Tuesday, June 4, 2013
June 4, 2013: Summer Blockbusters: Jaws
[With the summer movie season fully underway, a series on AmericanStudying some classic blockbusters. Add your responses, memories, and ideas for a crowd-sourced post that’s sure to own the weekend box office!]
On the American communities, large and small, at the heart of the first summer blockbuster.
I’m not sure if they’re still there, but for many decades a Martha’s Vineyard beach just outside of the fishing village of Menemsha was home to the broken-down remnants of two hugely important American cultural icons: the fishing boat on which Quint, Brody, and Hooper hunted for the great white that had been terrorizing Amity Island; and the camera boat from which Steven Spielberg had filmed their departure on that small craft (I believe the subsequent scenes at sea were filmed hundreds of miles away, in the warmer waters of the Caribbean). Besides making for a very cool tourist attraction, those boats nicely illustrated just how much Spielberg’s movie has lingered with our culture: considered the prototypical summer film, Jaws (1975) became in its era the highest-grossing movie of all time, and profoundly influenced future films in multiple genres.
So there would be lots of ways to AmericanStudy Jaws, but what interests me most about the film (and of course the novel on which it was based, although I’m far less familiar with Benchley’s text so am focused on the film here) is its creation of complex and very American communities, on two distinct but interconnected levels. The film’s first half is as much about the fictional but Vineyard-like community of Amity as it is the terrifying underwater killer stalking the island’s beachgoers, and because the protagonist is that community’s chief law enforcement officer, we get to see many different elements of Amity’s world: the mayor and other aspects of the island’s power structure, locals like the fishermen who take part in the shark-fest or the mother whose son is eaten, the summer tourists on whom Amity depends for its survival but to whom it has the love-hate relationship you would expect, and so on. Brody and his wife also each have complex individual relationships to the place and those communities, adding another layer to what we learn about the island.
When Brody, Hooper, and Quint depart on Quint’s Orca for the film’s second half, we leave the world of Amity behind; but the three men form a small and complex American community of their own. Horror films generally depend on characters who fit into stereotypical categories and roles, and the Orca’s trio would seem to qualify: the nerdy rich-kid scientist getting his first exposure to the real world; the laconic working class fisherman for whom it’s his way or the highway; the practical-minded lawman trying to balance those two while navigating his fear of the water. But what makes this section of the film work as well as it does is how much each man, and through them the small community’s dynamic overall, evolves and deepens; the drinking scene is often rightly highlighted, but the three actors really imbue every moment and interaction with this kind of depth, revealing the complexities within every American identity and the communities out of which they are composed. That’s a pretty impressive blockbuster!
Another summer movie tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Summer movie memories and analyses you’d share?