The Jaws in the mirror

by Dan Rubey

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 20-23
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

JAWS became the biggest and fastest grossing film in the history of the industry on September 5th, only 78 days after release. Three days later it had passed the previous record gross of THE GODFATHER by more than $38 million (Variety, Sept. 10, 1975, p. 3). This enormous popularity means JAWS is an expression of the society’s consciousness, and should be approached critically in terms of that consciousness rather than as the private vision of a director. Spielberg’s film and Benchley’s novel have cashed in on the emotions already attached to people-eating sharks by creating fictional and filmic structures which involve audiences with the shark as an image. But these structures are more than simply a series of individually created narrative events. They are also a series of explanations and interpretations of the shark image in terms of the shared concerns and fears of our society.

In JAWS the shark reflects a disguised hatred of women and the preoccupation of our society with sadistic sexuality, a view of business as predatory and irresponsible in human terms, and a fear of retribution for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The film resolves these issues and fears by externalizing them from the protagonists and solving them in a macho fantasy, fear-and-bravery ending which denies any possibility of concerted social action, excludes women as weak and ineffectual, and erases the past and its guilts.

The question of whether or not it is reasonable to discuss Hollywood “escapist” films like JAWS in a context of social and historical events and concerns like these has already been raised in JUMP CUT, in Fred Kaplan’s article on disaster movies in No. 6 (“Riches From Ruins” ) and the replies to it by David Rosen (“Drugged Popcorn” ) and Ernest Larsen (“Lemmings and Escapism” ) in No. 8, and Kaplan’s reply in this issue. My own position is closer to that of Rosen and Larsen, although I agree with many of Kaplan’s specific points.

I assume that the popularity of a film like JAWS means that the film articulates the current concerns, fears, and desires of the people who see it and recommend it to their friends. I also assume that these people like the film in part because they recognize as true, or familiar, or intelligible the view of reality and the narrative interpretations and causal relationships the film presents. The more widely popular a film, the more confidently we can say that the view of reality and the social and psychological concerns articulated in the film are those of society as a whole. Or at least, that those concerns are held in common by a large proportion of the society’s members, no matter how much they may differ in other ways. A mass market film like JAWS, made to sell as many tickets as possible, is an attempt to articulate in fictional and filmic terms the shared concerns of the society. Box office grosses are the only proof of success. Spielberg has said he wanted to make a movie, not a film (Carl Gottlieb, Java Log, New York: Dell, 1975, p. 42). His distinction is between a work aimed at a mass audience and one aimed at a smaller, elite audience.

Of course, all films must be aimed at a large enough audience to be at least minimally commercially successful. And no film can afford to be as idiosyncratic as a novel because of the economics involved. But there is a continuum here. At one end is the work of directors whose vision of reality is relatively individualistic and who are trying to question conventional ways of seeing or create new perceptual syntheses. At the other end is the work of directors like Spielberg who are trying to articulate common denominators of their society’s shared consciousness.

This second kind of work is commonly called escapist, but the term is a misleading one. Such works escape from nothing but the attempt to create new ways of seeing (or rather, the attempt to articulate new ways of seeing already shared by a small group within the society). They certainly do not escape from reality: They present reality as a majority of people in the society see it. Particular images or settings or characters may be fantastic and unreal, in terms of the way realism is understood in fiction and film criticism. But the ways they are structured and interpreted within the work are necessarily the ways in which the audience sees reality and makes sense of its experience, no matter how inaccurate smaller groups within the society feel this view of reality is.

In JAWS, the easiest way to approach the film’s view of reality and the shared social concerns reflected in it is through examining the explanatory contexts the film builds around each of the shark attacks. Actual shark attacks are random events, not motivated by specific personal details in the victims. But the demands of film, and narrative in general, insist that the work provide at least a context of explanation. The storyline gives an imagistic illusion of cause and effect if not a rationally worked out statement. Art organizes experience, and this organization carries with it moral and explanatory overtones, unless the writer or director deliberately frustrates this tendency. This artistic organization is centrally important to the popularity of a work like JAWS. It explains why JAWS was so much more popular than Peter Gimbel’s documentary, BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH, which is also about a hunt for great white sharks.

Such explanatory contexts can be simplistic or complex, but it is unrealistic to expect them to be thematically unified or even consistent in a mass market product like JAWS. Auteur theory and organic criticism are inappropriate tools for analyzing films like JAWS because of the large number of people who contribute significantly to the final product. At least three writers in addition to Benchley and Spielberg worked on the JAWS screenplay, and Spielberg allowed his actors to improvise dialogue and even whole scenes in rehearsal (Gottlieb, p. 60). Such a film may have certain kinds of perceptual unity. But this unity derives from shared patterns of thinking in the society itself, and these patterns may well be inconsistent and contradictory. A good director of mass market films is probably distinguished by his or her eye for what is appropriate or inappropriate to the material in terms of the consciousness of the intended audience, rather than by any ability to create aesthetically and thematically coherent and unified films.

The first explanatory context in JAWS is necessarily the most general, since it begins the film and cannot draw on plot or characterization. The shark’s first victim is Crissie Watkins, a young, long haired woman swimming naked at night, a “skinny dipping adolescent” in Time’s contemptuous and hostile phrase. She is a member of a group of college students at a beach party. As the film opens, she leads a young man away from the fire and goes for a naked swim while he passes out on the beach. The shark attack is filmed as a sexual attack, a substitute for the unconsummated encounter with the young man. (The woman has already made love in Benchley’s novel.) The shark’s-eye camera view watches from below as the woman swims acrobatically above. Then it rises up under her toward her crotch as she scissorkicks vertically in the water. The camera quickly switches to the surface of the water. Here the close up of the woman’s agonized face as the unseen shark tears her body under the water is a frightening imitation of orgasm, the cliché of the equivalence of pleasure and pain used almost from the first portrayal of female orgasm in film.

This juxtaposition of images, the erotic swimming sequence and the shark attack, appeals to a sadism and hatred of women which must be assumed to be a part of the consciousness of the film’s audience. However, the sadism is disguised (as it is not in recent films like THE NIGHT PORTER, THE STORY OF O, or THE STORY OF JOANNA) so that it can be enjoyed by people who would not admit to having sadistic impulses or tastes. If this seems far-fetched as an expression of the common shared mentality of the society, see science fiction writer A.E. Van Vogt’s novel, The Silkie, in which being eaten alive by a shark-like creature is portrayed as the ultimate orgasm. Science fiction is clearly a mass market genre, and one in which the fantasy life of our culture receives its clearest exposition.

Suggesting that this juxtaposition of images provides an explanatory context for the death of Crissie Watkins does not mean simply that she is killed because she goes swimming naked, although that might be a possible interpretation for some viewers. It means that for the audience of JAWS, the combination of images and references in terms of which the shark attack makes intuitive sense. Sexuality and violence are so inextricably linked in this society that the presence of one explains the presence of the other.

The shark’s second victim is a child, and the context here is one of civic responsibility and male protectiveness. This episode answers some of the issues raised in the first by affirming that we are protectors of women and children, not sadistic voyeurs. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider) is kept from closing the beaches by the mayor and town council because Amity (“Amity means friendship” ) needs the business. Here the explanatory context is clear. The greed and willful blindness of the business community causes the death of a young boy, Alex Kintner, and of an unidentified man on the July Fourth weekend.

Initially at least, this seems like an attack on capitalist economics as a rapacious system that devours its victims and cares only for profit. This interpretation is supported by the fact that Spielberg’s movie makes the merchants and civic government of Amity itself responsible, while in Benchley’s novel the pressure to keep the beaches open comes from shadowy pseudo-Mafia figures in the background. But it’s difficult to know whether or not this focus on the business community reflects any increase in the normal U.S. distrust of business growing out of the current recession, and the film is not specific enough to give an answer. However, several things suggest this distrust has become stronger and more articulate in the past two years.

The public relations campaign on television by the major oil companies reflects the fact that many people in the United States believe the oil shortage was engineered by those companies. A series extolling free enterprise running in Reader’s Digest indicates that the business community in general feels under serious attack. The term “administered prices” and the realization that this is no longer a supply and demand economy have made their way into the popular media, and may beat the tip of an attack on unfair profit taking. The recent Hart Associates Poll reported that 58% of the people interviewed agreed that “America’s major corporations tend to dominate and determine the actions of our public officials in Washington.” 49% agreed that big business is now enough of a villain in society’s consciousness to stand on its own as a heavy,without help from the Mafia.

But if this section of the film is an attack on capitalism, it is badly aimed and ineffectual. It focuses on individuals rather than the system itself, blaming them for being weak rather than examining the pressures placed on them by the system or making alternate forms of behavior possible. The only businessperson characterized at all in the film is a woman who owns a motel. She is pictured as strident and humorless, concerned only with the money she stands to lose if the beaches are closed. The point of having a woman represent the business community does not manifest a liberated attitude toward women, It is simply an insult, and indication that they are all weak and unable to deal with the shark.

This section of the film climaxes in the July Fourth weekend killing, and it is organized by images of powerlessness and impotence on the part of the community. This powerlessness undercuts any real sense that the business community is responsible for the deaths because of its nature. The burlesque bounty hunt inspired by Mrs. Kintner’s $3000 reward is a parody of the possibilities of community action. When it is over, the dead boy’s mother slaps Brody’s face on the dock, saying that he knew about the shark, “But still my boy is dead—and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Brody organizes spotter patrols in boats, but the shark slips through them unseen. The men are left pointing their phallic rifles at two little boys with a fake shark fin on a float.

The shark penetrates the supposedly safe estuary and attacks a man in a small boat, a surrogate victim for Brody’s son. The man’s severed leg sinks to the bottom of the pond as an image of castration which sums up all of the powerlessness of the men in this sequence. The sighting of the shark forces Mayor Vaughn to admit he has been wrong, and he breaks down. Near hysteria, Vaughn can barely sign the authorization Brody shoves under his nose for hiring the shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw), a real man and the solution to the problem.

This treatment of the business community is not an attack on the system because there is no outside perspective on it, no sense that people would or could act differently in a different system. Brody, who knows the shark is out there, takes the mayor’s word as binding. The fact that he does not even consider resigning when threatened with losing his job if he closes the beaches means (a bit contradictorily, I admit) that such an option does not exist within the fictional universe of the film, and later in the film, that he is personally weak for doing something he knows is wrong. When Alex Kintner’s mother accuses him of responsibility for her son’s death, and the mayor tells him she is wrong, Brody replies “No, she’s right.” The individual should be able to overcome the system by himself in the ideal world of Amity. Earlier Brody explained that he liked being police chief in Amity because, unlike flew York City, “one man can make a difference.” Within this vision of reality, it is now up to Brody to overcome his moral weakness by physically proving he is man and killing the shark.

These formulations defuse any possible criticism of the economic system itself, something made clear by the reviews which complained that the decision to keep the beaches open didn't make good business sense anyway, because it’s bad publicity to have people eaten. So the issue becomes one of making the most intelligent business decision (what’s good for business is good for you), rather than an examination of the ways economic pressures cloud people’s ability to see that there is really a shark out there. By externalizing blame from the system and transferring it to weak individuals who can be redeemed through initiation under fire, the film creates a fantasy which reflects the audience’s fears about the economic system they live inside of, but at the same time denies that their problems are inherent in the system itself.

The shark hunt depends on the expertise of Quint, the Captain Ahab of this Moby Dick. Quint is the only important character in the film outside the comfortable upper class world of the Amity residents, and despite Shaw’s interesting characterization, he functions as a caricature of the working class.

Benchley’s novel puts class differences and tensions at the heart of things, in Brody’s marriage. Brody is Amity working class, his wife is mainland, summer people, upper class, and the difference puts a strain on their marriage. Ellen Brody has an affair with Matt Hooper, the Woods Hole oceanographer brought in to help with the shark. Hooper is the younger brother of one of Ellen’s former lovers and a member of her own class. The affair is her attempt to get back in touch with her class origins. Spielberg’s film eliminates the class difference between Ellen and Martin Brody and the affair that grows out of it. Class tensions are restricted to the relationship of Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint, the “wealthy college boy” and the “working class hero” as they contemptuously refer to each other. Brody is allied with Hooper instead of being his enemy, but essentially remains outside of the conflict.

The rivalry between Hooper and Quint allows the film to make fun of Quint’s macho qualities and attach them to a working class character outside Brody’s world. In a typical scene, Quint crushes a beer can in one hand, and Hooper mimics him by crushing a styrofoam coffee cup. But at the same time, the film uses Quint to set up and make believable the macho fantasy ending it has been building toward, the male fantasy of tough men doing a tough job, risking their lives to protect the women and children at home, coming to mutual respect through rough camaraderie, danger, drinking, and storytelling. Quint’s boat provides a setting for the initiation of Brody—whose only scar is an appendix scar, who is afraid of the water, and who keeps asking for a “bigger boat.”

Quint is also a woman hater. His dislike for women is treated as a natural counterpart of the manliness which makes him an effective shark killer. This cinematic sleight of hand allows the hatred of women which runs throughout the film to be located in a character who represents the working class, thereby displacing the responsibility for it. Quint’s dislike of women can be easily documented. When the contract to hunt the shark is signed, Quint’s toast is “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged wimmen,” a disturbing image in the context of the way Crissie Watkins’ death was filmed. His rough language at the dock when the three men set out (” ...blow your ass out the window” ) and double entendre remarks to Brody (“see you got your rubbers with you” ) are calculated to disturb Ellen Brody, and they succeed. She says to Brody that Quint scares her, and leaves the dock in tears. The diminution of her role in general is consistent with this scene; she exists in the film only to be scared.

The song Quint sings several times, “Farewell and adieu, you fair Spanish ladies,” portrays women as whores to be left behind as men sail off to the serious business of war and death. The men compare scars at night on the boat in a warmly treated scene of male camaraderie. Quint shows one he got arm wrestling in a bar celebrating his “third wife’s demise.” Hooper shows his own woman-related mark, an invisible scar on his chest placed there by “Mary Ellen Moffitt: she broke my heart.” The scene is amusing, and Hooper’s line is very funny in context. But the humor and distancing technique make Quint carry the weight of the film’s aggression against women in the same way that he carries the macho fantasy, externalizing then from Brody and Hooper (and thus from the audience), and finally denying them totally when he is killed by the shark.

The pervasiveness of these attitudes of denigration, hatred, and aggression toward women and the predominance of male-oriented fantasies in JAWS raise an important question about this analysis and an audience based approach to film in general. How can JAWS appeal to such a large audience, which must necessarily include women, if these attitudes and fantasies are present in the film? This is a difficult question for a man to answer with much assurance. However, I think women can enjoy and participate in these fantasies because they identify with the protagonists in basically the same way men do, ignoring their own sex and their community of interest with other women for the purpose of participating in the work. This is possible because identification with characters in a fantasy is not restricted by one’s personal characteristics or life. The men in the audience are no more likely to kill a twenty-five foot shark than the women.

What is being identified with (or participated in) is the role of power and competency, in itself a sexless role, but one usually assigned to men in this society. The hatred and aggression toward women in the film is not perceived by women in the audience as directed against them personally, any more than men feel the portrayal of Mayor Vaughn is directed against them personally, even though all women are treated in this way, while distinctions are made among men. It may even be that women viewing the film participate in the fantasy by using it as an expression of their own feelings of hatred and aggression toward other women, especially younger and more attractive women like Crissie Watkins. The hatred of women by women encouraged in a male-dominated society has been frequently documented by the women’s movement, and film critic Molly Haskell has said,

“It is not just men who thrill to the violent, male-chauvinist world of THE GODFATHER, but women who, wishing women’s lib would go away like a bad dream, secretly enjoy the Sicilian gangster denigration of women, of ‘putting them in their place.’” (From Reverence to Rape, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1974).

The final interpretive context is the most specific and historical, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the guilt and fear attached to that act. Hooper asks Quint about the scar of an erased tattoo on his arm during the nighttime scar exhibition on the boat. The tattoo was the name of Quint’s ship in World War II, the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The horror story of the Indianapolis is a true one (see Richard Newcomb’s Abandon Ship, New York: Henry Holt, 1958, and Thomas Helm’s Ordeal by Sea, New York: Dodd Mead & Co., 1963).

As Quint tells it, the Indianapolis had just carried the Hiroshima atomic bomb from San Francisco to Tinian where it was to be loaded on the bomber Enola Gay, and was torpedoed by a Japanese sub on its way to Leyte. The ship sank, and its crew was dumped into the water. No distress signal was sent because of the secrecy surrounding everything connected with the bomb. The men were left in the water for five days, until they were accidentally sighted by a flyer. Sharks began to hit the men almost immediately, killing six an hour. Of the 1100 men who went into the water, only 316 came out.

“Anyway,” Quint says, “we delivered the bomb.” The three men hear a strange, eerie sound that Hooper identifies as the song of a whale. They start singing to raise their spirits, and the shark begins attacking the boat.

So the last interpretative, explanatory context offered for the great white shark in JAWS is the disaster of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. On the simplest level of plot, the connection explains Quint’s hatred of sharks and his career as a shark hunter. The connection has a historical veracity to it, because the interest of people in the United States in sharks, documented by countless magazine articles, books, and films, dates from WWII and the encounters with sharks of downed airmen and sailors in tropical waters.

But there is more here. It may seem coincidental that the Indianapolis had carried the Hiroshima bomb, but myths are created out of such coincidences. It is difficult to talk about what such a juxtaposition means without seeming reductive and unresponsive to the layers of complexity and ambiguity involved, because such a discussion is necessarily fragmenting and linear. Analysis lacks the power of art to function simultaneously on several levels.

But it would be naive to claim that no meaning is inherent in the juxtaposition in the film, that Spielberg or Benchley or Gottlieb (or whoever added it to the screenplay) simply picked the Indianapolis sinking to motivate Quint because it was the worst shark disaster he knew, and that reference to the bombing was included only because it was part of the story. Even if a meaning for the connection was not consciously worked out in the writer’s mind, it is the nature of film as a narrative medium to suggest that causal relationships exist between narratively related acts, and such relationships create the film’s meaning.

On the most simplistically causal level then, the men of the Indianapolis were killed by the sharks in retribution for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the deaths of 70,000 Japanese civilians. But if this is punishment, who is the punisher? The only possible answer is something like Nature, natural forces anthropomorphized, punishing the savagery of man with the savagery of the sharks.

JAWS does treat the great white shark as something larger and more mysterious than a hungry fish. It develops from a mindless eating-machine into a malevolent force—intelligent, vengeful, unnaturally powerful, perhaps thousands of years old. Benchley’s shark dies because the barrels Quint harpoons into it slow it down so much that it finally suffocates, just as it is about to kill Brody. But the barrels are not enough in the film. The shark is still able to submerge and chase the boat. It dies only when Brody is able to get a bullet into a compressed air tank lodged in its mouth, a revision which changes Brody from a helpless victim spared by luck into a hero.

On another level of interpretation, the shark represents our own voracity and savagery in war. Chennault’s Flying Tigers painted teeth on the front of their planes, and some of the helicopters in HEARTS AND MINDS displayed similar markings. The shark is an image of the viciousness of our own society in war. There’s a savagery we want to identify with when it seems justified in moral terms as protection of ourselves or others. But we also want to deny and externalize it when there is no such justification because we have unconscious fears of retribution in kind. In this context, the shark represents fears of retribution for the bombing of Hiroshima (and perhaps for our role in Vietnam as well) growing out of feelings of guilt and doubts about the justifiability of our actions. Here it is not a question of being punished for our actions by some superhuman agency. Rather, it is that we have somehow made ourselves vulnerable to the savagery of nature by our own participation in that savagery.

But even if any of this is actually suggested in the film, can it possibly be said that such guilt exists in the shared consciousness of U.S. society as a whole? This question can be approached in two ways. First, by looking for overt references to the issue in books, periodicals, films, etc., and second, by looking for disguised reflections of it in fiction and films.

In the first category, the New York Times carried a number of articles on the bombing during 1975, the thirtieth anniversary of the atomic age; Charles L. Mee’s Meeting at Potsdam (New York: M. Evans & Co.) was reviewed on the front page of the March 9th Times Book Review section. The argument of Mee’s book is that the atomic bombing of Japan was realized at the time to be unnecessary in terms of the war with Japan. The real reason for the bombings, according to Mee, was the intimidation of Russia, our enemy in the new cold war implicitly declared at the Potsdam conference a month earlier.

On July 27th, the Sunday Times Magazine (pp. 7-29) published an article by Barton J. Bernstein admitting that the Nagasaki bombing was unnecessary. He said that while the bombing of Hiroshima was inevitable given the momentum of the war effort and the newness of Truman’s presidency, the intimidation of Russia was at least “a secondary objective... a much appreciated bonus.” The bomb was dropped despite the opposition of scientists who predicted its use would lead to an arms race with Russia. Aside from strengthening the United States in the postwar period and justifying the $42 billion spent on developing it, the clearest reason for using the bomb, in Bernstein’s account, is vengeance on the Japanese, “revenge for Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war,” as Truman later said.

Finally, in an editorial on August 10th in the Times Week in Review (p. 15), William Shannon wrote on “the feelings of national guilt” about the bombing in these terms:

“Our feelings of guilt are now tinctured with dread. We have come to realize that we cannot keep the terrifying secret for ourselves alone, that others possess it, and that mortal enemies work night and day to refine nuclear weapons for possible use. Our dread is that Hiroshima’s fate may become our own.”

I believe that in a less overt way the country realized all this long ago. The atomic mutation monsters and the apocalyptic nuclear wars of fifties science fiction were a reflection of this combination of guilt and dread. The monster films articulated our hopes that the government and military establishment would be able to deal with the atomic monster they had created. The apocalyptic ones reflected our fears they would fail. Of course, the whole issue was reflected in McCarthyism and cold war insanities like the Rosenberg trial. I was in high school during the fifties, and remember taking a foreign exchange student qualifying exam. In it, I was asked how I would respond if someone abroad said the dropping of the bombs on Japan was immoral. The question reflected a fear that the bombing had made us vulnerable to the outside, that it was an issue that could be used against us.

What does JAWS finally do with all of this? As in the previous explanatory contexts, this part of U.S. history is externalized from the protagonists Brody and Hooper. When Quint is killed by the shark, he takes with him the history he represents. History, the bomb, and the cold war are all erased, just as Quint himself erased the U.S.S. Indianapolis tattoo from his arm. Quint and the shark die together, leaving Brody and Hooper to kick for shore.

Hooper’s survival is a key to the differences between Benchley’s book and Spielberg’s film, and to the explanatory technique of the film. He survives because his affair with Ellen Brody has been excised, and there is no need to kill him off. This alteration externalizes the conflicts deflected in the film from the protagonists, denying them any share of responsibility for the issues raised in the interpretative contexts, and by implication denying responsibility to the audience. Brody’s family life in the film is good, warm, and loving, consistently shot in soft, warm colors. His wife is beautiful and devoted, his children loving and obedient. The organizing pattern of these scenes is a shifting back and forth between events involving the shark and scenes of Brody in the warm bosom of his family. Outside, it’s cold and and dangerous and gray; inside, it’s warm and secure and colorful. This alternation runs throughout the film, from Crissie Watkins’ movement from the warm circle of the beach fire into the cold, dark sea, to the interruption of the three men’s warm camaraderie on Quint’s boat by the shark’s attack.

The shark is an ideal image for the articulation of this inside vs. outside view of reality because of its nature. Sharks are creatures of the sea, and the land vs. sea division is a good reflection of the inside vs. outside division. Paradoxically this division offers a certain amount of reassurance and security, because while sharks are terrifying in their own element, they cannot threaten anyone who chooses to stay away from the water. The film reproduces the fundamental land/sea interface in several ways: in the various boats—Ben Gardner’s, Hooper’s, the boat that Brody gives his son, the small boat of the man killed in the estuary, and Quint’s Orca—in the dock the shark pulls apart; and with even more fragility, in the air and water interface itself.

For me, the most terrifying moments in the film are the moments when the shark breaks through these barriers, penetrating into our space and threatening our illusion of security. Spielberg’s film captures these moments of primal terror because his sense of realism demanded that the film be shot with all the principals (including the shark) in the frame (Gottlieb, p. 42). The usual technique of cutaway shots and close ups would have saved Universal the price of the three 25-foot mechanical sharks used in the film. But then the film could only have suggested, rather than actually shown, the shark breaking into the human space of the characters.

The killing of Crissie Watkins is filmed from two perspectives—above the water, the human land perspective, and below the water, the shark sea perspective—and the interface between the two perspectives is not broken. The water is transparent from below but opaque from above. When the shark hits her, we see only her head and shoulders thrashing back and forth above the surface of the water. The scene is horrifying enough, but no one in the audience screamed when I saw the film. Those screams were reserved for moments when the shark’s head and jaws actually rose out of the water, invading our space, breaking through the barriers we have erected to keep all the things it represents outside.

The first such moment comes when the shark kills Alex Kintner. We see the boy on the plastic raft from below the surface as the shark approaches. Then the perspective switches quickly to the surface and is that of the other people in the water who, like us, have seen something huge, but only briefly and indistinctly. The second comes when the shark kills the man in the estuary on the July Fourth weekend. Here the perspective is entirely above water. People see the shark’s fin and tail as it swims into the Pond, its head as it attacks the man in the small boat, and its body as it glides past Michael Brody. The shark is now in our environment, and there are no more shark’s-eye shots. The next moment comes when the shark rises up behind Brody as he is chumming off Quint’s boat (throwing dead fish and guts into the water to attract the shark). Finally the shark batters its way into the boat itself and kills Quint, an ever increasing incursion into the land/sea, inside/outside barrier.

The primary interface, in psychological terms, is that of our own bodies. We are inside. Everything else, by analogy everything that is not like us or cannot be identified with us, is outside. The shark is a perfect image for the violation of this barrier, because it tears its victims apart. It is an instrument of dismemberment, of violation of the integrity of the body. In terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, the emotional affect attached to the shark image in personal, experiential terms derives from the oral aggression directed at the mother’s breast we all felt as infants because of our mother’s inevitable inability to satisfy all our desires immediately and completely, coupled with fears of retribution in kind for that aggression. If the child wants to devour its mother to satisfy its oral needs and at the same time prevent her from ever leaving even for a moment, it also fears through the eye for an eye (talion) mentality of immature intelligence that it will be devoured instead, a fear the shark exemplifies. JAWS inappropriately projects this primitive, body based way of thinking and perceiving onto women in general, and then society as a whole, turning history and social issues into private psychodrama.

So JAWS is not escapism. It is a skillfully crafted articulation of the concerns and fears of our society in images ideally suited to them and in part derived from them, organized in terms of the ways in which we see reality and understand our own experience. The film shows us our own reflection, and Chief Brody aside, I don't think it’s going to cure anyone of their fear of the water.