You’re right that this film is about fear and the loss of security. Sometimes the tension builds only to be released, generating fear from the unseen shark and then refusing to resolve the tension, letting the fear of the unknown linger. At one point, two local fishermen try to catch the shark by leaving a hunk of meat dangling in the water off a dock. Predictably, the dock gets pulled apart and one fisherman falls into the water, desperately struggling to make it back ashore ahead of the shark. A large fragment of the dock floats along in his wake, presumably pulled by the shark that’s chasing him, and the editing emphasizes that this is a chase sequence, with the detached piece of dock standing in for the unseen shark the same way Quint’s yellow barrels will in the film’s second half. We can’t see the shark, so watching the dock float along the surface, growing closer and closer to the floundering man, we can only assume that the shark is closing in and will soon devour yet another hapless victim. But then the man makes it back up onto the dock, after multiple shots of his feet dangling tantalizingly in the water or just above it, and the dock floats harmlessly back to shore nearby, seemingly pulled only by the tide. The scene ends with an unspoken question, leaving it ambiguous whether the shark was ever chasing the fisherman or if it had simply slipped off to sea again after tearing the dock apart.
This scene underscores just how much of the film’s effect depends on the viewer’s imagination, tweaked and manipulated by Spielberg: a shark could pop up at any moment, but just as often the threat fails to materialize. As you say, the men of Amity don’t fear the shark as long as it remains abstract and unseen, but Spielberg counters their unwarranted confidence with the idea that sometimes we most fear precisely those things which are unseen and unknown. The unknown often provokes anxiety and uncertainty, and Jaws remains so destabilizing because it’s never certain if and when the shark is lurking in the water nearby. As viewers, we often have to rely on indirect clues to guess at the shark’s presence, like a fin sticking out of the water or something being pulled along in the water by the shark below, but Spielberg takes care to include scenes that call into question such indirect evidence. The film is about the ways in which fears can be amplified and warped by the imagination, which inevitably leaps to wilder and wilder conclusions when confronted with an unseen, unpredictable threat. Much of the film’s first half is about misdirection, making our fears turn out to be foolish or exaggerated in comparison to what actually happens. And then, when the tremendous shark finally begins appearing with its gaping jaws and huge head, Spielberg suggests that sometimes our fears do come true, sometimes the monsters of our imaginations might make the leap into terrifying reality.
JB: That brings us back to the shark itself, the malfunctioning contraption that Spielberg famously nicknamed Bruce, after his lawyer. We’ve already touched on how the clumsiness of the shark encouraged Spielberg to predominantly rely on mystery rather than spectacle, but the primitiveness of the mechanical monster had another significant effect, too, in that its limited maneuverability also forced Spielberg to slow down the action in a way that amplifies the film’s horror. Judging by most modern blockbusters, you’d think “slow” and “action” are mutually exclusive qualities, but Jaws proves that they aren’t. Indeed, there’s something absolutely chilling about the casualness with which the shark haunts, hunts and harms, the best example being the attack on the man at the pond, when in a terrific bird’s-eye-view shot we see the shark approach the man from below, its mouth open, its pace unhurried, its target obvious. The shark doesn’t thrust itself at its prey. Rather, it recognizes it has the upper hand and proceeds accordingly, less a high-strung velociraptor in Jurassic Park than an eerily calm Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. On the most basic level, this restrained pace has the benefit of ensuring that the action is comprehensible, and that’s no small thing (after seeing the trailer for the most recent Transformers film, I marvel that the series’ fans can apparently tell the difference between the good bots and the bad bots during fight scenes where all I see are tumbling scrap heaps). But beyond that, the slowness of the shark’s actions enhances our awareness of its primal indomitability. This is a shark that sits at the top of the food chain and knows no fear. To borrow from Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, when I see this shark slowly opening its mouth to snare the boater, or casually lifting its head to eye Brody as he throws chum into the ocean, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy; I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
And that leads us to the film’s almost excruciating realism. Certainly it’s a stretch when near the end of the film the shark leaps onto the Orca’s stern and, in one motion, starts it sinking, but when I say that Jaws has excruciating realism, I’m not so much referring to what is or isn’t possible or even plausible. Instead, I’m referring to the way Spielberg grounds this film in reality. For instance, the second time Brody flips through his shark book, Spielberg alternates between shots of Brody looking at the book (its pages reflected in his glasses) and the book itself, which includes photographs of actual sharks and the aftermath of actual shark attacks, the most gruesome image being the last one: a thigh with a healthy arching bite out of it. Later, when Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper enters a cage and descends into the ocean, Spielberg inserts a few tight shots of actual sharks, which allow him to get around the clumsiness of “Bruce.” And in between, Robert Shaw captivates when Quint tells the true-to-life story (embellished, of course, as are all fish tales) of the USS Indianapolis, which was torpedoed by the Japanese in World War II, leading an unknown number of momentary survivors to be attacked and killed by sharks. In these scenes, and others, many of which were shot on an actual ocean, Spielberg continually reinforces the idea that this could happen, that this shark isn’t larger than life but simply really fucking big. So many modern blockbusters thrive on escapism. Jaws comes at us from the opposite direction, as Spielberg does his best to blur the line between fiction and reality until, at least momentarily, we can’t tell the difference between them.
EH: That’s a telling line, because in so many ways Jaws is very far from realistic. We may see the “overwhelming indifference of nature” in the shark’s unblinking eyes and stiff, inexorable movements, but in fact it’s so blank and unfeeling because it’s not alive at all, just a poor facsimile of the real thing. The film is not so much realistic as it is physical; its effects are rooted in tangible reality rather than existing solely in a computer, as the shark doubtless would be were the film made now.
More importantly, what’s realistic about the film is the way people react to the threat of this not-so-realistic shark, and the way they interact with one another. Shaw’s Indianapolis monologue is riveting, but it’s not the only example of the film’s surprising facility for non-shark character-building. The entire second half of the film shifts the focus away from the seaside community besieged by the shark, and onto the three men who go out onto the ocean to kill the creature: Quint, Hooper and Brody. After the first half of the film establishes the stakes of the shark threatening this small tourism-focused community, the cast is whittled down to three men whose archetypal character traits complement each other: the grizzled veteran tough guy, the intellectual eager to prove himself, and the reluctant authority figure. The film becomes all about not only their attempts to kill the shark but about their interactions and the ways in which they come to respect and admire each other.
Late last year, Adam Zanzie wrote about Jurassic Park, claiming that it was Spielberg’s Howard Hawks movie, specifically comparing it to the John Wayne safari adventure Hatari!. I disagreed in the comments, arguing that Spielberg’s dinosaur film, while a great action flick, is too plot-driven to ever be comparable to a languidly paced Hawksian hangout movie. On reflection, I’d cite Jaws, not Jurassic Park, as Spielberg’s true Hawksian movie, with its emphasis on the theme of male bonding under pressure, its alternation of action scenes with character-building, and its quirky characters spouting idiosyncratic dialogue. I think Adam was right, though, to pinpoint Hatari! in particular as a key film for Spielberg, since that film’s sense of free-wheeling masculine adventure winds through much of Spielberg’s work. It’s a key aspect of Jaws that goes hand-in-hand with its horror: the almost boyish sense of wonder that’s so recognizable in so many of Spielberg’s films and that crops up here in the way he celebrates the heroic expedition to catch the shark. Everyone remembers John Williams’ creepy two-note shark theme from this film; it’s easier to forget the oddly jaunty, upbeat adventure themes that propel much of the film’s second half, capturing a very different mood. Spielberg wants us to be scared by his film, but he also wants us to be awed and excited.
JB: Sure. And, like Quentin Tarantino after him, Spielberg clearly wants us to enjoy Jaws not just as adventure but as a movie adventure. That is, for all the ways Jaws is grounded in realism, it has another foot (fin?) planted in celluloid staginess. We’ve already identified a few scenes that match that description, like the equally tense and comedic early beach sequence, or the mishap when the villagers go fishing for the shark with meat that’s been set aside for a winter roast. But perhaps an even better example is Quint’s arrival into the story. As some of the townspeople sit in a classroom at a hastily arranged town hall meeting, debating whether to close the beaches, Quint sits quietly in the back of the room until—SCREEEEEEEEETCH—he announces his presence by dragging his nails across the blackboard. That, in and of itself, makes for quite a colorful introduction, but the topper is that while the others were debating the safety of the beaches, Quint has managed to surreptitiously draw a cartoon on the blackboard of an enormous shark with a tiny stick-figure human in its mouth. Spielberg gives us a few shots of befuddled villagers staring at this odd man in the corner, and then he slowly zooms in on Quint, who casually snacks on crackers while warning them about the shark and offering his services to catch it. “I don’t want any volunteers,” Quint says. “I don’t want no mates. There are too many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”