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‘Jaws’ Is the Perfect Blockbuster, Saying Nothing yet Signifying Everything

The beauty of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic is that you can choose how to watch it: as a summery, shark-bitten thriller or as an allegory about the failed leadership of institutions

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.

“Twenty-four hours is like three weeks!” That’s the complaint of a local woman (for no reason at all, let’s call her Karen) at a town meeting after she learns that the nicely gentrified beach community of Amity will be closed by the mayor’s office following grisly evidence of a shark attack; it’s a shrill, high-frequency whine that cuts through the scene’s bustling, multitracked sound design like an air-raid siren.

For those of us who’ve seen Jaws more than a few times, even the film’s throwaway dialogue has been etched into our cerebral cortexes. For every one of the script’s enduring catchphrases—think “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” or “Smile, you son of a bitch”—there’s an exchange beloved by diehards: the idiot, bass-mouthed fisherman unable to comprehend that his friend’s latest trophy is a tiger shark (A whaaat?); the long-haired hipster searching in vain for his lost (and long since devoured) black Lab (“Pippit…. Pippit!”); the old lady complaining to Roy Scheider that the disenfranchised residents of a local children’s martial arts class have been “karate-ing the picket fences.” But the line about keeping the beaches closed resonates the most, and not just in our current claustrophobic context. It’s a whine that clarifies what’s really at stake in Steven Spielberg’s industry game changer: the possibility, scarier and more voracious than any great white, of a lost summer.

Summer in Jaws is a character all on its own, even if the bare trees lining the streets betray the film’s late-fall production dates. (The continuity error was fixed by CGI on DVD, a less obtrusive bit of meddling than turning guns into flashlights in E.T., but revisionist history nevertheless.) There had been iconic movie scenes set on beaches before: Think of the lovers rolling around in the surf in From Here to Eternity, or all the wholesome mid-’60s teenyboppers playing Beach Blanket Bingo. But Jaws hunger for exposed, all-American flesh went beyond adolescent titillation or seasonal nostalgia. Spielberg’s vision of scantily clad revelers taking their chances in troubled waters was and remains definitive, escapism mixed with anthropology. Jaws is a thriller rather than a coming-of-age fable, but it feels like there are whole, sun-dappled short stories embedded in its recurring images of tanned middle schoolers lounging in dinky sailboats, or parents toweling off their sand-covered kids while standing ankle-deep in the surf. Relaxing—barely—in a beach chair during an off-duty afternoon, police chief Martin Brody observes the panorama from a far, paranoid distance. “You don’t go in the water at all, do ya?” he’s admonished by a constituent; his aquaphobia will soon be revealed to be simple common sense, even as it stands in opposition to the bottom line.

“Amity is a summer town. ... We need summer dollars,” declares Amity’s mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), a comically dishonest figure styled by Jaws and its witty team of screenwriters (Carl Gottlieb, Howard Sackler, and Peter Benchley, the author of the original source novel) after the parade of criminal bureaucrats on display during the Watergate scandal. (Hamilton was a master of playing guys who were slow on the take: He’s the bourgie fool cuckolded by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.) In an essay published in March in The New Republic, Alex Shephard analyzed how Jaws barely submerged political allegory—a bumbling cover-up designed to save Amity’s economy in the face of a new, predatory threat—works both in the context of the movie’s 1975 release date and in a year where our collective, primal fears have been exploited from all sides, with no reliable protector in sight. “Ignored by politicians, [Jaws heroes] face off against an unseen enemy on a much too fragile, much too small boat,” writes Shephard. “They’re on their own—a feeling that is all too familiar.”

Spielberg’s trio of shark hunters comprises a cross-section of male types, with Robert Shaw’s Ahab-ish Quint holding things down for old-school machismo and Richard Dreyfuss’s monied ichthyologist Matt Hooper embodying well-heeled technocratic geekery (“You’ve been counting money all your life,” Quint says to his new frenemy, and he’s not wrong). Somewhere between them resides Brody, a recent big-city transplant whose investment in Amity’s survival as a tourist trap is strictly professional. What makes it personal, eventually, is a close encounter between the shark and Brody’s preteen son Michael (Chris Rebello), which steeps his hero-cop act in a protective, paternal empathy distinct from dead-eyed ’70s supercops like Dirty Harry or Popeye Doyle. (Brody’s more like Frank Serpico minus the beard, a straight arrow battling corruption in the system from within.) For Quint and Hooper, the quest into deeper waters aboard the Orca is similarly self-involved: They’re risking their lives not for civic pride but for a set of private obsessions. Quint survived the shark-infested wreck of the USS Indianapolis, and the hunt is a chance to assuage his survivor’s guilt and hook his own private Moby Dick; Hooper is in it for scientific progress, but he’s also a glib go-getter whose Cassandra act is accurately—if dismissively—sized up by the mayor as a stab at publicity: “Love to prove that, wouldn’t you?… Get your name into the National Geographic.”

As a horror movie released at the apex of the genre’s studio-subsidized rebirth in the 1970s, Jaws reroutes the trajectories and themes of classics like Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—cautionary tales in which outsiders venturing into the Old Weird America get what’s coming to them via human monsters who’d be better left undisturbed. In Spielberg’s film, the great white is the outsider, constituting a threat that’s at once thoroughly existential and a matter of nickel-and-dime economics. What the shark and Amity’s ruling class have in common is the need for a steady food supply: The visitors who swarm into town on ferries, slathered in sunscreen with fanny packs full of disposable income, are just chum in the water.

These are ruthless ideas, but Jaws is, lest we forget, a pretty ruthless movie: Spielberg’s filmmaking style on his first big-budget production is carnivorous. By offing a pretty, naked blonde and that aforementioned Labrador retriever in the first 20 minutes, the director definitely establishes that he’s not fucking around, PG rating be damned. He also smartly imbues the staging and dialogue with just enough shell-shocked ambivalence to make audiences wonder what, if anything, all that bloody, unsentimental carnage is really about. Is the nubile, guileless hippie chick getting dragged underwater in lieu of a stoned bonfire hookup a symbolic figure, an emblem of the death of the ’60s? Did the little boy have it coming as punishment for his mom’s negligence? Did the dog get it because Steven Spielberg is a cat person?

Combine its not-quite-world-beating heroes with its faux-utopian coastal milieu and putatively metaphorical monster—whose fakeness when finally glimpsed full-on actually enhances its horrific presence, an accidental Brechtian effect lost to the onset of CGI—and Jaws would seem to have plenty going on under the surface. In addition to all the things that it does brilliantly—its efficiency as a scare machine; its effectiveness as a directorial showcase; its evocation of eccentricity filtered through a virtuoso populism closer to The Wizard of Oz; the killer performances of its leads, especially Shaw, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as swallow it wholethe film unfolds as a ripe bicentennial satire, a snapshot of a country at once on guard and susceptible to a semi-hidden enemy. In his new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, J. Hoberman perceptively pairs Jaws with one of its Best Picture rivals, Robert Altman’s Nashville, persuasively painting the two movies as structural and thematic twins, all-American epics in which mass patriotic gatherings are tinged with the threat of bloody violence.

Released in the fall of 1975 and riding a tidal wave of critical adulation via the one-woman hype machine of Pauline Kael—who watched an early cut and deemed it an epochal masterpiece—Nashville, for all its down-and-dirty comedy, was a prestige picture. Even if Altman usually managed to be artful and unpretentious at his best—and many consider Nashville to be his masterpiece—he was still the proverbial “filmmaker for grown-ups” who thrived in a moment when Hollywood was, according to a seductive and still enduring myth, more hospitable to adult cinema. Jaws, by contrast, was seen as embodying the tip of a very dangerous spear—the onset of the high-concept blockbuster, no less potent an emissary of encroaching populism than The Godfather, but even more accessible. Where Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were seen as thoughtfully critiquing American greed and spectacle, Jaws surfaced in the popular consciousness as a pure Hollywood by-product—“a perfect engine,” as Hooper describes its namesake, driven solely by its parent studio’s motives for profit.

A case can be made that Jaws ostensible single-mindedness—its swift, gliding sense of momentum, which renders a two-hour running time almost subliminally quick—is still the best expression of its director’s skill set: that for all his later forays into history, morality, and future-shock social commentary, Spielberg’s best incarnation is as an orchestrator of believably visceral carnage, of the fantastic intruding roughly and entertainingly on the present day. And yet, while it’s true that Jaws is one lean, mean entertainment machine, it also contains multitudes in a way that’s as quintessentially ’70s as Nashville, with all those stray, memorable little one-liners and beautifully managed detours into character development, like the game of peekaboo between Brody and his toddler Sean (Jay Mello) that seamlessly embroiders the film’s reckoning with masculinity. The still-bracing aggressiveness of Spielberg’s scare tactics—those bobbing, mobile underwater perspectives; that lurking, omnipresent John Williams score—belies how consistently Jaws finds room for exchanges that deepen the psychologies of its protagonists and elevate the supporting characters around them into plausibly weird, funny bystanders. This sense of humanity gives heft to the script’s parable of a town trying—and failing, and trying again—to put its best interests over cold hard cash.

The double-edged tension of Jaws plot versus its larger offscreen narrative is fascinating and funny. In the story, the shark’s appetite is such that only canceling the Fourth of July will suffice as a public safety measure; in the real world, Jaws ended up drawing crowds to multiplexes in unprecedented numbers. There’s much to say about the sublimated anxieties and (literally) projected fears that drove Jaws’ popularity—the shark, like George Romero’s zombies, can be transformed into a symbol of anything you’d like—but blaming the film for the blockbusterization of Hollywood cinema, which happens often enough to be a cliché, is unfairly reductive.

The biggest difference between Jaws and Star Wars, which almost instantly toppled Jaws from its all-time box office perch two years later, is not one of style or genre but of ancillary possibilities. Star Wars was aggressively marketed across a variety of products and platforms, creating a template for the high-yield, posthuman studio properties of the ’80s. But with Jaws, a nice, cute Bruce plushie was not part of the equation. One way to look at E.T. is as Jaws’ more benign twin, a film with a big heart as well as myriad opportunities for merchandising and product placement (the only things that gets eaten by its namesake are Reese’s Pieces).

But if Jaws is closer to The Godfather than to Star Wars—a film that awakened the inner child of an entire society, with arguably catastrophic consequences—it’s also a more self-contained movie than either. Many would argue that The Godfather: Part II and The Empire Strikes Back represent vital—and superior—extensions of their predecessors, while the desultory Jaws 2, rushed into production without Spielberg’s participation, anticipated the mostly diminishing returns of the sequel generation. (Jaws 2 peaks with its tagline—“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water”—and is all downhill from there.) Even if you don’t think that Jaws has much to “say” about anything, it says it eloquently enough the first time around that nobody asked for clarification; one reason the film’s final shot is so beautiful is because it shows Brody and Hooper reaching shore, a foregone conclusion removed of even a sliver of narrative ambiguity. And yet, depending on how you look at it, their safe return can represent either a heartwarming triumph of good over evil or else a cynically capitalist coda: Amity is once again open for business.