Sunday, December 19, 2010
Jaws (1975): A New Hollywood Film
Forget everything you’ve ever read about Jaws. Forget everything you’ve ever read about how it dumbed-down American movies, how it prostituted the Hollywood summer blockbuster and how it “killed” the incredible array of cinematic art that was flowing into the multiplexes of the United States in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s. None of this is true.
Instead, look at Jaws as a New Hollywood film. Compare it to some of the other visceral American films directed by Spielberg’s peers in the same era: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Together, each of these intense, exceptionally entertaining films marked the pinnacle of an American cinema in which cinema had now been taken over by the bearded “Movie Brats”: producers were now giving full control to directors. Coppola, after much struggling with big-time producer Robert Evans, cast both Brando and Pacino against type in The Godfather, winding up with a resounding crime epic. Taxi Driver allowed Scorsese to push headlong into his nightmarish vision of New York streets while his Oscar-winning producers, Julia and Michael Phillips, were off doing coke and waiting for a miracle. Producer Paul Monash had to put his trust entirely in the hands of twisted visionary De Palma when Carrie was officially green-lit. Finally, Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown were turning to the young filmmaker behind their last movie, The Sugarland Express, and hoped that the genius behind that box office flop would this time channel his creative geniuses into a movie that would strike box office gold.
It is perhaps because Jaws was such a box office phenomenon that it is almost never mentioned in the same sentence as The Godfather, Taxi Driver or Carrie. For some reason it is not considered fashionable to lump a movie about a killer shark alongside movies about killer families, killer workingmen and killer telekinetic virgins. Many of Jaws’ fiercest critics say versions of the same thing: just because it was an effective crowd pleaser doesn’t mean it was worth the cultural impact that followed. Spielberg is always getting blamed for the modern American creature movie. Why is it, then, that Hitchcock is not also blamed for the modern American slasher movie? Why are John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper not also blamed for the modern American dead teenager movie? Meridian C. Cooper for the founding of the American blockbuster? Tarantino for the modern hipster gangster flick?
Some accuse Jaws of launching a wretched generation of cinema as advertising. Some say that because it was the first blockbuster with a significant summer release (with the exception of Friedkin's The Exorcist), it inspired studios to reserve the summers of every year that came afterwards as the season for empty entertainment. Need something to blame for all of this? Blame it on Jaws. This is the rhetoric they use. What these critics have consistently failed to prove in these assessments is the concept that Jaws is, itself, a dumbed-down, empty entertainment.
Some fans of Jaws insist on defending it as a political allegory. When Spielberg’s first feature-length film, Duel (1971), was released in theaters in the UK, Spielberg was stupefied by British intellectuals in the audience asking him if the menacing diesel truck was a representation of “the establishment.” If Spielberg thought that theory was ludicrous, he must have gone cuckoo reading all of the various interpretations of Jaws that went into syndication in the wake of its release. In a Newsweek review of the movie, psychiatrist Alfred Messer viewed the film as “a metaphor for the ‘helplessness and powerlessness’ ordinary folk in the United States feel in their everyday lives—just this once with a happy ending.” Feminist columnist Jane E. Caputi saw the shark as representing “the mythological motif of the vagina dentata,” i.e. a womb-shaped, saber-toothed monster that gobbles up skinny-dipping beach babes as “a carefully constructed form of subliminal cinematic rape.” Even Fidel Castro loves Jaws: he thinks of it as a movie about capitalists doing whatever it takes to protect their investments, even if it means sacrificing the people (Spielberg’s response to Castro: “Wonderful! That’s the whole Enemy of the People question!”). And on and on.
Would any of those theories, if true, make Jaws a better film? Would they make that much of a difference in the long run of things? Ask yourself this question: are The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Carrie as beloved by audiences today as they were three decades ago because we see them as allegories? No. The films are simply great character studies and great pieces of filmmaking. So, for that matter, is Jaws. If the reasoning is that Jaws cannot be compared to those films because it somehow lacks depth, intelligence and narrative complexity, then I intend to prove all of that wrong here. If, by the end of this piece, you are not finally able to accept Jaws as an example of New Hollywood art, it will mean I have failed.
Let’s start by examining Jaws as a radical piece of filmmaking delivered by the hands of an auteur. Spielberg came into the movie business as the rookie director of Amblin’; was thrown into the television circuit on Night Gallery, Columbo, Marcus Welby, M.D. and The Psychiatrist; directed three television movies (Duel, Something Evil and Martin Landau’s Savage); and stormed onto the Hollywood scene at last with The Sugarland Express, in 1974. Jaws has much of the stuff of those earlier films: from Amblin’, the pot-smokers and naked hippie women; from the Joan Crawford Night Gallery pilot, a blackout crisis (“he ate the light!”) that stalls the main characters; from Duel, the formula of the common man rebelling against the hidden beast; and, from Something Evil, the children put in harm’s way, only with the menace being a shark this time instead of a demon. Also, from The Sugarland Express, there’s the well-meaning cop who wants a societal threat handled in the best way possible, contrasted with local reactionaries who want to take matters into their own hands: vigilantes ambushing Goldie Hawn and William Atherton; Ben Gardener (Craig Kingsbury) and his slovenly fellow fishermen tossing dynamite into the sea and then catching a measly, stinking tiger shark.
Following that up is Spielberg’s approach to cinematic violence. Consider what his peers did: Coppola smuggled a horse head under bed sheets in The Godfather; Scorsese had Travis Bickle pop an African-American mugger in a store in Taxi Driver; and De Palma unleashes onto Carrie White, in Carrie, her first menstrual period—in the middle of a gymnasium shower. Spielberg, using an approach closest to De Palma’s, sends a nude female, Chrissie (Susan Backlinie), into the ocean and into the mouth of a sleeping danger. While the kid pursuing her passes out on the beach (where, curiously, the sun is still setting), Spielberg dares us to watch as the naked woman swims out into the darkness of the night, and to her doom.
We are even more unprepared for the gorier nature of the death scene that comes afterward, when waves of foaming blood spray encircling swimmers as young Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is devoured in broad daylight. It’s a disturbing image comparing well to Michael’s assassination of Sollozo and McCluskey in the restaurant, Travis’ wasting of the whorehouse, and Carrie’s incineration of the school prom. When the scene begins, the vision of Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is obscured by tourists “wiping” the screen—Spielberg’s clever transitional device. Then, when Brody witnesses the Kintner boy’s death, Spielberg and cinematographer Bill Buter close in on him, capturing his astonished reaction. We will see this same shot, eighteen years later, in Oskar Schindler’s horrified witnessing of the ghetto liquidation.
Brody himself could have been uninspired, uncharismatic and boring, but Spielberg, putting a three-dimensional spin on the character, makes him heroic and iconic without ever coming across as flawless. Brody is a former New York cop who fled the mean streets in order to seek a more paradisiacal, less criminalized atmosphere to enforce the law (“in Amity, one man can make a difference!”), making him the epitome of “Movie Brat” police characterization: a Scorseseian cop in a Spielbergian universe. One of Spielberg’s own contributions to the Jaws screenplay (also written by Carl Gottlieb, Peter Benchley, Howard Sackler and John Milius) was to give Brody a weakness that was not present in the Benchley novel: fear of the water. It doesn’t surprise us that he’s not anxious to ride out to sea and face the shark alone. But Amity itself actually sometimes comes across as more dangerous than the ocean: the backyard playground swings are a safety hazard; kids from the local karate school attack the neighbors’ fences; driveways are blocked off by people parking their cars in the wrong places; and Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is an oily businessman who wants Amity to thrive on summer dollars, dismissing Brody’s paranoia that they’re going to be serving up a smorgasbord. “Martin, it’s all psychological,” he tells Brody. “You yell, ‘Barracuda!’ and everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell, ‘Shark!’… we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
Knowing little about sharks and what they can do, Brody enlists Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the film’s second three-dimensional character. On paper, Hooper probably sounds like a cardboard cutout of the “expert” who prefers brains over brawn. Spielberg, however, injects Hooper with life—a rarity for a character of this kind. Whether it be a smoke-free environment, a correctly classified shark or a knot tied to perfection around a collection of compressed air tanks, Hooper, we realize, is the kind of person who wants everything neat and in order once set out in front of him. When he shows up at the Brody home, uninvited, with bottles of wine under his arm (for what?), Ellen asks him, “My husband tells me you’re in sharks?” Hooper cracks up, and explains to her that his obsession goes all the way back to his youth. Coming from a wealthy background and, therefore, probably used to getting what he wants, he even helps himself to Brody’s unfinished pot roast (and Brody returns the favor by pouring himself a full glass of wine, instead of letting it “breathe”). We assume that Hooper knows how to keep his cool in the face of opposition until he gets in a shouting match with the mayor: “I think I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites you in the ass!” And he laughs uproariously when Vaughn charges that he’s only trying to get his picture in the National Geographic.
Enter Quint (Robert Shaw), the local shark hunter, to rain on Brody and Hooper’s parade of scientific discoveries. Quint wants to smite the “bad fish” and save the questions about proportions and territoriality for another day. I’ve heard critics of the film dismiss Quint as just another Captain Ahab knockoff, since he only hunts sharks out of a vengeful need to strike back at them for what they did to him during the war—but there’s much more to the character than that. For one thing, he’s a sexist: he once celebrated the death of his 3rd wife, and he recites a Scottish headstone poem about the virginal and deceased “Mary Lee” in front of Ellen Brody, to intentionally give her the feeling that her husband will be setting out with a team of unruly bastards (and might not come back alive). There’s the vague indication that Quint might also be anti-Semitic when he grabs Hooper by the hands and tries to scares him with choice words. "You've got city hands, Mr. Hooper," he growls. "You've been counting money all your life." Is it wrong to suggest that Brody and Hooper are out of their minds to think they’d be sane in the same boat as this lunatic?
Many of the terrible imitations that followed in Jaws’ footsteps have actually had the nerve to try to replicate the constant fights between Hooper and Quint in the film—for example, the obnoxious feuds between Oliver Platt and Brendan Gleeson in the awful, awful Lake Placid (1999). There’s a reason why Hooper and Quint’s feuds are so memorable: because it distorts their political stances, and because there are key moments in the film when they’re able to quit shouting and find something to agree on. Neither Hooper nor Quint can be categorized as a perpetual liberal or conservative. Hooper is liberal in his preference of by-the-book methods, but conservative in that he proudly boasts that he’s rich and privileged. Quint is conservative in his desire for red-blooded vengeance, but liberal in his hatred of the bourgeoisie: at one point, Hooper even rages that he’s sick and tired of Quint’s “working-class-hero crap.” But there are fleeting moments in the film where Hooper and Quint find ways to reconcile over their heated differences. They compare scars. They have a friendly laugh about the anti-shark cage that Hooper brings aboard. They compete over who’s got more muscle, not over arm wrestling, but over a face-off between a crushed beer can and a crushed water cup. It is certainly important that they be at odds for most of the film, but it’s always wonderful, the few scenes in which they’re in harmony. You can see why so many of the rip-offs get it wrong.
One of the best scenes in the film is the scene in which the shark first makes a full-fledged appearance. Watch carefully the way Spielberg sets this scene up. As Quint calls down to Brody, ordering him to throw out some more chum-line, we glance up and notice, from Brody’s POV, that Quint is shrouded in shadow. Hooper is on the other side of the boat, playing with himself over cards and neglecting to drive the boat slow-ahead. "Slow-ahead," Brody moans. "I can go slow-ahead! Come on down and chum some of this shit!” (I actually have come to prefer this classic line over the famous “bigger boat” line that comes right afterward, after the shark lunges out at him). Once all three of the men are alerted to the shark’s appearance, it swims, like a mini-submarine, around Quint’s Orca. “That’s a 20-footer,” Hooper observes. Quint corrects him: “25. Three tons of him.”
At that moment, they spring into action. They begin their method of firing harpoons attached to yellow barrels; we wince at the shots of them tying the knots, traveling out onto the pulpit and narrowly avoiding slipping off the Orca’s sides. They miss getting a headshot, but when the harpoon nevertheless strikes the shark and yanks off the barrels, John Williams’ suspenseful musical score suddenly becomes free-spirited and angelic—before dying down when the shark temporarily swims off. At sunset, while Brody is still begging to head back for shore, Spielberg fades to the shot of Quint hauntingly whistling on the pulpit. Thus, the scene starts out with tension, becomes triumphant in a matter of minutes, and then ends on a note of eerie uncertainty.
There are moving, sometimes painful scenes in the film in which Brody, Quint and Hooper are reduced to moments of weakness. For Quint it’s obviously the speech he gives about the Indianapolis; he recalls the ocean turning red and his friends getting eaten by schools of sharks in the water, and remembers that, when getting rescued by a PBY plane, he was most afraid during the wait for his own turn. “I’ll never put on a lifejacket again,” he declares. Hooper unexpectedly sometimes vents his anger out on Brody instead of Quint. After Brody accidentally knocks down Hooper’s compressed air tanks, Hooper screams at him, ridiculing his inexperience with knots; Brody recoils into the corner of the boat in self-pity, and it takes words of reassurance by Quint, surprisingly enough, to help him get over it. In the evening, after the shark punctures a hole in the Orca while the infamous Spielbergian shooting star (making its first appearance) soars through the night sky, Brody is so spooked that he runs, panicking, for a pistol in his knapsack—perhaps suggesting that he momentarily feels like he’s back on the streets in New York.
Though Brody, Hooper and Quint are the only three-dimensional characters in the film, Spielberg tries to make all of the supporting characters colorful in some way. Carl Gottlieb appears in a few scenes as the mayor’s assistant, claiming that he’ll try to bury the bounty posted by the Kintner boy’s mother until it’s down “along with the grocery ads.” Peter Benchley makes a strange cameo as a television anchor who speaks ominously about “a cloud in the shape of a killer shark.” Ellen Brody never comes off as more than a supportive housewife, although she does have some witty lines (“Wanna get drunk and fool around?”). It’s a shame that Spielberg elected to cut out the deleted scene in which she gives a tearful speech about a Cocteu special on sea otters, because it enriches Ellen’s character as well as Lorraine Gary’s performance. Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) brings Amity’s joyous celebration of the capture of the fraudulent tiger shark to a halt when she slaps Brody hard across the face, accusing him of going back against the law. “I’m sorry Martin—she’s wrong,” the mayor tells Brody. But Brody knows better: “No, she’s not.” Even Mayor Vaughn, as slimy as he is, is reduced to empathetic ruin after his ruthless business plans put the people of Amity—including Brody’s son—in jeopardy. “Martin,” he cries, “my kids were on that beach, too.”
As Spielberg rolls Jaws towards its thunderous conclusion, the stakes are raised, and his three heroes are locked once and for all into a live-or-die confrontation with the shark. They’re out of phone service, out of boat service, and even out of reach of land. That’s because there’s no shore to run back to: they’ve pushed it this far, and now they are onto the shark’s last nerve. They’ve spent the whole film chasing it, and after they make the absurd decision to literally tie it to the boat’s stern cleats, the shark turns the tables—it starts chasing after them. Even the fearless Quint is becoming afraid of his worst enemy: by this point, he’s willing to fight dirty and drag it into the shallow waters to drown—a scheme that is cut short the moment the boat's bearings burn out. That can only leave Quint with one last option: go down with the ship, and find some way to take the shark down with him. But he realizes that Brody and Hooper are not willing to go to that extreme distance. He looks out for their safety, first—and throws them lifejackets.
These are not stupid men. They don’t always get along—and they have their cultural differences—but they will put their heads together and use up every last one of their individual strengths to destroy a force of nature.