In the Jaws of a Classic: An analysis of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws

Jaws 2When I was thirteen, my family and I took a trip to Florida.  I certainly wasn’t too old to love Disney World (I’m still not) but I was most excited to visit Universal Studios.  After all, commercials for Universal Studious basically consumed cable tv stations in the mid 90’s, and my imagination took flight when I saw the commercial for the Jaws ride.  Out of the depths of murky nothingness, a giant shark rises beside passengers in a boat, its face partially distorted by the flamboyant, spasmodic flashing lights that eclipse its visage and make the shark look more than a little surreal, and infinitely menacing.  I was simultaneously horrified and titillated by the prospect of actually riding the Jaws ride and experiencing the enormous, foreboding shark for myself.

If you’ve been on the Jaws ride at Universal Studios, you can probably see where this is going.  We boarded a boat and a tour guide talked to us while we road through calm waters.  I don’t remember every detail, but I believe that it was shortly after the tour guide began to build suspense that a big, unceremonious hunk of metal rose slowly out of the water next to the boat and then sunk back underneath it about five seconds later.  There were no flashing lights, no pretense of a real shark disturbing otherwise tranquil waters and threatening our little boat.  The special effects were less than exciting, and I left the boat perhaps with a sense in mind that a William Carlos Williams poem would solidify for me years later when I heard it: “The imagination/across the sorry facts/lifts us to make roses.”  Well, my imagination had lifted me prior to the ride, but it couldn’t compensate for what I felt the ride lacked as I was on it.  What I was looking for, I think, was a taste of what I now understand to be “the real” as Jacques Lacan calls it – that which is often horrific, all-truth, and exists beyond words, beyond language-mediated culture in a constant state of presence (Lacan didn’t necessarily associate “the real” with horror films, but if Wikipedia is correct, his predecessor, philosopher Slavoj Zizek does).  What I got was a disappointing piece of metal.

Luckily, the movie Jaws is far less disappointing then the ride, and indeed it’s aged gracefully, with special effects that are just as captivating and charming 40 years after the film was made, although undoubtedly the shark would be made much differently in contemporary cinema.  Michael and I watched the film today, in preparation for the newest shark movie, The Meg – an ostensibly different approach to the monster-shark motif – which comes out August 10th.  I’ll include my observations about Jaws below, along with as much Lacanian analysis as I can piece together.  I’m currently reading, a.) the internet, and b.) Slavoj Zizek, to try to piece together an understanding of Lacan, something that I was previously lacking.  I do not really stand confidently by my analysis yet, as I’m not sure I’ve exactly “got it right,” but I thought it’d be fun to apply some Zizek/Lacan to Jaws, along with looking at some other noteworthy elements of the film.

As I stated before, I think Jaws, the shark, and the expansive, seemingly endless ocean he inhabits embody the Lacanian real.  The primary characteristic of “the real” after all, is that it’s opposed to the symbolic order, which is basically, as I understand it and as I said above, language mediated-culture.  To Lacan, when we’re children, we experience pure enjoyment or jouissance until we recognize ourselves as individual beings (in the mirror stage) and develop language, which takes us into the symbolic order (language and culture) and away from an ability to experience complete enjoyment.  The real, however, always sits opposed to the symbolic order as this sort of amorphous conceptual territory that moves beyond and thus defies language—and language is what most defines the symbolic order.  According to Wikipedia, Slavoj Zizek, a more contemporary philosopher, explicitly associates what he calls the real real with horror films, which makes sense, because the monster in Jaws is the epitome of “the real.”  He embodies truth (he is a purveyor of our inevitable death) and exists beyond language.  He is nothing if not all presence, and his presence is formidable.  Most of all, he enters the symbolic order (culture) inconveniently and wreaks havoc, thus opposing the symbolic order the way the “real” does to Lacan.Jaws 1

Interestingly, toward the beginning of the film, we are thrust out of the symbolic order and into the real through camera angles.  Spielberg brilliantly provides us with the shark’s point of view; in the first half of the film, whenever the shark kills, instead of looking on at the vicious, giant fish, we look at his victim through his eyes.  In that way, we’re thrust out of the symbolic order by embodying and inhabiting the shark, who represents “the real.”  As the movie progresses, as three men (Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and Quint) decide to kill the shark, we re-enter our symbolic positions.  We begin to look on the entire, expansive body of the shark, and even when the shark kills, we’re looking at it as spectators.  The shark has become the object of our gaze, and we’ve gone from embodying the real to looking upon the real, an entity that will soon be thrust from the symbolic order, since the shark is ultimately killed.  As the film progresses, then, we move from inhabiting the real to re-inhabiting the symbolic order, through the camera’s gaze, a jarring maneuver that intends to displace us initially, only to situate us more comfortably by the film’s conclusion.

But what exactly defines this creature?  If we categorize Jaws as a horror movie monster, what defines and differentiates him from other monsters?  I think the answer lies in Jaws’ drive.  To Zizek (and probably to Lacan), pure, unfettered drive (often toward destruction or consumption) eclipses and opposes subjective human desire.  Since we are subjects of desire, our drives are, to an extent, fettered.  We are opposed, for example, to the terminator in The Terminator, a character Zizek actually uses as an example of pure drive; even as he falls apart, as his appendages fall off, his only objective is to kill.  His drive eclipses his desire and gives him an animalistic quality.  Jaws is just that sort of monster.  Not all monsters are pure drive, after all.  Dracula, for instance, is nothing if not a subject of desire; he desires blood and he desires Mina – demands them even, and a demand is different than a drive, to Zizek.  But Jaws is all drive.  Desiring nothing, he devours everything in his path.  Even when he’s shot and partially mutilated by the three men hunting him, he continues to hunt them as they sit on the boat, trying to overcome this monster.  Jaws, then, is a monster of drive; an embodiment of the Lacanian real that exists to kill.

The shallow part of the ocean, where swimmers swim, where Jaws does his hunting, thus becomes a contact point between the symbolic order (living humans in language-mediated culture) and the real (unfettered, amorphous presence that exists outside of language).  Zizek is particularly interested in borders, and this shallow portion of the ocean that serves as home for both the symbolic order and the real seems worth noting.  It is, by definition, a border, because it divides the symbolic order and the real, but it’s also a point of overlap, and thus, from the standpoint of space and place theory, a sort of non-place for humans, a location that doesn’t embody the freedom of space or the comfort of place, because the real has seeped through the cracks of the symbolic order; Jaws has entered, and he means to kill.

All three men who gather together to kill Jaws – Matt Hooper (the intellectual), Quint (the fisherman), and Brody (the police chief) are intriguing characters.  Indeed, they’re fantastic cinematic vehicles and they combine and work together in interesting ways.  Brody is most interesting, perhaps, for the prospect of symbolic death that the entrance of the real necessarily pushes him toward.  When Jaws enters the scene, after all, Brody stumbles upon a catch-22 situation: if he closes the beach, the community will essentially shun him for his decision to close a source of pleasure and tourism money (money saturates the plot of this film, as I may get to later), and if he doesn’t close the beaches, then he risks being partially responsible for the death of swimmers who are consumed by Jaws.  This is the internal conflict that he’s faced with throughout much of the film, and because he cannot appease the community no matter what he does, he faces the possibility of a symbolic death, a sort of shunning from the symbolic order.  Ironically, he must board the boat with Quint and Matt Hooper, must face the prospect of a second death, or a real death, to evade his symbolic death.  His only option for maintaining peace and safety in Amity, for being accepted into the symbolic order, is killing the shark.

Jaws 3 And kill the shark he does; indeed, he ultimately becomes the shark’s destroyer, but not before a series of follies lead him astray.  We also see, in Jaws, what Zizek would call (based off Lacanian theory) the answer of the real.  The answer of the real defines that point in the story where the character believes he or she has taken an action that will cause major change.  The character perceives himself or herself as much more powerful than she actually is; she has taken an action, and, presumably, the real has answered, through the provocation of major change.  In Jaws, two fishermen capture a hefty shark that’s been inhabiting Amity waters.  They think they’ve captured the “real,” the murderous shark, that they will be responsible for the peace and safety of other Amity citizens.  Really, however, they are responsible for no change; the actual shark still exists in Amity waters, and he goes on to kill another citizen.  The fisherman – and the village at large – have experienced the answer of the real.  Their perceived power is revealed, in the diegetic narrative, to be illusory, and the shark’s killing continues.  Still, they believe, at one point, that they hold more power over the real than they do.

But is it fair to call Jaws a monster?  After all, he’s just doin’ what sharks do.  As Taylor Swift says, players gonna play, haters gonna hate, sharks gonna eat.  Perhaps (this was Michael’s suggestion, but I agree wholeheartedly), perhaps the real monster in the film is the Mayor, who persistently insists that the beaches be kept open, despite one, and then despite two shark attacks, simply because keeping the beaches open produces capital in the form of tourism dollars.  Driven by his subjective desire for capital/income, he is willing to sacrifice individual lives for revenue, and to maintain Amity’s appearance of happiness, serenity, and hospitality.  We might only rescue him by suggesting that he is the victim of his own self-deception or delusion; that when he insists that the “real” (no pun intended) shark has been caught, when he insists that a boat accident killed the first shark victim, he at least partially believes his own rationale, because the presence of a man-eating shark in Amity’s waters is too calamitous for him to fully acknowledge and accept.

If Brody is a classic character, a sort of Lacanian hero who must save his place in the symbolic order by killing the shark, then Hooper and Quint are similarly heroic in their quest to help him.  These are two interesting characters, because they are near perfect foils of one another.  Again, money is important in this narrative, and class permeates the relationship between Hooper, Brody, and Quint – but specifically Hooper and Quint.  Hooper represents the upper class.  He admits that all his shark equipment was purchased himself, that his family has money.  He is an intellectual who’s gone to college to study sharks and has made a career of analyzing their patterns and classifying their types.  His attention to taste is particularly exhibited in one scene, where, upon visiting Brody, he brings not one but two bottles of wine – a red and a white – because he doesn’t know what Brody’s wife is serving that night.  Quint calls Hooper a “wealthy college boy” who “doesn’t have the education to admit when [he’s] wrong,” and accuses him of having “city hands” that are “good for counting money.”

Quint, on the other hand, is sort of an archetypal hunter like the kind you’ll find in Spielberg movies.  If we were watching Jurassic party, he’d be the predatorial master-mind who exists only for hunting dinosaurs.  In Jaws, he has an abode literally adorned with the multitudinous jaws of sharks that he’s hunted and captured over the years.  Incidentally, he typically breaks out into folk songs or colloquial sayings.  He’s very much equated, to that end, with American folk culture, and Hooper accuses him of positioning himself as a “working class hero,” a phrase he uses pejoratively when Quint’s putting him down for his wealth and alleged pretentiousness.

The “meal scene” in Jaws, one of the most canonical scene, serves to bring these men of divergent backgrounds together.  Meals are often unifying forces in literature, and in this particular film, the meal on the boat toward the end of the film is a chance for the men to bond through rituals.  They compare scars, tell stories over those scars, and dine.  Hooper breaks into song, and Quint, who he’s been arguing with for the entire movie, joins him, as the men get inebriated together.  The meal thus becomes a sort of ephemeral unifier; soon Quint will die at the behest of Jaws, and the temporary unity that brought the warring foils together will disintegrate.  To that end, the real may be partially responsible, again, for destroying harmony in the symbolic order, although it’s an instance of harmony that may have passed quickly on its own, anyway.

By the end of the film, Jaws has eaten our sometimes over confident “working class hero” (who, despite Hooper’s pejorative use of the term, really is heroic in this film), and has left the two men of wealthier backgrounds, police chief Brody, and the rich Matt Hooper, to swim to shore together.  I don’t really know what to make of this, to be honest.  It’s an interesting element of the film, in any case; the embodiment of the working class is swallowed by “the real,” leaving the bourgeoisie intact, the class that was responsible for keeping the beaches open in the first place (vis a vis the mayor).  As a quintessential bit of irony, the chief, who’s terrified of water and has no experience with sharks, ends up killing Jaws, and the hunter who’s been hunting sharks his entire life dies, if only because of simple bad luck.

Ultimately, then, Jaws isn’t really a story of human hubris, although I was prepared to posit, at the outset of this piece, that it could be read that way.  After all, many of Jaws’ killing are on account of human’s tendency to think that they can outsmart the shark, by, for example, manning the ocean with boats and guns.  But by the end of this classic monster tale, the human, or in Lacanian terms, the symbolic order, does win, and Jaws, the embodiment of the real, is destroyed.  In an ending that we at least find palatable, most of the main characters are left, and life goes on in Amity.  But perhaps Jaws cautions us that the real can’t exist comfortably in the symbolic order, that when it tries to interject, it must be ejected as soon as it seeps in.  In any case, as this post demonstrates, the film (which I’ve seen many times before) didn’t disappoint me nearly as much as the Universal Studios ride.  Jaws, which I fell in love with as a child and which I continue to love as an adult, receives an A (and maybe an A+) in my estimation.  I’m not expecting The Meg to be as much of a classic, but I am anticipating a damn good monster movie.

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In the Jaws of a Classic: An analysis of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws

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