It’s Only An Island If You Look At It From The Water

Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

Jaws is a story about men.

You start watching Jaws and you are following a girl who is a loner and reckless and maybe a little drunk. She is not part of the group of young people around the fire—she is on her own, and she runs, and she takes her clothes off, and you can’t really see what she looks like naked but you can see what she looks like in the sea. And the music starts, and the boy running after her lies down in the sand, and you know what is about to happen.

This is not a story about that girl, or about the mother who loses her son and shows up in black to slap Chief Brody in the face, or about the wife who loves her pent-up, anxious, striving husband and is scared for him but wants him to do whatever it is he needs to do. This is a story about men. This is a story about three men who go out on the ocean trying to figure out who they are and who they have the potential to be.

This is a story about Quint and Brody and Hooper. The man who distrusts authority, the man who is authority, and the man who wants authority. The man who owns the boat and the man who is wary of the boat and the man who drives the boat. The man with no fear, the man who has always feared, and the man who does not yet understand what fear is.

There is something about all of these men that is simultaneously idealistic and true (which could perhaps be a description of much of Spielberg’s work). Quint (Robert Shaw) at first seems to be a pure male fantasy—both recklessly self-destructive and an expert in his own particular brand of reckless self-destruction. He kills sharks. He doesn’t listen to other men. He sings dirty songs about women. He is utterly in charge of his own destiny. He has scars.

But yes, he has scars, not all of them visible. He followed orders that were given to him by men in air-conditioned offices, he watched thousands of men die around him, he delivered the bomb. He survived. And when, towards the end of the film, he tries to lure the shark into shallower waters, opening up the throttle, pushing the damaged vessel far beyond its capacity, it is not reckless self-destruction at work: it’s the understanding of the nearness of death, of the sacrifice required. It’s maybe a little bit of loneliness. You see Quint at that moment come unhinged and you know he is crossing a threshold you won’t get him back from.

(The hand scratching at the chalkboard. The rows and rows of polished aquatic jaws and nowhere comfortable to sit.)

Brody (Roy Scheider), too, carries a lot of the male ideal about him: a police chief, a husband and father, a slim and tan man who gets things done. He will paint the sign telling children to keep off the beach himself if he has to. He has a uniform. He enforces the law.

And yet he’s afraid of the water, and a little bit obsessive, and second-guesses himself just when he shouldn’t. He’s displaced, he’s somewhere other than home. He worries about his kids, and about being well-liked and respected, and about trusting people versus trusting yourself. He gets drunk and watches another man cut a shark open and thinks there could be a child in there and wants there to be a child in there. And when there’s not a child in there he sucks it up and gets on the boat.

You love Brody because you want to be Brody and because you want to save Brody. You love Brody because he is trying to do the right thing and because the odds are stacked against him and because he has sad flimsy glasses that still can’t bring everything into focus. You love Brody in the hospital and on the beach and in every room he walks into hoping something will make sense, will be easy. You know that nothing is easy.

Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), perhaps, thinks it is. Hooper is a third kind of masculine ideal: the man whose family has money, the man whose hands are soft and white because he can keep them that way. The man who has certainly passed a lot of tests and has certainly written a lot of brilliant papers. The man with all the latest technology, all the right equipment.

And of course Hooper, too, has flaws—has the pejorative “book-learning” looming over him, has faced many academic and theoretical challenges but maybe not too many physical ones. Has an extra layer of flesh around the middle. Has a nonchalance and an intellectual assurance that can be dangerous when the stakes are arms and legs and guts.

(You have probably known this man and you have probably loved this man and you have probably asked this man to be something more and seen how he couldn’t. Even here, Hooper vanishes during the climactic fight, drops off the radar. You think he is dead and then you realize he was just, like, hiding underwater breathing scuba diving air. You get momentarily pissed off that he was just chilling down there while Quint was dying. You realize this is why you broke up with this man years ago. You forgive him and remember that he is who he is.)

Three men on the ocean who are really one man: the brawn and the soul and the brains.

But you can never face a shark and swim away whole.

Jaws is a story about America.

You are watching Jaws and you realize it’s the weekend. It’s the Fourth of July weekend! It’s a long weekend and a weekend for celebrating.

Undeniably, it is every American citizen’s natural right to have a Fourth of July celebration on a beach, eating barbeque, drinking beer, watching fireworks. It is every American citizen’s natural right to celebrate freedom by having a day where he does not have to think about the consequences of his actions—does not have to think about how small he is in the context of the greater world. It is the Fourth of July and it is summer in America, goddammit.

It is summer in America in a small town where the families know each other and the shops are owned by men who grew up in that same small town and the salt cuts through the air incisively. It is summer and the houses feel closer together and the money is coming in. The mayor pats people on the back. The boys play out on the pier. The sky opens up like a gift.

(Your son has a pair of Jaws pajamas that are red, white, and blue.)

It is summer in America and everyone is pushing the limit on how long the forces at work that are bigger than us can be ignored. How long the Other can be staved off. How long we can continue to avoid that which scares us or is stronger than us or is pulling us underwater. America is really good at pushing these limits.

If you just lie in the sun on your stomach for five more minutes you will win.

Or you won’t win. You’ll be proven wrong. The evil thing you thought you could ignore out of existence is rearing itself up and taking things from you—things you loved, things you were promised—and you are angry at it, and you are angry at America for blinding you to it. And yet you still need something homegrown and apple-pie-d and full of shooting stars to save you: you need the American Hero: the thoughtful man with something to prove, the honest man with a lot at stake.

It is summer in America and everywhere you look you see people in denial. You are waiting for someone to turn the boat around.

Jaws is a love story.

Your parents tell you about the time they saw Jaws in the theater and avoided the beach for a year. The poster has that terrifying huge mouth full of teeth, pointing up singularly and awfully. John Williams’s score still makes your skin prickle.

But Spielberg is not, at heart, a horror auteur; he’s not John Carpenter, he’s not Wes Craven. He made a movie about a boy and an alien who loved each other—he made a movie about a businessman who saved over a thousand Jewish people from the concentration camps and still felt that it wasn’t enough. He is sentimental in a wonderful and magical way, and Jaws is no exception. Jaws is a collection of little love stories, floating around and bumping into each other and reminding the viewer why we need to confront the Other. Why we can’t just lie around on our stomachs and tan.

There is the romance between man and the open water: the tourists flocking to the shores to reconnect with something wild and free; Hooper easing his small, perfect vessel out into the night; Quint touching the wood of the Orca and smiling, and being a part of that ship, and dying on that ship. (You cannot imagine Quint dying anywhere else; you wouldn’t want his body to be buried in the cold ungiving ground.)

There is the love between a man and his son: Brody agonizing over the decisions ahead and the decisions behind as he sits at the dinner table, touching his face and folding his hands together and looking up just in time to notice his youngest son touching his own face and folding his own hands together in that childish imitation that represents the truest devotion. And you think that perhaps Brody wouldn’t have drunk the rest of that wine and agreed to watch Hooper cut the shark open and gotten on the boat and gone out there to face the dark vastness if it weren’t for that seconds-long moment. That perhaps it is the instinctual desire to protect his son (that American desire, that male desire, that desire born from the most uncontrollable parts of the mind) more than the abstract desire to protect his assigned district that steers him out towards the shark. We do not see Brody reunited with his family at the end of the film but we can feel it.

There is the love of the shark for the ocean: the love that will allow no obstacles, that is passionless but all-consuming. The shark is the ocean. The ocean is the shark. To extract one from the other is an awful sort of violence.

And yes, there is the love between the shark and the man: because even as you watch the shark go down—even as you rejoice in the defeat of the enemy, its complete and total destruction—there is something tugging at you uncomfortably. How beautiful the shark looks as it batters you. How majestic this creature, this insanely impossible creature that has been shot at and speared and stabbed and hated and finally blown up. And how awful it feels to destroy it.

How much like something greater than you has been lost.

But at the end of the day, your love for life is stronger than your love for this ancient and terrible giant of nature. It’s only an island if you look at it from the water, Brody says, and you understand that this choice of perspective, too, is part of surviving and is healthy and is beautiful. Sometimes you have to pick a thing to unsee in order to continue seeing everything else the way you want to see it: blue and blue and long, hovering on the edge of your world, containing multitudes, sparing you. Bearing you back to where you belong.

Senior Editor
  1. Far and away the most penetrating and cogent piece I’ve ever read about the film that, more curtly and auspiciously than any other, revamped American moviemaking.
    The focus on Brody’s devotion to his son, on land, conjoined with his landlubber guilt over Alex Kintner’s death, being transposed into his meeting with the shark on the reachless and unforgiving sea, is what brings this to the full.
    A musicality of the elements and the vain contrivances to bring them under his heel.
    A consciousness of the Other, the Unknown, to which we don’t amid, too powerful to be befouled by dialogue, but can’t disavow.
    A final thrust of defiance at the insidious alliance between impassive Nature and unforgiving Humanity.
    This, and the core sentimentality with which Spielberg infused this film, in expertly small touches, elevate this piece–and the piece it concerns–into the realm of higher, memorable art.
    I, for one, am grateful for the abundance and insight pervading these lines. S.S. himself could take a lesson. Well done, Ms. Cantwell.

  2. Well done. I am one of those of an age to have seen Jaws in its first run, taking the train into Chicago to see it at the United Artists theater with a friend. There were no “spoilers” back then. The first time the shark popped out of the water to snatch the chum that Brody was dishing it out as bait, the theater was full of screams. People just don’t do that anymore, even during the most gory horror films. Some even laugh. I think that and what it says about people today is frightening to me.

    Spielberg was forced to practice the “less is more” technique of frightening the audience because the shark created for the movie wasn’t always cooperative. Older horror films were forced to do so because of the stricter codes. In the Cat People you almost never see what is stalking people. The scene at an indoor pool is an excellent example of achieving an air of menace with out seeing very much.

    On a side note: Robert Shaw, who was also a playwright (The Man in the Glass Booth) in addition to being an actor, did a rewrite of the Indianapolis story that was used in the final cut.

    Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw relationship bonded over their love of Shakespeare.

    An article of interest on them

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