JAWS and Spielberg’s Rise to Auteur Status

A reading of the opening of Jaws (1975), incorporating it’s genre and an indication towards the beginning of Spielberg’s rise to auteur status.

by John-Paul Stephenson

Steven Spielberg is now recognised as one of Hollywood’s leading auteurs; a filmmaker who expresses his identity over a body of films. However, when he directed Jaws in 1975 he didn’t have the expansive filmography that he now carries. The film does, though, contain several important elements that would be eventually recognised as part of a Spielberg film.

Jaws is attributed for introducing the concept of the Summer Blockbuster, a marketing device which significantly altered the way films are distributed. The film enjoyed a saturation run in approximately 500 cinemas simultaneously, along with a very intensive media advertising campaign.

Unfortunately for Spielberg and his cast and crew, the film’s commercial success wasn’t an echo of an smooth running production, which saw the film double it’s budget and triple it’s shooting schedule.

The shark was as much of a monster off-screen as it is in the fictional world. Several model sharks were constructed, each for a different movement. As special effects maestro Bob Mattey had been forced to rush the completion of the models, they weren’t tested properly before being shipped to the set at Martha’s Vineyard, resulting in various problems. One model was cross-eyed, another couldn’t close it’s jaws properly, and another sank straight to the bottom. Also, they were designed for fresh water, making their plastic skin evaporate in an adverse chemical reaction to the salt of the ocean.

Due to these immense technical problems, Spielberg was forced to imply the shark’s existence for the first two thirds of the movie using point of view shots and John William’s infamous music. Although these difficulties made filming a nightmare for Spielberg and his cast and crew, they lead to most of the film’s suspense and critical acclaim.

“….that’s when the film went from a Japanese Saturday-matinee horror flick to more of a Hitchcock, the-less-you-see-the-more-you-get thriller.”

Steven Spielberg2

Jaws is often compared to Psycho (1960), and, just as people were hesitant about taking a shower after Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Spielberg made people very cautious about swimming in the sea.

The film’s opening, a synopsis of which is included in the appendix, sets the tone and themes that the rest of the film will follow.

Before the frame changes to a point of view shot of the shark making it’s path along the sea bed, the theme music begins whilst the frame is completely black, signifying the moral darkness from which the monster rises.

It’s power is amplified right from the beginning. The camera, or the shark, increases its speed in conjunction with the music increasing in tempo, demonstrating the incredible speed that the shark is capable of moving. Indeed, the credits, which are superimposed onto the shot, fade in and out relatively slowly, denoting that the Great White’s speed in comparison to human’s is unbeatable. To the shark, which has existed fundamentally unchanged for millions of years, man is only a visitor to earth’s evolution timeline, and the shark must protect his territory.

By using point of view shots rather than actually showing the shark, Spielberg is increasing the film’s psychological impact. The audience is forced to imagine what the shark looks like, rather than be told. “Sublime terror,” says W.H. Rockett, “rests in the unseen – the Ultimate Horror.”3

Both frame and soundtrack abruptly cut to a group of teenagers, who are drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana around a bonfire. The anti-social hour further emphasises the teens’ rebellion against society. Spielberg here seems to be delivering a parental message, in the form of an allegory. Both activities are illegal, and, by disobeying the law and their peers, one of these youths will suffer.

The camera pans across the party, and although they each feel relaxed in their group, the shallow depth of field indicates that they are all individuals. This concept will be reinstated in the second half of the movie when the three protagonists set out to kill the shark, and, in the climax especially, which features one man against one shark. All of the people on the nearby island cannot help him; he is responsible for his own survival, acknowledging the ideology of individualism of American capitalism, repeated in countless mainstream Hollywood pictures.

The setting is the most obvious element of the genre. The scene is set at night, the setting where the majority of most horror movies takes place, severely limiting both the character’s and the audiences’ visibility. In semiotics, darkness is usually associated with evil, from the black hats of the “baddies” in Westerns to the black costume of Darth Vader. In Western culture, outside of the cinematic world, people wear black, or other dark colours, at funerals. Ideologically black is not a sign of well-being, and this last example indicates that it’s a signifier of death, the fate that Chrissie will soon encounter.

Darkness is an excellent device for directors to use to frighten the audience. We fear not knowing what’s going on around us, and our visibility is severely limited at night. In this instance there are only two light sources, the bonfire and the moon. Both of these are quite weak, and the fire source disappears completely when two of the young people, Chrissie and Cassidy, run from the group.

The bonfire being the initial dominant light source is interesting. Fire is another primal component, and has a number of differentiating signifiers. It’s use here resembles the use of fires within tribes; as a safety mechanism, casting away shadows. The teenagers are protected by this light, but their safety is compromised when they leave the proximity of the fire.

However, although it can provide warmth and comfort, it is often used in the visualisation of hell, and the use of the fire could also be read as a warning signal of what is to come. Spielberg is again making us psychologically unstable, keeping us unsure of our enemies identities. Later in the movie it will be the town’s Mayor, who refuses to close the beaches for financial reasons, who is ultimately responsible for several further shark attacks. Spielberg is warning us to be aware and observe the environment around us before committing ourselves to a preconceived safety.

In a wide shot, Chrissie moves from the brightly illuminated, community half of the frame to talk to Cassidy, who is in the darker, isolated section.

We are further startled when the pair run from the party. The juxtaposition between community and isolation is conspicuous, and Spielberg is introducing a structure which will be repeated throughout the film.

“An initially humorous tone is then replaced by an atmosphere heavy with menace and then dissipated entirely by a shark attack.”

Neil Sinyard4

As she runs towards the ocean, Chrissie strips away her clothes, increasing Cassidy’s desire to catch up to her. These two strangers are clearly intending to have sex in the water, though this is prevented when Cassidy passes out.

“Their casual attitude towards sex may seem shocking in the age of AIDS, though in the free-loving seventies, it was accepted as the norm. But even though both kids seem innocent and appealing, it is her naive flower-child promiscuity that leads to catastrophic results.”

Douglas Brode5

Her nakedness not only represents the sexual theme, it also increases her vulnerability; nudity being another recognisable icon of the genre. In most modern horror films, the protagonist is a lone female battling against a vast, irrational force. Although the heroine wears very little clothing, the nudity, as is here, is rarely explicit. The darkness of the night and water maintain Susan Backlinie’s modesty. Visible nudity would compromise a family audience and gain Spielberg a ‘R’ certificate, aswell as violating his own artistic traits.

By having his characters dispose of their clothing, Spielberg is again reducing the elements of the film to the most primal. Nudity represents nature, making the attack into a basic fight between man and fish.

Chrissie is not aware that Cassidy has fallen asleep, and is now totally isolated. She has run such a distance along the beach, and then out into the ocean that the nearby community cannot hear her subsequent screams. She is alone in an unknown world; anything can exist beneath the surface. The possibilities of the terrors is only limited by the spectator’s imagination.

As Chrissie continues swimming, the frame changes to a point of view shot, accompanied by the music which we were introduced to in the opening shot. The implication of the imminent danger that the combination of the music and visual icon represents has already been established, and the audience reaccesses this knowledge having been briefly caught relaxing to the cheerful beach party.

The audience’s expectations are realised when Chrissie feels a sharp pain, and then begins splashing about in the water as she is attacked. What we are witnessing is her symbolic rape by the shark, whose shape loosely resembles a penis, just as Hitchcock’s Birds had to Tippi Hedren. The diegetic elements of the soundtrack, consisting of her screams and pleas of “Oh, God,” resembles that of an orgasm, where the cries are used to express feelings of ecstasy, rather than pain.

The unseen shark thrashes her around in the water, and she eventually clings onto a buoy, making it’s bell ring, in a vain attempt to alert the nearby community. After a final grasp for breath, she finally disappears under the surface of the water, and the frame dissolves to a match shot for the beginning of the next sequence.

A specific genre should be understood, argued Tzvetan Todorov, as an abstract, theoretical and provisional structure but itself transformed by each new production so ‘any instance of a genre will be necessarily different.’6

Because of its Hitchcockian echoes, some critics classify Jaws as a “thriller,” whilst others disagree. Douglas Brode describes Jaws as a “realistic horror movie,”7 and this expository scene contains recognisable iconography of the genre, most of which are primal in a film which will continue to strongly address primal themes.

Her extravagant death is very typical of a genre which is used to very dramatic, physical executions. Very rarely would you see someone poisoned and die peacefully in their sleep, as you would maybe in an early thriller. Horror deaths are much more violent, from Psycho‘s shower murder to the immense bloodshed of the eighties slasher movies.

In conclusion, Jaws doesn’t belong to a solely to a specific genre, instead being one of many films that can be cross referenced; in this case the classification is horror/thriller. Although many of it’s elements do belong to horror, the narrative, thematic and structural qualities and it’s psychological tendencies are more identifiable to Todorov than Polanski.

This extract contains many of the elements which constitutes a “Spielberg movie,” and which reoccur in his future productions. It fulfils some of the criteria which Andrew Sarris8 suggested to qualify someone as auteur, clearly indicating the beginning of Spielberg’s elevation to this status. Spielberg is renowned for his affinity for children, and this extract, with it’s parental undertones, seems to act as a prototype for his subsequent films, especially E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982). Having already introduced to us in the opening shot his most identifiable theme, Spielberg now continues to fulfil some more of Sarris’ criteria.

Sarris suggests that many auteurs regularly acknowledge established filmmakers or films by ‘borrowing’ clips. For example, Hitchcock, whom Spielberg is regularly compared to, paid homage in Foreign Correspondent (1940) to The Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925). The way in which Chrissie enters the water, and her briefly peaceful swim resembles Gill-Man’s underwater ballet in Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954).

In a relatively short extract, there are so many other elements which indicates Spielberg as auteur, the most obvious being the continuation of his collaboration with composer John Williams, a working relationship which still continues today.

Jaws also sees the commencement of Spielberg’s collaboration with actor Richard Dreyfuss, who plays ichthyologist Matt Hooper. Dreyfuss has appeared in two other Spielberg movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Always (1989), and has said that he is sure that they will make many more pictures together.

These elements contribute to what constitutes a Spielberg movie, and his name gives the industry an insurance value, along with the audience a desire to see a film. The ordinary spectator will not consciously be aware of his thematic continuity, but will still expect them to be incorporated into his films.

“[The auteur sign] will signify a set of stylistic and thematic features, which, it is anticipated, will be identifiable in the text of a film bearing the auteur name.”

Patrick Phillips9

An auteur expresses his identity over a body of films, and as Jaws was only his second cinematic offering he was not at this point in his career considered eligible for this status.

Bibliography

W.H. Rockett ‘Perspectives,’ Journal of Popular Film and Television vol. 10 No. 3, Fall 1982

Douglas Brode The Films of Steven Spielberg, Carol Publishing Group, 1995

Neil Sinyard The Films of Steven Spielberg, Bison Books Ltd, Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1987

Patrick Phillips An Introduction to Film Studies, Edited by Jill Nelmes, Routledge, 1996

Christine Gledhill The Cinema Book, Edited by Pam Cook, BFI, 1985

Appendix I – Synopsis of Extract

The opening point of view shot of the shark making it’s way along the sea bed cuts to a late night beach party, attended by 1970’s teenagers smoking marijuana around a bonfire. One of the teenage girls, Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie), catches the eye of a boy, Cassidy (Jonathan Filley).

The pair run from the party towards the ocean, removing their clothes. The drunken Cassidy stumbles and falls as Chrissie enters the water on her own, where she is attacked and killed by a shark.

Notes

1. The concept of auteur theory is problematic, and some critics believe that no one person can be the sole author of a film. Discussion over the term’s existence is not relevant here, and this essay presumes that the term does have meaning.

2. Quoted in Premiere magazine’s “20 Year Retrospective of Jaws.”

3 ‘Perspectives,’ Journal of Popular Film and Television vol. 10 No. 3, Fall 1982

4 The Films of Steven Spielberg, Page 36

5 The Films of Steven Spielberg

6 Paraphrased from The Cinema Book, Page 80

7 The Films of Steven Spielberg, Page 54

8 creator of auteur theory

9 An Introduction to Film Studies, Page 150

The essay as a whole is copyright the author; all known sources are acknowledged

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