Watching Jaws

We watched Steven Spielberg’s Jaws three times last weekend – once with a group of rowdy 5th graders but the other two times allowed for better viewing, actually stopping and backing up the DVD, to deconstruct and marvel at some of the special effects, done long before CGI.

Readers of my blog – see this post – know that Jaws is iconic for me. Its story and images have lived with me since its 1975 opening weekend. Watching the film three times reminded me of its compactness, of its swift, always forward-moving pace, much like the shark. We spend the first hour of the film on Amity Island, building the story, meeting the characters, preparing for the inevitable meeting with the shark, and then the second hour at sea, aboard Quint’s Orca, battling the beast that, previously, we’d just caught glimpses of. When Amity Island Chief of Police Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, comes face-to-face with the huge shark as he’s chumming and confides to Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” it’s as if he’s saying, You’re gonna need a bigger movie to tell this story. But, no, not this time: The Orca and this movie are what we got.

Its compactness does not take away from the story-telling, with a screenplay written by Peter Benchley, based on his book Jaws, and Carl Gottlieb, who played Meadows, the editor of the Amity Island newspaper. We quickly get a sense of the island’s insularity, as we learn that Brody is not a nativeĀ  – he’s from New York, my God! – his off-island status used against him by the Mayor, in his attempt to keep the beaches open on this big summer weekend.

Another outsider, Robert Shaw’s Quint, screeches into the film when he runs his fingernails down a chalkboard, and we get character touches like the crackers that he always nibbling – hardtack? – and a glimpse of his workplace, with the boiled clean jaws of sharks draped about. When out at sea, down in the galley, Quint gives his monologue about the USS Indianapolis – “I’ll never put on a life jacket again.” – and we understand him and his quest against sharks, what is his own white whale, and can draw a direct line from his bobbing in the water as the Indianapolis goes down to his death at the jaws of the great shark. From the movie’s start we know he’s going to be the one that gets it. One of my son’s friends, when watching the movie for the first time, made that prediction early on – but it doesn’t make Quint’s demise any easier to watch, a hat tip to his development as a character, to that fact that we’re made to care for him, no matter his rants, his radio smashing, and his bossing around of Hooper and Brody.

That’s why I can’t get this movie out of my head: It’s a brilliant, fast-paced, unwavering study of three men, of three outsiders, all drawn out onto the water for the same reason (the shark) and for different reasons, all trying to find a place in Spielberg’s world. Any student of character development can appreciate what Benchley and Gottlieb do with their script, and I think about what a group of high school juniors and seniors might get from a study of this film, perhaps put together with other sea-faring tales.

So forget the severed leg we see after one attack, the eyeless head that pops out from a sunken boat, the blood that spurts from Quint’s mouth when he’s chomped in half by the shark. I’m in it for the people, their arcs through the film. The Monday after our Jaws-filled weekend, I was humming Show Me the Way to Go Home, the song the three men sing the evening before their final battle. But to find that place in their world, to reach their home – for them and for us – we must go through the trial of the shark. And that sure gets a little messy.

I got the photo of Quint here.

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