Depth Perception
Andrew Tracy on Jaws

What more can one say about Jaws? There are only a handful of other American films—The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now—whose making and reception have been as extensively documented, the history of their respectively fraught productions only further hallowing their legendary status. And like those films, Jaws has taken on the stature of myth—but a myth of what? Oz, GWTW, and Star Wars are escapes into fantastic other worlds and/or the otherworldly past, Casablanca a fantasy of an otherworldly present; Kane, 2001, and Apocalypse synonymous with the Olympian ambition (and/or hubris) of their makers. Jaws’ brand of escapism is far less comforting than the respective fantasy lands of the first batch, and while it hews far closer to that latter wunderkind narrative—clever, untried kid helms disastrous production, improvises day by day, emerges with masterpiece—it is less intrinsically tied to the person of its director than are the Welles, Kubrick, and Coppola films to their respective creators. Apart from the rare direct avatar (Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Roy Neary, E.T. ’s Elliott), there is no equivalent in Steven Spielberg’s films to such refractive autoportraits/critiques as Welles’s Charles Foster Kane/Hank Quinlan/Falstaff or Coppola’s Michael Corleone/Kurtz/Tucker.

Far less of a self-styled intellectual than Welles, Kubrick, or Coppola—and certainly far less of a masterful personality—Spielberg is accordingly a more diffuse, though no less unmistakable, presence in his own work. This nowhere-man quality is all the more remarkable in that Spielberg, with Kubrick but unlike Welles or Coppola, has achieved the Benjaminian feat of founding his own genre—a genre of which he is the only true practitioner (see J. J. Abrams’s failed Spielbergian pastiche Super 8). Unlike such former associates as Joe Dante or Robert Zemeckis, who merrily pillage the rag-and-bone shop of pop culture, Spielberg does not so much refer to the cinematic past as imbibe it. Even though he has worked in almost the full range of available genres, Spielberg’s key films are enveloping, holistic, self-sustaining in a manner that belies their generic roots. Jaws’ provenance can be traced to the mainstreaming of the horror film begun by Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and the death-as-spectacle decadence of the disaster film cycle, but it is fundamentally unclassifiable as anything but itself; Close Encounters and E.T. belong to the history of the science-fiction film, but they do not so much work within the genre as use its lineaments to create, as Stanley Kauffmann put it, “event[s] in the history of faith”; the Indiana Jones outings are certainly “adventure films,” but their manic intensity transports them to an entirely different plane; Saving Private Ryan is not so much a war film as (in intention at least) the war film.

The extremity, and inimitability, of Spielberg’s aesthetic stands in inverse proportion to the modesty of his intellectual resources, at least when stacked against his comparable director-demiurges. Welles, Kubrick, and Coppola freighted (and sometimes sunk) their films with a wealth of artistic, literary, historical, political, and philosophical reference points; Spielberg, as surely even his most ardent supporters would agree, has nothing comparable to such extra-cinematic erudition. Not, of course, that he needs it. Spielberg’s profundity—and even this perennial skeptic admits that the man has had his moments of it—is of an intuitive, affective variety that at its height is positively oceanic. “If Spielberg is what’s called a post-literate, he has the strengths as well as the defects of post-literacy,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann in his brilliant review of Close Encounters. “The long, last, thrilling scene overpowers us because, given any reasonable chance to be overpowered by it, we want to be overpowered by it. . . . That finale doesn’t bring us salvation, it brings us companionship. We are not alone. That belief seems potent in itself, and the film makes the belief believable. The way to faith seems to be through the transubstantiation of the twelve-track Panavision film.”

It is Spielberg’s command of technology in the service of a vaguely defined, perhaps sentimental and narcissistic (but still valid) humanistic yearning that is his definitive and, for many, most worrisome trait. So if Spielberg’s is an essentially affirmative vision, Jaws, though an undeniable keystone of the Spielberg legend, is also its own animal, unique and unrepeatable. Its closest cousins in the Spielberg oeuvre are actually more wed to the grand techno-cinematic allegory at that oeuvre’s heart—to making belief believable—than their celebrated predecessor: the Jurassic Parks, alternating wide-eyed wonder and toothy gore, announcing the arrival of photorealistic computer effects as the next stage of cinema’s impossible realities; War of the Worlds employing that by-then de rigueur technology to correlate disaster-movie spectacle with real-life, post-9/11 catastrophe.

In comparison, Jaws’ monstrous antagonist and chief technological conceit is hardly something to grip the imagination in and of itself. That famously malfunctioning mechanical shark has neither the awe-inspiring power of Close Encounters’ spaceships nor, in its restricted, head-wagging flailing, the dreamlike surrealism of Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creations. It’s thus that the Jaws myth has always turned upon Spielberg and/or editor Verna Fields’ ingenuity in disguising the inadequacy of their beast, making it an ominously invisible threat for the majority of the film rather than foregrounded spectacle. If this is, obviously, an impressive filmmaking feat, it’s of a different order than the overwhelming impact of the sci-fi fables—a technical rather than a technological achievement, making the audience believe their eyes through canny concealment rather than ostentatious display.

And yet the devotion that Jaws inspires (and devotion is the word) goes beyond mere admiration for its “perfect” construction, its unforgettable shock moments, or the still delightful Brody-Hooper-Quint byplay that leavens (what could have been) the hoary material with warmth and humor. Nor, despite its exploitation of primal fears of the monstrous unknown, can it be tagged with that catch-all (i.e. meaningless) tag of “archetypal.” Indeed, for a film that has exerted such a powerful imaginative hold over so many, it’s remarkable how little allegorical resonance Jaws has. The sexual (opening skinny-dipper death as puritan punishment?), social (Brody as prevailing Everyman against Quint’s archaic machismo and Hooper’s Jewish intellectualism?), political (literal consumption as the logical end of the Amity town fathers’ self-serving acquisitiveness?), and psychological (the shark as the nameless dread from which Brody fled when he moved his family from NYC?) readings are there to be made, but what does one do with them? Jaws is simultaneously too thin to give any of these would-be master narratives significant heft, and so undeniably powerful that the need to seek out its deeper structures, to cart in extra-filmic meanings to explain (or legitimate) that power, is almost irresistible.

No less than nature, critical minds abhor a vacuum, but Jaws’ triumph is precisely that it means nothing—that its effect alone is the sum total of its being, and its reason for being. Without the pop-existentialist gloss of Duel, Jaws pointed the way towards the “classic” Spielberg cinema of wordless sensation—located anywhere on the spectrum from terror to bliss—raised to the level of the absolute, sensation shorn of anything outside our own willingness to experience it. Richard Dyer’s well-known thesis about the musical—that it presents what utopia might feel like rather than how it would be organized—could well have been written of Spielberg. Where other films provide material to dream upon, Spielberg offers the dreamlife readymade: the intriguingly suggestive made dazzlingly, overwhelmingly concrete, the oceanic delimited within the span of two hours. Far more than the old-timey musical number pastiches of 1941 or Temple of Doom, the last 40 minutes of Close Encounters—both the (very premature) culmination of the Spielbergian ethos and his most formally radical moment—spectacularly unleashes the full potential of the unreal-real that the musical utopia had always hinted at. It is a highly orchestrated spectacle of pleasure that is both rigorously controlled and utterly free in the seeming boundlessness of its imagination—or rather, unlike the enigmatic Kubrickian cosmos of 2001, it convinces us that it is our imagination that is boundless, that this is the photochemical realization of our own latent desires.

So where does this leave Jaws in the auteurist equation? Precisely as the dark obverse of Close Encounters’ benign vision—not because it counterpoints terror to Encounters’ pleasure, but because it locates pleasure-in-terror just as Encounters exploits terror-in-pleasure. Unlike the perpetual suburban sublimity of E.T., the divinely cuddly conclusion of Encounters has the impact it does because its first two-thirds play out like a horror film; not to mention the fact that Roy Neary’s abandonment of his family, and all human connections, for a trip into the cosmic unknown has always struck at least this viewer as terrifying in its own right. Jaws, meanwhile, transcends its genre ghetto through the counterpointing of its gentle-snarky humanism against the godless, animal void that Spielberg and company make so hideously imaginable—and, it must be said, attractive.

Yet while there is an undoubtedly sensual aspect to Jaws—our innate taboos against bodily violation allowed temporary relaxation, the excuse of “entertainment” allowing our minds and bodies to viscerally imagine the reality of dismemberment—one would be hard-pressed to fit it over the film as a whole. Never mind the orgasmic finale where our piscine antagonist is given his explosive due (and our guilty complicity in our own imagined end is safely expiated), that clunky robot fish has none of the personalized malice that creates great villains, or richly imaginative extrapolations of villainy. Unlike the complex sympathy granted such magisterial monsters as Kong, Dracula, or the Frankenstein Monster, the warmth directed towards Spielberg’s shark is one of condescending, domesticated affection (why else the popular adoption of his on-set nickname “Bruce”?). But this same condescension reveals, as such shallow amusements often do, a more profound core: an attempt to laugh off the terrifying idea of non-being that that “silly” machine, and Spielberg’s undoubted talent—coupled with his undoubted subservience to the “empty,” “soulless” idiom of mass entertainment—make so palpable. Jaws is the immersive made (literally) engulfing, an improbably perfect mechanism that burrows straight into our guts, a gratuitous and opportunistic exercise that can suitably serve as both an apotheosis of Hollywoodian emptiness and a still terrifying envisioning of emptiness.

It’s thus that this would-have-been cheapjack thriller is, in its own way, as all-encompassing as the extraterrestrial divinities of the sci-fi Spielbergian visions to follow. Nastiness and sentimentality have so often been the opposite sides of the same Hollywood coin, and the nastiness, juvenile and otherwise, that Spielberg has so often displayed is accordingly not only personal pathology but also culture-industrial self-revelation. Spielberg is neither cause nor symptom (nor, certainly, rebel) but exemplar. And it is precisely his exemplarity—which is also his singularity, his uniqueness—that allows him to demonstrate that culture industry’s worst instincts, and, occasionally, through those instincts display its powerfully ambiguous strengths. Utopia, after all, is literally “no-place”—and the benevolent cosmic womb that welcomes Roy Neary at the end of Close Encounters is, perhaps, no less annihilating than the fishy gullet to which Jaws forces us to imagine ourselves consigned.