Jaws (1975)

Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw

Watching Jaws now is like speaking to an oracle. One sees Spielberg the marvelous technical filmmaker with a strong sense of how the Weird sidles up to the Everyman: the shark is the vision of Devil’s Tower, the coming of E.T., the opening of the Ark of the Covenant, the deus ex T-rex. One also sees in this Spielberg a total inability to get out of his own way. The scene where we dolly zoom on Brody (Scheider) as he watches the shark just obliterate a boy on a blow-up raft is really something special. All of it is a testament to Scheider’s enormous and well-deserved anxiety; he hears a girl scream and sees a boy lifting his girlfriend out of the water. A guy is playing fetch with his lab but all of a sudden can’t find the dog. In much the same way, the boy’s mother looks around for her son—everyone else’s child is already with his own mother—and it’s clear that Alex is going to be digested this evening rather than grousing over his vegetables. Later on in the movie, the woman comes up to Brody. “Chief Brody?” she asks. She’s wearing a mourning get-up that Victoria post-Albert would have thought was a touch excessive. Brody assents and she, frankly, clubs him. She gives him hell for letting people swim on that beach when he knew there was a shark out there. In these moments, Spielberg is the world’s worst gladiator, capable of spearing every viewer in the house with his trident but following it up by tripping over his own net. The world of Jaws is split into bold doers, crooked politicians, horny teens, bereaved mothers, and endangered puppies: water, water everywhere, and not a drop of irony. The first half of Jaws is a monster movie of the week with that one good aforementioned scene in it; the movie is saved by getting on the Orca, where there are no chalkboards for Quint (Shaw) to run his fingernails down.

In a movie where the shark has been subjected to just about every symbolic meaning that people can think up, the destruction of the Orca seems like an equally likely symbol and perhaps a more interesting one. (Coming up with a symbol for Bruce before the Orca is putting the shark before the boat, to coin a phrase.) There’s more to work with from the perspective of the three men on the boat, who lend their own heterogeneity to the craft. They are a casserole of coastal Yankee life: a rich college boy whose education gives him the license, so he thinks, to sneer at the rubes—the middle-class avatar of law and order with a family back home—the unspooled proletarian war vet who is, of course, the arbiter of what is wise in these dangerous times. The Orca is a zoo of white American manhood, all of it a little dusty from lack of recent use and requiring some practice to put it back into working use. Nor should it be surprising that, in Spielberg’s cosmology, the reluctant middle-class one is the hero who wins the day. The rich man, who has arrogantly said all along that he has the answer to killing the shark, is nearly eaten when his harpoon is blasted out of his hand when the shark collides with the flimsy cage protecting him. The working man, whose expertise has kept them afloat and whose recklessness has all but destroyed his most prized possession, is gorily sacrificed. The holding pen for all these statements about class ends up on the ocean floor; in terms of sheer destruction if not in actual politics, Spielberg has presented a hazily chiliastic vision of the world. The rich man and the middle-class one swim to shore, raising themselves up onto the sand as the credits roll in front of them. (It’s a surprisingly tempered ending for a movie which maintains tension on a few different fronts for the past hour or so.) Losing the Orca, the place which previously held together the uneasy detente between the classes, does not seem to faze the two men who are just happy to be alive.

There’s no plan for what will come after they attain the heaven of dry land, no sense of what will hold the uneasy peace of society. If Jaws is an allegory for anything, it’s not Watergate—the presence of Murray Hamilton’s crooked mayor is as fleshed out and meaningful as that teary mother of a dead son—but World War II. Spielberg is not known for having his eye on the present, and although he hadn’t made any of them yet, there are no fewer than six World War II movies to come in Spielberg’s oeuvre(*). The shark is Nazism (or totalitarianism, maybe…broader is better for a shark, yeah?), a hungry and mindless beast which can’t be reasoned with and must be destroyed. The middle-class turns into saviors and will presumably be hailed as heroes when they come home. No one has any idea what to do with the underclasses; African-Americans fought in the war, and plenty of dirt-poor folks did too, but it’s not as if they get the glory in September 1945.

(*) 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan

Among Spielberg’s movies, Jaws is probably second only to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I don’t think the two of them are terribly far away from one another. Raiders doesn’t ever really get a handle on what it should be doing in scenes which are neither strictly exposition nor Indiana Jones spraypainting his mouth before jumping onto a U-boat with an exploding spear, and Jaws manages to figure out how to be reflective in the midst of all of its action. The Indianapolis scene is famous just on its own as the kind of scene that people like Quentin Tarantino might salivate over later on; as a scene in context, in which Quint rehashes a harrowing experience that might very well come true for the men of the Orca, I think it’s stunning. There’s more dread in that scene, where Robert Shaw smiles toothily and bespectacled bearded Richard Dreyfuss looks on, than there is in any of those scenes featuring yellow barrels with a weirdly chirpy score bouncing over them. The stakes of the movie change in that scene. It’s not about saving this podunk shore town from financial ruin. Now it’s about survival for the three men out on this boat that gets smaller and smaller all the time.

Jaws is not like Hitchcock, which is an oft-repeated falsehood; I just don’t think you can adequately compare sinister people (Norman Bates, Lars Thorwald, especially Scottie Ferguson) to a shark, even a terribly dangerous one. Certainly there’s no person in the movie charismatic enough to take that role or, indeed, to dethrone the shark. But Spielberg does what he can with the shark to make it more than just a shark. Size helps. The fact that it is almost entirely silent, and that its only noises are the noises of ropes slithering and barrels popping out of the water and the Orca crumbling is a strong touch. (Knowing that the sharks they used were about as reliable as Lane Pryce’s Jaguar makes the fact that Spielberg got usable footage out of those things makes the shots of the shark even more remarkable.) Quint mentions the darkness in the eyes of a shark at one point, and the shark doesn’t disappoint when we do see the blacks of his eyes. There’s nothing back there; whatever personhood this shark has is in his magnificent relentlessness and his striking intelligence and not in his appearance. The Moby-Dick comparisons are wrong, too—they act like a big neon sign saying “I’VE NEVER READ MOBY-DICK“—but there is at least one description of the white whale which the shark makes halfway to. Ahab says that the whale represents an “inscrutable malice.” One can scrute the malice of this shark well enough, but there’s no doubt that there’s more evil than nature in him. The eye he has for the weak and unsuspecting is only natural, but it’s the insatiable hunger which makes him evil; there’s no sense in how much he has to consume, and for that reason there’s no sense in hoping that he’ll recede back into the Atlantic. The brilliance of Jaws is in its understanding of old-fashioned single combat, and how it understands that it can still be “us against them” even if there are only four people involved in the battle.

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