Cannes Classics 2012: Jaws (1975)

With its blockbuster get-up and mass-market gore, JAWS doesn’t seem like a choice cut for one of the digitally reworked Cannes Classics. So why is it part this year? If we’re looking at Spielberg’s body of work, then why not E.T., Indiana Jones, or Schindler’s List? What does Cannes want with this film that they can’t find in a heartwarming kinship between an extraterrestrial and a kid, a hero archaeologist, or another Nazi-focused war story?

Maybe its because it became, to my surprise, the biggest grossing film that was released at the time. It probably didn’t seem that way during production, way past their deadline and budget with the ocean not giving into Spielberg’s imagined timelines and the mechanical sharks clonking out so often that Spielberg decided to make up for with suggestion. It wasn’t the only formula that worked, JAWS established ‘saturation booking’, a film distribution model that seems so commonplace and common sense today: a film is simultaneously released in a large number of cinemas. The mass effect was a noted increase of the fear of sharks and the emergence of the ‘summer film’.

In any case, JAWS remains one of the most memorable thrillers in film and household history. Not only did John Williams’ score win him an Oscar, BAFTA, and Golden Globes for it, but even today, toddlers in swimming pools learn at an early age to mimic the scores’ E-F-E-F (or, more known as ‘dundundundun’) as though it were hardwired from birth to signal impending doom. And of course, ship that out as an early Spielberg that made his career and suddenly it can Cannes.

JAWS tells the story of a great white shark who has taken to territorially feeding off Amity island. This is badly timed—for the town, rather, not the shark—of as most visitors come in from the 4th of July onwards through their 50th Annual regatta. Police chief Brody finds a woman’s mangled torso washed up on the shore and pushes the mayor to close down the beach. Unwilling to forego peak season tourism revenue, he opts to risk the scantily dressed beachgoers instead, who from an underwater point of view are pairs of kicking leg meat that draw the attention of a shark with their own naked vulnerability.  Two bounty hunters come into play: the first is an old fisherman named Quint who, getting the attention of the town hall gathering by scratching his nails down a chalkboard, promises to get the shark for ten grand (big money for a small town in the seventies) and an oceanographer named Hooper, a rich city kid from the Oceanographic Institute who, unlike the fisherman, promises brains over brawl. With the beach still open, predictably, more deaths occur, until Brody, along with two other bounty hunters, find themselves in the playground of a surprisingly intelligent and unsurprisingly enormous shark.

I’ve never seen Jaws or its sequels, but I did see its steroidal version Deep Blue Sea with LL Cool J and an early YouTube clip of a woman being thrashed around by a shark on by the dockside. Given the advances in CGI effects, which made our monsters not only bigger, but our options more possible from the flipbook of imagination, my nerves were unchallenged by the idea—and the predictability of an approaching shark had been through dulled by newer, more psychologically taxing plotlines that have arisen during the advance of cinema.

In this film, there are no mutants, persistent explosions, or someone set out to destroy the world: there is just a shark eating a few people in a small town so uninteresting they call the big city (New York?) ‘the mainland’. So I decided to discuss character dynamics as their conflicts and activity become drivers of a story where everyone becomes a heightened version of themselves. Here are some of the relationships to note:

POINT ONE: THE SHARK VERSUS THE MAYOR

Martin, it’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, “Huh? What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.” – Mayor Vaughan to Police Chief Brody

There are two parties making a tug of war with Brody’s conscience. As police chief, he’s professionally accountable to making the wrongs of his locale right and two evils are presented: the mayor, who wants to carry on with their usual summer tourism binge in spite of the danger, and the great white shark who just wants to carry on with his meat-eating binge. While we are presented with townsfolk whose lives depend on their bed and breakfasts and therefore want to keep the beach open, it was the grief-stricken mother whose son had just been killed, the look on Hooper’s face when he tries to vainly tell him that it was ‘a boating accident’, and his own grief emerging amidst contradictory opinions, that he decides to go and look for the real antagonist whose death will end the movie—the damn shark. It becomes a matter of whose morals would cave in first. After the second death, the mayor trembles and comes into the hospital where Brody’s son is recovering from shock—not shark—and mumbles in his own inner moral debate, “August, August”, “I was acting in the town’s best interests” and “my kids were on that beach too.” He lost, predictably. After all, the shark has no morals.

POINT TWO: CITY MOUSE, TOWN MOUSE, THIRD WHEEL PROTAGONIST

Hooper: Dammit, Martin! This is compressed air!

Brody: Well, what the hell kind of a knot was that?

Hooper: You pulled the wrong one. You screw around with these tanks, and they’re gonna blow up!

Quint: Yeah, that’s real fine expensive gear you brought out here, Mr. Hooper. ‘Course I don’t know what that bastard shark’s gonna do with it, might eat it I suppose. Seen one eat a rockin’ chair one time. Hey chieffy, next time you just ask me which line to pull, right?

So the conscientious police chief who’s afraid of the water braves it because his son had a brush with the old brute and the pressure from the town’s grief weighs heavy on the angel on his shoulder. He gets on the boat with two other figures pining for hero status: Quint the rough ex-soldier fisherman who will bounty hunt the Great White for ten thousand dollars with an old boat, a harpoon, and Mr. Hooper, a rich city boy from the Oceanographic Institute with a shark cage and 20ccs of strychnine nitrate. Throughout the boat ride, it becomes a constant struggle between Quint’s gut instinct and Hooper’s city cred. Quint’s inflection whenever he calls on ‘Mr. Hooper’ riles up the oceanographer. It’s like holding a teacup with a pinky up. This infighting becomes most obvious when the two compare war scars of past encounters with sharks.

Of course, Quint reveals that he is an ex-soldier who, after his ocean vessel Indianapolis had gotten blown up after a secret mission, had found himself along with his team swimming in a frenzy of sharks. Later, Quint is the only one of the three who gets eaten up by the shark and meanwhile, Hooper is hiding at the bottom of the sea. It was Brody who ends up killing the monster by deliberately misusing the compressed air tubes and throwing it at the shark’s mouth letting it explode. The police officer, as a result of his occupation, it seems, was meant to be the hero.

POINT THREE: ME AND MY SHARK — AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION

Ellen Brody: What am I gonna tell the kids?

Brody: Tell them I’m going fishing.

The only people the shark is really trying to scare is the plural you: the audience.

It’s understandable that the beast has been tamed by plush toys, cartoons, and a species of whale preceded by the adjective ‘killer’ but performs like a seal with its trainers. Given all this, great white sharks can lose the sharp tooth in the scientific name in which it was given: carcaradon carcharias. Besides, myths regarding great white sharks have been debunked—saying that sharks are actually sharp sighted creatures who don’t mistake us for seals, and often approach us with curiosity instead of ravenousness. And a lot of shark species like nurse sharks don’t even care for our meat. Have you been to aquarium petting tanks?

But this doesn’t explain how scared I was whenever the score signaled the shark and its dorsal fin cut the water. It wasn’t the submerged camera equipment to show just how we humans kick like we’re asking for it, the opening when drunk hippies flirted unaware, or the claustrophobic shots as Hooper drummed the table until the shark couldn’t be heard ramming against the boat. What makes this fear so elemental is because the vast stretch of the deep sea and the almost equally vast Triassic period are periods we can’t quite dominate for our peace of mind. Even with marine biology and anthropology, this seems to be, in a way, a kind of otherworldliness that ghost stories are leveraged on.

Plainly put, JAWS works. It redefines what we consider supernatural. By being super ‘natural’, our comfortable, soft-skinned popcorn eating selves still feel an instinctive fear of the great wilderness. As Roy Schneider, the man who played Brody in an improvised line to Quint, said, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

3 comments
  1. “What makes this fear so elemental is because the vast stretch of the deep sea and the almost equally vast Triassic period are periods we can’t quite dominate for our peace of mind.”

    — I really like this. It also helps that for around the first half of the film, you actually don’t see the shark. You just hear the haunting E-F-E-F score and the bloody aftermath.

  2. Jess said:

    Wow, this is a really great breakdown! Jaws is definitely one of those amazing strokes of brilliance—a fantastically made film with huge blockbuster appeal. I’ve never gotten tired of watching this film over the years, really just growing to appreciate it more. I love how you can take this well done analytical approach while at the same time just being such a fun movie. I enjoyed reading this a lot!

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