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Part 5 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Jaws poster

Hopefully no one will be confused by the transition from Moby-Dick to Jaws. To me, it certainly feels like one of the most natural progressions imaginable. Both are about huge, white, underwater monsters. Central to the plots of both is an obsessive search-and-destroy mission undertaken by men to rid the deep of the titular terrors. In both, said search is met with mixed results.

When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 1975, it transformed cinema. What we now take for granted as the Hollywood business of “blockbusters” was actually a concept birthed that summer. A lot of cinephiles hold a grudge against Spielberg for unleashing his great white monstrosity on the public for just that reason: the summer that Jaws opened is sometimes pointed to as the beginning of the end for patient, intellectual, “serious” filmmaking. It’s easy even for fans of Jaws to dismiss it as an exercise in expertly timed “jump” scares and over-amped tension. If in fact it turns out that Jaws is nothing more than a “popcorn” movie, let’s at least give it its due credit for being one of the best ever. The formula has been reproduced over and over again (“Okay, instead of a shark in the ocean, what if it’s an alligator in a lake? What if, okay, it’s snakes… on a plane?”) even by Spielberg himself (“Ok, what if it’s — track with me here — dinosaurs in a park?”), but rarely with near as much success. (In fact, of the examples I’ve just alluded to, Spielberg’s own knock-off, Jurassic Park, is arguably the best.) In short, to dismiss Jaws as nothing more than the genre of film it inspired is as criminal as dismissing Psycho as nothing more than the host of anemic imitations it has inspired.

Great White Shark

I'm so disturbed by these creatures that I could hardly bring myself to do the Google image search that netted this charming picture. It's from the first page of results... Gulp.

After all, I just compared it to one of our country’s finest literary achievements, and I’m guessing there wasn’t too much surprised blinking.

So, then, bringing our high-minded approach to inquiry to our low-brow penchant for amusement (as is the Monk’s raison d’être), the question seems to be this: Is the shark an instrument of God’s retribution on a corrupt seaside town masquerading as the perfect summer getaway spot? When it tugs Chrissie beneath the ocean’s dark surface in the film’s chilling opener, is it divine punishment for the campfire promiscuity that led her into the ocean that night? When it bites Sam Quint in half, is it a higher power finally claiming a soul it missed when the battleship Indianapolis went down, and most of its crew were devoured by sharks? Is it a mythical man-eating monster deserving of its own special epithet, “Jaws,” to set it apart from its fellow great whites?

Or, is it just a shark? Unusually large, sure. Maybe a little more ravenous than most, but that’s like accusing one certain snail of being slower than its peers. It’s simply one of those variations in a pattern which happens in Nature. The shark isn’t picking on anyone, it’s simply found a source of food, and it will feed until sated. It’s a shark, after all. What is a shark if not an eating machine? To give it an individual name is preposterous. It’s simply a Great White. Carcaradon carcharias.

Yeah. Tell it to Captain Quint.

Jaws from Moonraker

Not the Jaws I'm talking about, but given the theme of this blog, we may get to him one day...

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