Jaws - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Watches a Classic for the First Time




Jaws was a cultural phenomena, and I must be one of the few surviving members of my generation who had not seen it.  Apparently it arrived in theaters after a new kind of blitz advertising where the airwaves were saturated the weekend of its release - it didn't matter what kind of viewing or listening you did, you heard about Jaws.  That weekend I happened to be camping in the woods or on some type of unplugged vacation, so not only did I not see the movie, I didn't really get it as a cultural phenomenon.  So my kids determined that my cultural literacy was in peril and insisted that movie night this week should revolve around Jaws.

And it is a cultural piece.  Released in the summer of 1975, it is clear from this vantage point that it was a post Vietnam protest coming-of-age movie for baby boomers.  As they (we) were transitioning from anti war protest and the kind of free love that reliable birth control supported to becoming parents and taking over responsibility for a system of authority that we had been not just opposed to and frequently disdainful of, we needed models of authority that we could identify with.

Enter Roy Schneider as the chief of police of the small island summer resort island of Amity.  He has retreated there with his family, feeling that he can have an impact in a community of a more reasonable size than New York; a nice hippie, back-to-the land sentiment.   And in the person of a cop, no less, just to underscore the authority aspect.   But a cop with a problem - he has chosen to live on an island but is scared of the water.  He is immediately confronted with ethical dilemmas as the shyster mayor insists that the beaches stay open even though a shark has eaten a skinny dipping hippie chic (The not so subliminal message: "OK, boomer kids, its time to grow up and distance yourself from skinny dipping, it'll kill ya!").  Schneider buckles to pressure and doesn't close the beaches and, even though he tries to protect his kids by keeping them in an inlet, he is responsible for the death of a kid and imperiling his own.  This being in charge is complicated stuff.

Enter Richard Dreyfuss as the whiz kid marine biologist, a privileged scientist with his own super modern yacht decked out for shark hunting.  Together he and the police chief clarify that there is a killer shark out there.  Then for obscure reasons that clarify that we have entered the world of allegory, they hire on with the local grizzled shark hunter, played by Robert Shaw. He represents the World War II generation who accomplished so much, but who seem crusty, bitter and ready to give orders.  These three get on Shaw's whaler and head out to get the Great White Shark, who might as well be named Moby Dick.  When Shaw bashes the radio so that we can't call in the coast guard, we know that we are locked into that allegory and that these three men will have to figure out how to defeat this monster - the source of the anxiety about whether life as we know it, filled with commerce and fun, can continue, or whether it (and we) will be destroyed.

The old man (Shaw) turns out to be drawn to shark hunting because he, like the Dreyfuss character, had an earlier traumatic interaction with sharks; in his case because, after he delivered the bomb that would end the war, his ship was sunk and he and three hundred others had to survive a shark attack - something that only about a third of them did.   So he has devoted his life to rectifying this horror, mastering it by killing, over and over, the threatening ones - seeking vengeance, but also mastery over his own sense of very real vulnerability.  His scars are the most harrowing, but all three are scarred, Dreyfuss from his early experiences, and Schneider in ways that are only hinted at.  He, as the hero, bears whatever scars each of us bring to the interaction - made visible in his fear of water, something that he must master on this trip.

This film feels very much like a Hitchcock film.  The framing of the film, but also the sense of "suspense" (verging on terror) is reminiscent of Hitchcock's work.  Hitchcock's father was friends with the local constable - and his father had the young Hitchcock locked up for some minor infraction.  Hitchcock is said to have stated that he wanted to engender in his viewers the feeling of terror that he experienced in the slammer, when he didn't know whether his parents would ever come to get him.  For Spielberg, whose direction of Jaws gives it the feel of a Hitchcock film, the original anxiety that he works to portray and then to manage is the fear that he experienced in the wake of his parent's divorce.  That fear, at least as portrayed here, feels to me like a fear of making one's way as an adult in a world without adequate models - having to figure out how to deal with whatever it is that is trying to bash in the sides of the boat - whatever it is that is threatening to drown you, and, in solving the problem without adequate direction, to use whatever it is that you have at hand to achieve a resolution, now matter how chaotic that means things become.

In the movie, Shaw throws everything but the kitchen sink at the monster, but it is still coming back for more, so he turns to the college kid - Dreyfuss - who enters into hand to hand combat, only to lose his weapon when he is caught by surprise, and, after being pummeled, is forced to hide and wait out the ultimate battle.  It is Schneider, clinging to a sinking ship who, after the shark consumes Shaw (in so far as Shaw is a father figure, what better Oedipal victory can there be than to have him eaten by his nemesis whom you are fighting?), who must confront him with the weapons available to him.  What does he use?  The very things that have almost destroyed him as he has naively tripped around the boat, almost causing them to explode.  Now he uses them to cause the shark to explode, and, at least for me, there is some sense of loss that this great warrior, this great adversary, this thing that Shaw wanted to take to the taxidermist as the trophy of all trophies, is destroyed.  I guess we get attached to the things we fear.

So this movie becomes a rallying point for a generation seeking to manage the fear that authority is corrupt, that it cannot be trusted (Watergate is in the immediate rear view mirror, and it is just the final fatal blow that follows My Lai, the bombing of Cambodia, but also the failures of the antiwar movement).  We are in danger of becoming paralyzed by our fears, or of being drawn into the water because this is, after all, why we have come to the Island, despite the risks.  The movie suggests that we can ally ourselves with those who have come before us, despite their apparent shortcomings, and despite, or maybe because of their scars, we can compare ours and join with them, and then use all that has come before: the hard won wisdom from the school of hard knocks; the fruits of modern technology; and our own, new version of Yankee ingenuity that integrates the new wonders, and we discover that we can step into the breech and perform, protecting ourselves and the world more generally from whatever it is that is knocking down the walls.  Despite the failings of the previous generation, despite their self interest to the detriment of the common good, and despite our fear that we can't do it - that we can't make it across the water - we can.

So, if this movie is an allegory or a dream, it is one that is reassuring because it takes our most primal fears and masters them.  We beat the monster.  My daughter told the story of her high school teacher, who stated that he was afraid to walk across the puddles to get to his car after seeing the film in the theater.  If so, I think he missed the point.  Yes, it is scary that there is stuff out there - could be in the nearest puddle - but Spielberg is telling us (and apparently enacted in the making of the film - the special effects sharks did not act as planned, so he increased the intensity of the experience by referring to the shark only obliquely) that we can handle whatever it is that life will throw at us.  We are capable.  Of course, the only way to get at that is to mobilize our most intense fears.  Doing that and resolving them in only two hours is quite a trick.  Perhaps it is easier to take the high ground watching the film 25+ years after its release.  I can see not just how the movie, but how the cultural moment will play out.  We will take the wheel, and we will navigate some treacherous waters, but will make progress.  If you ask me what will be coming in the next twenty five years, I will not be quite so sanguine and might find a similar, contemporary film more disturbing - not just because the effects would be superior - but because the feelings that would be stirred would be more contemporary.

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