Between the teeth

by Peter Biskind

from Jump Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 1, 26
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

JAWS needs no introduction. It is now six months since it was unleashed on an unsuspecting public, and it is still consuming money than its eponym gobbles down human dinners. In the first ten days of exhibition, it broke the box-office of GODFATHER I, taking in an estimated $21,000,000. Audiences see it, return, and return again to be thrilled by the 25-foot shark—the great marine garbage disposal that eats its way through the imaginary beach colony of Amity, Long Island.

Blessed with a good script, a group of fine performances from an excellent cast, and razor sharp direction by 27-year-old wunderkind Steven Spielberg, JAWS was last summer’s DEATH WISH, albeit with the more innocent appeal of a disaster movie for those who were uneasy with DEATH WISH’s racism, and were therefore happier with sharks than with Puerto Rican muggers. They preferred to contemplate the joy of dismemberment in the briny deep to the dangers of the big city.

There used to be a time when JAWS’ significance would have been apparent to all, when we wouldn't have had to cast about for symbolic meanings to hang on the shark. A few years ago, during the Cold War, the shark would have stood for International Communism, pure and simple. But these days, with the detente and the grain sales, that sort of symbolism is frowned upon, and Hollywood is tending towards politically neutral heavies. After having exhausted its store of natural and man-made disasters (EARTHQUAKE, TOWERING INFERNO, POSEIDON ADVENTURE, JUGGERNAUGHT, AIRPORT 75), the terrors of the supernatural (THE EXORCIST, RACE WITH THE DEVIL, BEYOND THE DOOR, ABBY, IT'S ALIVE), it has turned its attention to the animal kingdom and, with JAWS, hooked a big one. Unfortunately, given Hollywood’s penchant for running a good thing into the ground, we can look forward to a species-by-species inventory of the natural world. We've already been menaced by rats (WILLARD), and can no doubt expect cats (CLAWS), bears (PAWS), and so on.

What’s JAWS up to? According to the New York Times, it has resulted in a vast increase in the number of shark sightings off the East Coast. It has spawned a high growth industry of beach towels, posters, T-shirts, and spin-off books on shark lore. JAWS may do for sharks what THE WILD ONE did for motorcycles and THE HUSTLER did for pool. But despite its sociological diffidence, it is trying to tell us something. It may make us hesitate to swim in the ocean, or even to take a bath—but what else is there, if we read between the teeth?

JAWS is a middle-class Moby Dick. Whereas Moby Dick is a bleak and pessimistic epistemological allegory, JAWS is a tale of liberalism at sea, barely afloat in shark-infested waters, but nevertheless afloat. It is ultimately cathartic and comforting. True, both Ahab and Quint are destroyed by their respective aquatic antagonists, the great white whale in one and the great white shark in the other. But in Moby Dick the whale goes free, leaving only a friendless and certainly classless Ishmael bobbing up and down in the water. In JAWS, the shark is killed, blown to bits by an exploding compressed air canister. Its nemesis, a small town police chief possessed of all the middle-class virtues, dog-paddles home to shore, wife, and family.

The first few scenes of JAWS announce the thematic design which will govern the remainder of the film. It is night-time on the beach at Amity. The camera slowly pans in medium close up across a group of college kids at a beach party. There is music, a small fire, food, beer, and dope. The warm colors—reds and yellows—of lyricized well-being, health, and security suffuse the scene as the camera glides past the faces silhouetted against the fire, catching them in the midst of conversations, kisses, or stoned vacancies. It comes to rest on the face of a blond young man who is staring fixedly off-screen. An eyeline cut shows us who he is staring at: an equally blonde young woman who smiles invitingly, and then leads him on a romp across the dunes to the sea, disrobing all the way. She plunges in; he falls down drunk on the beach and passes out. To the tune of a throbbing, rhythmic score, which has since attained some popularity as “the dinner theme from JAWS,” she is promptly devoured by an unseen shark. He sleeps it off until the morning when he reports her missing.

The attack itself is shot in close up, with camera fastened on the woman’s face, in a diabolical parody of all those Hollywood bedroom scenes in which the camera registers celluloid ecstasy by discretely holding on a face, while the attached body is presumably tripping the light fantastic off camera.

We need only consult the graffiti scrawled on the familiar ad for JAWS—the huge phallic head of a shark aimed suggestively at the midriff of a naked woman swimming on the surface of the water—to recognize that we are invited to put a sexual construction on the encounter between shark and woman, and indeed, such a view seems warranted by the facts. The shark, all too obviously, can only be the young man’s sexual passion, a greatly enlarged, marauding penis. (Later on in the film, a dead shark, slit open, exudes a white, sperm-like fluid.) This passion is aroused by the woman’s own provocative behavior, and is freed from restraint by the young mans intoxication. His rational faculties, his inhibitions, his moral scruples are, quite literally, asleep. His conscious mind has abdicated its authority, allowing the monsters of the libido to hold sway.

It is helpful to ask of each of the sharks victims: why is he or she killed, and not someone else? In some instances, like the case of young Alex Kintner, there doesn't seem to be a particular reason. But the young woman is another story. In line with the film’s conservative domesticity (more of which later), she is being punished for her sexual freedom and her forwardness (she invites him to follow her), both of which overturn the conventional sex roles that the film is at pains to affirm.

The first shark attack comes at night, as do several subsequent ones, like the comical scene in which two men go fishing from a wooden dock with a roast beef as bait, only to find one of them dragged, along with the dock, out to sea. The first major assault of the shark on Quint’s boat also occurs at night and, more significantly, comes when the three men are drunk and unguarded, that is, when their conscious, rational faculties have been suspended. The lesson to be drawn from these scenes is that our security is so fragile and tenuous that the moment we relax our vigilance, all is lost.

The best-selling trailer for the film, Peter Benchley’s novel JAWS, while dismally written, is much more suggestive than the film in establishing a level of sexual resonance for the shark. The connection between sleep, dream, the unconscious, and the shark becomes explicit in this description of police chief Martin Brody’s fear of the water:

“In Brody’s dreams, deep water was populated by slimy, savage things that rose from below and shredded his flesh, by demons that cackled and moaned.”

Brody’s fear of the water and fantasies of castration suggest impotence, the physical corollary of the moral cowardice later revealed in his failure to take a strong stand against Amity officials. His shaky sense of male identity is expressed by the threat of the shark; the shark, in turn, unmans him.

Moreover, references to rape (by blacks, no less) appear repeatedly in the book. One passage describes how Brody and Amity newspaper editor Meadows, in a preview of the shark cover-up, agree to hush up a few cases of rape because

“the specter of a black rapist stalking every female in Amity wouldn't do much for the tourist trade.”

While the appearance of the shark brings in its wake a generalized fear of sexual violation, and a fairly specific threat to Brody’s masculinity, this complex of sexual associations is given a class dimension by the appearance of Matt Hooper. In the book, Hooper is the wealthy younger brother of an old beau of Ellen’s. Ellen, once a member of Amity’s fashionable society, has descended a few rungs by marrying Brody, and regrets the loss of her former status. A brief fling with Hooper is the perfect outlet for her class nostalgia. Brody senses the threat Hooper represents. Benchley describes Brody’s uneasiness with animal metaphors that faintly evoke the shark:

“But he had felt threatened by the younger man—he wasn't really sure why—and the sensation was so alien that he had reached for the most convenient carapace.”

Later, as they make love, Ellen also experiences Hooper as an alien, threatening, predatory presence (“the ferocity and intensity of his assault”). Benchley uses the same phrase to describe her fear as he uses for Brody:

“Ellen had become afraid—of what, she wasn't sure.”

The subplot is omitted from the film, undoubtedly for reasons of economy, but with the result that in the film, the shark replaces Hooper as the sexual antagonist. And the hostility between Brody and Hooper is displaced onto the shark.

While later, in the film, the confusion between shark and human behavior is shown to be an error (Brody, scanning the water, mistakes a male bather’s playful assault on a woman for a shark attack), nevertheless, the seed is sown. The only kind of heterosexual relationship revealed in the film—the extra or premarital one latent in the young couple’s animal good spirits—is fantasized as the homicidal violation of a woman.

The effect of this fantasy is three-fold. First, all actual sexual relationships cease, including “safe” ones inside the confines of the nuclear family. (Ellen suggests to Martin that they “get drunk and have some fun,” but Martin declines.) Second, the danger to women is so great that the men must protect them against it. The women in the film (Ellen Brody, Mrs. Kintner) play a dependent role, and are associated solely with domesticity, primarily child care. Third, the strength of the fantasy, coupled with the precariousness of the civilized society we usually take for granted, suggest that draconian measures, extreme psychic and social repression are necessary to defend against it.

The laissez-faire, business-as-usual approach of the city officials will not do. The beaches must be closed. That this measure is presented in the most favorable light points to the conflation, in the film’s liberalism, of repression and morality. Brody’s duty is clear. Under the circumstances, his decision to close the beaches is the only moral one, and represents a kind of state liberalism. The unregulated free market of competing business interests is outmoded. It’s OK for Amity, but destructive to the larger human community of which Amity is only a part.

Therefore, it must be controlled, but by whom? The City Council, presumably the democratic heir of the New England town meeting, is unable to exercise such control because, while democratic, it does not represent the interests of the tourists, only the residents. The instrument of regulation, then, becomes not the polity but the police chief who, consulting his own conscience, is granted a vision which encompasses the whole body politic, not just a part. The police role is made palatable by the mild characterization of Brody who is not an authoritarian figure but, on the contrary, a family man.

While the shark serves as a convenient metaphor for sexual and class power, this metaphor is extended in the book to include the town’s relation with its summer guests as well. It becomes clear that the town’s handful of year-round residents need the summer traffic to survive the year. They live, as the editor of the Amity Leader makes clear, like parasites off a host:

“Call it parasitic if you will, but that’s the way it is. The host animal comes every summer, and Amity feeds on it furiously, pulling every bit of sustenance it can before the host leaves again after Labor Day. Take away the host animal, and we're like dog ticks with no dog to feed on.”

Or, need we add, like sharks with no bathers to feed on.

Most disaster movies, employing a scapegoating populism which comes easily to Hollywood, take a dim view of the authorities (craven officials in EARTHQUAKE, corrupt executives in TOWERING INFERNO), and JAWS is no exception. The only difference lies in the energy with which the book and to a lesser extent the film, exploits the Watergate connection.

Mayor Larry Vaughan is Amity’s Nixon. He repeatedly invokes “the public interest” as Nixon invoked “national security” to legitimate the various extravagances of his administration. It is in the service of public interest that Amity officials refuse to close the beaches, and cover up the initial shark attack by altering the cause of death in the medical report. Although the book takes special pains to underline the link between Vaughan and Nixon (Brody refers to Vaughan, with heavy irony, as “the people’s choice”), the film, in an exemplary expression of post-Watergate backlash, treats Vaughan with a good deal of sympathy. He is a weak, not a venal man.

Moreover, he does indeed reflect the interests of the town. At the City Council meeting convened to discuss the shark problem, the town’s respectable business people—motel operators, realtors, shopkeepers—who double as council members, agree to conduct business as usual. Like the Nixon administration, they identify their own narrow self-interest with an equally ungenerous version of the public interest. What is true of the relationship between the nameless couple who figure in the film’s opening scene is true of the town as a whole. Like the young man’s rational faculties, which have been clouded by drink, the conscience of the town has abdicated its proper role. For a moment, it looks like the film is about to ask: who are the real sharks? But just as it is ready to pose this question, the film cuts bait and runs.

In an abrupt change of focus, the political categories with which JAWS had flirted are suddenly naturalized. Brody’s moral cowardice in the face of social pressure is subsumed by “real” physical cowardice: fear of the shark. Even the psychosexual elements in his phobic fear of the water becomes secondary to the actual physical menace of the shark—which we see and experience with him. There are monsters beneath the sea which, as Quint later finds out, threaten real castration and death. Thus the psychological associations that have accrued to the shark during the first part of the movie (when, in fact, the shark was rarely seen—therefore serving as an ideal vehicle for such anxieties) fall away in the face of concrete, not metaphorical danger.

Once the film takes to the water, it becomes a male adventure story, another DELIVERANCE, dealing with themes of heroism and initiation. Brody, Hooper, and Quint offer us three versions of manhood, and the shark (or, rather, the film) selects the one most appropriate to the mid-seventies. Curiously enough, it is when JAWS moves away from overt political comment that its politics become most evident.

If JAWS were a rightwing populist fantasy like WALKING TALL, or a revolutionary liberal film like DEATH WISH, the vigilante Quint would be its hero, and both Brody and Hooper would meet watery deaths. But it is not, and it is Quint who dies. Quint is an anachronism, a composite of the last vestiges of ruthless Yankee self-reliance, traces of working class pride, and a touch of New England transcendental madness, a true spiritual heir of Ahab.

The reason Quint must die is that he is too powerful, too independent of traditional social ties, too prone to excess—and he pays for it. He lacks proper respect for conventional pieties; he scandalizes Ellen Brody with his off-color humor and raunchy songs; he extorts $10,000 from the desperate town council to kill the great white. He is nearly as dangerous to the social fabric of Amity as the shark itself. From the point of view of the film’s comfortable liberalism, Quint’s combination of working class toughness and bourgeois independence is alien and frightening. He is viewed as irrational and out of control. Authority must be restored, but not by Quint.

Hooper, on the other hand, is the mirror image of Quint. He is associated with technology rather than experience, inherited wealth rather than self-made sufficiency. His own boat, loaded with electronic gear, is a veritable anti-shark panopticon and contrasts sharply with Quint’s antique “Orca,” as does the delicate tip of his poisonous spear with Quint’s more robust harpoon and barrel arrangement. (The sexual symbolism, although pushed into the background, is still present. Each of the three men is associated with an appropriate phallus: Quint’s fishing rod, and then harpoon; Hooper’s dart; Brody’s guns.)

But despite their dissimilarities, Quint and Hooper have more in common with each other than either does with Brody. Both participate in marine machismo, swapping stories and comparing wounds received in the service of the sea, while Brody, afraid of the water and barely able to swim, stands by uneasily. Brody is third man out in what might develop as a male camaraderie film. He is the domesticated husband excluded from a latent love affair between Quint and Hooper. Quint (the old pro) and Hooper (the young apprentice) bear a marked resemblance to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, with Robert Shaw playing Clint Eastwood’s dominant role, and Richard Dreyfuss playing Jeff Bridge’s submissive one.

Hooper adopts a submissive role towards the shark as well, and he is the only one of the three men who actually enters the water, the female element. For him, the shark is less an antagonist than an object of admiration and even love. (He tells Ellen he has always “loved” sharks.) He’s more interested in shark fucking than shark hunting. He even goes so far as to offer himself as bait in the cage (shark teasing). But as soon as he is jolted from behind by the toothy phallus, he loses his own puny erection (the spear). Unmanned, he can no longer hope to consummate his relationship with the shark. He can only hide and watch.

As two candidates for a seventies camaraderie film, Quint and Hooper are two complementary aspects of the sixties Hollywood image of the U.S. male. They are the two halves of James Bond. Hooper is the leisure class, suave, technological side of Bond, the Bond of gadgets, gambling casinos, and choice wines. Quint is the macho side of Bond, the tough underlay of working class street fighter, not quite obliterated by karate, Savile Row suits, and civil service manners. In fact, at one point in their comical competition, Quint proposes a toast to their separate legs, placing his over Hooper’s, as if to reconstitute the two into one person. But this is impossible. And the shark sees to it that this male image is further dismembered. Dismemberment itself becomes a metaphor for the breakdown of heroism as it was defined by the Bond figure. (It should be remarked here that JAWS is the first aboveground, or above water manifestation of the flourishing dismemberment cult apparent in the wide following of such films as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.)

After Vietnam, Watergate, and the CIA revelations, this image of the Cold War secret agent can no longer maintain its integrity. It disintegrates into its component parts, the brittle Quint and the ineffectual technician Hooper. Despite the film’s obvious fascination with Quint, and its affection for Hooper’s cheeky wisecracking, neither extreme is viable. Quint is dangerous and must be killed; Hooper is chastened and allowed to survive, but only at the price of relinquishing his special tools, which have proved useless.

The latently homosexual male bonding of the 70s camaraderie films was immanent in the Bond films. Bond always treated women like dirt, and we always knew they didn't do it for him, because the only person he really loved was himself. With the aid of Freud’s analysis of male love as displaced narcissism, it is only a short step to the male couples of such films as THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, THE STING, and SCARECROW, where the homosexual undertow becomes somewhat more (although far from) explicit. In the case of JAWS, the shark destroys the nascent relationship between Quint and Hooper, by “eating” Quint. Since the film begins with the eating of a woman, and ends with the eating of a man, we've come full circle. If unmarried heterosexual love is fantasized as homicidal violation, homosexual love is no different. All that remains is love in the safety of the family, and the shark ultimately becomes the guarantor of domesticity.

It is in the selection of Brody as hero, and in its attempt to carve out a sensible middle ground between extremes, that JAWS’ corporate auteurs (Doubleday/Benchley and Universal/Spielberg) show their hands. For Brody represents the liberal male role model, softer and more humane than the neofascist aviators offered in recent films like WALKING TALL and DIRTY HARRY. He is a reversion to the family man of the fifties. As played by Roy Scheider, Brody becomes a slightly younger, sanded-down and sleeker version of George C. Scott, that warhorse of Hollywood liberalism (PATTON excepted). Scott specializes in playing dogged, long-suffering, guilt-ridden professionals, like the doctor in HOSPITAL who finally takes a stand against institutional corruption on the one hand and hippie irresponsibility on the other, choosing instead the unsung path of loyalty to his own integrity, his own idea of himself.

This is the liberal self-image, of course, the principled man-of-good-will holding fast against the tug of extremes, guarding the vital center against subversion from the right and the left. In Benchley’s book, this becomes clear when Brody is ganged up on in the town council by both ends of the political spectrum—the blacks, on the one hand, afraid of losing their menial service jobs, and the property owners on the other, afraid of losing summer business.

Although this particular point is omitted from the film, it is clear that Brody, for all his lapses, is indeed the man of principle, beleaguered by enemies at every turn: from above by an elitism of wealth and technology (Hooper); from below by macho common man individualism (Quint) and beyond him by the specter of a rowdy populism (the mob of beer-sodden, blue-collar, Sunday sailors) and on all sides by the commercial self-interest of the city fathers (Vaughan).

The film repudiates Quint’s extreme individualism only to endorse a milder and more reasonable kind. The outcome of the action bears out Brody’s contention that in Amity (as opposed to New York City, where he used to work), “one man makes a difference.” Brody is a good reflection of the new, hang-tough urban liberalism, tired of being bitten by the mouths it has so virtuously fed, tired of muggings and “welfare rip-offs.” It imagines itself in the guise of the cop, but a very special cop, since it would like to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to identify with law ‘n’ order but at the same time wishes to reserve for itself the traditional requisites of its own view of itself. The cop in question, in other words, is a sensitive, guilt-ridden family man, a Woody Allen rather than a Dirty Harry or a Popeye Doyle.

Brody, does, of course, momentarily break down in the face of threats and community pressure. He goes along with the cover-up, keeps the beaches open, and is therefore responsible for Alex Kintner’s death. He is publicly humiliated by the boy’s bereaved mother, who slaps him in the face and all but accuses him of murder. The film is remarkably indulgent of his moral cowardice. The encounter with Mrs. Kintner is shown from his point of view. And, when the scene of the action shifts from the realm of moral choice on land to the realm of adventure at sea, JAWS allows Brody to reestablish his ethical credibility through a purely physical encounter with the shark, an encounter which becomes an act of atonement.

Brody is viewed so sympathetically because he is one of us, with all our weaknesses. He is a reluctant voyager, constantly calling his wife on ship-to-shore telephone and, sensibly enough, the Coast Guard to request a larger boat. He stands outside the macho gamesmanship of Quint and Hooper. He has no particular expertise, except with his Police Special, which proves quite useless. His triumph, at the end, is more a testimony to his persistence and luck; he finally comes into his own with only a minute left to play. Brody wins out because of what he isn't, and what he can't do, rather than what he is and can do. He lacks the privilege of Hooper and the experience of Quint. He survives precisely because he’s unexceptional and ordinary, while the exceptional men are killed (Quint) or neutralized (Hooper). Brody comes in on a wing and a prayer. His is the victory of Yankee ingenuity, of making do with spit and chewing gum. JAWS flatters us by holding out the promise that such a triumph over unspeakable terror is within reach of us all.

Finally, Brody is a Jerry Ford figure, a nobody who makes it while everybody else auto-destructs. He may not be able to swim and chew gum, but at least he has learned how to swim.