[Editor’s Note: It’s Steven Spielberg weekend here at Press Play. We are publishing our first video essay series in direct partnership with IndieWire: Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg. This series examines facets of Spielberg’s movie career, including his stylistic evolution as a director, his depiction of violence, his interest in communication and language, his portrayal of authority and evil, and the importance of father figures — both present and absent — throughout his work. If you would like to watch Magic and Light: The Films of Steven Spielberg Chapter 1: Introduction, go here ]
It is often said that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, his excitingly directed adaptation of Peter Benchley’s disposable beach read about a summer community being terrorized by a great white shark, ushered in what we now know as the modern blockbuster. It, along with George Lucas’ Star Wars, brought about what we now accept as the Summer Movie Season. Up until Jaws, studios had considered the summer a vast wasteland where they could offload their grade-z programmers. Just like the town of Amity in the film (really Martha’s Vineyard), where a successful summer tourist season could carry the town through the rest of the year, Hollywood studios would forever rely on summer blockbusters to carry them throughout the rest of the year. This is all true, but Jaws is something else. Look closely and you’ll see it is actually the last old-fashioned adventure, a kind of farewell to a rickety yet sturdy style of Hollywood filmmaking – and values.
The first half of Jaws plays like one of those ‘50s monster movies where a town is under attack by a man-eating creature, but instead of it being mutated ants or Godzilla, it is a shark. The opening shark attack put the audience on notice that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill horror film. The shooting of the movie was plagued by a constantly malfunctioning mechanical shark. This setback forced Spielberg to be creative by creating suspense by withholding the sight of the shark. This also lined up beautifully with future audiences’ anticipation of the summer movie season. You didn’t know what was coming your way.
There are really only two points of view in the film; the shark’s or Spielberg’s, and at times they’re one and the same. The opening of the film is a P.O.V. shot of the shark in motion, but it could easily be Spielberg, the hot young director who had wowed TV audiences with the compact road thriller Duel and impressed critics with the mature romantic chase picture The Sugarland Express, looking to announce himself to the world. Not yet 30, Spielberg was a product of the first generation to grow up with television. He had an encyclopedic understanding of film and film history. He loved Hollywood spectacles like Around the World in 80 Days and B movies by William Whitney equally. He clearly respected the movies and stars that came before him, but he also knew things had to change. He wanted to tell stories faster and on the appropriate scale. He wanted to make a monster movie where you actually believed the characters were in danger.
Like Hitchcock and Welles, Spielberg refused to be restricted by the rules of realistic perspectives. For Spielberg, the camera could be where it was needed to be in order to tell the story. The only point of view that mattered was his; all others were secondary. You can see this in the sequence where Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is with his family on the beach, keeping watch on everyone to make sure they’re safe. He’s been told by the mayor to consider a shark attack an isolated incident. Brody isn’t comfortable with this. As he watches people swimming and playing, Spielberg uses a series of wipes to get our senses heightened to the possibility of another shark attack. Then, John Williams’ two-note score begins and we’re plunged into the water as the shark zeros in on the splashing legs of a boy. When the boy is attacked Spielberg cuts to Brody and uses the famous zoom in/pullback shot from Vertigo to make us aware of Brody’s worst fears coming true. The entire sequence isn’t shot to make us feel like one of the tourists on the beach. It is told from the perspective of a filmmaker wanting to play us like a piano. (That scene appears below.)
The second half of the film has Brody and college rich kid oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) accompanying veteran shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) as they set out to kill the shark. When their boat leaves the dock it’s as if the movie is leaving behind traditional filmmaking and entering uncharted territory. The camera is rarely, if ever, locked down. It bobs up and down, circles the characters, swoops around Quint’s leaky boat looking for the best angle. (One of my favorite unexplained shots is when Quint stands out on the ship’s pulpit, readying to shoot a barrel into the shark, and the camera moves up and down as he takes aim.) It is the second half of the film that we finally see the shark, but Spielberg purposely catches us off guard. It’s a throwaway gag designed to make you scream, then laugh. (Spielberg also cheats by not using the shark’s theme music to warn us it’s nearby.) Later, Spielberg displays a playful sense of motion as the men seem to be chasing the shark. Williams’ score along with the camera gliding alongside the boat and the sight of barrels moving in the water give us a real sense of momentum.
The centerpiece of the movie is when the men sit around the table, drinking and talking. There’s an unspoken rivalry between the crusty old seaman Quint and the young smart-ass Hooper. They start to compare scars they’ve gotten while observing sharks. (Brody, a former big-city cop who has rarely fired his gun, has no scars.) Hooper is amused by Quint, humoring his macho posturings. Quint knows this. But Quint puts Hooper in his place when he begins to tell him how he survived the Indianapolis, the World War II vessel that delivered the Hiroshima bomb. The Indianapolis is most famous for being attacked and its crew being picked off by sharks. There are a couple of things going on in this sequence. Quint’s monologue stops the film cold and gives it a sense of drama that had been mostly absent up until that point. His story is real and is scarier than anything in the movie. That’s probably why some critics (particularly Pauline Kael) raised concerns about its inclusion in otherwise escapist entertainment. Some felt the movie was crossing a line by using a real-life tragedy in the service of an adventure story. It would seem to be exploiting the real pain of the families of those who perished or survived the Indianapolis. But for Spielberg and his contemporaries (Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma), nothing was off limits. Nothing was sacred if it made for a better story. Quint’s monologue transforms the movie from an old-fashioned monster movie into something haunting. It’s why the movie has endured all these years.
The sequence also represents the changing of the guard as an older generation relinquishes power to a younger, cockier one; it’s the passing of Hollywood’s old guard to a generation of new filmmakers itching to make their mark. Shaw’s Quint stands in for a generation of men of few words who rarely allowed themselves to show their emotions, men full of stories – and to a certain degree, full of shit. Quint’s tale of survival trumps anything that Hooper will ever experience. Hooper knows this. Earlier, he had mocked Quint’s crumbling of a beer can by crumbling his Styrofoam cup. Now he has a newfound respect for him and quietly accepts his wisdom. But Hooper is also clearly Spielberg’s stand-in, a smart-ass who employs the latest in technology to do his job. Brody’s our stand-in as he takes in all he can from the old and the new in an attempt to keep up with what is going on around him. And when the shark finally leaps onto the boat (and at the audience) and bites down on poor Quint, we are seeing the devouring of an outdated Hollywood value system. The shark is the unknown variable that continues to surprise audiences. From the shark in Jaws to the Millennium Falcon going into hyperspace to Superman taking flight to the runaway boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man to seeing the Batmobile to the T-1000 to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to the long shadow of the flying saucers in Independence Day to Jar Jar Binks to the birth of Darth Vader, we’ve been conditioned to expect the unexpected during the summer. Jaws was the first movie roller coaster. At the time, who would’ve predicted that we wouldn’t want the ride to end?
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.