Oceans of Fear

Fishing and stories are inseparable: They share a symbiotic relationship that only the most dependent remora or pilot fish could appreciate (you know, those funky-looking fish that follow sharks everywhere). Without stories, fishing trips quickly recede into our memory’s darkest pools, teaching few lessons, and connecting us with Nothing.

With stories, fishing trips quickly resurface on our memory’s brightest pages, teaching many lessons, and connecting us with Everything. The same holds true of fish in general: the most impressive ones – dolphins, sharks, whales, etc. – appear under dramatic circumstances that not only need, but demand narratives to amplify their character, suspense, and wild brevity.

If those statements hold water, it’s not surprising why Steven Spielberg’s seminal 1975 masterpiece Jaws is arguably the most important fish tale in American popular culture. It spawned schools of copycats, from the respectable Orca: The Killer Whale to an assembly line of cheap, schlocky rip-offs. It revolutionized the way many perceive the ocean, swimming, beaches, and sharks. It ignited a commercial frenzy of shark-related merchandise and paraphernalia and closed a door on the independent, low-budget, avant-garde strains of the American New Wave.

DVD: Jaws (30th Anniversary Edition)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss

Year: 1975

Rated: PG

US DVD release date: 2005-06-14

Distributor: Universal

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/justice-jaws-cover.jpgJaws also infiltrated American culture with an armada of propaganda and misinformation about the ocean’s most important predator.

However, part of the film’s legacy lost in that bewildering whirlwind is this: it abounds with provocative fish tales. Essentially, Jaws is a fish story about fish stories. And the most important tale in Jaws is Captain Quint’s haunting, iconic yarn about the U.S.S. Indianapolis. His story, and the uncharacteristic solemnity in which he narrates it, is the greatest modern fish tale ever told.

Why is Quint’s tale so important and impressive?

A few answers immediately emerge, and the first is exposure. Think of how many filmgoers know the story, listening to the crusty captain while gripping their seat cushions in a deluge of ichthyologic fright. Another is the fact that Jaws is one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful films: it was directed by one of America’s most popular directors and featured two of the decade’s Hollywood heavyweights: Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss. The tale was told among elite company.

Furthermore, Robert Shaw’s performance is as good as it gets for ‘70s cinema. Few actors have been better cast than Shaw was in Jaws. It’s impossible to think of anyone else playing Quint other than the curmudgeonly Shaw, and his talent shines brightest when narrating the legend of the Indianapolis.

More importantly, Quint’s tale serves numerous purposes because it’s central to the film’s narrative structure. One striking feature is how well the solemnity and reverence that characterize Quint’s tale are juxtaposed against the film’s chaos and verbal confusion. Although disharmony defines the dynamics among Quint, Hooper, and Chief Brody, Quint’s tale is highlighted by a refreshing sense of harmony.

Before the tale is told, the three men joke drunkenly in a rare moment of fun. During the story, Quint addresses the marine biologist as “Mr.” Hooper, a sign of respect during this moment of mutually understood graveness and a blatant departure from his typical barks of “Hooper!”

After the story’s conclusion, the three men sing in unison, something unimaginable prior to the tale. Although their unity is short-lived, and although Quint and Hooper antagonize each other throughout the film, their momentary solidarity is a sign that the shark – and Quint’s narrative – transformed them, bringing these stoic men emotionally closer.

Prior to Quint’s tale, stories ripen and open these men’s hearts. Before the Indianapolis resurfaces, Quint and Hooper trade “scar stories”. Hooper reveals a scar and narrates a tale about a bull shark that bit him on the leg; Quint does the same about a thresher shark that also bit his. Brody then looks at his stomach scars, presumably from a surgical procedure, but they don’t match the masculine bravado Quint and Hooper demonstrate.

Interestingly, it’s this display of bravado that simultaneously unites and distances Quint and Hooper. They share numerous similarities: mutual obsessions, leg scars, and one glorified objective: they’re searching – although for dramatically different reasons – for the same monstrous great white.

They also share an epic initiation story that launched their “shark hunting” careers. For Quint, it’s the Indianapolis; for Hooper, it’s when he was 12-years-old, not far offshore in a small boat, when a thresher shark ravaged his watercraft.

However, although both initiation stories are suspenseful, their differences reveal much about these men: Quint’s epic experience was profoundly tragic and occurred as an adult during wartime among hundreds of men; Hooper’s epic experience resulted in a happy ending as an adolescent during a moment of solitary recreation. Hooper became a solitary man working independently among a community of scholars; Quint was a naval officer working in communion with sailors who became an independent shark hunter. Essentially, sharks turned Hooper toward society; sharks turned Quint away.

Equally interesting during these “scar” stories is that Hooper twice refers to women to lighten the somber tone. Describing a wound on his chest, Hooper sophomorically suggests that a young lady – Mary Ellen Moffitt – produced his greatest scar: a broken heart. He also wonders if Quint’s tattoo states, “Mother”. Stories of man vs. shark are juxtaposed against stories of man vs. women, and in both instances it appears that for Hooper, ironically, women are the greater challenge.

Quint remains silent about these references to women, a sign that as the alpha male they don’t faze him, which his tale about the Indianapolis amplifies. Amidst danger and reminiscing about former relationships with women, the men bond further.

Hooper and Brody’s responses to Quint’s tale reveal just how sacred and reverential the legend of the Indianapolis was, is, and can be. When Hooper hears the “U.S.S. Indianapolis”, he is immediately aroused and hooked, as if Quint uttered some magical incantation or “code” about sharks. At the story’s end, the usually vocal Hooper is stunned and speechless. He knows the Indianapolis is a fish tale that can silence – like the great white shark itself – all of its competitors.

The scene’s composition is equally pivotal. If each character is an allegorical figure representing some type of legal authority – Hooper is scientific law; Quint is natural law, best understood through experience; and Brody is manmade law delivered through jurisprudential means – then it’s clear the film’s ethos argues that natural law is the most powerful. Even Hooper at one point states, “Nature has no conscience.”

In this classic scene, Hooper occupies the background, suggesting that science will take a back seat in this epic struggle. Quint is in the foreground, suggesting the most authoritative “law” is natural law, and the best way to know it is through first-hand experience. The camera only cuts intermittently to Brody, suggesting that manmade law is irrelevant or subordinate to the scene’s primary players. Jaws reminds us that scientific knowledge and manmade law cannot compete with Nature.

From Ocean of Fear

Feeding Frenzy

A revengeful Jaws

Feeding Frenzy

This tale ends on this horrific note: sharks kill an average of four humans a year; in that same timeframe, humans kill around 40 million sharks.

The story itself, as narrated by Quint, goes like this: A Japanese submarine shot two torpedoes into the U.S.S. Indianapolis, sinking it in 12 minutes. About 1,100 men went overboard (actual reports suggest about 300 went down with the ship). Quint’s group didn’t see a shark for half an hour. The first was a 13 footer; “You measure that by judgin’ the dorsal to the tail,” Quint says.

He then describes the tragedy’s great irony: because the Indianapolis was delivering uranium for atomic bombs, it was a secret mission; no distress signals were permitted, and nobody even knew the boat sunk until days later. Quint’s most haunting delivery may be this one – “Sometimes a shark go away; sometimes he wouldn’t go away” – because he articulates his death knell so cavalierly and rhythmically.

Then he turns poetic, describing the shark’s eyes as “lifeless” and black “like a doll’s eyes”. His stoicism and self-effacing heroism are contagious. Then he turns horrific, narrating his encounter with Herbie Robinson from Cleveland, who bobbed because he had been “bitten in half beneath the waist”. Quint’s coda echoes like a historical imprint, a lasting memory reduced to numerals: “Eleven hundred of us went into that ocean — three hundred and sixteen got out. Yeah. Nineteen hundred and forty five. June the twenty-ninth.”

However, the story’s greatest impact is not what Quint narrates, but what his tale implies. Since the Indianapolis was in essence a key player that helped launch the Atomic Age, which caused profound ecological horror, implicit in Quint’s rendering of this traumatic event is that the Indianapolis’s fate was Nature’s retribution for dropping the bomb. Interestingly, his tale ends not with a reference to what happened, but with this triumphant claim about what they accomplished: “Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

To Quint, the military’s nuclear ambitions take center stage, not the sharks or his fallen comrades. However, immediately after the story, the eerie sounds of a whale, literally the “biggest fish in the sea”, are heard to remind us that Nature will always have the final say in the epic battle pitting Man vs. the Environment.

DVD: Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis

Director: Robert Iscove

Cast: Stacy Keach, Richard Thomas

Year: 1991

Rated: not rated

US DVD release date: 2007-07-31

Distributor: MGM

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/justice-missionshark-cover.jpgIn 1991, a made-for-TV movie titled Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis was released to commemorate the event. A good film, Mission of the Shark focuses more on military matters than on shark attacks. Starring Stacy Keach as the beleaguered Captain Charles Butler McVay and a host of talented supporting actors including David Caruso, Gordon Clapp, and Bob Gunton, viewers will not be disappointed.

The film aptly conveys the unique levels of secrecy surrounding the mission, and the bomb is described as “the deadliest damn weapon this species has come up with to date.” War film aficionados will be impressed with the special effects that dramatize the ship’s sinking. Interesting tidbits about Japan’s use of underwater kamikazes – kaitens – are offered, and the overall horror of war is vividly felt.

While floating, the surviving sailors fight amongst themselves, hallucinate regularly, mistake each other for “Japs,” and drink saltwater. Planes pass but they don’t spot the floating sailors. Amidst all this, Mission of the Shark suggests that the shark attacks – and there are a few – were only one of many life-threatening ordeals these sailors faced. Footage of tiger sharks is mostly used, and the first attack is an all-out feeding frenzy. Eventually, the sailors feed their dead comrades to the sharks.

Throughout all this is McVay’s steady hand. Serving under the shadow of his decorated father, also a celebrated naval hero, McVay’s leadership is admirable. He’s tough but respected, proud but not stubborn, idealistic yet practical. His men respect him, but his fate is mired in tragic consequences that even Sophocles would envy.

If McVay used the “zigzag” course some of his peers suggested, he could have theoretically made his ship a more difficult target. But he didn’t, and after the war he is court-martialed and accused of two acts of negligence: one for not zigzagging, the other for not abandoning ship earlier. Although he is cleared of the latter, he is guilty of the former, a charge that is solidified when, in a remarkable display of justice,

Japanese Admiral Hashimoto, his adversary, testifies in a US court how easy the Indianapolis was to hit.

Ironically, Hashimoto could have struck the ship before it delivered the bomb, but he chose not to, a tragic fate he too must accept. It’s here where the film delivers its most powerful point: history rests delicately on the decisions of individual people. In one final encounter, Hashimoto says, “You are a man who believes in faith.” McVay replies, “No, I’m a man who is trying to accept it.” Prophetically, Hashimoto states, “It’s not easy to be a survivor.” Apparently so… tragically, in 1968 McVay committed suicide.

DVD: Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever

Year: 2007

Rated: not rated

US DVD release date: 2008-07-22

Distributor: Discovery Channel

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/j/justice-oceanfear-cover.jpgIn 2007, the Discovery Channel celebrated the 20th anniversary of its popular Shark Week series with an opening program titled Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever. Given its context and audience, this recreation of the Indianapolis’ tragedy is understandably all about the sharks. Narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, Ocean of Fear draws an immediate link to Jaws and quickly creates suspense by explaining how sounds from the ship’s sinking attracted hundreds of sharks within minutes of the disaster.

The numerous low-angle shots from underwater, making sailors appear like wounded fish, is frighteningly effective because it’s the sharks’ perspectives we’re forced to embrace. At times Ocean of Fear is awkwardly repetitive, but overall, it complements our understanding of the Indianapolis by adding provocative details that expand our appreciation of the torturous conditions these brave sailors faced.

Adding to Dreyfuss’ narration, actors play the roles of survivors to create the impression of first-hand accounts. We learn many interesting details: how some sailors combated large air bubbles generated by the sunken ship; that the foreboding image of the Japanese submarine’s return resembled a giant shark fin; that the extreme temperatures the sailors dealt with – tropical heat during the day, surprisingly frigid air at night – decimated many; that the water was drenched in oil, and while some sailors accidentally ingested it, others used it as suntan lotion; that the opening of a can of Spam triggered a flurry of shark attacks; that the large floating pods of sailors produced shade, which attracted smaller fish, which ultimately attracted more sharks; that after drinking saltwater sailors had about five hours to live; and that some sailors felt the Navy had betrayed them.

The program also offers actual footage of the Indianapolis’s rescue in addition to good underwater footage of oceanic whitetip and mako sharks. The documentary makes clear that most of the sailors died for reasons not related to sharks, but nevertheless, the thousands of sharks under them benefited tremendously. Ocean of Fear also reminds us that in 1999 Captain McVay was cleared of his remaining charge of negligence.

From Ocean of Fear

Ocean of Fear ends with this horrific note: Sharks kill an average of four humans a year; in that same timeframe, humans kill around 40 million sharks. No further explanation of this data is provided, which makes these final lines seem odd for a documentary subtitled “The Worst Shark Attack Ever”. If so many sailors died of causes unrelated to shark attacks, is it fair to call this “the worst shark attack ever”? Can we ever know how many sailors died because of sharks on those dream-like summer days in 1945?

Of course not, but sharks have been sensationalized and misunderstood for centuries, a confusion greatly exacerbated ever since Spielberg and Quint articulated their masterful yarns. With Dreyfuss navigating this opening foray into Shark Week’s 20th year, perhaps a sense of remorse and regret was intentionally connoted in those final lines. Perhaps the worst shark attack ever is the one we humans have been telling about them in novels, theaters, and televisions across the globe.