Sean K. Cureton

Friendship Amid Terror In Jaws

In My Favorite Movies on June 6, 2015 at 12:08 pm
Jaws Poster

Universal Pictures

Jaws (1975)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Commercial Release: June 1st, 1975

Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut, Jaws, was initially released in theaters forty years ago, on June 1st, 1975, making the film four decades old, but just as viscerally immediate in its modern approach as ever. Ostensibly about a shark in much the same way that Herman Melville’s great epic Moby Dick is about a whale, Spielberg’s blockbuster summer thriller is about much more than the terror depicted most prominently on its theatrical poster. In Spielberg’s debut feature film, Roy Scheider plays police chief Martin Brody, a city dwelling officer of the law tasked with keeping the peace in the ironically named beachside hamlet of Amity Island from the film’s titular, subterranean, encroaching threat. Robert Shaw is the crusty sea captain and shark hunter Quint, whose street smarts serve him well in his own more personal desire to see the constant terror of the film put to rest. Lastly, Richard Dreyfuss represents the laws of science and reason as oceanographer Matt Hooper, whose text book answers and rational approach to the task at hand rein in the emotional core of Scheider, as well as tempering the unbridled, ego-driven enthusiasm of Shaw’s Quint; in short, they play the superego, the id, and the ego of one objective interpersonal drive.

More than the sum of its parts, Jaws is a film about friendship, as Murray Hamilton naively says of his small resort side town in a conversation delivered somewhere around the half way point of the film’s overarching narrative. Within the context of the formerly sited exchange, when Hamilton’s character delivers his homily on friendship to Scheider’s Brody, it is a lesson delivered while the two actors are comically placed in front of a billboard advertisement for Amity Island which has been defaced with a graffiti shark devouring the ad campaign’s depicted bathing beauty. The outward comedy visually established lends some slapstick humor to the proceeding on screen, imbuing the film’s cinematic universe with the humanity of adolescent high jinks and an innately human desire to make fun of that which we fear. This form of playful distraction is in keeping with the film’s thematic rendering of Amity Island as an insulated community, conservative to its core while being besieged on all sides by the changing social values of the times, most obviously represented in the opening sequence’s depiction of young college students around the proverbial camp fire. When one of these young innocents is taken by the shark, and Hamilton’s naïve optimism in the face of reality is made into parody before his character even arrives on screen, Spielberg’s Jaws becomes a film that is thematically concerned with the larger surrounding culture of its more individually detailed populace.

One of the most well-known and frequently sited hardships faced by Spielberg and his crew on the set of Jaws is without a doubt the difficulty presented by the mechanical shark itself. During the film’s shoot, the shark proved cumbersome to use for any extended period of time, and is often derided by viewers to this day for looking fake and ostensibly ridiculous when it finally arrives on screen. For some, Jaws’ shark is the be all end all barometer by which the film’s success may be measured, the prop used more important than the terror which it at times suggests and provokes. More unnatural than some of the hammy acting delivered by a few of the film’s supporting players is the shark itself, the rubbery veneer of Spielberg’s great white a facet of movie magic that is never quiet magical enough for a select cadre of viewers. In a film that is meant to be frightening, Spielberg’s Jaws visually lends itself to camp, with the director himself often making mention of the lack of special effects used in the film’s final cut when compared to his own desire for more visual terrors on the high sea.

And yet much of what makes Spielberg’s 1975 feature a classic still worthy of study comes in its minimal usage of the film’s mechanical beast. Up until the final act of the film, the viewer’s intimacy with the film’s titular menace is entirely implied, a terror lurking just out of frame, but always front and center in the mind’s eye. Over the course of the film’s two hour run time, the great white shark begins to take on a spectral ethereality, his aura infecting every frame, shot, and sequence despite being entirely absent most of the time. It’s easy to make light of the shoddy special effects used to make the big rubber thing come to life by film’s end, but the unreality of the film’s central terror feels beside the point when Quint begins to scream amid the blood and gore of his own innards. Whether or not we entirely believe the shark finally presented to us as being a terror worthy of the film’s narrative, you’d be hard pressed to find a viewer who doesn’t empathetically identify with Roy Scheider’s police chief Brody and his fear of the water by film’s end, as the camaraderie established between the film’s central protagonists provides the real emotional crux of the film’s drama and turmoil.

Forty years on, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still a seminal classic of modern American moviemaking, as thrilling as it is dramatically compelling. Over the years, the familial drama of Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody is the singular aspect of the film’s narrative that continues to resonant, the relevance of wanting to protect and provide for the ones you love the film’s true source of unease and tension. In a film whose poster supports and promises “The terrifying motion picture from the terrifying No. 1 bestseller,” and depicts the great white front and center, Spielberg’s directorial debut is more of a subtle drama that works on our most deeply held human emotions, with the connections developed between the film’s characters  being of true central importance. Which is not to say that the film is entirely un-terrifying, but rather that the terrors that it holds are more nuanced and complicated than the more visceral thrills advertised by the pop art of the film’s iconic poster. It’s been a long time since Jaws first made a splash in the waters of the American silver screen, and yet we’re all still afraid to go in the water, which is a legacy that Spielberg can proudly enjoy on the fortieth anniversary of Jaws this summer.

Jaws is available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD, and is one of My Favorite Movies.

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