Oceans of Fear

Robert Shaw as a freaked out Captain Quint inJaws

Brace yourself: this is a fish tale that can silence – like the great white shark itself – all of its competitors.

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: 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

Next Page

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.