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'Jaws' Closes BFI Film On Film Festival

Jaws (1975); image courtesy of BFI

Greased in a layer of oil slick sweat, I was desperately trying to remember whether the BFI was air conditioned. Thankfully it was. However, if I wasn’t so lucky, I’m not sure I would have minded so much. What had been a constant, sticky irritant throughout the brutally hot day quickly became an afterthought. After all, when the gaping, tooth-studded mouth of the shark in Jaws (1975) is hurling towards you on the big screen, little else is on the mind.

The choice to end the inaugural BFI Film on Film Festival with Jaws is both simple and effective. It had to go out with a bang, with something inscrutably entertaining. Where else is there to go but Spielberg and his timeless tale of political incompetence, class clashes and, most importantly, a humungous great white. Needless to say, I was very excited. I had only seen Jaws once, during lockdown with my mum. It blew me away, exceeding the impossibly high expectations that have come as consequence to its cultural canonisation. To see it on the big screen, assumedly with a crowd of equally enamoured shark-heads, could only be an improvement.

As everyone took their seat, a buzz rippled through the yellow, velvet chairs. Cineastes traded Jaws trivia, everybody seeking those who had not yet seen Jaws, eager to vicariously live through their first experience. This buzz was also celebratory. The festival had ended, and it seemed to have been a massive success. Film on film is still cherished, a gourmand’s approach to the cinema. 35mm inspires a state of reverie, from undergraduates to critics. Throw in the promise of nitrate film for a bit of spice and the recipe for a fan-favourite festival is made clear.

Jaws (1975); image courtesy of BFI

The print used for this screening was an original Technicolour dye-transfer print, an archived treasure from 1975. The dye-transfer effectively removes the clean sheen of the never-ending rereleases of Jaws, relishing in the grainy, yet crisp, original colouration. It is almost as if a gauze is placed in front of the screen, one that is scarcely perceptible. The effect, however, is indispensable, unifying every frame under a crackling fuzz. From beach umbrellas to blood in the water, everything looks phenomenal.

Surprisingly, I found the real star of the show via my eardrums. The use of mono sound in the screening effectively turns back the clocks to the 70s. Every quip is laced with a sputtering electricity, every scream piercing to the point of discomfort. This auditory ribbon wrapped the whole package in an elegant bow.

During lockdown, I had read an essay on Jaws as an anti-capitalist masterpiece. This had struck me as puzzling, aware that perhaps the blue-finned menace had stolen the limelight from any other part of the film. Rewatching Jaws at the BFI, I let myself hone in on the quieter moments of the film. It became clear that Jaws could certainly be read as anti-capitalist, that being one reading of many. The distinctive class differentials between Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) had gone over my head during my first watch, as had the impact of the beach closing on the community. Jaws is a treasure trove of ideas, all hidden behind a rubber, mechanic shark.

Jaws (1975); image courtesy of BFI

Which, by the way, looks exceptional. My first memory of Jaws is hearing my dad complain about how fake the shark looks. This is untrue, mainly because Spielberg barely shows it. Anyone who says that the shark is a great lump of rubber is clearly partially sighted. That mechanised beast is still as terrifying as I am sure it was in the ‘70s.

What else is there to say about Jaws? This film is not merely a path walked by many but a highway with a constant flow of traffic. No wonder, for it is pure, distilled entertainment. Hence its placement at the end of the festival. Go and see Jaws in the cinema, even if you have already seen it. I’m not trying to vomit a deluge of sentimental fancies about the cinema as the ultimate form of escapism, the palace of dreams. The cinema is fun. Seeing Jaws in the cinema is fun. Try and go with someone who hasn’t seen it, grab some popcorn and the biggest soda that the Food Standards Agency allows, and enjoy! I was lucky enough to watch it in ideal conditions with the ideal crowd. As nice as that is, Jaws is enjoyable on whatever big screen you choose.

'Jaws' was screened as part of BFI Film on Film Festival which ran from 8th to 11th June 2023 at BFI Southbank. You can find out more about their upcoming seasons here, or follow them on Twitter for updates.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor