not in our stars, but in ourselves
You know me. I’m not merely years or decades off in my movie-watching: I’m at least a few generations behind. Every now and then, personal curiosity impels me to fill in some of those blanks rather than the blanks in my ’20s-and-’30s-weirdo-European knowledge; more often, however, it’s my boyfriend – who’s much better versed in what I would call “current” cinema and what he’d call “forty-year-old cinema” – who nudges me along slowly towards cultural literacy. So that’s how I came to see Jaws yesterday, for the first time in my thirty years of movie-watching. It’s strange to try to say anything about something so firmly ensconced in the American pop landscape. The only original offering I have, probably, is that I didn’t think it was as great as everyone else seems to think it is.
Just in case the rest of you are as behind the times as I am, a brief synopsis: just before July 4th, on Amity Island (a sort of stand-in for Martha’s Vineyard), a young woman is devoured by a shark (played by animatronics, mostly, nicknamed “Bruce” during the shoot) when she goes for an early-morning swim. The body – what’s left of it – washes up on the shore, and Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) realizes that the vacationing visitors to the island won’t be safe unless they close the beaches. Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) doesn’t want to blow a hole in the island’s main source of income, so he refuses to allow the beach closure. The shark strikes again, and again and again. A cocky oceanographer who specializes in shark studies, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), is called to the island to try to figure out what the shark is and what Amity Island can do. There doesn’t seem to be much else to do except kill it, so Hooper and Brody set out on the Orca with Amity Island’s only professional shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw). The shark is about twenty-five feet long, three tons, and – if I can impose a twenty-first century neologism on a 1975 animal – hangry as hell.
Somewhat recently, I also saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind for, uh, the first time. Two movies are insufficient to form an informed opinion about anyone – but I have to say that, based on those two, I don’t think I like ’70s Spielberg very much. He seems to have loved filming extended, talky sequences – with either a chaotic family or an even more chaotic slice of Americana – during which we’re meant to follow all strands of dialogue all at once. Some directors – or sound editors, more likely – do this reasonably well. I felt like I was developing misophonia while I watched Jaws. Beyond that, I object in the most strenuous terms to the one-dimensional, useless, perfunctory female characters in this and in Close Encounters. To keep the focus on Jaws, every woman in this movie is overly emotional, inert, oblivious, and so hopelessly subordinate to the men and/or children in her life that one wonders if this is supposed to take place in an alternate universe where women’s lib didn’t happen. By 1981 and Raiders of the Lost Ark, either Spielberg or his screenwriters improved enough to give us Marion Ravenwood, who’s one of the all-time greats (only in Raiders, though; we do not speak of the 2008 sequel). In the 1970s, however, he still seemed to be at a loss. While I’m all for diversity, I’m also all for artistic richness, and if you just don’t know anything about human females – maybe don’t put them in your script. The movie is about 100% more tolerable when there are only male humans on the screen, as pathetic as that assertion may sound. Whenever Brody’s simpering wife, or some of the local crones, or the grieving mother of a child victim, are talking, I found myself wishing for a land shark to come chomp them all up.
That’s another major weakness, I have to say. How am I supposed to do anything except root for the shark? It apparently eats a dog somewhat early in the film, which isn’t great (but also, it may not have happened: we never see it happen, so maybe the dog just decided to make a run for it while his dumb owners were busy tanning or whatever), but I found the shark much more sympathetic than most of the humans. It’s not malicious. It’s trying to live. How do sharks live? They eat and they swim, as Hooper puts it. They’re big, lone predators, and this one just happened to find a nice, rich feeding ground. It’s nature. A more thoughtful and/or pretentious film could have made the entire thing a sort of allegory for colonialism. Dumb vacationers invade territory that rightly belongs to someone else; that someone else defends itself; dumb vacationers declare war and invade the someone else’s territory even further; all ends in a bloodbath – but ultimately in favor of the dumb vacationers. I mean, we are just off where the Pilgrims landed in 1620, where they nearly died after their utter lack of preparedness for winter, where – within decades – they were slaughtering any Native American who dared show his face in the place that used to be his home. That might have made for an interesting movie, but that’s not (I don’t think) the movie Jaws intends to be.
Another possibly unintentional layer: when the beach-goers are all splashing about in the water, and they think they see a shark, and Brody yells at everyone to get out of the water, was that meant to be a nod to the Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin? Am I being too highfalutin? I am just so stymied by how this passable but forgettable popcorn flick could have endured so long in the cultural memory that I’m straining to assign meaning and depth where there probably isn’t any. I know I’m not supposed to root for the shark – but who’s left to root for? Hooper’s an asshole. Brody’s fine, but he’s more of an apparatchik with a heart of gold than a true hero. Quint is fantastic, and I wish he’d been in the movie much more than he was. He provides enough entertainment during his few scenes out on the Orca than the rest of the cast in the rest of the film all put together. (Additionally, he seems to be the only one of the humans who understands and respects the shark, even if he is out there to kill it.) To be fair, I am a sucker for high-functioning drunks, so perhaps I’m biased. Other than Quint and the poor shark, who’s just trying to live his life, I must admit: I don’t get it.