Jaws, which inaugurated the “summer blockbuster,” is an enormously popular thriller-adventure that meshes reality and fantasy. The “reality” is a coastal resort town, Amity Island, that’s open for summer business and is determined to remain open for business. The “fantasy” is a primordial sea beast—the “Great White Shark”—that’s snapping at swimmers in the ocean. The fantasy threatens to shut down the reality, consigning normal commercial profits to the deep. This is a worthy progressive theme.
Unfortunately, Jaws is tedious, hollow and unnecessarily long—and, worse than the fact that it generates not one real thrill, let alone stoppage of the heart, for all its hoary and clichéd attempts to do so (the mechanical shark is laughably unconvincing), Jaws is a cruel, dehumanizing film—one that fails to develop its potentially rich material, even to a minimal extent, because it chooses to focus instead on the audience, which it relentlessly tries to manipulate. The result, therefore, is scarcely better than Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954), one of the works from which it generously borrows for its monster-antics, and a favorite of its director, then-28-year-old Steven Spielberg. Goodness knows, I have a store of quarrels with Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), from Thomas Mann; but compare Visconti’s treatment, wherein Venice is loath to deter its tourist trade despite an outbreak of cholera, and Spielberg’s half-hearted treatment of a similar theme in Jaws. Visconti can draw upon his heartfelt Marxism for the appropriate anger and sense of outrage over the fact that the well-being of tourists is being cavalierly dismissed by business and official local interests; but upon what can Spielberg draw? Apparently nothing. A potent theme is thus drowned in a sea of mechanical thrills. It is indicated in the set-up, and we look forward to its development; but the theme never really surfaces to help make whole or to pull together an expert assemblage of scenes and set-pieces. (Verna Fields, who won an Oscar, did the cutting.) One exaggerates the achievement of Jaws by calling it a bad movie. There is no movie here, for thematic unity has been sacrificed for the sake of young Spielberg’s pornographic agenda. There isn’t a movie because Jaws, like the Peter Benchley novel on which it is based, isn’t about anything at all.
There are two major parts of the plot. The first relates instances of the menace that the shark visits on Amity Island, the local reaction by terrorized tourists, the police chief, and the corrupt, oblivious mayor, and the organizing of the hunt for the shark. The second, the hunt, draws upon Moby-Dick but lacks the elemental mystery, not to mention the startling humanity and philosophical richness and depth, of Herman Melville’s novel. Three characters are involved here: the police chief, who, it turns out, is terrified of the water; a young, goofy marine biologist; a fisherman obsessed with catching the monster—the movie’s Ahab, and also its Ishmael. The last of these, Quint, is given a long histrionic speech in which he reminisces about a World War II experience that plunged him and other sailors into shark-infested waters. Obliquely, the passage—perhaps the film’s high point, and its rare nod to a kind of humanism—links the film to science-fiction/horror movies of the 1950s that refer to the upsetting of Nature that resulted from U.S. atomic bombing and testing. Quint’s vessel, the USS Indianapolis, had been torpedoed by the Japanese when it was on its way home after delivering the A-bomb. Sharks claimed the lives of some 800 sailors. John Milius wrote Quint’s speech, whereas the rest of the film was written by Benchley, Carl Gottlieb and Spielberg himself.
Jaws lacks the intense unity, the simple single-mindedness, of Duel (1971), the previous effort by Spielberg that it most resembles. The dumb nature of the tractor-trailer incomprehensibly pursuing the commuter is (greatly) enlarged in the later film and, of course, moved from the road to the sea; but there hasn’t been any addition of richness or resonance. In too many ways, Jaws takes its personality from the shark. If there is a “character” with whom Spielberg seems to identify, it is the shark, which terrorizes tourists and hunters much as the director is trying to scare the wits out of us. Nothing else seems to engage his interest. The essential difference between an artist and an entertainer is that the former is focused on giving formal expression to his or her ideas and feelings, while the latter is focused on the audience (or on some projection of an audience). Many filmmakers operate in imaginative space somewhere in between these two polar dispositions; Spielberg, on the other hand, is pure entertainer. Yet he is a curiously dour, joyless entertainer, as though he is holding in severe check emotions of his own that he doesn’t trust. This also contributes to the inhuman personality of Jaws. Subsequently it would help dictate the saccharin and sentimental quality of certain films of his—films that rely on bogus feelings rather than searching out and expressing genuine emotions.
Among American filmmakers, two of Spielberg’s great loves are John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. In one scene, music from The Quiet Man (1952) is played in homage to Ford; in another, as the police chief, seated, reacts to a horrific shark attack, Spielberg zooms forward while simultaneously pulling back the camera—a visual technique invented by Hitchcock for Vertigo (1958). Indeed, the all-male hunt, with the (mostly) unseen enemy somewhere out there in the water, recalls Ford’s military adventure in the desert, The Lost Patrol (1934), and Spielberg’s many attempts to generate suspense smack (at least combinately) of Hitchcock. But, sadly, Spielberg is without the concern for his characters that is one of the hallmarks of Ford’s and Hitchcock’s cinema.
Rather, Jaws beats the heartless path of The Godfather (1972), a film that pioneered—in America, that is—the pornographic technique of manipulating the audience into a state of delighted anticipation of each subsequent act of mayhem or violence. Prior to The Godfather, Hollywood films as a matter of course generated, or at least tried to generate, concern for their characters, especially vulnerable ones in peril or at risk of falling into peril. With the fifties horror films of which Spielberg insists he is enamored, the audience is encouraged to be anxious for those characters who are in a situation of grave danger. With Jaws, Spielberg appeals instead to the basest elements in our nature; in his hands, we cannot wait for the shark to claim another victim. Francis Ford Coppola, perhaps horrified by the monster he unleashed, never resorted to this manipulative method after The Godfather. But, beginning with Jaws, Spielberg made cold-hearted audience manipulation, in various guises, his signature tack. However, Munich (2005) suggests that he, too, however belatedly, rues the kind of filmmaking that was his stock-in-trade for at least twenty years. (In Munich, Spielberg resists titillating us with deaths, making each one, instead, seem pitiably horrible.) Regrettably, in the interim, the upshot of his spectacular transformation of the whole way in which popular entertainments operate has been a coarsening of the culture and a deadening of the American heart. The social and political consequences for the United States have been enormous; it is not too much to say, as a result, that Jaws is the single most influential U.S. film ever made—although one must add, needless to say, that Spielberg’s film has been a contributory, not a sole, cause of such complex, overdetermined phenomena as seventies “me-ness” and the mass school shootings of the 1990s.
Nevertheless, it is inaccurate to attribute originality to Spielberg’s procedure. The model for the cold-blooded cinema that Jaws exemplifies can be found in another time and place. The Third Reich created the approach in films that Coppola’s Godfather resurrected; in those propagandistic works, audiences were encouraged to savor each new incidence of derision and abuse that befell Jewish characters. By pursuing this approach of Coppola’s, Spielberg—indirectly, inadvertently, carelessly, obliviously—copied the Nazis.
“Don’t go in the water!” promotions for this film shouted. It might be better still not to go anywhere near Spielberg’s toxic film.
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