Monday, July 13, 2015

Man versus "Jaws"

In honor of my annual July 4 viewing of Jaws, here is part of an essay I wrote in my (failed) attempt to get into grad school as an English/film studies doctoral candidate.  Eventually, I hope to turn all of this into an academic film book called Men With No Names about masculinity in cinema from 1968 on.  For now, here's a taste (no pun intended):


Men can be at war not only with themselves and with other men, but also with some external force that tests their mettle and resolve.  Such is the case with Benchley’s Jaws, a potboiler of a novel that posits that a giant, killer great white shark stakes out a New England summer town’s beachfront for its human meals.  (Interestingly, the term for this in the scientific literature is a “rogue shark.” )  

In the novel, Martin Brody, the town police chief, is in a fading marriage with his wife, Ellen.  Then the shark shows up, and all havoc is wrought lose.  If the beaches are closed, the town will lose valuable revenue.  The mayor owes money to the Mob and needs the beach business in order to settle his debts.  The town will basically die if people stay out of the water.

Brody is but a workingman with little in the way of intellectual capacity.  Sharks at the time of the novel’s writing being, well, pre-Jaws in the level of public consciousness, the police chief enlists a scientist, Matt Hooper, to help with the problem. 

Hooper, a rich college graduate, and Ellen, Brody’s wife, embark on a heated affair.  Brody inadvertently brings more grief into his life than the shark has already provided. The final corner of the triumvirate of maleness in Jaws is Captain Quint, a grizzled, modern-day Ahab with a particular distaste for shark-kind.  After several more deadly encounters, the final chunk of the book is devoted to the three men embarking on Quint’s boat in order to hunt down and destroy the beast.  This results in Hooper’s death at the hands (or rather, the teeth) of the shark, and Quint is killed when a rope attached to a harpoon used to spear the shark encircles his leg and drags him into the deeps with the
dying killer.  Brody is left alone and swims back to shore. 

So we have three different representations of masculinity: Brody, the blue-collar policeman; Hooper, the rich intellectual and virile outsider; and Quint, the unsophisticated fisherman who traffics in profanity and street jargon.  It takes all of them collectively to take down the shark; in this situation there is no such thing as a one-man army.  It is a problem that is larger than any one of them could face alone, and each brings to the task his unique gifts and abilities to overcome the monster. 

The film version of same keeps the general story intact but makes remarkable departures in tone and timbre.  The film version is sexless.  The young woman killed in the surf by the shark at the outset, while still skinny-dipping in the film, does not engage in sex on the beach with a male prior to her swim (which would in fact fall into the slasher film axiom of sex equaling instant death).  Also elided is Hooper’s affair with Ellen Brody; he and Martin Brody are more or less a tag team.  The only sex in the film at all is obliquely referenced in Quint’s various blue jokes, such as “Here’s to swimmin’
with bow-legged women.”

But the triumvirate of Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw) in their extended passage of hunting the shark on the Orca is intact—however, unlike in the novel, the Orca never returns to port after each individual day at sea.  Each represents a different kind of man and representation of masculinity. 

Hooper is a wealthy college lab rat and pleasure sailor who has never had to work for a living, and naturally Quint despises him.  Brody falls somewhere in between them in temperament: cautious and reflective, observant without being overtly incisive, but quick to act when the situation dictates. 

(On a side note, Jaws may in fact be in the only film in history that has a double three-act structure.  The entire section of the three men on the Orca hunting down the shark stands on its own as a entire sub-story and follows all of the beats and formats in three acts.  E.g., Act I of Jaws ends when the body of the first swimmer is discovered on the beach and Brody knows that there is a problem; Act II ends when Quint is killed by the shark and Brody must face the monster on his own.  In the “mini-movie,” which begins with the first shot of the Orca at sea an hour in, Act I ends with Brody chumming the water (“I can go slow ahead; come on down and chum some of this shit!”), at which
point Jaws makes his first full appearance, and Brody tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” As in the macro-movie, Act II concludes with Quint’s death, and Act III has Brody going mano-a-tooth with the shark.) 

While the shark itself is absolutely an external problem for the three men, Brody is also afraid of water—a major problem for a character who will have to tangle with a tiburon malo.  This phobia draws instant empathy for the audience as the danger of the situation becomes ever more palpable: To be in the water means to vicariously be in the drink with the shark.  Brody is aquaphobic right from the get-go, which will serve to only complicate his plight (and ours) as the film progresses.  Spielberg and his cinematographer, Bill Butler, heightened the sense of apprehension for the audience by
filming the action at water level.  This makes the anxiety that much more alarming for the audience: We too are swimming with the shark!  Spielberg humorously explained away his reasoning in a supplementary interview as to how the water-level camerawork puts the audience off-kilter, by saying, “Very few of us have ever actually been in the water with a shark, but we’ve all gone swimming.” (emphasis added)

The audience’s empathy and identification with the simple activity of swimming not only creates a bond to the frightening scenario of swimming with a massive, hungry shark, but it allows the viewer to vicariously share in Brody’s elemental terror of the water itself.  

Jaws gives us a main protagonist who has an unreasonable phobia, the
comeuppance of which is essential to the thematic throughline of his character.  For all
his marksmanship with a gun, his levelheadedness as an officer of law enforcement, his
ability to see that the response of the mayor and the town council to the shark problem is
untenable, his entire character makeup as a strong, perceptive man...Brody simply will

This is refrained throughout the film in various ways, such as Ellen telling Hooper that Brody refuses to even leave his car when they take the ferry over to the mainland.  In a more subtle visual gag—one of Spielberg’s abiding strengths as a director—both times that Brody is first seen on Hooper’s science
boat and later on the Orca, he is actually wearing a life preserver.  While on Hooper’s boat, he is not only clearly intoxicated but is also drinking straight from the bottle!  (That Brody is an alcoholic is not in doubt.)  To further underline his fear, the shark’s first major appearance immediately follows his “Come on down and chum some of this shit!” line while on the Orca.  Even getting close to the water for Brody is met with dire consequences, which only reinforces the terror of the beast. 

And yet, in the final minutes, Brody succeeds in blowing up the shark...from water level as the Orca sinks; Hooper resurfaces after being thought dead; he and Brody have a celebratory chuckle...and then paddle together back towards shore. 

At its most thematically basic level, Jaws is about a guy who is afraid of the water.  The very last thing he is seen doing in the film is swimming: fear faced and conquered. The large shark chowing down on his townmates is entirely incidental to the theme and only serves as a vessel to make his fear of the water far more terrifying. 

So it can seen that our heroic males overcome not only external forces but also irrational internal fear and neuroses.  The deepest films and novels and stories feature protagonists who must do both.  

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