Every year, I watch Jaws on the 4th of July. The date is significant – coinciding with the day when a dour New York City cop, a wealthy oceanographer, and a salty fisherman join forces to hunt down a 25-foot man-eating Great White Shark off the coast of New England.
This is the grand premise for Jaws – the remarkable 1975 summer blockbuster that took two years to make and made Steven Speilberg one of the most bankable directors in 20th-century cinema.
45 years on, and Jaws continues to capture the imagination via streaming services, limited cinema reruns and countless releases on domestic formats. The film is fixed in the public consciousness; awakening primal fears of swimming in the open ocean, whilst lending its infamous chromatic theme to any vast, marauding or predatory threat. Jaws’ place in popular culture, and cinematic history, is surely well assured.
At least, that’s what you’d think. Within the complex intellectual circles of film and literary studies, the Great White Shark has floundered in the choppy waters and queer coves of theoretical criticism – often skewered and deconstructed as a brash, broad and toxic bubble-gum flick. Sure, such a brazen sharksploitation movie might be a massive marketing triumph, but it’s a Marxist’s living nightmare. The populism of Jaws hasn’t translated to an equivalent love affair in the academic realm.
After nearly half a century, you’d assume there would be little flesh left to pick from the bones, or teeth, of Jaws. But think again. I.Q. Hunter (Professor of Film Studies at De Montfort University) and Matthew Melia (Lecturer in Film, Media and Literature at Kingston University) have netted a fresh haul of international research and critical analysis on the subject – and it’s a revelation.
At just over 270 pages, The Jaws Book is comprised of 12 academic papers – several of which were first delivered as lectures as part of The Jaws 40th Anniversary Symposium, in addition to two newly-translated essays originally published in German.
The book comes in three parts, just like a three-act movie treatment. The first, ‘Production, Reception and Style’, explores many of the formative influences of the film’s assembly. This section goes some distance to establish Jaws and its place in American film history, whilst unpacking how it was developed, photographed, sharpened by an Oscar-winning edit, and buttressed with a neoclassical score by John Williams.
Quite early in the read, we encounter ‘Not the first: Myths of Jaws’, by Sheldon Hall, who offers a highly enlightening, if slightly disgruntled rebuke of the perpetual folklore around Jaws. Factoids cling to the film, suggesting it apparently changed everything in moviemaking, which Hall debunks with all the clarity and evidence you’d expect from an academic paper. It’s a reassuring and authoritarian chapter, quickly establishing The Jaws Book as an attentive and scrupulous volume of research.
The second collection of essays, ‘Interpretation’, offers a number of original and oblique perspectives on the film. Subjects range from a pertinent observation of Jewish symbolism and imagery, to Jaws as an allegory for the nuclear bomb. It’s here where Matthew Melia reads Jaws as a wet Western – a compelling study that draws comparison to films such as The Wild Bunch, evidencing the epic cinematic backdrops that punctuate the action of both films. It’s hard not to unsee the rodeo-like action after Melia shines the light, which is all the more surprising when we learn that Carl Gottlieb, the screenwriter, didn’t consciously have such intentions for the film.
Finally, Part 3, ‘Beyond Jaws’, ventures through the cultural phenomenon and impact of the movie, including its diminishingly-potent sequels, curious fan edits, influence on natural history films and how the behind-the-scenes stories have become Hollywood legend. We learn that the shadow of Jaws stretches far and wide, whether as a small reference in a documentary, or through the legendary shark theme as a signpost to anything threatening in nature. It would seem that the cultural imprint of Jaws, inherited by each new generation, is indelible.
There’s much to learn from The Jaws Book. But how accessible is this collection for the lay reader? One thing is certain: it is unwaveringly in-depth, as well as provocative. Yet it’s wholly penetrable and a comfortable, breezy read.
It’s also full of unexpected ideas. I approached ‘In The Teeth of Criticism’ by Nigel Morris with some trepidation, expecting to be hectored by critical theory and schooled in the virtues of deconstruction. To my surprise, Morris observes Jaws as an easy target for bitterness; a victim of wildly contradictory critical thinking, particularly throughout the 1970s and 80s. He shines a rational, objective light onto some of the outright bizarre and sneering scholarly readings (we’ve been told it’s blatant propaganda for capitalism, republicanism, conservatism, male dominance, anti-feminism, and buckets more dark arts besides) and suggests that some such conclusions, quite possibly, “represents whatever critics project onto it.” How wonderfully disarming, and soberingly honest.
Other chapters, such as Emilio Audissino’s ‘The Shark is Not Working – But the Music Is’, offers a playful, joyous exploration of the neoclassical musicality of Jaws that would sit most comfortably in an upmarket Sunday supplement. Warren Buckland’s ‘Cutting to The Chase’, on the contrary, is deliciously mathematical and surgical in its study of “Mother Cutter” Verna Fields, whilst ‘Jaws, In Theory’ from Murray Pomerance simply makes the reader feel far more intelligent than they probably are. Always a sign of great writing.
Full of fascinating insights and fresh perspectives, Hunter and Melia have delivered in The Jaws Book a bounty of provocative essays, arresting voices and original thought as diverse and engrossing as the film it serves. The book encourages you to dive deeply, think broadly and explore new depths, as well as the ripples beyond Jaws’ own horizon. It’s a smart, progressive inquiry into a landmark gem in cinema history, and an essential companion for students, researchers and fans of the film. Read it, before you go swimming.
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic Release date: 17th September 2020. Buy ‘The Jaws Book – New Perspectives on the Classic Summer Blockbuster review’ now.