Just weeks ago, the argument to defund or abolish the police was rarely heard within the mainstream. As a result of the uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, however, it is now commonplace and, in fact, being taken seriously by public servants—on Sunday, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council announced their intent to defund and dismantle the city’s police department. While the words “defund the police” may seem radical to the uninitiated (Spike Lee has warned against using that exact verbiage while supporting the cause), the rationale behind the concept is sensible. Police have frequently been called on to perform work for which they have no real training—work that can be performed by social workers, for example. Flowing the funds into social services is a preemptive, proactive way to deal with issues before they can manifest as problems.
Against this social backdrop, the absurdity of the 45-year-old mother of all summer blockbusters, Jaws, has never been clearer. It is the story of a cop, with no background in marine biology and, in fact, hatred of water, taking it upon himself to hunt a great white shark, a vulnerable apex predator whose survival is crucial to the maintenance of our global ecology. At the time of Jaws’s release in 1975, your average moviegoer could have easily taken for granted the good-evil dynamic and accepted it at face value. Of course, given cinema’s tendency to frame cops as good and the police’s overall authority in culture, the cop, Amity chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), was the hero. Of course, the mysterious, multi-ton behemoth with teeth like razors and the dominion of the largely uncharted and inherently hazardous-to-humans ocean was the villain.
Now, a larger segment of American culture than ever is questioning the role of police (and whether such a role should even exist), and it’s clear to anyone who cares about marine life/the environment that sharks are to be conserved, not slaughtered. My, how times have changed.
Here’s what it feels like when you realize that in the years since its release, the ostensible hero and villain of Jaws have switched roles:
I’m not going to shit all over Jaws (but I am going to shit on it and around it, for sure), and I should make clear that it remains an effective monster movie. Turn off your brain and it’s fun, which is pretty standard procedure for a blockbuster. John Williams’s Oscar-winning shark theme (based around two tuba-blown notes) does the thinking and feeling for you. While I believe in my heart of hearts that sharks deserve our protection and aid, I’m not going to deny that they’re terrifying. I don’t want to be in the water with one, though I continue to think being consumed by one would be ultimately a terrific compliment. They supposedly don’t like the taste of human flesh, so if one thought I were good enough to eat all of, it would mean that I’m extraordinary tasting for a human. Such a flattering way to die, and you gotta go somehow. Also, it would make a great story and perhaps turn me into a legend. I’m just saying, there are worse things than getting eaten by a shark.
I was reading this little swim down memory lane about what it was like to be in Wildwood, New Jersey, a coastal resort town, during the summer of 1975 when Universal unleashed Jaws to the delight and terror of moviegoers. It sounds amazing. I’m sure it was truly exciting. I’d love to go back in time and experience that.
Jaws’s goodness is well-established and often visceral. If you know Jaws, you know the argument for its cultural importance and ability to excite. It seems rather redundant to spend much more time flattering a movie that a legion of moviegoers has already flattered and so for the sake of balance, let’s concern ourselves with its flaws.
Let’s start with the screaming decapitated head.
That’s... a screaming, floating, disembodied head. For all of Jaws’s cultural impact, we hear much more about it creating the summer blockbuster than we do it inspiring a million, cheap, fake-out jump scares.
Also! The shark roars!
I never noticed this as much as I did during my rewatch this week, which may owe to the most recent remaster. Earlier this month, Jaws was issued on a UHD disc, which optimizes the movie for viewing on 4K TVs. (Essentially, every pixel is filled, so you don’t get any compression artifacts on the picture. Detail and color are enhanced beyond even the original theatrical prints, according to director Steven Spielberg.) It comes equipped with a new Dolby Atmos sound mix and, I think, that’s the reason why the roar really resonates. (The clip above is from an old Blu-ray rip, not the 4K disc, and is thus less pronounced.) Regardless, the fact is that the shark roars, which I had overlooked. I always thought about the third Jaws sequel and contender for worst movie of all time, 1987's Jaws: The Revenge, as the movie with the roaring shark. But now it is clear to me that Jaws roared so that Jaws: The Revenge could ROAR.
Roaring is but one of several things Jaws claims of great whites that they don’t actually do. Its hackneyed science is well-documented. Its biggest transgression comes via the assertion of oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) that some sharks go “rogue” and leave their packs to hunt. For one thing, sharks are generally lone hunters. The shark in question has clearly developed a taste for human flesh. “He’s going to feed here as long as there’s food in the water,” says Hooper. Despite this being untrue and not at all how great whites operate, the movie doesn’t even carry out its own faulty logic; as soon as Hooper, Brody, and babbling alcoholic professional shark hunter (there was ever such a job?!) Quint (Robert Shaw) set out to see to track down the shark, it stays out there, far from shore, targeting them. It left! It stopped feeding on the bathers on the shore as soon as the plot called for it!
It’s one thing for a movie to be wrong—many of them are without damaging the planet. However, Jaws is thought to have played a direct role in decimating shark populations, as people used the movie’s bad science and monster-building as an excuse to preemptively kill potentially “killer” sharks. “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today,” said Peter Benchley, who wrote the 1974 novel on which Jaws was based, as well as co-wrote the film’s screenplay. “Sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges.”
The characters in Jaws swim in such deep waters! This is wild to me. I’ve never stood in ocean water above my chest! I look at these people, their bodies bobbing, their legs dangling like five to ten feet above the ocean’s floor and I think, God, haven’t they seen Jaws?! Don’t do this.
Never understood what they were going for with this attack, either:
Is the shark just, like, spinning around while chewing on a body? Is it Jaws or is it Flipper?
I have no idea why everyone is wearing so many clothes in the blazing sun on an island modeled after Martha’s Vineyard in late June/early July.
I know they’re all old white men who need to be as uncomfortable as possible to prove their manhood, and city officials, to boot, but Brody is straight-up wearing a jacket? In potentially 80-degree weather? Richard Dreyfuss wears a beanie in some outdoor scenes???
And while I’m nitpicking, some fisherman character pronounces “mako” like “mah-KOO,” and later Quint says “demise” like “dem-ease.” I’m just saying, for a polished Hollywood killing machine, Jaws is awfully shoddy. As shoddy as the jowls on its shark.
She’s cool, though:
Do you think that Brody’s son’s lack of teeth is meant to frame him as a vessel of goodness and innocence in contrast to the rows and rows of teeth the movie’s monster shark has?
Also, a word on Lorraine Gary, who plays Ellen, Chief Brody’s wife. She fought off claims that she was hired for the role as a result of being the wife of Universal president Sidney Sheinberg. She, Sheinberg, and even Spielberg denied nepotism in a People article pegged to the 1978 release of Jaws 2.
I find it hard to believe that her personal connection didn’t somehow influence her professional success (isn’t Hollywood all about who you know?), but I don’t even care. I love her. I love her especially in Jaws: The Revenge, which focuses on the rather melodramatic rendering of her character. (Jaws: The Revenge is awful and I fucking love it.) Here is a great anecdote from the aforementioned People piece:
She once drove 60 miles at 80 mph in search of a Whataburger, only to discover her emergency brake had been on the whole way. “That,” she wryly jokes, “was my break for freedom.”
And in the spirit of sharing good anecdotes, here is something I read on Wikipedia about Jaws 3D:
Dennis Quaid stated in a 2015 interview that, of all his films, he made the most aggressive use of cocaine during the filming of Jaws 3D, and that he was high on the drug in “every frame” in which he appears.
That makes me want to go back and rewatch that horrible movie.
And here’s a good tidbit from the Jaws Wikipedia:
Initially the film’s producers wanted to train a Great White shark but quickly realized this wasn’t possible...
I really wonder how far they got before they realized great whites weren’t tame-able.
Anyway, Jaws is fun but also kind of shitty, and its shittiness is clearer today than ever. Has it aged well? No, not at all. Time has only made it worse, but it does what it does so well that it’s still extremely watchable. That’s a monster feat, worthy of the kind of awe, respect, and fear we extend to great whites themselves.