On Jaws

On Jaws


At the end of Jaws, the remnants of the shark (blown, finally, to bits by a shotgun blast to a tank of compressed air lodged in its mouth) float in a gorgeous, blood red cloud down through the part of the ocean where there still is light. As the shark's fin sails down through this cloud, you hear a strange groan on the soundtrack. It sounds like a desperate, broken, wailing, mechanical death. Steven Spielberg has said that he stole this sound effect from his previous feature, 1971's Duel, a film in which a businessman is murderously pursued by a psychopathic, rogue truck driver along a stretch of two-lane highway in the California desert. It is the sound you hear when the huge oil tanker finally crashes explosively down the face of a cliff, much to the relief of, well, anyone watching the movie, I guess (The Making of Stephen Spielberg's Jaws). 1

Of course, this sound is not the sound dead shark pieces make as they glide through the water and settle on the bottom of the sea. That particular event: I don't think it has a sound. Even so, this part of the movie feels right. It feels like the sound something big and horrible makes as it leaves your experience; even better, it feels good when it's gone.

I love this little bit of storytelling, because it serves as a perfect reminder that experience has very little to do with truth in the sense of truth as adherence to the facts of reality. Much like the residents of Amity during the first act of Jaws, I'm not all that interested in reality, it turns out. I'm much more interested in what feels true. The shark can't just silently sink; it must be heard from one more time, and the sound it makes must be mournful, mysterious, and maybe a little unearthly.

Jaws is about the relationship between truth and fear, which means it is also about our capacity for revelation and our capacity for denial. In Moby Dick (obviously a related text), Captain Ahab screams to all his rapt crew, but especially to Starbuck, his pious, skeptical first mate, "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask" (145). This is everywhere in Jaws. The whole first hour of the movie enacts a kind of public denial of the submerged terror just beneath the surface. "We've never had that kind of trouble in these waters," says one of the town suits 2, but we have already seen it.

Come to think of it, no we haven't, not exactly. What we've seen is evidence of its presence in the world: blooms of blood in the water, screaming victims, shredded ocean floats, broken docks gliding serenely back to shore. The town depends on summer dollars; God, there is always something. The world is not reasonable, so the world will not be reasonable now. We will never see what is under the surface, through the veil, on the other side of the mask until it is too late, until we are already bleeding, until the sharks are already on their way.

But what about Ahab's "unknown but still reasoning thing"? The infuriating world is always with us, its inner workings tantalizingly out of reach. When Moses said to the Lord, "Show me your glory, I pray" (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Exod. 33.18), the Lord said to Moses, "You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen" (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Exod. 33.20-23).  In the original poster for Jaws, a gigantic shark ascends, a parabola of vicious teeth beneath the placid surface. A nude bather glides above, unaware of the horror just beneath her. "No one shall see me and live," said the Lord. Why? Is that because of us, or is that because of the Lord? We can't see the truth; we don't want to see the truth; the truth shreds us; the truth is absolutely unavailable to us.

As such, we muddle through as best we can, driven on by what Melville referred to as, "the innermost necessities of our being" (146). In Jaws, Mayor Vaughn denies the reality of the shark's presence because the shark is bad for business, and in response Chief Brody looks the other way, cowed by power. Brody ultimately goes after the shark because he is ashamed at his own cowardice and its terrible consequences. Hooper goes after the shark because he loves the shark and wants to see it; when he finally does, fear freezes him. Quint goes after the shark because the shark is coming, because the shark is always coming, because the shark always comes 3. The shark is at the center of all of this, full of mysterious power, an engine churning an emotional maelstrom.

One part of the movie always makes me cry. It is just after the shark has killed the young boy, Alex Kitner, when Brody, fearing the shark, yells at his son Michael to get out of the little boat he has tied to the pier behind the house. Mrs. Brody chastises her husband for making the boys fearful, but then she glances at the book Brody's been reading about sharks and sees a horrific picture of a shark attacking a boat. In a panic, she ends up yelling too: "Michael! Did you hear your father!" Moments like this—realization dawning on us that there are sinister forces out there, that our desire for the world to be safe does not make it so—stand out saliently over the course of a film or a life. Famously, the mechanical shark the effects team built never really worked, so Spielberg relied on the faces of his actors, bobbing barrels, blinking shark darts, the weird gnomon of the fin, John Williams' simple, haunting score. Whatever horrible thing we're all afraid of: we see its attributes in the world around us and in each other, but we never really see it all the way. "I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by," said the Lord.

Jaws, famously, was nearly impossible to make. Beyond the issues getting the mechanical shark working, filming at sea required a great deal of creative problem solving. The right depth of water was needed in case equipment sank. Days of shooting were wasted as changing weather and passing ships messed with continuity. In order to make sure no land was visible in the background, the crew had to seize upon fortuitous calms. These problems fall under one elemental umbrella: water. What does it buoy, and what does it sink? What are we able to perceive, and what is elusive, imperceptible, inscrutable to us? In Moby Dick, Melville writes of the problem of conceiving of the full scale of the whale: "The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters" (239). So with the shark, and so, I think, with everything.

Ultimately, Jaws is about people—their obsessions, fears, moods, blind-spots. It is worth noting that Jaws spawned numerous sequels, though masterpieces they are not; evil is not eradicated from the world because we blow a single incarnation of it to bits. Evil isn't even the right word. The universe fends for itself, and within it each thing is driven forth by an engine that is strange and incommunicable even to itself. Jaws came out in the summer of 1975, and people were afraid to go in the water, but this kind of fear is a kind of respect for the humming mystery of life. I think the word is reverence.




1    
In the same documentary, Spielberg said, "In fact, it was a dinosaur growling from an old B dinosaur picture." I love this. The sound was meant to lend realism to a creature that went extinct many millions of years ago, was appropriated to mimic the sound of an oil tanker falling off a cliff, and was then finally appropriated again in the service of a dying shark.

2   Harry Meadows, played by Carl Gottlieb, whose book, The Jaws Log, is an indispensable, wonderful read for anyone who loves Jaws.

3   Quint's monologue about The Indianapolis enacts this kind of unseen, impending evil in myriad ways. The Indianapolis, a Portland- Quint's monologue about The Indianapolis enacts this kind of unseen, impending evil in myriad ways. The Indianapolis, a Portland-class heavy cruiser on a secret mission, delivered enriched uranium to the island of Tinian for the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The Indianapolis was torpedoed and sunk by the Japanese submarine I-58, and only 316 of the nearly 1,200-man crew survived four days of exposure and shark attacks.


Works Cited


Jaws. Directed by Steven Spielberg, performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, and Robert Shaw, Universal, 1975.


Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Edited by Tony Tanner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.