#249 – Jaws (1975)

From 453,843 votes, Jaws has an 8.0/10 rating on IMDb.


A giant great white shark arrives on the shores of a New England beach resort and wreaks havoc with bloody attacks on swimmers, until a local sheriff teams up with a marine biologist and an old seafarer to hunt the monster down.
Jaws is a film that I personally have a history with. Back in the August of 1997, just over 20 years ago, I was taken to Florida for two weeks. One day, we went to Universal Studios Orlando and I was taken on the Jaws ride (which has now closed) and underwent the most traumatic experience of my formative years. Seriously. I was three years old and one of my few memories of that holiday is screaming bloody murder because of an (admittedly quite realistic and scary) animatronic shark. This story has a happy ending though, as in 2011 I returned to Florida and conquered my fears by getting back on that boat.
I still won’t swim in open waters though. Huh.
Anyway, onto the movie that made all this possible. Possibly related to that childhood experience I never really felt the need to get into this classic series of gory, marine-based thrillers. Well now that it was on my list, I braced myself and dove into this movie headfirst, watching it whilst in the bath for the ‘full experience’. Frankly, I was quite disappointed. The film is packed of tense moments and does live up to the retrospective hype passed down to me by various older individuals in my life, but to think that this movie caused a whole generation to be afraid of going to the beach is a bit ridiculous. I think this might be simply because now, 40 years later, we know a lot more about sharks and that they’re simply not the omnipresent marine menace that ignorance may have led people to believe after seeing this film. The film’s tagline “don’t go into the water” surely couldn’t have helped matters either.
Let’s look at what made this film such a success: the beastie itself.
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The film is a masterclass in making a villain out of what is really just a stomach with fins and some teeth. For 1975, the special effects are fantastic and Bruce (no really, that’s the shark’s name) is a tour de force in aggression when he’s on-screen. Sure, when you take a still from the movie he might look a bit… rubbery, but in motion he’s a big, lumbering killing machine who can rip up boats and drag people to their watery graves within seconds. Look at those beady eyes. Horrifying.
The film effectively builds up a schema of sharks as horrifying carnivores very early on in the film by following the time-tested method of “show, don’t tell”. The movie opens on a grisly death. The shark is to blame. Fair enough. But then it scraps the rule and opts for “yeah, just tell them” by bringing in an oceanographer to tell us all about sharks, and that’s not before a heavy-handed scene in which Martin Brody leafs through a book about sharks which shows horrific injuries and the inhuman food-detection system that sharks have going on. This builds sharks up to be a pretty sizeable foe for the heroes. Or villains, depending on your standing on the sliding scale of animal empathy.
You can’t really talk about Jaws without mentioning the score. The ‘dun dun dun dun’ shark leitmotif is hugely famous and prevalent in media. Everyone knows it. And if you don’t know what I’m on about, just listen to it here, or if you’re a Modern Family fan here. To this day, the theme is incredibly successful at inducing that “in the gut” feeling of suspense. John Williams really hit upon a wonder there. That’s something I can say really added to the movie and stands to this day as a successful addition. It’s up there with the scare chords from Psycho in pervasiveness.
Now let’s have a look at what, personally, disappointed me. First it was the length. No, not of the shark, silly. The movie is about half an hour too long in my opinion. Maybe back in the day the suspense and excitement of the chase and retreat at the crux of the movie was effective, but by the last stretch of the movie it felt as tepid as my bathwater had become. That whole sequence could have been cut down a bit and still felt like an exciting climax, or maybe some other plot thread taken out completely, such as the almost pointless “capitalism is bad, folks” storyline featuring underhanded officials motivated solely by money trying to keep the beach open in spite of the deaths of children.
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Despite my griping, the film has some great moments. The climax of the fight versus Bruce is a nice bit of cinematic history with an explosion Michael Bay would be proud of, a cute little dinner scene between the main couple and the oceanographer that manages to be genuinely charming and funny in an otherwise stressful and tense romp, and the the actually emotional confrontation from the grieving mother. Overall though, while the film doesn’t really stand up to today’s standards, I really enjoyed it.
Also, does anyone know where I can get a jacket like this?
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Considering the topic at hand, I thought I’d do a little summary of this article about the politics of shark attacks which begins in its abstract with this absolute gem of a sentence:
There are no simple government solutions when sharks bite people.

The author identifies three problem definitions when it comes to shark attacks: behavioural, psychological and conservation. Problem definition, put simply, is an approach that aims to explain policymaking as a result of processes that turn objective factors of nature into problems that the government or formal body has to solve. For example, a shark bites a person on a beach. That’s a natural occurrence when you put a person in the water who, to a shark, looks like a tasty snack. The turns into a problem when this is published in the local newspaper, or when rumours of rampant shark attacks stop the tourism trade.

Behaviourally, the behaviour of people themselves served a problem in New South Wales in 1929. Swimmers were out at dawn and dusk, in hard to reach areas getting bitten left, right and centre. The solution to hazardous behaviour? Change the behaviour. One example of this that materialised was giving beach inspectors (a so-called precursor to lifeguards) extra authority to prevent people from swimming at hazardous times of day. This however did nothing to address the psychological distress experienced by the community and other behavioural options didn’t really work, and plans were halted due to their unlikelihood to work, so as to not give the public a false sense of security.

In 1934 however, the Australian government recognised the importance of addressing the psychological concerns of the public and formed a Shark Menace Advisory Committee. The psychological problem definition centres on ways to restore the public’s faith in the government’s strategies to reduce shark attacks. As a result, huge nets were deployed along beaches in order to reduce the number of shark sightings that served to cause spikes of fear in the public. Observation outposts were also considered, to improve beach morale, and they worked. People went back to the beach.

Conservation is something that has become debated a lot more in recent years, and in the 2000s served to become another problem definition in Australia. The meshed beaches were trapping and killing now endangered sharks and conflicting with government-sanctioned conservation requirements. The potential solutions to conservation problems (removing the meshing) were at odds with the preexisting solutions to the psychological problems. Compromise was recommended, including reducing the time between checks for entangled animals as well as increased funding for the tagging of certain species of sharks, such as the bull shark.

This is just a quick summary of some of the things highlighted in the article linked above, and if you have access via a university account or some other means, I’d highly recommend reading it as it’s a very interesting read. The interplay between the public, the environment, the government and all sorts of mediating parties is very interesting when it’s dealing with a very real world issue: shark attacks.

2 thoughts on “#249 – Jaws (1975)

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