Scaly Monsters and Super Streeps

Blame in on Bruce. If it wasn’t for that pesky mechanical shark from Jaws I wouldn’t have gone down the rabbit hole that is Fish Films.

No, it’s not a strand of movies you’ll find on Amazon Prime or a pop-up on Netflix, where unfathomable algorithms mean you get such bafflements as “Because you watched Legally Blonde…” followed by the poster for The Silence of the Lambs.

Instead, it’s a self-created and self-curated watchlist that has so far seen me notch up 17 entries on the Letterboxd app.

Said app is great for movie obsessives, especially ones like me who watch films over and over again. It lets you clock everything you’ve viewed as log entries, with the date of viewing, star ratings and self-named lists, not to mention links to other user reviews which veer from the deeply profound to the misguidedly plebeian.

Since signing up in January 2019 I’ve logged more than 850 entries - less than 50 of which are repeat watches, some of which are Netflix specials, Victoria Wood stand-up videos or Barbra Streisand concert DVDs but most of which are feature films - and two thirds of which have kept me sofa-bound during various lockdowns and tiers.

I’ve become a one-man National Film Theatre and I’ve delighted in curating seasons featuring favourite performers, directors and themes. I’ve also delighted in giving them snappy names, for example:

  • The Streisand Schlepp

  • Pfeiffer Fest

  • A Glut of Glenns (yes, even Albert Nobbs)

  • Simon Says (as in Neil Simon)

  • Madonna Movies (OK, so that one’s pretty mundane but then so are most of the movies Madge has appeared in)

  • A Clutch of Coppolas

  • A Lot of Leonardo

  • De Palma Rama

  • Carry On Watching

The latter, I admit, is a lame pun, though not unworthy of a series that plumbed the glorious depths of crass, end-of-the-pier humour and traded in entendres that were often so obvious they were single rather than double ones.

Woke folk may dismay over such things, but not me. The best ones, like Carry On Abroad and Carry On Camping and Carry On Cleo and of course the masterpiece that is Carry On Screaming, still have me in stitches - political correctness and outdated attitudes be damned. Sometimes you just need a good laugh, right?

I expect similar flack for saying that I still love a good Woody. As in Allen. As in arguably the greatest writer-director in the history of American cinema. And certainly, at his best, one of the funniest.

My Wealth of Woodys season, which I started last April and have just completed ten months later, took in nearly 50 films - from the sublime Annie Hall to the ridiculous Scoop via wonderful little vignettes like The Purple Rose of Cairo, late-career gems like Midnight in Paris, lesser-knowns like Deconstructing Harry and the “early, funny ones” so beloved by the aliens in Stardust Memories. I mean, has there ever been a more fall-off-the-sofa-hilarious run of comedies than Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death? Sandwiched in there somewhere is Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), a portmanteau which isn’t quite up to par but has some genius moments, and Play It Again, Sam, which Woody didn’t helm but wrote and starred in and which is a classic side-splitter.

Revisionists take issue with Manhattan these days. Hailed as a masterwork when it came out in 1979, it is now pinned as problematic because of the romantic relationship between Woody’s forty-something writer Isaac and Mariel Hemingway’s 17-year-old student Tracy. There are, some say with hindsight, creepy echoes of Allen’s own relationship with 35-years-younger wife Soon-Yi but the muddy waters of his private life, awash with so many contradictory versions of events, are something I'm not qualified to dive into.

I’d rather deep-dive into his work and, for the record, I’d venture Manhattan is as masterfully done as any of his motion pictures. Oh, those widescreen vistas of New York! That iconic poster image of Allen’s Isaac and Diane Keaton’s Mary (and dog Waffles) silhouetted on a bench next to the Queensboro Bridge! So many great lines, like “I finally had an orgasm and the doctor said it was the wrong kind” and “Your self-esteem is a notch below Kafka’s”! And that swoon-worthy Gershwin score! A candidate for Mary’s ‘Academy of the Overrated’ Manhattan most certainly is not.

Why, you may wonder, has it taken me ten months to watch all those Woodys when there have been three lockdowns and several socially-restrictive tier systems? Because my home cinema is a multiplex with several seasons running simultaneously.

Sometimes they dovetail, such as when I got to Manhattan during both A Wealth of Woodys and my ongoing Meryl Marathon. It was Streep’s third big screen outing and she’s made 70-plus of em since, so I’ve really set myself a challenge with that one. I’m also working through the best Hammer Horror movies and am itching to have A Crack at Cronenberg, so that should keep me busy for the next few uncertain months.

Which brings me to Fish Films.

This one is proving to be a lot of fun and it all began when I read a book about the making of Jaws and had a craving to rewatch the carnivorous rampagings of mechanical shark Bruce for the umpteenth time.

I remember the first time I saw Spielberg’s scaly monster movie, at the ABC in Nottingham during its initial summer 1975 run. I was hooked, lined and sinker-ed by it - perched on the edge of my seat, an excitable and petrified 12-year-old, with no parent or guardian’s hand to hold because a) that wouldn’t have been cool and b) for some inexplicable reason this truly terrifying fish flick had an ‘A’ certificate, not an ‘X’.

That bit where the severed head fell out of Ben Gardner’s chewed-up boat? I jumped so violently that I upended my box of Maltesers, sending them skittering down the aisle much to the tension-diffusing laughter of the audience.

When I got home, I kid you not, I was so afraid of water and what might be lurking in it that I was scared to sit on the loo or take a bath.

Jaws holds up brilliantly 45 years later and I reckon I’ve watched it at least 30 times. (My record for repeat viewings, in case you’re interested, goes to Carrie - which I must have re-viewed 50-plus times since I lied my way into Nottingham’s Savoy Cinema as a 14-year-old in defiance of its ‘X’ rating.)

I also really like Jaws 2 so it was a pleasure going back to that. Jaws 3? Not so much. And Jaws The Revenge? Who on earth greenlit a script in which a shark with a grudge tracks Lorraine Gary’s Ellen Brody to the Bahamas, eats a helicopter but not her awful hairdo? Ah yes, that would have been Lorraine’s husband and Universal Studios CEO Sid Sheinberg.

Four Jaws flicks set me on course for more seafaring adventures.

The best? The Big Blue, which has lots of loveable dolphins, Rossana Arquette at her most likeably scatty and the dreamy Jean-Marc Barr in not many clothes.

The most fun? Deep Blue Sea, if only to witness Samuel L. Jackson become monster munch midway through a speech.

The most tenuous? Dead Calm, since Billy Zane's psychopath is a man, not a fish, although he’s as slimy as one.

The worst? Some would say the Sharknado series, but they fall into the so-bad-they’re-good category. So the honour goes to Orca, the dreary killer whale saga enlivened only by the scene in which Bo Derek gets her leg bitten off.

Now if I could just think of a way to tie Fish Films in with the Meryl Marathon.

Wait, I’ve got it: The River Wild. I haven't seen it for many years so I’ll have to report back on whether or not actual fish feature in prominent roles but it’s set on the Salmon River and I remember Kevin Bacon being every bit as slimy in it as Billy in Dead Calm.

Plus it could lead to a whole new season: A Batch Of Bacon. That one's sure to be a real sizzler.

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