“Here’s to swimmin’ with bow legged women” and other salutations in the face of danger.
If you are like me, you have been a fan of Jaws since you first saw it; and much like most things you carry with you throughout your life, your reasons for loving it have probably changed over the years. You may have started out loving it because it is a movie about a giant shark that eats people, then you may have moved on to loving it because it is kitschy and full of old-timey idioms like the word “swell”, and then you may have moved on to embracing nostalgia and loving it because it’s fucking Jaws and that scene where Ben Gardner’s waterlogged corpse pops out of the hull still gets you every time. I’ve hit all these milestones and what I have come to realize is the reason I watch Jaws every time I come across it while flipping channels is because Jaws is about me and my battle with existential fear; and I wager this is your reason too. Hear me out.
The story, for those of you living under rocks far away from TBS’s weekend programming, centers around a killer shark who disrupts the summer tourist season of a Massachusetts beach town by chewing everyone’s legs off. Cue the local sheriff, a crazy local fisherman, an expert from the Oceanographic institute, and a boat ride out into the deep to take it down and save the day.
When Jaws burst out of the churning waters of New Hollywood in 1975, by sniffing out the blood left in the tides by a new wave of upstart film-makers with big ideas and loud mouths, it efficiently changed the way scares are defined in this genre of films. As the opening scene puts us, with very little time to prepare, in neck deep water with poor, free-living Chrissie Watkins as she is thrashed around in the sea by the unseen but implied man-eater like some kind of helpless rag doll, we are pressed up against something bigger and more powerful than us and it is terrifying and visceral in a way few things are.
Though there are plenty of jarring frights waiting within the large motorized titular maw of the animatronic shark at the center of it all, this is not merely a monster movie; this is a study of modern man and his somewhat constant battle against things lurking below the surface of the metaphorical seas he is always trying to conquer.
This takes many forms in this film; Roy Scheider’s local sheriff, Chief Brody, impotent from fear and posting up in a sleepy town by the water to enjoy time away from the relentless dangers that have weathered his all-knowing face and put a trigger-finger response to the movement of his pupils; Richard Dreyfuss’s yuppie marine biologist, Hooper, who exemplifies academia and privilege just dying for a real disaster to get dirty in; Robert Shaw’s salty madman of calloused experience, Quint, a poacher and lone wolf who has more than a few axes to grind with sharks and the people who are fascinated with them. These characters are all so far removed from the simple ideas of survival as a result of their own conditions that they wouldn’t know a real specimen of power if it leapt out of the water and bit them in half. But they are about to. Let’s watch!
What is so enduring about Spielberg’s approach to this is that he masquerades it as your typical man versus nature thrill piece while taking Peter Benchley’s novel source material and, along with screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, turning the story into more of a universal study of human crisis which is a truly timeless struggle. The film introduces you to several human hang-ups that we use to distract our minds from the vulnerable reality of our own fears. Themes like redemption, security, notoriety, validation, and greed are all present and have a role to play in making the struggle needlessly complicated for our heroes and much bloodier for those splashing around in the surf.
In amongst all the characters, who run the gamut from the slack jawed cartoons who populate Amity Island to the holy grail of 70s style villainy that is Robert Shaw to Richard Dreyfuss and his inexplicable pint sized confidence and machine gun delivery, it is Roy Scheider’s Brody who emerges as not only the hero of the tale but also the allegory.
We watch as he, with fish out of water nervousness and mild sarcasm, tries to wear the ill fitting deck shoes he has inherited in his decision to leave the high stakes life as New York City Lawman for the low impact Mayberry mind numb that is life as a Sheriff in a seasonal berg.
We feel that all too familiar powerlessness as he bows to mayoral pressure to hide the possible presence of a shark in favor of avoiding bad publicity in vacation season.
We stand firm beside him when that same corruption leads to his having to absorb a slap across the face from the mother of a second victim that his tied hands prevented him from protecting.
We are gripped as we watch Brody turn his guilt into action, slowly while opening a bottle of red wine, as a study in will and choice; this is the moment when he runs out of fucks to give and harnesses his balls.
“I can do anything, I’m the chief of police”.
From this point on, Brody is not gonna take anyone’s slaps across the face anymore; they’re gonna be his if they happen at all.
Which is what makes it so affecting when we are in his shoes with him as he marches aboard Quint’s water jalopy The Orca, on his way to help slay a monster he is deathly afraid of, because it is his job. While on that voyage, as Quint and Hooper spend varying degrees of time well within their element, often sparring their mutually well cultivated expertise in a kind of dick measuring contest set to old seamen sing-along’s, Brody visibly wobbles on his sea legs, his duty usurping the flight response his brain is desperately trying to promote. Brody is us at our best and bravest; when there is no option to posture or audition or even argue. When there is no time. When there is only duty.
Like the Ego and ID, Quint and Hooper exist to be foils to this sense of duty.
Quint, whose agenda is revealed sophisticatedly and in the form of a gut punch of a monologue which ushers you into act three like the sobering head shake it was for the characters who were present for it, shows us how blind and relentless survivor’s guilt and redemption can be. He embodies, with salty steel jawed immovability, that cloudy eyed monster within all of us called Pride. And his ultimate slide into the Jaws of consequence is a blood curdling reminder of what can happen when we lose perspective within our own regret.
Hooper, a portrait of intellectualism presenting itself as experience, is the face of long-haired 70’s liberal pragmatism. Hooper is an enthusiast whose love of sharks comes from the thrill of observation but not exactly respect; though that could just be a result of Richard Dreyfuss’s style of cerebral mania, god love his crazy gnome self. However, Hooper is much like Quint in his singular solo motivations for being out on that boat. From bringing aboard his myriad of research equipment, to his attempt to get Brody out on the pulpit to have something for scale when trying to take a picture of the beast, Hooper is in it for the personal glory.
Hooper deals with fear by scientifically compartmentalizing, Quint deals with fear with destruction.
And that leaves us with Brody and the Shark itself.
The high noon of this movie is between these two characters. As the chaos of various human hang-ups erupt in its wake, the shark, with its lifeless black “doll’s eyes”, feels only instinct. The shark is fear, relentless if left to be. Brody, with no time to indulge his hesitations because he has a job to do, is human survival instinct personified.
As the climax comes barreling to us, after the shark has destroyed the vessel separating our hero from enemy territory, Brody lines up his shot and for that moment he is in the eye of fear’s hurricane. And when he pulls the trigger and that barreling creature gets blown to smithereens, that celebration is all of ours.
The moral? If you allow your fears to own you they will chomp down on you like a stalk of celery (sorry Quint, but that’s exactly what you sounded like).
Jaws is a fun movie; a thrill, a laugh, a romp, a bloody good time; but beneath the chum line, where John Williams’ indelible score haunts the deep, there is a lesson in how fear and integrity can still be bedfellows. As Brody, formerly frozen in fear at the thought of submergence, paddles to shore in the afterglow of victory and says “I used to hate the water”, we feel the freedom that exists in bravery and the fruits of strapping it on and getting in the game.
And also, exploding sharks are cool.