Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Politics of Fear: How To Make A Horror Movie PG: Jaws

The Good: Interesting story, Good characters, Moments of tension, Lead acting, Direction
The Bad: Bogged in politics, Some very lame acting moments
The Basics: Well-directed and frightening both for the shark and the capitalist issues, Jaws is a well-developed argument against blind capitalism.

Back in the day, my life took an awkward and abrupt turn from The Way Things Were Supposed To Go to The Way Things Are Going. My training in my childhood and the beginning of my young adulthood was in marine biology, specifically the study of sharks. Unlike the usual childhood "phase" where "sharks are cool," I spent years voraciously eating any information I could find on sharks. I was set to become a marine biologist (though my mother, for some inexplicable reason, always thought "oceanographer") and live by the ocean studying sharks. Then there was the right turn in my path and I became a writer (novelist) instead. My mother's been cheesed with me ever since.

From an early age, therefore, I was exposed to Jaws, the classic shark horror movie that spawned multiple sequels and is now available in a beautiful 30th Anniversary 2-disc DVD set. My father was never worried about Jaws scarring me because: 1. It's rated PG (he has a lot of faith in the MPAA) and 2. He watched it and realized what any objective viewer would; it's more about politics than the shark attacks.

Police Chief Martin Brody is working Amity - a summer beach town - for the first time as the head of the police and finding himself on the outs with local politicians and businesspeople when a young woman is killed by a shark. Brody is pressured to keep the beaches open - and the local economy alive - despite the fatality and soon the presence of the monstrous shark is undeniable when it kills a boy in the middle of the day in front of hundreds of people. Brody acts quickly to bring the carnage to and end by closing the beach, but locals demand the economy not suffer and the beaches be open on the Fourth of July.

The bodies begin to mount (or disappear) as the locals begin a shark hunt, which is complicated by mayor Vaughn keeping the beaches open. Brody enlists the aid of shark researcher Matt Hooper, who determines that the shark is still at large (hunters kill one, smaller shark and assume it is the one). When more people die in ways that Vaughn cannot deny, Brody enlists the aid of the dark fisherman Quint, who takes Brody and Hooper out to hunt the beast.

Jaws is billed as a groundbreaking horror movie, which on the DVD release's commentary becomes a function of failed technology (Spielberg could not get the mechanical sharks to work, so a number of shots that were intended to have the shark were scrapped, which in turn added to the menace), but while this movie has horrific moments (very mild by today's standards), it is no more a horror movie than Wall Street (reviewed here!) is. Like Wall Street, Jaws is about the influence of capitalism on our society. In the case of Jaws, capitalism becomes so overwhelming as to put people in mortal danger to satisfy those dependent on this economic system.

Brody is arguably the socialist character; his job is to enforce laws and basically establish a border between right and wrong. As a result, he is the character least motivated by money (though as a rich-beyond-care scientist, Hooper is right up there). Immediately upon the revelation of the problem, Brody declares that the right thing to do is shut down the beaches to prevent any further deaths.

The main conflict in the movie is not man vs. nature (Quint/Brody/Hooper vs. the shark) until the very end. Far more predominant is the conflict of man vs. society as Brody takes on the local politicians and businesses in his quest to simply do the right thing. The capitalist forces rise up against Brody embodied by Mayor Vaughn and the local businesspeople who want the beaches open so they won't "have to be on welfare all winter." Rather than rely on right and wrong - as meted out by Brody, Vaughn and the locals are ruled by the pursuit of money and they override Brody in the attempt to financially gain. Quint, the shark hunter, becomes just another piece in the capitalist dogma that dominates Jaws. Quint is the embodiment of the demands of the market, which capitalists believe control everything. Others attempt to catch or kill the shark and fail. Quint names his price and the market (the local businesses and government) eventually agree to pay it because he is in a position to provide a service they are dependent on and their greed calculates that the price is reasonable vs. the potential loss of not being able to keep the beaches and their businesses open. For those of us socialists watching Jaws, the richness of this argument is that while Quint is a symbol of the Capitalism ideal of the Market, at the end of the day, he's just a man. Socialists like to remind Capitalists that the Market is not a nebulous force, but actually made up of people.

Ironically, mega-rich director Steven Spielberg - who, to be fair was not as rich when he made this movie - seems to want to remind the audience of that as well. Brody is given moments of character that are soft and deep, where he watches his son imitating his actions at the dinner table. Humanizing Brody this way, and none of the other characters, illustrates an affection for placing morality and human togetherness above the pursuit of personal wealth. At the end of the day, Brody is motivated by the desire to protect and do right. Spielberg and writers Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb emphasize his goodness and place in the world constantly through his relationships and conflicts.

More than just a Socialist argument, Jaws does tell an entertaining story about men on a boat fighting a shark in a decent "man vs. nature" tale. Jaws is well-paced and it devotes a lot of time to building mood, despite the first hour of politics. Out on the open sea, where money matters little, the struggle becomes between protectionist humans and a creature who is just doing what it was made to do (eat!).

It is on the Orca, Quint's boat, that Brody, Hooper and Quint begin to illustrate real amounts of character as they begin to relate to one another. The latter half of the movie - far more referenced than the overtly political first half - involves male bonding and the pursuit of victory over a heartless killer. It's a pretty old story, but Jaws tells it well. All three characters are well-defined on the boat, believable and they play off one another well.

Part of what makes the characters is the acting. One of the few weaknesses of Jaws is in the background actors. One of the local businesswomen, for example, delivers her lines with a very clunky and unconvincing delivery that noticeably shakes up the flow of the film. The extras are unimpressive and they distract a lot from the better performances. Murray Hamilton, however, rounds out the main cast well with a very understated performance as Mayor Vaughn. Hamilton is quiet and insistent and when he breaks, he breaks well, making his character almost sympathetic with his slumped body language and quiet delivery.

It is no surprise to me that Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss share top-billing in Jaws. These three are masterful as Brody, Quint and Hooper. Robert Shaw is the embodiment of the salty fisherman as Quint and he has a greasy quality to his performance that makes his character utterly believable. Indeed, having read the novel by Peter Benchley before seeing the movie the first time, Shaw was perfectly cast to embody the knowledgeable but somewhat overconfident fisherman.

Richard Dreyfuss illustrates why he has become the actor of such distinction as he has. Dreyfuss is young, eager and rich as Matt Hooper and he plays the role with the wide-eyed enthusiasm that one associates with youth and arrogance. This is a performance unlike any other on Dreyfuss's resume, with an inherent goodness and scholarly quality that illustrates his talent as an actor.

But it is Roy Schieder who is given the most legwork as Police Chief Martin Brody. Schieder is well-chosen as he carries in his face - from the beginning of the movie - the fatigue of a police officer who has seen a lot, yet still believes in a distinction between right and wrong. Schieder's ability to emote disgust, love and fear make his performance memorable and completely realistic for a man being pressured by so many sources.

Ultimately, Jaws is a decent story of the conflict between socialism and capitalism embodied by one man who must take on the local society to put right over the almighty dollar with a nice literal man vs. shark story to carry the heavy philosophies embodied within it. It's entertaining and at PG, there's no reason your children should not be exposed to it. Odds are they won't catch the politics or economic issues; that goes over the head of most adults, too.

For other films Steven Spielberg directed, check out my reviews of:
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
Minority Report
Schindler's List
Jurassic Park
The Indiana Jones Trilogy


For other movie reviews, click here to see my index page of all I have reviewed!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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