells us what it will do explicitly. A Great White shark is a finely-tuned eating machine that does nothing but swim and eat and make more sharks.

And that is what it does, or tries to do, and it is only through being more of a tenacious #@%& than the flawless eating machine that anyone manages to paddle their way back to shore in the end.

So…horror? No, not really. A thriller, perhaps, or one of those man-vs-nature adventure films, borrowing a bit of that horror vibe for effect.

I will say, though – to a pair of eyes watching it in 2021 there sure do seem to be some parallels between the anchor-suit-wearing mayor’s reluctance to do the right thing and close the damn beaches in favor of The Economy and…well.

(gestures vaguely in the direction of Outside)

I wonder what proportion of Amity Island would believe the shark was a hoax if the film were made today. Would some of them refuse to get out of the water? To close up shop? To stop running tours or whatever else it is they do?

Would even blood in the water convince them?

Anyway. The movie may predate me, but it’s still a worthwhile watch.

Bring some popcorn.

I ponder the Western

This evening it will be movie/tv night, as it is most Mondays.  Our regular crew has just finished watching the BBC miniseries Jekyll (my assessment in brief: many lovely moments, and is good watching up till the last episode, when a number of things come apart.  Oh, and don’t watch the last five minutes at all: if you are anything like me they will only serve to annoy you.  On the other hand, James Nesbitt is delightful.  Might be worth picking it up just to watch him cavort about the screen.)

Tonight, we begin our next project, a sort of exploration of movie Westerns.  This delights my husband hugely, since he is all about Westerns and has recently come off a bender of Red Dead Redemption.  There is at least one other big fan of the genre in the group, too, so good times are anticipated.

True confession: I am not that much of a Westerns kind of girl.  Considering that I’ll be seeing a lot of them in the next little while, I’ve been thinking today about why this might be.

Westerns, as most genre works, tend to share some common features (apologies for my wild paraphrasing to Diana Tixier Herald, from whose excellent reference Genreflecting I learned most of this):

  1. They take place primarily somewhere in the American West, usually in the last half of the nineteenth century (the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption is an exception, set as it is in the decade just prior to World War I.)
  2. Heroes tend to be strong-willed, individualistic characters, often in opposition to social or political realities of the time.  The rugged frontier individualist vs. the artifice of city life, and so on.
  3. That said, the real star of a Western is often…the West.  The landscape, the natural environment, the huge, sweeping forces with which the hero must contend…
  4. Themes include: clashes between chaos and order; the struggle to survive in harsh surroundings (both natural and social); justice and redemption. (Herald, 2006)

Morality in a western tends to be fairly black and white – we do, after all, get our very literal concepts of who is “white hat” and who is “black hat” from the genre.  The good guys may not win, though it is no less clear that they are the good guys.  And there is a kind of nostalgic haze over the entirety of the goings-on, or so it seems to me – but perhaps that is simply my status as a modern reader/viewer looking in.

I get why my husband loves Westerns so.  He fancies stories with heroic! men of action! who sally forth and overcome mighty challenges – or don’t – while adhering to a strict moral code.  (It is not unlike what you see in heroes of noir stories, really – in both genres you get many protagonists who are essentially chivalrous white knights displaced in time and space to a land or society where the things they value are in conflict with reality.  This probably tells you a lot about my husband, too. ;))

What is a little more strange to me is why I am not correspondingly into them.  I have read several, watched quite a few, and often enjoy them – but I almost never pick up a book or film of this type when I’m out looking for media to consume.  It isn’t the type of protagonist.  I enjoy noir (generally.)  It isn’t the landscape: I have been to the American West on several occasions and find it very lovely and mysterious in that rather terrifying way that deserts are beautiful.

Perhaps it is simply that I am not much of a rugged frontier individualist myself – I’m a geek, a big one, and enjoy city living.  And, while I do enjoy solitude as much as the next introverted person, there is to me something stimulating about having lots of people out there even if I’m not interacting directly with them.  Ah-ha, perhaps that is it: the vasty wilderness of New Mexico is less populated with characters for me to latch onto than Los Angeles circa 1935, hence the greater appeal for me of noir’s streets of intrigue.

Well, that and that most westerns I’ve encountered tend to be…shall we say…testosterone-heavy.   This is in part just a factor of when and where the stories tend to be set: the frontier is classically a man’s world, and there’s not really anything wrong with that.   Wouldn’t it be fun to have some more action girls in the Old West though?  (That said, I did recently read Sandra Dallas’s Spur-award-winning The Chili Queen, which was great fun and features some entertaining female characters.)

I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to explore the Weird West a bit more, since that subgenre intersects very nicely with my fondness for fantasy and science fiction.  I’ve already read Midori Snyder’s interesting western/fantasy fusion The Flight of Michael McBride, and enjoyed it quite a bit – there is something endlessly entertaining in the way that combining unlikely things produces quirky results.  Recommendations for Western + supernatural hybrids, anyone?

Anyway.  Tonight’s film will be Destry Rides Again – it would have been Stagecoach, but that one was out at Our Favorite Local Video Store, alas.

We’ll see how I do. 🙂

Further Reading

Herald, D.  (2006). Genreflecting: A guide to popular reading interests.  (6th ed.).  Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.