Noel: Steven Spielberg is generally thought of as a master of the special-effects-driven movie—and a pioneer of the use of digital technology, with his Jurassic Park—but apart from the mechanical shark, most of Jaws’ “effects” derive from old-fashioned Hollywood craftsmanship. Spielberg brings something visually surprising or effective to nearly every scene, using simple tricks: the invisible wipe (changing the shot immediately after an extra walks in front of the lens), the Vertigo shot (zooming in on a character while pulling the camera back, to create the impression of high anxiety), and more. My favorite one of these clever, low-tech effects is when Spielberg mounts the camera on a moving ferry, letting him capture an entire conversation in one long shot while varying the view in the background, thus making expository dialogue less of a chore.
Because Jaws borrows so much from directors like Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean, I’ve heard the movie referred to as a pastiche, similar to what Quentin Tarantino does with his films. But what do you guys think? Does Jaws feel like a Spielberg film as we later came to know it, or is it more “cinema’s greatest hits?”
Tasha: My favorite shot in the film comes just after the false-alarm hysteria caused by the two kids with a cardboard fin: Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) hears a woman screaming that the shark is swimming into the pond, where his older son is hanging out on his boat. Brody looks disgusted and apathetic, and starts walking that way, through a packed crowd. And then, still half-hidden from the camera, still in the same unbroken shot, he picks up the pace. The camera moves in closer on him as his annoyance visibly turns to worry, and he breaks into a run, as John Williams’ score speeds up at the same rate. I don’t know how easy or difficult that shot was—it covers enough ground and eventually moves quickly enough that the camera might have been on a track, which would be a pain on the beach—but for me, it’s much more a signature Spielberg shot than a Hitchcock moment or a David Lean moment. They were much more focused on visual clarity, but Spielberg lets the crowd and the motion muddle and complicate the shot until it becomes lost in a blur of speed. The way that moment starts slow, then rapidly builds to a tension-inducing frenzy—there’s a lot of Spielberg-specific storytelling built into just a few seconds.
And there are other signatures, too, like the awestruck faces he loves so much. And the moment where Brody watches the shark’s progress through a boat window that distances him from the action, but reflects what he’s seeing so the audience can see it too. And the use of spreading pools of vividly colored light during the scene where Brody and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) investigate a damaged, seemingly abandoned boat. Even the naturalism of the dialogue and the heavy portentous tone feel more like Duel than like Vertigo or Spielberg’s other inspirations. There’s plenty of influence in this movie, but there are so many Spielberg signatures that it seems mighty dismissive to write it all off as pastiche.
Scott: Spielberg is a classicist who draws plenty on filmmakers like Hitchcock and Lean—and still shoots in 35mm—but everybody borrows from everybody, and I don’t consider Jaws to be a pastiche in the sense of Tarantino’s work. The former simply combines elements of style in a way we’ve come to understand as distinctly “Spielbergian.” What stands out for me is the offhand way he chooses to give visual information, which Noel and Keith have touched on already. He famously holds off on showing the shark, but he does show its movements, with its fin, or with a dock skidding across the water. And he’s wonderful with reaction shots: The eyes and faces in Jaws tell so much of the story. That continued to be a factor in his later films, too, especially when he was dealing with children.
Nathan: The film feels strikingly Robert Altman-esque. Partly, it’s a matter of style. Jaws features a lot of overlapping dialogue that requires and rewards intense concentration, as well as long shots of crowds of people, or just a number of different characters, conveying a great deal of information, visual and otherwise, for the audience to process. There’s a lot going on in just about every frame of Jaws, but not in a way that feels overcrowded, busy, or confusing. And like Altman, Spielberg is absolutely fascinated in Jaws by the complexities and contradictions of human nature, and how they are reflected in a cast he clearly sees as crucial collaborators. There was reportedly a fair amount of improvisation on the set of Jaws, which helps explain why it feels so much freer and looser than Spielberg’s more rigidly controlled later films.
Keith: To get back to the effects half of the equation, it has to be said that when Spielberg does use special effects, he uses them spectacularly. The shark, which the production nicknamed “Bruce,” is terrifying when we do see it, first a little in the last beachside attack, then a lot when the three heroes pursue it in the Orca. It has the pitiless “doll’s eyes” Quint (Robert Shaw) describes, and it moves with utter relentlessness. There’s no small amount of constructive editing involved in creating the illusion of a great white gone bad, but Spielberg makes it feel like something you would not want to encounter while swimming.
Tasha: Well… almost. I still cringe every time Bruce lunges up onto the boat. I know that in one location in the world, great whites have learned to breech to ambush their prey, but hopping onto a boat to smash it and eat the people on board still seems silly to me, and Bruce looks so rigid and plastic in that one moment. The fake shark is so effective in other sequences—particularly glimpsed in stately, silent underwater motion when closing in on the drunk man in the pond, then disappearing from view just as he goes under—but the boat-attack was something I just never bought. I can suspend my disbelief about all the other unlikely, too-intelligent things the shark does to surprise Quint over the course of the film—this is, after all, a Moby Dick-derived story about the eternal implacability and brutality of nature, and how ill-equipped civilization is to handle it on its own turf, so the shark’s wiliness is metaphorical as much as literal. But c’mon, its rearing up out of the water is just silly.
Scott: We spend so much time thinking about the shark’s appearance in the narrative—the first- and second-act teases before it finally surfaces in full in the third—that it’s easy to forget that Jaws is Sheriff Brody’s story, and it’s structured around his journey toward confronting and killing this beast. And the journey begins with self-doubt, with Brody trying to reconcile his duties as a protector of the people with the pressures of community leaders who need those summer tourist dollars to stay afloat. Jaws is so effective as a thrill machine that it doesn’t get enough credit for depicting how our business-first attitudes can trump fundamental concerns about public health and safety. Much of the film’s tension comes from Brody being caught between that pressure, which temporarily walls him up in denial, and his not-really-paranoid suspicion that the creature is still lurking, and any further victims will be his responsibility. (The scene of him watching—and eventually clearing—the beach is perhaps the most masterful piece of suspense filmmaking in the whole movie.) Once the film definitively moves to the hunt, and Brody joins two other men on the boat in pursuit, Jaws shifts dramatically in tone, but Brody’s arc unifies it.
Tasha: And the story isn’t just about Brody’s pursuit of the shark, it’s about him gradually learning to stand up for himself. The Brody we see at the beginning of the movie seems well-liked, but in large part because he’s competent in an unassuming, cooperative, deferential way: There’s a running theme about people approaching him to bitch about petty parking problems and neighbor squabbles, and he shrugs those people off kindly without ever being sharp about it. He doesn’t much resist the mayor about keeping the beaches open, even though he clearly disagrees; he rolls over and does as he’s told. When he does demand his way by insisting on hiring Quint, he just gives himself a new, bigger boss: On the boat, he defers to Quint and Hooper over and over, only kicking up the slightest guff about being low man on the totem pole, and kvetching in the background about how he really wants that bigger boat. I love the moment during Quint and Hooper’s scar-comparison contest when Brody shyly hikes up his shirt to reveal his appendectomy scar, then decides it isn’t worthy, and covers it again. Brody taking the shark down in the end is a vindication for his constantly stepped-on manhood. In that moment, he thinks he’s the only one of them left alive—so finally, he can take action without conference or apology. After two hours of being jockeyed into last place, he can finally choose his own clear, direct course of action.
Keith: If I have any complaints with Jaws—and I really don’t—it’s that I’m a little sorry it abandons the richly realized world of Amity, with its tourist-friendly quaintness and craven, money-motivated mayor, after a certain point. There are American flags and high spirits everywhere, but also a sense that something is terribly wrong, and those in authority aren’t always looking after the citizens’ best interests. It’s a film about a shark, sure, but also one about the years between Watergate and the Bicentennial.
Tasha: That’s another indication that the story is really all about Brody, though. Amity is the place where he can’t really be himself—he’s narratively hemmed in by constant demands and pressures, and structurally hemmed in by overcrowded shots and overlapping, naturalistic sound design that fills the air with chatter and brass-band parade music. He’s portrayed as visually and aurally lost in an intensely cluttered, confusing community. Then the movie gets him out to the boat, with its long shots and long silences of simple, wide-open vistas. He has an obvious mandate, and the storytelling and sound design simplify considerably. He loses his community, then his family, then his companions and his boat. The whole structure of the film is about stripping away all the noisy business that prevents him from being himself.
Nathan: I also love the scenes establishing Amity, and I almost didn’t want the film to ever get off land and go about its obligations regarding the shark. Those scenes are so strong, if Jaws never attempted to be suspenseful, and was just a dramedy about a coastal town populated by colorful characters, it would still probably be a satisfying, entertaining movie. The fact that it’s also one of the scariest movies ever made is just icing on the cake.
Nathan: Jaws hit theaters at a fascinating time in American film and culture. Its paradigm-altering success famously birthed the blockbuster era, but it still feels very much like a product of a 1970s Hollywood that embraced unconventional leading men like Richard Dreyfuss. He’s nasal, undeniably Jewish, and nerdy and cerebral rather than macho and strapping; his stardom would have been inconceivable even a decade earlier. But by 1975, Hollywood had warmed up to idiosyncratic actors like him. Dreyfuss, Scheider, and Shaw embody different schools of acting, as well as different conceptions of masculinity. Roy Scheider, another breakout star of the 1970s, has a lean, no-fuss minimalist aesthetic, perfect for playing a no-nonsense man trying to hold it all together in the face of inhuman pressure. Robert Shaw is gloriously theatrical and over the top playing an old-school conception of masculinity that’s borderline self-parodic in its pirate-like macho. The irony is that the rich geek academic obsessed with sharks is every bit as much a badass as the blustery old sea dog; he has a nerdy vibe, but he’ll literally get into a cage and face down a man-eater, with his life on the line. There are so many wonderful moments both between these actors—that scar showdown is a particular classic—and alone. What are some of your favorites? And is there an introduction in American film as memorable as Shaw’s? I know some might find it has a fingernails-on-chalkboard quality, but I think it’s swell. (Cue rimshot.)
Tasha: I think there are plenty of other iconic characters who introduce themselves just as iconically as Quint—Don Corleone, Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, Jack Sparrow—but possibly no other first look at a character is so teeth-grindingly painful. I said earlier that Chief Brody’s arc is about trying to get away from all the visual and aural clutter and confusion of Amity, and find out who he is. Quint declares who he is by forcefully shutting down all other voices without raising his. Clawing a chalkboard is a weird form of masculinity, but it’s certainly arresting, how he knows exactly how to dominate a room while sitting perfectly still. And yes, Jaws is fascinating in the way it contrasts his form of gruff, I’m-in-charge masculinity with Brody’s more community-focused, paternal-concern version, and Hooper’s all-encompassing expertise in the relative subjects at hand. Here’s an odd thing: I suspect if Roy Scheider were shorter, or dumpier, or had less of a weathered, patrician face, that he’d read like the Joe Pesci in this trio. On paper, he doesn’t come across as macho at all: He admits he’s afraid of the water, he doesn’t stand up to the mayor until his own son is threatened, he lets egghead Hooper boss him around, he reacts to stress by getting comedically drunk, he repeats himself, wants to flee the shark and go home for reinforcements. He’s pretty ineffectual. But Scheider is masculine enough to make him come across as easygoing and politically wise, rather than a pushover, and aware of his limitations rather than easily cowed. Favorite masculine moment in the film: When he first sees the shark and flinches from it, before delivering that iconic “bigger boat” line. He doesn’t cry out, or even look scared, really; he’s a much more controlled kind of man. He just goes completely rigid, then cautiously eases backward, away from the shark, as if that were meaningful in a boat on the open water. And then Quint shows what kind of man he is, by heading straight toward the thing that made Brody flinch. Every move, every line, every glance between these guys is so perfect.
Noel: I like Hooper’s introduction, for a couple of reasons. For one, it goes along with the movie’s unusual structure: How often do blockbusters introduce such a major character about a third of the way in? But I also like Hooper’s presence in those first few scenes. Tasha, I think you’re on to something with the idea that Jaws is partly about Brody growing into his authority, and I think a big part of that is the contrast between Brody and Hooper, the latter of whom is even more of an outsider than Brody, but who walks into Amity and starts mordantly mocking the locals (“They’re all gonna die”) and telling Brody what to do. One of the other big scenes in the movie is when Hooper examines the remains of Chrissie Watkins, and is struggling not to vomit: breathing heavy, talking faster (“This was no boat accident!”), asking for a glass of water. But he doesn’t puke; he completes the examination. That’s as macho a move in its way as Quint shouting dirty sea shanties at Brody’s wife.
Tasha: In that same vein, another favorite scene of mine is when Hooper and Brody sneak down to the docks at night to open up the tiger shark the locals have caught, to see if the corpse of poor little Alex Kinter is inside, confirming they have the right shark. They’re both pushing their limits—Brody is flexing his sheriff’s muscles and rebelling against the mayor in a minor way, while Hooper is once again horrified, panting, and talking fast to cover his nausea, but still competently doing the job that needs to be done. (Positioning the shark so its belly is away from the camera is a neat bit of cinematic trickery on Spielberg’s part—he doesn’t have to come up with convincing shark-guts, and the audience’s imagination, based on the way the two men act, is plenty.) It’s a nice bit of understated masculine bonding over an unpleasant job, with just the slightest air of a couple of boys doing something they know is forbidden. As you say, Noel, there’s a lot of contrast between Brody and Hooper, which is why I find it so enjoyable that they bond from their first meeting. So much of movie-macho is about men throwing their weight around, denying having any emotions except rage, and answering situations with violence. And so much movie-man bonding is about dissimilar men jockeying for dominance until the crisis is bad enough that they decide it’s okay to suspend the self-protective fronting. These guys, on the other hand, take one look at each other and decide to like each other, and they never stop getting along, even though they’re complete opposites.
Keith: Another great moment establishing who these guys are comes when Quint shares the rotgut whiskey. He drinks it like it’s mother’s milk. Brody is game, but ultimately can’t handle it, and spits it out. He’s faking his way through a situation in which he’s not comfortable, just like he is in the rest of the movie. Hooper, on the other hand, rolls with it and drinks it. As Nathan points out, he’s a quiet badass, and his behavior is a challenge to what macho heroes are supposed to look like, and how they’re supposed to behave.
Nathan: Another of my favorite little moments is when Brody is at home and he’s so exhausted and stressed out, he can barely stay awake. And his son, who clearly worships him, starts mimicking his every movement. Brody is so tired that he initially doesn’t even notice, but eventually, he catches on and plays along. And in that moment, we see everything we need to see about Brody as a father, and the deep, unspoken bond that exists between him and his son. Brody has to be a super-competent authority figure for his community, but for a tiny little bit, he can be a boy again, for the sake of his son.
Scott: You’ve all covered the Hooper-Quint dynamic well: That scene Keith mentions in which Hooper slugs down Quint’s rotgut without flinching subtly suggests the common toughness of the two men, well before they famously compare scars. There’s another pair of moments that unify them in the occasional arrogance of their certainty: First, Hooper, the know-it-all academic, scoffs at Quint’s claim that he has the shark hooked on the fishing line, but proves to be wrong. Later, Quint, the know-it-all seaman, rejects Hooper’s pleas to slow the Orca when the ship is straining to drag the great white behind it, and the engine fails soon after, leading the men into a desperate situation. Both are confident and right much of the time, but not all of it.
Tasha: Here is the single thing about Jaws that’s always most left me wondering: There’s a moment after the first major run-in between the shark and the Orca where Quint stands in the boat’s pulpit, leaning back into it, his harpoon gun across his body, the sunset behind him, and just smiles at the other two men. It’s a beautiful shot, but what do you guys make of it? Shaw in that moment has a very told-you-so air about him, part of his easygoing, smug expertise, but the scene that shot caps is nothing for him to brag about. His predictions about the shark have been proved wrong, and he’s lost it yet again, yet he seems happy. I’d say he’s just enjoying being in his element, but his attention seems focused on the other men in his boat, not on the situation. How do you read that shot?
Noel: I’d say that’s a good read. I wonder how much of that performance was Shaw’s invention, and how much can be credited to screenwriters Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, and how much is Spielberg? Because so much about Quint’s character on the boat is revealed through silent action: how he so easily handles his equipment, knowing exactly what to do, while Brody and Hooper are almost killed by flying ropes and ballast.
By the way, one more thing on Hooper: In demeanor and appearance, Dreyfuss’ performance in Jaws makes him come off the most like a Spielberg surrogate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Spielberg identified with Hooper, as someone who spent a lot of time as a young man walking onto movie and TV sets filled with veteran crew-members and telling them what to do.
Tasha: Ha, interesting thought, but I think you’re projecting a little. Dreyfuss back then looked like the iconic Spielberg we came to know in the 1980s, with the round classes and fringe-y beard. But at the time, Spielberg himself looked more like a lost Beatle, or Graham Chapman’s brother—he may not have seen any physical resemblance. Dreyfuss is slightly younger than Spielberg, but at the time, he looked older, and Spielberg looked like this. (He’s the one on the left.)
Class conflict/The 1970s
Keith: Without drawing a lot of attention to itself, Jaws economically sketches the class system—and its attendant tension—beneath Amity’s pleasant surface. There’s a big divide between islanders and non-islanders, meaning those born and raised on Amity and outsiders, and despite his position of authority, Brody is clearly marked as an outsider. Then there’s townies and tourists. The former depends on the annual influx of the latter, a relationship that creates a quiet air of resentment even as the townies go out of their way to please the tourists, even if it means downplaying danger, and endangering their own residents. And though this is less clearly developed, there are suggestions of a divide between the nice, respectable parts of Amity and less-reputable residents like Quint, hard-living sea salts making a living in the old way. Quint sees himself as the real deal. I get the feeling others see him as local color—at least until they need him. Did anyone notice any other divisions?
Tasha: We’ve already commented a little on the conflict between Quint, with his grimy, disintegrating boat, and Hooper, who awkwardly reveals to Brody that he’s independently wealthy, which gives him time for hobbies like studying ocean life, and lets him self-fund his fancy toys. The half of the movie that takes place on the Orca is one long fencing match between old-school working-class know-how and pricey new-fangled tech, with Quint pooh-poohing Hooper’s toys and his morals. (I especially like the bit where Quint guzzles a beer and crushes the can in his hand, and Hooper responds by finishing his coffee and crushing the styrofoam cup. He’s making fun of Quint’s working-class idea of showing off, but it’s also a little self-deprecating, acknowledging his own prissiness just a little.) It’s a quiet, yet huge moment late in the film, after the shark has come out ahead time and again, when Quint breaks down and asks Hooper exactly what his store-bought fancy devices can do to help them. He’s finally reached a point where he’s willing to drop his working-class pride and let the rich guy throw some money at the problem, if it’ll keep them safe.
Noel: Watching the movie this time, I noticed how fine the divisions are between who’s an islander and who isn’t. One of the first real characters in the movie—the boy who chases drunkenly after Chrissie, before she becomes the first victim—tells Brody he goes to college in Hartford, and that his parents live in Greenwich, but that he’s still an Amity islander, because he was born there. Meanwhile, one of Brody’s wife’s friends tells her point blank that she’s never going to be a local. We haven’t really talked about the metaphorical implications of Jaws (because I don’t think anyone involved with making the movie gave them a lot of thought), but there’s some real irony to the way these smug Amity folks are terrorized by something that’s theirs. I know great white sharks aren’t native to those waters, but still, this is an oceanfront community that should be more cautious about the dangers of ocean predators than newcomers and tourists would be. If Jaws has something larger to say about America as it approaches its 200th birthday, it may be an indictment of the complacency that’s set in, as people fuss over who to include and who to exclude, while a killer swims toward all of them.
Nathan: One of my favorite shots in the film speaks to both class conflicts and what Tasha has been saying about Spielberg’s strategy of cluttering the frame to indicate the forces weighing on Brody, before opening it up on the boat, as his mission becomes clear. It’s the shot of the mayor and his cronies crowding up around Brody on the barge so he looks outmatched and overwhelmed. These powerful forces within the community are literally boxing him in, asserting their power on a physical level; Brody is an authority figure, but he’s also a public servant who has to do the community’s bidding, and as this shot powerfully illustrates, the mucky-mucks of Amity as well. On a visual level, Spielberg slyly conveys Brody’s relative powerlessness in the face of Amity’s upper-class power-brokers, who do not want him messing with the holy forces of commerce.
Tasha: The second half of Jaws is so full of iconic, significant sequences that have gone down in the film canon that it’s easy to forget about the first half of the film. For that matter, some of the first half—Chrissie’s death, the Vertigo zoom in on Brody during the second attack, the gag with the vandalized billboard, Quint’s introduction—is iconic as well. But re-watching Jaws yet again brought up all sorts of little moments I’d completely forgotten, little touches that help build the characters, rather than the tension. Nathan already mentioned the dinner-table interaction where Brody’s youngest son solemnly imitates his every move. I also have a longtime fondness for Hooper, interrupted in the middle of jovially singing “Show Me The Way To Go Home,” reacting to the shark bumping the boat and the electrics going out with a sullen, confused, thoroughly drunk, “It ate the light.” And for Quint’s almost-sheepish “Excuse me, Chief,” after his kamikaze baseball-bat attack on his own radio, to prevent Brody from calling for help. But I got the biggest laugh of the film out of a line I’d completely forgotten: the mayor doing a press interview and shamelessly downplaying a three-ton great white devouring two beachgoers as “a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers.” And my favorite completely forgotten moment: When Hooper drops by Brody’s place after the second victim’s mother publicly slaps him and calls him out for causing her son’s death, he brings a bottle of wine—and Brody, without remark, dumps half of it into his water glass before pouring his wife and Hooper small, decorous servings. It’s a mark of the understanding between the two men that Hooper dares ask, with bleak black humor, “How was your day?”
Keith: Actually, Tasha, if I my eyes didn’t deceive me, he dumps the wine into a glass that already has whiskey on the rocks in it. Now that I know what that would taste like, it’s one of the film’s grossest moments. Another small touch I like: Brody trying to instruct his secretary on his preferred filing system, just another way he’s unsuccessfully trying to impose big-city ways on a small community that doesn’t understand why they’re necessary.
Noel: “Where do we keep the ‘Beach Closed’ signs?” That’s another moment from that same scene at the office, Keith, and another example of Brody revealing his outsider-dom. (The answer to his question is a general, “Huh?” because why would the town ever close the beach?) And while everybody knows Brody’s “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” line after he sees the shark up close for the first time, there’s a funnier moment a few minutes later, where he’s still muttering about going back to get a bigger boat as one scene fades to another.
Tasha: I counted three Brody references to getting a bigger boat this time around, which is even funnier, given that the initial line was an ad-lib. Apparently Scheider really liked that phrase. Also, Keith, I’ll correct you right back: It’s “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The implication being “…when you come back to finish this job without me.”
Scott: A favorite of mine: Once the three men finally have a line on the shark—and oh, is it massive—Hooper beckons Brody to tightrope out to the pulpit of the Orca just so Hooper can have a better photo, one with foreground/background contrast that will emphasis the size of the beast. Given the troubles Spielberg and crew had in the water themselves, this struck me as a wry comment on the crazy things we do for art.
Nathan: One of my favorite moments in Jaws happens at the very beginning. One of the beachside partiers catches Chrissie Watkins’ eye, and he runs after her in the darkness, stumbling and drunken, yet completely ecstatic, heady with booze, lust, and youthful high energy. While running on the beach, he loudly professes that he isn’t drunk and he can swim, when no one is accusing him of being drunk or not knowing how to swim, other than the authoritative, drunken voices in his own head. It perfectly captures the fizzy disorientation of being drunk, young, and horny, without putting too fine a point on it. Everyone remembers the girl dying, but the boy who survived by passing out on the shore, is, to my mind, almost as memorable.
Noel: Jaws is an excellent time capsule of 1975 (I love that Killer Shark videogame), but it also had a huge influence on the 1970s, and I’m not just talking about the way it made Hollywood blockbuster-happy. I was 4 when Jaws came out, and I didn’t get to see the movie until I was a teenager, but I remember having a large shark poster on my bedroom wall when I was 6 or 7, and I and all my friends could tell the difference between a tiger shark and a great white. The culture went shark-happy for a while. Looking back, it’s strange to me that a gory (albeit PG-rated) action-suspense movie would be so popular with kids; but then, a lot about the 1970s baffles me when I look back. And some of that “It was a different era” is evident in Jaws itself—like how the Brodys let their pre-teen kids roam around wherever, to be injured by broken swing-sets or eaten alive by a giant fish.
Nathan: It’s also odd because the film is so refreshingly adult, in its storytelling and respect for its audience. As respected and revered as Jaws is (there’s a reason it was No. 1 on our list of the top 50 blockbusters), like seemingly all pop culture, it’s been reduced to its stickiest elements in the public mind—the shark, “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” the score, the Hitchcockian restraint of the opening—that a lot of its complexity has been forgotten. Jaws’ legacy is hopelessly mixed up with its flood of inferior imitators, from genuinely clever Roger Corman-engineered knock-offs like Piranha to Jaws’ own famously shitty sequels to rip-offs like the shamelessly named Orca and 1977’s The Deep, which could be traced back to Jaws via a Peter Benchley novel and lead performance from Robert Shaw. The Deep was the 8th top-grossing film of 1977, but all I can remember about it is the image of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt, which, incidentally, is also the reason The Deep was the 8th top-grossing film of 1977 despite being overwhelmingly derivative and mediocre. And who can forget Saturday Night Live’s classic “Land Shark” sketch? Not I, certainly. Yes, Jaws certainly cast a long shadow over pop culture in 1975 and in the years since, even after it literally and figuratively jumped the shark.
Keith: I was too young to see Jaws in the theater, but even as a 2-year-old, I was aware of it, and I had my share of shark toys. Jaws anticipates Star Wars both in its blockbuster success and in the way it seeped into the groundwater of pop culture, and seemed to influence everything for a while. Evel Knievel attempted to jump a tank filled with sharks. Fonzie infamously did jump some sharks. A shark that looked an awful lot like the one from the Jaws poster menaced Superman. Jaws inspired parody records, a Saturday Night Live sketch, a game for kids, and on and on. It’s hard to imagine a phenomenon being so widespread today. I see Marvel movie toys and clothes everywhere, but is there an equivalent to dancing to the Jaws theme at the local disco?
Scott: Watching it again for the umpteenth time for this forum—though it should be noted that the Blu-ray for Jaws is so good, it’s almost like seeing it for the first time—I was more keyed in to Spielberg’s peerless technique, specifically his framing and camera movements, and how shots and scenes and pieces of information flowed into one another. I was thinking, “This guy is incapable of shooting an uninteresting shot,” until what I assumed was a mundane tripod scan of a car driving right to left along a road. “Oh, here’s a perfunctory one,” I thought, until the camera swung far enough left to reveal the Amity Island billboard, deftly establishing the setting. Nope, not perfunctory in least.
Keith: I can also offer evidence of it being read as a critique of American values as early as 1976, via its Czech poster:
Note the shape of the trail of blood the shark leaves behind. I’m not sure it’s the most sophisticated critique, mind you, but it’s evidence that some were looking beneath the surface of the film from the start.
Tasha: Are we positive, though, that that poster is suggesting something metaphorical about the shark, and not just “Here’s the ultra-famous shark movie from America?” The more complicated answer isn’t always the right one. Noel mentioned earlier that we weren’t much looking at the film’s metaphorical value, and I’m mighty glad for that, given some of the stuff Wikipedia notes, especially the Fredric Jameson critique that “views Quint’s demise as the symbolic overthrow of an old, populist, New Deal America and Brody and Hooper’s partnership as an ‘allegory of an alliance between the forces of law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations,’” etc. I promise you that Steven Spielberg was not standing on the set of Jaws saying, “Okay, now in this scene, the shark represents the liminal Other, profound in its polysemousness as an abiding metaphor for encroaching, refractory inevitabilities.” For a look at where he was coming from when he made it, I highly recommend reading the original script online, and comparing it to the choices he made, or was forced to make, during filming. An awful lot of the movie is there on the page, but some of it is notably different, especially the death in the pond, and little things like Quint not charging the shark, Ahab-like, at the end. It’s always possible to dig deeper and deeper and deeper into a movie, and films like Jaws reward that process. But it may be more rewarding to dig into the thrilling psychological thriller that’s actually there, instead of examining our own navels to see if we can find something even more elaborate than Spielberg’s masterpiece.
Yesterday, Noel Murray kicked off our Jaws conversation with a Keynote addressing how the film’s sound design, and not just the iconic score, builds its sense of dread. And tomorrow, Keith Phipps will wrap up with a closer look at the cheap knockoffs that followed Jaws’ bloody chum-line to the bank—or in the case of Great White, straight to court.