Spielberg a powerful tool to instill a chilling fear

Spielberg imbues his film with further psychological meaning through the lingua franca of Image and sound. By definition Lingua franca is: a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a first language. The opening sequence is a clear illustration.  After the Universal logo disappears the screen goes to pitch black as the audience in the dark auditorium are momentarily robbed of their vision.

Spielberg uses this primal aspect of darkness to immediately put the viewer in a position of helplessness. Additionally, non-diegetic, unfamiliar and eerie sounds and music are used just before we cut to underwater, the screen blue and cold, the accompanying shark theme song slowly starts building note by note. The camera moves along the ocean floor, scanning the bed rhythmically and restlessly in unison with the music. The viewer stays with the camera’s point of view, tension building as the viewer feels he is on the side of an antagonist. But the antagonist holds power over the viewer through its very concealment; a position where it sees and seeks and remains unseen. From the first few minutes of the film Spielberg already uses the unseen as a powerful tool to instill a chilling fear in the viewer, the fear of the unknown.

What follows is a cut to a beach party with young people sitting around a bonfire, drinking, smoking and talking. A stark change in colour takes place as the orange hues from the fire warms the viewer up and puts him solidly back on land and out of danger. The camera pans across the group  as they talk, some kiss, then stops on a male looking away form the group. We cut to what he is looking at, a woman further away from the group, he goes to her and they talk but we don’t hear, she stands up and starts running teasingly, he follows. As they run further and further along a jagged teeth-like bamboo fence, the scene turns instantly a deathly bluish grey, she takes off her clothes as she keeps running towards the shore. He tries to keep up, tries to take off his clothes, yelling ‘I’m coming, I’m definitely coming’. She jumps in the water naked.

The viewer fears what’s coming next, what the water holds lurking in its depths. The viewer knows more than these two characters. Spielberg has already established the menace in the ocean and now puts the viewer in this situation, watching the two characters, tense and fearing what is about to happen next as she swims in the water and he lies on the beach in a state of drunkenness.

Spielberg separates the two characters into two ‘zones’ and, ‘Cutting between the two zones creates omniscient narration, for we know more than Tom and Chrissie. The difference between the two zones-the frenzied activity in the water, the calmness surrounding Tom-creates a heightened suspense concerning Chrissie’s plight: will she be saved or killed?’ Finally, the scene cuts back to underwater, now an upward view of Chrissie’s figure in silhouette as the soundtrack starts again in full menacing pace. The film cuts back to above water as we see Crissie being pulled down once underwater and then quickly resurfaces. This quick resurfacing gives the viewer some hope, which is extinguished as fast as it was given birth, to the horror sequence of Crissie screaming as she is being pulled from one side to another by a force we still cannot see.In this opening sequence of Jaws, Spielberg uses similar ingredients that fellow director Hitchcock uses in the shower scene of Psycho. Both involve an attractive naked female for whom the director creates an atmosphere of tension and fear for her safety.

Both scenes contain an ordinary activity of relaxation and pleasure which is transformed into a painful and violent death. Needless to say both changed the collective view of these two mundane tasks, leaving audiences afraid to take showers and to swim in the ocean. Spielberg says of Jaws, ‘And I really said, I’m going to make a primal scream movie…. Jaws is almost like I’m directing the audience with an electric cattle prod’Just like Hitchcock, Spielberg grips the viewer viscerally from the get go instilling tension and dread for a constant anticipation of danger. Jaws however opens with the violent death as opposed to the shower scene in Psycho that takes place later on in the film.

As opposed to Hitchcock’s rapid and fragmented images through which the viewer imagines the attack, Spielberg uses long takes. In the attack the camera movement is negligible, instead Chrissie is dragged back and forth across the screen by the killer. Close ups of her agonized face follow.According to Dennis Giles, ‘horror cinema reveals the monster or horrifying object but also defends us against it through concealment. There is pleasure in seeing but also ”pleasure in not seeing-the delayed, blocked or partial vision which seems so  central  to the strategy  of  horror cinema.” In the opening scene, Spielberg again similarly to Hitchcock leaves the attacker invisible to the viewer and plays with the present and absent victim as she is pulled underwater several times before she vanishes eternally underwater. The viewer is constantly assessing what he is allowed to see and questions continually what he does not see, in this case what happens underneath the surface of the water.

As the attack starts Spielberg allows the viewer only above water, (filming with a camera in a water box allowing it to float) leaving the audience to imagine what is happening to Crissie underwater. She is moved across in such an unnatural way that the attacker below must be huge and definitely monstrous, so much so that we are not allowed to see. The film critics Mott and Saunders write that this scene “exemplifies Spielberg’s strong sense of  visual style.

Without gimmicks, or obvious special effects, he carefully applies the principles of terror.” The attack on the Kitner boy is another valuable scene for analysing Spielberg’s filmic choices for creating these collective horror memories. After the first attack on Chrissie and the decision of the Major to not close the beaches we find ourselves in a day at the beach with the protagonist. Brody sits amongst Amity’s beachgoers full of fear of what might happen next, helpless in his disposition firstly as his power has been stripped by the Major and secondly because he himself has a fear of water, a fear now twofold for for the ominous antagonist it harbours inside. Once more Spielberg builds up the tension of the scene first with a series of shots of the different people on the beach, the camera isolating them out and making us wonder who will be the next victim. Then as we become one with Brody’s ever building anxiety, the emotions are heightened by what he/we are able to see and what becomes blocked from our view.

Brody’s attention to the swimmers is continuously  interrupted by passersby and people coming up to him to talk. Spielberg pushes this tension further by having one of the swimmers wear at grey swimming cap which while swimming momentarily looks like a shark approaching, a couple playful in the water catch our attention as he mistakes the girls frisky shriek as another attack.  Situations are not what they seem in a gruesome build up until finally Spielberg zooms in to Brody’s face while simultaneously dollys out registering the horror and shock he feels while witnessing the actual real attack on the Kitner boy. For this climax, Spielberg chose a cinematic effect to make the viewer feel as much as Brody physically paralysed to the chair while simultaneously being propelled forward towards the water filled with danger. Once again Spielberg borrows from Hitchcock this camera technique who used it in a scene in Vertigo, depicting the hero’s fear of heights.

Spielberg wanted the effect “for suspense, shock and environmental distortion…. Almost as an afterthought, he agreed that such a shot could also cause sea-sickness in an audience.” To Robert P. Kolker, “The movement is expressive both of his Brody’s response and the viewer’s own reaction to the long delayed event,.

an interesting  visual representation of  panic. With such an effect, Spielberg  charges the spaces of the shot itself with fear and desire.” After the first attack, Hooper says to the Major, “Mr. Vaughan, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine…

he’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks–and that’s all.” This description of the shark by Hooper seems to implicate an inanimate device programmed to perform two specific tasks; consume humans and breed more of its kind.

It is flawlessly calibrated in a way that no biological creature can be and hence it becomes a monster in its filmic existence.  And the universal truth about monsters is that they don’t exist, monsters are always the physical manifestations of the hero’s weakness. Indeed Brody has a fear of water which precedes the film itself and ironically has moved from New York to sheriff a seaside town, just like the viewer seeks the thrill of fear by actively watching horror. It seems Brody’s decision to move nearer to the water is also subconsciously calculated, furthermore his fear manifests the worst monster that water could ever generate, the killer shark. Jaws has indeed attracted a lot of critical attention for being made with real skill and being a huge box office success. On an academic level however the concern has always been about the shark and what it stands for. A wealth of studies exists about the significance of this shark, literary works about monsters in American horror movies and the representations of otherness.

A contrasting study by Jane Caputi analysis Jaws as a Patriarchal myth, were the Terrible Mother archetype symbolised by the shark threatens the male trio and is hunted and killed by them to re establish the Patriarchal order. Other cinema scholars have focused on the ideological meanings at the center of the shark representation and its hidden symbolism within the story such as Sutton and Wogan’s discussion of the shark symbolizing the Vietcong.In the important work Signatures of the Visible, Frederic Jameson produced an insightful reading of Jaws. Jamesons’ essays which where published between 1977 and 1988 critically analyse a range of film styles from realism to modernism to postmodernism.

His discussion centres around films as expressions of high or popular culture and also of socio- political history. The book’s first chapter Reification and Utopia tackles the traditional critical attitudes in respect to the function of art in society. Jameson suggests that culture and art are commodities and human experiences and practices much like consumable objects are evaluated in terms of their end result and money they generate.

 In Marxist tradition, the standard viewpoint is for popular culture to be evaluated as a consumer product in contrast to High art to be assessed as an independent aesthetic form in its own right. In this article however Jamson expresses a different view from the Marxist tradition.  Taking Jaws as a mass culture film, Jameson discusses the Utopian aspect in the films ending where social order is renewed, and he demonstrates how such a resolution falsely takes the place of class  opposition through fraternity.Jameson highlights the fact that a broad range of critics, have as we previously discussed inclined to accentuate the problem of the shark itself and what it represents. He says, ‘their very multiplicity suggests that the vocation of the symbol – the killer shark – lies less in any single message or meaning than in its very capacity to absorb and organize all of these quite distinct anxieties together.

As a symbolic vehicle, then, the shark must be understood in terms of its essentially polysemous function rather than any particular content attributable to it by this or that spectator.’This weight on the shark as interpretative drives the diverse readings in the path of myth criticism, where the shark embodies the Leviathan. Reading Jaws in terms of myth therefore heightens what Jameson calls its Utopian dimension; as the restoration of the structure of the community from unsuitable leadership.

In terms of myth tradition, Jaws appoints a hero to eliminate the antagonist. The hero Brody representative of law and order together with Hooper who stands for science and technology, overcome class conflict to defeat the antagonist. Quint, the representative of private small business, nostalgic of the Greatest Generation in America ends up being eaten by the shark.

Jameson writes “an alliance between the forces of law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations which must be cemented… by the indispensable precondition of the effacement of that more traditional image of an older America which must be eliminated from historical consciousness and social memory before the new power system takes its place.” Therefore an effective product of mass culture like Jaws will first put forward people’s anxieties to them so that they can face them and reconcile their hope, putting their fear away and social order is restored.Upon Concluding and after so much research that was done I can certainly remark that it was easy to take Jaws for granted for a very long time. The study of Jaws reveals a wonderful execution of suspense through its image and iconic sound, a pioneer of the summer blockbuster with and an enormous box office success. A film that audiences and critics alike have assigned numerous meanings to across time and cultures making it widely readable.

Ultimately it is a clear example of a film where it is less important if the text was actually or intentionally symbolic or allegorical in meaning but as Jameson says that the audience actually turn it into one that is to find it interesting. This text draws history inwards and then offers it back to the audience as a interpretation key so that they can find relevance in a text like Jaws, which outwardly gives no further indication than that of  being anything more than a terrifying accompaniment to a salty popcorn bucket.