When you think of Steven Spielberg’s greatest disciple, you probably think of Robert Zemeckis. You probably don’t think of David Fincher. However, if you were unlucky enough to see The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Se7en, you might find the following Fincher quote rather telling: “I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me, I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again.” I like to think of the thirteen year old David, inauspiciously purchasing his ticket for the shark picture back in the summer of 1975, and walking out of the theater two hours later in a daze of black-hearted glory. Spielberg’s oeuvre is chock full of films intended to heal, it’s a sad irony the one which captured Fincher’s imagination was really his only movie with teeth.
While Steven Spielberg’s influence in film is diffuse, nothing he’s done could be fairly said to have changed the whole world, with the exception of the first five minutes of Jaws. The opening credits pass over a continuous, swimming shot near the bottom of the ocean floor. A group of college kids smoke and drink on the beach beside a fire, then a seductress runs from the party, teasing a drunk buck to give her chase. As she runs, she disrobes and finally leaps into the surf completely nude. The fellow is too sloshed to undress, and passes out in the sand whilst trying to remove his shoes. Far from shore, the girl inverts herself in the water and a single leg extends upright. For just a moment, from a distance, her leg has the semblance of a shark fin. We then see the girl from the same underwater perspective which opens the film, though the camera is rising toward the unsuspecting swimmer. Moments later, she feels the shark brush her feet, and then a thrashing begins, though it will be an hour before we see the monster. The shark drags her around, violently playing with her on the surface of the water. While I’ve seen videos of Orcas playing with seals before killing them, I’ve never heard of a shark doing so. It is as though the shark is toying with the woman in the same way she toyed with the man who raced after her. Finally, off screen, the shark mangles her.
And that, friends, is more or less the last forty years of horror.
As a genre, horror took root in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel which details how death and suffering invariably emerge from sexual deviance. Victor Frankenstein is an outcast, raised to marry his sister, though he has romantic inclinations toward his friend Henry. Off to college, Victor exiles himself in morgues and dreams up the possibility of having a child outside of marriage, outside of sexual congress with a woman. That he never thinks of raising the dead (who already have family), and that he rejects the rather tried-and-true birds-and-bees process of generating progeny, suggests his real interest in bringing a child to life is not the child itself, but complete domination and ownership of another person. A radical autonomy. When he brings a child to life all on his own, he promptly abandons it, and the child forever haunts Victor, begging for a mate or a friend or a father, though Victor is willing to give him nothing. Mary Shelley was a woman similarly mistreated by her father, as well as Percy, her sometimes-husband, who was sexually involved with Mary and her half-sister, not to mention a wife he took before encountering the Shelley girls. By the denouement of her novel, Shelley has crafted a stinging reprieve of Enlightenment and Romantic sexual ideologies. When the sexual norms of marriage are rejected, horror follows.
Though I would not commend horror movies as worthy of prolonged consideration, they tend to make straightforward morality tales which allow for little variation. Nearly all horror films since Jaws begin with a number of lusty young things carousing, in the mood for flesh; such images are juxtaposed against the awakening of some sinister force which comes to cut kids off from their vice. Carnal desire is a call to some sinister moral policeman who comes to judge quickly and severely. In Jaws, the shark haunts the ocean floor until some temptress bids him rise. Spielberg is careful to show the monster approaching the nude bather from below. She brings about her own destruction. She summons a merciless law.
Most horror movies don’t get beyond the first five minutes of Jaws, but rather elongate the slaughter of the young over several hours. Jaws veers sharply to the left following the first attack, though. After picking up the moralistic theme, Spielberg promptly sets it down. Not a single woman will die over the remainder of the film, and of the men who die, none are guilty of any sexual deviance.
The first act is a political quagmire. New police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the Amity Island beaches immediately after the initial attack, but he is pressured to keep them open by the mayor, whose primary interest is the town’s summer tourism industry, which is in full swing for the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. Brody caves, accepting the specious claim the girl died in a boating accident, but a second attack kills a young boy while local news cameras are on the scene. The boy’s mother offers a three thousand dollar reward for the corpse of the shark, and scores of tiny boats piloted by soldiers of fortune launch from a tiny dock to hunt and peck the water for buried treasure. Their efforts are derided by two very different spectators. The first is Quint, a grizzled old shark hunter who believes he alone is up to the task, and the second is Matt Hooper, a marine biologist who condescends the ignorance of both the fortune hunters and Captain Ahab. After the rookies and novices fail to kill the monster, Brody and Quint and Hooper set off on the Orca to finish the job. The story begs us to compare the three.
Brody is afraid of the water, but Quint and Hooper love it. Hooper is a young college grad, but Quint mocks him as an egghead. Quint and Hooper have proud scars earned on the open sea, but Brody is smooth-skinned. Brody succumbs to social pressure, Quint and Hooper pressure society. Quint cares about money, Brody cares about safety, Hooper cares about knowledge. Together, they form Socrates’ tripartite soul. On that last point, though, it ought to be admitted that Jaws has been psychoanalyzed to death, and I’m not content the film holds up under the pressure. In a certain way, the film begs a more intellectual viewer to compare the three heroes. Marxist critics salivate over Quint’s insults against Hooper, a rich kid who studies fish on dad’s dime. Freudian critics fixate on the film’s poster, which represents the nose of shark as a phallus rising toward an unsuspecting female victim. Feminist critics are apt to point out the lack of thoughtful female characters. And the cast is entirely white, so that’s bound to raise the hackles of critics who prefer their hackles be raised over something. The film survives as an epic, though, not as a Rorschach test. Quint perishes because he is arrogant and irrational. Brody battles his own cowardice of the sea on one hand, political failure on the other. While fixed to the cruciform mast, Brody fires the bullet which bursts the beast from inside.
Spielberg is mindful to not make too much or too little of his monster. While researching sharks early on, Brody remarks, “People don’t know how old sharks are. They live two, three thousand years?” and thus obliquely suggests he is beset by some kind of demon. When an autopsy is performed on the first victim, we see only her severed left hand, which is decorated with gaudy gold rings on all fingers but the third, which is bare. Apropos of nothing, Hooper remarks, “This is what happens,” and leaves us to make the connection. Had she a ring on that bare finger, she might have been at home with a husband, like Brody’s wife, the only other woman in the film.
Jaws is a film with a mess of competing coups. The shark would steal the show if Robert Shaw’s Quint didn’t. Shaw would steal the show if Richard Dreyfuss didn’t turn in one of his best performances. The imposing score threatens to swallow the story whole. Until the harrowing conclusion, Roy Scheider is little more than the paralyzed man in the middle. What makes the film uniquely satisfying is the way Spielberg balances power. In schlockier films, the monster is shot through with manifestly supernatural power and thus doesn’t so much pose a threat as have some mopping up to do. There can be no tension in a story unless two opposing sides both stand a chance at getting what they want. The events of Jaws transpire in a small and underfunded coastal hamlet, and we have little doubt that “a bigger boat” could easily handle the shark. Contrariwise, films like Godzilla and Transformers belittle real intrigue because the monsters cannot be genuinely fought, and so the human characters are essentially placed in the same position as the audience— just sitting there, watching the east coast burn to the ground. Human beings end up in most monster movies either because they’re sexy, or to grant perspective on how large the monster truly is. Jaws has a lower body count than the average five minute Dark Knight car chase, and the shark is more of a menace than anything. If Godzilla succeeds, billions die. If the Jaws shark succeeds, the Amity Island tourism industry dries up.
Spielberg brings us to forget how mundane the problem is, though, by Old Man and Sea-ing the third act into a battle of wills. In this, he lets us share in the film, because our wills get tangled up with Quint and Brody. We’re not merely waiting to be startled, and we’re not covering our eyes because we’re unsure what level of gore has recently been deemed acceptable for an R-rated film. The scariest movies never do their own scaring. The scariest movies enlist the audience to scare themselves.