jaws kid

Very little ever happens on Amity Island.  Eight and nine-year-olds in a peewee karate school jeopardize the well-being of the picket fences with their newly-learned chops.  The mayor of the town wears a blazer embroidered with tiny anchors and says through a tight, chintzy smile that “Amity, as you know, means friendship.”  A parade of young and old alike, bronzed, freckled (and in some cases wrinkled) from long, lazy hours spent on the sand and in the water, flock to and from Amity Island’s beaches.  Perhaps it is this all-American, sunsoaked atmosphere of constant summertime lull that makes the presence of a massive, flesh-hungry shark in the waters off Amity all the more acutely terrifying.  Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is in this way a later, more straight-for-the-jugular ancestor of The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock.  In The Birds, the backwater tranquility of Bodega Bay has an untouchable quality that makes the vicious attacks by seagulls on the bay’s inhabitants not only horrifying but somehow irreverent.  In Jaws, the same is true.  Naughty teenagers have been having drunken campfires on the dusk-colored shores of Amity for as long as teenagers have had the impulse to be naughty and drunken, yet one evening, inexplicably, one of these campfires ends with a naked young night-swimmer named Chrissie being torn and shredded limb from limb in deep waters.  The assailant is unseen, but based on Chrissie’s blood-curdling, spluttering screams, we know it has razor-sharp teeth.

Amity’s New York City import and newly-hired chief of police, Martin Brody (a reluctant hero played with marvelous understatement by Roy Scheider), is one of the first on the scene to discover Chrissie’s gnawed and stomach-turning remains.  Brody is an outsider to the island with his Brooklyn accent and his street-trained methods of dealing with law enforcement, and proceeds to, naturally, attempt to close the beaches until the shark has been caught.  But “shark” is a word that carries particular weight in Amity.  Once a man-eating shark is acknowledged to be in Amity’s waters, the cash-cow Fourth of July festivities the town and island depends on for economic stability will evaporate.  It is this message that is drilled into Chief Brody’s head with manipulative persistence by the mayor and endangered townspeople as soon as he begins to cry shark, and closing the beaches becomes a more difficult and loaded prospect than he initially realized.

The most masterfully-paced sequence in Jaws is also one of the most iconic.  As a scene it toys with our tendency to mistakenly see things, and our (or Chief Brody’s) inability to see everything—crucial things—at any given moment.  A young boy who we will come to (hardly) know as Alex Kintner plods up the sand to where his mother sits on a beach blanket.  Can he go back into the water for a little longer?  Yes, that’s fine, but only for ten more minutes so as to avoid pruning fingertips.  Nearby Brody sits uneasily on his beach chair; a medium shot, then a closer shot, then an even closer shot of the chief of police as he scans the water tensely.  A grey shiny head emerges slowly from the waves, but it is an old man with a bathing cap.  A girl screams as she gets dragged suddenly underwater, but bursts out of the water seconds later laughing on the shoulders of her boyfriend.  A missing dog’s stick floats lifelessly in the surf.  Suddenly we are gliding stealthily underwater in that famous POV shot, as we were before Chrissie’s attack, moving upwards towards two knobby knees hanging lazily over an inflatable raft.  Above water, we see Alex Kintner disappear quickly and silently under the surface of the ocean, two huge triangular fins, each roughly the size of the small boy, becoming visible as this happens.  He reappears, or rather his upper body explodes out of the water for a moment, blood spurting forcefully as if out of a fire hydrant.  Chief Brody’s deepest fear—the fear he knew was real and that would come back violently to haunt him– lurches at him with a nauseating rush (in the form of a zoom-in/dolly-out, an inversion of the camera movement used to express Jimmy Stewart’s nauseating rushes in Vertigo).  Moments later Alex Kintner’s raft, deflated and practically chewed in two pieces, washes up on the beach.

Astonishing though disturbingly believable, it takes not only Alex Kintner’s death but also a lethal shark attack on the Fourth of July to persuade Amity as a whole to support the closing of the beaches and the proper finding and killing of the great white shark that has wreaked so much panic-stricken havoc.  Chief Brody (whose deeply-seated fear of the water remains one of the lovely enigmas of the film) teams up with renowned if self-ostracized local fisherman Quint (a cackling, looney Robert Shaw), and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, smart, funny, and bratty), the oceanographic specialist who has been brought in for expert advice on the shark problem.  The three are a winningly awkward crew of shark-hunters as they set out on Quint’s ramshackle boat, loaded to the brim with Hooper’s shark-killing gear (Hooper sees it as a necessity, Quint sees it as pansy).  The second half of Jaws kicks into full gear in the form of an alternately terrifying and riotously hilarious ocean voyage.  One thing that is admirably solidified up to and especially during this point in the film is the various methods used to imply the presence of the shark without actually showing the beast itself.  Underwater POV shots, the boat’s sideboards splitting, and an entire sequence of submerging and emerging barrels are only a few of the genius signifiers of “shark” in Jaws.  While these techniques were practically employed to avoid the overuse of the unreliable mechanical shark built for the film, they also instill the film with a sense of dread– dread of that which lurks unseen and beneath.

The labeling of Jaws is interesting.  As a film it is usually grouped into the horror genre, and it is always cited as the movie that singlehandedly kicked off the phenomenon of the summer blockbuster.  While Jaws absolutely uses horrific elements to superb effect, and while it is the moments of most acute horror from the film that have been endlessly fetishized and glorified in the form of clips and soundbites (naked Chrissie getting brutally hauled around in the water, John Williams’ string-heavy score that has brought the notion of “high concept” to an entirely new level), the film is really more of a suspense-thriller that morphs into an adventure movie in the second act.  Jaws— again, like The Birds— is a film punctuated with intense sequences of gore but that is first and foremost about waiting.  Of course one always thinks with morbid delight/fright about the watery scenes in Jaws when a vicious and disturbingly primal attack occurs.  But it is also important to think of all the scenes in the film when there are people in the water and nothing happens.  A troop of boyscouts are splashing about in the ocean training for long-distance swimming.  Hooper dives into the dark waters to investigate a boat that has undergone a mysterious attack.  Chief Brody’s son sits in his birthday boat near the family’s dock.  Nothing happens.

As critic A.O. Scott recently observed, the slower pace of Jaws makes it also an unlikely candidate for a blockbuster, a category typically crowded with and sometimes plagued by thrill-a-minute action.  More importantly, blockbusters, though almost necessarily violent and constantly filled with both villains and good guys meeting gruesome deaths, very rarely display true grit.  In Jaws a young boy is ripped to bloody, pulpy shreds.  A possibly apocryphal story of the opening weekend of Jaws tells of audience members who ran out of theaters vomiting after Alex Kintner’s death scene.  It is indeed a challenge to list on one hand the smash-success movies in which a child is brutally, graphically killed onscreen.  It is a greater challenge to list even one other smash-success movie in which a child is brutally, graphically killed onscreen and, somehow, a sense of humor is still integral to the film.  Jaws, the genesis of the Big Movie, which forever altered the way films are released, marketed, and swarmed to in droves, is not a typical blockbuster.  It is gritty, harrowing, funny, and– above all– very brave.