An Apologia for Jaws

I’ve actually missed two opportunities to talk about Jaws on our podcast.

I realized mere hours after recording our episode on epic movies that, in other contexts, I’d made the argument that the 1975 horror movie ran parallel in significant ways to the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, and of course, when Internet disappeared at Emmanuel College the morning we were supposed to record our episode on horror movies, I missed the opportunity to provide a counterpoint to Michial’s psychoanalytic take on the movie poster.

So that the opportunity is not a permanent loss and because this year is the movie’s 35th anniversary, I figured I’d try out some of the arguments that I was going to make and let the Christian Humanist readers (and my fellow bloggers) have a crack at them.

I have to give credit to Dr. Rod Werline, my thesis advisor from seminary, for starting me on this line of thought.  In an Old Testament Theology class in 2000, he was introducing one of the paper assignments for the class, an essay on Old Testament images and themes in popular culture, and he mentioned Jaws as one of the films that he’d always like to see a paper on.  (I didn’t write the paper, and as far as I remember, nobody in my class did either.)  He read an excerpt from a plot summary he’d found, a passage describing how the movie version (which differed radically, in the face of protests from Peter Benchley, from the novel’s ending), then a summary of the climax of Enuma Elish.  In both cases, the figure in the story who represents the newcomer and the upholder of law faces down a monster from the primordial salt water, destroying the beast from the inside with the power of air.  When he read those passages, everyone in that seminary class had an audible moment of recognition (if you’ve ever been in a classroom where an audible moment of recognition happened, you know what it sounds like), and for the next decade I’ve been thinking on such things.

(I found out this year that Steven Spielberg does not seem to  be aware of his Babylonian parallels; he put the blow-up-the-shark ending in to get the crowd cheering.)

Michial has made his point about the movie poster and the anxieties that it plays into (listen to CHP episode 16.1 if you’ve forgotten), and there’s not much more to say about Bruce, the giant robot shark, that even in 1975 had people wondering about Spielberg’s judgment as a director.  What I’d like to add to the conversation is a look at the epic conventions that make an audience actually care about what’s happening to the people on screen and overcomes, I think, even the Freudian anxiety and the bad special effects to make Jaws a movie worth some genuine thought.

The Pantheon at Amity

I used to think that the first half of Jaws was the worst bit of cinema ever attached to a brilliant second half, and it still might be, but I can see more merit to those opening minutes now than I used to, largely because I’ve paid more attention Babylonian and other literary antecedents to the first half of the shark movie.  The Massachussetts town of Amity (a thinly veiled fictional version of Martha’s Vineyard) is a tourist town, a place where things go well when people are complacent, happy, and eager to spend money.  The mayor of the town and the chamber of commerce know how fragile such an industry is, and in the opening minutes of Jaws, not long after Chief Brody has discovered the mauled corpse of movie-poster-girl, the first clash between the forces that govern Amity arises: on one hand, Brody, the movie’s embodiment of law, wants to shut down the beach, his main aim being the safety of the people and the containment of whatever chaotic force has claimed its first life.  Mayor Vaughn, the figure in the film who represents commerce, pulls rank on the police chief and forbids his using the word “shark” in public appearances.  Already the stage is set for disaster, and whether or not this scene comes faithfully from the novel (no, Dad, I’ve still not read it), the echoes from Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People begin here.  Two conflicting goods, each depending on a very different outcome, are immediately at odds, and the logic is not unlike Pascal’s wager: if the town shuts down and there’s no more shark activity, the loss in tourism money will do great harm to the people who live there.  But if the town does not shut down, and if the shark returns to kill again, then even greater damage will have been done to the town’s money situation, and the leaders of the town will have blood on their hands.  These tensions intensify as Matt Hooper, the representative of Science in the movie’s pantheon, and Captain Quint, the representative of War, enter the story.  Each is convinced that the mayor’s path of inaction is not only dangerous but willfully ignores the evidence that in fact a giant killer shark is in the water, and when the monster from the deep has finally wreaked enough havoc that even Commerce cannot ignore the danger, Brody/Law catches him in a vulnerable moment and convinces him to fund an expedition in which Law, War, and Science will venture forth to battle the force of Chaos in the great sea.

What’s brilliant about the movie is that the veteran Robert Shaw, the very young Richard Dreyfus, and Roy Scheider somewhere in the middle take these archetypal forces of civilization and play them in ways that do not assign random vices to them but really let the character of their position develop in human ways.  The old sailor Quint’s vengeance certainly comes from his encounter with sharks in the waters of the Pacific at the close of World War II, but they also fit the character vices that readers of Homer will recognize as the vices of Ares.  Likewise Matt Hooper’s arrogance and resentment of the older characters is the impetuous impatience of the young (in terms of the history of civilization) cultures of Enlightenment and science.  Finally, Brody’s impatience with Hooper and outright fury with Quint are certainly parts of a character’s personality and connect with his history as a former New York cop but also make perfect sense as the shortcomings of Law personified.

The Clash of Order and Chaos

In the second half of the movie, the camera never does catch sight of any land: there is only the boat and the water, and the visual setting makes perfectly clear that the action is taking place in Chaos’s element.  As Michial and David rightly noted on the podcast, the first full-bodied sighting of the monster happens late in the film, allowing the audience to enjoy the terror of the unseen beast before the sight of Bruce begins to test all of our abilities willfully to suspend our disbelief.  More importantly, the second half allows viewers to watch as the three gods of Amity go through mutual suspicion to a kind of resentment based on each one’s desire to govern the expedition to (after the shark has appeared) an alcohol-lubricated amiability that disintegrates once Chaos resurfaces and destroys (with the help of Quint/War) the only means that the men have to travel with any speed across the surface of the Chaos-monster’s element.  The film is far more self-contained after the boat leaves the land, and the three remaining characters and the monster are all the viewer has to focus on.

This part of the movie progresses from the failure of War’s shark-barrels to do anything significant to the monster; to the monster’s nearly wrecking the boat with sheer pulling power; to Quint’s hubristic act of redlining and blowing out the engine in an attempt to lead the monster back to land; to Hooper’s failed attempt to use the fragile instrument of the physician to destroy the beast in its own element; to Quint’s final destruction; to Brody’s destruction of the beast.  (I would have put in a spoiler alert, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do so for a 35-year-old movie.)  A look at these raw plot details–without John Williams’s pirate-adventure-to-impending-doom soundtrack that is far richer than the two-note anthem that most folks think of when they think of the movie– shows Brody not only as the eventual hero, and the one who comes out as the ordering master of Chaos, but also as someone who overcomes Chaos after Chaos has overcome everything that War and Science could throw against it.

A Babylonian, not a Christian Epic

This epic structure is what makes Jaws such a compelling movie: Law, the force whom Commerce ignores at the outset and whom Science and Law find an irritating hindrance, eventually overcomes Chaos, the force that could not be ignored by Commerce, contained by Science, or conquered by War.  The inclusio structure of the movie is deeply satisfying, and like the gods in the Babylonian Enuma Elish, I come away from the movie somewhat glad that there is a force in the universe powerful enough to combat the primordial destruction that comes from the sea.

But for a Christian Humanist, the story cannot end there.  As emotionally satisfying as the movie stands (we’ve all got a little Babylonian in us), there’s no overarching sense of an order that extends beyond Law’s ability violently to throw down Chaos.  This sort of universe operates within the rules of what John Milbank calls an agnostic metanarrative, a metaphysics that presumes a primordial conflict that goes back as far as the story can go back and does not, in the story’s own terms, ever end.  Such a universe stands in stark contrast to Christian metanarratives which (in most cases) begin with a free and gracious creation and in which evil is not primordial but stands as the ungrateful rebellion of free creatures against a benevolent creator, a rebellion that, like Satan’s in Paradise Lost, founders upon absurdity when it tries to justify itself.  In that sort of universe, heroism (as Milton recognized) consists not in confronting and destroying Chaos but in standing faithful to the good God who gives one being.

That doesn’t negate Jaws as something worth watching, but it should at the least give Christians some pause.  And I am not suggesting, of course, that someone should construct some sort of “Christian Jaws” any more than I would want anyone to write a “Christian Iliad“: both works appeal precisely because they construct and play within coherent universes, and to try to situate the events in a different universe would be to destroy the context that makes them compelling.  I’m not going to play Plato’s Socrates here, suggesting that we excise these stories.  Instead, I would have Christians watch Jaws with an eye to the creativity possible within a different metaphysics and to know that the metaphysics is indeed different.

6 thoughts on “An Apologia for Jaws

  1. I never thought of JAWS in this regard, but after reading your post three times I have come away with an appreciation of what you see. When I think of police chief Brody on the mast of the sinking boat facing down and destroying a monster shark it makes me aware that all of us wish ourselves to be this hero, this man who was afraid of water, now standing alone against what has been destroying and terrifying the willfully blind and foolish.

    But in reality, I probably would have fainted right off that mast. Even when I have had my little victories against what I thought was chaos I, afterward, like Elijah, had to run to my cave when the counter attack came. It was then I heard God whisper, again.

  2. I hope that my prose isn’t always so bad that it takes three reads. 🙂

    You’re right that the human element of the story, coupled with the epic structure, is what makes Jaws worth watching. I could certainly imagine a similar story without any genuinely human characters, and it would be pretty awful to have to watch.

    Oh, never mind. I’ve seen that movie. It’s 300.

  3. No, your prose is very good. I like this blog because it makes me stretch. I read and re-read to check myself, especially if the direction of thought is a new one for me. It wouldn’t be the first time I came away thinking I had a grasp of what someone was saying, only to read it again and realize that I missed a thing or two…or three.

    And you’re right about 300.

  4. I am not sure if this is an extension of your point or an additional point on the difference between a Babylonian and a Christian epic in the senses which you have used them here. In addition to the primordial nature of the conflict is the role which Chaos plays, in the Babylonian story it is purely an enemy to be defeated, whereas in the Christian story Chaos isn’t just an enemy to defeat. I am reminded of the story of Job and the way in which God exalts in the chaos inherent in His Creation.

    1. I think I mostly agree, Andrew, though I’d probably frame the distinction as the difference between an ontological chaos in the case of the Babylonian epic versus agency-framed-eschatologically in the Hebrew epic. But I do see the distinction you’re making.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *