Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Jaws

I saw Jaws for the first time this summer in Bryant Park. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before; I was certainly familiar with some of the imagery and that unforgettable theme music, but I’d just never actually sat down to watch the movie.

The setting seemed appropriate. I’d never seen the Bryant Park lawn so crowded; I sat among a veritable sea of humanity. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the shark might be in our very midst, gliding between the picnic blankets, waiting to time its attacks to coincide with the theme music’s crescendos.

My first surprise came, however, not as a shark attack but rather in the form of the opening credits; I’d forgotten that Steven Spielberg was the director. I didn’t think he could direct a movie like this, something that I’d always understood to be so unsentimental and nihilistic. To me, Spielberg had always represented something moral and family oriented – after all, his favorite swear word, according to his interview on Inside the Actors’ Studio, is “rats!” – and that has its place, but not in a shark movie. I didn’t want to see the shark cast as an embodiment of evil, I didn’t want its hunters to be brave and romantic heroes, and I didn’t want anybody to learn a valuable lesson from the experience. I was sitting under the stars at the bottom of a concrete canyon, illegally and unrepentantly drinking alcohol in a public place; I wanted a fight and I wanted a good one.

Fortunately, the first scene quickly reveals the nature of the film. Jaws – a word that remains thankfully absent from the actual dialogue of the film – is not about good versus evil, but rather about survival and self-interest. The shark is just out for a meal and poor Chrissie Watkins, the shark’s first victim, is just out for a swim at the wrong place at the wrong time.


At first glance, however, it seems that the film, by offering up a young girl of possibly loose morals as first blood, might be operating by the scary movie survival rules offered up by Scream, Wes Craven’s unironic sendup of the horror genre. If you drink, do drugs, have sex, or engage in any other sort of morally dubious behavior, the killer will surely get you before the movie's end.

Thankfully, the shark is not some sort of violent agent of morality punishing those who engage in underage drinking and hint at the possibility of anonymous premarital sex; as smartass Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) later explains, the shark is merely “a perfect engine, an eating machine that is a miracle of evolution: it swims and eats and makes little baby sharks, that’s all.” Just as happy devouring an innocent young boy as it is mauling an ostensibly degenerate teenager, the shark is the perfect embodiment of the dispassion of Nature. Survival is the one and only driving force in this movie.

Even the short-sighted Mayor of Amity is fighting for survival in his own way. At first he is unforgiveable for trying to keep the news of the shark under wraps in order to save the town's tourist season - we seem him as the embodiment of thoughtless greed, needlessly endangering his constituents' lives - but gradually we understand that he's just scared and doesn't know what else to do. When he finally breaks down and concedes to Brody's demands to shut down the beach, it becomes clear that, just like everyone else, all he's trying to do is stay alive.

This bare bones approach to the narrative – embodied by the vast emptiness of the open ocean and the long, slow build-up to the film’s climax – forces the characters to remain just as precisely focused as the character of the shark itself; they are no more than they need to be. The backstories behind Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), Quint (Robert Shaw), and Matt Hooper remain stoically in the past, allowing them to travel without little to no emotional baggage. Each of them is really only a scattered sketch of a character – a walking connection of a few loose traits – and the less human they are, the more effective they are against the emotionless persistence of the shark. As such, Brody, the vaguest of the characters, turns out to be the film’s true hero. Although he is the least nautically capable – and seemingly the most fearful – of the three, he remains the least emotive and is thus the most fitting shark hunter. As Quint and Hooper all-too-humanly compete with one another, Brody pensively recedes into the scenery, only to move into the foreground when true conflict arrives.

This is not to say that Scheider’s characterization of Brody is entirely flat. His behavior speaks volumes, or, rather, hints at volumes, because vocally he reveals next to nothing. Apart from the fact that he’s from New York City, the only clear facts about the man are his roles in society – husband, father, chief of police – and his fear of water. His mannerisms, gestures, and facial expressions, however, belie his reticence and suggest a far more interesting history than he’s willing to admit to.

At no point is this fact more clear than during the dinner scene when Quint and Hooper compare battlescars, trying to outdo one another with their tales of injury on the high seas. Quint and Hooper sit next to each other, facing the camera. During the meal, Brody sits with them, but as this conversation takes its grip on the other two, he rises and moves to the other side of the table, aligning his perspective with that of the camera. By physically removing himself from the conversation, he takes his own past out from under the lens of scrutiny while installing himself in the position of passive inquisitor. At one discrete moment, however, he briefly considers entering the conversation. As the other two joke about their old injuries, the camera cuts to a three-quarter shot of Brody, quietly standing unnoticed before them. He looks down at his body and his hand lingers over his midsection, pensively tugging at his shirt, as if about to reveal a scar on his abdomen and tell a story of his own – perhaps one that would explain his fear of the ocean – but he stops himself, his reticence winning out against his empathetic impulses.

Meanwhile, the competitive edge in the conversation finally takes hold and Quint decides to trump Hooper with an actual war story. Whereas before they merely point out scars and offer a brief description of the time and circumstance of the injury, this time Quint launches into a story – full with descriptive detail – in which he personally receives no physical injury. He recounts his World War II service on the U.S.S. Indianapolis, whose crew, after the ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo attack, was decimated by sharks. The story, which, purportedly, Robert Shaw wrote himself, details a defining moment in Quint’s life: a moment of horror, trauma, and grief. This short story reveals his greatest fears and hatreds, everything that his façade of a salty old seadog attempts to hide. With his simple and seemingly innocuous oath “I’ll never put on a lifejacket again,” Quint reveals his vulnerable emotional core. Although, with this story, he wins his competition with Hooper, he does so at the price of revealing too much of himself in the process.

We now see that, rather than an apathetic seaman who just makes his living by killing sharks, Quint is a Captain Ahab; his is not a mission of survival or duty, but one of hatred, and the movie punishes him for it. He dies fighting – and admirably so, stabbing the shark until his very last breath – but, in the logic of the movie, he is weak and his death is not an event to be mourned. Hooper similarly reveals his humanity, but his is not a fatal error; the injuries he reveals do not go below the surface and his interest in sharks is purely an academic fascination. His offerings do not condemn him to death, but they do disqualify him from any act of heroism and, as such, during the final battle he hides underwater in his scuba gear. Only Brody, who minimizes his personality and who can’t help but seem small in the film’s widescreen cinematography, is truly capable of defeating the shark because he is just as dispassionate as the shark itself.

Brody represents a watershed moment of transition in the popular American conception of masculinity. 1975, the year of the film’s release, was the dawn of the era of the sensitive male. As such, this period’s collection of popular movies, in terms of the male protagonists they showcased, teetered between the more traditional depiction of the strong, independent male and this newer, more sentimental image. More often than not, a movie from this time period depicted one extreme (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) or the other (Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer). Scheider’s Martin Brody, however, represents a middle ground between the two; he does not wear his emotions on his sleeve, but he doesn’t pretend not to have any either. He is the man for the moment who knows how to survive in his time and place and, appropriately enough, in his final showdown with the shark he makes his first serious display of emotion and, in the film’s first stab at anthropomorphism, encourages the shark to do the same: “Smile, you son of a bitch.”

And as the shark exploded, a cheer went up across the lawn. We weren’t glad that the shark was dead; we were glad that our hero – who, for all intents and purposes, was us – survived. The final shot of Hooper and Brady kicking their way slowly towards shore - clearly a quote of the final shot of Casablanca - reveals that, like Hooper, Brody is a person who has emotions and a sense of humor, but, like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, he is nonetheless aware that survival sometimes requires the suppression of emotion. Here, Spielberg hints at the complexity inherent in the relationship between survival and emotion: a complexity he all but brushes off in this austere survival film, but one that he goes on to confront in later, more sentimental films like Schindler’s List.

Upon the close of the film, I regretted the apprehension I initially felt upon seeing Spielberg’s name in the opening credits. Watching Jaws, his first major work, gave me a clearer impression of the arc of the director’s career, adding a certain cogency to the films of his I’d already seen and enjoyed and allowing me to forgive some of his more recent missteps. When I first began watching movies, Spielberg was already an established influence on the scene and I took his presence for granted. Now, having seen where he began and the immense potential he displayed in a setting that seems so minimalist compared to his later works, I finally understand how he got to where he is today.

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