Analysis

Jaws in the age of Trump

Revisiting the nihilistic fable that launched a thousand blockbusters

The other night, I took a swim on a moonlit beach in South Carolina. It was past midnight, the water untroubled by breakers, and the steamy humidity that chokes the South in the summertime was gentle as a kiss. The starlight illuminated every grain of sand. I took off my clothes and dove into the water, feeling, for a moment, completely in tune with the world. Then I thought, Wait. Isn't this a little too familiar?

I was thinking not of a past experience, but of a movie — a scene from cultural memory that had become, for me as for millions of others, more vivid than reality. The carefree young woman takes off her clothes and dives into the water. She exposes her vulnerability to the world: vulnerability in the form of a female body. The predator feels her approach. And then, it seems, because she can be devoured, she is.

The question of why this image has lingered with us for so long is less disquieting than how long it existed before we encountered it in this form. Why is the story of a dark force that lays waste to women, and the decent men who must defeat it, one that compels us so deeply? And how does this summer's own can't-watch-it-except-by-peeking-out-from-between-your-fingers entertainment — the Republican National Convention — compare to Jaws?

Steven Spielberg's Jaws shattered expectations of just how much money a summer movie could rake in — and how much it could captivate a nation of viewers — when it was released in 1975. Its ballast is beach town Chief of Police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who, in the wake of the deadly shark attack that opens the movie, must decide whether to close Amity's beaches in anticipation of future attacks, and in doing so deprive his community of its livelihood. In reality, those who helped Jaws become the first movie to make over $100 million at the box office didn't have to be told twice to stay out of the water: Beach attendance reportedly fell, while those too adventurous to stay in the movie theater ushered in a wave of trophy hunting.

"There was a collective testosterone rush that went though the U.S. in the years following Jaws," George Burgess, an ichthyologist at the University of Florida, recently told National Geographic. "Guys just wanted to catch these sharks so they could have their pictures taken with their foot on the head of a man-eater."

Spielberg's Jaws is about fear and small-town politics and shark attacks, but it is also, perhaps even more resonantly, about masculinity. Three men — the police chief and father, the scientist, and the scarred veteran — must combine their forms of strength to defeat a foe that preys, most visibly, on women and children. In the process, they must share their vulnerabilities and encounter their deepest fears, and in some cases be bested by them. When they emerge victorious, the viewer is left feeling not that they have watched strength besting strength, but decency triumphing over brutality.

Of Jaws — the movie that made him a household name and cemented the story of "Dad vs. Chaos" as his stock in trade — Steven Spielberg later said, "[it] would not have involved the audience as entertainment were it not for the characters. Otherwise, people would have rooted for the shark."

In Peter Benchley's Jaws, the 1974 novel that provided Spielberg's source material, it's difficult not to. The shark's perspective is the first one the reader takes, and the first few pages of the book are dedicated to a depiction of carnage that is as brutal as it is affectless:

At first, the woman thought she had snagged her leg on a rock or a piece of floating wood. There was no initial pain, only one violent tug on her right leg. She reached down to touch her foot, treading water with her left leg to keep her head up, feeling in the blackness with her left hand. She could not find her foot. She reached higher on her leg, and then she was overcome by a rush of nausea and dizziness. Her groping fingers had found a nub of bone and tattered flesh. She knew that the warm, pulsing flow over her fingers in the chill water was her own blood…

The fish had moved away. It swallowed the woman's limb without chewing. Bones and meat passed down the massive gullet in a single spasm. Now the fish turned again, homing on the stream of blood flushing from the woman's femoral artery, a beacon as clear and true as a lighthouse on a cloudless night. [Jaws]

The bloodshed continues apace. Decades later, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho would inspire large-scale protests and blistering diatribes for describing the destruction of female victims in terms no more disturbing than these. The secret of Benchley's success, it seems, was finding a way to depict a woman's agonizing death in a way that implicated not a recognizably human — and male — perpetrator, but a mindless force of nature. Taking on the viewpoint of a shark that consumes not out of malice but out of instinct allows the reader to freely enjoy the slaughter this instinct leaves in its wake. And, if the reader feels any residual guilt about assuming this point of view, it is cleansed when they take the role of the heroic men who set out to destroy the predator.

Yet much of Peter Benchley's Jaws, amazingly enough, takes place far from the water. Benchley's Chief Brody is not the thoughtful, loving, worried father — and father figure — Spielberg spun him into for the movie adaptation. Instead, he is a brusque and unsympathetic man married to a woman whose potential for infidelity terrifies him, even as he doesn't seem to like her all that much.

Brody may not be likable, but he is onto something. A substantial portion of Benchley's Jaws is dedicated to Ellen Brody's dissatisfaction with her marriage, and her decision to pursue an affair with Matt Hooper, the Yale-educated ichthyologist who comes to Amity to research the man-eating shark that both frightens and enthralls him. In Spielberg's version, Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is a zealous, nerdy researcher whose masculinity is called into question by nearly everyone he encounters; in Benchley's version, he's a tall, cool, tan preppie, seemingly borrowed from a John Cheever story. But when Ellen Brody goes to bed with Hooper, the reader is treated to a scene that is eerily familiar after what they experienced in the book's opening passages:

Hooper's teeth were clenched, and he ground them the way people do during sleep. From his voice there came a gurgling whine, whose tone rose higher and higher with each frenzied thrust. Even after his obvious, violent climax, Hooper's countenance had not changed. His teeth were still clenched, his eyes still fixed to the wall, and he continued to pump madly. He was oblivious of the being beneath him, and when, perhaps a full minute after his climax, Hooper still did not relax, Ellen had become afraid — of what, she wasn't sure, but the ferocity and intensity of his assault seemed to her a pursuit in which she was only a vehicle. [Jaws]

When Brody does battle against the shark, he is taking on not just an animal predator, but a manifestation of the male hunger that has consumed both his wife and the book's first victim. In Benchley's Jaws, it is impossible to distinguish between lust and bloodlust, and Brody's victory over the shark goes hand in hand with Hooper's agonizing death. Brody wins not because he is right, but because he is strong: not because he appears to feel any more tenderness for his wife than Hooper did, but because he owns her.

Yet the book's most disturbing moment may come courtesy not of its title predator, but of Peter Benchley's apparent commentary on his own work. Killing time as they search for the great white, Quint, a charter boat captain, demonstrates a trick he uses on the tourists: He catches a shark, disembowels it, and throws it back in the water.

The shark began to thrash in the cloud of blood and innards, biting any morsel that passed into its maw. The body twitched as the shark swallowed, and pieces of intestines passed out the hole in the belly, to be eaten again.

"Now watch," said Quint. "If we're lucky, in a minute the other blues'll come around, and they'll help him eat himself. If we get enough of them, there'll be a real feeding frenzy. That's quite a show. The folks like that."

…"Jesus," said Hooper.

"You don't approve," said Quint… "It ain't a question of liking it or not. It's what feeds me." [Jaws]

This spectacle — of an animal consuming and destroying itself, so intoxicated by the taste of blood that it doesn't realize it is cannibalizing itself — is eerily familiar to anyone who watched the Republican National Convention this week. In Peter Benchley's world, and, it seems, in Donald Trump's, might makes right, and ethics are a faint afterthought at best. In this world, masculinity is a force that can destroy the helpless as easily as it can destroy itself, and what path it takes is left to no logic more meaningful than chance.

This is a terrifying narrative, but it is also not the only narrative available to us. Steven Spielberg's Jaws is many things — a popcorn movie, a Hollywood legend, a communal memory — but it is also a movie that transformed a nihilistic fable into a film about men who are motivated to defeat a predator not so they can test their strength against it, but so they can make the world a safer place. In this way, it is testament to the power that lies within our reach if we only turn fear into a motivator for decency.

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