From the Funny to the Freaky, a Short History of Sharks in Short Films

From the Funny to the Freaky, a Short History of Sharks in Short Films

Aug 15, 2012

Short Rounds is a biweekly column dedicated to spreading the love of short film. Every other Wednesday we'll curate a number of flicks around a theme, from current film festivals to whatever is in the air. You know you've got the time.

Shark Week and Jaws Week! That’s almost too much excitement. I’d imagine you’ve all already gotten your Jaws Blu-ray and watched it about three times by now, and you should keep it going at least until Friday. However, I do feel obligated to point out that not all of the best shark-attack movies are feature films. There are a handful of really excellent shorts that play around with our ideas of this violent sea creature, both suspenseful and comic. Sharks have been popping up on the big screen for a long time, representing mankind’s fears since well before Steven Spielberg used them to create the American blockbuster.

Yet it’s also impossible to ignore the influence of Jaws on everything that has followed. Its extraordinary success not only altered the landscape of big-budget American filmmaking, but also landed the film itself into the pop culture pantheon. A single fin protruding from the surf or a brief musical quotation instantly brings it to mind, a touchstone that continues to be used by young filmmakers today. Moreover, its ubiquity creates opportunities for parody and irony that are just as rich as any direct homage. When this wealth of inspiration is added to the film’s stature as a masterwork of suspense, it is no surprise that its influence is so deeply felt in the American cinematic landscape.

Sharks as Comedy Before Jaws: Bee at the Beach, by Jack Hannah

The image of the lonely fin cruising through the water is an old one. This 1950 Donald Duck cartoon is an early example of the comedy that can be taken from the threat of a shark, well before it would be coupled with John Williams’ unforgettable two-note motif. This cartoon largely follows the standard Donald structure: Donald is having a nice time, suddenly gets interrupted by an unpleasant intrusion (the bee of the title), and becomes increasingly enraged to great comic effect. While the shark itself doesn’t show up until the climax, it is easily the best part. The beast here is actually a bit more anthropomorphic than would be the style after Jaws, though it is just as threatening.


The Jaws Shout-out: Charade, by Jon Minnis

Made in 1984, nine years after Jaws, this odd little Canadian short is an excellent example of how far the blockbuster has traveled in the public consciousness. A game of charades is being played between two on-screen figures and a group of silly offscreen voices. One of the performers is having an extraordinary amount of trouble getting the point across, despite how impossibly talented he is at the game (aided by animation, of course). The joke only works because Jaws is so familiar – watching this failed game of charades is hilarious because we can guess the film almost immediately. Jon Minnis’ little cartoon shows that by 1984 the Spielberg classic was easily just as recognizable as Dracula, in any context.


The Thrill: Flotsam/Jetsam, by David and Nathan Zellner

Spielberg’s contribution to the thriller genre goes beyond the surface-level recognition, of course. This brief maritime suspense film from the Zellner Brothers is very much part of the legacy of Jaws, despite its unassuming budget. The first half of Flotsam/Jetsam lulls the audience into complacency, wondering exactly what is going on. A man is simply floating in the ocean, shades of gray against a dark background. The scene approaches the absurd, evoking a quasi-existentialist banality. Then it jumps to video and everything is violently tossed forward. Color hits, the sound changes drastically, and we find ourselves in the familiar but still wrenching territory of the shark attack. This film is clearly indebted to many more works beyond Jaws, but it would be hard to avoid the most obvious comparison. Spielberg’s giant hit continues to splash into our mind’s eye as we watch new filmmakers struggle in the water.

Jaws in Real Life: Great White Hunters, by Gary Doust

What inspires someone to go fish for great white sharks? When asked, one of the hardy Australian hunters in this fun documentary short will tell you about growing up watching Jaws. And while it might be hard to believe that any of this crew is out on the beach solely due to one movie, I’d at least be willing to bet they’ve all seen it plenty of times. Director Gary Doust gives us seven minutes with this entertaining bunch, a group of local fishermen that play a dangerous catch-and-release game with the legendary fish. One of them surfs out with the bait, typically a large pile of smaller fish, and then heads back in before any shark decided to take a bit out of him instead. It’s risky but the reward is getting to see a real great white in the flesh. It must be a bit like living in the movie, your own Jaws moment tinged with a bit of Spielberg blockbuster magic.

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