Oak Street Cinema
Friday through Sunday
SIMPLY PUT, JAWS turned the tide of American cinema--irrevocably, and not for the better. Mass-released to 500 theaters on June 20, 1975, Steven Spielberg's killer shark epic swallowed the likes of Altman and Bogdanovich and Cassavetes by inventing the very concept of the summer movie. It did this at least partly through an unprecedented, $5 million publicity campaign--complete with a blitzkrieg of TV clips and those phallic print ads of the shark bearing down on a naked female swimmer--confirming that it was good business to spend as much on promoting a movie as producing it.
Thus pushed down the public's throat, the film grossed $60 million in its first month and beat out The Godfather as the biggest hit of all time (a title it held until Star Wars in 1977). It inspired a Saturday Night Live parody ("Landshark!"), a theme-park attraction at Universal Studios, and a Jaws discotheque in the Hamptons. With the aid of such tie-in products as Great White beach towels and shark-tooth pendants, Jaws forever turned Hollywood movies into kids' movies--not for nothing did Jaws 2 sic its shark on an ensemble cast of obnoxious teenagers.
Nowadays, this is blockbuster business as usual. But did I mention that Jaws is also something of a great movie? Opening with a dark, dreamlike tracking shot through the ocean depths, accompanied by John Williams's carnivorous "dum-dum-dum-dum" score, this man vs. animal shocker seems to define primal fear, with director Spielberg staging the early attacks on a woman and a child with an almost sadistic glee. (The Nation's Robert Hatch considered Jaws "a kind of pornography.")
But of course, once the film's trio of guys (Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss) heads out to sea for retribution, the movie shifts course from nihilistic horror to inspirational adventure en route to a showdown between the Great White and the Great White Male. With its explosive, vigilante-style climax ("Smile you sonuva bitch!"), Jaws made literate studio films into an endangered species, and prefigured the country's rightward turn toward escapism. Publicity (and proficiency) aside, Spielberg's film grossed big, one might argue, by restoring faith in authority figures, and exorcising our defeat in a war so painful that the movies could scarcely acknowledge it--at least not literally.
In other words, the shark carried heavy symbolic weight, a fact not lost on commentators of the time. Countless political cartoons had the Great White representing everything from taxes and unemployment to, presciently, Ronald Reagan. William F. Buckley jokingly complained to the press that his wife "won't even go into the goddamn swimming pool any more"; and the Washington Post's George Will naively expressed his shock that in the nation's capital, "where the Congress is regularly on view, people are paying to see this movie about a small-brained beast that is all muscle and appetite." Indeed, muscle was lacking in the government: Even a Newsweek puff-piece from July '75 interpreted "Jawsmania" as an antidote to the spectacle of Nixon's decline and fall two summers earlier. Spielberg was thinking about mere "suspense" when he contrived to keep the evil below the surface for most of Jaws. But this strategy also enabled the shark to manifest all manner of fears, especially those echoing from Vietnam: the enemy who can't be seen, who attacks without warning, who won't give up.
Making the first post-'Nam disaster film, Spielberg answered the underlying question later posed aloud by Stallone's Rambo: "Do we get to win this time?" In Jaws, we did, and what a relief it was. As much a reaction to the rise of feminism as to the need for new heroes, Jaws begs the term "recuperative": It begins with a "free-spirited" young woman whose attempted seduction of a hippie dude coincidentally results in her getting chewed to death, and ends with two toughened-up regular guys paddling home toward a New Morning. Along the way, the director isn't subtle in his suggestion that women are part of the problem: Police Chief Brody (Scheider) is distracted from preventing the shark's fatal attack on a young boy because his wife (Lorraine Gary) has been snuggling up to him (that seduction thing again); and when the boy's grieving mother proceeds to blame the chief, Spielberg retaliates by characterizing her as a hysterical bitch. "I wanted to do Jaws for hostile reasons," Spielberg said in '75. "It terrified me, and I wanted to strike back."
In more ways than one, this is the story of wimps transforming themselves into supermen. Still, like most blockbusters that aim for mass acceptance, Jaws is full of contradictory messages: The shark is the film's ostensible villain even as its feeding patterns help to create a new world order. And despite being pro-male bonding, the movie is also hypocritically anti-capitalist (the town mayor is greedy for "summer dollars") and vaguely anti-aggression--insofar as Shaw's salty Captain Quint pays a stiff price for his machismo. (One of the film's more hilariously savage moments is Quint's toast to "drink to our legs.") Ultimately, one takes pleasure from Jaws at the expense of the countless movies not made because of it. The content is endlessly fascinating but, regrettably, its lasting legacy is its form: the stripping of pop cinema to pure technique and basic instinct, commensurate with the Dreyfuss character's definition of the shark. "It's an eating machine," he says. "All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks." Not unlike summer blockbusters that open wide, gobble up money, and spawn sequels.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.