Hollywood History: The Left Handed Gun

Despite numerous eye-witnesses insisting that the Titanic broke in two as it sank, engineers said that was impossible, so for decades after the event the conventional wisdom was that the ship sank intact. When Robert Ballard finally discovered the wreck in the mid 1980s, the truth was revealed. Although A Night to Remember (1958) can be forgiven for this historical misstep, the error nevertheless exists. But at least the title of the movie wasn’t The Ship That Sank Intact. Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun, released the same year, did not escape the same fate.

There is only a single authenticated photograph of notorious gunslinger Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, A.K.A. Billy the Kid. In this picture, the Kid can be seen wearing his gun on his left hip, leading everyone to assume he was left-handed. But in the 1980s, someone finally noticed that the loading gate on Billy’s 1873 Winchester Carbine was on the wrong side, proving that the picture was actually a reverse image. Billy the Kid was right-handed.

The film does not dwell on or indeed even mention Billy’s left-handedness (though he does wear his gun on his left hip), however the fact that the film’s very title is a historical inaccuracy underscores the emphasis on drama rather than fact. To be fair, many other films didn’t even try. The Billy the Kid series of the 1940s starring Buster Crabbe featured a guy in a cowboy hat who bore no resemblance whatsoever to the real person, and it’s probably safe to assume that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula did not prioritize historical accuracy. In terms of broad strokes, The Left Handed Gun is more-or-less faithful to the actual events, but it does get a number of details wrong.

Paul Newman as Billy the Kid.

Expanding on an episode of the TV series The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse called “The Death of Billy the Kid,” penned by Gore Vidal (who would later revisit the material himself in the 1989 TV movie Billy the Kid), screenwriter Leslie Stevens focuses on Billy as a tormented youth. Reprising the role from the TV episode, Paul Newman plays Billy as moody, reactionary, and temperamental. While he is occasionally shown clowning around with his friends, Newman’s Billy is morose more often than not, moping about and dwelling on how he’s been wronged, quick to fly into a rage even at his friends. While there is much we don’t know about the real Billy, and there’s certainly room for interpretation, none of this aligns with what we do know. By all accounts, the real Billy the Kid was a gentleman: courteous, polite, and laid back even when things were dire. While in jail awaiting sentencing, Billy told a reporter, “What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything? The joke’s on me this time.” Stevens writes Billy as illiterate, but this too is inaccurate. During his incarceration, Billy sent multiple eloquently-written letters to Governor Lew Wallace pleading his case.

The real Billy the Kid.

One of the most obvious ways in which the film takes liberties with history is in the compression of time, with the events depicted in the first third of the film being especially condensed. In the movie’s version of the tale, rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) is murdered by his competitors, Billy and his friends kill the corrupt Sheriff Brady (Robert Foulk) in retaliation, and the angry residents of the town corner Billy at the home of Alex McSween (John Dierkes) and set fire to the place. To say that the movie leaves out some details would be an understatement to say the least. In reality, Tunstall’s death sparked a sweeping conflict involving hundreds of people that came to be known as the Lincoln County War. Following Tunstall’s death, Alex McSween had Billy and rancher Dick Brewer deputized. They attempted to serve warrants on Tunstall’s killers, but Sheriff Brady ignored the warrants and instead threw Billy and Brewer in jail. When they got out, Brewer formed the Regulators, a group consisting of thirteen men, including Billy the Kid, who swore to serve their own brand of justice. A lengthy and violent conflict ensued, with multiple shootouts and a substantial body count. It all culminated in the Battle of Lincoln, a protracted gunfight that finally ended with the burning of the McSween mansion. Whole books have been written on the subject of the Lincoln County War, but this film boils it down to only the barest of essentials. The burning of the McSween house is nothing at all like the real incident. Instead of an actual battle involving two sizable factions and lots of shooting, the scene plays more like a lynching. Billy is depicted as being somewhat cowardly, diving out a window and leaving McSween to die in the fire. In reality, Billy led several Regulators out the front door to draw enemy fire while McSween escaped out the back. Unfortunately, the plan failed, and McSween was shot dead before he reached the back gate. What in real life was a three-day standoff takes up just a few minutes in the movie. After the portion of the film that corresponds to the Lincoln County War, the story is allowed to breathe for a bit, focusing on character-driven drama and Billy’s lingering anger over what took place, but in terms of real history, even this is condensed. All of the events in the film seem to take place within a matter of months, but in fact things played out over several years.

There are other inaccuracies to be found throughout. In an early scene, a character talks about Billy having killed a man in Silver City for insulting his mother. This is likely a reference to Billy’s killing of Frank “Windy” Cahill. But the real incident took place at Fort Grant, not Silver City, and Billy did not shoot Cahill for insulting his mother, but because Cahill physically assaulted him. In the film’s climax, Pat Garrett guns Billy down in the street, whereas the real shooting occurred indoors. The village of Old Fort Sumner, where Billy spent much of his time in the final two years of his life, has for some reason been renamed Modero. Billy’s gang, the Regulators, are never mentioned by name, and their numbers are reduced from thirteen to just three. Similarly, the Murphy-Dolan faction, backed by the infamous Santa-Fe ring and employing multiple gunmen from several gangs, are reduced to just four conspirators, none of whom are named Murphy or Dolan. One of the most puzzling departures from real history is in Billy’s famous showdown with Joe “Texas Red” Grant, in which the Kid covertly sabotaged his opponent’s pistol before things got ugly. In the movie, Grant survives his encounter with the Kid. In real life, he did not. Really, the whole scene is an inversion of fact, with Billy raving like a madman at the calm and collected Grant. The truth is that Grant was drunk and confrontational, while Billy kept his cool the whole time. The reversal is an odd choice, considering the decision of the filmmakers to depict Billy as short-tempered and violence-prone.

Most of these issues are trivial, however. It’s a movie after all, not a documentary, and it’s not uncommon for movies based on real events to combine characters and streamline narratives for dramatic purposes. However, there is one pivotal element that doesn’t quite work and which leaves the rest of the film on slightly shaky ground. All of Billy’s violent actions stem from the murder of his employer, John Tunstall, depicted here as a kindly old man (he was really only 24). But the movie never really conveys why Tunstall is so important to Billy that his death sparks such a reaction. Very little time elapses between the opening of the film, when Billy wanders onto Tunstall’s ranch, and the sequence depicting Tunstall’s murder. There is really only one scene in which the characters bond, when Tunstall gives Billy a copy of the Bible and tries to teach him to read. (This never really happened.) Otherwise there’s nothing. The reality of the bond they shared and the effect Tunstall’s death had on Billy cannot be understated.

John Tunstall tries to impart some wisdom to Billy the Kid.

In real life, after the death of his mother, young Henry McCarty struggled to get by. Scrawny and with feminine features, he was mercilessly bullied by the ruffians he encountered and had to learn to act tough to hold his own. When he fell in with the wrong crowd, he was on a path to disaster. Now using the alias William H. Bonney, he arrived in Lincoln County, New Mexico, where he was soon thrown in jail for horse rustling. But after a conversation in the town jail, the owner of the horses decided not to press charges, instead giving Billy a job. That man was John Tunstall, and the event would have changed Billy’s life for the better if things had gone differently. Billy found dignity and stability in the months he spent working for Tunstall, who even gifted him with new clothes and new guns. This was Billy’s first and only chance at an honest life, and it was snatched away from him when Tunstall was murdered. The rage he must have felt is perfectly understandable and is completely glossed over in the film. They try to plant a flag on it, with the other characters wondering why Billy has flipped out over the death of a virtual stranger, but that just makes the whole thing feel even more awkward. It’s one of the weakest aspects of an otherwise really fine film.

Not all of the details in the film are wrong, of course. Though the situation is vastly oversimplified, it does accurately depict the motivations behind the Lincoln County War. The reasons for Tunstall’s murder at the hands of his business rivals are truthfully relayed, and Sheriff Brady’s participation in the conspiracy and thus the impossibility of justice ever being served are faithful to history. Out of all the Regulators they could have picked to include in the story, Charlie Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard are an understandable choice, as they were the only ones to continue riding with Billy after the Lincoln County War ended. It is true that after the fire at Alex McSween’s house, the governor declared amnesty for all participants in the Lincoln County War, but the movie leaves out the caveat that this did not apply to anyone with an indictment, so only the Murphy-Dolan faction was covered. Also, in the film it is ultimately Billy who breaks the truce. In reality, it was the Dolan faction who violated the agreement by killing Suzan McSween’s lawyer, Huston Chapman. This led Billy to seek a pardon for his indictment from Governor Wallace in exchange for testimony against Chapman’s killers. Wallace agreed to the pardon but never delivered, instead leaving the Kid to his fate. None of this is depicted in the film. Pat Garret’s capture of Billy at the cabin in Stinking Springs is more-or-less accurate, but Tom O’Folliard had already been killed several days earlier, and Billy angrily shoving Charlie Bowdre out of the cabin to be gunned down by Garrett’s posse is pure nonsense.

“Hello, Bob.”

Just about spot-on, however, is the depiction of Billy’s most famous exploit: his escape from the Lincoln County Courthouse. With Garrett out of town, Deputy Bob Olinger (played here by Denver Pyle) was across the street having dinner, leaving Billy alone with Deputy James Bell. Since they were alone, no one knows what happened for sure, but somehow Billy managed to get his hands on a pistol and shot Bell. Billy would later tell a friend he didn’t like having to shoot Bell but felt he had no choice. This is depicted in the movie, with the Kid hesitating before firing. Drawn by the sound of gunfire, Olinger came running toward the courthouse but stopped in his tracks when he heard a voice from the window above. “Hello, Bob,” the Kid said, and blasted Olinger with his own shotgun. This event as filmed is almost perfect on a cinematic level, but for one slight flaw. Director Arthur Penn deviates from history slightly, staging the Kid on a balcony, backlit by the sun, rather than standing at the window. It’s a valid choice artistically, but we see the Kid in a POV shot, with a rack-focus attempting to convey Olinger straining to see, which doesn’t quite work as intended. Also, the moment lasts a few seconds too many. Billy waiting so long to fire is neither believable nor accurate. Aside from that, however, the scene is well-staged, tense, and true to history.

John Dehner as Pat Garrett.
The Real Pat Garrett.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the movie from a historical standpoint is the casting of John Dehner as Pat Garret, who looks the part far more than any other actor to take on the role. The performance is solid as well. Dehner plays Garret as an everyman, which is probably not far from the truth. As for his relationship with Billy, well, that’s a bit complicated and depends largely on who you ask. According to Garret himself, he was on friendly terms with Billy, but he tried not to involve himself in the gunslinger’s activities. However, according to Fort Sumner resident Paulita Maxwell, “Garrett was the best friend Billy the Kid had in Fort Sumner,” and they were “as thick as two peas in a pod.” In the film, Garrett tries to mind his own business until he’s elected sheriff, and then he just does what he has to do with detachment, so the filmmakers are clearly leaning toward Garrett’s version of events. One thing that is decidedly a fabrication, however, is the scene where Billy guns down Tom Hill at Garrett’s wedding. This incident never took place, though it works dramatically to give Garrett the necessary motivation to turn on Billy and serves to sway the audience in Garrett’s favor. Had the film stuck to Garrett’s real motivation – the five-hundred-dollar reward on the Kid’s head – the audience would probably not be so sympathetic.

Needless to say, the selling point of the movie is Paul Newman’s performance, and he absolutely dominates the screen. Newman portrays Billy as dangerously unstable and obsessive. As with many other Billy the Kid films, he is the driving force behind his gang, browbeating his friends into going along with his criminal activities. In fact, Billy was never the leader of his gang. Dick Brewer, Frank McNab, and Doc Scurlock, who aren’t even depicted here, were the real leaders of the Regulators. And while Billy was certainly all-in, he never had to coerce anyone. But that isn’t what audiences want to see, and Newman’s performance is so magnetic it’s easy to forgive. Harder to overlook is Billy’s somewhat rapey seduction of romantic interest Celsa Guitirrez (Lita Milan). That is decidedly out of character for the real Billy and an uncomfortable smear on his reputation. That said, within the constructed narrative, it makes sense and is consistent with the forceful nature of Newman’s version of the Kid. Not true to life by any means, but certainly good drama. On that subject, it’s unclear whether Billy really had a relationship with Celsa. He was rumored to have been involved with Paulita Maxwell, though she vehemently denied it and even threatened to sue biographer Walter Noble Burns if he named her as Billy’s lover in his book, The Saga of Billy the Kid. It was she who pointed the finger at Celsa Guitirrez. The truth on that particular point will probably never be known.

The obligatory love interest.

Ultimately, this film is less about history and more an examination of the fine line a person with dangerous personality traits can walk and how easily such a person can succumb to an innate penchant for violence. Strangely, this is at odds with the ballad that plays over the opening credits. The song speaks of Billy as a tragic figure, a victim of circumstance, but that is not the story the movie serves up. On the whole, this film is a morality play. Shortly after Tunstall’s murder, as Billy is pondering revenge, Alex McSween urges restraint, saying that revenge will be wrong despite the miscarriage of justice. (McSween did no such thing.) This mission statement informs everything that follows, and while the movie does manage to tread on some morally complex themes as some of the conspirators struggle with guilt over their involvement in Tunstall’s murder, the bulk of the film focuses on Billy’s deteriorating mental state as he is inexorably swallowed by the violence in his soul. The film wants us to forgive Tunstall’s murderers and condemn Billy for not letting it go. The real-life events surrounding Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War were not nearly so simple. They were full of shades of gray. Both sides were guilty of questionable business practices. Both sides carried out acts of bloody violence. The conspirators were unrepentant, the Regulators relentless. The Hollywood-style Western formula of easily identified good guys and bad guys bears little resemblance to history. The real Lincoln County was a lawless land, lorded over by corrupt politicians and shady businessmen who steamrolled ordinary people, where dangerous gunslingers ran rampant. Into this situation came Henry McCarty, an orphan without guidance caught up in something bigger than himself, scapegoated for crimes he was not solely responsible for, and propelled to international notoriety by sensationalized newspaper articles and an inaccurate biography written by the man who killed him for the purpose of assassinating his character. Westerns of the 1950s had no interest in such moral ambiguity, preferring simple tales of right and wrong, where lawmen served up justice and bandits got the punishment they deserved. Given that backdrop, it’s actually impressive that this movie has the level of complexity that it does.

The Left Handed Gun may not be the most historically accurate film made on the subject of Billy the Kid, but it’s most definitely one of the more entertaining ones. Under the steady hand of Arthur Penn in his directorial debut, working from a solidly constructed script by Leslie Stevens, it delivers a compelling character study, and Paul Newman’s performance alone is a must-see. With The Saga of Billy the Kid, Walter Noble Burns arguably created the modern legend of Billy the Kid, and Burns was no more interested in historical accuracy than Hollywood is. As the saying goes, if the legend is more interesting than history, go with the legend. That’s what The Left Handed Gun does, and the results are certainly interesting. Unfortunately, most people, if they know anything about Billy the Kid at all, are only familiar with Hollywood’s version of the story, and they assume that’s what really happened. They forget that Hollywood, after all, is not history.

Space Raiders: A Rip-off With Charm

How much time has to pass before a rip-off becomes an homage? Consider the following pitch: An embittered war veteran leads a rag-tag band of space pirates on a never-ending quest for the cash they need to keep their ship flying. Sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about Firefly. I’m talking about the 1983 low-budget Roger Corman cash grab, Space Raiders. One is a beloved though short-lived sci-fi series which borrows elements from Star Wars while injecting enough original elements to find its own identity. The other… is fondly remembered by some while being largely forgotten by most. But is Space Raiders a rip-off or does it have enough of a unique identity to stand on its own? Does the question even matter? When you boil it down, is it actually any good? Let’s have a look.

The late 70s and early 80s saw a glut of outer-space films designed to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Most of them focused on the superficial – space fighters in dogfights, strange aliens in droves, larger-than-life heroes and villains, and an emphasis on fun and adventure. Few if any of them touched on the mythic aspects at the core of Star Wars which was the key to its enduring success. Most of them, such as Star Crash and Message From Space survive today largely as curiosities. But others, including Space Raiders, have managed to garner their own cult followings. What makes the difference? In developing Firefly, Joss Whedon readily admits to drawing his inspiration from Star Wars, but he had the luxury of introducing his space opera over twenty years after the fact. And even though the Star Wars prequels were in the process of being released at the time, the cultural impact of the former saga had already soaked in. Star Wars is just part of the DNA of storytelling now. You can draw from it as readily as you might draw from Robin Hood or King Arthur. But when Star Wars was fresh, people were still trying to figure out what it was. A lot of producers didn’t even care. They just saw a space movie making lots of money and assumed that spaceships would be a draw. But others were still interested in trying to tell a good story. They saw the success in the space opera format, but they also knew that you still had to follow the rules of good storytelling. So into which category does Space Raiders fall? Well, a little of both.

The first thing a viewer will notice is the overall cheapness. The opening sequence, which takes place in a warehouse, is hardly futuristic. The exteriors are pretty obviously southern California, and one sequence takes place at a very present-day looking factory. What’s more, the special effects, sets, and music are all lifted from Corman’s earlier and far superior space film, Battle Beyond the Stars (which was also a Star Wars clone). When you know this, it becomes painfully obvious that Space Raiders was written around the existing effects rather than the effects being tailored to the script. To be fair, though, it was a smart business move. By comparison, Battle was lavishly-produced, featuring A-list talent like Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, and George Peppard. The sets looked great and the music was fantastic. All that doesn’t come cheap, so it’s understandable that Corman would want to get his money’s worth. The effects were originally created by James Cameron, and while not quite up to the standards set by Star Wars, they’re nevertheless impressive, especially considering the budgetary limitations. The stirring score was composed by James Horner, and it’s not surprising that both he and Cameron would go on to bigger and better things. Taken on their own, both elements integrate pretty well into Space Raiders, and it’s only when you know about the previous film that they contribute to the sense of cheapness. But such technical aspects aren’t necessarily everything. If the story and performances are strong enough, a film can rise above such shortcomings. So how does this film fare in that respect?

Space Raiders centers on Colonel C.F. Hawkins, or “Hawk,” played convincingly by veteran actor Vince Edwards. Once proud of his military career, he now laments his status, talking about the old days when “being in the space service really meant something.” Now he is affiliated with a criminal organization run by a reptilian creature called Zariatin. When a young boy named Peter (David Mendenhall) accidentally stows away on a ship Hawk’s crew is trying to steal, Hawk feels responsible and vows to get Peter home. The corporation that employs Peter’s father sends a robot ship (why does a robot ship have windows?) ostensibly on a rescue mission, but really in hopes of destroying Zariatin’s operation. Hoping to ransom Peter, Zariatin turns on Hawk, picking off the crew one-by-one. Finally Hawk bests Zariatin in a shootout but is wounded in the process. Fortunately, Peter paid really close attention when he watched the crew give first aid to a wounded comrade, and he manages to resuscitate Hawk, who then finally gets Peter home. It’s a pretty simple narrative, and it’s executed simply: setup, complication, payoff. As a cash-grab, that’s smart, and at 84 minutes, it’s definitely well-paced. That said, there’s such a thing as being too simple, and there are areas where Space Raiders probably should have been allowed to breathe. For one thing, aspects of the worldbuilding are implied rather than explicitly established. It certainly seems as if the galaxy is run by a single corporation but the movie doesn’t tell us that. We’re left to infer it. And that’s a bit sloppy.

But the most critical of these areas is in the relationship between Hawk and Peter. The entire film hinges on the bond between these two, and by extension, between Peter and Hawk’s crew. When the crew first discovers that Peter is aboard, he’s in the way and everyone is bemused and annoyed by his presence. Hawk even jokes about chucking him out the airlock. But when they come under fire by hostile space fighters, a critical ship component is damaged and they can’t get to it. Peter is just small enough that he can worm his way down into the engine to fix the problem, and presto! Peter has now earned his stripes and is treated as a full-fledged member of the crew. Just like that. It works… sort of. In reality that might earn him some token respect, but it’s hardly the sort of thing that makes people ready to sacrifice their lives for you. From this time on, they all act like Peter is a member of their family who has been traveling with them for years, or at least months. Contrast this with Simon and River, who occupy a similar role in Firefly. It’s the end of the two-hour pilot before Mal even invites them to stay aboard, and even that only if Simon earns his keep by acting as ship’s medic. And their position aboard ship is only ever tenuous. Indeed, in the big-screen film, which takes place eight months after Simon and River first come aboard, Mal actually loses his temper and kicks them off the ship. It’s only after Mal’s moral compass is triggered by the nefarious actions of the Alliance that he reverses and is ready to die for them if need be. Firefly earns that level of devotion only after fourteen TV episodes and half a feature film. Of course, Space Raiders doesn’t have that kind of time. But there are ways to accomplish that efficiently. The big-screen Firefly film, Serenity, is designed to still function even if you haven’t seen the show, and it manages to tell what in many ways is the same story much more effectively.

Part of the reason the dynamic doesn’t work is Peter himself. He’s frankly kind of annoying. Outside of that one instance when he saves the ship, and later when he briefly helps out by acting as gunner, he mostly just gets into trouble. After he comes aboard Hawk’s ship, the first stop is Zariatin Station, a hotbed of criminal activity not unlike the Mos Eisley Spaceport in Star Wars (complete with a cantina filled with aliens). Hawk puts Peter in a room and tells him to stay put. Naturally, Peter sneaks out and gets into trouble with a couple of thugs who look like the burglars from Home Alone. After chasing Peter through the bowels of the station, they finally catch him, forcing Hawk and company to go rescue him. But the company robot ship finds the thugs first and blasts them to smithereens. Peter gets away in an escape pod, sees Hawk’s ship in the distance, and actually yells, as if Hawk can hear him. When I was 10, I already knew that sound doesn’t travel in space, and I don’t live in a society where space travel is commonplace. What’s this kid’s excuse? Peter is not exactly a genius, and he’s certainly no Luke Skywalker. Even little kid Anakin had more charm. At least Anakin wanted to help out and save the day. Peter’s great ambition seems to be to get a job in an office and have an average, boring existence. Not quite the stuff that legends are made of.

But the biggest way in which the dynamic fails is in the fact that the movie wants us to think Peter sees Hawk as some kind of Big Damn Hero, but there’s never any point in the film that really shows us that. Peter never displays any kind of respect or admiration for Hawk. He just wants to go home. Yet Hawk even says out loud to a shipmate that Peter sees him as a hero. Where does that come from? Search me. Midway through the film, there’s a mislead where they think Peter has gone home and they’re all moping that he’s gone. But not enough has happened to really make us feel it. If anything, they should be relieved to be free of the responsibility so they can get on with their lives.

If any character in the film has a relationship with Peter that actually makes sense, it’s Amanda, who is played quite effectively by Patsy Pease. She spends almost all of her screen time annoyed by his presence. Really, she’s had enough of the space pirate life and is ready to bail. Hawk understands, and charges her with one last task: see Peter home. She agrees and it is when Peter is under her charge that they fall under attack and Peter has to act as gunner. He’s initially reluctant to take a life, but it finally sinks in that it’s kill or be killed and he manages to do what he needs to do. Amanda is suitably impressed, and it’s at this point that they finally bond. They crash on a planet, the bad guys close in, and she goes down fighting. One of the reasons this works is that it’s not just Peter who’s in danger. The bad guys are after both of them, so Amanda has no choice but to fight. We don’t need to bother with her having any ambiguity over whether she thinks Peter is worth her life. They’re just in it together and that’s it. The element of choice is taken away. Yes, it might have been more interesting to have an arc where she actually is ready to sacrifice herself, but given the tight running time it unavoidably would have felt forced, as it does with the other characters. At least Amanda is believable.

Rounding out the cast are Ace (Luca Bercovici), who is basically a non-character; Aldebaran (Drew Snyder) who has kind of a B.J. Hunnicutt vibe but otherwise doesn’t have much going on; and the alien Flightplan (Thom Christopher). Flightplan is probably the most interesting of the supporting cast, even if he’s something of a cliché. Thom Christopher seems to have been typecast as the aloof, mysterious alien, having played a similar character on Buck Rogers. This time he has psychic powers, which makes it a little different, but such characters are a dime a dozen in sci-fi, so it’s really nothing special. I’m also pretty convinced that Alan Rickman’s make-up in Galaxy Quest was based on this character.

Another aspect of Space Raiders that doesn’t quite work is Zariatin. He has the potential to be a great villain, and he almost succeeds. Played with gusto by Ray Stewart, Zariatin oozes pure evil in every scene. As an interstellar kingpin, it would be easy to dismiss Zariatin as an imitation Jabba the Hutt. He certainly functions in much the same capacity. The degree to which his character was influenced by Star Wars is up for debate. Space Raiders was already in production when Return of the Jedi premiered, so it’s unlikely that film had any real impact. But Jabba had already been mentioned in previous films. We didn’t necessarily know that Jabba was an alien, but we knew that Han Solo owed money to an interstellar kingpin named Jabba. So it would seem that the basic concept was definitely lifted straight from Star Wars. But is it executed well? For the most part, yes. Zariatin mostly works as a villain, even if he doesn’t have a lot of depth. And that’s sort of the problem. Hawk says that he and Zariatin have been friends for a long time, but there’s no indication of that friendship in their on-screen dynamic. Zariatan does nothing but yell and threaten and menace Hawk and everyone with him. When Peter gets kidnapped, Zariatin has what might be the best line of dialogue in the film: “This is why I never liked you, Hawk. You bring out the good in me. Go and get your kid.” At this point, it seems like Zariatin may actually have some depth, but the movie undoes that when Zariatin immediately double-crosses Hawk, not only deciding to take Peter himself to hold for ransom, but also to kill Hawk and his crew. If there had been some explanation for this, it might have made sense. Maybe if Zariatin had made Hawk promise to bring Peter back so they could ransom him and then word gets back to Zariatin that Hawk has reneged on the deal, that might have worked. But there’s nothing. Zariatin just flips and decides to murder everybody. Just cause evil or whatever.

With so many elements not working, it would seem like Space Raiders is an utter disaster. And, well, it kind of is. And yet there’s just something kind of charming about it. For everything it does wrong, it does something else right. Many of the film’s jokes fall flat, but many of them work. In particular, Roger Corman fans will enjoy a cameo by Dick Miller as a fast-talking salesman in a holographic commercial. The aliens in the cantina are a bundle of clichés and played for laughs. At one point, Ace flirts with what he thinks is a hot human blonde, but when she turns around she’s a hideous alien – which Flightplan finds attractive even though they’re not the same species. I guess all aliens are attracted to each other? I dunno. And the sci-fi cantina concept itself is shamelessly lifted from Star Wars. However, the Space Raiders cantina sequence has a food fight. Star Wars can’t boast that. The punchline is a bit much, with the proprietor trying to restore order only to get covered in food, but the scene itself is so over the top that it’s fun in spite of itself. For the most part, the alien masks are pretty bad, ranging from barely acceptable to the sort of thing you’d find in any given discount Halloween store. On the other hand, the make-up for Flightplan is pretty decent and Zariatin looks fantastic – truly alien and frightening. But above all, Space Raiders is fun. Maybe not as fun or immersive as Star Wars, but as fun as a knock-off drive-in version could have possibly been. It may not be Shakespeare, and there may be some gaps in the narrative, but screenwriter Howard R. Cohen certainly understands story structure. He keeps things moving, and even though key character moments are sometimes forced, at least they’re there. Other movies of this sort don’t even bother.

In the end, Space Raiders is unquestionably a knock-off of Star Wars. But given when it was released, that’s pretty obvious. When you go to the dollar store and buy a Transmorphers action figure, you know it’s a Transformers knock-off and you know what that means. You don’t expect Wal-Mart freezer pizza to taste like gourmet pizza from a pizzaria. When you know what you’re signing up for, you adjust your expectations. And sometimes the off-brand product surpasses those expectations. Such is the case with Space Raiders. It’s not Star Wars and it doesn’t have to be. And in a way, Space Raiders finds its niche. While films like Star Crash just recycled what the producers thought audiences liked about Star Wars – space battles and robots – Space Raiders takes a specific element from Star Wars and expands on it. Jabba the Hutt was just a sub-plot, a bit of character development for Han Solo. But it hints at a whole backstory with its own range of possibilities. Space Raiders seeks to deliver on that promise and despite its shortcomings, it mostly delivers.

And that brings us back to our initial comparison between Firefly and Space Raiders. Without a doubt, Firefly is superior. The characters in Firefly are more fully realized, the wit is sharper, the drama is deeper. But Firefly is very much its own thing. It’s not Star Wars, nor was it meant to be. In 1983, we all thought Return of the Jedi was the end of the road for Star Wars. Ten years would pass before the first expanded universe novel. The adventures of Han Solo before he met Luke were left to our imaginations. At the time, Space Raiders was as close as we were going to get, and it certainly scratched that itch. But if it has endured in the era of Star Wars as an institution, it’s because the people who made it cared. Its genesis was to quickly write a story around existing special effects culled from a previous Star Wars rip-off. That should have been a death sentence. But it wasn’t. Space Raiders rises above the pack thanks to the dedication of the people involved. Against all odds, they did the impossible: the took a project that should have been a disaster and turned it into something memorable. So does it matter whether something is a rip-off or an homage? I would say that depends on the quality of the work. Firefly is both an homage and an original work and it’s amazing. Space Raiders is absolutely a rip-off, a technically sub-par low-budget cash-in. But it’s got heart. And that’s enough.

Tyranny and the Righteous Man: A Look at Pulp Fiction

Since its release in 1994, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has continued to entertain and captivate audiences. With its endlessly quotable dialogue and endearingly twisted humor, the film has established itself as an unequivocal classic and is arguably Tarantino’s finest work. Yet while its popularity is no doubt due to its sheer entertainment value, close scrutiny reveals it as a deceptively simple morality play buried cleverly beneath layers of violence, foul language, and absurdity. It is through the film’s famous non-linear structure along with subtle clues, symbolism, and clever camera work that its themes are revealed.

The opening scene is, of course, a direct lead-in to the final scene. This is an effective framing device as it book-ends the film both literally and thematically. It also helps to give the first-time viewer a frame of reference for the film’s structure, as once we get into the main body of the story, it initially appears we’ve moved past the characters in the opening scene and into a series of unconnected, or loosely connected, vignettes. It also helps to pay attention to the opening titles, as the credit “Stories by” rather than “Story by” hints that there will be multiple narratives. Additionally, halfway through the title sequence there’s an abrupt burst of radio static as the station changes, suggesting a short attention span and a bounce to something else. Already we know we’re in for a wild ride.

Now we meet Julius and Vincent, the most famous and lovable hit men in all of cinema. At first they appear to be having a meandering conversation about nothing relevant, talking about how McDonald’s is different in Europe, and the content of the discussion itself is indeed nonsense. But it’s relatable and it humanizes these men. Aside from being brutal killers, they’re just like everyone else. And of course, Tarantino is setting up the next scene, where the same content will be used in an entirely different way.

Arriving at their destination, Vincent begins asking questions about Mia, the wife of their boss, Marsellus Wallace. At first, it appears to be more irrelevant dialogue, but this conversation will have deep ramifications for what is to come. In the elevator, they discuss the fate of Antoine Roccamora, AKA Tony Rocky Horror, whom Marsellus had thrown from a fourth story window, supposedly for giving Mia a foot massage. The camera tracks with them as they emerge from the elevator, keeping them in a medium shot, while they discuss whether Marsellus was justified in his actions. They arrive at the door, realize they’re too early, and move on down the hall, continuing their discussion. Instead of following them, the camera lingers by the door. This has the dual effect of keeping their ultimate destination hovering in the viewer’s mind, while also allowing the remainder of the conversation to play out in an unconventional composition. Long shots alienate the viewer from the subject, while close-ups are more intimate. Key information is typically conveyed in close-up, or at least medium, but this entire portion of the conversation plays out in a long shot. They’re also framed in a doorway, creating a frame-within-a-frame, giving the moment a fly-on-the-wall quality, like we’re eavesdropping. And the frame is canted slightly, telling us that all is not as it seems. At this point, Vincent’s tone shifts from playful banter to one of gravity. The ultimate effect is to suggest that this is something important – and it is. As he explains to Julius the sexual aspect of giving a woman a foot massage, as well as the implicit betrayal on the part of Tony, he sets up the tension for his own upcoming scenes with Mia. Nestled within Vincent’s assertion of Tony’s betrayal is another tension – between greed and nobility. This is underscored by Julius’s biblical quote (an invention of Tarantino’s) about the good shepherd versus the “inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” The choice between greed and nobility is the film’s central theme and will determine the fate of the characters.

When at last we get to to crux of this sequence, the McDonald’s dialogue comes back, only this time Julius uses it to intimidate his victim. This motif of seemingly innocuous things like hamburgers and milkshakes as masks for what’s really going on will continue throughout the film. The target of the hit, Brett, stands as he tries to explain himself, but Julius motions for him to sit. With a simple hand motion, Julius establishes his dominance, and then the camera stays low, giving us Brett’s perspective, as Julius looms over him, eating Brett’s food and slurping his drink till it’s empty, all while looking Brett in the eye and telegraphing that it’s all over for him. This is the first of many examples of power plays within the film, and the tension between greed (the weak), power (the tyranny of evil men), and morality (the shepherd) is the core of the entire piece.

Everything thus far has been prologue, and we now move into the main body of the film. As the segment entitled “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace’s Wife” commences, we take a detour to introduce the character of Butch Coolidge. It saves us time down the road when we get to his story in full, but more importantly, it introduces Marsellus in a tangible way. We get a direct sense of who he is and how he operates. But it’s more of a tease, really. Initially, we’re focused on Butch and we only hear Marsellus’s voice. Our first actual glimpse of the crime lord is the back of his head, with a band-aid at the base of his skull, generating mystery. That’s all we’ll get until later in the film, but it’s enough to build him up for now so that the stakes feel more real as we get into the meat of the segment. There’s also a brief exchange between Vincent and Butch, establishing the animosity between them which will be resolved later.

After a brief bit setting up Vincent’s drug-dealer friend, Lance, we finally introduce Mia Wallace. Our first glimpse of Mia, as with Marsellus, is from behind, once again creating an aura mystery. But in this case, rather than sitting face-to-face with someone, totally at ease, Mia is perched over a control panel like some kind of Bond villain, watching Vincent on a security feed and giving him instructions while using a joystick to follow him with the camera. The immediate impression is that she’s toying with him. She’s not a super-criminal. She’s just the bored wife of one, and Vincent is her entertainment for the evening. Our first glimpse of her face is a close-up of her lips, suggesting sensuality. And next, as she finally joins Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera in a low tracking shot, following Mia’s bare feet – a direct visual link to the previous conversation about Tony and the foot massage. The sexual tension is immediate and clear, as is the power dynamic between these two.

The “date” takes place at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a retro diner filled with classic cars and look-alikes of movie stars from the golden age of cinema – the era when the sort of lurid crime novels on which the film is based were popular. It is divided into two segments. The first is filled with the sort of nonsense talk that made up the first scene with Vincent and Julius, but instead of a display of easy camaraderie, here it consists of forced small talk and discomfort. As with the previous scene, though, we’re setting things up for later. We’ve already learned that Mia starred in the pilot episode for a TV show that didn’t get picked up. Now we learn that her character would have had a running gag where her character had picked up a bunch of jokes from her vaudeville performer grandfather and that she would have told a different joke in each episode. Since only one show got made, she only ever got to say one joke. Vincent wants to hear the joke, but Mia refuses to tell him, because she’s afraid she’ll be embarrassed. He presses her, but she refuses, exerting a different, less sexual kind of power over him, but one which is still a sort of forbidden fruit. The small talk fizzles into an awkward silence where Vincent and Mia are framed in profile, heightening the uneasiness. Mia says she’s going to the restroom to “powder her nose,” a fun little euphemism as she snorts cocaine for the second time this evening. Before leaving the table, she tells Vincent to think of something to say while she’s gone. This serves as the dividing line between the two segments.

When she gets back, Vincent has thought of something to say, though he’s initially reluctant to say it. She presses him and he reluctantly asks her what she thinks of Marsellus pushing Tony out of a window. We learn from Mia that Tony did not give her a foot massage after all, and she doesn’t know why Marsellus pushed him. But since the incident is still on Vincent’s mind, it must be weighing heavily on him. When focused on Vincent, Tarantino keeps the camera at eye level, even though Vincent can’t seem to look Mia in the eye. But when we’re looking at Mia, it’s a low angle. Mia still has the power here. The power to impart information or not. The power to give Vincent what he wants or not. The tension is broken when a dance contest is announced and the two of them take to the floor in a beautifully composed profile shot where the background frames the two of them in wonderful symmetry. And Mia is still barefoot.

Returning home after winning the trophy, Mia and Vincent are still dancing, having evidently broken the ice, and as he dips her, they share a moment. The sexual tension is on the rise, and Vincent retreats to the bathroom to talk himself out of screwing his boss’s wife. Mirrors in film are a commonly used device, often indicating introspection or sometimes duplicity. Here, Vincent speaks to his reflection of loyalty, returning to the central theme of honor versus selfishness. Earlier, the drug-dealer Lance, who made a point of calling Vincent a friend, was visible reflected in a mirror during their conversation, indicating duplicity. It is the drugs Vincent bought from Lance that cause Mia to overdose. Vincent calls Lance for help, but Lance refuses, dodging responsibility for his part in this and fulfilling the foreshadowing set up by the mirror. When Vincent crashes his car into the front of Lance’s house, causing some damage, it makes for a nice comeuppance. In a tense scene, they save Mia with a shot of adrenaline. With Mia looking considerably worse for wear, and sex decidedly off the table, Vincent takes her home. Before he leaves, Mia tells him the joke from her TV show. The exchange is something real and heartfelt. They’ve bonded in a way far more meaningful than if they’d just had sex. And Vincent has kept his honor – at least as far as Marsellus goes.

This theme of honor versus greed continues in the following segment, entitled “The Gold Watch.” We return to Butch Coolidge and learn of the heirloom which has been in his family for several generations. But where Butch’s ancestors were all war heroes, having achieved honor by fighting for their country, Butch is just a second-rate boxer at the end of his career, and much to his own distaste getting paid by Marsellus Wallace to throw his last fight. In the end he can’t go through with it, breaking the pact he made in favor of pride – and the alternate deal he made with another bookie. But the gold watch still has deep meaning for him, and not just sentimental meaning. It is a link to the nobility of his forebears that he himself was never able to achieve. So when it turns up missing, he has to go back for it, seeking something he hasn’t earned but desperately needs. By a twist of fate, he catches Vincent off-guard. The animosity set up earlier comes to a head, and Vincent meets his fate, murdered by his own gun. This is significant, and will tie in at the film’s finale.

At last we get our first look at Marsellus’s face in a nice little homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Butch, driving back to get his girlfriend before leaving town, sees Marsellus crossing the street, who stops and sees Butch. The staging and the framing are identical to the scene in Psycho when Marion encounters her boss while fleeing town after stealing the money. The best films deliver the unexpected, and after a suspenseful chase down the street, we veer right into bizzarroland as the fight between Butch and Marsellus is interrupted and they fall into the clutches of some weirdos who seem like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Butch manages to escape, and at last reaches the turning point of his arc. It would have been so easy for him to just leave his enemy to his fate, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Reclaiming his honor, he selects a weapon for the rescue. As he goes through several possibilities, the choice is significant. We go from hammer to baseball bat to chainsaw, and each of these weapons is more effective than the last, but finally Butch settles on the perfect selection: a samurai sword. The weapon of a noble warrior. And Butch is rewarded for this nobility. He still has to leave town – Marsellus has to save face – but he will no longer be hunted. Butch can live out his days in peace, knowing that at last he has earned the gold watch through the honor of the battlefield

In the film’s final segment, “The Bonnie Situation,” the arcs of Julius and Vincent converge in a perfect showcase of the central themes. We loop back to the beginning, resuming the sequence where we first met them. We pick up just as they’re about to finish off Brett. The first sequence concludes with Brett’s death, and as bullets riddle his body, there’s a series of quick dissolves to flash frames before a final dip to black as his life fades. We’re experiencing that moment from his perspective. He reaps the rewards of his life of crime and dies by the sword, as it were. He doesn’t get to see what comes next. But now we’re seeing it from the perspective of Vincent and Julius. Examining information the film has already given us from new perspectives will be the dominant motif of the remainder of the film. There’s one final exchange of gunfire as one of Brett’s friends bursts in, emptying his gun. He has them dead to rights but somehow every shot misses and the two hit men gun him down. Julius becomes convinced that only divine intervention could have saved them, and it has a profound effect on him.

The following portion of the segment, in which Vincent accidentally kills the sole survivor of the massacre, is largely played for laughs, but there are still some interesting things going on. We get to see the difference in character between Julius and Vincent. Marsellus dispatches a fixer known as the Wolf to bail them out. The Wolf bursts onto the scene, wasting no time and and taking care of business, doling out jobs to everyone involved. Julius is respectful and appreciative of the help, but Vincent gets uppity, demanding respect that he hasn’t earned. This is after all his fault, accident or no. This speaks to his inner self-involvement and weakness of character. He may show loyalty to his boss, but in all other respects he’s kind of a jerk – in addition to being a criminal.

There’s also another nice fly-on-the-wall moment as the Wolf speaks with Jimmie, the owner of the house where they’ve brought the body. The camera is placed in the hall and we’re looking through a doorway at the Wolf, while Jimmy is only partially visible, sitting on the bed across from him. Jimmy argues about using his best linen, an irreplaceable wedding present, to cover up the blood in the car. But when the Wolf flashes a wad of cash, suggesting that the gift givers would no doubt love for him to have a beautiful new oak bedroom set, Jimmy immediately caves. To Jimmy, money is obviously more important than sentimentality. The camera switches to a profile shot for this exchange, bringing us into the moment and leaving us to ponder what we’d do in Jimmy’s place. Yeah, we’d probably take the money.

With the Bonnie situation neatly wrapped up, and sporting the ridiculous clothes we saw them in earlier, thus answering the question of why they were dressed like that as well as helping us to place the current sequence chronologically, Vincent and Julius decide to grab some breakfast. Sitting in a diner, they return to the question of divine intervention and Julius reveals that he’s chosen to give up his life of crime. Vincent thinks this is ridiculous, and it is indeed played comically, with Julius alluding to becoming like Kane in the TV show Kung Fu, but things turn serious while Vincent takes a bathroom break – and is seen reading the same book he has with him when Butch kills him, reminding us of his fate. The armed robbers return and we realize we’ve returned to the opening scene, once again looking at something from a different perspective. During the ensuing standoff, with everyone pointing guns at each other, Julius refuses to give up the case belonging to Marsellus – honor among thieves – but more importantly, demands his own wallet back while giving the money inside to Ringo. Julius tells Ringo he’s buying Ringo’s life, and he recites the fictional Bible passage from the earlier scene. Once again, we’re looking at something from a different perspective. What was previously just a way to intimidate his victims has now taken on deeper meaning for him. After surviving something that should have killed him, Julius experiences an awakening and makes a choice. He spares Ringo, choosing the path of the righteous man rather than aligning himself with the tyranny of evil men. This sets him apart from Vincent, who has chosen to continue his life of crime. As they exit the film, what awaits Julius is for him to decide, but we already know Vincent’s fate. The moral is clear and simple and encapsulated in that Bible passage.

That the film’s core theme should manifest as a bible passage, even a made-up one, is worth examination. There is a fan theory that the glowing contents of the mysterious briefcase are actually Marsellus Wallace’s soul. It sounds absurd, but the theory is not without merit. When Vincent opens the case and sees what’s inside, he pauses, momentarily breaking the persona of the unflappable murderer to puff on his cigarette and gaze at the contents of the case, his face bathed in golden light while a low rumbling sound fills our ears. It’s not drugs or money in the case – that wouldn’t provoke such a reaction in Vincent. When Ringo gets a look inside, he gawks and says, “Is that what I think it is?” and then, “It’s beautiful.” Like Vicent, Ringo would not be so stunned by drugs, money, or even bars of gold. No, there’s something very special in that case. Then there’s the band-aid on Marcellus’s neck, presumably covering the wound where the soul was extracted. And of course there’s Marcellus’s detached demeanor, like someone lacking humanity, lacking a soul. Lastly, the combination to open the case is 666. Maybe Marsellus made a deal with the devil? Another theory is that the briefcase contains the diamonds from Reservoir Dogs, and there’s some evidence for this as well, since it is implied and Tarantino has confirmed that Vincent Vega is the brother of Mr. Blonde from the earlier film. While the briefcase did contain diamonds in an early draft, that concept was ultimately abandoned. This is one question the film leaves deliberately unanswered. In fact, the briefcase is a direct reference to the 1955 noir film, Kiss Me Deadly, in which the MacGuffin is a box with glowing contents. Does the briefcase in Pulp Fiction contain diamonds? Could be. Does it contain Marsellus Wallace’s soul? Maybe. I can’t refute any of that conclusively. But it’s never explicitly established, so it can’t ever be part of a definitive interpretation of the film. Tarantino has said that the contents of the box were left mysterious on purpose, so personally I think that it is really just an homage.

Despite the debate over the contents of the box, it remains a fact that there are references to the Bible in the film, and for many people, morality and religion are inexplicably linked. Pulp Fiction, for all its delightful quirks and in-jokes and references, is in the end a simple morality tale. But it is one that is so expertly crafted, in terms of narrative as well as visual style and symbolism, that it emerges as more than the sum of its parts. The combination of all these elements will ensure that this film will continue to enjoy its status as a time-honored classic that will be remembered for many years to come.

Attack of the Creeps

My goodness, Attack of the Clones is terrible. Sure, we all know the prequels suck. But conventional wisdom tells us The Phantom Menace is the worst, right? Wrong. There’s something far, far worse than the maniacal screeching of Jar-Jar Binks. And it’s called The Hot Mess of Anakin and Padme.

I sat down to watch Clones this time around with the same attitude I’ve had watching all the Star Wars films recently. At all times, I would ask myself, “What would little kid Jon think of this?” And usually I figured little kid Jon would be pretty entertained by all of it. But in this instance, I just couldn’t look past the sheer suck of what was unfolding.

Right from the start, Anakin is off-putting. In the elevator car, as he tries to one-up Obi-Wan, there’s an instant sense that this kid is going to be insufferable. The second-hand embarrassment as he fails to impress Padme in their first scene together is bad enough, but we’re just getting started. Padme lays it all out up front: “Anakin, you’ll always be that little boy I met on Tatooine.” This will inform everything that follows.

In TPM, Padme was only sixteen years old, but she’d already been elected to the highest office on her planet. She was smart, capable, and she led her people through a crisis and saved them from the Trade Federation. Granted, Anakin helped with that, and that’s not to be overlooked, but bottom line, it was Padme’s show. It was her plan. She was in charge. Now, ten years later, she’s grown from an already impressive girl into a woman. She radiates professionalism and maturity. She’s the very epitome of grown-up. And here’s this little punk Anakin trying to get into her pants because he has a crush. EEEWW!!!

Every scene they share is awkward. From his confession that he’s been obsessing over her for ten years to his leering at her every chance he gets – which she tells him flat-out makes her uncomfortable. He trash-talks Obi-Wan behind his back, which clearly does not impress Padme, coming off as a whiny, entitled brat. He talks over her during an important meeting just to flex his muscles, which she clearly finds off-putting. And then he starts touching her inappropriately when she’s made it very clear she’s not interested. On their little outing to the countryside when he talks about how great fascism would be, not only does he make himself look stupid with his utter lack of understanding of politics, but this should have been the last straw in which Padme sends him packing and informs the Jedi she no longer needs their protection.

But holy crap, we’re not even done! We’ve got their super-awkward fireside chat in which she’s so uncomfortable she has to move to the other side of the room. And as painful as that is to watch, it’s nothing compared to Anakin confessing that he just slaughtered a whole village of Sand People – including the children – and she just brushes it aside, and then a few scenes later tells Anakin, “I truly, deeply love you.” What the ever-loving God Fuck?!!! There is absolutely no basis whatsoever for her to fall in love with this creep! All along, it has been played as a creepy stalker chasing an older woman with whom he has nothing in common. This should have ended with her making a full report to the Jedi council about what he’s been up to and his expulsion from the order. Certainly not them getting fucking married!!

“You like me because I’m a psychopath. There aren’t enough psychopaths in your life.”

I used to enjoy the set pieces – the chase on Coruscant, the fight on Kamino, the Battle of Geonosis, but all of these fell flat this time around because my skin was still crawling from the scenes between Anakin and Padme. Okay, fine, we’re supposed to see how this guy becomes Darth Vader. But in order for us to be invested in that, we need to see an essentially good man who is seduced by the Dark Side. Instead we get a whiny, creepy stalker sociopath who is completely off-putting. And it undermines the character of Darth Vader. In the original trilogy, Vader was a super-badass. He had his shit together. He whined about nothing. And for his backstory you give us this?!

Not only that, but for us to be invested in the doomed romance of Anakin and Padme, we have to want them to be together. We know going in they’re not going to have a happily-ever-after. But for that to mean anything, for us to follow them on that journey, it needs to be tragic. We need to see them happy up front in order to be sad that it’s not going to work out. Instead, we just want to scream to Padme, “Run! Run as fast as you can!”

This movie sucks. My god, this movie sucks. I wish there were something I could praise, but there isn’t. You could argue that it has nice visuals, but the CGI hasn’t aged well, and compared to any given modern movie, they’re nothing special. You could say it’s got decent action scenes, but if you’re not invested in the story, it’s just shit blowing up and I don’t care. This is easily the biggest botch job of the entire saga. And with the resources at their disposal, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Still more romantic than Anakin and Padme.

Jaws 4 – A Fan Edit

Speaking of Jaws

“Rahr!”

A while back, my wife and I decided to watch all the Jaws movies. When we got to Jaws: The Revenge, mid-way through my wife said, “This is really stupid. Sharks don’t have telepathy. They don’t target specific people.” And she’s right about all those things. So I got to thinking… What if there was no supernatural element to this move? What if the shark wasn’t hunting Brodys? What if there were no telepathy and this was just a regular Jaws movie? What would that movie even look like? Would it even make any sense? I decided to find out.

“Thea, dear, did you know your Grandma has psychic powers?”

My first step was ripping the video files off the blu-ray disc, something I’d never done before. I had to google how you do that and download some software, but eventually I had some video files that I could work with. Next step, convert the files to a format my editing software could read, which required another software download. After fiddling with the settings, I was in business and ready to edit.

Digital scissors in hand, I began mercilessly hacking away at the film, removing everything I thought was stupid. Not just every single reference to telepathy or vengeful sharks, but needless padding like Mike and Carla arguing about garbage, a seemingly endless casino scene, and Jake giving Mike a hard time the day after his brother’s funeral. The end result was barely over an hour, really lean and to the point. When my wife and I watched it together, we agreed that it was an improvement over the official version, but it was a little too short to be satisfying. So I went back to the drawing board. In the end, I added back in pretty much all the padding, leaving the original storyline intact, minus the psychic shark stuff. However, I did make a few other minor alterations to two scenes.

The first is Sean’s death scene. When the shark initially attacks him, we see the shark thrashing about and hear the tearing of flesh as Sean screams. Then, a moment later, he pops out of the water looking no worse for wear. I thought that was silly, so I cut that bit, ending the scene with the boat sinking and a shot of the shark’s fin lifted from Jaws 3-D.

Mike Brody prepares to escape the shark by giving himself the bends.

I also recut the sequence where the shark attacks Mike in the mini-sub and then pursues him into a shipwreck. Some of this footage actually wound up in a completely different part of the film. The result is more realistic and more consistent with the tone of the first two films. I don’t want to say exactly what I did, though, because I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

Finally, I fixed the ending. All home video releases of Jaws: The Revenge have featured the ending from the international cut where the shark inexplicably explodes and then Jake pops out of the water, still alive. I got rid of that nonsense and restored the original ending from the theatrical version where the shark just gets impaled and Jake stays dead – except in my version, the shark no longer roars. Oh, and I replaced the main title card, retitling the film Jaws 4 and using the proper Jaws font. And I made a minor tweak to the Universal logo that probably only die-hard Jaws fans will notice.

Yuck! Let’s see if we can do something about that.

The end result is… well, it’s still bad. After all, I could only do so much. But it’s slightly less bad than it was. Like by about 20% or so. If you’re interested in checking out my work, feel free to contact me.

DISCLAIMER:

I want to stress that I do not condone piracy and will not sell my fan edit in any format. The typical way it works is that you will need to send me a photo of yourself holding a legally-purchased copy of Jaws: The Revenge on blu-ray and I will then be happy to share my fan edit with you at no charge.

Jaws: A Lifetime of Memories

The Great White Shark glides into frame – and into my subconscious.
Image credit: Universal Studios

There’s little I could possibly say about Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece that hasn’t already been said. So instead I’ll focus on my own personal memories. My relationship with one of my all-time favorite movies.

My family. Back row from left: my brother, my mom, and my dad. Front row: moi.

My parents were your average middle-class suburbanite couple. They were both slim, fit, and attractive, and their teaching jobs at the local high school had allowed them to purchase a pretty nice house with a great big yard. That house would be my home for the remainder of my childhood. We had just moved in and were still getting comfortable. It was 1980, and I was three years old. I wandered into the family room one evening where my parents were watching a movie. I asked what it was and they told me it was Jaws. For some reason, they let me join them, even though I was easily scared and prone to night terrors. But I’m glad they did, because it was a revelation. I was utterly captivated by what was playing out on screen.

I’m not sure exactly at what point in the movie I started watching, but they were already aboard the Orca. It might have been the scene when they’re comparing scars. I have a vague memory of the planks bending in as the shark attacks the hull and Brody falling down with water under him. I didn’t know what a shark was, so my parents had to explain it to me. I had seen fishing boats on Mr. Rogers, so I sort of understood that. I thought that when they went down through the hatches to work on the engine that they were in the hold where the fish are kept. I also didn’t really know the difference between that and the forward cabin. I just knew they went down into the bowels of the boat to do things. When the boat starts flooding, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t supposed to be that way. I didn’t understand how these things work. I figured they kept water down there for the fish to swim in. You know, so they’d be fresh, I guess. I was three, okay? What do you want from me? When Hooper went down into the cage, I didn’t understand what that was. I thought he was going down into the bowels of the boat again, and somehow the shark had gotten into the boat. Then when it pops out of the water and lands on the deck, I thought it was coming up out of the hold. I wasn’t sure how the shark had gotten into the boat, but there it is.

From that moment on, I was utterly obsessed with sharks in general and Jaws in particular. I talked about both topics constantly, probably annoying everyone. For my fourth birthday, I got a children’s book called Whales, Sharks, and Other Creatures of the Deep. This was my first encounter with many sea creatures, such as manatees, manta rays, giant squid, and others that would also fascinate me for the rest of my life.

The next few years were a dry spell for me. I didn’t see Jaws or any other shark movies for what seemed like forever. Remember, this was the early 80s – before Netflix, before home video. You had to wait for things to come on TV. Finally there was a movie on HBO called Beyond the Reef about a young man and the tiger shark who befriends him. At the time, I found it a bit tedious, but I watched it anyway because there was a shark in it. I saw it several times, but then it disappeared from my life. I would think of it from time to time, but I didn’t see it again until recently – a span of more than thirty-five years. Watching it as an adult, I found it to be a flawed but entertaining film – though perhaps I’m viewing it through rose-colored glasses, filtered through memories of my toddler self watching it with my brother and grandmother.

One day I asked my brother if he’d ever seen Jaws and he told me he’d seen Jaws 2. He had to explain sequels to me. His only memory of it was a woman on a boat seeing a shark fin and yelling, “Uh-uh-uh-SHAAAARK!!!-uh-uh-uh-uh.” He was clearly referring to when Brody and Ellen find a traumatized Tina lost at sea. Somewhere during this period, I must have seen Jaws 2, or at least part of it. All I remember is the shot where the camera follows Brody out to the end of the dock, where Hendricks is aboard the police launch. I guess I couldn’t tell the difference between Roy Scheider and Don Adams, and since I didn’t know the character’s name, I started calling him “Get Smart.” At some point, someone told me they killed the shark with a power line. I thought that meant they just threw the power line onto the shark.

In the summer of 1982, we took the first of many annual vacations to Jacksonville Beach, Florida. I would have been four years old. I have a vivid memory of running out across the vast expanse of sand between our motel and the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was huge, not at all the narrow strip of sand I had been expecting. Because I didn’t know the actual setting of Jaws, I arbitrarily decided that it took place at Jacksonville Beach and that Brody killed the shark from the end of Jackonville Beach Pier. The first time I went swimming in the ocean, I was terrified of getting eaten by a shark. There actually was a day when we couldn’t go swimming because of a shark warning. Despite straining my eyes as I stared at the ocean, I did not see a shark.

It was around this time that I saw a documentary about sharks and learned of the extinct giant shark, megalodon. The host erroneously stated that the shark in Jaws was a megalodon. I took this to heart, and assumed that the shark in Jaws was a hundred feet long.

The following summer, Jaws 3-D was released. By now I was in school, and a classmate saw it and told me about it. I was excited to see it, but missed it in the theater. I didn’t catch up with it until it played on HBO. I think I found the premise a bit odd, a little sci-fi compared to the others, but it was scary and I dug it. I was also surprised to find that it was about a regular great white and not a megalodon. There was still much for me to learn about sharks, of course, and I didn’t understand how utterly absurd it was that this film’s great white was thirty-five feet long. Real great whites grow to a maximum of twenty feet long, so despite calling it a great white, it really was much closer to a megalodon in size. I was too young to realize what a stink-bomb the movie was. There was a shark in it, so that was good enough for me. My brother watched it with me and even though he thought it was stupid, he embraced it for my sake and we obsessed over it together for a while.

Jaws 3-D may have been a box-office bomb, but it was a staple of my early childhood.
Image credit: Universal Studios

We decided, my brother and I, that we were going to make Jaws 4. The neighbor kid, however, told us that they’d already made Jaws 4, so we changed our plan and said we were going to make Jaws 5. The neighbor kid then told us that they’d already made both Jaws 4 and Jaws 5. In my gut, I knew he was messing with us, but my brother believed him, so we changed our plans yet again. Despite knowing perfectly well that there are only four Jaws movies, I still occasionally go searching for part 5 thanks to that idiot neighbor kid. Anyway, we got to work. My brother would write Jaws 6 and I would take on Jaws 7. Probably just to be a jerk, my brother decided that his shark was going to be so big, the only way to kill it was to blow up the world – which they did, with a doomsday bomb. But he left the door open for part 7, saying that Earth had a sister world called Amnesia where the Jaws saga would continue. Sigh. Thanks, Collin.

Writing an entire novel proved to be an overwhelming task for a five-year-old, though, and I eventually gave up. My brother and I briefly talked about using the family’s Super-8 camera to film a Jaws movie, and we approached our Uncle Ron about playing Brody because we thought he bore a passing resemblance to Roy Scheider. But those plans came to a halt when my uncle refused to work without his daily wages. Years later, I would encounter the same problem with professional actors.

For a long time, it seemed like Jaws 3-D was the only Jaws movie I was ever going to get to see. It played multiple times on HBO, and I seized on every chance I had to watch it. It was a Jaws movie goddamn it. But of course, a part of me longed to see the original. I wondered if I would ever get to see it again, and I asked my mom to tell me the story. Initially, she just said a bunch of people got eaten by a shark, but I knew there had to be more than that. I pressed her, and she continued. “The chief of police and an oceanographer went out on a great big boat. Aaand… some people on the boat got killed. And they… shot the shark… yeah, they shot it. And the chief of police and the oceanographer… swam back to shore.”

The VHS release of Jaws, featuring one of the most iconic images in all of pop culture.

1985. Everything changed. We got our first VCR. We drove to a video store called Nite Owl Video to get our first video membership. When my mom and I walked in, I started browsing titles, and there it was. That iconic image of the shark hurtling up under the unsuspecting swimmer. That bold font. Jaws. I grabbed it and showed it to my mom and obviously she had to rent it for me. To my utter disappointment, we couldn’t rent it that day. I’m not sure why – something to do with the process of signing up. But we would be able to next time.

The wait was agony, but finally there we all were – me, my parents, and my brother. By now, my brother had made it clear that he didn’t really care for the Jaws movies, and I had the sense that my parents were indifferent. They were indulging me. I recorded the event with my tape recorder so I could at least enjoy the audio after we’d returned the film. “Jaws,” I said. “Jaws One. Starting.” Duh-dunn. Duh-dunn. The movie began to unfold. Instantly I sensed that this was a better film than the third one. Everyone laughed at the jokes, and the shark attacks were bloodier and more intense than the ones in the third film. I was enjoying what seemed to be to be a pretty good Jaws movie. And then the switcheroo happened.

I knew from my mom’s telling of the story that they would eventually go out on a boat to kill the shark, but I figured that would be at the very end, and I had no idea what the movie was going to pull. The camera dollies in on the jaws of a shark mounted on a window, the Orca visible beyond, heading to sea, as if sailing right into the jaws of the shark, and John Williams was suddenly scoring a different movie. Not a horror movie. An adventure movie. I still get chills every time I watch the movie and it gets to this point. But this was only the beginning. After a while of hanging out on the boat, I began to realize that we were nowhere near the climax. And then the shark pops out of the water. Rather than a horror set piece, suddenly it’s adventure on the high seas! Quint, Brody, and Hooper leap into action as the score builds the excitement. It’s fun, funny, and thrilling, and then… that harpoon comes into view as John Williams delivers six musical notes that would forever change the way I experience movies. Holy. Goddam. Shit. This isn’t just a Jaws movie. This is Jaws.

The rest of the movie played out. There were more exciting chases, more thrills, and then some mind-bending terror. When it was over, my brother and I went upstairs and went utterly ape shit. Later that day, I came up with QBH, a sitcom which I performed live with my action figures in which Quint, Brody, and Hooper get an apartment in New York and have many comedic adventures together, including run-ins with Superman and Lex Luthor, a giant mechanical arm, and a trip to space. QBH became a way of life for me and my brother, dominating the rest of our childhoods.

Due to a great cosmic injustice, there were no Jaws action figures for us to play with, so we had to substitute. For me, Emperor Palpatine became Quint, an ATST pilot with Luke Skywalker’s head was Brody, and a little astronaut figure from my Construx set stood in for Hooper. For my brother, Quint was a Chief Quimby figurine from Inspector Gadget, Brody was Luke Skywalker in his Jedi outfit, and Hooper was a jet pilot. It was the best we could do, and it served us well enough at the time. But we needed a playset, and that’s where Grampap came in.

Grampap shows off the catch of the day on one of our many trips to Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

Grampap was an interesting man. With his high cheekbones and weathered complexion, he was like a wooden Indian come to life. A veteran of World War II, he was full of stories from a colorful past. He was a carpenter, and it seemed as if he could build anything you wanted in his garage. He’d already made numerous wooden toys for both of us, so it seemed only natural to ask him to build the Orca. Working from memory, I drew the boat to the best of my ability and gave it to him for reference. A few days later, I had my first highly inaccurate model of the Orca. Not long after that, my brother spent a week in the garage with Grampap building what he called, “The Ultimate Orca.” The overall shape was wrong, but the details were all there and it was functional. It had a removable fighting chair, removable barrels, and a fold-up shark cage. Many hours were spent on the further adventures of Quint, Brody, and Hooper using this model of the Orca.

“Quint,” “Brody,” and “Hooper” head out to “sea” aboard the Ultimate Orca.
Grandma enjoying her patio.

My grandmother was a roly-poly bundle of love who had seen some hard times and had learned the value of family. She was also a hard-core shopper, and if there was something you wanted and it could be found, she would find it for you. So I asked her for Peter Benchly’s original Jaws novel in hardcover. I figured I had set her an impossible task, and in a way I had, since Jaws was not even in print at the time. But she came through, sort of. I don’t know where she found them, but she picked up Jaws 2, by Hank Searls – in hardcover, no less – one each for me and my brother. And she inscribed it on the first page: to Jonathan, from Grandma, “1986.”

I took the book to school and began reading it – my first grown-up book. It was a bit difficult for me, and I kind of slogged through it. Much of the book dealt with gangsters and police work. I felt a bit guilty for finding it so dull, but I kept at it. It took me all year to read it, but I did, reading through the final few chapters in one sitting and with trembling hands. It had been a tough book to get through, but the ending was a good payoff. However, there had been a price for taking it to school. The dust jacket had been ripped to shreds. I was mad about that, holding a plain red book in my hands with no picture of a shark on the cover. I put it on the shelf in my bedroom closet, where it stayed for many, many years.

Jaws 2 may have been tough to get through, but I still wanted to read the original, so my Grandma took me to Nancy’s Fireside Book Exchange, which she thought was our best shot at finding it. Sure enough, there it was. Not hardcover, of course – the mass-market paperback that had flooded book stores in advance of the film’s release. I didn’t start reading it right away, and by the time I did, my brother had already read his copy and spoiled much of it for me. But I read it anyway, zipping through it much faster than Jaws 2. There was much more shark in this one, and even the romance and mafia stuff held my interest. Maybe I was growing up; who knows?

The movie version of Jaws 2 played on ABC, and we taped it. I was surprised at how different it was from the book. It drew me in pretty quickly. The opening attack on the two divers was cool, and the attack on the speedboat was downright awesome. But then it ran out of steam. Talk, talk, talk, talk. Where the hell was the shark? By the time it showed up again, it was time for me to go to bed. I had to wait until after school the next day to finish watching. The second half was much more satisfying than the first. I was a little bored by all the scenes of the teenagers drifting around at sea, but there was enough shark action to hold my interest, and the climax was pretty slick. My verdict at the time was that it was okay, but not as good as one and three. Still, it was the first Jaws movie that we actually owned, so I watched it quite a bit.

And then, on our next trip to Florida, the original Jaws played on ABC and we taped it too. We had to set the VCR to record it automatically, and I recall being really tense for the whole trip, worrying that something had gone wrong and it had failed to record. But I put that out of my mind when we stopped at a motel on the way down and watched the movie in our room. To my surprise, there were several scenes that hadn’t been in the version we’d rented. My brother didn’t believe me, and it wasn’t until the movie aired on HBO several years later that I was finally able to prove that the TV version was different.

The novelization of Jaws: The Revenge, by Hank Searls

One day my grandma informed me they were making Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The title sounded like a joke, and I didn’t know where she heard that. Grandma was very good at the things she was good at, but there were also lots of things she was just clueless about. I figured she didn’t know what she was talking about. Over the course of the next year or so, anytime I brought up Jaws, she reminded me that Jaws Goes to Hawaii was going to be coming out. I took this with a grain of salt, of course. A new Jaws movie would be nice, but I wasn’t getting my hopes up. And then one day we were at strip mall a few miles from home. She was busy hunting bargains when I asked her if I could go over to the drug store to look at the books. She said yes and I headed over. I spotted it immediately: Jaws: The Revenge, a new novel by Hank Searls. Holy crap, it was true! As I’d suspected, the title was not Jaws Goes to Hawaii. The destination, it turned out, was the Bahamas. Still a tropical setting, but not Hawaii, and with a much more sensible title. Needless to say, I got Grandma to buy it for me.

I started reading it at once and was horrified to discover that Shawn Brody dies in the opening scene. Partly because I was so shocked, but also partly because I decided that I didn’t want to spoil the movie for myself, I set the book aside for the time being. Finally the movie came out and my whole family went to see it. The marquee said Jaws 4. So that settled that. There was no Jaws 5 and I could permanently put that matter to rest. (Please wait while I conduct a Google search for Jaws 5.) It may seem strange to you, but I actually enjoyed Jaws 4 quite a lot. Maybe it was just because this was the first time I was seeing a Jaws movie in the theater, or maybe it was just because it was brand new. But whatever the reasons were, I loved it, and it completely escaped my notice how utterly stupid it was. Hey, I was ten, okay? I was still at the age where I was watching He-Man. Cut me some slack, will ya?

Not only did I enjoy it, but I liked it enough that I dragged my poor Aunt Patty to see it just to have an excuse to see it again. Every so often, I glanced over to see how she was reacting to things. She just sat like a statue, not reacting at all. I’m sure she was thinking, “What the hell is this garbage?!” When it was over, she told me she’d enjoyed it. God bless her.

By the time high school rolled around, Jaws was an old friend. I not only knew all the dialogue by heart, I could actually watch the movie shot-for-shot in my head with almost perfect clarity. I’d come around to the notion that the sequels weren’t worth anyone’s time, and I hadn’t watched them in years. My brother had always said his favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had never really settled on a favorite movie. For a while, maybe between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I would often say my favorite movie was Dawn of the Dead. That didn’t quite feel true, though. I loved it, but was it really my favorite? Then one day, my brother said that while he still loved 2001, if pressed he would have to say his favorite movie was Jaws. Whoa, buddy! You don’t get to go claiming that! I’m the Jaws nut in this family! I didn’t say that, of course, but on the spot I decided that Jaws was my favorite movie of all time. That felt much more true than Dawn of the Dead.

In my senior year of high-school, I needed a sound byte for an audio drama I was working on. I pulled out our old copy of Jaws 2 so I could record the sound of the shark being electrocuted, but the audio quality was not that great, so I went down the street to the nearest video store and rented it. I was surprised at how much better the picture quality was on the studio-produced copy. Since I’d paid to rent it, I figured I may as well watch it. To my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. In fact, it was pretty good. Not good like the original, but pretty good.

My experience with renting Jaws 2 had convinced me that the taped-off-TV copies we’d been watching weren’t going to cut it anymore. I had to get factory-made copies of both Jaws and Jaws 2. Not 3 and 4, mind you. I still thought of those as crap. But the first one for sure, and the second one, meh, why not?

After all these years, I finally encountered a hardcover edition of the original novel – in, of all places, the high-school library. It wasn’t anything like I’d imagined. Instead of the famous artwork from the movie poster, it was a plain black cover with a basic-looking shark. If this had been what my grandmother had given me, I likely would have been disappointed. It occurred to me that perhaps I could photocopy the dust jacket from my brother’s copy of Jaws 2. But color photocopying was not as advanced then as it is today, and I wasn’t happy with the results. Still, at least my copy had a cover again, albeit an imperfect one.

Many times on our vacations to Florida, we would go deep sea fishing aboard a big party boat called the Miss Mayport. It was fun, but crowded, standing elbow-to-elbow with strangers. The summer after I graduated from high-school, however, Grampap had a surprise for us. We showed up at the dock and my brother and I headed for the Miss Mayport as usual when Grampap called to us. We turned around to see him standing on the deck of a small charter boat. At first we thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. He’d done what we’d been talking about doing since we’d first seen Jaws. He’d chartered a small fishing boat like the one in the movie. Usually when we went fishing we’d each come home with maybe one or two small-frys. This time we caught so many fish – big ones, king mackerels – that we had to throw some back. It was the best day at sea I ever had and one of my fondest memories.

Heading out to sea for real – a surprise gift from Grapap.

Life marched on. I did a semester at Cal U, I went to film school, I got a job. I made my first feature film. I got my first grown-up job working as a projectionist at various local theaters. I dated. I had my heart broken. My uncle and my grandparents died. I struggled with creative success. I made friends. I lost friends. My twenties disappeared into a black hole. And I emerged from it all… changed. And kind of tired. I decided that in the interest of looking smart, I had turned my nose up at a lot of movies I’d once loved – sequels especially. After a long time away, I revisited Jaws 3 and Jaws: The Revenge. And God, they were so… awful. By any objective standard, they were prime examples of the worst drek Hollywood had churned out in the early 80s. And I loved them anyway. Every godawful frame of them, I loved it all.

Thanks to the internet, I was able to obtain a new dust jacket for my copy of Jaws 2. Also, Random House released a new edition of the original novel, this time with the cover art from the mass-market paperback. It was exactly what I’d hoped my grandma would find for me all those years ago, and it made a nice companion edition to what she’d bought me. I decided to revisit the novel of Jaws 2 and it was a different experience reading it as an adult. I was able to appreciate the subtle nuances of character development that I’d missed as a kid. The mafia stuff didn’t bore me this time, and I plowed through it quickly. Ultimately, I did decide that the movie was better. In the novel, Brody doesn’t even suspect there’s a shark until the very end, instead wasting his time chasing after a two-bit crook. It makes him look like a fool. His arc in the movie is much more satisfying. But I didn’t care. I was able to enjoy this childhood gift with a new level of appreciation. As I read the final chapters, I trembled with the same excitement I’d had the first time, and when I finished, I closed the book and looked at it for a moment, then hugged it as if it were my grandma.

My hardcover Jaws books – a beautiful set I waited a lifetime for.

One day my brother declared that he’d always suspected that Jaws wasn’t really my favorite movie. He said he thought The Thing was my favorite movie. At the time, I insisted he was wrong, that Jaws really was my favorite movie. But these days, if I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure I really do have a favorite movie. I love Jaws. I also love The Thing. And I love Dawn of the Dead. And Back to the Future. And Raiders of the Lost Ark. And a host of others. I have a lot of favorite movies, not just one. And that’s okay. I don’t think it’s necessary to single out one movie as your tippy-top favorite. There’s room in my heart for more than one movie.

As of this writing, I’m forty-one years old. In many ways, I couldn’t be more different from the little toddler who wandered into the family room to find his parents watching a strange, scary movie about a shark. In other ways, it’s like I’ve come full-circle. Or perhaps almost full, the starting point forever out of reach. I’ve lived this long life full of discovery and change, and now it’s like I’m trying to reconnect with myself. Or maybe I’m just grasping at a simpler time, my fingers closing around water, the reflection dancing and rippling before me, teasing me. But at least I know now that I don’t have to impress anyone. It’s okay for me to like whatever I want, even if it’s bad, and I owe an explanation to no one. When a friend saw blu-ray copies all four Jaws movies sitting on my shelf, he was baffled. He could understand owning the original. He could even understand owning the second one. But the third and fourth? Surely I had better taste than that. Why did I own them? The answer is simple. Because a little boy I used to know likes sharks and wants to watch movies about them.