Category Archives: Animals

RetView #50 – Jaws (1975)

Title: Jaws

Year of Release: 1975

Director: Steven Spielberg

Length: 124 mins

Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary

I wanted to do something a bit special for this landmark 50th RetView, and you could probably count on your fingers the number of movies, of any genre, that have had more of a cultural impact than Jaws. In fact, these days it is widely considered one of the best films ever made. It was based on the novel of the same name Peter Benchley was commissioned to write by Doubleday in the early seventies, though rumour has it that he was ejected from the film set for making a nuisance of himself. To date, the movie has spawned three sequels despite declining popularity and commercial performance, the franchise reaching its nadir in 1987 with Jaws: The Revenge which, conversely, is generally acknowledged as one of the WORST movies of all time. The Jaws franchise is a prime example of how to go from hero to zero in four easy steps. It’s probably fair to say that by 1987, the killer shark premise was beginning to wear a little thin. They probably did well to take it as far as they did. But while the series ended badly, upon its release in the summer of 1975 the original movie was nothing short of a revelation, terrifying beach-goers everywhere, raking in an astonishing $470 million at the Box Office from a $9 million budget, and going on to win no fewer than three Academy Awards, making it one of Universal’s biggest ever triumphs. All things considered, it’s well worth a closer look.

If, by some miracle, you’re unfamiliar with the plot, it’s pretty easy to swallow (sorry). When a giant man-eating Great White shark starts terrorizing a nondescript New England town called Amity, threatening not only swimmers but local businesses much to the chagrin of the local mayor (Hamilton), police chief Martin Brody (Scheider) is called into action. After getting slapped in the face and shouted at several times by affected locals, he eventually enrols a grizzled professional shark hunter called Quint (brilliantly portrayed by Shaw) and a witty marine biologist (a pre-Close Encounters of the Third Kind Dreyfuss) and together the trio head off into the open sea on Quint’s too-small boat called the Orca (named after the only natural enemy of the Great White) to hunt down the pesky fish. Incidentally, if you didn’t get the reference, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” is a classic line from the movie delivered by Brody upon seeing the size of the shark they were dealing with and has been ‘meme famous’ ever since. Screenwriter Carl Gottlieb later revealed that the line wasn’t scripted, but ad-libbed by Scheider.

The musical score, which went on to become a classic piece of music synonymous with impending doom, was composed by John Williams. Widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers of all time, Williams also wrote the music for Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Indiana Jones films and, er, Home Alone. During his distinguished career he has won 25 Grammy Awards, five Academy Awards (including one for the Jaws theme) and four Golden Globes. Discussing the piece that kick-started his career, he described the Jaws theme as, “Grinding away at you, just as a shark would do. Instinctual, relentless, unstoppable.”

But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Jaws was the first major motion picture to be shot on the ocean, resulting in a troubled, prolonged shoot that far exceeded its budget. Among the issues the crew had to contend with were unpredictable weather, vessels drifting into shot, the effects of salt water corrosion on equipment, everyone getting seasick and problems with the life-sized mechanical sharks. There were so many problems the story goes that disgruntled crew members dubbed the film, “Flaws.”

So what made Jaws so popular? And why does it remain so?

In a nutshell, not only does it feature a great director, a solid plot, a memorable script, a brilliant cast, impressive special effects and an awesome soundtrack, but it appeals to our primal fears. People don’t belong in large bodies of water. We know this. The stuff living in there don’t like us and that particular environment is not conducive to having a good time. On re-watching the movie with a critical eye, it is noticeable how little screen time Spielberg actually gives the shark. This is testament to his unparalleled film-making skills and ability to ramp up the tension using only dialogue and, in one memorable scene, a drunken sing-a-long. Gottlieb would later reference the original 1951 version of The Thing, amongst other classics, where, “the suspense was built up because the creature was always off-camera.” This enabled the crew to concentrate on showing the ‘effects’ of the monster (or in this case, the shark) rather than the monster itself. Given the post-Watergate political landscape the movie was released into, it’s inevitable that critics drew certain conclusions. Perhaps overthinking things a bit, film critic Andrew Britton has suggested that narrative alterations from the book (Hooper’s survival, the shark’s explosive death) help make it “a communal exorcism, a ceremony for the restoration of ideological confidence,” and suggested that the experience of the film is “inconceivable” without the audience’s jubilation when the shark is annihilated, signifying the obliteration of evil itself. In his view, Brody serves to demonstrate that “Individual action by the one just man is still a viable source for social change.”

In perhaps the most serious bout of overthinking ever, Fredric Jameson went even further, highlighting the polysemy of the shark and the multiple ways in which it could be taken, from representing alien menaces such as communism or the Third World to more intimate concerns like the unreality of contemporary American life and the vain efforts to sanitize the concept of death. He asserts that its symbolic function is to be found in this very “polysemousness which is profoundly ideological, insofar as it allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently ‘natural’ ones … to be recontained in what looks like a conflict with other forms of biological existence.”

‘Kay then.

Trivia Corner:

According to Spielberg, the prop arm used in the scene where Chrissie’s remains are found looked too fake. So instead, they buried a female crew member in the sand with only her arm exposed. Simple, yet effective.


Book Review – The Day the Leash Gave Way (and Other Stories) by Trent Zelazny

This isn’t actually a new release, but a re-release. The original came out in 2009, this new version comes with added content. As with most collections, it is a bit of an uneven affair. At it’s worst, one or two of the stories read like extracts from other works, as if the ideas are not yet fully formed. At it’s best, Zelazny sucks you in to the most uncomfortable, uncompromising situations you can imagine.

One of the stand-out stories is the one which lends its name to the collection, about a man who goes to inform a competition winner of his good fortune only to find a little boy eating the leg of a dead dog, and the man of the house keeping a rotting corpse for company in the living room. What the fuck? I hear you say. Don’t worry, it gets weirder. It is often said that when Zelazny writes, he bares his soul. You get that impression several times in the course of this collection, not least in Mourning Road, a compassionate little yarn about a driver who seeks out roadkill as a way to pacify his guilt and inner demons. Another stand-out is ‘Harold Asher and His Vomitting Dogs,’ a story which might make you giggle, then ask yourself what the heck is so wrong with your psyche that you find something so surreal and fundamentally disturbing funny. Even now, when I think about that story I don’t know if it was supposed to be funny or if I’m just a bit fucked in the head. If that’s the cease, then at least I can console myself with the fact that I’m not as fucked in the head as the man who wrote it. Probably my favourite story here is ‘Opportunity Knocks,’ about a man who takes over a family enterprise following a tragedy. But of course, it doesn’t go to plan. There is an edgy, underlying creepiness detectable between the lines long before the shocking truth comes to light by way of supernatural intervention.

If you can sense a loose theme emerging, you’d be right. Dogs. This ties in with the title, which I thought a strange choice at first. But thinking about it, what happens when the leash gives way? People get hurt, that’s what. Leashes are for keeping dangerous dogs under control. If they ‘give way,’ you’re in trouble. That’s exactly what happens in many of the stories here. The leash gives way, big time. You could argue this is a metaphor not just of the subject matter, but also for Zelazny’s approach to storytelling. It can be playful and goofy, but also unpredictable and dangerous. It has teeth and claws. In time, the wounds may heal but they will leave scars you will carry to your grave. Though on the surface of things the plots may sometimes appear a little thin, and more than once you’ll find yourself wondering where it’s all leading, the stories presented here have a way of burrowing under your skin, where they will crawl and fester.

The one constant throughout these 24 tales is Zelazny’s razor sharp writing style, often combined with a sinister undertone and some sophisticated wordplay. Most of the subject matter is best described as noir or crime fiction, elsewhere he veers off into subtle suspense, dark humour and even outright horror. What this collection does to great effect is showcase Zelazny’s considerable talent. One of his main strengths is his use of dialogue, which often puts you right at the heart of a scene and keeps you there. To summarize, this guy goes places few others are brave enough to go, and he takes you along for the ride. Weird fiction at its best.

Leash

Check out my interview with Trent Zelazny in the Morpheus Tales supplement. Available here, FREE:

http://morpheustales.wix.com/morpheustales#!supplement/c14cx


The Snake Shop

garter-snake

Between 2007 and 2013 I was an English teacher in China. Now, I still receive lots of bizarre messages and have some quite random conversations with ex-students. This one, with a girl called Sarah from Changsha, Hunan Province, is of the most entertaining I’ve had in a long time. Not only is it a perfect example of a classic communication breakdown, but it highlights a few endlessly fascinating cultural nuances. If I sat down and tried, I couldn’t make this exchange up.

S: Hello Christ, long time no see!
M: Yes, long time. How are you?
S: I fine. And you?
M: Fine, thanks. What do you do now?
S: I have own business in Shenzhen.
M: Great! What kind of business is it?
S: Snakes. Sell snakes. Snake shop.
M: Cool! Do you have any photos?
S: Yes photos. But why?
M: It’s interesting.
S: Snakes interesting?
M: Yes!
S: So strange. Just snakes.
M: You sell them for food?
S: Of course food. What’s wrong?
M: Nothing. It’s just a little strange for us.
S: Sell snakes?
M: Yes, and eating them.
S: You don’t have snakes in you country?
M: I think we have snakes in the UK. We just don’t eat them.
S: Why?
M: I don’t know. Call it a cultural difference.
S: So what do you eat?
M: Not snakes.
S: Just you dinner?
M: What? Er, I guess so. And breakfast and lunch.
S: So strange. Why have snakes but not eat them?
M: I don’t know. We don’t have many snakes, and I guess people would rather eat other things.
S: Oh. Wait. I make big mistake.
M: What?
S: I mean snacks. Not snakes. I sell snacks in snack shop. No snake.

d9b26b64_snacks1-600x450


Chinese Spring Festival Story

Or…

Weird China Experiences No. 11782327

A couple of years ago when I lived in Changsha, Hunan Province, I woke up early one morning during the annual spring Festival holiday to the sound of my then-girlfriend sobbing and complaining loudly of period pains. She didn’t want to take the Neurofen I had with me, having a natural aversion to western ‘drugs’ and instead insisted only a chicken would alleviate the pain. But not just any chicken. This had to be a black chicken ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free,’ which I took as meaning free range. This is TCM. Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I’m not a believer. Personally, I think its success is mainly down to the placebo effect. But there was no way I was arguing about 5000 years of history with a girl on the blob. I’m not stupid. And who am I to judge? So, I gamely volunteered to go out and try to find a black chicken that had been ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free,’ not having any idea where I was supposed to find such a thing.

When I set out on my quest it was a cold, misty morning, and the city seemed almost deserted. Yet by some weird coincidence, as I rounded a corner, I came across a black chicken tied to a lamppost with a piece of string.

black chicken

I stopped and looked around for the chicken’s owner, but there was nobody in the vicinity. The chicken appeared to have been left there for me to find. I was just debating whether or not I could get away with nicking it when suddenly, a little old lady appeared out of the swirling mist. She didn’t speak any English, and I only had very basic Chinese, so we communicated mainly through grunts and wild gesticulations. She asked if I wanted the chicken. At least, that’s what I think she said. I replied in the affirmative and money changed hands. Quite a lot of money. Around 60 RMB, if I remember correctly. That’s about £6. A lot of money for a scrawny chicken in China. No doubt the asking price was inflated because I was foreign. Normal practice in these situations is to haggle, but that only winds me up and often proves a big waste of time, anyway. It was cold, I was tired and a bit freaked out. I just wanted that fucking chicken so I could go back home. I handed over the money, and the little old lady untied the chicken and gave it to me.

Now I was stumped. What the hell do I do with it? Do I pick it up and carry it, or lead it home on a piece of string?

I started to walk off, giving the chicken some mild verbal encouragement. I have no idea why I did that, it just seemed appropriate. After I had walked for a couple of minutes, I realized it was still alive. I didn’t want to be the one to kill it. I’m no vegetarian, but I like a degree of separation between me and my meat. Even if my girlfriend was the one to do the deed, the short journey back to my apartment would be ample time for me to bond with it. I turned back. The little old lady was still in the same spot. Just standing there. When I approached she looked at me questioningly, said something in Mandarin, and took the chicken back. She made a chopping motion with a hand. I nodded, and she disappeared around a corner for a few moments, only to reappear moments later with the chicken in a plastic bag minus its head. It was still warm and twitching.

I proudly took the chicken home like a returning hero, where my girlfriend made soup with it. Despite our mini-bonding session, the black chicken that had been ‘raised on corn and permitted to roam free’ tasted pretty damn good. Weirdly, though, not only were its feathers black, but so was the skin. The meat was a kind of mottled grey, and even the bones were covered in a black chalky substance that came off on your fingers. I don’t know if the soup had any effect on the period pains, but at least making it kept her occupied for a while!

Chicken soup


In Search of the Toddy Cat

A few years ago I visited Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, south China, with a Chinese friend. One of the things that struck me was how different everything was. Until then I’d been living in the north, in Beijing and Tianjin, and this was my first trip south. It was like walking out of a desert into a jungle. The climate was hot and sticky, and there was wildlife and vegetation everywhere. The people spoke a different language. Pu tong hua (Mandarin) is standardized Chinese, supposedly spoken by everyone in the country, but Guangzhou is one of the places where they speak Cantonese. The food was different. The people even looked different. In north China people are taller, and thick-set. Down south the locals are smaller, lighter and, it has to be said,better looking.

One afternoon we visited ‘animal place.’ I thought we were going to the zoo. The place turned out to be a massive warehouse-type place, full of animals in cages. There were cats, dogs, birds, lizards, and lots of things I couldn’t identify. It might have been one of these wet markets we hear so much about. I’m still not clear about that. Anyway, one thing in particular stuck in my mind. It reminded me of a black and white Koala Bear, with huge wide eyes. So cute! I asked my friend what this thing was.

“Cat.”
“It’s not a cat.”
“Special cat.”
“I don’t think it’s a cat. Do you know what kind of animal it is?”
“Cat.”
“What kind of cat?”
“Dragon cat. Special cat.”

I could see the conversation was going nowhere. If my friend knew what kind of animal it was, she didn’t know how to translate it into English.

They say in Guangzhou, that if it walks, flies or swims, the locals will eat it. I wanted to know if this thing was being sold as a pet, or as food. My friend didn’t know. She just shrugged and asked me why I cared. I left Guangzhou still wondering about this weird animal, and ever since I’ve hoped to be able to one day solve the mystery of the “Dragon Cat, Special Cat.”

That day finally came recently when I was browsing the news online and stumbled across a story about indigenous wildlife in southern China.

Meet the Asian Palm Civet.

Asian Palm Civet

Aka, the ‘Toddy Cat.’

So my friend wasn’t completely wrong. It certainly is some distant member of the cat family. It’s Latin name is Paradoxurus hermaphroditus but I think we’re better off sticking with Toddy Cat for now.

Here’s where the story gets interesting…

The Toddy Cat is often killed for its meat, though the ones I saw didn’t seem to have much meat on them. Oil extracted from the meat and preserved is also sometimes used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It’s good for skin conditions, apparently. Most bizarrely of all, though, is the animal’s role in the manufacture of Kopi Luwak, the most expensive coffee in the world with prices ranging from $35 to in excess of $100 per cup, or up to $600 a pound. If you’re eager to try, this place seems quite reasonable and the site has a ton more info on the production process.

It’s so expensive because the coffee beans they use have passed through the Toddy Cat’s digestive tract. In other words, they feed the Toddy Cat coffee beans, wait for it to shit them out, then gather them up and roast them. Bizarre. The worst thing is that the farmers don’t treat the poor Toddy Cats very well. They are kept in cages and force fed coffee beans. They must be thinking, “No! Please, no more coffee, dude! Toddy wanna sleep, yo.”

No wonder they have those huge, freakish eyes.

Still, my curiosity is suitably piqued, and come payday I have vowed to invest in a modest packet of Kopi Luwak. Just to see what coffee that has been shat out by a Chinese bush animal tastes like. Curiosity killed the cat, they say. How ironic. I hope my curiosity doesn’t kill the cool Toddy Cat.

There has to be better jobs...

There has to be better jobs…


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