In Amity One Man can make a Difference: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws
Based in the UK, James Rose is freelance writer specialising in contemporary science fiction and horror cinema.
The Amity Island coroner will say it was a boating accident but Matt Hooper will say that Chrissie Watkins death was no boating accident.
Back in New York life was probably simpler because nothing was concealed, everything was on the surface.
It is the morning after when Brody is woken up by the radio. He looks out of the bedroom window onto the sea. It is calm now that it has spat out Chrissie’s meager remains onto Amity’s shore. They will rest there a while, waiting for Deputy Hendricks to find her fingers tangled with seaweed and crawling with crabs. He’ll blow his whistle for her and Brody will come running and know that it was not a boating accident that did this. It was a shark. But that is for later. For now Brody pulls himself slowly out of bed waking up to a nother beautiful summer’s day.
For a man who is afraid of the water, Martin Brody has chosen an odd place to live. Perched up high on Amity’s cliffs, the Brody’s idyllic white clapboard house looks out onto the one thing that frightens him the most: the sea. Before the shark kills Alex Kintner, an old man will remind Brody of his fear: “We know all about you Chief, you don’t go into the water at all, do ya?” Perhaps Brody has good reason to be afraid because even on this beautiful summer’s day he knows that the calm blue surface is deceptive. That soft blue is the divide between above and below, the known and the unknown. And it is that that Brody fears the most, the unknown.
Ellen rolls over, her night gown as blue as the sea outside her families home. “How come the sun never used to shine in here?” asks her husband. Her eyes are still closed, the calm radio voice fading. “We bought the house in the fall. It’s the summer.” Brody sits on the edge of the bed. He nods in some sort of understanding. It makes sense really. All of that soft Atlantic blue, the glowing yellow light, the lush green grass of his neighbor’s garden. He gets up slowly, his crisp white shorts sagging. “Anyone feed the dogs?” asks Ellen. Brody reaches out for his trousers, his watch catching the sunlight. He doesn’t answer his wife, just looks out of the window, out at the sea. Another question from Ellen, “You see the kids?”
Brody isn’t looking for their two sons, Michael and Sean. He is still looking at the sea. It fills each of the bedroom windows in a vast expanse of blue, limitless to the sky. It is as if the house has been submerged in the one thing Brody cannot protect his family from, the sea. In those few moments that Brody understands what he is looking at: a wilderness, a vast, silent, and uncontrollable force. It is a primal space where the laws of Nature govern and Man must rely on skill and strength in order to survive. For Brody the masculine qualities of the sea will be emphasized for its surface is patrolled by Quint, a real man who has survived one of worse naval disasters in history and has been hunting sharks ever since. And below, below is the epitome of the unknown, the Great White Shark. Like the ocean, that too is a vast, silent and uncontrollable force, its symbolic values shifting like the tide to culminate in all that Brody fears. Once aboard Quint’s boat, the Orca, Brody will sail away from all that is familiar and enter this masculine space to prove his worth. He must overcome his fears and regain his sense of self in order to kill the shark.
Ellen’s keeping her eyes shut. She doesn’t want to get up. Brody looks down into the front garden. “Must be in the back yard.” It’s a simple answer but Ellen corrects him all the same. “In Amity you say yaad.” Brody tries his best as he walks out of the bedroom, his trouser slung over his shoulder: “They are in the yaad not far from the caar.” He turns in the door way. “How’s that?” Ellen has got up and looks disappointed. “Like you’re from New York.”
This just makes things worse. Not only is Brody afraid of the sea he is also from New York. Before that old man reminds Brody of his fear, his wife asks one of the islanders “When do I get to become an islander?” They laugh at her question, “Never! You’re not born here, that’s it!” It’s only a comment, it shouldn’t matter. But it does and both Martin and Ellen know it. The Brody’s will always be outsiders and as such are subtly distanced from the community in which Brody is employed to serve and protect. As the narrative develops, Brody’s isolation from the community is steadily increased: his authority is challenged by the Mayor who, with his posse of conspirators, forces Brody to change his report concerning the death of Christine Watkins and deny him the authority to close down the beaches for fear of loosing “summer dollars”. As if in punishment for the communities greed and Brody’s inability to stand up for himself, the shark attacks and kills Alex Kintner. With the blame for this death literally slapped on him, Brody’s isolation from Amity is complete. That sharp, stinging slap from Mrs. Kintner signifies the death of the family: “My boy is dead and there is nothing you can do about it.” And she is right, Brody cannot bring Alex back, but he can, at least, attempt to bring some sense of justice to Amity and it begins right there on Amity harbor, the calm blue sea stretching out before him. He walks home alone and eats alone, getting steadily drunk until Hopper arrives to eat his leftovers. Taking in another mouthful of wine he declares “I am the Chief of Police. I can do anything.” All he has to do now is prove it.
Michael, the eldest of Brody’s two sons, comes into the kitchen. He holds up a bloody hand. “Mom, I got a cut. I got bit by a vampire.” Brody has got a white towel around his neck and his trousers on. He starts to scold his son for playing on the swing he has yet to fix but the phone rings. Ellen takes Michael’s hand and looks at the cut as Brody picks up the wrong phone. He tuts and picks up the other receiver. “Hello?” a pause and then he asks, “What do they usually do? Wash up or float?” Another pause. “No keep him there. I’ll be there in fifteen, fifteen to twenty minutes.” Brody puts down the phone. The season hasn’t even started yet and someone has gone missing.
There are always two journeys taking place within the films of Steven Spielberg: a journey of self discovery and the journey home. Once Brody boards the Orca he simultaneously begins both of these journeys and, by doing so, eventually reconciles his two fragile personas, that of the police officer and father, into the one universal role of the protector.
In order to do this Brody must again have his isolation from the social group emphasized and his masculinity questioned. As the pursuit of the shark ensues, Brody’s weakness is again brought to the fore, almost to the point of exaggeration: he is the brunt of Quint’s jokes and made to perform all the menial tasks. He cannot swim and has little knowledge of sharks and how to hunt them. He wears a life jacket and repeatedly attempts to tie a simple knot with minimal success. It is almost as if Brody is still looking out of his bedroom window onto the sea for he is still a man at odds with his surroundings, able to comprehend it but unable to master it.
Brody’s point of transition occurs at the narrative’s most masculine moment. As Quint and Hopper sit at the cabin table and compare scars, Brody stands in the corner and sips at his drink. His only scar is from having his appendix removed, a blemish in comparison to those deep shark inflicted marks that run the length of Quint and Hopper arms and legs. Brody asks Quint about the scar on his forearm and all sound drops from the scene. Spielberg’s camera tracks slowly in on Quint’s face as he begins his Indianapolis speech, a monologue that is directed only at Brody, the weak urban man confronted by the strong ancient mariner. It is in this moment that Brody realizes he can never be like Quint (or like Hopper for that matter). He must, like all of Spielberg’s Everyman protagonist’s, accept who they are and confront their ordeal as themselves. As if to intimate this understanding, Brody is seen for the first time joining the group: as Quint and Hopper (ironically) sing Show me the way to go Home, Brody moves out from his dark corner and into the warm light surrounding the cabin table. Sitting opposite the two men, Brody joins in with their drunken song.
Alone on the rapidly sinking Orca, it is Brody – thin, bespectacled and unscarred – who finally kills the shark. As he watches its headless body sink beneath the waves, he is no longer afraid of the unknown (whatever form that may now take) for he has experienced and survived what is above and below the surface. By individually overcoming the threat it is not just normality that is restored but that sense of self is understood, accepted and strengthened. Only now can Brody return home, not to accolades but to the family. Here lies the significance of these four moments Spielberg spends within the Brody household. They are not the beginning of the journey but the end.