Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jaws -- fear and greed in a peaceful community

Director: Steven Spielberg, 1975 (PG-13).

Almost 70 years ago Franklin D. Roosevelt said the immortal words, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He obviously had not seen Spielberg's Jaws. If he had, he would have added Bruce the shark to that short-list.

Watching Jaws again in its 35th anniversary year, it still packs a wallop. At the tender age of 28 Spielberg directed what some have called the first summer blockbuster. Although only opening on 409 screens across the nation, this big fish swam silently and menacingly through the theatrical waters. Just over two months later over 67 million Americans had seen it and it had become the then highest grossing film of all time.

Almost everyone knows the plot by now. Indeed, it is razor-thin. A killer shark, a great white, descends upon the island resort town of Amity in New England at the beginning of tourist season. When it begins feeding on humans, the chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches, but Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) refuses. Throw in shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and crabby shark hunter Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) and the key characters are in view.

Several factors contribute to the success of the film's suspense and thrills. First, surprisingly, is the failure of the mechanical shark There were three mechanical sharks built for the film (all named Bruce after Spielberg's lawyer!), each created for different shots. However, since the shark was broken for much of the shooting, Spielberg resorted to filming from the shark's viewpoint. We see what he sees, looking up at vulnerable humans, prey for this soul-less predator. It also means that we rarely see the actual shark and this, in a Hitchcockian way, adds to the sense of anticipation. It leaves much to the viewer's imagination until the latter parts of the film.

A second factor is another directorial choice of viewpoint. Spielberg shoots a quarter of the movie from water level, higher than the shark's eye-view. This makes the viewer feel as if we, like those in the ocean, are treading water. In this way, it puts us in their shoes, or bare-feet, and allows us to feel their fear.

The third factor is the marvellous score composed by John Williams. Anyone who has seen the film can hardly forget the ominous notes of the bitonal "dum-dum-dum-dum" which begins to increase in speed and volume as the shark approaches. Williams won the Oscar for Best Score for this composition, and it is indeed almost a character in itself, so effective is it in contributing to the suspense.

In contrast to many contemporary thrillers, Jaws contains fewer than half-dozen deaths. I counted four shark killings, although there is at least one more not shown. The thrill is not in the quantity but in the quality of anticipating the attacks. And when they do occur, their suddenness is shocking. Unlike today's movies, though, the effects seem cheesy. The various body parts that are shown in the aftermath of the attacks appear artificial and plastic. But this criticism is perhaps anachronistic and unwarranted.

For points of trivia, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, the resort frequented by numerous American presidents, was selected as the shooting location for Amity. This was apparently because of the shallowness of the ocean floor, even far out to sea, which allowed for better use of the mechanical sharks. The town benefited, and the residents did too, as they were paid $64 per day to scream their lungs out while running across the beach as extras.

In the second half of the film Chief Brody and Hooper join Quint on his boat, the Orca, as they go out to hunt this killer. Quint and Hooper bear the scars of former engagements with shark, but Brody harbors his inner fear of water. Brody is the one who has to courageously face up to his fears to act on behalf of his family and his community. Quint is merely a mercenary, making the most of a bad situation. Hooper is a resourceful scientist who has found Amity a closer place to research sharks than Brisbane. Though all must put their lives on the line, as the third act elaborates, Brody is the only one who is truly vested in the community.

Two points of intersection with biblical ethics are worth exploring, both based on native human emotions. The first is fear. The film is based on the residents' fear as their peaceful community is terrorized by this shark. Such fear is natural. We recoil when we see a shark, a predator that will kill and devour us without thought. Such fear is instinctual. It focuses on our survival. Without such fear we might be an extinct species.

But there is both good fear and bad fear. Fear of sharks is good if it leads to our survival. Fearing something that can harm or kill us is beneficial. Fear of the Lord is another positive fear (Prov. 1:7), although God does not wish to harm us. This kind of fear, commanded throughout the scriptures (Deut. 6:13, Josh. 24:14, Ac. 9:31), is a positive awe-filled respect for the creator of the universe. It, too, leads to life but not through avoidance of death, as in the shark-fear, but in the attraction to life. Jesus offers us life in him (Jn. 10:10), as we fear and respect his father.

The bad kind of fear, though, is that which is driven by selfish impulses. Mayor Vaughn has this kind of fear when he recognizes that the publicity from a shark attack would frighten casual tourists away. This fear is not life-affirming. It is second cousin to greed, the other emotion on view here.

Vaughn is greedy for the dollars brought by the tourists. The town's economy is driven by the summer visitors. Without them it would fail. And that would blow his chance of future re-election. Greed is self-promoting. Vaughn is less concerned about those at risk. He cares less for the truth. He is willing to sacrifice the odd tourist or two, and cover up their deaths, if it means the survival of his town and his political career.

Greed is a sly virus. Once we are infected, it eats away at our contentment. We can never have enough. There is always the allure of more, just over the horizon. The writer of Proverbs warns against the strife caused by greed: "A greedy man stirs up dissension, but he who trusts in the LORD will prosper" (Prov. 28:5). The prophets gave stern warnings against greed, so prevalent amongst the Israelite nation (Hab. 2:5; Ezek. 33:31; Jer. 6:13). Jesus poured scorn on the religious leaders of his day, proclaiming, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence" (Matt. 23:25).  And he offered his closest disciples, and us via the words of Luke (12:15), this exhortation, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

We may not face a great white shark but the emotions that such a beast evokes are certain to confront us. Fear and greed are common to all. How will we confront them? Like Vaughn or like Chief Brody?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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