Friday, February 15, 2008

Stevesees! R.I.P. Roy Scheider


We revive Stevesees today despite the lamentable absence of our beloved Hippolyta to cheer us on (she vanished from the site at roughly the same time as the Reichmarshall did - do we detect Romance in the air? Perhaps a whirlwind trip to Argentina to visit some, um, old friends of the Reichmarshall? Alas, we'll probably never know...), and we do so not only to honor the memory of recently deceased actor Roy Scheider but also to sing the praises of sequels.

But first, Scheider, a perennially underrated performer who managed to impart an extra bit of grace, an extra ounce of believability, and most of all an almost imperceptible twinkle into even his most mediocre parts. He was the quintessential knockaround part-player, of a type the stage and screen will always have and always need - the character actor who turns in the work and eschews the histrionics.

Unfortunately, histrionics almost always gets the attention and wins the awards. This was the case in 1979, when he was nominated for Best Actor for his part in All That Jazz and lost to Dustin Hoffman vamping in primary colors in Kramer vs. Kramer - the one is a scintillating, bravura star-turn, the other a deeply boring assay at suburban ennui, of a type that's always popular with the Academy. And look at his most famous performance, as Police Chief Brody in Jaws: he's impossibly bracketed between the ham of Robert Shaw and the wry of Richard Dreyfuss.

Which brings us to sequels, because it's in a sequel that Roy Scheider's craft shows to perfect advantage. Of course we're referring to Jaws 2, the sequel to the record-breaking Jaws - and as in most cases, the sequel is better than the original.

Purists will howl, of course. Jaws 2 better than Jaws? Unthinkable! What about the stagecraft, the narrative, the filmic cohesion? To which we here at Stevesees say: there ain't no Muse of filmic cohesion. Jaws 2 wins out over Jaws because it resolves the mystery that's central to both movies and ignored by the first: the shark. In Jaws, a twenty-five foot great white shark starts eating humans off the shores of Amity island. After some initial reluctance, the town council agrees to pay professional shark-killer Quint (the Shaw character) to take a boat out after the shark. Police Chief Brody and marine biologist Matt Hooper (the Dreyfuss role) go with him, and they quickly find themselves demoted from hunters to hunted by a shark who's always one step ahead of them, mysteriously canny and malevolent. Emphasis on mysteriously. The film tries hard to convey a sense of realism - scores of 'natives' are trucked in from Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and Scheider gives Brody a very appealing everyman fallibility - but the elephant in the room is the shark itself, a superhuman monster who's swum in from a different genre altogether.

In Jaws 2 (Jeannot Szwarc directed it with a fine eye for visual contrasts, always violently juxtaposing violence onto tranquility), this mystery is cleared up: the shark in this movie is motivated by plain and simple revenge. It is supernatural, and almost no attempt is made to tell us otherwise. When a group of local kids find a killer whale carcass washed up on the beach with a giant bite taken out of it, Brody calls in a local expert and hesitantly asks her about motive, specifically whether if a shark were 'destroyed' off Amity, another shark might come along and ... to which the expert (the actress sounding exactly like the factual old biddy in Hitchcock's The Birds) tartly replies, "Sharks don't take things personally, Mr. Brody." Which, as all fans of horror movies will tell you, is the movie's way of lock-solid guaranteeing you that sharks do take things personally - or at least that this one does.

And just look at all the things it does in its brief reign of terror! It chases a water-skier and gulps her down; it plays peek-a-boo with a scuba diver; it successfully eats a Coast Guard helicopter; and, in the film's best, most emotionally satisfying sequence, it terrorizes the shit out of what has to be the most obnoxious group of teenagers this in film. The first movie's shark would have been pooped after twenty minutes at this pace.

And Jaws 2 has the requisite horror movie puritanism. The beginning of the young snot killing spree when the shark zeroes in on one sailboat that's straggled behind the others. And why has it straggled behind? Because young Billy and Tina want to do it without being ogled. In fact, he's in the very act of spreading a blanket on deck so she won't get bruises when the shark head-butts the boat and sends him ass-first into the ocean.

The movie is full of memorable scenes, and Scheider shines in all of his. Probably two are best, and they're connected. In the first, Chief Brody, his instincts tingling at the possibility he might be dealing with another shark, is positioned high atop a shark tower, ignoring the happy scenes down on the beach in favor of scrutinizing the water. There he spots a vaguely shark-shaped shadow, trains his binoculars on it, trains them again - Scheider's body-language is a perfect little depiction of a man whose fears are convincing him of something as we watch. In one quick decision, he knows he's looking at the shark he's begun to suspect is out there; he descends from the tower, pulls his gun (Szwarc drily shows us that nobody on the beach is at point afraid of anything but the gun-waving Brody), yelling for everybody to get out of the water. When he comes to the edge of the surf, he raises his weapon and fires - just past a boy still running to get out of the surf. And when the shadow turns out not to be a shark at all ("It's just bluefish!" yells a fisherman, thus christening a semi-popular band by that name that played Nantucket hot spots for a couple of years, until sharks got them all)(just kidding about that last part: it was boring old heroin). The crowds ignore Brody's pathetic calls for them to go back in the water; they drift away, leaving him alone on the beach with his little boy, both of them very quietly picking up his shell casings.

The scene that follows is very different and equally good: Scheider's Brody has been fired off-camera - and drunk a skinfull off-camera too. He comes home and tells his wife he's been fired - something that hasn't happened to him since he was a kid - and Scheider gives the confession a pained, bewildered tone another actor would have curdled.

So here at Stevesees salute Roy Scheider for a first-rate job entertaining us over the years, and we salute sequels - many of which, like Scheider himself, are a whole lot better than people think they are.

And we'll let Stevereads have the final word for now: Richard Sackler's novelization of the movie (he co-wrote the screenplay) is actually a first-rate adventure novel full of great lines and sharply-drawn characters. Many of you have received this book compliments of Stevereads; we suggest you dig it up and give it a try. You won't be disappointed.

24 comments:

Sam said...

Wow, this is a great first installment of Stevesmokescrack!

The shark in "Jaws" is entirely realistic, which is why the movie has literally ruined swimming in the ocean for many thousands of people, in a way that other horror movies based on animals have not. The men only find Jaws at the end of the movie after eight hours of doggedly shoveling chum into the sea, hunting him down. A shark doesn't have to be supernatural to appear--and attack--when it's being hunted. And a shark doesn't have to be supernatural to start trolling the shoreline, munching humans every once in a while, as sharks have actually done. This is why the move is indelibly scary, in a deep-seated pathological way.

I agree, though, that Roy Scheider was a really good, underrated actor.

Beepy said...

"as Police Chief Brody in Jaws: he's impossibly bracketed between the ham of Robert Shaw and the wry of Richard Dreyfuss."

Which movie reviewer did you lift this line from?

steve said...

Sam, the thing POPS up behind people, out-thinks all the humans, does FAKE OUTS at every turn! That ain't natural, and the nice thing about 'Jaws 2' is that it doesn't even PRETEND otherwise. Is all I'm saying.

steve said...

Beepy, believe it or not, I'm actually a fairly dab hand at witty turns-of-phrase. If you ever looked at Open Letters, you'd see ample evidence.

That having been said, I'm sure it was Locke. Who is good enough to steal from?

Locke Peterseim said...

I. Do. Not. Pun.

brian said...

Wait, I thought this was an obit for Roy Scheider? Instead we get your defense of Jaws 2 as the superior Jaws film? I agree it's a fun sequel, but let's get real here. It's basically a slasher film in the water. There are a few taut scene's ("I can't get up" comes to mind) and Scheider is, as always, solid, but let's get real here.

When I think of Scheider, I think of (besides the obvious Chief Brody)his terrific performances in The Seven-Ups, Sorcerer, French Connection and even as Hoffman's shady CIA brother in Marathon Man? He's absolutely underrated.

brian said...

Damn, I wish I could go back and edit my posts. Omit that last question mark.

Greg said...

And who can forget the majesty of Seaquest DSV?

steve said...

There you have it, Beepy! Locke. Does. Not. Pun. So it MUST have been my line!

steve said...

And the post is BOTH an obit for Roy Scheider and a defense of 'Jaws 2' - and of ALL sequels! Why can't it be both? What is this, the Soviet Frickin Union?

brian said...

Of course it can be both. I was just sayin, is all. Can you provide us with a top five list of sequels? Would said list ONLY include direct sequels or could it include part 3's, 4's, etc?

I guess my choices would be as follows:

1. Aliens
2. The Godfather part II
3. Star Trek II
4. Terminator II
5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II

I didn't include Empire Strikes Back because it's not an entirely stand-alone film. Feels more like a part of a greater whole than a sequel.

steve said...

All five would make my top ten! Plus 'Jaws 2,' 'Predator 2,' 'Superman 2,' 'The Howling 2,' 'Dracula 2000 II,' 'High School Musical 2,' 'The Two Towers,' 'Cody Banks 2,' 'Gremlins 2,' 'Spider-Man 2,' and of course most of all, 'Rooster Cogburn.'

Kevin Caron said...

*coughDORK*

ahem.

brian said...

Let's not forget about Friday the 13th Part II, perhaps the only sequel that ever introduced the main villain of a series?

Locke Peterseim said...

Hold on! In the midst of all this dorkage, if I'm not mistaken, Steve just agreed that Godfather II is one of his Top Ten Sequels!

Ha!

If I recall correctly, Steve hates the Godfather films with a passion that could only be greater if they were produced by Phillip Morris.

In his rush to prove his point about sequels, he's accidentally pledged his love for Godfather II! It's forever! It's on the Internet!

Locke Peterseim said...

I've had to hear Steve's pro-Jaws II shtick a million times (and verbally, where you can't just skim down the page -- well, at least until I learned how to pretend to listen while entering a Zen state).

Full disclosure, I've probably only seen J-II a couple times and probably not in the past 5 years or more. Whereas, Jaws I is one of my favorite films of all time, and I just watched it last week in honor of Mr. Scheider.

I can also tell you that Steve LOVES Jaws I. He only takes this silly, crack-smoking (best line of the board goes to Sam) stance for exactly the reason you see here today: to get a sputtering, disbelieving rise out of film buffs, Jaws fans, and right-thinking people everywhere (which is exactly how I responded the first couple times he flung it at me -- until I learned that whole Zen Tuning Out trick).

As usual with Steve, he has a decent point -- as we've seen from the lists, there are many examples of good sequels and threequels (I for one LOVE Austin Powers Goldmember). Unfortunately, there are tenfold more examples of the root of the stereotype: sequels that do indeed suck.

I don't buy for a minute his specific defense of Jaws II -- not as a "good film" (though it's certainly not awful), and certainly not his Crazy-Guy-Stands-On-Corner-Shouting-At-Pedestrians routine of saying it's "better" than the first film. ("Purists will howl, of course." -- oh, how Steve HOPES and DREAMS they will.)

As some of you know, Steve doesn't "see" movies the same way most of us do. Some of it is aesthetics, some of it is snobbery. ("To which we here at Stevesees say: there ain't no Muse of filmic cohesion." -- which of course gets at the source of the problem: deep down, Steve simply cannot accept that films are not just really, really snazzily illustrated books.) For example, cinematography is wasted on Steve -- if he had his way, all films would be lit from corner to corner -- shadows are "pretentious." So I'll skip over his whining about "narrative cohesion" (though I think Jaws I is so well-crafted in terms of character and narrative that I used to use it to teach short story structure to high school sophomores), and touch on an obvious decline in J-II: it looks like a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, whereas the original is a richly beautiful film.

One other note: by the rules, The Two Towers is not a sequel, since it was literally shot at the same time as the other films, is part of planned whole. And besides that, by Steve's OWN admission, it's NOT better than Fellowship.

Now if someone would just get around to making The Lion In Winter II: Still Roarin'

brian said...

Will Graham couldn't have put it better himself.

Steve, any idea if there's a sequel to 'Shadow of a Scream' in the works? How about 'Xanadu'? Both are richly deserving of one.

monster paperbag said...

"you're gonna need a bigger boat" --> i can never forget this roy scheider ilne :).

brian said...

That's a great line, but my favorite is definitely "it's only an island if you look at it from the water."

Kevin Caron said...

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a better movie than Jaws.

Discuss.

JEaton said...

Goddamned, this was a great blog post. I know people who consider themselves the most cutting edge, avant-garde poets alive, and they would absolutely *kill* to write something this original.

And Kevin is right. It's more fun to catch Jaws I in bits and pieces when it comes on TV, but to sit down for a full-sized, square meal of a movie, Close Encounters tops it.

-Jeff E.

steve said...

"deep down, Steve simply cannot accept that films are not just really, really snazzily illustrated books"

You know, Plato said it best: your oldest friends are your biggest pains in the ass.

The rest of you: pay no attention to this Locke person! I am infallible! I am KIROK!!!

steve said...

Wait a minute! Stop everything! Did Jeff just ... did he just COMPLIMENT me???

Maybe I really AM Kirok ...

Locke Peterseim said...

"I am KIROK!!!"

Don't you mean "I am CRUNK!!!"?