"Slow ahead... I can go slow ahead. Come on down and chum some of this shit."
This past weekend, I enjoyed an all-too-short vacation on the beach. Actually, I spent very little time on the beach; I instead sat on a breezy (and shaded) deck, or in cool air-conditioning to catch up on some much-needed reading. Fortunately, in between the lounging and reading, I was able to upkeep a long-standing personal tradition of mine. Since the time I was very young, I have made a habit of watching one of my very favorite “beach” films whenever I’ve been to the beach.
Although most people would probably prefer digging their feet in the sand and engrossing themselves in dark crime novels or unabashed romances while baking in ultraviolet light, I never had a problem sticking to the air conditioning and taking in a “beach watch.” And nothing fits this bill better than Jaws. I say this not to demean the film, as if it was breezy trash designed to “take your mind off things” for a few hours. I instead use the term in the highest regard, because to me Jaws is a very nostalgic film. I saturate myself in its pastel compositions and its incredible ability to contrast the pictaresque townscapes of Amity Island with a more abstract, implacable leviathan of the sea, bringing them together at a shoreline that separates crowded bureacratic establishment and the uncompromising primal instinct of creatures of the sea. I am swept up in this conflict in new ways every time I see the film, but something about breathing in the ocean air on the beach and enjoying the laid back lifestyle of shore houses gives Jaws the extra edge that resonates with me so deeply.
Much has been written about Jaws, from its sexual imagery and symbolic gender relationships to its status as arguably the first true American blockbuster. (While on last year's beach vacation, I read Antonia Quirke's excellent book in the British Film Institute's Modern Classic book series.) The problem with writing on Jaws and countless other classic movies is that it's often hard to write with a fresh perspective since so many approaches have been exhausted, e.g. analyses of any of Alfred Hitchcock's films of the 1950's and 1960's. I devour many of these books and articles and learn a great deal from them, but in instances of films like Jaws or Psycho, much of the literature treads on familiar ground.
There are two opposing issues I have with this. First, sameness in perspective in the literature about a given topic typically breeds a very limited overall approach to the artifact (or movie) in question and makes it so that it would be almost impossible to approach it from another angle. But there is a flip side to this problem. Given the prominence of a certain broad approach to an artifact of study, the critical community may consciously attempt to operate on new ground and yield new perspectives and in doing so become numb to benefit of the dominant consensus. That is why it is much more difficult than it may seem to contribute to the overall critical persective of a film like Jaws. By simply acknowledging the overwhelming emphasis on certain key factors of the movie, I am positioning myself in relation to them and may tend to either assert them too superficially for the sake of comfortable familiarity or potentially pay lip service to crucial details that I don't allow myself to acknowledge due to my inability to really examine a perspective with which I have become so topically familiar. For these reasons, I have elected to focus on specific details about the film's images and how they relate to the overall structure and thematic depth of the film. I will attempt not ignore or privelage the well-tread critical ground concerning Jaws, but instead place them in perspective of some of the film's more subtle moments and compositions.
For many critics, scholars, and movie lovers, any reference to Jaws brings to mind some of the film's most memorable elements: the underwater "shark vision" perspective; the escalating two-note musical motif signaling the shark's closing in on it prey; a skinny dipping young woman violently dragged along the surface of the ocean, disrupting its calmness but not its apathy to her inevitable demise. All of these things are what we remember when recalling Steven Spielberg's 1975 movie. But in focusing on these aspects and examining them from a critical and/or thematic framework, the more subtly stated details of the movie may potentially go undetected, which I think is more likely to happen in a critical and cultural staple such as Jaws.
That is why I honed in on the images, the transitions, the temporal and spatial relationships from shot to shot, scene to scene, the elements of an individual shot, and the structural details of the scenes and how they build together to form a briskly paced and compulsively watchable film. Watching it again recently, the film has revealed to me a number of things. Firstly, minus the inevitable continuity errors of the sun's reflection on the ocean, which at times are glaring, Jaws is nearly compositionally perfect, representing the appropriate combination of deliberately placed elements -- i.e. color palettes, background and foreground stagings, visual thematic details, etc. -- and "accidental" effects, which are necessary for almost all great art to achieve greatness. It is both intensely calculated from a mise-en-scene and framed movement point of view, but it also feels somewhat gritty and natural.
The real beauty of the film is how all of its structural and visual motifs and components interact with each other to form two worlds in the consciousness of the viewer: an innocent vision of Amity island and a bleak nightmare that lurks beneath the surface of its waters in the form of a 25-foot, three-ton weighing shark whose physical presence is only felt in the visera of witnessing its hunt in the film's land based scenes. The spectator, in many ways, becomes the shark that it so desperately wants to see. Thus, Jaws seems to embody a tug of war between representation and embodiment. Are we supposed to identify with the shark or the victim? Do we feel the pain of being enveloped by its teeth, each "the size of a shot glass," or do we feel the pleasure of clamping down on helpless, squirming human flesh? The movie never remains consistent on this, which is partly why it is so effective.
While one could argue that Jaws cleanly adheres to a three-act classical film structure, it is really about the relationship of two distinct sections: a monster story of a relentless predator preying upon an innocent small-town community, and a high seas adventure of male comraderie with a "human vs. nature twist." Aside from the differences of setting, careful detail is provided to each section, in different ways but in similar manners as well. In the "land" section of the film's first hour (roughly), Spielberg builds a beautiful contrast between the recreational activity of a small community, (e.g. beach conversation in which everyone knows each other, a main street parade with kids playing their instruments poorly, and a cloudless sky) with the grisly acknowledgment of death and primal instinct that seemingly corrupts the very innocence that the film works so hard to create. But the shark hardly represents a force deliberately preying upon small town America, but rather an invasion of nature and instinct in a society of people who are "civilized." But the film illustrates that humanity, while distinctly separate from the primal nature of the ocean it so enjoys and builds towns around, is hardly civilized. Amongst the harmless conjecture of the townspeople, we see the slimy actions of Amity's mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), a bureacratic twit always thinking in the interest of the economic stature of Amity and the monetary gain associated with holidays and the "clean" image of the town.
Apart from compositional details, which I will discuss further in my discussion of the "water" portion of the movie, the structural straightforwardness of the "land" section is refreshing and is practically a self-contained movie in its own right, with the mayor finally coming around by the end. After he allows Brody to close down the beaches and go after the shark, mayor Vaughn exits the narrative and the shark hunter, Mr. Quint (Robert Shaw, whose character's first name is never given, or necessary for that matter) takes center stage. The first elongated scene with Quint in his shark sanctuary littered with countless trophies (shark jaws hanging on walls) represents the narrative morphing into almost an entirely new movie: the "water" half, or the ocean hunt. Interestingly, Quint does appear in the "land" section of the movie. Many critics and movie lovers will fondly recall his introduction, slowly scratching his nails down the chalkboard during the town hall meeting, literally and metaphorically disturbing the community culture in which he lives but takes no part. Despite the obvious purpose of the introduction to his character -- in very memorable fashion so that the spectator is more than aware and prepared for his real entry in the film -- Quint's presence on the land-based section of the movie doesn't feel right. He is not a land-based character in the slightest, which is why he doesn't fit. His only home is the sea, which is why his presence in th stagnant town hall feels strange in relation to his more natural environment aboard the Orca, his creaky old boat on which Quint, Brody, and Hooper reside for the remainder of the film.
Although the "land" half of the film represents one long setup due to its practically being a self-contained movie in the sense of the spectator's familiarity and connection to the characters and "world" of the film rather than the narrative arcs, its status as such presents the "water" half of the film as its own narrative as well. The only difference in structure is be the resolution of the two. In the visual depth and thematic unity, the "water" portion of Jaws is entirely different.
This is signaled by the brilliant shot of the Orca leaving the land and heading toward the open sea, as seen through the window of Quint's house, with the vessel framed within the jaws of one of Quint's previous kills. While the camera slowly follows the boat through the jaws, which eventually frame the entire shot, John Williams' music signals the onset of a mythological journey in its muted brass theme complemented by rising strings. But rather than arriving to an end of dramatic spirit and foreshadowing the "man versus nature" duel that makes up film's last hour, Williams instead opts to imbue the images of the Orca's departure with a sense of fun, which, given the preceding setup might seem inappropriate. But the strange thing is, it works. It's as if the narrative is reminding us that it is precisely that: a narrative. The images invite the spectator to take part in the brooding sense of darkness lurking underneath the film's first half as the protagonists now have decided to duel this leviathan in its own territory, but it also reminds the viewer that this will be, plain and simple, a fun ride.
This contrast is present throughout the film, which is reflected in the crisis of identification in the perspective of the stalking/attacks in the first half of the movie. The spectator is constantly torn between enjoying this narrative for pulp adventure and pleasure, and being subjected to a disturbing feeling of being eaten alive as suggested in its exploration of primal fear. But this is all suggested in the many dualistic tensions of the land-based end of the film, e.g. the representation/embodiment of the shark and its relation to its victims and the corruption of bureacracy invading small-town innocence. The simple halfing of "land" and "water" sections is evidence of two opposites coming together. While the two acts are separate, the overriding point seems to be that they take effect due to their individual relation to opposites and their constantly working against each other. The second narrative of Jaws explores these dualities more from the perspective of the viscera of pure adventure and a constant battle between the hunter and the hunted. It becomes a constant battle of strategy among the three members of the Orca but also between the shark and the three men.
The shark's first real appearance in the film is one of pure shock. it is the moment in which the film completely changes gears and is no longer in a "transition" stage. With the unannounced sight of the shark to quickly and unexpectedly, this one shot signals that the rules are now different and that this is the beginning of a massive duel that will dominate the rest of the narrative. In this shot (as seen at the top of the page), Brody stares back over the camera (presumably at Hooper, who is directing the boat) and utters a line that, in my mind at least, has always been more memorable than the one that follows it. Of course, Brody's "You're gonna need a bigger boat" line is one of the classic movie lines in history, I find that his "Slow ahead..." comment is more memorable, mostly due to the context in which it is uttered. The shot consists of his face foregrounded and occupying much of the right half of the frame and his chum tossing and the ocean in the background. A cigarette dangles from his mouth as he speaks comfortably for the first (and only) time aboard the ship. Immediately after he makes the comment "Come on down and chum some of this shit," a gray mass bursts out of the water, encompassing the rest of the frame as it lunges towards the Orca. For me, this is one of the most memorable movie frames I can recall and its purely for the quick burst of energy that was waiting to be unleashed. Before the shark even arrives (note that he does so without his two note motif or three note theme for the first time), there is something uncomfortable about the shot, almost as if it's preparing us for the shock it will contain.
Note that this shot does not resemble that of a contemporary horror film, in which the camera slowly pans over from a character's face to create empty space for an inevitable scare by a killer/monster; those instances are predictable in every fashion. But here, we are given just enough of the ocean in the background to not expect it, yet the elements the composition somehow suggest the inevitable appearance of the shark, perhaps because the nature of the shot differs so much from more elongated takes of the movie. While the movie features plenty of close-ups of Chief Brody, this particular shot is unique because it involves him and the water. By the point, the film has thematically and visually established his fear of water and has kept a distance between Brody and the ocean, but here in this shot they are connected. Another note about the shot is that it scares the hell out of me each time I watch it. I know it's coming, but the details of the frame itself somehow make me uncomfortable in my anticipation of the shark's appearance. There may be a few reasons for this. First, the nature of suspense (as David Bordwell observes in this essential piece) is much more due to how the viewer processes the elements of composition, i.e. editing, staging, background/foreground, in a film rather than the pure shock of something unexpected happening. Following this idea, the shot's ability to create suspense for me nearly every time I see it may be due to how the shark briefly appears, in full view for the first time, in relation to the viewer's previous knowledge of him based on a lack of sight. Roger Ebert observes in his archived Great Movies review of Jaws:
"When the shark does appear for its closeups, it is quite satisfactorily terrifying... The shark has been so thoroughly established, through dialogue and quasi-documentary material, that its actual presence is enhanced in our imaginations by all we've seen and heard."
This effectively captures the experience of the entire movie. Its motions and moving parts interact so fluidly and so brilliantly, so as to operate on conscious and unconscious levels, that they form relationships with the spectator to the extent that the images remain in memory, despite constantly moving and changing. The spectator's memory of these moments then interact with the present shots, giving them a power and viscera that they might not ordinarily have if seen alone. that is the beauty of cinema, and part of the reason why this film is so brilliant. Whether calculated or accidental, every composition (and its elements) is beautifully presented, working together to create a sense of atmosphere and character. Notably, the film rarely provides single shots of characters that are saying one thing at one time or of one place for the purpose of establishing its presence or purpose in the narrative. Jaws works so effectively because it always has so much going on and it creates an environment and a strong sense of the major and minor characters in its more naturalistic approach to editing and compositional details. Yes, there are one-shots of characters (for the purposes of reaction) here and there, but they are always deliberately and sparing placed so as to compliment the more important shots, featuring many characters, conversations, and events. Furthermore, the score is very restrained and seems to enter at just the right time so as to not call attention to itself. The film is more interested in building the essence of its locations through long, wide shots, the level of activity in them, and the authenticity of real sounds. Iit seems that none of the sound was added in post-production but that the natural sounds of the locations and actual organic sounds are what we hear in the movie.
The complicated activity and busyness of the shots work are so authentic, real, and alive not just due to the framing, design, and details within them, but with the surprisingly subtle performances (given the nature of the genre) coupled with the perfectly written dialogue in the screenplay. The dialogue in Jaws is among the best written for a movie. Whether it is expository exchanges or arbitrary background conversation, every word of it is genuine and unique, true to the characters and the world they inhabit. In discussing the complex details of the film's compostions, one must not ignore the pitch-perfect screenplay, both in structure and dialogue.
Regarding my previous point about the complex compositional details of each frame of the movie and how they build together to form a sense of the Amity Island community, Quint's creaking Orca, or the calmness of the ocean surface, these perfect compositions (along with the said dialogue) play a great role in building revealing moments of character. Sometimes, no diaogue is necessary at all. And this is the wonder of the film: it's amazing structural balance between quiet moments and intense moments, dialogue driven conjecture and character revealing asides. It all gels so smoothly, creating fluid movements and actions that complement each other and form a visual narrative that is utterly unique in its lightfooted ability to balance so many various elements and make them work together.
Jaws is full of these kinds of moments, in both the "land" portion and the sea-based half. In the midst of all the fun chases and silent bits between the chases of the "water" section, the heart of that section (and of the film) is night scene in the cabin of the Orca, with Quint's haunting Indianapolis speech bookended by lighter moments of drunken lunacy. After the great "battle scars" comparison between Hooper and Qunit in one beautiful long shot (with the occasional cut to a reactionar one shot of Brody), Quint takes center stage in the movie's most compelling sequence, an eerie speech which showcases many of the film's high points: beautiful compositions, sublime performances, perfect writing, subtle character interaction, and thematic depth. All of that is in Quint's story, and it's the heart of not just the "water" section, but of the entire movie.
The sequence breaks down in a series of long shots of him, with Hooper in a blurred background, as he recounts his memory of the day the USS Indianapolis sunk. The first shot is more clear, with an overall focus on the entire composition (Quint on the left), and lasts about 40 seconds as he sets up the sinking and what the soldiers did to survive. After a very brief reactionary shot of Brody, the next shot of Quint is similar to the previous one but is more focused, with Hooper and other background details more blurry and Quint more clearly in the foreground. The composition rests entirely on Quint's eyes and their expression as he goes on to talk about the "lifeless, like a doll's" eyes of shark, and the "terrible high pitch screaming" of the victims he watched die, all the while maintaining his steady, hypnotic mumbled speech patterns. Lasting more than a minute (76 seconds), this shot maintains such intensity because of its total locking onto Quint. After another reactionary shot of Brody (and then Hooper), the next shot of Quint puts him more in the center of the frame, practically erasing everything else around him, including Hooper, as he explains why he will never put another life jacket on.
The remainder of the film is a more focused duel between the the Orca and the shark. Not that the film has ever been operating under any principles of logic, the sea half practically shuts off the entire world the film worked so hard to built in the first half, operating according to its own rules. In this section, as the shark becomes more visible, its personality becomes more vivid rather than its mythological presence in the first half. It is intelligent and relentless in its engaging the Orca in a game of strategy in a battle for the sea. Of course, no shark would exhibit such intelligence and downright vigor, but as it progresses the movie leaves logic aside and hones in on the experience of the adventure and the inevitable conclusion of the duel.
Apart from the outstanding first chase sequence, which follows the Brody/shark shot I analyzed above, there are a number of chase scenes that delve into a real sense of pirate fun that contrast so harshly with the quiet subtlties of Quint's speech and the growing relationship among the trifecta of men. But somehow, these strange juxtapositions seem right. The adventure, the chase, the ripping through the ocean surface in pursuit of "the barrels"; none of it infantilizes the more quiet, dark material, but it instead compliments it. When the music isn't riffing on the two note stalking motif, it's bouncing around playful pirate melodies which are more driven by strings and and winds rather than pounding brass. It's the right sound for all those barrel chases and it complements the quick-moving visual sequences to a tee.
These all culminate in an action-based final 20 minutes, in which the average shot length quickens, the attacks by the shark become more relentless and frequent. In the final sequence in which all three men are together (when they are putting the cage together in an irresistible montage sequence), few words are said. But we know that the trifecta relationship is at a close, and that the narrative is nearly at its end as well. There is a sobering sense of seriousness to the rest of the proceedings as we realize for the first time that we truly care about the fates of these characters. This is the result of the sublime visual narrative that has built to the wacky action-packed finale and the moments before it. In these final moments of the film, Quint's fate within the shark's mouth is sealed as he we him stripped of his armor (his coat and his hat), disheveled, angered, and beaten. Long before he is taken by the shark, we know what's in store for him. Interestingly, this process of Quint's breakdown and humanity begins with his Indianopolis soliloquoy.
I should note that the movie intelligently ends before our heroes arrive back to shore. Something tells me it would have lost something had we been treated to an epilogue. The final shot—a long shot connecting the land and the ocean one a peaceful beachline—represents the perfect finale and culmination of the film's themes, interestingly suggesting the triumph of humanity and "land" over the instinct of the water. The shot is at a distance from the land and ocean it presents, each of which take up about half the shot, in essence bringing together to film's two sections. From there, we can imagine for ourselves where Hooper and Brody go, what they do when they get back, how Amity reacts to the news; but the movie necesarily ends with the destruction of the shark and the suggestion of a more happy union between the land of the humans and the sea of nature.
I could go on forever recalling the small details that account for the movie's mastery and status as an American movie classic, e.g. the fabulous night sequence involving the discovery of Ben Gardner's boat, the many chase sequences, the shark's lifeless body bellowing a roar as it plummits to the bottom of the sea, filling the frame with a red cloud to the perfect descending piano motif in the score. But all of these moments, some of which I've rigorously analyzed above, can only be experienced in the two-hour experience that is Jaws. During its duration, Jaws exemplifies why cinema is such an evocative artistic and narrative medium. Its structural perfection, subtle character-revealing moments, precise but naturalistic compositions, and commitment to visually and viscerally exploring a variety of themes all work together to a build a movie experience that is justified for being such a cultural staple. It is entertaining and thoughtful, subtle and overt, terrifying and fun. Capturing all of this with a nostalgia for the never-changing waves of the beaches' oceans, Jaws may be Steven Spielberg's ultimate cinematic experience.