Week Of White
Of wild roses, legendary leviathans and great white sharks.
It is a drab and rainy Monday, startlingly cool after a glorious summer weekend. Even Autumn, my golden retriever, who spent the winter whining to be out in the snow turns to me at the door with her plaintive “fix it!” look. It is both endearing and annoying. Then she goes out — and by the fifth or sixth time — I think for the sole purpose of being greeted upon her return with a towel and a “rub-rub.”
It is raining and the multiflora, warmed by the weekend's sun, is exploding across the land, great bowers of invasive wildflowers. They are everywhere, we are reminded during this week of white, but they are so, so beautiful.
White is even coming to the movie houses across the country on this coming weekend for a special two day run.
From the time I was grown until the Empire reopened in the early nineties I rarely saw movies. The big theater was closed for a few of those years but before that I was younger, and always felt, much as I knew it was silly, conspicuous in my aloneness. Neither had I yet discovered the advantages of the seats where I sit today, the best in the house I am convinced, and somehow less visible.
There were years upon years I did not go to the movies. I remember those I saw, not because I have a great memory but because there were so few.
“Jaws” was one of them.
I had read the book, I knew people who had gone to the mainland for a showing, had even seen a snippet of it on a corner of a drive-in screen somewhere near my college roommate's family home in Pennsylvania. I would steel myself and go.
The talk this week is of “Jaws” making its 40th anniversary appearance on just “under 500 selected screens” across the nation. On Nantucket, it is being followed at the end of the month by a showing of the even older "Moby Dick," a film starring Gregory Peck as the driven Captain Ahab. It is advertised with “before there was the shark there was the whale.”
That I also saw at the Empire, with my parents, and I was terrified from the first moment that time Captain Ahab appeared on an upper deck of the whaling vessel Pequod. It was already at sea but the only evidence of the mythical ship's master had been the sound of his pacing, good foot, peg, good foot, peg. Now I read it was Orson Wells who played stern preacher who set the tone of the story before they set sail but I was little and remembered the pulpit more than the words and had no idea of the actor.
The whale did not scare me, only Ahab. For some time I thought it only my father who would read aloud the story I would not today think for children. Then I look at eBay and find pop-up books, and illustrated editions, and children's classics and realize a whale, a dinosaur, a monster are all of a genre.
“Jaws” needs no catch phrases from ad firms; lines from it are a part of our vernacular. Only last week I wrote of a vessel lying off the east beach, with bright lights at night and a crane arm visible at dawn, thinking it was waiting to haul the excavator from the Old Harbor. Someone corrected me, identifying it as a ship from which testing in the area of the offshore wind farm is performed, and remarked that for extrication of the machinery on the basin floor the contractor was going “to need a bigger boat.”
Perhaps someone living a landlocked life does not relate to “it's only an island if you look at it from the water” but are there any two more recognizable notes than that da-dum of the score that signaled menace in the waters off the fictional island community of Amity?
One visitor I spoke with over the weekend said he had seen it many times, had done a book report on it when it was new and he was in the third grade. His teacher called his mother and asked whatever she was thinking, letting him read such a thing. He can recite the opening paragraph of the text, this father of four, including a special needs child, whose his eight year old self emerges at the mention of “Jaws.”
I always knew it was a hugely successful movie, in retrospect one with a stellar cast, and, eventually, I realized it was directed by Spielberg, a detail of no concern to me when it was new. Then, I thought it would fade from the psyche away from the New England coast. Instead, it became by many accounts, the start of the summer “blockbusters” significantly lesser versions of which have come to dominate seasonal movie schedules.
Forty years ago I had read the book, and had a reader's certainty of how the characters looked and spoke. It was not a surprise that as in the adaptation of another novel by another Benchley — “The Off-Islanders” into “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming” — years previous, darker moments on the page did not make it to the screen. Still, when that shark rose from the ocean behind the boat I was part of the collective gasp that rose to the roof of the Empire. It was a masterful shot, the fright was momentary, the shark, or the idea of it, did not scare me any more than Moby Dick had. "Jaws" Captain Quint was fun, a pop-culture hired gun out to kill a big fish for profit.
Captain Ahab and his global voyage of vengeance touches a darkness most of us try to keep locked away.
We didn't get first run movies in those days but I couldn't have been very old and I still have to ask that universal question: whatever were my parents thinking?!