Friday, March 18, 2011

The Beast is Something You Can Hunt and Kill

While it seems laughable to call Steven Spielberg "underrated" in any sense, his ability to convincingly juggle different emotional states often goes overlooked in favor of his supposed sentimental/serious binary. Chief Martin Brody (or the Chief, as he's properly referred to) is sharp, hardworking, and, though he'll rarely admit it, bored out of his skull as the police chief of the sleepy summer town of Amity. He's tremendously sympathetic as he stomps through the opening scenes of Jaws, back straight and brow furrowed, but it's undeniably funny to watch him furiously buy wooden planks and paint because Amity lacks a "Beach Closed" sign. The giggles continue when that car matter-of-factly follows the Chief onto that tiny ferry-raft, and grow when the absurd Mayor Vaughn pops out in his totally awesome anchor-festooned suit jacket and babbles about the summer rush. The Chief's retort, "That doesn't mean we have to serve them up a smorgasbord," is guaranteed to make my father laugh anytime, anywhere, and rightly so. Then the Mayor, with a smarmy, shit-eating grin plastered on his face, takes the grumbling, righteous Chief aside for a more private chat.

"I don't think you appreciate the gut reaction people have to these's all psychological. You yell "barracuda," everybody says "Huh? What?" You yell "shark"...and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

The camera lingers on their profiles for a split second longer before cutting to the ferry pulling in; then comes the beach scene and the Chief's tension and the next attack, and we happily hop gears back to the suspense thriller. "Young Spielberg," as Hitchcock knighted him after walking out of Jaws, knows enough to rapidly distract us at this point, lest it become too obvious that he's just given away the secret of the film, the reason it became the highest-grossing film ever made, virtually created the summer blockbuster, and, unlike most of its successors in that category, continues to top lists into the 2010's.

To quote Mulholland Drive: "He's the one who's doing it." Through the mouthpiece of the film's least likeable (and dumbest) character, Spielberg outlines the guiding rule behind his masterpiece--namely, yelling shark.

Although he isn't seen in his entirety until more than halfway through the film, any mystery or detachment surrounding Bruce the shark is dispelled from the beginning. The film opens to the shark's own theme song, the most unshakeable strand of movie music since Bernard Herrmann's strings first sliced Psycho in half. We see a terrifyingly quick zoom past some gorgeous ocean flora: we are seeing through the shark's eyes. Later on, it'll be other eyes looking for him. The Chief scans the beach horizon, jumping from kid to dog with stick to laughing couple back to kid back to...stick...and nobody, nothing is safe if you can't see Bruce. Red herrings like the brat with the fake fin are essential not only to add some levity and extend the suspense, but also to re-emphasize Bruce's central power. It's not that he's an otherworldy being who can be everywhere--it's that he could be anywhere, and as the Chief scans the sea, he visually confirms that the sea, functionally, has become the shark. Hidden but familiar, perfectly defined but pregnant with potential: one of the ultimate sensuous objects in film, on par with the Maltese Falcon or Kubrick's eternal obelisk. And I say "object," because in no way is Bruce a character or a villain. He is a locus of wonder, nearly religious in his ability to draw all concern to him. Spielberg has spent his career in large part vacillating between the fantastic and the familial, finding the spectacular and charmingly mundane in both. Early in his career, he finds the perfect fusion in his shark.

It's significant that he first fully reveals himself to the Chief, whose bigger-boat quip is but a speck when set next to the wonder in his eyes. Quint's driven on by his past psychoses, yet it's utterly essential that the Quint-Ahab parallel, while tantalizingly obvious, is never actually explored. The white whale is the quintessential metaphor-for-everything. For all the profound terror and wonder he induces, Bruce's greatest source of power is that he is a stand-in for absolutely nothing. He is singular, himself, the Shark-- the Great White Shark, but that's it. Sure, he evokes some vague fears of nature, but nothing that's not more explicitly hammered home in Jurassic Park, and Quint's monologue makes it very clear that the shark stands alone.

How many other filmmakers would have shoehorned in Quint's blood-red history to set up some awkwardly bombastic parallel? "We delivered the bomb," Quint says, and his horrific story simply runs out and dies. We delivered the bomb, and there is a shark out there who will kill us if he can. The two sit together, stewing and festering, but they're both irrevocably themselves.

After Jaws made him a superstar, Spielberg would continue to restlessly pursue his sacred objects: the ultimate totems of religious (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and secular (Jurassic Park) power, the the fantastic creatures we find (E.T.) and create (A.I.) It would be thirty years before he would again open up this particular kind of space, both blatantly specific and undeniably significant. War of the Worlds, like Jaws, ends on nothing so grandiose as survival, escaping a terribly beautiful killing machine that reflects back nothing but our own blank-faced horror.

Bruce gets exploded, our heroes swim for home, reach the beach, and…the credits roll. We never see young Michael Brody get out of the hospital; the last we see of Ellen Brody is as she flees Quint’s storehouse in terror. There is no grand reconciliation, no tearful goodbyes, no final wrap-ups or last quips. There is only a shark, and then not a shark.

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