Continuing to Play the Classics in Theaters Keeps Movies Alive: A Tale of Grandmas, ‘Jaws’ and Ben Gardner’s Head

by | Sep 6, 2022


One of my favorite stories my grandmother has ever told me involved Ben Gardner’s head. It was the summer of 1975, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had just opened up at the now-defunct Belle Meade Theater in Nashville, Tennessee. My grandfather had gotten tickets for an opening night show, but he and my grandmother got to the theater just before it started, essentially. So, the only seats that were open were on the front row of the theater.

If you’ve seen Jaws, you know what happens when Hooper goes diving to see what’s happened to Ben Gardner’s boat. His decapitated head pops out of the bottom of the ship, spooking Hooper and everyone in the audience with one of cinema’s greatest jump scares. In 1975, my poor grandmother wasn’t ready for Ben Gardner’s head to pop out of the boat. She was on the front row of the theater, having one of the biggest scares in cinema fall right into her lap when she least expected it. It was a shriek that has lasted generations beyond that fateful front-row seat, one of those stories I heard time and time growing up from one of the people responsible for me ever loving movies in the first place.

Jaws is obviously a masterpiece, the triumphant arrival of a generational talent and the film that has scared people out of the ocean for nearly 50 years. It was the film that changed the way we experience movies during the summertime, but also one of those definitive classics that gets passed down from grandmother to grandson, that bridges one person’s wild night at the movies into one person’s lifetime of love for cinema.

My grandmother and I have watched Jaws together twice in the past, once during my sophomore year of college for my first viewing, again during the opening months of the pandemic on a movie night that we didn’t get to have nearly as often because of quarantine. Both viewings were obviously special, a way for us to connect over a movie that we now both love. It’s also an excuse to hear her tell that story again, and of the time that she read my uncle the Jaws novel in an entire night when he was young and sick with a fever.

I’ve always wanted to watch it with her in a theater, preferably on the front row. Thanks to the 3D reissue that’s just opened for about a week in theaters, we both got to set sail for the local theater and experience it on the big screen together. The 3D looked fantastic, and the movie, of course, plays best on the biggest screen possible, like all of Spielberg’s best films. Though, as great as it was to see Jaws in a theater, it was even better to look over and see my grandma close her eyes for the big Ben Gardner jump scare. We were pretty close to the screen, and all these years later, she wasn’t about to make the same mistake again.

My grandma and I have always loved watching monster movies together (well, at least when I started being willing to watch monster movies). We’ve seen all of the new Jurassic World films together in a theater (she’s been a huge fan of all three), saw the crocodile thriller Crawl in 2019. and most recently, caught Nope, Beast and, you guessed it, Jaws 3D (no, not that one, though my grandma loves that one, too). It’s admittedly a weird thing for a grandmother and grandson to bond over, but what can you say, the woman loves seeing big monsters chase actors on the big screen, preferably if they’re dinosaurs directed by Steven Spielberg (or someone Spielberg-adjacent).

A 30-year love affair with movies on my end isn’t possible without my grandmother fueling it while I grew up. The first movie I remember going to see with her is Toy Story, and this summer, I got the chance to take her to see it on a large screen with the Nashville Symphony. Now, I got to take her to see Jaws, severed head jump scare and all. If it’s not for the beauty of reparatory screenings, of being able to pass down the great films to a new generation in the way they’re meant to be seen, these precious memories wouldn’t have been possible. If my grandma hadn’t had the foresight to get me into some of the great movies, would I even be typing any of this out? If she hadn’t been able to take in some of the greatest films of her time on the big screen, would she even have wanted to share them with me in the first place?

Reparatory film screenings keep cinema alive. Having just been able to relive a few of the Star Wars films on the big screen courtesy of Nashville’s premiere theater The Belcourt, it’s easy to vouch for why the theatrical experience is so vital for cinema’s survival. While, sure, people pile on Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, most of those people had no idea what it meant to a certain seven-year-old who watched his imagination explode and expand as a new saga got introduced to a new generation. It’s trite to say that experiencing something nostalgic makes you feel like a kid again, but seeing a podrace and the “Duel of the Fates” lightsaber clash in a theater again … it just does something that even the best 2022 movie won’t be able to do. It reignites in you the passions that got you here, that made you want to write about films in the first place. If we don’t have a way to relive and pass down those generational films on the big screen, the ones we notch on our cinematic growth charts and cherish with everything we have in us, how will we be able to see the medium survive what seems to be a tumultuous period in its history?

Star Wars is an easy one to point to; I remember fondly being able to see The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi as a youngster just getting into that galaxy far, far away. I remember being able to check out the Toy Story films in 3D re-releases, as well as other Disney/Pixar films that got the extra-dimensional treatment. I can’t tell you how many classic films I’ve been able to fall in love with in repertory screenings, everything from Out of the Past to A Face in the Crowd. Just this summer, I checked out Lawrence of Arabia for the first time in a theater after years of waiting for the right chance to do so.

Seeing classic movies in a theater is just the best way to do them. For a wide audience that may not be spoiled with one of the best rep houses in the country in their backyard, reissues are the best way to take them in. Yes, that at times takes a remaster (see The Matrix being re-released for its 20th anniversary in Dolby back in 2019), or a 3D remaster. Or, like with Avatar‘s pending remastered release, a way to prep audiences for a long-anticipated sequel. The great movies take shape over time, lightning rods that strike at the right moment and light the way for generations to come. Studios should continue, if not increase, the habit of putting the great movies back in theaters on a grand scale. It’s going to prove more and more important in the years ahead that this practice continues, to keep a new generation of kids falling in love with theaters at a time where the future of the moviegoing experience is, in some ways, in question.

At the screenings of Jaws in 3D my grandma and I attended, I saw a kid with his grandpa taking in the movie, perhaps for the first time. While, sure, that is one cool grandpa, it’s also an example of that generational bridge. While the new generation absolutely deserves a chance to meet film on their own terms, to cheer for Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Blue the Velociraptor, there is power in kids and adults being able to love the same movies on the big screen. I haven’t a clue if that one kid’s granddad is super into the Avengers, but I know for sure they were both geeking out over Jaws during the screening. Maybe that will make that kid want to come back to the movies, and will spark his granddad to take him. That’s the point.

There are so many other films that continue to link generations, from The Wizard of Oz to Raiders of the Lost Ark. With Indiana Jones jumping back in the saddle next summer, it’s easy to imagine the Indiana Jones movies swinging back into theaters, either via 3D conversion or in a premium format like IMAX or Dolby. Honestly, we should root for it. That big boulder chasing Harrison Ford is another example of a movie moment that’s spanned generations, with young and seasoned moviegoers alike all able to enjoy Dr. Jones and his famed adventures together in a theater.

As people fret about a new generation spending more time on TikTok than in a theater, I invite you to look at the success of a movie like Top Gun: Maverick. 2022’s cultural and box office behemoth is the perfect example of a movie that appeals to all ages, and can you imagine how cool it would be for Paramount to pop Top Gun into theaters for a rerelease for those who haven’t ever seen it that way, riding on the sequel’s runaway success? It’d be yet another vessel for mom and dad to bond with their kids over a movie they loved when they grew up, a bond that can span well past the closing credits.

It’s wonderful that we get a wide array of films. I’m as excited for the new Todd Field and Darren Aronofsky films as the next guy. But, y’know, I’m just as excited for when my rep house will next play a movie I loved when I grew up, or for any theater to play a classic movie my grandma and I love to watch together. The biggest films, at times, get taken for granted, cast aside for commercial success and wide recognition. Though, as much as I love a great art house film, it’s the big kids on the block that keep the medium alive. We’ve got so many great films that have stood the test of time, so many films that link generations together and help inspire new generations of film fans. The practice of reissues should continue to become a necessity in Hollywood.  Besides the latest blockbuster, playing the hits one of the safest ways for getting families to go to the movies together, to keep the flame of film love alive for a new generation of moviegoers.

Finally getting to see Jaws in a theater with my grandma was a joy, but it also underscores why I even love movies in the first place. I love them because someone loved them before me, and because that person passed that love down to me when I was just a boy. Whether it’s E.T., Roger Rabbit, Dorothy, Marty McFly, Dory, or Quint, Hooper and Brody, the classics keep us loving the same movies together. Continue to release those in theaters, and you’ll continue to see the movies live on. You really will need a bigger boat.