I saw Jaws on TV this weekend. Not strictly connected to the well-being movement, but a wonderful film, and a psychologically acute one. I think the film traumatized an entire generation with its connection of the sea with danger and predators.
What I really love about the film, what makes it one of my top ten movies, is the narrative structure. I can’t think of a film that is better paced as a narrative – the film never lets up, from the first discovery of a dead body, to the final destruction of the shark. It’s like the great Hitchcock movies in its artistry and the economy of each shot adding to the overall power of the narrative.
Like other great horror movies – Alien, Predator – Jaws emphasizes what John Gray called the contingency of humanity. Humans build up their civilizations which protect us from nature, which gives us the illusion that we are the masters of nature. But there, out in nature, is a beast that is deadlier than we are, that makes us look impotent and powerless (emphasized in the underwater shots of the pathetic human legs flailing around in the water). Horror movies are, like Greek tragedies, about the revenge of nature upon civilization.
However, while the film is about human impotence in the face of nature, it is also about the main character’s journey from powerlessness to power. At the beginning of the film, Chief Brodie is crippled by his fear of nature – he is scared to go into the water or into boats. He has a sort of generalized anxiety, manifested in sea-phobia, but also in a concern about accidents happening to himself or his family (he’s worried about his son falling off the swing at the beginning of the film).
It is not just his fears and anxieties that disempower him. His authority is also checked within the institutional framework of civilization, by the mayor, by the forces of commerce, by family life, all of which to some extent compromise his authority. This is what makes it rather poignant when Hooper asks him if he has the authority to cut open a dead shark. ‘Of course I can’ he replies. ‘I’m the chief of police’. In fact, his authority has, up to this point, been consistently undermined.
Rather than continuing to suffer from these petty phobias and discontents of civilization, he leaves civilization, journeying beyond its boundaries like an archetypal hero, and faces the daimonic creature at its fringes. He finally confronts the beast alone, as he is sinking into the water, and blows it up. By the end of the film, he has the new-found confidence to say ‘I used to hate the water’ as he is swimming in to the coast. He has confronted the brutality of nature, and conquered it. So in a way, the film is a final triumph of humanism.