Tag Archives: Sharks

The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 5

SHARK BOMB
by Larissa Glasser

It’s been just over forty years since Spielberg’s adaptation of Jaws (1975) introduced the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), a new monster, to the popular imagination. But this “monster” was not just the product of some fevered imagination, it was a part of the natural world that actually predates our own species by millions of years. What made the film work as a sharp thriller was partly due to the technical difficulties the director had with the mechanical shark “Bruce,” and many of the fright-cues took place by suggestion (due also in part to the John Williams score). It bears repeating–horror should include what we cannot see, at least until it’s too late to escape.

I grew up on Nantucket. The Atlantic Ocean raised me. I stared at that Leviathan for hours, imagining remote, forbidden continents and the hidden forces of the deep. Around the time Jaws hit the screens, I was hearing The Beatles for the first time on my brother’s 8-track at the beach, wondering as a child and not quite sure what to make of life’s unknowns. My brain was very ripe for both the fear and awe thatJaws would inspire.

What made this monster work so well? Well, consider the ocean, the habitat of the shark. Humanity merely uses the ocean. We encroach upon that habitat for commerce, travel, recreation, dumping our trash and toxic waste. In Jaws,this gigantic, sparky fish decides to encroach in turn, mining our coastal shallows for some chow. Jaws served up a not-so-gentle reminder that when it comes to humans battling an unrelenting force of nature, we know who comes out on top. It’s good to be reminded that our dominion is tenuous, at best.

Plenty of ink (and blood) has been spilled on how Jaws shook up the Hollywood-studio model and essentially invented the summer blockbuster, so let’s focus instead that famous scene on board The Orca–The USS Indianapolis.

At this point in the film, tensions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint have eased enough for them to compare scars, drink, and share stories. When Quint gives the solemn account of his survival after the sinking of The Indianapolis, floating defenselessly in the shark-infested Pacific Ocean, the story shifts gears to a deep universal resonance that grips our attention and doesn’t let go. Quint has faced this enemy before, with more intimacy than anyone else present. The experience taught Quint more about sharks in a week than most would care to know in a lifetime. His account also lends historical context and immediacy to the already taut narrative. Quint begins his story in a clinical, almost detached manner as any survivor of trauma might, and then he dives deeper with helpful details about how people might cope with that situation: the forming of tight groups, the fighting back, the screaming. But after all is said and done, nature and its hunger almost always win the fight.

I also like how this scene reflects the intimacy of predator and prey. The eyes of the shark seem lifeless (although their senses are sharp as their teeth), he “don’t seem to be living ‘till he bites you.” Quint also admits he was most frightened as he was about to be rescued from the waters.

Perhaps best of all, Quint’s account of his survival at sea emphasizes the very real threat of the monster he and his fellow hunters face, and how ill-equipped they are to conquer it. They need more than a bigger boat. They need a bomb.

Larissa Glasser is a librarian and SF writer from Boston. She has previously published nonfiction and reviews in Harvard Review, The Boston Phoenix, and Maelstrom. She co-founded the Witching Metal band Hekseri and is a Member at Large of Broad Universe. She’s on Twitter @larissaeglasser.

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The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 3

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS IN THE FIRST GRADE
by Nick Cato

In June, 1975, my grandfather took me (who at the time was seven years old and in the first grade), my brother (who was two years younger and hence not yet in school), and my cousin (who was two years older) to see Jaws. Gramps was a fisherman and used to pick us up early every Sunday morning to go see what was biting. We always had a great time, and for a few months before the film’s release we had asked him if he would take us to see it. In the glorious 70s, without an Internet to ruin things, gramps picked us up one Saturday morning for a 1:00 PM screening. He picked us up at 10:30, but any good fisherman knows to get places early.

The two hour wait in front of the theater would’ve been boring, but my late gramps was a funny guy. He cracked jokes the whole time and eventually had a small audience as the line grew. I believe the film had been out three weeks by then, and we took our seats not knowing what to expect. I vaguely remember reviews from TV saying the film was causing people to stay out of the water, and as far as my parents were concerned, we were going to a movie with our fisherman grandfather to see a movie about a big fish.

Besides the initial sort-of shock this first grader had of seeing a naked woman run down the beach, it was quickly forgotten when an unseen creature gobbled her up within the film’s opening minutes. I had seen Night of the Living Dead on late night TV about a year before this, but Jaws was the very first time I saw a genuinely scary film in a theater. And by the time Hooper went scuba diving and found that decapitated head in the sunken boat, we were all glued to the screen, and the sight of that decapitated head caused my five year-old brother to hop onto my grandfather’s lap, where he remained for the rest of the film.

While, as kids, we loved seeing the shark attack sequences and were traumatized by them for years, it was the amazing performances by the main cast that made the film work so damn well. To this day, whenever I see Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, or Richard Dreyfuss in another film, I simply can’t accept them outside of their Jaws characters (although I kind-of came close to liking Dreyfuss’ role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) almost as much). But he’ll always be the wise-cracking Hooper to me when push comes to shove. I actually went to see Blue Thunder in 1983, but seeing Scheider flying around in a helicopter without blowing a shark to pieces left me feeling cheated. Same for the several older films I afterwards saw with Robert Shaw. I still think they should’ve had him somehow kill a shark in Battle of the Bulge. Okay, that was ten years before Jaws, but work with me here…

I tend to think that my love for gory films came from this screening of Jaws at such an early age. Two sequences in particular (a shot of a man’s leg sinking to the ocean floor, and Quint’s nasty demise as shark chow during the film’s epic finale) really did something to my psyche. As I had been doing for about a year after my late night viewing of Night of the Living Dead, where I obsessively thought about the film, drew pictures of it, and desired nothing more in life than getting to see it again, so I did the same thing with Jaws. It consumed me. I couldn’t get those creepy images out of my mind no matter how hard I tried. And when I finally got to see the film two or three years later on my aunt’s Betamax (anyone remember those?), I enjoyed it as much as my initial screening.

I was fortunate enough to have my own Quint: my grandfather. No, he wasn’t a shark hunter and as far as I know didn’t survive a military sunken ship shark attack, but he was a life-long fisherman who took me, my brother, and my cousin to see one of the greatest films of the 70s, if not of all time. Seeing the film with him made it more special, especially when I caught him nodding in agreement every time Quint spoke about fishing or what they had to do to catch this shark. It almost made the whole experience “3-D.”

Jaws scared the crap out of everyone back then, regardless of age. But seeing it with my gramps made it a little less scary for this (then) first grader, and he made an unforgettable film even more memorable. I watch the film at least once a year to this day and can’t help thinking about him whenever Quint comes on the screen.

And I still find Quint’s demise incredibly hard to watch…

Nick Cato is the author of one novel, five novellas, and a forthcoming book on grindhouse cinema.

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Phoenix Island

There has been a great deal of hype surrounding this, the debut novel from John Dixon.

It was optioned for (read that as: it inspired) a CBS TV show before it was even published, which is quite the impressive feat. Now, because I believe in honesty above all else, I shall take a few lines to give you a brief flurry of thoughts on Intelligence, the show inspired by this novel.

I watched the pilot, actually about 26 minutes of it, before I called it a day. I was so excited, having finished the book, but after seeing what the network delivered I was annoyed. By “inspired,” the creator really means “Hey, I think the idea of a super chip we plug into someone’s brain and it makes them superhero-y is badass; I’m taking it and writing an anemic show about governmenty spy-like action crap and giving it that NCIS pallor, and then I shall sit in my trailer and count my anticipated millions. Muwhahaha!”

I found that disheartening. The incredibly drawn characters and tension notched up with painful precision is gone, replaced with CGI effects and stiff acting. So yeah, I didn’t like the show.

I loved the book, so let me clarify why I choose to air my possibly unpopular view of the show as a preface to my book review. It’s because the book is THAT good and it deserves to be read and win your heart on its own merits. If you watched Intelligence and bought the book expecting to read that sort of pap, you’ll be disappointed. Well, unless you happen to also have taste, then you’ll probably be wisely won over. Or if you bought the book, read it, and then tuned into the show expecting to have your ass handed to you a week at a time. Guess what? More disappointment.

I do this as a measure of disclosure. The show might be good if you like that sort of thing. I don’t. I’m not a fan of much in the way of modern TV shows. The book is great. It deserves to be known as that. Enough ranting. Now, about Phoenix Island

The novel starts with the grim introduction of young Carl Freeman, a boy with a lot of problems but a big heart. He does the wrong things for the right reasons and finds himself on the other side of the judge’s bench.

Through further mishaps and circumstances, Carl finds himself sentenced to time on Phoenix Island, a sort of military boot camp from hell/juvi prison. He and the other troubled youth are subjected to degradation and horrific mental tortures under the guise of toughening them up, which really is a device for weeding out the stronger personalities.

As the story progresses, friends are made as well as enemies. There is brutality and dissension. There is fear and realization. And by the time we reach the stunning climax (think Lord of the Flies meets the first forty minutes of Full Metal Jacket) there is serious emotional conflict.

I have been purposefully vague about the major plot points, mainly because when put up against the depth and realism of the characters and the human progression of their journey, I feel the less you know going in, the better the experience will be.

I will, however, give you some things you have to look forward to: fighting, pigs, sharks, bugs, fighting, bad jokes, sweat, fighting, medical experimentation, fighting, and growing up, in more ways than one.

Phoenix Island is one heavy book. The prose is tight and smooth. Very real and easy to read. If this is Dixon’s debut, sign me up for anything he puts out.

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