Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jaws as Socio-Economic Parable

Chief Brody (left) deals with pressure from the
Amity Selectmen and their 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood.
Jaws (1975) was a more than Spielberg’s breakthrough thriller hit, a huge box-office hit, and the film that, with Star Wars, invented the idea of the high-concept summer blockbuster. It is also a parable. The most obvious theme is man versus nature— how humanity can band together to defeat relentless forces of death and chaos. But the parable that is touched on but rarely explored is how Jaws is a study of American social structure- How they fight, and how they cooperate.

America in 1975 was somewhat different than it is today. Wall street was still well-regulated, the top marginal tax rates on income were much higher than they are now, and unions were much stronger. The wealthy were very wealthy, but they still had some common ground with a healthy middle class. It was a time when the middle class was still given substantial incentive to prosper: single-income families were still the norm, and even the poor were considered “lower middle class.” It was before Reagan, union-busting and trickle-down economics, and the long and fantastic post-WWII run of prosperity was still going— it was near the end, but it was still working for most people. Looking back, I think most folks didn’t know how good they had it.

Into this prosperous, fairly harmonious but increasingly cynical post-Watergate world enters a shark, who begins eating people off the shore of the small East Coast resort community of Amity. After a few disastrous mistakes by the local powers-that-be that result in even more death, the right decision is made and a fishing expedition to go kill the shark is financed.

And, oddly, a representative of every level of American society is on-board.

Quint: "Let me feel your hands... They're city hands,
soft from counting money."
Hooper: "hey, I don't need this 'working class hero' crap!"
• Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is the Woods’ Hole Shark expert. He represents the upper class: He is college-educated, well-traveled and pursues his avocation (oceanographer) with expensive equipment he bought himself. His approach to the challenge of the antagonist is initially aesthetic: He thinks sharks are magnificent, beautiful creatures, the pinnacle of piscine evolution.

• Quint (Robert Shaw) owns the Orca: He is a charter fisherman specializing in shark hunting. He represents the working class: a poorly educated, crude rustic with a strong Down East accent. Quint’s motivations are personal: as a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II, he has dedicated his life to vengeance against creatures who killed his shipmates. Considering the condition of his ship and shore facility it seems Quint has turned his obsession into a marginal sort of living.

"I think we need a bigger boat." Perfect example of
middle-class pragmatism from Chief Brody.
(This classic line was ad-libbed by Roy Scheider.)
• Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is on-board as a sponsor: his efforts financed the expedition. He is ostensibly the protagonist of Jaws— and he is solidly middle class. A former New York City policeman turned town police chief, he is pragmatic, methodical and cautious. A civil servant, Brody is fully enmeshed with the pitfalls and complexity of local government, and spends a good part of the film trying to convince Amity’s selectmen to take the shark threat seriously. His viewpoint on the antagonist is a common one: ignorance and fear. He does not like the ocean, does not go into the water, and is frankly terrified of sharks. However, he displays a common-sense willingness to facilitate, learn and help.

With representative of every social class onboard the Orca pursuing the common goal of ridding the fair town of Amity of a rogue Great White it would seem their goals are unified. But there are tensions between each man as much as there are tensions between classes:

The "moment of greatest settled success" of Jaws:
all levels of society literally harmonizing together
before the shark starts taking the boat apart.
Brody and Hooper vs. Quint: As well-integrated members of mainland society, they see Quint as an unhinged, dangerously obsessed yokel.

Hooper and Quint vs. Brody: As experienced seamen and shark enthusiasts, they see Brody as a useless landlubber who has the potential to get into serious trouble onboard.

Quint and Brody vs. Hooper: Hooper has a tendency to be snippy and is constantly suspected of not sharing the primary goal of the expedition: to kill the shark, not study or admire it.

These squabbles are put aside (mostly) when the shark seems to take an interest in them and begins a personal (and scientifically nonsensical) vendetta against the Orca and the three intrepid class representatives onboard. Sharks don’t take vendettas: in fact, most marine biologists believe Great Whites don’t care for people meat, and most fatalities are “test bites” that have bled out.

"How do you work this thing of yours?" Quint setting aside
his working-class resentments for the sake of survival.
This shark vendetta does not makes sense— unless you cast the story as a parable about class. Then the shark becomes a common enemy to all society, high and low, a threat which requires complete socio-economic cooperation.

Hooper, Quint and Brody all work together to battle the shark, who also busy trying to eliminate all of them in no particular order. The final act of the film can even be seen as a microcosm of how chaos and disaster are typically visited upon the American body politic (from here to the end are solid ••• spoilers ••• but shame on you if you haven’t seen this film!)

Quint, being working class, is eaten by the shark, which fits into the demographic of natural disasters affecting the poor proportionally worse than anyone else. Hooper, having access to expensive gear, is able to swim away from his high-tech shark cage, hide on the seafloor, and survive. The job of dispatching the shark falls on the capable middle-class Brody, who uses a tool left by working-class Quint (M1 rifle) and another tool left by wealthy Hooper (compressed-air scuba tank) to blow up the shark. Thus was the burden of the 20th century American middle class.

Peter Benchley, looking sharp in wide lapels.
The original novel was written by Peter Benchley, the grandson of humorist Robert Benchley. In the novel as well as the movie Brody is the protagonist, but Benchley was in life much more of a Hooper (Phillips Exeter prep school, Harvard University). Interestingly, Hooper was a bit of a rich cad in the book: he had an affair with Chief Brody’s wife. Then again, in the book Hooper did not escape the shark cage and was just plain eaten. He comes off much nicer in the movie, which may or may not be social commentary.

No comments:

Post a Comment