The impetus for this post comes originally from Nicholas Rombes at Digital Poetics, but I got the message from Catherine Grant’s indispensable Film Studies for Free. The challenge is to analyse a film by responding to three frame grabs taken from the 10, 40 and 70 minute marks. By taking away the element of free choice from the selection of illustrative images (my own posts on this blog tend to be filled with frame grabs, usually ones that illustrate my argument), the critic is prompted to engage with the film text from a different angle – “freedom through constraint”, as Rombes put it. It’s a little like the Dogme 95 manifesto, where a group filmmakers drew up a list of tenets to make films by, each one imposing a cerain restriction that would push them out of habitual approaches and disable their natural tendencies towards artifice. I thought it sounded like an interesting experiment, so I thought I’d give it a go. Since I’m teaching Jaws to my second-year students for the first time next week, it seemed like a good choice to start with. Part of the task is that I will write this post in one go, now, without leaving my desk to look anything up (and without Googling anything, obviously), and then publish it straight away. So, from this point on, I have only three frames to work with, and a maximum of half an hour to spare. But instead of taking frames from the 10th, 40th and 70th minutes (which gives a spread of chances across the whole film), I’m using a random number generator to choose three points from which to take my grabs: the only control I will exert is in excluding the credits from consideration (except in films where the titles play over pictures). in this case, the computer has chosen 49, 96 and 113. I’ve seen the film before, and recently, but I don’t know what the frame grabs will show until I get started. It all begins with…
… this shot from the 49-minute mark. I got lucky on this one, I think. Jaws is a film of two halves, and this pretty much sums up the plot of the first. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider, far right) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss, centre) are trying to persuade Amity mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton, left) to close the beaches following a series of shark attacks in the area. The major is dodging his responsibilities, desperate not to lose out on the 4th July visitors who bring so much vital revenue to the local economy. This frame comes from a long tracking shot (I think it lasts about two minutes, though the strictures of this task forbid me from going back and timing it), over the course of which Vaughn’s progress from left to right is repeatedly obstructed by the Hooper and Brody trying to persuade him of their case. Vaughn’s suit is blue, decorated with little anchors that represent his feeble attempt at kinship with the ocean that contrasts later with the other men’s first-hand knowledge and experience. His position on the left seems less dominant; the dark shape of Brody’s form seems to obstruct his passage, and the Amity Island sign aims a big diagonal line down towards him as if to keep him in his corner. But this is the end of the shot, and the mayor is about to exit the frame between the other two men, leaving a big sky-blue space in the image and confirming the ease with which he can ignore the evidence of experts and press on with his plans as normal. The billboard behind them has been vandalised: a bikini-clad swimmer is about to be chomped by a shark, represented by a big black triangular fin, a simple, iconic signature of death at sea, a cartoonised version of the Jaws poster campaign where the triangular monster is fixed on a devastating collision course with the naked flesh of an oblivious swimmer.
Jaws is often recorded by historians as the first “blockbuster”, the first mass-marketed movie whose box office impact was prefabricated through a perfect calibration of timed release dates, merchandising and hype. This may or may not be true, but what is notable is the way it builds the preparations for summer holidays into its narrative, reflecting the scheduled activities (the spirit of a beach holiday if not its actuality) of its audience, and putting those holidays in jeopardy. The danger of shark attack is pretty frightening enough, but adding the threat of cancelled holidays on top really racks up the tension. It’s just one example of Spielberg’s knack for mediating an immediate affinity between the film’s content and the lives and wishes of its audiences.
At the 96th minute, we’re into the chase between boat and shark. If the first half of the film is about the uneven competition between an unseen beast, imagined only as a dark shape or extrapolated from a glimpse of fin, then the second is an equalised battle of wits between Quint, Hooper and Brody and the Great White. Since the shark is offscreen and undersea for the most part, the yellow barrel with which they tag it serves as a visual index of its proximity and pace. It’s a bright spot in the grey inscrutability of the ocean (notice how sea and sky almost blend together in this shot). Less imposing than the flat blade of the shark’s fin, the barrel gives the creature a jauntier avatar for these chase sequences; it dances across the surface of the water instead of slicing through it purposefully. For scenes where the shark becomes a fearsome foe once more, the fin replaces the barrel as the sign of its presence.
By the time we hit the 113th-minute mark, with only a few minutes left to play, Hooper is missing believed dead, and Quint has been eaten alive, dragged back into the sea where he spent so much of his life. No doubt he will become another legendary fisherman’s tale of sea monsters and disappeared sailors resting in pieces at the bottom of the ocean. The shark’s blows to the hull of the ship are slowly sinking it. Jaws is partly structured around perpendicular lines, the tension between spaces above and below the water’s surface, as summarised in the film’s superlatively explanatory poster compaign: a horizontal swimmer’s forward motion along a horizon-line cut out by the vertical upward surging of the monster from below. The boat which has forced the shark to come up to the surface from below to be pursued along the horizontal axis (as in the 96th-minute frame grab above) now finds the tables turned as it lurches into a digaonal position, poised between the two angles and threatened with downward motion. The second half of Jaws sees the boat gradually destroyed in its battle with the shark, and its available spaces shrink away until Brody is left cowering in the cabin, between the smashed ship-to-shore radio that can no longer save him, and the compressed air canistor that will be his salvation. He is peering out of the window as if the shark respects boundaries between interior and exterior, though it is in actual fact about to break into the cabin and try to make a meal of the Chief. But at this point, Brody is still hoping that staying indoors will protect him from the sea a little longer, but all outside is an impenetrable pale grey, in stark contrast to the busy mise-en-scene inside the cabin.