I meant to get to this a couple weeks ago when The BFG was failing to tear up the box office, but with the Spielberg-loving Stranger Things tearing up Netflix, now is as good a time as any.
Past the mid-way point in Jaws, we arrive at a scene where three men of different class backgrounds on a shark hunt break down barriers by sharing their virility not through sexual conquest but through trading battle scars in a perverse, comic interlude of a dick-waving machismo contest. In the throes of crisis, the scene is a marvel of male confusion and interpersonal dynamics with male bonding across class lines codified in giddily but pointedly masculine ways; the only outlet the men have to get along is through exploring past crisis, as though their worth as men is enshrined in the physical markers of previous battles they’ve won.
Little gestures of discrepancy, like the eagerness of the three men respectively to show off their damaged wares or how they each place their limbs in the frame differently, reflects a dialectic between grotesque male harmony and the punchy, almost subliminal class differences that separate their mentalities even amidst crisis. In the battle over the screenplay by Peter Benchley (writer of the hoary book upon which the story is based) and Carl Gottlieb (TV comedy writer), both win out in a film that is as willing to thrust us into shark hunting terror as it is to stop and linger on little moments like these, scenes of human frailty and contradiction that personify the daily dance of comedic human interaction that the terror interrupts in the first place.
The script for Jaws, literally bifurcated into two-halves by screenwriting as clean and vicious as a fresh shark wound, is not only a B-picture but a bracing, even pitch-black excoriation of masculinity, communal dynamics, and even the false pretenses of social niceties. Exposition tucked into event and character, there’s a wonderful slightness and fluctuating energy to the film that both spreads out – latching onto dynamics that are far beyond its ostensible shark attack premise – and clarifies the ability of the B-picture to slide clandestine but not fussily hidden thematic incisions into even the most nominally trivial of stories.
For the men at the center of Jaws, catching the shark is a bond – a shared chance to prove themselves, as the three protagonists are all phantoms or newcomers in the town of Amity Island in one way or another. But the way they inscribe their purposes in lived-in, lively detail like the scar scene is a quiet marvel of purring screenwriting that hints at the way men can only cope with tragedy by flaunting their past displays of triumph. The intentionally ghoulish, blunt scene, with dialogue that is as sloppy as a shark attack, is careful to specifically interrupt the shark story we expect to see, endearing us to the characters’ foibles while also serving as a knife-jab critique of the macho-poetics that other films from this time period – Deliverance, for instance – so ably rest on.
These slippages of tone – chemical impurities in a lesser film striving for gut-checking seriousness – are instead part of the texture of a film that relies on the major arteries of a monster picture to deliver a stone-cold masterpiece of character dynamics. And that’s beyond the malignantly invasive perfection of the craft to bring the screenplay to life, or the writing’s structural perfection in establishing conflict without ever actually pausing to feed us the conflict. Ushered in by Steven Spielberg in his big-break, Jaws feels like the natural melting point between his first feature, the monomaniacal Duel, and the more humane, satisfyingly messy comedy-of-crisis Sugarland Express. The result is a film superior to both, a sort of pax between the New Hollywood character dynamics of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and the New Blockbuster thrills of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Splitting the difference in Jaws, the terror is an injection rather than a de facto state of being, creating a film that plays like an Altman-esque interpersonal comedy grafted with pinpricks of incisive terror. Released in 1975, at the onset of the Blockbuster craze and the arguable dissolution of the iron-grip of the more adult New Hollywood style, Jaws is a pas de deux with both styles near their peaks of their powers.
So, whether or not Spielberg would become a Benedict Arnold to the New Hollywood rebellion that did everything in its power to return American cinema to the hands of adults for the late ‘60s and early to middle ‘70s, Jaws itself is no such traitor. A chemically imbalanced story about new town police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), possibly deranged fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw), and well-to-do marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) throwing down with a shark in the waters of Amity, Jaws is roomy enough to explore suggestive threads about corporate greed, but it also exhibits the forward thrust of a piston parting dangerous waters. This particular contrast of texture – afforded to no other oncoming blockbuster from the time period – is much a holdover from the New Hollywood, gifting Jaws a pride of place as the brainchild of multiple trends that relies on the teetering balance of the two for a personality that is unique in its decade.
Which is thanks primarily to Spielberg at that, exhibiting none of the discontinuous stop-and-watch-me-now schmaltz that has run amok over his later features. Perhaps the over-confidence that has ruined some of his later features hadn’t really set in yet, but there’s precious little of his typical showboating or overcast majesty in what is by and large a low-to-the-ground, almost subterranean thriller that is so calamitous because it is so troubling in its simplicity and refusal to trump up its stakes with narrative when the filmmaking itself can drive the stakes into your heart. From the beginning, with the threateningly oily, almost otherworldly ocean photographed by unsung hero Bill Butler, Spielberg pursues a line of terrorizing craft as the ocean itself seems to take as much part in devouring a girl as the titular shark does. Even before we’re above ground, the camera’s prowl underwater – doused in that sickly mid-‘70s film grain – warps the seabed and turns it into a forest of rust-bucket brown nails and otherworldly, alien green like a prehistoric jungle. And that’s without even mentioning the ferociously lithe, animalistic score by John Williams or the screw-tightening editing by Verna Fields that deviously skips continuity moments like your heart skipping beats.
Compared to the stodgy, talkative formal nightmares of Irwin Allen’s disaster films around this time (the Best Picture nominee The Towering Inferno was just one year in the rearview mirror), the brutal efficiency of Jaws is bracing. The heart of an exploitation film – not a grandiloquent A-picture that happens to feature a shark – buzzes brightly within, but the brazen screenplay also inlays a palpable messiness that both reflects differing human responses to crisis and affords for inebriated tonal shifts that gift Jaws with the ebb and flow of a storming ocean. It’s a wonderfully untidy motion picture, with monomaniacally perfect hurting-forward craft cut against amusing outward jabs and struts into oblong comic territory. Jaws is a wonderful mixture of contrasts, with Spielberg’s gift for thriller craft as perfect as his display of quintessentially New Hollywood working-class, everyday domestic clutter that, along with the unsentimental viciousness, ably redresses the assumption that he was always a heart-on-his-sleeve sentimentalist. His emotions were always blunt, but that is primarily the child of his B-movie heart rather than having his head-in-the-clouds.
An odd slurry of the unwieldy and the tympanically precise, Jaws achieves both a startling surgeon-cut precision in its elegant scene construction and a disarmingly, wonderfully untidy horizontality in its stretching-outward seaweed limbs that fluctuate and sway more than we expect from this kind of motion picture. Spielberg is always there cutting it down to size though, battening the hatches and keeping the film from drifting away from him. The flurry of scenes that could clutter up a film school introduction class is nearly unmatched in Hollywood history; my favorite is probably the second murder fifteen minutes in, when Spielberg threatens the celluloid by mounting us in Scheider’s perspective as a man – punishingly close in the frame – occupies the right half of the screen distracting us as a girl is seemingly threatened in the right half way out in the background. As a shot, it’s precisely the insidious emphasis on visual disruption and anti-symmetry that famously provoked Hitchcock to argue that Spielberg was “the first one of us (directors) who doesn’t see the proscenium arch” that imposes symmetry and balance on much theater and most of classical Hollywood filmmaking.
Hitch wasn’t right – underground and international directors had been busy disrupting the theatrical boundaries of Hollywood cinema for decades – but it’s the thought that counts. Jaws is a wonderfully disreputable, disruptive motion picture where the counter-intuitive rhythms of shooting and editing are the crux of its potency. Combined with the wonderfully woozy quarrels in tone and style that perch it oh-so-precariously on the precipice of centripetal to-the-bone thriller and centrifugal, spinning human chaos (again, much like a blockbuster version of an Altman film), it is a film that, over 40 years on, refuses to be neutralized.