Thursday, March 1, 2012

JAWS (1975), JAWS 2 (1978)

MYTHICITY: (1) *good*, (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*

At present the trope to which I've given the least attention on this blog is that of "astounding animals," having reviewed only two films with the uncanny phenomenality (NABONGA and LEOPARD MAN) and one with the naturalistic phenomenality (THE SAVAGE GIRL).  And none of these films dealt with one of the most interesting aspects of such films: the viewer's confrontation with the strange-but-true nature of the other animals with whom he shares this planet.  This is one fascinating manifestation of the phenomenological function that Campbell calls "the cosmological," which is devoted to sussing out the physical nature of the cosmos.
However, the viewer can only find this function within the initial film in the series.  Steven Spielberg's JAWS spawned a couple dozen other "animal attack" films, but like the rest of the series, most of them did not really concentrate on knowing the nature of the animal in order to bring forth the viewer's awe and terror.  I would imagine that the cosmological meditations on the power and nature of the shark derive from Peter Benchley's bestseller novel (which I have not read), and that he and fellow scripter Carl Gottlieb simply adapted these meditations into the screenplay.  No such meditations make it into the finished sequel JAWS 2, even though Benchley and Gottlieb scripted that as well: possibly the two of them "shot their bolt" with the first film and never got it back.  (Benchley went on to have other piscatorial books adapted by television: Gottlieb produced his best writer-director work in 1981's CAVEMAN.)
To some extent a measure of the JAWS screenplay's success surely derives from the directorial input of Spielberg as well: his shark-haunted Amity Island is filled with dozens of "bits of business" both by the principal and peripheral characters.  Had any film since Frank Capra's days got so much mileage out of a quote as minor and meaningless as "That's some bad hat, Harry?"  Spielberg would tend to use this Classic Hollywood approach toward verismilitude in the majority of his subsequent films, though JAWS is one of the few times the majority of critics appreciated him for it.  Possibly the JAWS screenplay benefits from having pruned the Benchley novel down to its existential essentials, which may have made it more popular with the critical elite.
Putting aside the Ibsenesque touches about the cupidity of Amity's ruling body, more conerned with profit than human lives, the central conflict is between the merciless "killing machine" that is the Great White and the three men who choose to throw himself in its path.  These three-- Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and Quint (Robert Shaw)-- are types Spielberg would use over and over in varying combinations: the conflicted family man, the educated know-it-all, and the plainspoken "real man."  I hesitate to read any deeper themes into them than that, having seen this howling monstrosity paraphrased from a work by Frederic Jameson:
[Jameson] views Quint's demise as the symbolic overthrow of an old, populist, New Deal America and Brody and Hooper's partnership as an "allegory of an alliance between the forces of law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations ... in which the viewer rejoices without understanding that he or she is excluded from it."-- Wikipedia "Jaws" article.
The most I will say is that I do think it significant that Quint, the only member of the three-man crew who possesses a lifetime of experience with the sea, is the only one of the three who perishes in the maw of the shark.  However, I prefer to interpret this development as less ideological and more poetic in nature: Quint lives by the sea and he dies by the sea.  Benchley's novel, incidentally, kills both Quint and Hooper, and Quint dies not in the horrific mouth of the shark but by an accident not unlike the one that claims Captain Ahab in MOBY DICK.  Benchley and Spielberg don't anatomize the shark quite as extensively as Melville anatomized the whale, but when JAWS is done, even the shark's destruction doesn't dim one's memory of him as a creature of almost supernatural ferocity.

JAWS 2 was almost destined to pale in comparison to the original, but even so, the producers chose poorly in hiring Jeannot Swarc to helm the film.  With a few exceptions Swarc in 1975 had principally worked in televison movies and series, and it's clear from the film's earliest scenes that he's practically an anti-Spielberg in terms of handling characters. Brody, the only returning member of the first film's trifecta, becomes nearly as colorless as the cookie-cutter inhabitants of Amity, and is lifted from mediocrity only by the strength of Scheider's performance.  Lorraine Gary returns as Brody's wife, and worries a lot; Murray Hamilton returns as Mayor Vaughan and continues to be a profit-seeking douche.  Such colorless characters probably wouldn't be as noticeable in a teleseries episode, but here their banality becomes excructiating in the big-screen format. The new shark in town strikes a victim here, a victim there, but only becomes an impressive menace in the last twenty minutes of JAWS 2, where once again Brody is the only man who can take out the fishy fiend. 

I debated whether or not Swarc's take on the shark was so tedious as to propel the film into the realm of the naturalistic, but ultimately I decided that in those last twenty minutes Swarc does basically follow through on Spielberg's inhuman killing-machine characterization of the briny beast, so JAWS 2 falls into the category of the uncanny as well.

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