Boobs, evolution, fear, Film, Great White Sharks, Herman Melville, Infinity, isolation, JAWS, Literature, Moby Dick, ocean, Philosophy, Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Zombie, Roy Scheider, sharks, Sperm Whales, Steven Spielberg
If a film can scare the pants off of Rob Zombie, then you know for a fact that it’s either brilliant, terrifying, or a combination of both. The movie JAWS recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and as part of a promotional event TCM hosted a nationwide showing of the movie in various select theaters across the country. Since my father saw the film when it first came out, we decided to go watch it in the theater as part of a fathers day party. But before I can continue I have to tell my “JAWS Story.”
My father is a loving, intelligent man, but for whatever reason he had trouble figuring out the change-the-channel button on the T.V. remote. One night, when I was about the age of five or so, the movie JAWS was on, and the film had just hit that part when the shark sinks the ship. I was spared the scene of Quint’s demise, where blood squirts from his mouth before the final crunch and he’s dragged under, but before Dad could change the channel I watched Brody run into the sinking boat and a great white shark burst into the water filled boat snapping its huge jaws. At that age images in film a magical realism defined by hyperbole.
And then Dad changed the channel. Well, this story would just be sad if it wasn’t for what followed just a few weeks later. We went to Pasadena where my grandparents lived, the Texas city by the way not the one in California, and my grandfather decided to take us out on the ocean for the day. This would have been fine, if his boat didn’t happen to look almost exactly like The Orca, Quint’s ship, and if the waves hadn’t been so rocky. Picture if you will, a frightened five year old boy, sitting inside a boat imagining only a giant real life shark will, at any minute, burst through the walls of the rocking boat to eat me up.
The plot line of JAWS, for those who haven’t seen it, is pretty basic. A shark begins to attack the beaches of a small island town in New England that depends on Summer tourists for its economic survival. A shark is caught, but still the attacks continue until the Sheriff, a man by the name of Brody, hires a local fisherman who specializes in catching sharks. Quint, along with a aquatic biologist by the name of Hooper go out to catch the shark, and eventually discover it’s a 25 foot, three ton, Great White. What follows is perhaps one of the most epic fights in movie history as the three men try to catch it, try to kill it, and finally, as their boat is sinking into the ocean, try to outlive it. Well as you can guess they kill the shark, but not until Captain Quint has been eaten, and Chief Brody literally blows the shark up with an oxygen tank and an old Garand rifle after barking one of the most quoted bad-ass lines in cinema history, “Smile you son of-!”
Now no matter how many times I see the movie JAWS there is one feeling that never changes: I’m always terrified watching the movie. Now some might immediately ask, REALLY? Like, dude, for real? That shark was like, sooooo fake, I mean you could tell. It didn’t even look like a real shark.
Now this poorly spoken critic is absolutely right. After a few years your childish fear of the actual shark begins to break when you take a closer look at it. In fact we’ve grown so comfortable with it we’re plastering it over women’s breasts now. You don’t believe me? Really? The lady on the left says otherwise.
The shark is obviously fake, but that fear is not what bothers me.
The opening scene in the film is of two young teenagers going skinny dipping. The young man passes out drunk before he can enter the water, while the young girl swims out into open waters. Now anybody who knows anything about the background of the film knows that originally Steven Spielberg wanted to have a real life mechanical shark to attack people. BUT, to quote Mick Jaggar, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need. The three mechanical sharks were largely duds, the first in fact actually sank and had to be recovered by scuba divers, the second shark exploded, and the third and final version, a shark named Bruce, just didn’t work. Even well into the movie the technical engineers could at most get Bruce to open and close his mouth or blink.
With this in hand, the young Spielberg was forced into a creative corner of how to actually have a shark, without an shark. The decision was to suggest there was a shark, and with the help of John Williams’s iconic melody (two notes was all it took to make an entire generation afraid to even go to the toilet for fear of water) JAWS became a box office sensation. The girl is ripped apart and dragged beneath the water, and we didn’t even see a single tooth.
Now this suspense is often the most cited source of anxiety in movie goers. Because all you see is the shark’s perspective, and the haunting two-note nightmare melody constantly humming menacingly throughout the film, people are terrified by what is about to happen.
This, is not what terrifies me about JAWS anymore.
Well what then, sir, scares you about this movie?
The answer can be found in Moby Dick.
Now Moby Dick is distinct from the film JAWS for one primary reason, the vast diversity of its audience. JAWS literally broke box office records and held that title for at least two years before STAR WARS was released. Moby Dick, is one of three books PhD’s supposedly lie the most about actually reading (the other two are Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake). If such is the case, how could Moby Dick have anything in common with this film?
For starters Moby Dick was actually going to be in the movie. The introduction of Quint, a character likened to Ahab for his obsession with sharks, was originally going to be him laughing in a movie theater while watching the Gregory Peck film based on the book. Due to licensing issues however Spielberg couldn’t get this shot in the movie and instead Quint came into the story with the iconic scene of scratching his nails across a chalkboard during the city council meeting. While I watched the movie I noted that, at Quint’s Death when he’s literally in the jaws of the Great White, there’s a shot of him digging a machete into the beast, reminiscent of Ahab’s final struggle against the White Whale.
But the moment that most likens to Moby Dick is during the final challenge against the shark when Richard Dreyfuss’s character Hooper plans on setting up the shark cage and trying to poison it with toxins embedded into the hollow chamber of a spear. He’s lowered into the water, and once there the audience is able to really feel the ancestry of our species.
Anyone that has dipped their ears into a pool, or below the water level in the tub, knows the sensation of sound underwater. Waves struggle to move through liquid as quickly as they do through gas, that’s one of the reason’s why when noise happens under the water, it sounds diluted or dream like. Along wth this there is the inifinity of the ocean that hits us. If it is a lake or a river, there’s an understanding of boundries and the individual has the collateral that the shore is nearby I’ll be okay, I can always just move a few feet and be back on land. The ocean doesn’t afford human beings that liberty, in fact it takes it away from us. Being deep in distance of the ocean is like the abyss of space, and being isolated has the psychological effect of creating paranoia. Shapes appear and disappear in the water, and the most haunting moment of the cage scene is watching the shark swim away and slowly vanish out of sight. The land monkey knows the creature is still there, that’s its hungry, and we are far from help.
Watching this scene again reminded me of a chapter in Moby Dick entitled The Castaway. In the novel there is a young black boy by the name of Pip. He exhibits many of the characteristics of boys, he sings, he laughs, he takes the world around with not too much seriousness. Now during The Castaway passage little Pip joins one of the small rowing ships chasing after a whale. That’s the manner of whaling in the old days, men would leave the larger ship and chase after the beasts. Pip is playing around, hopping out of the boat, when the men spot a whale and take off after it, and the men leave him behind. The Pequod is miles behind him, the men are rowing ever away, and Pip is left in an eternal abyss.
The passage reads:
In three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean was between Pip and Stubb. Out from the center of the Sea poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest. (526).
This would be enough, but Melville pushes it:
Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practiced swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my GOD! who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea—mark how closely their hug their ship and only coast along her sides. (527).
The language might be a barrier to a contemporary reader, but even after two centuries, Melville’s description of isolation awakens a twitch in the back of our human consciousness. It’s because, as my clever title suggests (yes it’s clever, yes it it, yes, it, is…oh fuck you, you come up with something better, I’m sorry I love you so much, let’s not fight anymore), human beings are naked land monkeys still in the process of evolution. We live in our gravity and our uninterrupted sound, but the ocean is an alien territory to us, much like the vastness of space. One of the first exercises a potential astronaut has to face is the isolation test, and this test is performed because the people at NASA are smart. It’s been documented time and time and time again, that if a mind cannot take that infinity and the suggestion it has upon our human consciousness, then they will never be astronaut material. If this isn’t clear enough, consider the Nieztche quote every freshman philosophy major has written on their arm or uses as the subtitle to their blog:
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
It’s bad to take quotes out of context, especially Nietzsche, but in this case the quote has become a discourse outside of the intent of the original author (thank you again freshman philosophy major, you’re ruining an amazing field by being such a pompous asshole! Sorry). Some might not understand Pip’s paranoia, it’s just the ocean. That is true, but along with the general feeling of the immensity of the abyss are the monsters, which for Melville’s time, were whales. While the terrors of sharks weren’t unknown, the immensity of whales, and the jaws of Sperm whales in particular, inspired superstitions and imaginations to run rampant. Human beings are imaginative creatures, its part of the success of our evolution. We’re terrified about what’s waiting for us in the dark, and so we imagine what might exist. It could be a whale, it could be a shark, it could a skeleton hand reaching out from under your bed. And when it grabs your ankle, and slowly drags you away, it’s going to take you deep down into the dark, where the hungrier beasts await.
JAWS terrifies me, for that one scene in the cage. Hooper becomes Pip in that one perfect moment, but unlike Pip a monster actually strikes. We’re given just a few seconds to feel that old archaic dread that lingers in the DNA of our species and won’t go away until human beings have no more reason to fear.
If you don’t believe me, listen to this delightful story. A family of three were out scuba diving near a coral reef, and the son was carrying a waterproof camera. The father and mother wanted their picture taken and so the son readied the shot. He stopped. The father and mother waved but still the boy wouldn’t move. The father finally made contact and the boy snapped the picture. After a few moments they all joined back up on the ship. The father and mother, curious, asked their son, “why did you freeze there for a moment?” The boy asked, “Didn’t you see it?” When his parents said no, the boy pulled up the image and showed it to them.
The father instantly fainted and the mother was so shocked she vomited before also passing out.
The part of the story that usually follows is the actual photo itself.
Maybe you can understand their reaction?**
JAWS is a damn good film, and worth your time, for despite the fact it’s a popcorn movie (and yes, we did have popcorn when we saw it yesterday) it is able to tell a great story while still probing into that pocket of fear that still defines our genetic make-up as a species.
But just so this review is fair, remember, there are more recorded deaths each year from cows and deer, than there are by sharks. So what should you really be afraid of?
I’ve included a link to a small article here, in case anyone’s interested in learning about the similarities between Moby Dick and JAWS. Blew my mind.
Just so that the reader isn’t deceived, the shark photo of the divers has been revealed as a hoax. This doesn’t eliminate the argument however for the fact that the story exists in the first place attests to the fact that the ocean still possesses the possibility to inspire horror stories and paranoia.