The Spectacle’s Spectacle: Sight and Glass in JAWS

11 August 2013

Imagine you are an islander and it is Fourth of July weekend.  Only one thing would be on your mind…the beach.  However, what if the waters of your fine beach’s shore were also the hunting ground for an aggressive, territorial shark?  Well, if this were the case, you would have found yourself in the plot of Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws.

Essentially, the film takes place in early July on fictitious Amity Island, Massachusetts.  Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the new law on the island—having recently left the urban beat in New York City—investigates the remains of a young woman, Chrissie, who washed up on the shores.  While Brody immediately suspects a shark, the town mayor is hesitant to label Chrissie’s cause of death “shark attack,” fearing this label will cripple Amity Island’s financial success in its popular summer season.  After a second death, a small boy named Alex, Brody and the mayor have no choice but to acknowledge the waters’ as shark infested, and therefore the beaches must close.  However, when some local fishermen claim to have caught the predator the mayor quickly reopens the waters.  Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a professional from the Oceanographic Institute, appears on the island only to reveal the shark caught by the fisherman cannot be the one that killed Chrissie and Alex.  Unwilling to hear reason, the mayor disregards Hooper’s finding, even through Brody begins to see how reasonable and likely Hooper’s discover actually is.  When another islander falls victim to a shark attack, and Brody’s son is nearly killed as well, the mayor finally agrees to hire a local fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt and kill the watery monster.  The last third of the movie captures Quint, Brody, and Hooper on Quint’s boat, Orca, as they attempt to outwit and exterminate what they realize to be a 25 foot, three-ton Great White who is unwilling to do down without a fight.

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In this 1975 classic there are two clear male protagonists, Brody and Hooper.  While these characters are very different in almost every way, there is one important detail they have in common; both Brody and Hooper wear eyeglasses. While this may seem a small detail, eyeglasses and, more generally, glass are commonly used and easily understood symbols which help Spielberg add meaning to his thriller.

As a symbol, eyeglasses mean different things for men and women; however, looking at this symbol as it connects with men, eyeglasses traditionally symbolize clarity, stability, temperance, and virtue.  This accepted understanding of eyeglasses as symbol work well for the protagonists in Jaws because both male characters are balanced individuals; they are fair, honest and educated as well.  For example, during a dinner at the Brody home, Chief Brody reveals to Hooper that he has read up on sharks.  To paraphrase, he remarks about how shark attacks were not always reported, which is why an attack may seem rare when, in fact, it is a much for common thing than the average person may suspect.  Clearly, Brody is demonstrating a virtuous side.  He is independently investigating his suspicions and educating himself so to make a responsible and educated decision about the safety of Amity Islands’ citizens, the men and women under his legal charge.  Moreover, Hooper, although not always the best model of temperance, demonstrates his clarity of thought and virtue when he insists and persists to have the tiger shark autopsied, the shark caught by the fishermen.  While citizens may assume the tiger shark is the shark hunting in the shores of Amity Island, Hooper is not convinced.  His drive to have the shark autopsied highlights how committed he is to doing the right thing, being thorough, and allowing facts speak the truth.  These characters are both the epitome of good, rational thinking, and clarity in Jaws.  These are all attributes the symbol of eyeglasses suggests in male characters, thus making eyeglasses a well tapped symbol in the film.

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Taking this further, there are also moments in the film when both male protagonists voluntarily (although, perhaps, unconsciously/mindlessly) remove their glasses, and these moments, when the men remove their sight, are troublesome moments.  Take, for example, a scene toward the film’s beginning, when Brody removes his glasses after seeing Chrissie’s remains.  Clearly the girl’s mangled corpse suggest a shark attack, yet Brody listens to the town’s crooked mayor and is persuaded to change Chrissie’s cause of death to boating accident.  Symbolically, Brody took off his glasses, and, as a result, blinded himself to the truth.  Similarly, in the film’s climax, as Quint, Brody, and Hooper are aboard the Orca hunting the Great White, Hooper removes his glasses to enter a large metal cage, which will lower him into the ocean, with the shark, all in the hopes that the shark will get close enough for Hooper to spear.  Unsurprisingly, this is a terrible idea.  The cage is no match for the shark, who plows his way through, causing Hooper to lose his spear and to, subsequently, flee toward an underwater reef for protection.  Again, reading into the symbolism of the eyeglasses suggests that because Hooper took his glasses off to enter the metal cage, he voluntarily surrendered his vision, unable to see that his actions were clearly a mistake.  While the men do were glasses in most of the film, it is necessary to point out these moments when they take off their eyeglasses because without their glasses the men’s respective vision is compromised; their clarity crumbles and they are faced with some of their greatest struggles, intellectually, emotionally, and physically, due to a loss of sight.

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Hooper, just before he removes his glasses.

Opening glass up to more than simply eyeglasses, and looking at how all glass connects with sight and clarity, Brody, the main protagonist of the film, is often surrounded by glass, typically windows, including the film’s climax, during which one of Jaws’ most complex shots reveals how significant seeing is in the film, for both characters and audience.  Traditionally, windows symbolize freedom and hope.  People situated around windows may be confided to one space, but the window offers an out.  Moreover, a glass window, obviously transparent, often displays an outside, offering the hope mentioned.  Brody is the hero of Jaws, but, in the first half of the movie, he is often forced into conformity.  However, because his is often filmed with a window in the frame the film suggests that he can be freed from his confinement.  Reading deeper, the window, as connected to Brody, also may mean that Brody has a clear vision.  Because windows are objects to be seen through, and Brody is next to the windows, it is as though Brody is given the power to see through restraints and beyond the limits.  Through the glass, Brody can see further than others.  Like his eyeglasses, the windows’ glass also symbolizes Brody’s clarity and virtue in Jaws.

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In fact, during the film’s climax, after the shark has been shot and drags large yellow barrels for tracking, Brody watches the barrels speeding around the ship through the Orca’s windows.  This is a complex and significant shot.  The camera, outside the glass, faces Brody who is inside the glass.  Therefore, the audience sees, from a high angle, Brody’s face and a reflection of the yellow barrels passing by; the audience is actually seeing two images simultaneously, as the yellow barrels (a reflection) are superimposed on Brody’s face in the glass window.

One might read this shot as calling even more attention to sight, specifically Brody’s sight in Jaws.  Also important to mention is that Brody is wearing his glasses in this shot; thus he is actually looking through two pieces of glass.  This is the clearest Brody’s understanding of the shark gets, and, perhaps, this is the moment when Brody begins to emerge as the hero who will eventually kill the shark and save the day.

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While glass is certainly not an underused symbol, particularly in cinema, Spielberg’s use of glass—be it eyeglasses or windows—adds meaning to the film.  The glass draws attention to seeing, which is intrinsically connected to understanding.  Brody and Hooper are strong protagonists, in large part, because of their ability to see things clearly.  In doing that they are more stable and easier to connect with.  Even though the shark remains unseen in the film, until the climax, the film’s protagonists are seers, and, as a result, they are also survivors.

 

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 11/08/2013.

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