Works of art often rely on support, financial or otherwise, to reach the public. Tom Shone, a former film critic of the Sunday Times and the author of “Blockbuster”(Simon & Schuster), David Thomson, author of “The Biographical Dictionary of Film” (Little, Brown), and Sir Christopher Frayling, an ex-chairman of Arts Council England and author of “Horace Walpole’s Cat” (Thames & Hudson), continue our Intelligent Life mini-series on classics that might not get a green light today.
“ ‘Jaws’ wouldn’t get made today,” Steven Spielberg told me when I interviewed him for my book “Blockbuster”. “They wouldn’t wait that long to see the shark. If it were made today, someone in their right mind would have used a digital shark and saved all of us nine months of wear and tear on the high seas. It took a tremendous amount of naivety on my part.” By the standards of the shiny summer blockbusters it sired, “Jaws” feels salty, sinewy and knotted with real struggle, the feats of improvisation Spielberg performed to negotiate his waterlogged shoot only serving to bring out his wiliest gifts of humour and suspense: grace under pressure is exactly what “Jaws” is about. “I don’t want audiences to believe you could ever kill that shark,” he instructed Dreyfuss, who twits the chiselled heroism of Robert Shaw’s shark-killer Quint with lily-livered comedy. In the years to come, the summer would belong to men like Quint; in 1975, it belonged to a self-deprecating untermensch and a seasick beta male, swallowing their fear as their boat sinks, inch by inch, into the water. ~ TOM SHONE
It’s too easy to say “They’d never make that again”, and it overlooks how capricious and infernal “they” can be. But “Chinatown” (1974) is a hell of a movie, so give credit to Roman Polanski, to Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston and others. Let a drop of praise fall on the shining head of the producer, Robert Evans, and above all on Robert Towne, who thought of it, wrote it and had two sequels in mind—Jake Gittes in Los Angeles in 1947 and 1957, the history of the city. He had the scripts, but when part two was made—“The Two Jakes” (1990)—the system butchered it. Part three? The end of the great novel? It will never happen, says Towne. Why? It was another time. Lightning cannot reassemble itself. “We” don’t like stories that dark or complex now. And if the author doesn’t keep his copyright, he is juggling razor blades. ~ DAVID THOMSON
MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN
At a recent screening of the “Life of Brian”, the director, Terry Jones, conceded that post 9/11, the film couldn’t possibly be made. Even at the time (1979), a sequence involving an Israeli suicide squad at the foot of a mass crucifixion was excised for being too strong. But since 2001, encouraging audiences to laugh at fundamentalism of any description has been considered a very dangerous sport—and would be unbankable. Consider the Danish cartoons of the Prophet. Or, in a less satirical vein, the self-censorship exercised by the Tate, and others, of art which involves the Koran; the closing of the play “Behzti”, by the Sikh writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, in Birmingham; or the problems faced by the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie”, about the peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer, when a transfer to New York was attempted. The goalposts of the acceptable have shifted very dramatically in the past decade. ~ CHRISTOPHER FRAYLING