Lost in the Movies: Jaws


Jaws, 1975, directed by Steven Spielberg

The Story: “Sharkkkkkkkk!!!!!!”

And yet it’s so much more than that. At its heart, of course, Jaws is a fantastic monster movie, a film that plays on fears – that employs Hitchcockian suspense and haunted house surprise to hold us in the grip of masterful entertainment. It has been blamed for a dumbing-down of movie audiences, an onslaught of blockbusters concerned only with reeling in adolescents, and a retreat from the edginess and depth of 70s cinema. Yet Jaws consistently holds human figures at its center – and not only because the mechanical creature malfunctioned through much of the production, while a 27-year-old newbie filmmaker, one Steven Spielberg, had to improvise shooting around it. At heart, Jaws is a story about people more than about a shark.

Jaws differs from present-day blockbusters in endless respects. Rather than saturating the screen with special effects it holds back; partly because of technical difficulties, partly because that's how one builds audience involvement and identification with the characters. Its protagonists are adults and have adult concerns (at least the men; there's one important female role, and she's largely sidelined) - protecting one's family, serving a professional duty, proving one's manhood (or subverting others' notions of such). The jokes cracked and silences brooded over are not those of cranky, narcissistic adolescents, as even middle-aged people in today's action films appear to be - they are the coping mechanisms of responsible grown-ups with a lot on their mind.

Most of all, Jaws is saturated with old-fashioned storytelling technique, a narrative skill the film helped revive in 1975 but which has fallen out of favor today - and not for a return to the oblique strategies of New Hollywood but rather for a virtual abandonment of storytelling altogether, a stringing-together of incident in a loose framework over the development of character and the rich rewards of structure. Meanwhile, within this controlled storytelling vernacular, Spielberg fills the screen with details - as with all his early films, little domestic incidents build, characters chat away in the backgrounds, sets are filled in with loving minutia.

One could get lost in these films, wander away from the sharks and aliens to listen to a locals' conversation, watch a child break the head off his sister's doll, or pay attention to the TV in the corner blaring clips from old movies, "Sesame Street," or early 80s commercials (to cite examples not only from Jaws, but also E.T. and Close Encounters). Backgrounds are not one-dimensional comic book panels meant to compound the artificiality of the world onscreen; they are living, breathing environments which pulsate with a sense of offscreen life. Always in Spielberg (especially young Spielberg) the fantastical is foregrounded in the mundane; and both achieve a transcendent power.

There's even a moment, amidst all the blood and gore, for familial tenderness: Chief Brody is brooding over a professional failure when he catches his young son mimicking his gestures - and he plays along before asking for a kiss. But that's about all you'll find of the trademark Spielberg sentimentality in this film. The first killing, however famous (a skinny-dipper is drowned and ripped apart by the hidden beast), is actually somewhat silly - it's iconic, yes, but it's also hard to believe that's a shark pulling her around under water. Far more gut-wrenching is the second death: a little boy swimming in the water on his yellow raft, until we catch a glimpse - just a glimpse - of some gray shape overturning him in the choppy surf.

The moment is horrific, and it's compounded not just by the brief shot of the boy being yanked under water in a stream of bubbles and blood, but by Spielberg's deft camerawork and editing. This is true both working up to the killing - the use of figures passing before the lens as a transitional device creates a sense of seamlessness and building anxiety in the cuts - and reacting to it - a Hitchcockian zoom (closing in on Brody's face while the beach stretches out behind him) is one of the most emotionally effective uses of the trick outside of the master's oeuvre. Most of all, the scene breaks the rules not just of most audience-pleasing films but of Spielberg's in particular (though at the time, audiences couldn't have known those particular rules; this is a rare case of later viewers being more shocked than the early ones).

The live audience at Wednesday's screening reacted with palpable horror to the second killing; whereas the first had generally evoked campy chuckles and gleeful fleeting anxiety. Suddenly there are moral stakes in the film - the slaughter of the innocent (and Brody's innocence) has its expected effect. And of course, the scene masterfully plays on the fears of audiences. It's one thing to see a young female victim (such a frequent staple of slasher films) dispatched in the dead of night, quite another to see a little boy slaughtered in the midst of a mass of swimmers, in broad daylight and - most terrifying of all - not very far from shore.

Surprisingly, this incident does not lead to the closing of the beaches and the recognition that costly steps must be taken to hunt down the animal (how could it - the movie's only just begun!). No, there must be another attack - this one on the Fourth of July, in which the shark trespasses even further, both geographically (swimming inland to a supposedly protected bay) and psychologically (now it's not just an anonymous child the shark's after, but Brody's son, who is boating in the inlet and, while spared by the Great White, is sent into shock). Here the movie shifts gears with a shot, seemingly from Brody's point of view, in which the camera peers out to sea, slowly pushing past the bridge which the shark passed beneath; having trespassed into Brody's territory, the shark has now dared the policeman to trespass into his. A new path has opened up, and it leads out to sea.

The "two films" aspect of Jaws has been noted before - how in the first half of the story the mayor with his very human follies is the antagonist; while in the second the shark itself is the direct enemy, accompanied at times by the Ahab-like Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) whose obsession with facing the creature on its own terms leads to virtual suicide. The first movie is very much twentieth-century, with the primordial beast swimming into the midst of a settled, comfortable, modern community - while the second half seems to regress to the nineteenth, with hardy men facing the elements, proving their worth in the wilderness, barely able to overcome the fury of God or Nature or the Shark.

Ironically, then, if the first half seems to reinforce conservative notions of the comfortable community, the male protector, and the threat from without (while coupling this with a liberal distrust of authority and a cynicism about the motives of self-interested businesspeople; this is an old-fashioned, pre-industrial sort of conservatism, if that), the second half has a more subversive take on old-fashioned values. This subversion is embodied not in Chief Brody nor in Captain Quint (except indirectly) but in Hooper, the marine biologist who is brainy, whose hands Quint calls "silly," and who has a quip for every putdown (most famously when he crumples up the styrofoam cup in response to Quint's crushing of the beer can).

Critic Pauline Kael noticed and celebrated the film's satirical approach towards masculinity in her 1975 review of the film - noting that Quint's demise is literally a castration by the shark. It certainly seems that Spielberg identified with Hooper and the actor who played him, Richard Dreyfuss - who took the starring role in Spielberg's next film, Close Encounters. Dreyfuss bears a physical resemblance to Spielberg (though the director would not grow his famous beard for about another decade), is the same age, and is Jewish (though it's unclear if his character is as well, given the WASP name). Hooper is richer and more educated than Spielberg was at the time - but he shares the director's assertiveness, his vast knowledge within a specific area of expertise, and most importantly, a sense of displacement within the surrounding crowd.

There must have been a hundred Quints not only on the set of Jaws but on all the television programs Spielberg directed in his meteoric rise through Universal in the early 70s. Crew members with decades of experience under their belt, highly skeptical of this whiz kid with his grand ideas and brainy approach (John Baxter's unauthorized biography relates Spielberg's struggles with old-school, entrenched Hollywood professionals). Brody, though ostensibly (and eventually) the main character, takes a back seat in many scenes on the boat, merely observing the conflict between Quint and Hooper. He's the Everyman in there for audience identification, but Spielberg seems infatuated with Hooper, to the point where, contrary to dramatic logic and, in fact, what actually happens in Peter Benchley's source novel (where Hooper is devoured in his shark cage, no less protected by science than Quint is by sea craft) Spielberg spares the young scientist and allows him to swim off with Brody in the end.

Still, if Quint is increasingly impotent and insane he's also charismatic as hell - and if Spielberg relates to Hooper and celebrates Brody as audience surrogate, he can't help but respect Quint's bravado too. Indeed, Hooper himself comes to fall under Quint's spell - when they get drunk and compare scars (Quint is suddenly sillier and Hooper more macho), their mutual bullheadedness has finally brought them together. It's in that scene that the old captain shares his harrowing memory of the U.S.S. Indianapolis - the ship which delivered the atom bomb, was sunk by a Japanese torpedo, and was then surrounded by hungry sharks for days before rescue arrives.

It's hard to imagine any contemporary summer popcorn thriller pausing the action this long for such a moody, historically-based, perfectly delivered monologue; when such a thing is attempted, it usually rings false - a forced moment in which the screenwriters try to pump life into their constructs. Here it's rich, absorbing, frightening - give Spielberg credit for shooting and editing it with such discipline, holding mostly to close-ups and medium close-ups of Robert Shaw's concentrated visage, but give credit also to John Milius for writing the damn thing. As the man responsible for Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning!"), Milius' fingerprints are all over the Indianapolis speech. The dark, grisly details, the stoic delivery, the vaguely jingoistic punchline ("Anyway - we delivered the Bomb.") - no small part of Spielberg's talent was knowing how to use the right collaboraters, and here it paid off in spades.

The speech is one more reminder that, Kael's eye for subversion aside, Quint is no mere object of ridicule. Spielberg must have a grudging admiration for the old loon. And here it's worth observing that there's another important division in the film. The first half, with its building of dread, its establishment of details only to subvert them, its tightly structured yet baroque use of technique, owes its aesthetic debt to Alfred Hitchcock. The second half, with its taut, clipped action and focus on the dynamics of men in groups, tussling, teasing, proving their worth is strongly evocative of Howard Hawks. If Jaws seems more doubtful about the efficacy of male groups or the achievements of bravado, it nonetheless recognizes the appeal of camaraderie and rivalry, and of the perpetual dance of male egos in their desire to get the job done.

Eventually, of course, the job gets done - but it's finished by Brody, a man on a sinking ship with a gun, alone, individual, delivered as much by luck as chutzpah. When the oxygen tank explodes - and with it our shark - it is somewhat improbable, but then so much is. Would the fish really attack the boat so cannily? Would Quint slip so easily into those titular "jaws"? Would the shark spare Brody's son? Would any Great White swim inland? Would thousands of people show up for an Independence Day on a beach where a boy had just been butchered? Spielberg, as always, does not try to convince us of realism in his fantastical scenarios; rather, he builds belief in the world surrounding these events - by attaching us to the characters and pulling us in through masterful manipulation of the medium, he is able to make us believe the improbable.

Richard Dreyfuss likes to tell the story of seeing Jaws with an audience for the first time: when the movie ended, they sat there silently. The credits rolled; no one made a peep. Uh-oh, Dreyfuss thought, what's going on here? Then, with the credits finally over, the audience burst into spontaneous applause which turned into a standing ovation.

Last night, the audience didn't wait until the credits were over - the applause was loud and immediate and had the ring of authentic satisfaction. Jaws is spectacle, but it's also story, and character - it's technique over gimmick and it mixes its iconic elements with minor details which surprise and delight when you notice them for the first time on the tenth viewing. It's full of humor - the audience laughed consistently throughout the night - and genuine shocks and suspense. It's a classic, a great film, and above all - a movie. Not all films need be like this. The art form is rich with possibilities - and some are more esoteric, more challenging, more obscure, though no less satisfying once their secret is tapped. Yet there's something to be said for a movie which can excite with intelligence and skill, which can take adult elements and fuse them with a childlike wonder with the magic onscreen.

I wish there were more movies like that.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. Comments appeared on Wonders in the Dark, where the piece was linked in the summer of 2009.


STinG said...

I think out of all your posts I've read thus far, this is my absolute favorite. I've been meaning to make my own review for Jaws one of these days, as its a favorite of mine. One of those rare movies I owe my introduction to by my non-cinephile younger brother, who went through a marine biology phase where he loved learning about sharks and other marine life (my baby sister went through the same phase... I think I missed the memo) - it's usually me introducing him to movies he loves (Stop Making Sense, The Big Lebowski, Brick, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Reservoir Dogs, etc). Anyway, I was too scared to watch with him and my mom when I was little - it was one of the few moments a child STinG would rather do homework than watch a movie! - and outright refused to go on the Universal Studios Florida ride with my family. Later on, I got into it with my brother and it grew on me throughout these years. I never get tired of this movie.

I love that you mention the movie is more about people than a shark. To me, Jaws is as much about a shark as Twin Peaks is about a murder. It's really about a community that the audience (and outsider protagonist - Hooper and Cooper (haha, that rhymed!)) integrated themselves along with for the majority of the experience. There is a rich amount of characters I love in Jaws, even characters I love to hate like the Mayor. Of course, Hooper, Quint and the Shark take the cake with the characters I love watching the most.

One definitive shot I find harder and harder to watch everytime I see the movie is right after the attack near Brody's elder son. As Brody retrieves the boy and reveals that he's fine and 'in shock' rather than dead, you see the younger son, who was just playing in the sand a minute ago, crying uncontrollably because, even as young as he was, he thought he was probably going to lose his older brother. I can't specifically call out why it gets to me just yet, but it definitely sobers me up for the following sequence where I side along Brody as he pressures the Mayor to hire Quint. No more playing around.

Anyway, really great analysis and post, I love reading your stuff, man.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks so much, Sting - and I love the fact that you're exploring (and commenting on) pieces from the archive, which I don't like to see as an archive at all (one reason for that new slider, which makes the page difficult to load but serves the purpose of highlighting older pieces). I hope you continue to do so.

Love the Jaws/TP comparison (btw, while you're checking out my backlog, you may enjoy my Peaks series, if you haven't seen it already - I covered every episode through the death of Laura's killer, and then skipped to the finale because the rest of Season 2 sucked so much). You're dead-on: both are about communities threatened by the alien Other. It's interesting that in Lynch's case, the hero himself is a quirky outsider whereas with Spielberg it's someone with one foot outside, one foot in (Brody is the only one who truly belongs to the community - Hooper's a visitor and Quint is the consummate individualist - but even Brody is a newbie landlubber and not really one of the locals). Even though we sense it's Hooper he sympathizes with most deeply.

By the way, the comments here are sparse but the piece originally appeared on another site (the Examiner for Boston) and was linked on yet a third, where it received a number of comments (and remains, I think, my most popular piece on Wonders in the Dark).

You might enjoy reading the discussions that arose:


STinG said...

Well, not so much archiving as I'm new to your blog and immediately fell in love with it so much to start getting back on my own blogging.

And yea, I'm about halfway through your Twin Peaks works. Very nice.

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