Directed by Steven Spielberg
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
“In Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” a shark starts to attack people on the beach. What does this attack mean? What does the shark stand for? There were different, even mutually exclusive answers to this question. On the one hand some critics claimed that obviously the shark stands for the foreign threat to ordinary Americans. The shark is a metaphor for either natural disaster, storms or immigrants threatening the United States citizens and so on. On the other hand it’s interesting to know that Fidel Castro, who loves the film, once said that for him it was obvious that “Jaws” is kind of a leftist, Marxist film and that the shark is a metaphor for brutal, big capital exploiting ordinary Americans.
So, which is the right answer? I claim none of them and at the same time all of them. We fear all kind of things. We fear, maybe, immigrants or people whom we perceive as lower than ourselves attacking us, robbing us. We fear people raping our children. We fear natural disasters, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis. We fear corrupted politicians. We fear big companies, which can basically do with us whatever they want. The function of the shark is to unite all these fears so that we can in a way trade all these fears for one fear alone. In this way, our experience of reality gets much simpler.”
– Slavoj Zizek / The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012)
I like the explanation. The shark is a shark. There’s no need to give it a Marxist reading or consider the idea that it’s some Freudian thing about a bunch of people on a ship being attacked by a giant penis with teeth (that comes later). Nah man – it’s just Jaws innit? Everything stripped away to the bone. A lean, mean killing machine in terms of it’s film-making where everything is exactly to the point and the only point is to make you entertained.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – but I feel like the notion of “entertainment” doesn’t get nearly enough love in terms of how serious professional critics think about movies (and other things too). I mean everyone’s happy to get into endless lists of who directed what and which actor did which thing, who the director of the cinematography did the stuff and the writers and the editing to make the pictures change in a nice way, they’re happy to talk about what year it came out in or how much money it made, what films it ripped off and which films it influenced in turn, they’re happy to talk about theories of representation or feminism or surrealism or socialism or capitalism and all the rest and they’re happy to talk about which genre it fits into and what the style of it all was and etc and etc and so on and blah and yeah of course I’ll admit that doing this film club I’ve done all of the above at least once or twice of fifty times at least – but of this kinda stuff overlooks the delicious chocolaty middle right at the center which is the idea of whether the film will actually entertain you. That is: does it work? And how does it do it’s stuff with all of the characters and the plot and the dialogue to make that special ineffable magic to draw you and concentrate all of your senses so that nothing exists inside your head apart from the world of the movie.
And yes of course if you noticed my use of “ineffable”then obviously it’s obvious that this stuff is really hard to put into words. “What actually does “entertaining” mean actually?” I’ve been asked more than once and I’m still not quite sure that I have a good answer. It’s kinda a pornography type of definition in that I know it when I see it and apart from that I’m just kinda reduced to gesturing… I know that most art-house kinda movies are the opposite of entertaining in that they’re slow and boring and whatever the opposite of gripping is (slipping?) and most of the time when I’m watching them my brain is sliding all over and bored to distraction (“Why is nothing happening!?”) but then regardless of where you might think this is going – the same goes for most big-budget Hollywood action movies too. Jurassic World might have lots of explosions and dinosaurs and things happening really quickly – but calling it entertaining would be a category mistake. The craft isn’t there. There’s no special moments. There’s nothing that’s actually transporting and it casts no spell.
At the risk of being totally and utterly predictable – Steven Spielberg knows what entertainment is and he knows how to make it happen. And when he’s at his best it’s impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen and to not feel your heart move in all sorts of involuntary and sudden ways. And yeah maybe this me reaching the point where words start to run out – but it’s actually magical you know? A plastic shark and a three actors on a boat and two notes played over and over and over again and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen and if you don’t agree then I’m not even sure we’re members of the same species: it’s like not liking the taste of ice cream or not wanting to throw up your hands when the bass drops.
Yeah this is basically the film that invented the blockbuster which makes it sound like a bad thing – but I’d argue it’s actually more elemental than that. This is the film that basically invented the wheel. And everything that’s come since is just refining a formula that already perfect.
You wanna know the best Jaws trivia there is?
When composer John Williams originally played the score for director Steven Spielberg, Spielberg laughed and said, “That’s funny, John, really; but what did you really have in mind for the theme of Jaws?”
I mean: yeah it’s funny. But all the best ideas are the first time you hear them.
Weekend at Arnie’s
If you made Jaws today, it’d be some little artisanal indie horror, or the shark would take out half of Amity Island.
I’m glad Joel brought up Jurassic World before I did, because I think this is the slippery thing about ‘entertainment’ vs ‘arthouse’: what’s the actual difference? Jurassic World is, on that scale, entertainment, but it’s hard to disagree that it was distinctly un-entertaining. What’s more, I would argue (subjectively, as it all is) that it’s un-entertaining because and not in spite of the fact that most of the film is escalating scenes of CGI destruction. The Andromeda Strain, released 4 years before Jaws, made moderate returns; at the time it was a thriller, but by the standards of today it’s agonisingly slow and weird. And yet I am very entertained by that film! I’m entertained by Network, a film that consists entirely of contract negotiations broken up by rants about late stage capitalism, where nobody says one word if a 10-page monologue will do. 2001: A Space Odysseywas a box office success in ’68 but is, objectively, an incredibly boring film (and I’m not saying I don’t like it). Everyone remembers the apes or the pod bay doors or the trippy ending, nobody remembers the 700 hours of spaceships very slowly moving their docking mechanisms closer together. Is it art? Is it entertainment? Did nerds champion the idea of entertainment being the fun opposite of art out of a sense of resentment at genre work not being allowed into the country club? Something a lot of Spielberg’s imitators miss is that he too is, I’m afraid, a boring director (check out The Post if you don’t believe me). He draws things out. His pacing is deliberate, methodical. He loves the slow, careful details of procedure whether it’s all the high tech automated systems of Jurassic Park, the painstaking process of putting together the Washington Post, or, yep, hunting a giant shark.
And lot of Jaws doesn’t even have a plastic shark to look at, supposedly thanks to the model not working as well as it was supposed to. The shark ends up being more like a guest star: used sparingly, for brief moments of heightened drama. Most of the film is Brody talking to the mayor. Or Brody frowning in town hall meetings. Or Brody frowning on the beach. Or a bunch of guys staring at empty ocean. If I had to dissect the Spielberg magic, frankly, that’s what I’d pick out of the entrails: what makes a film like Jaws work so well is that the spectacle is situated in an otherwise very grounded film. Brody isn’t an action hero, he’s a serious, sober man who just wants to have a quiet life and protect his family, and not in a “they pushed him too far and now he’s going to take out 50 guys with a hacksaw” kind of way. One of the scariest moments is when the shark might be near his kids – and I think we see a brief shot of a fin at most. Something I hate about a lot of ‘banter’ in more recent films is that it seems entirely for the audience, not the characters, but the great lines in Jaws are also character moments; “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” is “what the FUCK did I get myself into”. It’s not just a line, it comes from somewhere. (Incidentally, this is why I think Quint kind of stretches things a bit – his Indianapolis story, his Ahab-eque obsession, it’s a bit too contrived.)
Spectacle fades. Without some sense that it matters to someone, it fades before the end of the scene. You can put an alien spaceship above New York or a genetically engineered super-dinosaur can take out a hundred goons, but if the characters just breeze through it, why should I give it any more weight?
The moment I remember best in Jaws isn’t death and mayhem, it’s three guys, on a boat, drunk on moonshine, singing Show Me The Way to Go Home. Then the shark rams it. Then you get the action. But first we have to hear them sing.
I don’t want to be melodramatic and claim I understand why people don’t like going to the beach. Sure the sun is our greatest enemy, and sand well, it’s course and rough etc etc. But what is really alarming is the billions of litres of writhing, crashing, surging malevolence in front of us. Watching the waves is watching the Moon trying to pull the earth apart in front of you. To even consider it for a minute is to realise as far as the sea is concerned there is no difference between you and plankton.
Finding a way to capture that elemental ferocity in a creature is the genius of Jaws. As your little legs paddle perhaps hundreds of meters above the ground, who knows that is below you? You could just vanish: the sea could swallow you whole, rip the flesh from your bones, and it would barely cause a ripple. And that’s the terror of Jaws, that’s what has led to Sharks taking up real estate in the cultural consciousness as a unique horror, the acknowledgement of our vulnerability.
Sharks don’t help themselves of course. They are made of teeth, they have the black dead eyes, and they are literally cold blooded killers. But Spielberg’s anti-shark propaganda, they killed the brave war heroes from USS Indianapolis, so basically they’re part of the Axis Powers, has created a phobia for millions of people. Eagles need to be grateful that Spielberg hadn’t decided to make a film where huge grey eagles flew down from nowhere and plucked people from the ground bearing them up irrevocably in to the sky, because that would be it for eagles. They would be hunted to extinction, and rightly so, because given the chance an eagle would kill you and everyone you care about, rather than the second most populous creature on the planet. I might possibly be confusing eagles and cows, but the point, whatever it was, remains the same.
It would of course have to be Spielberg who makes the movie because he has that special ingredient where he can create phenomena. How many damn documentaries about dinosaurs came out after Jurassic Park, but also how many about cloning and genetics. ET, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan are all more like a state of the nation historical documents than mere movies – more mythology than movies. Alister is absolutely spot on, the movies take time to world build, to put in place structural relationships and for that effort, the character’s matter a bit more and the contrast between extraordinary events and their “ordinary” lives is starker. The “we’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene is great because the main character is just sucking about up until that point, because this is not his gig and just like anyone he doesn’t really know what to do, and so the audience is with him forever in believing that the shark means business.
They already did a remake of Jaws. It’s called The Meg and it’s basically Jason Statham versus a 75-foot-long megalodon shark and yeah I watched it and you know what? I almost kinda liked it so there.
THIS IS A GENIUS IMAGE.
And yes of course it’s about going bigger and more extreme but that’s a part of what makes it beautiful and if you don’t think that the original Jaws would have been improved (if only by a small amount) by Jason Statham then I’m sorry but I think you’re wrong. (Take out “We’re going to need a bigger boat” and replace it with Jason calling Jaws “a plonker” and then just send the Oscar to my home address – thank you and yes you’re welcome).
But wait what the hell am I even talking about?
Oh yeah – “entertainment” vs “arthouse” altho actually I think it’s “entertainment” vs “everything else that’s not entertaining.” And oh my god did Alister seriously mention The Andromeda Strain? Because in the list of films in my head that I would absolutely love to do a Film Club but don’t dare risk it because I know it’ll just be me talking to myself The Andromeda Strain is probably number 1 and just seeing someone else mention it makes my face do this big happy smile thing that I don’t even understand (other films on the list = Prince of Darkness, 13: Game of Death, Kairo, Pain & Gain, Phase IV and Cemetery Man). And hell yes I’d be more than prepared to go to the bat and say that The Andromeda Strain is entertaining. I mean I know it’s mostly just scientists standing around and talking to each other and looking through very powerful microscopes but it’s all so weird and colourful and fully realised and it’s one of the those quality films where you can really get a proper good sense of the geography of the whole thing so that it feels like you’re actually in a proper physical location (albetit a claustrophobic that you feel get tighter and smaller as each scene closes in) and then omg that final 10 minutes with the lasers? It’s like listening to a 15 minute post rock where the first 4/5s are just gentle piano notes and softy strummed guitar and then the whole explodes with no warning and there’s someone going mental on a drumkit and the guitarist has turned every single one of their pedals on and and then started smashing it into the drumkit.
It’s good and I like it is what I’m saying.
And yes it’s entertaining because if you’re prepared to give it half a chance it’s doing lots of very cool story stuff – there’s a mystery and a thing that everyone is trying to work out and it keeps doing unexpected things and playing with your emotions in all sorts of fun and evil ways (there’s a baby and an alcoholic!). And well yeah – it’s written by Michael “Jurassic Park” Crichton and directed by Robert “Freaking” Wise (who you may recall edited this old black and white film about a cane?) so if you’re watching it and you’re not entertained then I feel like that’s probably saying more about you than about the movie.
(And unless I’m very much mistaken – they used some of the soundtrack in that fun little Chernobyl show that everyone keeps going on about? So yeah – you go and watch now ok?)
Oh and Network? Pretty much the same thing. I mean I guess one of the tests of something being entertaining or not is how you feel after watching the first half – if you get that far and the notion of me just makes you want to shrug then by my lights you’re not being entertained or moved in any way and it’s not really much of a story… Entertainment is when you’re like: “oh my god what are you stopping for!?! – I need to know what happens next.”
(The Harry Potter books are total evil fucking bastards when it comes to that kinda thing by the way. I defy anyone to get halfway through and not feel desperate to want to keep reading to find out what happens next).
I do disagree with the idea that Spielberg is a “boring” director tho. I mean yeah he’s deliberate, methodical and all the rest of it but I’m not sure that makes him boring. Ok ok I agree that The Post was for liberal humanist dweebs who found The West Wing too racy but ideology aside – it’s a pretty well put together movie even if the whole thing kinda smelt of old person: and I mean – not every film can be edited like it’s Requiem for a Dream or whatever (altho what a world that would be). And hell – in terms of why so many modern movies suck balls is because they tend to skip over all of that important deliberate and methodical stuff. I mean yeah Spielberg does like to go into detail sometimes to let us know how the dinosaur fences work or how a story gets published and how the alien has a psychic match-up with the kid or whatever: but all of that stuff is always always always about setting up the trap and placing the piece of cheese just so so that when the starts to spring stuff on you later on – you know exactly who is who and what the stakes are. You need to have verses before you can have a chorus and you need to have a chorus before you can have a middle 8. And calling the verses boring doesn’t really count as insight – it means that you have no appreciation for the structure and how it all fits and works together.
I keep mentioning music which is good – because after thinking it over I think the best way to describe Spielberg is that he’s a naturally musical director: which doesn’t really explain him but kinda gets close to it. Watching Jaws there’s that bit where Quint has his fishing line in the water and he starts to get a bite and you can feel the electricity starting to build. You can hear the fishing line go Zpp Zpp Zpp and Quint slowly adjusts his grip and puts his straps on and puts his feet on the thingie and it’s so exciting that you can hardly bare it. The only thing that really gets close and works in a similar manner that I can think of is that scene in Jurassic Park that meant that no one would ever be able to look at a plastic cup full of water in the same way again.
(Admit it – looking at this picture gives you goosebumps right?)
But yeah – how do you go about explaining this stuff? Why does it work and produce such a visceral reaction all the way down in the depths of your lizard brain? Like – with the Quint scene it’s also made better by the fact that Roy Scheider is fumbling around with a knot in the background completely oblivious to what’s happening around him and it all builds and builds and builds up until the moment that Roy shouts out “Hey! I got it!” and then BAM! Everything all happens all at once.
But trying to understand why this works I mean – what is the reason why you need Roy doing the knot when you have Qunit doing his fishing line thing? It doesn’t seem like there’s any good story reason or anything. It’s just an extra thing for no real purpose (do they even mention knots after that? Does the climax of the film depend upon someone tightening up a knot right? No. I don’t think so…). And yet but still: there’s something about it that works and is almost actually kinda magical? And the only way I can really explain it is that it’s like music. Quint played one melody and Roy playing another and then they both build to a certain note and then BAM = the chorus kicks in.
It’s music basically. There’s no real sense or logic to it but well yeah – it works and it makes you feel something in somekind of indefinable way.
And erm yeah – that’s the magic of cinema.
Weekend at Arnie’s
I mean, I liked The Post, I thought it was a great (if corny) picture. When I said boring, I meant that entirely as a compliment! I think we agree that that careful attention to all those “boring” (but actually not boring at all) details is part of what makes Spielberg’s films work so well – it’s essential to the rhythm. It is like music. He has a fantastic sense of the rhythm of a story.
A D Jameson website
Hi all, I’m just chiming to note that I wrote an essay about JAWS that’s available in my book CINEMAPS:
More excitingly (entertainingly?), the amazing Andrew DeGraff painted a beautiful map for the film (and 35 other films).
P.S. For a while now I’ve wanted to write a piece about JAWS IV: THE REVENGE, which I’d argue is a pretty good movie, and much misunderstood. You should talk about that one next!
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
Shark = fear.
Castro saw the threat of capitalism, he saw fear. Rightwingers saw immigrants, they saw fear.
At least thats how I took Zizeks passage – people reinterpret it to their own biases. In the case of Jaws, they see the thing they don’t want to see.
It’s a laboured, familiar point – but I just love that Spielberg didn’t let you see the damn thing. He told and refused to show. It’s a movie about a shark were all people really do is talk about it.
He let us imagine it. And we saw something worse than anything he could conjure, our own unique nightmare cloud – reinterpreted viewer from viewer – and it’s on a collision course with characters we like.
But in a film like this, the story isn’t so much the fear itself – but how people deal with it. Jaws isn’t so much an antagonist as it is an objective. Disappointingly, our titular shark is not wearing a twirly moustache as it rattles off a speech about how its doing this to fight over population or win land rights (though… I would watch that). This is about a person who has to negotiate the bollocks of a familiarly incompetent/negligent government machinery to save the day. There’s a case to be made that Jaws is a social parable, not a thriller, it’s a story of an unwanted but imminent threat coming to society and the ways society react and deal with it. Some fight to ignore it for their own gain, some choose to fight it. All pay a cost. And the mayor – damn i like his candy coloured suits.
(Which is so very American. The only way to stop the threat is to realise that government is shit and you have to go out to see with a harpoon and Richard Dreyfuss.)
But then again, I stopped watching half way through. Not because it was bad, it was great. It’s just JAWS is so embedded in our cultural lexicon. Not just that Williams theme, but half the bits have been recycled and redigested as stellar Simpsons bits, I’m pretty sure most horror film makers treat this film as a damp bible of sorts and we all know the basic beats talking about it. At this point, watching it at home feels less like being told a story than seeing a masterclass in fear.
And the trouble is I was mid way through binging The Boys, which is a comic I’ve read, but a TV series that’s taken the tone and remixed it into a bunch of gloriously fun and funny edge lord surprises. So while the craft and visceral emotion of Jaws is nigh untouchable – does a note of emotion or tension, or love of craft, really come to matter one iota when you just want to see what happens next? I did feel guilty. But then I decided. If we can have people pitching books in this chat, we can have a man talking about a film he only half watched with a cheap beer he’s only half drunk.
I still keep thinking about that opening though. It’s a plastic fin and a girl overacting. But it does sum up the power of cinema. It’s that Eisenstein montage theory in action, the cutting of sound and motion to create something new and inescapably powerful. And that damn Williams theme. And all the negative space in the water that Spielberg forced us to look into. We look into it and we find a reason to shake. And I like my cheap beer.
That’s why we’ll keep coming back to Jaws. There’s a specificity to the rest of the horror greats. A man in a mask. A clear political point. An inimitable auteur’s style. Here there is depth of the sea and the bitter promise of what lies under it. Agnes Varda’s last film spends a lot of time viewing the sand, the sea and the sky as our primal natural elements. We can never touch the sky, We’ll always know what’s on the sand – but the sea – there isn’t the just the promise of untold wonder, but untold catastrophe – and it’s a feeling we all know and understand, just by looking at the damned thing. Jaws isn’t so much about the shark. It’s a monster hiding under an infinite bed – and the different ways different people quake in front of it. It’s a simple thing that we can all share and project ourselves onto.
I can’t find it just yet – but there’s a glorious old Louis CK skit – it’s an old timey film director, on a massive platform, with a bigger megaphone – telling the tide to go back. And writing about Jaws, I can’t help but think that horror and this joke, work because of a universally common human feeling.
Also, defining Spielberg by The Post is like defining Pink Floyd by what their last album was. The Post is…well it’s basically The West Wing’s Jurassic World. It ticks all the boxes. It entertains. But it has nothing to say and doesn’t really achieve anything memorable or particularly distinctive as acts of story or film making. I think I may forgotten about it while I was watching it. Which I wouldn’t particularly mind. BUT. The ad campaign spent 3 months telling me this was Spielberg’s big important political statement, somehow responding to Trump and #metoo in one fell swoop? It basically boiled up to “FREE SPEECH = GOOD” and since Tom Hanks was saying it, that it was important to hear?
I also take slight, moderate umbrage with referring to 2001 as boring. I saw in the Prince Charles last month and I had a blast getting lost in such a perfectly created vision for the future, the weird details, the odd surprises, It was intriguing, slow, often thrilling and absolutely fucking mental. And seen in the right way these days, it’s a beautiful document about how some incredible geniuses saw tomorrow – and they weren’t that far off. (Zuckerberg = Hal 9000 – *runs*)
The Amazing Frankie
They already did a remake of Jaws. It’s called The Meg and it’s basically Jason Statham versus a 75-foot-long megalodon shark and yeah I watched it and you know what? I almost kinda liked it so there.
I’ll watch anything with sharks in it. Deep Blue Sea. Open Water. The Reef. Megalodon. The Meg. Jurassic Shark. Sharknado (all 6). Mega Shark (all 4). Super Shark. Sharktopus. Sand Sharks. Snow Shark. Avalanche Shark. Swamp Sharks. Ozark Sharks. Sharks in Venice. Ghost Shark. House Shark. Even Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre.
What I’m saying is, I’m not picky, if it’s got sharks, I’m in.
Ellen Brody, to Matt Hooper: “My husband tells me you’re in sharks?”
Jaws is still king daddy. It’s to shark films what Night of the Living Dead is to the zombie flick.
Joel and Alister both make good points about the value of entertainment. But a lot of shark movies are entertaining. I think the thing that sets Jaws apart is its heart. I can’t name a single character from the Sharknado franchise off the top of my head (cameos don’t count) but I remember Brody, Hooper and Quint. I know the names of the victims in this film.
The story’s a classic example of man vs. nature. Sorry Joel, I don’t think the shark is a metaphor for communism or fascism or immigrants or Zizek. I think you nailed it with “The shark is a shark.” It doesn’t have to be anything else because buried deep in our monkey brains we still have a visceral animal fear of being prey. It comes with being made of meat.
“Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim… and eat… and make little sharks. And that’s all.”
— Matt Hooper
At the center of Jaws you have three men united in one purpose: to kill the shark.
Quint is haunted with survivor’s guilt and driven to face his fear, killing it over and over and over again. There was no way he was coming back alive; when he smashes the radio, when he tosses them the life jackets, it’s clear he’s made this choice. Once he was so proud he had the name of the ship he served on tattooed onto his body. And then he was left to die in shark infested waters after his mission was over. His whole life since the Indianapolis was designed to bring him back into the jaws of a shark. Maybe the Ahab aspect Alister mentioned was overplayed, I don’t know, but for me it works.
The sinking of the Indianapolis, and the days shark attacks on the survivors that followed, really happened. And in 1975, in the US, there were two successive generations of men who had been traumatized en masse by their experiences in war. First WWII, and then Vietnam. And they were largely left on their own to cope with the psychological aftermath. Maybe in 1975 Quint’s experience resonated more with the audience than it does today.
Brody’s response to being attacked as a child is almost categorically opposite of Quint’s: complete avoidance. He doesn’t go in the water, won’t even get out of his car on the ferry, he never talks about it; it seems like even Ellen doesn’t know the details, since she mentions his fear of water, but she doesn’t seem to understand the significance of the shark.
Even during the second shark attack, it’s Ellen that runs into the water to get their boy. Brody runs back and forth on the beach shouting at everyone to get out of the water. His fear has crippled him. Later that night, Brody sees his son sitting in the little boat they’ve gotten him, and he reacts, viscerally, yelling at him to get out of the water. Ellen says: “He’s in a boat. He’s not gonna go in the water, I don’t think he’ll ever go in the water again after what happened yesterday!”
Brody says: “Don’t say that. I don’t want that to happen.” He means it, too. He’s just understood the potential of transmitting his own fears to his child. And he understands that fear won’t keep him safe.
Hooper’s response to the shark attacking and eating his boat when he was a boy is different again. He was terrified, he tells Ellen, but for him sharks become an object of fascination. He makes it his life’s work to understand them. Contrasted against Quint and Brody, who embody more stereotypical representations of masculinity, Hooper’s… not. He has “city hands” and he’s sarcastic and a bit too brainy. He’s not the hero, that’s Brody, but Hooper’s the character who isn’t controlled or compelled by fear. He’s brave. And he makes it possible for Brody to be brave.
Brody: “I’m not drunk enough to go out on a boat.” Hooper: “Yes, you are.”
Jonathan pinpointed the scene that’s the soul of the movie: Brody, Quint and Hooper in the cabin of the boat, drinking and singing and swapping shark stories.
There’s one moment, when Hooper and Quint are sharing their scars, and Brody almost joins in. He’s about to, he lifts his shirt and there’s a moment where we can see the bite scar on his abdomen.
Then the moment passes and he lowers his shirt.
Quint and Hooper don’t notice.
We’ve heard Hooper’s story, and Quint’s story, and now we know Brody’s, without him saying a word. It’s impossible not to remember the book with the pictures of shark bites.
That reveal joins Brody with Hooper and Quint in shared experience but it isn’t the only reason I love this scene. I also love it because this is where Hooper and Quint bond. Until now, they’ve been antagonists, each thinking they know sharks, and that the other is a dangerous idiot. This is where they finally understand each other’s experience and develop respect.
Alister said: “If you made Jaws today, it’d be some little artisanal indie horror, or the shark would take out half of Amity Island.”
I’d add: “And Hooper would be a lady scientist and we’d have lots of shots of her sciencing in a bikini and later a 90 second scene of her wriggling around on the seabed in a glistening, skin tight wet suit evading the shark, and when she popped up alive at the end of the film Brody would kiss her.”I don’t think it would be a better film for that. We’d lose the complicated relationship between these three men. Quint’s disdain for Hooper would be reduced to casual misogyny, Brody’s overcoming his fear to hunt this shark in the open water would be reduced to a desire to protect lady Hooper, and so on.
It’s interesting the film nixed in favour of Jaws (Superbad) is also very much about male relationships. I watched it just after watching Jaws and while Jaws is a better film, the one-two combo left me thinking a lot about the portrayal of masculinity and male relationships in both films.
Outside of Disney there are lots of movie examples of parents being fridged to get things moving – Batman, Superman, Bob the Builder. And of course the only Avenger with living parents was Thor, and despite their being immortal, they still didn’t make it. Going through the top rated films on IMDB, unless you count the Godfather you have to get to number 26 for family centred drama Life is Beautiful followed by Its a Wonderful Life at Number 32. Otherwise it’s a parade of orphans and unencumbered rogues all the way.
Jaws is the purest essence of this habit where the movie just doesn’t get started until the main character ditches his family. Now there could have been ways to involve the family, maybe the son gets stranded and it’s a race against time, or maybe the Shark kidnaps the wife as part of an elaborate series of murders. Whatever though, because it’s almost impossible to imagine Brody bringing the family along on the Orca. The Orca is a place for straight talking bros with their war stories and scar comparisons.
It’s not like Spielberg is afraid to put children in danger: Temple of Doom, ET, AI, Jurassic Park, Empire of the Sun. But I even including those it still remains the case that almost all his films are about men, free from constraints of family, getting shit done. War of the Worlds has a family in it, but even then only one parent and the children are basically the movie’s McGuffin.
I’m not saying this in a accusing “Spielberg doesn’t do female leads” kind of way. It’s just interesting how in movies generally the role of a “stable family” is like adventure jail, and seen as the peaceful thing to which any disruption is always negative, to the extent that one of the greatest film makers of all time just can’t deal with it. (Although now I think about it, Poltergeist maybe)
It’s such a trope that there has of course been a small backlash: The entire premise of Heat is based on the idea that a playa should never “let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the hear around the corner.” And it takes time to actually get into the lives of the family members left behind by this ridiculous way of life the emotionally useless men lead.
The Incredibles is remarkable partially for being the Disney exception that proves the rule, while Jordan Peele’s Us mocks the dad trying to be the big tough guy defending his family. Hats off then to Terminator 2 for being the only movie which follows the only credible logic which is that if I (as a teenager) was being attacked by a robot from the future I would definitely go and find my mum, and hope she could sort it all out.
My best guess is that 99% (?) of all films are about male relationships.
Me and my flatmate watched Blood Father last night because we’d seen all the other films and strolling through Netflix is like being stuck on a endless circular motorway and eventually you just have to choose something just to get off it. But yeah – it’s yet another Mel Gibson where he’s doing this meta-conciliatory thing where he’s playing a recovering alcoholic who’s pushed away all the people closest to him and all he can do is repent and just to make up for the mess he’s made of his life. Which well yeah – is all very male isn’t it? (Maybe the clue’s in the name of the title?).
Now that Superbad’s been bumped we probably won’t ever back around to it (sorry guys) but yeah if you ever get the chance you should probably watch it – it comes on like it’s a dumb oblivious frat boy type thing – but it’s actually about getting under the skin of male friendships and the lines of intimacy that it’s not possible to cross… (at least for our generations – maybe the future will be better? Who knows? Could be).
Most of the time when I see the argument for diversity being made it’s always at a superficial level – we need more female directors and more female stars. Which yeah is ok as far as it goes – but what’s not often talked about is about what kinda messages and meanings our films are broadcasting: maybe because it’s too complicated for most people to get their head’s around? (Whoops – did I just say that out loud?). Just because someone is a woman doesn’t mean that their film is going to be feminist and just because someone is a man that doesn’t mean that their film won’t be… etc and so on.
Going further than this: I wish that there was more attention paid to the effects of the status quo on how it affects the brains of those who are getting all the benefit from it. There’s a Douglas Adam’s quote about being a horse that goes like this:
“It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.”
(I tweeted this once and it went a little bit viral which I think says a lot about what people are looking for).
Yes it’s hard to be sat on and yes it’s going to affect how you see the world in all sorts of ways – but also being the person sat on top doesn’t really sound like the best thing ever either. I mean – being oblivious about the world and the creatures around you doesn’t like the optimal mental state you know? And basically I wonder how much your brain gets messed up from having 99% of all movies revolve around your gender? I mean obviously you’re going to have an inflated sense of yourself and your point of views and feel a lot more entitled to your opinion and feel very much the centre of the universe and have a lot of the whole: “Well obviously I’m the protagonist of reality” thing going on (but then again maybe that’s something we all have going on?).
There’s this kinda cultural cliche that women are unknowable (even to themselves) and I’ve often wondered if that’s somekind of necessary thing about how the fairer sex works or if it’s just because the patriarchy being what it is – there aren’t as much opportunities for women to see their own lives and experiences reflected back at them? And hey you know – in terms of making an argument that’s going to convince the most amount of people – maybe it’s in the best interests of us men to understand how women think too? Thinking back especially when I was a dirty and confused teenage boy it actually would have been really helpful to have better models of how women think and behave other than Ellen Louise Ripley, Jenette Vasquez and well… Sarah Connor (LOL).
To pick up on Jonathan’s point tho: I’m not sure how much of a feminist win it really is to put forward the Terminator 2 model of Sarah Connor as a role model being that most of the “cool” things about her are masculine one: big guns and pull ups etc. (I can hear Hudson in my head: “Hey Sarah, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”).
Sadly I think Frankie is right with this: “And Hooper would be a lady scientist and we’d have lots of shots of her sciencing in a bikini and later a 90 second scene of her wriggling around on the seabed in a glistening, skin tight wet suit evading the shark, and when she popped up alive at the end of the film Brody would kiss her.” Although it would be cool if they managed to get whoever the modern female equivalent of Richard Dreyfuss in… (Who would that be? Sandra Bullock maybe?) but then the contradiction of identity politics is always: that if you want to normalise this stuff then the best thing to do is not to celebrate it but then if you don’t celebrate it then nobody notices. Or to put it another way: the battle is won not when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington win the Oscars and everyone celebrates it’s when they win the Oscars and nobody cares.
(Pictured: the ultimate moral stance).
And in fact – maybe this is something I missed when we were talking about Fury Road? Maybe part of it’s feminism is that Furiosa is able to just be a person without having to be treated as a potential sex partner by Max or Nux? At the end Max gives her his blood – but that’s the only transmission of bodily fluids the film is interested in (so to speak).
I saw a joke once about how the important thing about labelling kids “girl” and “boy” and dressing them in pink and/or blue is so that everyone that sees them knows exactly what their genitalia looks like… And yeah but sorry raising your kid non-binary doesn’t help you escape this trap: if anything it just heightens things because now everyone wants to know if the kid has got one of those ones that stick out or one of those ones that go in.
Basically – I’m waiting for the revolution where everyone is just allowed to be whoever they want to be and we don’t need to worry about all this stuff. But I get that I’ll probably be waiting for a while…
Now if you excuse me: I’m going to go watch Shark in Venice…
Whoops. Wait a second.
Damn it. You can’t trust anything anymore.
Re: “Incidentally, this is why I think Quint kind of stretches things a bit – his Indianapolis story, his Ahab-eque obsession, it’s a bit too contrived.”
I really like the Indianapolis story. It makes me realise that films don’t really do long speeches anymore. Maybe because most people think that they’re too contrived. No one speaks for long. Everyone just kinda communicates in quippy tweet-length format. Just enough to keep the plot moving but not actually long enough to say anything to give you a sense of the character. Nowadays we mostly rely upon what we know about the actor and have that fill in the blanks. I mean yeah Quint is a cartoon (“Here lies the body of Mary Lee; died at the age of a hundred and three. For fifteen years she kept her viginity; not a bad record for this vicinity.”) but at he feels like a cartoon with stuff going on underneath. And well yeah if the ending of Jaws tells us anything it’s that if you cut him then you know he bleeds.
The Indianapolis story is an interesting one tho. Especially how it wraps up with that final line “Anyway… we delivered the bomb.”
Am pretty sure I’m mentioned this before in the film club but I do find it very interesting how “The Hiroshima bomb” warped the American sense of storytelling to such an extent that – just speaking personally as someone who’s been immersed in American media since I’ve been born – it’s almost impossible for me to think of any emotionally satisfying film that doesn’t end with a big massive explosion. Obviously the reality is much more complicated (reality always is) but having a world war end with the biggest explosion of all time has obviously affected the brains of everyone since so that any other resolution just doesn’t have the same attraction and obviously there’s the knock-on effect of the people being influenced by it influencing the next generation influencing the next generation influencing the next generation and so on and so on and so on: to the point where it becomes common sense and just a natural part of how we see the world and our stories and ourselves.
If you think that maybe this is a bit much and I’m pushing the point too far – I mean: look at Jaws itself. And try to imagine the ways that it could possibly ended – maybe they could have chased the shark off? Maybe the shark dies a natural death? Maybe they could have learned to live in peace and harmony with the shark? Maybe they teamed up with some dolphins to make the shark reform it’s ways? Maybe they realise that the shark was caused by Capitalism and realised that the thing that had to changed was the system itself?
Obviously ha no – don’t be silly – those are all crazy ideas.
Instead let’s go for Roy Scheider firing a gun at the shark that causes the shark to explode.
Obviously Zizek got it wrong and the shark is the Japanese.
Gestalt theories of perception are based on human nature being inclined to understand objects as an entire structure rather than the sum of its parts. So in practise if you see a pattern of dots your brain might link them to a shape or structure. It’s a nice example of the weird software underlying our consciousness and also the way we interact not just with moving images but with narratives. For all our big talk, the myth of individual personality is barely electron deep.
Horror movies are the best example of how our primal instincts can be manipulated to the extent that it almost feels like a betrayal when we voluntarily flinch at tension and jump-scares. Jaws is like a 10 course meal combining a lot of things we are just naturally freighters of. Take teeth for example. Get a piece of paper, draw a smiley face and add 2 fangs and it’s instantly bad. Now draw 10 pointy teeth and it’s even more malign. Now draw hundreds of hundreds of teeth until all you can see is teeth and 2 dead staring eyes, and you have a shark. Now draw teeth page after page again and again until your living room is filled up with zigzags and paper. See it’s terrifying.
Similarly the way a simple minor chord progressions can invoke menace to the point where even though you know the jump-scare is coming you can’t help yourself. It’s not real, you know it’s not real but it’s a DNA level evolutionary trait developed over millennia from a time when minor chord progressions used to hunt us for food in the grassy savannah.
Jaw’s and its progeny represent exactly the same logic. The Alien has a whole extra mouth and lives in the shadows; the velociraptors are very toothy and uncannily agile; while of course there are an assortment of crocodile, piranha and spider movies cheerfully copying and pasting the Jaws trope, and damn why not, cos it works.
You can give a lot of credit to Hitchcock for developing these tools, but Spielberg brings a layered threat which has taken up valuable real estate in the cultural consciousness, triggered in our minds just by 2 notes and perhaps a perhaps a ripple in the water. There is also an element of plausibility because it’s safe to say there is a much greater likelihood of be dragged underwater by a shark in the ocean, than being chased by James Mason across Mount Rushmore, if only because of the relatively convenience of the ocean.