I had a professor in grad school who was of the opinion that Steven Spielberg has never made a better movie than Jaws (1975), with Schindler’s List (1993) representing the point at which his career irrevocably jumped the shark, as it were. The argument implicit in that opinion is that Spielberg’s filmography can be divided into serious films (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln) and entertainments (Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T., The Adventures of Tintin). Except of course that Spielberg’s films also cleave along other lines, such as sentimentality/intellectuality, history/fantasy, and sobriety/wit, with many of his films combining these qualities in various ways. E.T., for example, is a sentimental, witty piece of fantasy entertainment, where Close Encounters takes similarly fantastical subject matter but makes it more intellectual (though no less entertaining). Munich and Schindler’s List are equally sober (and serious) historical films, but Munich is arguably the more intellectual/less sentimental of the two. Others, like Lincoln, blur the lines between sentimentality and intellectuality: that’s a film that’s mostly whip-smart, but also not above indulging in some hagiographic sogginess. Etc.
I’ve always liked Spielberg’s films, in all (or most) of their various forms—but re-watching Jaws this week for the first time in what must be more than twenty years it occurs to me that wit is one of the Spielbergian ingredients that I miss most when it’s not there. While Jaws is not without moments of dark comedy, it lacks much of the lightness, speed and humor that make the Indiana Jones films, by contrast, zip along like roadrunners (or Road Runner cartoons). That might be due to the workmanlike nature of Peter Benchley’s screenplay, or to the fact that Spielberg was (at age twenty-nine!) still figuring out how to use tone, rhythm, character, and mise en scene to the effect that he would do in the later films. I’d go so far as to say that Close Encounters, made only two years after Jaws, already represents a great leap forward in Spielberg’s development as a filmmaker. As I wrote this summer after re-watching that film, it creates an entire world within which its plot unfolds, where Jaws is driven by a situation. But the difference between Jaws and Close Encounters is also the difference between a filmmaker who subordinates the humor and humanity of his characters to action and one who uses humor to make the action breathless and giddy. Spielberg can afford to sacrifice wit when he’s working in his Serious-Historical mode—but a Spielberg entertainment without it just doesn’t feel entertaining.