Three ways to watch one movie
Readers very often find themselves haunted by endings, moved to sadness because the story is over, and saturated with the heaviness of loss that accompanies even the happiest of endings. I also suffer this with beginnings. Before the first word is finally chosen and the first sentence given the weighty conclusion of its full stop, the story is infinite; any tale not yet begun can still go wherever it likes. Once it has started, that multiplicity is extinguished and, like the death of cells that result in the growth of bodies, a narrative is birthed from the genocide of potential times it might have been once upon.
This sacrifice required by beginnings often causes me to stare stupidly at a blank page in the grip of analysis paralysis. Sometimes, patience will lead to a lightning strike of words that give me my first sentence; most of the time, I take Graham Greene’s advice in The End of the Affair to “arbitrarily [choose] that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead”. Inevitably, I will later come back to whatever beginning I have begun from and either decide that these are the perfect first words or that I will have to start again. After all, in spite of Greene’s cavalier attitude, Plato himself told us, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”
This essay you’re reading, for instance, could have leapt straight into the deeper waters of its thesis, wasting no time with toe-touching-water preliminaries. Or it might have struck up conversation with you, the reader, on a more anecdotal note, perhaps something about my childhood, as Alberto Manguel is fond of doing. Hitchens used to slap whatever else you may have been thinking from your mind by beginning as if you and he were already mid-conversation. All of these are great, but each precludes the other. To choose one is to lose many.
In the end, I have begun with a carefully orchestrated sideways-slide into the opening of this essay, calculated (hopefully cleverly, possibly not) to ease my reader into its theme of multiplicity and how the selection of a singular from it can constitute something to lament. But how, I wonder, to introduce the fact that I am looking at this theme through an examination of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster, Jaws? Well, I suppose that will do it.
In the beginning
We might well start by noting how Jaws itself begins, with the traumatic death of the naked teenage girl in the teeth of the silent killer. It is textbook horror from the dark night setting and nudity of the young woman, with its suggestion of sex, to the ominous music and violent death. And yet it coheres into an utterly unique and timeless cinematic touchstone. With that bang the movie opens, but what of its ending? Certainly not a whimper, though it is well out of earshot of the movie’s beginning in terms of tone and genre. Jaws ends as if we have been watching a buddy-cop movie, with our unlikely duo heading with jovial exhaustion into the sunrise.
Scholars have struggled to classify Jaws, variously assessing it with labels such as action thriller, aquatic-monster movie, buddy film, or kitchen-sink drama. (That last pitch was mine, no scholar, somewhat stretching definitions to make a point to a friend. I forget what the point was – perhaps that at a low enough resolution, anything can look like anything else.) Diverse readings of the movie have been equally forthcoming. It might be a movie about an insurgent attack on the family from anti-traditionalist liberals (not my term or interpretation – I am a messenger, do not shoot) or the foreign threat of communism; it might reflect conflicts between the natural and social orders that cause confusion about masculinity, or portray the “haunting and unmentionable persistence of the organic – of birth, copulation, and death – which the cellophane society of consumer capitalism recontains in hospitals and old age homes”, as literary critic Fredric Jameson so elegantly phrased it.
These sometimes conflicting and never definitive categorisations point to the fundamental truth that Jaws does what the great artefacts of culture always do: It connects to a tradition by resembling it, continues that tradition by riffing on it, and adds to the tradition by refuting some part of it. It contributes to the whole while being its own thing. Jaws is a beast with many backs that links cinematic genres and conventions, as well as being a creature of its own.
Spielberg’s movie is so engaging – aside from the director’s expertise in crafting blockbusters that don’t treat brains like mobile phones (things to be turned off while watching the screen) – because of what Fredric Jameson calls the movie’s “polysemy”. It can signify multiple things, sometimes all at once. In one of the movie’s most memorable moments, the actor Roy Scheider ad-libs for his character, Brody, the line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” This is his stoic response to witnessing the leviathan size of the shark. But the quip might just as well be referencing the competing representative natures of each of the three men aboard, whose allegorical selves strain against the containment of their symbolic boat.
So let’s take a closer look at these three men, along with three ideas of what each might represent, and three different notions of what Jaws might be “about”. These are complimentary readings that involve masculinity, religion, and the life cycle, each taken from one theoretical substrate that can be expressed broadly as: Multiplicity is richer than singularity.
Talkin’ about sharkin’
Spielberg, like Plato, knows how much a good beginning counts. The director applies this to the introductions of many of his main characters, which are micro-masterclasses in conveying important information, ratcheting up audience interest, and setting up themes all in the way we meet people on screen.
Take one of the most memorably obnoxious character introductions: Quint’s salt-water-worn hand scratching a chalkboard and silencing the useless chatter of Amity’s concerned citizens. This is a man who stands out by creating tension and discomfort, often caused by the friction between himself and whomever he is rubbing the wrong way. Like the scream of his nails against the grain of the chalkboard, listening to him can be unpleasant – the ditty about the fifteen-year-old virgin and the complaint that “goddamn women today ... can’t handle nothing” give you a flavour of the man, and it’s somewhat bitter. Spielberg’s close up on Quint’s hand tells us everything we need to know about him: This is a man proud of what the state of his hands says about what he has done with his life.
Quint holds expertise in the highest regard, so long as it has been earned by the work of one’s hands. His ego is too fragile to allow expertise in other fields to matter if he does not have any prowess in those areas. This essential truth defines the relationships he takes with the other two men aboard his ship. (Notice, incidentally, that they do take his ship, the undersized and rudimentary Orca, rather than Hooper’s much larger and better equipped vessel. Quint insists on his own turf, his own methods, and his own rules; he consistently places himself where he is king.)
Every look shot between Quint and Hooper is like a silent fist-fight; Quint constantly knocks young Hooper off of his scientifically literate pedestal of academia, jabbing at him for his youth and once, pointedly, for his “city hands”, too smooth for the trials they face – “I’m talkin’ about workin’ for a livin’. I’m talkin’ about sharkin’!” The smoothness of Hooper’s hands is indicative of a lamentable lack of experience. With Brody, meanwhile, Quint is more like a weary yet tolerant father helping a son to grow up. The chief of police is top only of the food chain in the Amity police force. On the ocean, Quint is the apex predator.
This all leads to the first of our triadic readings of Jaws, which takes up the question of who modern man is supposed to be. Jaws is of a particular tradition dealing in “masculine” struggles with and against oceanic nature. It has clear precursors in Moby Dick by Melville and The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway (himself something of an antecedent to Quint). Quint is an epitome of manhood that some see as “romantic” and others see as “toxic” – but both groups concede the dated nature of this on-his-way-out figure.
“Men used to be men,” sighs the first group nostalgically, wishing for a return to stoic endurance, muscular approaches to problems, and the confidence not only to yield authority but to wield it too. “We must be better than we were,” asserts the second group, wary of the tyranny and callousness that plagued past generations. They hope to liberate today’s men from the straightjacket of oppressive masculine norms, and seek to use their own masculinity as a positive force rather than a force for subjugation.
Hooper embraces the technological and socio-economic advances that liberate younger men like himself from what narrow conceptions of gender roles determined their male predecessors to be. Quint, however, is a man out of time, in each sense of the expression. He is the sort of man in irreversible decline, whose best days are long behind him, in the shadow his past casts over his present. He is stuck in that past as he grumbles at and wrestles against this new world of new men.
“Jesus H Christ,” he exclaims on regarding the fancy gear Hooper uses as part of his work, “when I was a boy, every little squirt wanted to be a harpooner or a sword fisherman.” Quint the man still longs for the world of Quint the boy.
“They’re all going to die.”
So how do we meet Matt Hooper, our oceanographer rich kid? Unlike many of Spielberg’s most memorable introductions, which withhold the big picture and gradually introduce our protagonist through the accumulation of features (think of Indiana Jones and his hat and whip before his face emerges from the shadows in the opening of Raiders), Hooper jumps off of a boat and immediately into the movie. He stands face to chest with a much larger local fisherman, says, “Hello,” and is greeted with, “Hello back, young feller." His character is drawn by comparisons and contrasts between him and those around. He is an outsider to Amity, he is of a different socio-economic class to Quint and Brody, and his knowledge is of the academic kind as opposed to the tried-and-tested wisdom that comes of trying-and-testing in the real world.
We then watch the officious newcomer hand out unsolicited advice and pieces of his maritime-based knowledge to the locals swarming the docks. He tells two boaters how best to push off without colliding (“Don’t raise sail, you’re just gonna’ luff it. You got a paddle on the boat?”) and informs a boatload of fishermen that they are overloading their vessel. In response to their surly dismissal of him, Hooper mutters sardonically, “They’re all going to die.” It is clear to him that those antediluvian types who do not value scientific insight are lost causes.
This brings us to the second reading of Jaws, in which faith and reason are pitted against each other (as happens in reality too often to not be tedious), and the movie examines the cultural contest that the two have seemingly engaged in since the Enlightenment. Hooper is our man of science, our proponent of the worldview now commonly represented by Dawkins and internet atheism. Playing against this type is Quint, our man of pre-scientific faith.
Quint may seem an unlikely source of religiosity but he does embody one of the principle hand-downs from faith to culture in the relatively recent West – the so-called Protestant work ethic. Quint’s conceptualisation of this “works first” mindset is rather rough at the edges, a coarseness that has rubbed away the aspect of this theology that claims dutiful hard work benefits our community; for Quint, manual labour is the heavy lifting and back breaking route to personal glory. His offer to rid Amity of its shark problem is partly about the money (he raises the bounty from “three thousand bucks” to $10,000) and partly about the satisfaction of hunting and destroying a creature whose species he has a personal vendetta against.
At bottom, Hooper and Quint share a core value of knowledge. But the locus and aetiology of what they know, along with what exactly is worth knowing, differs drastically. Quint prioritises the physicality of the body, gaining wisdom through action and work; Hooper privileges the mind and knowledge born of study and the intellect. Not for Hooper the subjective insight of lived experience but the objective facts available through formal study. In his opposition to Quint’s folksy, pseudo-animistic faith, Hooper is an Enlightenment rationalist looking down on the “unenlightened”.
In spite of these oppositions, the two men are surprisingly similar in temperament, pride, and overconfidence in their own ways of knowing the world. They even routinely come to similar positions via different routes, such as their separate assessments of the threat: After an impersonal examination of what remains of the shark’s first kill, Hooper pronounces “the non-frenzied feeding of a large squalus – possibly Longimanus or Isurus glauca”. Quint tells us, “Bad fish.” Perhaps it is more the method than the outcome that, in Jaws, differentiates the Enlightenment view from the religious.
Youth, Knowledge, Authority
So we are left now with the first of the men to be seen on screen, our somewhat bumbling hero, Officer Brody. Spielberg shoots him from behind as he rises into shot, the back of his head obscuring our view of the ocean beyond his bedroom window. As Brody makes his way around the bedroom, very slowly turning so we begin to see him from the front, this unusual view of whom we assume is our protagonist forces us to ask, “Who is this man?” This is also the question Brody will indirectly ask of himself as the movie progresses. He is an uncertain man in uncertain circumstances, half-belonging here and half-belonging nowhere, and the conflict at his core is over who he is supposed to be and what he is supposed to do.
Brody is our middle-man in Jaws: Quint signifies what a man does and Hooper represents what a man can know, whereas Brody has done little and knows less. This is admittedly a hyperbolically unfair diminution of his character – he is chief of police, after all – but on the ocean, this is functionally true. He hates boats and knows very little of what to do when on one, and his knowledge of sharks is restricted to what he gleans from some books he presumably has never opened before. Brody spends most of this movie looking to the two different kinds of experts in Quint and Hooper to tell him what to do, and trying to act on that education, and often getting it wrong. At one point, he asserts, “I can do anything, I’m the chief of police.” We see, in contrast, that this self-confidence might be misplaced.
And so to our third and final reading of Jaws, which happens to be my favourite: The three men represent the three stages of life, from Youth through Knowledge to Authority. Quint is our old sea dog, the captain of the ship with a lifetime of experience that gives him his authority. Hooper prides himself on all that he has learned, all the knowledge he can bring to bear on their shark problem. And Brody is our model of Youth, which is to say he is naïve, fearful, and in need of guidance. Brody’s story and, arguably, the story of the whole movie is that of a boy attempting to work out how to behave like a man, and learning to become a grown up under the education of Knowledge and Authority.
Brody begins his story in a state of uncertain maturity; he is husband and father, but he is not sure how to consistently be these things. Beneath the more captivating plot of shark against humans, we continually see Brody dropping the ball in his own home. His son has a bloody cut caused by the swing-set Brody has not yet fixed – and is kept again from attending to by a phone call instigating the main story. When he sets off to chase down the shark, he reminds his wife not to use the fireplace as he has still not cleaned the flue. In his opening scene, Brody is “taught to speak” by his wife, Ellen, like a child with his mother: He says the kids are in the yard, and she tells him, “In Amity, you say ‘yahd’.” He then practices, seeking her approval.
The most clever and narratively economical representation of Brody’s growth from metaphoric youth to maturity is in his relationship with water. We discover in the movie’s first half that Brody still bears the burden of a childhood fear of water. (Ellen says, “There’s a clinical name for it, isn’t there?” and Brody responds, “Drowning.”) By the climax of the movie, that same man will be swimming in the ocean and telling Hooper, who swims alongside him, “I used to hate the water ...” Jaws is the story of how Brody gets from one version of a man to the other, via Hooper’s knowledge and Quint’s authority, both men teaching him what he needs to know, both men believing he need only know what they tell him, and Brody proving them both right and wrong by melding their wisdom into something new.
Brody learns from both of these men certain things he ought to do, but he also learns from their mistakes. We see that Hooper is arrogant in thinking that he is above those who don’t think like him (“I’m not going to waste my time arguing with a man who’s lining up to be a hot lunch!”) just as Quint is conceited in his conviction that his way is the only way and he can do it alone. “I don’t want no volunteers, I don’t want no mates,” he tells the gathered townsfolk when he offers to kill the shark, “there’s just too many captains on this island.” Too many captains, and only one Quint.
In the end, Hooper’s scientific tools and techniques lead to his hiding at the bottom of the sea, his equipment having failed him and Hooper rendered impotent without his big syringe-on-a-stick. Quint fares no better, with his primal aggression and competitive nature driving him to destroy their communications equipment and push the boat to literal breaking point, all in the futile hope of proving he can come out best in a mano-a-mano (or mano-a-aleta) fight between man and shark.
The man who remains to finish the job, to protect Amity and return to the place he has made for himself, with a better understanding of what he wants to achieve and how best to achieve it, is Brody. And a little attention paid to the details of how he pulls off his big win reveal what place he takes amongst this odd trio of archetypes: Brody takes Quint’s old M1 Garand rifle from the cabin of the sinking boat and, with it, shoots the air cannister Hooper brought along as part of his scientific equipment, which is now in the animal’s mouth, and the explosion tears the shark apart. Brody is victorious thanks to the combination of Quint’s weapon with Hooper’s tech.
In the same way that Youth looks to Knowledge and Authority for guidance, Brody has hybridised the best of Hooper and Quint to forge a new approach to the world. Youth has grown up, attained knowledge of his own, and through his experiences gained authority. As Brody kicks his way through the now calm waters, he is heading home to his family, to his sons who will renew the cycle by growing out of their youth using the value that can be taken from their father’s knowledge and authority. And just as Brody approximates parts of Hooper and Quint but is his own person, his sons will use some of what their father and mother impart but will become new people.
Its own beast
Whether Quint is “patriarchal man” or “primitive believer” or the “authority of old age”, he is inescapably necessary to present-day success. After all, it is with his guidance and authority, and on his boat, that the shark is finally defeated. Equally, Brody’s education under Hooper in the first third of the movie leads Brody to make the right calls – opening up the shark to determine it was the wrong creature, being cautious over opening the beaches, and hiring Quint to hunt the animal. I am reminded by Brody of Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol, when the reformed miser announces, “I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me.”
Each of our three interpretations of Jaws comes down to the notion that a singular view is impoverished if it cannot be entertained as one amongst many. The idea that there is a unified, simplistic, and unary way to be a man diminishes masculinity. The notion that science or religion, either/or, is the sole correct approach to life and the universe is reductive to the point of failing practically. No one can live by one or the other alone. And the life cycle of maturing from the existential plasticity of youth to a more fixed form is dependent on the variation inherently resulting from blending what was with what could yet be.
Jaws is a richer movie for its plurality of readings. What could be seen – and is by many, sadly – as merely a summer blockbuster or simply a thrilling adventure movie is actually a complex story full of potential. I went to see it recently with a friend when our local cinema showed it; sitting a row ahead of me, a family had brought their two small children to see it, the little girl gripping her armrests and the boy grinning at the shark’s eventual demise. No doubt these parents had experiences with and readings of the movie all their own, and I am sure that those children will have had a similar but unique experience watching the movie for themselves. Jaws is its own beast, but we can make of it what we will.
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• Jaws, dir. Steven Spielberg (1975)
• The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (1951)
• “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” in Signatures of the Visible, Fredric Jameson (1979)