That thing under the surface tells us a lot about ourselves
If you want to evoke the best and worst in men, just add sharks.
I saw JAWS the summer it opened. I was nine, nursing a broken wrist and an ugly crosshatch of stitches on my upper lip. We were visiting my grandparents on the North Shore of Boston, escaping the stifle of Manhattan. But more than the heat, I was glad to be free of the schoolyard bullies who, though all my age, managed to bring out the bawling baby in me.
My dad took me to a little theater in Swampscott — a movie house so close to the ocean you could smell the seaweed during the opening credits. Touring the depths surrounding Amity Island from a first-person (first-shark?) perspective ignited my senses. The opening scene involving a skinny-dip-turned-pitch-black-shark-attack frayed my little nerves. Everything about this film was beyond my experience: nudity, carnage, a grown man vomiting, all in the first five minutes, all with my father beside me. Electric.
This isn’t a movie for kids, I thought, feeling less defeated by my scars, proud that my dad had seen fit to buy me a ticket. This is a movie for men.
It is also turned out to be a movie about men: three of them, triangulating the murky map of manliness.
Brody. Hooper. Quint.
Heart. Brain. Body.
Throughout the film I found myself placing my trust in one or the other, trying to identify which encoded traits could defeat the fury of that shark (and maybe steel me for the inevitable return to the savage blacktop of PS87).
From the get-go, it seemed logical to put my faith in Chief Brody: a fearless city cop transplanted to a sleepy vacation island, ready to relax at last.
“Be careful,” his wife says as he heads off to work.
“Here? You gotta be kidding.”
Except Roy Scheider’s everyman police chief is, quite literally, afraid of everything around him — living on an island yet terrified of the water.
I saw early on that Brody was the feeling edge of the man-triangle in JAWS. While he never speaks of his fears openly, they are on full display and these grownup aversions and phobias unnerved me almost as much as the shark in the water.
“We know all about you, Chief,” a swim-capped codger grins as he wipes down his jiggly manboobs after a dip in the ocean. “You don’t go in the water at all, do ya?”
The only response Brody can muster? “That’s some bad hat, Harry,” moving sideways to resume his watch on the water where he just granted his kids permission to swim, and where the most horrific child-death is about to erupt.
We spent this morning at Preston beach in Marblehead,I thought, watching the daylight nightmare unfold. I searched for sea anemone in the sparkling tidepools, and let the waves plow me into the dense soft sand. Again and again, into the water. That boy on the yellow air mattress? That could be me, disappearing in a briny blood geyser.
Did I make a sound? A whimper? My father propped his feet on the seats in front of us, settling in. My legs weren’t long enough, so I propped myself against him, letting him be chief and captain for this voyage.
And there is Brody, taking charge, but unable tread into the waves beyond his ankles.
At dinner, consumed by his failure to prevent a literal bloodbath, Brody faces his own son wearily.
“C’mere and give Daddy a kiss,” he says to little Sean.
”Why?” the boy asks.
“Because he needs it.”
It was a surprisingly intimate and vulnerable moment for a blockbuster monster movie. And also virtually unrecognizable. Chief Brody, as a dad, was expressing an emotional need that I had never seen on a screen before — or at my own dinner table. His heart on his sleeve, his feet firmly planted in the surf, I wasn’t convinced this man would save the day.
Equally unfamiliar was Richard Dreyfus’ Matt Hooper — an emerging Beatty/Pacino/Hoffman male archetype in 70s cinema that I would come to idolize. Dreyfus, all smudgy wire-rimmed specs and jewfro, full of shark facts and righteous indignation, was the proto-nerd hero.
My allegiances switched from Chief of Police to nebbish oceanographer the moment Hooper yelled “This was no boating accident! This was a shark!”
Brains vs. Great White? Has to be the safest bet.
Until Quint. Captain of the Orca, a predator in his own right, silencing locals with barnacle nails on a blackboard, crushing beer cans in his fist (Hooper crushes paper cups), Quint towered. The strongman, as we’ve seen too often of late, is so appealing to the frightened and the impressionable in times of crisis. So Hooper, as suddenly as he appeared, was quickly downgraded, a less likely champion.
Quint felt like The Guy, a man without any apparent weakness, until he instinctively seized on Brody’s, dressing him down at every turn.
The Chief was facing all his fears at once: the water, the Great White, the prospect that he won’t return to his family. But as his doting wife assures him she packed an extra pair of black socks, Quint digs in.
“Come on chief, this isn’t no boy scout picnic! I see you got your rubbers!”
Quint is like that kid who hucked the metal swing at my face in the yard behind PS87. I thought, leaning forward in my seat.Lip split in two chunks. Walked all the way back to 72nd street, blood cascade streaked my Globetrotters tee.
Screw That Guy: I’m sticking with Hooper after all.
At night, after their first real run-in with the shark, the men huddle in the tight cabin, drinking. Brody nurses a forehead wound.
“Don’t you worry about it chief,” Quint laughs. “It won’t be permanent. You wanna see something permanent?” Robert Shaw, as Quint, pulls out his tooth, emits the perfect wheezy sailor laugh, a laugh that says You think you got troubles? I can one-up you there.
I already had an inkling back then: this is what men do with hurt. With fear. Without empathy.
But I didn’t yet understand the consequences.
There’s a scene in JAWS where Hooper flinches as Brody is slapped by the grieving Kintner mother whose son was served up as an ocean-floatie crudité. It’s a single slap from a frail old woman in mourning, but it’s the most empathy — the only empathy — Brody will get for the whole film.
That’s the scar Brody doesn’t Reveal on the boat, nor does he reveal the scar under his shirt. He looks at it privately and we know it’s probably too small or the cause too wimpy, to compare to the moray eel that bit through Hooper’s wet suit or the thresher shark that gouged Quint’s leg. Did Brody get his appendix out? Have a mole removed? It scarred him enough to be reminded, but the scars of mockery and “friendly” bullying run deeper.
When Hooper bears his hair shirt to reveal an invisible scar, he explains: “There. Mary Ellen Moffet. She broke my heart.” They bellow and smack the table.
But I bet she did. And Hooper’s not going to tell that story. Too close to the beating center. Better to tell the one about the bull shark that ate his boat. No one’s gonna top that.
Except that Quint does, in a legendary monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.
The scene is a case study in masculinity and its discontents: Brody standing apart from the two other men, alienated by the bloviating one-upmanship, laughing along but showing no sign that he’s in on the joke. He’s already been emasculated by his failure to protect, his life without easy access to courage, and his dearth of scars to prove it.
Did Brody get his appendix out? Have a mole removed? It scarred him enough to be reminded, but the scars of mockery and “friendly” bullying run deeper.
Quint’s revealed his share, but Brody spies one more. The captain explains it’s a tattoo that’s been removed.
“Wait,” Hooper pauses for effect, “let me guess… Mother!” And he explodes with laughter. Because where the heart is weakest, so too is the man.
But Quint’s story is the übermensch megillah — a Superman’s myth — that silences all comers. And yes, it involves sharks. Eleven hundred men in the water. “I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand.”
“You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces… You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn [when a rescue team arrived]. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again… Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”
Anyway, we delivered the bomb.
Translation: Anyway, we did what men do. We did the very worst that men can do: put our feelings where the sun don’t shine and cruised forward with lifeless eyes, black eyes.
“Anyway” is everything — every hard emotion — true but unspoken between men. Sometimes never spoken at all.
The cinematic sun is down. The shark is in the water. These three, baring scars, riveting me.
In the cool of the little seaside theater, ocean and spilled Fanta in the air, I knew this unspoken language unfolding on the screen. Short lines of dialogue, colossal feelings.
The next day, Hooper locks himself in his anti-shark cage and descends with a poison spear, but his ingenuity is useless: the shark dismantles the protective cage man has built for himself, overpowering intelligence with sheer ferocity.
Brains at the bottom. My bet, a bust.
Quint, in all his own primal glory, also fails to survive the fittest. Watching him spit crimson as the shark bites him in half, I shrank into my father.
The strongman would not reign.
And so we were left with Brody: the man afraid of the water, about to hit the drink as he clings to the mast of the sinking Orca, facing down Death with a dorsal fin.
All heart, but evolved by virtue of his encounters with the brain and the body, Chief Brody summons their combined strength, channeling his fear into resolve, Hooper’s knowledge into strategy, and Quint’s primal ferocity into control (oxygen tank in shark’s mouth + bullet + blind rage = “Smile you son of a bitch!” = hero.) All the gory bits of demon erupted into the sky in a bloody Independence Day display.
Smile, you son of a bitch!I shouted in the parking lot to relive the exhilaration and shake off the throbbing anxiety. And to tread in that new place that seeing JAWS gave me permission to inhabit, because men get to fucking swear at the bullies who terrorize them. They get to destroy them.
I imagined returning to New York, smarter, braver, and full of vengeful anger.
I saw JAWS again. And again. And again. I bought the VHS tape when it came out, took my girlfriend to see a widescreen showing at the Wang Center in Boston, bought the 25thanniversary DVD, the 30thanniversary bluray, and the behind-the-scenes tell-all The JAWS Log. I threw JAWS parties and served shark shish kebab. (Once. It was disgusting.)
“It’s the greatest movie ever made,” I told guests. Few were convinced.
But I kept going back, searching for the dialogue, the camera trick, the behind-the-scenes secret that explained the feeling I had watching the scene on the boat at night. There’s no music. No camera tricks. Just inward glances, averted eyes and sideways confessions. The actors read from another script, an internal script, that until then had never found its way into a movie like this one. The director knew exactly how to hunt and capture those hidden emotions I could feel but not explain. More than Quint or JAWS, Spielberg is the great predator.
The final scene in JAWS shows Hooper and Brody swimming to shore through chummy waters. Brody, again finding the joke in it all, says he used to hate the water. And Hooper replies: I can’t imagine why.
What’s missing is the scene where the chief goes home, crawls into bed with his wife, and shakes. Cries. Whispers what he was really thinking when the shark popped out of the water and threatened to bite his face off. It wasn’t just “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
That missing scene was never written, by men who perhaps weren’t ready to reveal what really lurks beneath. Which is why, even combined, the three tenors of JAWS fall one quart short of a gallon of man.
What they are missing is what all of us men could use more of today.
Not long ago I had dinner with two male friends. I’ll call them Quinn and Harper.
Quinn told us he had been mastering Tim Ferris life hacks and harnessing his genetic potential by trying to become something called a Supple Leopard.
He failed to mention how it felt to be out of work for two years, that his wife had asked him to stop drinking but he told her he couldn’t. Or that the marriage was about to implode.
Harper had taken up golf and was trying, unsuccessfully, to convince us to join him on the green. He had started consulting to nonprofits on Salesforce implementations. “They have no idea what they’re doing,” he said. “Huge opportunity.”
Harper didn’t say that he had started on antidepressants a few months ago, or that he and his wife hadn’t had sex in more than six months.
How did I know all that was unsaid? Like Brody watching the scar parade, I felt there was something more beneath the rough flesh. But they weren’t talking.
My wife told me the rest.
Women talk. And they talk about what’s really happening. How they really feel. And I envy them.
“I haven’t spoken to my dad in 17 months,” I offered. “He won’t talk to my kids, either.”
“You’re like Luke Skywalker,” Quinn replied. “You drew the Darth Vader hand. Might as well buckle in, because that’s not going to change until the mask comes off in the final scene. If it ever does.”
Women talk. And they talk about what’s really happening. How they really feel. And I envy them.
“He actually reminds me of Sean Penn in Out of Sight, and his dad’s the Christopher Walken character,” Harper suggested. “The dad who seems like he’s on your side, but he’s really an evil narcissist hellbent on his own son’s destruction.”
“That’s what Vader is!”
There was no point in taking the conversation any further. But I couldn’t blame them. Like me, stories on a screen had come to form their understanding of who we are. Those stories tell us so much, but they don’t tell us how to share our own, or help one another in the authoring — or the rewriting.
Spielberg has talked often about how much power there was in not showing the shark too soon. That’s because it’s what we don’t see on the surface that will get us in the end if we’re not awake enough to it to give it expression.
You’re more likely to be killed by an asteroid than by a shark, but we spend a lot more time worrying about the latter. The fact is, the ever present shark in our waters isn’t a shark. It’s the failure early on for boys and men to learn how to communicate. How to express true emotion. How to feel empathy.
If it doesn’t kill us physically, it will maim us emotionally and spiritually. It already has.
I left the theater shouting Smile, you son of a bitch! to relive the exhilaration and shake off the throbbing anxiety.
Were you scared? My father asked.
Yes. I said.
At nine, that was easy for both of us.
Lou Cove is the author of the memoir MAN OF THE YEAR