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Gender + Sexuality

Send More Sharks!

Sex and violence barely submerged. Why 'Jaws' remains the perfect summer movie.

Dorothy Woodend 3 Aug

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture every other weekend for The Tyee. Read her previous articles here.

You know you've reached the dregs of summer time movies when they send out the dogs. A case in point is the recently released film The Watch. Wretched dinge that it is, it is almost too drecky to write about, but here goes nothing.

In short, the film concerns a neighbourhood watch, staffed by Ethan (Ben Stiller), Bob (the terminally unfunny Vince Vaughn), Franklin (a rather drawn looking Jonah Hill) and Jamarcus (poor old Richard Ayoade), who stumble upon an alien invasion force in their little corner of suburban Ohio. Manly hijinks ensue! There are explosions, orgies, and a weird strain of male sexual angst that manifests in fear of impotence, teenage girls and green semen.

Each of the men in the posse is somewhat less than a fully developed male, whether it is Evan, who is terrified to tell his wife he is sterile, Bob, creepily obsessed with his teenage daughter's hymen, or Jamarcus, whose sexual proclivities run towards the exotic. Obsessed as they are with their own crotches, the boys can barely manage to rout the alien army, but they pull together (in more ways than one) and win the day. Suffice it to say the funniest thing in the entire film is the notion that the aliens can only be killed by a direct shot to the penis. Insert a few guffaws here, or maybe insert a few more penises, and you might actually end up with something approaching humour.

In my carefully considered opinion, we could use fewer dogs and more sharks this summer. Summer films are suffering from a terrible dearth of man-eaters at the moment, with the rare exception of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose entire oeuvre is currently screening at the Pacific Cinémathèque in Vancouver. One is hard pressed to find anything in the mainstream theatres that isn't a remake (Total Recall, The Amazing Spider-man), a sequel (Step Up Revolution) and or just plainly terrible (our little friend The Watch). If you want something with real teeth you’ll have to be patient until Aug. 16th, when the Cinémathèque releases a passel of films in honour of the 100th anniversary of Universal Pictures including a brand new, digitally restored print of the greatest summer shark movie of all time -- Jaws. I think I will line up just for old time's sake. They haven't made a movie quite like Jaws for a while, and despite it being a bit long in the tooth (heh, heh) the film is as thrilling now as it was in 1975.

Chew on this

My earliest memory of Jaws wasn't the film, but the book cover. On a midnight bus trip escaping from the depth and darkness of Little Rock, Arkansas (a story deserving of its own film adaptation), my mother was reading a paperback copy Peter Benchley’s famed novel. I kept bugging her to let me see the picture on the front of the book. Eventually after a long and extended session of whining, she ripped off the cover and handed it to me. I looked at the blithely swimming woman and the freight train of a shark rocketing up from the depths below and knew that life was terrible and terrifying and thrilling all at the same moment.

I don't think I actually saw the film itself until many years later. My parents refused to let us watch it the night it aired on TV because they were having a dinner party that same evening. We (my brothers and sister and I) staged a protest by heading upstairs, positioning ourselves roughly over the area where the dining room table was downstairs, and jumping up and down as hard as we could, until my stepfather came rushing up the stairs, a little white around the gills, and sent us all to bed with threats of bloody violence.

Over the years when Jaws has surfaced on TV every so often, I have watched it without fail. The idea of seeing a pristine new edition on the screen of the Cinémathèque fills me with a curious form of happiness that I almost don't want to examine too deeply lest it be diminished. 

'Bait 3D'

If you cannot wait for the big white to swim to these shores, you could always hop a plane to the Venice Film Festival to catch a screening of Bait 3D.

The notion that the Venice festival is screening a film where people get bitten in half has a few folks scratching their heads, but it might make you think twice about messing about in boats with gondoliers. The idea of Venetian canals teeming with sharks, or the spate of news stories of Australian surfers consumed a la carte, reveal that our collective and continued fascination with sharks is alive and well.

What is really behind our continued obsession with the finned ones who occasionally surface from the depths, eat us and then vanish once more into the darkness? Just that, probably, but it's hard to resist the pull to go a little deeper, below the surface if you will. Down, down, down into the blue-black depths of the subconscious, where our fascination with what Steven Spielberg termed the "pornographic dentist" lurks. Whether the story of Spielberg mistaking Benchley's original novel as a Deep Throat-type story is apocryphal or not, it serves to reveal something fundamental. In the original novel, the triangular relationship that exists between Police Chief Brody, scientist Matt Hooper and Quint, the great white (shark) hunter has been variously theorized as a class conflict, a reaction to the Watergate scandal, a repudiation of the old social order of New Deal politics, and a collective social experience in which evil is vanquished, and order restored. I would argue that it’s also about penises.

Fin de sexual

Conventional analysis of the film, casts the shark in the role of villain, pure and simple. But, of course, it is not nearly so straightforward as even the earliest and most innocent of viewings will tell you. As a seven-year-old kid, I wasn't interested in the adulterous affair going on between Hooper and Brody's wife in the novel, nor the references to Melville's Moby-Dick or Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, I was only interested in the shark itself. The unseen way in which it moved underneath the dark weight of black water. The mysterious inaccessibility of its thoughts still pulls at me. Here is where old Sigmund comes to bear. I wouldn't say this was penis envy, as much as penis interest. 

The maleness of the shark in Jaws, like that of Moby Dick (the bull sperm whale) is never in question. So too, the all-male worlds of Captain Ahab's ship the Pequod, the three-man crew of Quint, Brody and Hooper, or the single old man in Hemingway's novella. It is man against nature, penis versus penis. Think about poor old Sheriff Brody ladling chum in the water until the great white porker flashes his teeth and his claspers at the puny human. What say does Brody say but, "You're gonna need a bigger boat." What he is really saying is "We're outmanned here, my fellow seamen."

Even the original image of the book cover of Jaws bears an uncanny resemblance to a giant white penis with teeth, an interesting opposite to the old vagina dentata thing perhaps. (Let it be noted: if I can find a way of working the word penis in a few more times, I will.) Be it class conflict, the classic cuckold or harpoons and sperm whales, sex is at the bottom of almost everything don't you know. Most especially at the bottom of summer movie splendor, when, freed from serious cinematic pursuits, all you want is some thrills and gills. 

That's not a surprise to anyone, I suppose. What may surprise is that it's so hard to find in the right proportion of Freudian subtext to cinematic flourish. If there is one thing that Jaws does quite right, it discovers that delicate, magical balance. Take a close look at the iconic poster image from the film, look at it carefully and see the single perfect moment that hangs like a bubble between life and death. 

Sex and violence still make up the twin pillars of cinematic summer viewing pleasure. And if you don't believe me, I only have one thing to say.

Hitchcock.  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality, Film

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