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Thursday
Aug052010

« In Which We Require A Larger Sea-Going Vessel »

Bad Fish

by JESSICA FERRI

Released in June of 1975, Jaws is considered the first summer blockbuster. Terrified moviegoers refused to enter the ocean that summer, and tourism boards across the country complained of lower attendance at their beaches. In many ways, the movie is conventional horror film. The shark is a serial killer — "an eating machine," as Richard Dreyfuss' character, Hooper, explains. He picks a pretty naked girl as his first meal. Insatiable, he moves on to children, young men, old men, and weathered fishermen. He is indiscriminate. Like death itself he moves from victim to victim, staring with remorseless black eyes. All this from the man who would bring you E.T.

And yet — if you look closely, Jaws is definitely Spielberg movie — sans children. Though Chief Brody has two boys, they stay out of the picture for the most part, except to function as shark bait in the beach scene. The most Spielbergian moment, perhaps, of the entire movie is a scene in which Brody's youngest son mimics his movements at the dinner table. Stressed, he puts his hand over his forehead, grimaces, rubs his brow, to look down and see his son parroting him. Brody's wife stands in the door frame, eyes tearing up with joy.

What is a Spielberg movie, anyway? Critics have theorized: children run amok due to parental discord or absence, forced by supernatural events or beings (aliens, dinosaurs, Captain Hook) to come into their own — to function as mini-adults. In Jaws, then, the child is Brody. After moving to Amity (which apparently, is a real island) after working as a cop in New York, he thinks his new life is a piece of cake. His work now consists of parking disputes and fireworks control. His wife is a total babe. She fixes him a whiskey and asks "Wanna get drunk and fool around?"

The shark comes to represent the idea that life, with all of its upheaval and distress, is not something you can run from. Especially when life is a Great White Shark, lurking in the water, and you're the Police Chief on an island filled with walking happy meals.

Brody's wife mentions casually to Hooper, the marine biologist, that Brody's terrified of the water. We're not sure why — there's a vague implication that he may have almost drowned as a child. The shark forces him to deal with his fear—and here is the genesis of Spielberg's child, forming its belief system through trials and tribulations. Like Spielberg, Chief Brody is marooned — trying to make a name for himself on the island. Spielberg is trying to make an impossible film at 28 years old. He goes over budget and he goes 100 days over his shooting schedule.

It makes sense, then, that Spielberg both glorifies and deconstructs the character of Quint, the weathered fisherman who is on a journey to kill every single goddamn shark in the water as revenge for killing all his buddies who fell into the water when their boat was torpedoed by the Japanese in WWII. Quint represents the more traditional part of the story — the Moby Dickness — while we laugh at Quint but then we realize he's a total lunatic. Spielberg would later come to terms with being "established" and work with more respect for the expert character in his films with the Muldoon character in Jurassic Park. Still — assuredness meets a bad end. 

As time has gone on, Jaws has been overshadowed by Spielberg's other films. This is unfortunate because it is well-written, incredibly well-paced, deliciously scary, violent, and spectacular, like many of his more popular movies. Watching it in 2010, it offers surprises: Dreyfuss delivers an incredible performance in which he is completely committed to the character. He's also hilarious, and attractive in the way you imagine a young marine biologist clothed completely in denim would be. When he spouts lingo about the kind of the shark and the diameter of its bite, we giggle. When he goes through the autopsy of the first victim, we are outraged with him. 

Though the movie was made in 1975, the special effects are fantastic. The shark looks real in spite of its insane girth — which, terrifyingly, is scientifically accurate. The final battle takes place on Quint's boat. It is shot so we can see how big the shark is not only in comparison to our three heroes but to the boat itself. In the final thirty minutes of the film, Jaws has become a most formidable foe. With his teeth and his big black eyes he has us all on the run. This sequence is never boring. It doesn't go on too long. It's perfectly timed.

Brody remains stoic, but he's headed for a transition. He snaps his pistol on, as a totem, hoping to draw power back to his side. Suddenly the hardened New York cop comes back out — and he's not afraid. Really, what does he have to lose? He's stranded in the ocean on the mast of a sinking boat. This is Brody's moment to come into his own — it's ours, too. The child has conquered his fear. He is fighting with Neptune himself, but he looks him right in the eye and says, "Smile, you son of bitch!"

Jessica Ferri is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She last wrote in these pages about Sylvia Plath. Her website is here, and she blogs here.

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