Saturday, August 23, 2014

Manliest Movie of the 1970's: Jaws

I don't think there are enough superlatives that can be given to Jaws.

It is easily in my top 10 movies of all time.

But for the purposes of today, I want to focus on the nature of manhood and what Jaws says about that.

The 1970's was a decade of gritty cinema.  We had a number of Dirty Harry films, not to mention Death Wishes.  We had characters like Popey Doyle and Rocky Balboa.  There were a lot of rough and violent men in the movies of this time.

But I don't equate violence with manliness.  To be sure, strength is a key component.  But physical strength alone is just pure machismo, not real manliness.

This is why Jaws is the manliest movie.

The movie has many fantastic themes and motifs.  But the most important theme is this: what is to be a man?  My main evidence of this is the fact that half of the movie only has 3 characters all living in a different Freudian space.

But let's take a step back.  Ultimately, the movie is about Martin Brody becoming a real man.  We first see him waking up in a very cozy, domestic bed with simple life problems.  He says in the movie that he retreated to Amity Island to escape danger.  This is a man who avoids danger.  They make a big deal about how he never goes into the water.  He lets the mayor push him around and change his original decision to close the beaches.  He only lets Hooper cut open the tiger shark and go out to sea because he's drunk.

It isn't until his son is attacked that he gets the guts to confront the mayor and force him to take action.  What is so important about this moment is that it occurs not before the 3rd act but only half way through the movie.  This is only a step on his character arch, not its resolution.  Part of manliness is overcoming fear.  But that isn't all.  This is where the second half of the movie is so insightful.

On the Orca you have 3 men: Quint, Brody, and Hooper.  They represent Id, Ego, and Superego respectively.  I don't mean to say that the movie is a simplistic allegory, but you cannot deny the psychological space these characters make up.

Let's first look at Quint.  He is a man of pure passion.  He feels and then acts.  Look at his introduction in the movie.  Have you ever wanted to scratch a chalkboard even though it hurt your ears?  Quint shows no hesitation and goes full throttle on the board, holding nothing back.  He cuts through polite society like a knife.  He has no manners, insulting anyone and everyone around him.

But he is strong and decisive.  He acts on instinct and doesn't question it.  When the shark first encounters his line, he barks orders and intuitively understand that the shark is smart and has gone under the boat, even when smarter people like Hooper tell him differently.  He barks abuses and others act.

This is because passion is powerful.  There are very few things that can motivate us to action like emotion.  It is like the fuel that gives energy to the engine.  Your GPS might know where to go, but without gas, you are inert.  Quint acts with fire and strength.  He makes the other men feel inferior and weak.

But Quint is not the image of manliness.  He is broken.  Listen again to that amazing, Oscar-worthy monologue by Richard Shaw as Quint about the USS Indianapolis:

There are so many wonderful things to pick out here.  Notice how it the story has no logical structure.  He says they didn't know what the sharks looked like because no distress signal had been sent.  Also notice how he doesn't really think about the story, he just feels it.  His mood swings wildly.

But I think the most important part is this line: "So, 1100 men went into the water, 316 come out, sharks took the rest."

Quint never actually says that he was rescued.  He says he most frightened waiting for his turn, but he never says he got out.  Quint was never saved.  He never got past that event and he has gone a bit mad. Rationality and willpower have no real place in him.  He lost those in the terror of the waters.  The sharks took his sanity.

This is why he refuses to get a bigger boat.  This is why he destroys the radio (and by doing this cripples the free will by removing the ability to choose rescue).  This is why he pushes the engines even though Hooper tells him they will blow.   And if that is all there is to a person, they will burn out and die.  I will speak more on this later.

But let us turn now our attention to Hooper.  He is the intellect or superego of our trio.  Brody calls him in with all of his expertise in sharks and Hooper is the on-the-spot expert.  Martin listens to him as his intellectual superior.

Hooper is also curious and sarcastic.  His main weapons are his wits.  A big deal is made out of his scrawniness as he's physically intimidated by fishermen like Quint.  He feebly tries to get men out of an overloaded boat and mutters, "They're all gonna die," under his breath.

But he needs to see and examine things.  He goes through the remains of the first victim.  He cuts open the tiger shark.  He swims to examine Ben Gardner's boat in the middle of the night.  These things could be considered brave, but I would say it speaks more for his need to know.  The intellect needs to have knowledge to feed it.

But Hooper is not the image of manliness either.  He has a lot of tools at his disposal and has a wealth of knowledge.  The problem is that he is ultimately weak.  I don't mean that he is not willing venture out.  But he has an inability to succeed on his own.  He drops the tooth in Ben Gardner's boat.  He drops the poison javelin.  He lets Quint beat him down about the engines.

This leaves us with Brody.  He represents the ego or the will.  And one of the main reasons he is not the man he should be at the beginning of the movie is that his will is weak.  As written earlier, he lets himself get pushed around.  And he is terrified of making the wrong decision.  Notice how he shuts down after Mrs. Kintner confronts him.  His job is to make choices and he made the wrong one, which resulted in a boy's death.  He loses all confidence.

Except for confronting the mayor, he constantly defers to others.  He leans on Hooper's intellect.  He tells Quint "You're gonna need a bigger boat."  Notice it's not "We're gonna need a bigger boat."  He is rely on Quint to kill the shark.  He follows Quint's lead and direction.

Martin begins asserting himself, but again assertiveness is not the same as manliness.  Notice how he impotently empties his pistol into the shark to no effect.  The will by itself cannot accomplish what it needs to accomplish.  Neither can the passions or the intellect.  But the will is the central and key aspect to manhood.

By themselves, each of these three qualities will lead to ruin.  Notice how Quint dies.  He made reason his enemy.  He cannot think his way out of problems.  Notice how blank he becomes when the shark takes down 3 barrels.  He is not open to new ways of thinking (though he comes close by helping Hooper with his cage).  And so Hooper's oxygen tank roles over his fingers, showing reason and logic rejecting him.  He reaches out for the will to save him, represented by Brody.  But the full weight of his passions are too much and he slips. into destruction.  He was damaged by his past and became a being of pure passion.  But that passion ended up leading him back to the fate that he never really escaped to begin with.  By not listening to reason or the will he is burned up.

Hooper must hide.  He is not the thunderbolt that Quint is and cannot save himself.  He has enough knowhow to think his way out of a trap and to avoid confrontation.  But he will be overwhelmed.  The same is true of pure intellect.  You can know what is right and have the correct knowledge of how to do the right.  But if you don't have the power or the will to do it, you are stuck.

This is where Brody becomes the model of manliness.  He is the will.  And manhood is primarily defined by the will.  His will starts weak but then becomes strong.  As the Orca sinks he does not give in to simple fear.  He acts.  He plans.  Watch how he positions himself ready despite going down.

But he is not simply acting as pure will.  Movies like The Matrix Revolutions tried to make the will alone the mark of humanity.  But Brody has integrated both the passions and the intellect in its proper place.  Notice how he kills the shark: with Quint's rifle and Hooper's oxygen tank.  He takes the role of Quint by aiming and firing and acting.  He even mutters and shouts obscenities to himself like Quint.  But he uses Hooper's brains he actually has a plan.  He is not simply shooting wildly.  He is actually aiming for the tank to blow up the shark.

Brody becomes a man by using his passions and making a friend of reason.  Even in the end, all three are needed.  He and Hooper kick their way to shore.  But Quint's barrels are what keep them afloat.  The passions need to keep us afloat, but they must be our servant, not our masters.

And thus Jaws gives a true vision of manhood: someone who is a creature of action in close union with reason and can muster the passions to bold action.

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