Friday, May 01, 2009


"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. Now, why don't you take a long, close look at this sign...those proportions are correct."

-Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) describes the nature of the enemy to a wavering politician in Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975).

I was in kindergarten in 1975, and I'll never forget that one of my best friends came to school that Halloween costumed as the great white shark from Jaws (1975).
I don't remember what I was wearing for the holiday, but I remember that shark costume plain as day.

Jaws was also a subject of discussion at Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house in Verona, N.J., that year, especially with my aunt Vivian (a horror movie devotee...). I even owned a goofy little Jaws-themed paperback joke book (dopey shark joke after dopey shark joke...) and a Jaws game from Ideal (in which you could fish the blue plastic contents out of the great white shark's stomach before his fanged jaws snapped shut on your hand.)

As someone who lived through that time and soaked it all up, I can tell you with certainty that the Steven Spielberg film represented an absolute national sensation from the movie theaters to book stores, to toy shelves, to playgrounds. My parents didn't let me see the movie at that point (a good thing, I estimate...), but many of my friends in kindergarten did see it (and heck, it was rated PG!).

Jaws was a blockbuster in 1975, all right (actually, it supplanted The Exorcist as the highest grossing film of all time...), but it's also a movie that has survived the test of time. Today, you can find Jaws on AFI's list of the greatest American films in history, for instance. It has been termed "culturally significant" by the U.S. Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry. Spielberg's horror epic even swims in the waters of the top 250 movies at the IMDB. In terms of the pop culture, Jaws has inspired sequels, rip-offs, amusement park rides, video games, and heavily influenced the public's perception of sharks.

Amazingly, Jaws remains as potent and frightening a film today -- some thirty-four years after its theatrical release -- and accordingly, I want to look at some of the reasons why the film remains so scary and so effective. But first, a brief refresher on the film's narrative.

Based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws depicts the story of a small island community, a "summer town" called Amity, as it is bedeviled by the arrival of a rogue great white shark in its silver waters. Under pressure from the concerned town elders because the lucrative July 4th weekend is imperiled, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) covers-up the first shark attack and allows Amity's beaches to remain open.

After a second shark attack claims the life of a child, Alex Kintner, Brody faces the animosity of the very citizens he is sworn to protect. Eventually, Brody, a young marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a colorful local fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) team up aboard the ship Orca to battle the shark at sea. Unfortunately for these heroic men, the great white shark proves resourceful, powerful, smart...and committed to their destruction.

And What Did you Say The Name of This Shark Is?
Jaws derives much of its terror from what you might half-jokingly term "information overload." Although the great white shark remains hidden beneath the waves for most of the film -- unseen but imagined -- Steven Spielberg fills in that visual gap (and the viewer's imagination) with a plethora of facts and figures about this ancient, deadly predator.

Legendarily, the life-size mechanical model of the shark (named Bruce) malfunctioned repeatedly during production of the film, a reality which forced Spielberg to hide the creature from the camera for much of the time. Yet this problem actually worked out in the film's best interest. Because for much of the first two acts, unrelenting tension builds as a stream of data about the "monster" washes over us. It's the education of Martin Brody, and the education of Jaws' audience.

After a close-up shot of a typewriter clacking out the words "SHARK ATTACK (all caps), images, illustrations and descriptions of the shark start to hurtle across the screen in ever increasing numbers. Chief Brody reads from a book that shows a mythological-style rendering of a shark as a boat-destroying, ferocious sea monster.

Another schematic in the same scene reveals a graph of shark "radar," the fashion by which the shark senses a "distressed" fish (the prey...) far away in the water.

Additional photos in the book -- and shown full-screen by Spielberg -- depict the damage a shark can inflict: victims of shark bites both living and dead. These are not photos made up for the film, incidentally, but authentic photographs of real-life shark attack victims.

Why, there's even a "gallows" humor drawing of a shark (with a human inside its giant maw...) drawn by Quint at one point, a "cartoon" version of our learning.

Taken together, these various images cover all aspects of shark-dom: from reputation and lore to ability, to their impact on soft human flesh, to the macabre and ghastly.

The information about sharks also comes to Brody (the audience surrogate) in other ways, through both complementary pieces of his heroic triumvirate, Hooper and Quint, respectively. The young, enthusiastic, secular Hooper first becomes conveyor of data in his capacity as a scientist.

Hooper arrives in Amity and promptly performs an autopsy on shark attack victim Chrissie Watkins. He records the examination aloud, into a tape recorder mic (while Brody listens). Hooper's vocal survey of the extensive wounds on the corpse permits the audience to learn precisely what occurred when this girl was attacked and partially devoured by a great white shark. Hooper speaks in clinical, scientific terms of something utterly grotesque: "The torso has been severed in mid-thorax; there are no major organs remaining...right arm has been severed above the elbow with massive tissue loss in the upper musculature... partially denuded bone remaining..."

As Brody's science teacher of sorts, Hooper later leads the chief through a disgusting (and wet...) dissection of a dead tiger shark (one captured and thought to be the Amity offender). Again, Hooper educates not just Brody; he educates the audience about a shark's eating habits and patterns. All these facts -- like those presented by illustrations in books -- register powerfully with the viewer and we begin to understand what kind of "monster" these men face.

Later, aboard the Orca, Quint completes Brody's learning curve about sharks with the final piece of the equation: first-hand experience. Quint recounts, in a captivating sequence, how he served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis in 1945. How the ship was sunk (after delivering the Hiroshima bomb), and how 1100 American sailors found themselves in shark-infested water for days on end.

Over a thousand sailors went into the water and only approximately three-hundred came out.

As Quint relates: "the idea was: shark comes to the nearest man, that man he starts poundin' and hollerin' and screamin' and sometimes the shark go away... but sometimes he wouldn't go away. Sometimes that shark he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. And, you know, the thing about a shark... he's got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll's eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn't seem to be living... until he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then... ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin'. The ocean turns red, and despite all the poundin' and the hollerin', they all come in and they... rip you to pieces."
This testimony about an eyewitness account is not the only "history" lesson for Brody, either. Brief reference is also made in the film to the real-life "Jersey man-eater" incident of July 1 - July 12, 1916, in which four summer swimmers were attacked by a shark on the New Jersey coast.

This "information overload" concerning sharks -- from mythology and scientific facts to history and nightmarish first-person testimony -- builds up the threat of the film's villain to an extreme level, while the actual beast remains silent, unseen. When the shark does wage its final attack, the audience has been rigorously prepared and it feels frightened almost reflexively. Spielberg's greatest asset here is that he has created, from scratch, an educated audience; one who fully appreciates the threat of the great white shark. A smart audience is a prepared audience. And a prepared audience is a worried one. We also become invested in Brody as our lead because we learn, alongside him, all these things. When he beats the shark, we feel as if we've been a part of the victory.

Another clever bit here: after all the "education" and "knowledge" and "information," Spielberg harks back to the mythological aspect of sea monsters, hinting that this is no ordinary shark, but a real survivor -- a monster -- and possibly even supernatural in nature (like Michael Myers from Halloween).

Consider that this sea dragon arrives in Amity (and comes for Quint?) thirty years to the day of the Indianapolis incident (which occurred June 30, 1945). Given this anniversary, one must consider the idea that the shark could be more than mere animal. It could, in fact, be some kind of supernatural angel of death.

Thematically, the shark could also serve as a Freudian symptom of guilt repressed in the American psyche. The shark attack on Indianapolis occurred thirty years earlier, at the end of World War II, when a devastating weapon was deployed by the United states.

Now, in 1975, this shark arrives on the home front just scant months after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War (April 30, 1975) -- think of the images of American helicopters dropped off aircraft carriers into the sea. This shark nearly kills a young man, Hooper, who would have likely been the same age as Quint when he served in the navy during World War II.

Does the shark represent some form of natural blow back against American foreign policy overseas? I would say this is over-reach, a far-fetched notion if not for the fact that the shark's assault on the white-picket fences of Amity strikes us right where it hurts: in the wallet; devastating the economy. It isn't just a few people who are made to suffer, but everyone in the community. And that leads us directly to an understanding of the context behind Jaws.

It Was Only Local Jurisdiction

President Nixon resigned from the White House on August 9, 1974...scarcely a year before the release of Jaws.

He did so because he faced Impeachment and removal from office in the Watergate scandal, a benign-sounding umbrella for a plethora of crimes that included breaking-and-entering, political espionage, illegal wire-tapping, and money laundering.

It was clear to the American people, who had watched the Watergate hearings and investigations on television for years, that Nixon and his lackeys had broken the law, to the detriment of the public covenant. It was a breach of the sacred trust, and a collapse of one pillar of American nationalism: faith in government.

In the small town of Amity in Jaws, the Watergate scandal is played out in microcosm. Chief Brody conspires with the town medical examiner, at the behest of Larry Vaughn, the mayor, to "hide" the truth about the shark attack that claimed the life of young Chrissie. Another child dies because of this lie. We are thus treated to scenes of Brody and the town officials hounded by the press (represented by Peter Benchley...), much as Nixon felt hounded by Woodward and Bernstein and the rest. We are thus treating to a town council meeting which plays like a congressional Watergate hearing writ small, with a row of politicians at a long time before an angry crowd, the man in charge banging the gavel helplessly.

These were images that had immediate and powerful resonance at the time of Jaws.
If you combine the "keep the beaches open" conspiracy with the Indianapolis story (a story, essentially, of an impotent, abandoned military) what you get in Jaws is a story about America's 1970s "crisis of confidence," to adopt a phrase from ex-president Jimmy Carter.

Following Watergate, following Vietnam, there was no faith in elected leaders, and Jaws mirrors that reality with an unforgiving depiction of craven politicians and bureaucrats. The cure is also provided, however: the heroism of the individual; the old legend of the cowboy who rides into town and seeks justice. Brody is clearly that figure here: an outsider in the corrupt town of Amity (he's from the NYPD); and the man who rides out onto the sea to face Amity's enemy head on, despite his own fear of the sea and "drowning." Yes Brody was involved in the cover-up, but Americans don't like their heroes too neat. Brody must have a little blood on his hands so that his story of heroism is also one of redemption.

Why is Jaws so enduring and appealing? Simple answer: it's positively archetypal in its presentation of both the monster -- a sea-going dragon ascribed supernatural power -- and it's hero: an everyman who challenges city hall and saves the townsfolk. This hero is ably supported by energetic youth and up-to-date science (Hooper), and also wisdom and experience in the form of the veteran Quint. Not coincidentally, many of the political problems that Jaws deals with (a lost war; a presidential scandal) are things we still see on our landscape today. A president who broke the Geneva Conventions. Another foreign war botched. An economy seemingly hanging on by a thread. In fact, Jaws seems pretty much of the moment, if you take out the 1970s fashions.

You're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

You can't truly have an adequate discussion of Jaws without some mention of film technique. The film's first scene exemplifies Spielberg's intelligent, visual approach to the thrilling material.

This introduction to the world of Jaws -- which features a teenager going out for a swim in the ocean and getting the surprise of her life - proves pitch perfect both in orchestration and effect. Hyperbole aside, can you think of a better (or more famous) horror movie prologue than the one featured here?

The film begins under the sea as Spielberg's camera adopts the P.O.V. of the shark itself. We cling to the bottom of the ocean, just skirting it as we move inland. Then, we cut to the beach, and a long, lackadaisical establishing pan across a typical teenage party. Young people are smoking weed, drinking, canoodling...doing what young people do on summer nights, and Spielberg's choice of shot captures that vibe.

When one of the group -- the blond-haired seventies goddess named Chrissie -- gets up to leave the bunch, Spielberg cuts abruptly to a high angle (from a few feet away); a view that we understand signifies doom and danger, and which serves to distance us just a little from the individuals on-screen.

With a horny (but drunk...) companion in tow, Chrissie rapidly disrobes for a night-time dip in the sea, and Spielberg cuts to an angle far below her, from the bottom of the ocean looking up. We see Chrissie's beautiful nude form cutting the surface above, and the first thing you might think of is another monster movie, Jack Arnold's Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). Remember how the creature there spied lovely Julie Adams in the water...even stopping to dance with her (without her knowledge) in the murky lagoon?

Well, that was an image, perhaps, out of a more romantic age. In this case, the swimmer is nude, not garbed, and contact with the monster is quick and fatal, not the beginning of any sort of "relationship." In a horrifying close-shot, we see Chrissie break the surface, as something unseen but immensely powerful tugs at her from below. Once. Then again. After an instant, you realize the shark is actually eating her...ripping through her legs and torso. She begs God for help, but as you might expect in the secular 1970s, there is no help for her.

The extremely unnerving aspect of Spielberg's execution is that recognition of the shark's attack dawns on the audience as the same time it dawns on Chrissie. She doesn't even realize a leg is gone, at first. It's horrifying, but -- in the best tradition of the genre -- this scene is also oddly beautiful. The gorgeous sea; the lovely human form. The night-time lighting.

Everything about this moment should be romantic and wonderful, but isn't. Again, you can detect how Spielberg is taking the malaise days mood of the nation to generate his aura of terror; his overturning of the traditional order. Just as our belief in ourselves as a "good" and powerful nation was overturned by Vietnam and Watergate.

The more puritanical or conservative among us will also recognize this inaugural scene of Jaws as being an early corollary of the "vice precedes slice and dice" dynamic of many a slasher or Friday the 13th film. A young couple, eager to have pre-marital sex (after smoking weed, no less...) faces a surprise "monster" in a foreign realm. Here not in the woods of Crystal Lake, but in a sea of secrets and monsters. It's also no coincidence, I believe, that the first victim in the film is a gorgeous, athletic blond with a perfect figure. Chrissie is the American Ideal of Beauty...torn asunder and devoured before the movie proper has even begun. If that image doesn't unsettle you, nothing will.

I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland; 2002), that, ultimately the characteristics that make a film great go far beyond any rudimentary combination of acting, photography, editing and music. It's a magic equation that some films get right and some don't. Jaws is a classic, I believe, because it educates the viewer about the central diabolical threat and then surprises the viewer by going a step further and hinting that the great white shark is no mere animal, but actually an ancient, malovelent force. The film also brilliantly reflects the issues of the age in which it was created. And finally, Jaws updates the archetypes of good and evil that generations of Americans have grown up recounting, even though it does so with a distinctly disco decade twist. The Hooper-Brody-Quint troika is iconic too, and I love the male-bonding aspects of the film, with "modern" men like Brody and Hooper learning, eventually, to fall in love, after a fashion, with the inappropriate, Quint...warts and all.

Finally, you should never underestimate that Jaws depends on imagination and mystery. It is set on the sea, a murky realm of the unknown where the shark boasts the home field davantage. Meanwhile, man is awkward and endangered there. We can't see the shark...but he can see us. With those black, devil eyes. When you suddenly realize that all that's standing between Brody and those black eyes and jaws is a thin layer of wood (the Orca); when you think about all the information we've been given about great whites and their deadly qualities, you'll agree reflexively - instinctively -- with the good chief's prognosis.

We're gonna need a bigger boat.


  1. What an excellent look at this classic. You're right, the film has definitely stood the test of time and every so often I pull it out and watch and am drawn into the fascinating characters and exciting story every single time.

    There is something about the way Brody, Quint and Hooper interact with each other, esp. once they are on the boat and the famous Indianapolis monologue scene that is just so well done, acted and written. The characters are so fully realized and unlike so many horror films of today, the filmmakers actually take the time to develop these characters, what motivates them, what scares them, what they have at stake, etc. I think that is absolutely crucial in how we identify and empathize with them, which, of course, pays off later on when they go toe-to-toe with the shark.

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Now, it makes me wanna watch JAWS again.

  2. Wow! I'm always amazed by your ability to say something new and surprising about films that I know by heart.

  3. Thanks guys! Glad you liked the review. Every time I watch JAWS, I'm bowled over again. What a great movie...


  4. Hands down, this is my favorite movie of all time. I must have seen it a zillion times and can watch it a zillion more.

    I think it's interesting how you liken Jaws at one point to an unstoppable force ala Michael Myers, because I often think of Jaws 2 as a slasher film. It's got the set up (teenagers stranded, a killing machine, desolate setting...). I feel like I got some confirmation here! :)

    Also the comparison to Jaws unleashing himself on the island and Idianapolis anniversary is very interesting. Kind of makes me see the film in a whole new light!

    Awesome review! Thanks!