Spielberg: Jaws Act II

So. We’ve made it through Act I of Jaws. Chief Brody, the fish-out-of-water “new guy” in town on Amity Island, has been confronted with an unknowable terror and, seeking To Prove His Worth, has Done What He’s Told. This choice has led him to catching what is probably the wrong shark and getting slapped in the face by a grieving mother.

As Act II begins, we find Brody sullen and depressed, licking his wounds at the dinner table and getting drunk.

38:00 — Another instant classic scene: Brody and his little boy John. Brody, lost in thought as his wife putters nervously, finds himself being imitated by his 3-year-old son. I have no idea if this scene was in the screenplay, and I certainly don’t remember it being in the book, but again Spielberg finds a way to compress a ton of meaningful information into a short, dialogue-free scene. With this brief, wordless exchange, we understand all of Brody’s problems. His son looks up to him, wants to be him — that’s love, but it’s also responsibility, and little John has chosen to imitate his father at a moment when Brody doesn’t know who he is. We know, with this scene, what Brody’s fighting for, what is at stake for him. Remembering the theme — One Man Can Make A Difference — we see Brody at the point where he’s doubtful as to if he is That Man. In another screenplay, this would be the Act II Low Point, but as we shall see, Jaws is slightly oddly structured. It has four acts, two on land and two at sea, and Brody has two separate but related struggles: in the first half of the movie he struggles with the Mayor, in the second half he struggles with the shark (and the other men on the Orca, but more on that later).

Hooper comes over, on his way out of town. He’s in a suit and tie, and a little more formidable for that — this is a new side of Hooper we haven’t seen before. He’s a wine snob, an authoritarian and a little pushy — he doesn’t drink Brody’s milkshake exactly, but he helps himself to Brody’s dinner. He has a little aria about himself, which pushes the border of exposition before the writer deftly brings the speech back around to the task at hand — the shark problem in Amity.

We learn that Brody is afraid of the water, and at this point of the movie, Spielberg has established THE WATER as the dividing line between safety and danger so well that everyone in the audience is firmly on Brody’s side at this point. Brody and Hooper talk shark a little bit, some exposition made harmless by Scheider’s wonderful drunk acting, then Brody makes the decision to go down to the dock and cut open the tiger shark. He’s no longer going to Do What He’s Told, he’s going to take charge of the situation and Do What’s Right.

43:30 — Hooper cuts open the shark and we receive confirmation: this is not the shark that killed Chrissie Watkins.

45:20 — Hooper and Brody go out in Hooper’s high-tech boat. (Where did this boat come from? Hooper doesn’t emerge from it in Act I.) Brody has his own little aria that explains who he is and what he wants. Apparently, he was a cop in New York but decided that he couldn’t do anything there, the system was too corrupt and overwhelming and he wanted a decent place for his kids to grow up. One senses his disappointment that Amity isn’t any less corrupt than New York, and One Man isn’t going to make any more of a Difference here. That is, I’m guessing, why Brody has chosen tonight to get shitfaced — he’s realizing that all the decisions he’s made for his family were wrong, and that this move to Amity could actually destroy his family and his spirit.

(The fogon the water provides Spielberg with his first opportunity to show beams of light as production values in and of themselves, a design element he’ll use to much greater effect in Close Encounters and many other movies.)

Brody and Hooper find Ben Gardner’s boat, and Hooper goes into the water to investigate. We know something bad has happened, because Hooper has gone IN THE WATER. Spielberg, burgeoning master of the misdirect, gives us the attack but has it come from an unexpected quarter — Ben Gardner himself emerges from the hole in the hull of the boat. (Jeez, I remember this scene from seeing the movie in the theater — I don’t remember breathing during it, and when Ben Gardner’s pale, bloated head floated into view the screams in the theater were deafening.)

50:30 — The next day, Brody and Hooper go to the Mayor to persuade him to Do What’s Right. Like good liberals, they present facts and evidence to prove the validity of their argument and the Mayor, like a good conservative, disregards their argument and changes the subject to something that “really matters” — the town’s image. When the Mayor gets angry, it’s not about the shark that’s killing the citizens of his town, it’s about the defacement of the billboard we saw in Act I (yet another purpose for the “truck driving by the sign” scene — as a setup to this scene). He listens to Brody’s cautionary logic and Hooper’s scientific data, then dismisses it out of hand as so much paranoid hand-wringing and gestures to the billboard. “Look at that,” he gets up on his high horse and shouts, apoplectic, “That is a deliberate mutilation of a public service message!” And again, I can’t help but think of Barack Obama saying “The current administration has run this nation into the ground” and conservatives responding by saying “But you’re not wearing an American flag pin!” The Mayor trivializes Brody’s and Hooper’s desire to Do What’s Right as a minor consideration in the face of doing What’s Good For Business. He throws Hooper’s facts back in his face, accusing him of vanity: another classic conservative move, to accuse your opponent of what you yourself are guilty of.

This is, of course, also the scene where Hooper famously describes the Great White Shark as an evolutionary miracle, “an eating machine.” And one senses that he could just as easily be describing the Mayor’s capitalist imperative, another dumb monster that can only move forward, destroy life and create disorder. (And I am reminded of what Richard Nixon called that same capitalist imperative, that soul-destroying system that transcends presidents and popular will: “The Beast.”)

53:30 — The 4th of July Regatta arrives, amid great tumult. Thousands of people arrive at the Amity dock, but the first thing Spielberg shows us in this scene is a souvenir stand selling shark jawbones. This, he suggests, is the American carnival — turning tragedy into profits in record time, selling death as tacky souvenirs.

54:50 — The Act II climax begins, a terrific piece of sustained suspense that has few equals. (When Jaws was released, one critic described Spielberg as “the bastard offspring of Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock,” an observation that seems true to me, and complete. Both were master manipulators of audiences, and both had uncanny knacks for selecting images and sequences that can plunge right down into our collective cerebral cortices and locate our most secret fears and most childlike wonders.)

Brody has an armada of deputies surrounding the swimming area, helicopters and walkie-talkies, all the security 20th-century technology can muster (the swimming beach kind of reminds me of the Green Zone in Baghdad).  The Mayor stalks the beach, pouting. It’s not enough for him that the “summer dollars” have arrived, he wants to see people in the water. His capitalist imperative here veers over to psychopathology — he has a bloodlust, very much like Bush and Cheney today, to see people killed to satisfy his mercantile urges, while he watches calmly from the beach, smiling because things are going so well and chatting blithely with the media, unwilling to even use the word “shark” when asked a simple question about what’s been happening on Amity island. The looks on the faces of the family he forces to go into the water say it all — they are marching to their deaths to please their smiling Mayor. The trick works, and the Mayor is indeed pleased as he watches the beachgoers plunge happily into what he knows is a deathtrap.

Brody’s son Michael is launching his boat into the water, and Brody orders him to take it into “the pond” instead. “Aw, the pond’s for old ladies,” gripes Michael, bringing up a theme that will become more prevalent in Act III, Brody’s relative masculinity.

Spielberg’s camera moves along at water level among the happy, splashing swimmers (and we’ve been told at the top of the act that sharks are attracted by splashing swimmers). Several times the camera dips below the surface and we hold our breaths because we know that IN THE WATER is danger, only being free and clear of it are we safe. Brody’s fear becomes our fear, we are in the exact same position as the protagonist, which is where the writer wants an audience to be.

There is the “cardboard fin” misdirect, and the panic on the beach as the swimmers pound in to safety brings to mind the Invasion of Normandy sequence at the top of Saving Private Ryan. In both instances, Spielberg reveals again his mastery of crowd scenes and orchestration of mayhem. The two scenes even share a common visual cue of the camera being submerged in the midst of panic.

The “cardboard fin” misdirect gives the audience a sigh of relief, just where Spielberg wants to give us the biggest shock yet. Our attention, and the protagonist’s, is on the beach and he now bids us look at “the pond,” the place for “old ladies,” where Brody’s son Michael is boating. Again, suspense is created when a bystander sees the shark before Brody, and the stakes are raised because Now It’s Personal.

The Estuary Victim is attacked (well honestly, what did he expect with a name like “Estuary Victim?”) and we see his severed leg drift down and go “bonk” on the ocean floor. And I don’t know about you, but as a 13-year-old watching the movie, it felt to me like the string had snapped — this was no longer entertainment, this was a nightmare. It’s one thing to show a kid disappear in a fountain of blood, but to see a man attacked and then see his severed leg drift down through the water and go “bonk” on the ocean floor? This is the point where the movie announces that it’s playing for keeps, that this is real, that THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU. That moment alone probably accounts for a half-dozen times I paid to see the movie in the theater, just to conquer the fear and horror I experienced at that moment.

(Which is, of course, one theory as to why horror movies exist in the first place. We go to see horror movies, they say, so that we can deal with our fear of death and dismemberment. I would only add to that that sometimes death and dismemberment look cool.)

The sharkswims right by Michael (I admit I’m a little confused by this shot: what is Michael transfixed by? This can’t be the “shark’s point of view,” can it? The camera is a foot out of the water. What is it, the shark’s fin’s point of view?) and he is pulled out of the surf, in shock. Brody absorbs all of this and, for the second time in the movie, he is moved to stare out to sea. He has spent the entire act Doing What’s Right, and it turns out It Isn’t Enough. The sea demands more, now his own family has been threatened (and there is nothing more sacred to Spielberg than The Family). The sea taunts him, makes his motto, his battle-banner, “One Man Can Make A Difference,” a sick joke. This is the moment when Brody realizes that To Prove His Worth, he’s going to have to Face His Greatest Fear, and the stakes rise yet again.

The shot of the sea taunting Brody is the Act II climax, but there is, I think, an Act II “denouement,” where Brody sees Michael safely to the hospital and then kicks the Mayor’s ass. This transitional scene is anticlimactic to the shark attack in the pond, but it doesn’t properly belong to Act III. It is the fulfillment of Brody’s Act II goal, To Do What’s Right.

There is an exchange between Brody and his wife where he tells her to take young Michael home. She asks, hopefully, “Home to New York?” and Brody responds. “No. Home here.” Brody, we see, will Make His Stand. Like an errant knight, like Kambei in Seven Samurai, Brody has chosen to stake his claim and fight to the death for a town that mistrusts him, sees him as an outsider.

Brody buttonholes the Mayor, who is shellshocked and flustered, unable to think of a decent way to spin an unnecessary, violent death on his watch. Murray Hamilton in this scene reminds me rather of Bush in New Orleans; totally at sea, as it were, completely baffled as to how he’s supposed to respond in the face of suffering. His justification, “My kids were on that beach too,” reminds me of the conservative talk show host who once angrily told a critic that he was just as much risk as the troops in Iraq because he broadcast from the Empire State Building. We can see that the Mayor’s protest is just more spin, because even in the face of this public-relations disaster he signs Brody’s voucher to hire Quint with an air of absolute disgust. It’s one thing to have had his children at risk of death, but signing the voucher means admitting he was wrong, which is the ultimate conservative sin.

We are now at 1:06:00, and Brody has gone from Doing What He’s Told to Doing What’s Right. He still believes that One Man Can Make A Difference, and the following Act will take a step back from the action to ponder What Makes A Man, which we will get to tomorrow.



13 Responses to “Spielberg: Jaws Act II”
  1. chrispiers says:

    Thanks! Nothing to add, I just find this interesting.

  2. Just watched this amazing film again recently, post Scheider’s death, and am loving your Spielberg analyses in general.

    The shot of Michael that confuses you relates to some reverse shots that didn’t work and were cut, which can be seen in the special features on the various Jaws DVDs — originally, the shark swam right past Michael (the moving shot is still in the film) with the Estuary Victim sticking out of his mouth, above the water, bloody. It’s this sight that was supposed to send Michael into shock, not just the proximity of the shark.

    Brody’s drunken aria on Hooper’s boat is the film’s one big misstep for me — it clumsily makes obvious what I think has been apparent in Scheider’s performance throughout. This entire sequence was a Los Angeles reshoot of an original version that didn’t work, so this may account for some of the clunkiness – like where did Hooper’s boat come from? (you can justify this easily if, like me, you grew up with your family running a marina, but now I see how clumsy it is) As well as why doesn’t dead Ben Gardner get mentioned again? — the scare was added in the reshoot to give another jump to the audience here, but it’s always struck me odd that they spend the next scene with the mayor discussing a tooth the size of a shot glass and not the dead goddamn body.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Brody buttonholes the Mayor, who is shellshocked and flustered, unable to think of a decent way to spin an unnecessary, violent death on his watch. Murray Hamilton in this scene reminds me rather of Bush in New Orleans; totally at sea, as it were, completely baffled as to how he’s supposed to respond in the face of suffering. His justification, “My kids were on that beach too,” reminds me of the conservative talk show host who once angrily told a critic that he was just as much risk as the troops in Iraq because he broadcast from the Empire State Building. We can see that the Mayor’s protest is just more spin, because even in the face of this public-relations disaster he signs Brody’s voucher to hire Quint with an air of absolute disgust. It’s one thing to have had his children at risk of death, but signing the voucher means admitting he was wrong, which is the ultimate conservative sin.

    I didn’t get that at all. What I got was the Mayor truly appreciating the expression “A liberal is a conservative mugged by reality.” He’d been living in a fantasy that this tragedy was an unfortunate aberration, but ultimately Something That Happens to Other People. Now, irrefutably, he knows he was utterly wrong and finally realizes that his choices have put everyone in danger, including his own family. This crash-course in empathy has totally knocked him off his game. His worldview is shattered and he becomes a babbling mess, falling back on empty talking points as a psychological crutch while he desperately tries to regain his footing and adjust to his new reality (which is to say, actual reality). A nervous wreck, he still has to take that one last, terrifying step of truly accepting that his fantasy has just been irreparably smashed. Understandably reluctant and truculent about giving up his cherished fairy tale, the Mayor finally joins the “reality-based community” as Brody coaxes him into signing the voucher.

    • Todd says:

      Perhaps, but when the Mayor says “my kids were on that beach too,” his goal is to “get Brody off his back,” not “actually solve the problem. He tries to get Brody to go away by claiming victimhood, but Brody doesn’t flinch and the Mayor, out of options and hating himself, signs the voucher.

      The only part of the scene that doesn’t remind me of Bush is that I think the Mayor has been truly disturbed by the day’s events.

      • chrispiers says:

        And his speech was coherent.

      • Anonymous says:

        He definitely wanted Brody off his back by telling him essentially “I get it! I was wrong!” but my impression was that the Mayor just wanted to be left alone to brood and wallow in guilt. Brody, now a Man of Action, simply doesn’t have time for the Mayor’s breakdown.

        Basically, the Mayor is Bush except with empathy and without W’s complete cocksure determination that everything he does, no matter what, is right.

      • greyaenigma says:

        So the voucher is signed only after the victim’s ankle goes bonk on the estuary floor? Hmm.

  4. gazblow says:

    Love all the analysis especially with regard to the theme of this movie: “One Man Can Make A Difference”. However, when I see the Murray Hamilton scenes after the July 4th attack it seems to me that his “My kids were on that beach too” is less a justification for his actions (which he nervously practices under his breath before that line) than a realization of his fatal errors in judgement. It could have been his kids rather than the Kintner kid or Brody’s kids for that matter. The scene puts the town firmly on Brody’s side as he proceeds to hunt the shark. But Brody has not yet learned that “One Man Can Make A Difference”. He still needs Quint and Hooper to be on his team.

    • Todd says:

      So did you vote for Romney or Huckabee?

      • gazblow says:

        Must we resort to bitter partisanship?

        “That is why it is not enough to change parties. It is time to change our politics. We don’t need another [Screenwriter] who puts politics and loyalty over candor. We don’t need another [screenwriter/blogger] who thinks big but doesn’t feel the need to tell the American people what they think. We don’t need another [screenwriter/blogger/cineaste] who shuts the door on the American people when they make policy. The American people are not the problem in this country – they are the answer. And it’s time we had a [screenwriter/blogger/cineaste/pinko] who acted like that.”
        Barack Obama (sort of) Chicago, IL 10/07

  5. Anonymous says:

    No offense, but could you use a different politico once in a while? The Mayor reminds you of Bush, I get it! You don’t want to go down the road where every incompetent reminds you of the President… If you let Dubya appear in every movie, you’re letting him win! If it was me, seeing Bush everywhere ina picture would take away any joy or wonder that could come from a film.