A Half-assed Autopsy of a Fish: My personal appreciation of Jaws

“Come on in, the water’s fine!”


This morning, my friend Greg emailed me an article from Mother Jones, wherein Richard Dreyfus’ children have a kindly mocking conversation about the film: http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/07/jaws-ridiculous-say-kids-who-owe-everything-jaws The title, contained without articles within the link, says a lot about it. I do not begrudge them their sass, and I am not devoid of mockery myself, but I have great reverence for this film, and feel compelled to speak of it. Much has been said of Jaws since its premiere in 1975, and anyone interested in learning more about this movie would be wise to read such books as The Jaws Diaries by Carl Gottlieb (one of the film’s screenwriters) or Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor, or to watch documentaries such as The Making of Jaws (on just about any DVD release of the movie) or The Shark is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws (an exclusive on the recent BluRay release.) What follows is what I want to talk about. If a statment of mine requires citation, it is probably belongs to one of the sources mentioned above.

 I have watched Jaws more than nearly any other movie I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of The Wizard of Oz. The first non-Disney movie I saw in a movie theatre, I saw it for the first time in 1975: in a drive-in, the Mar Vista Drive-In, now no more. Jaws may be a perfect drive-in movie. In my recollections, Jaws was very much a family event. At the age of 5, my memory may well be suspect, as there was also an estrangement between my parents and my hippie-ish, wigwam living eldest sister and brother, but in my mind’s eye, they and my second sister were all present at the Mar Vista. “Jaws, the movie that brought a family together.”   studio_drive-in-01I can only imagine that my presence there was predicated by an inability to accrue a babysitter, but never mind that. At this time in America, children my age were offered free admission to the drive-in, but my siblings were able to convince timid and meek me that our parents were a) sneaking me in and b) were I discovered, they would be summarily arrested and I would be sent to an orphanage. Even before Annie, I know this was to be avoided, and crouched, quivering under a blanket, beneath their knees, until we were safely parked. I am happy to say that the movie terrified them all.


On the other hand, Jaws is one of my first watershed experiences. My family tells me that throughout the film, every time the shark ate someone, I laughed and clapped, and that when it was finally destroyed, I wept inconsolably. Well, I can’t speak to the accuracy of this, but I have always found Norman Bates, Hannibal Lector, Baby Jane Hudson, and Tom Ripley to be perfectly charming, and I really don’t have a problem with the parenting skills of Mommie Dearest, Serial Mom, or Darth Vader, so perhaps my love of Jaws was, indeed, a prelude to my impending misanthropy. In any case, it was the beginning of my life-long love affair with sharks.


Throughout the summer and into first grade, I littered our house and my classroom with pictures of sharks: sometimes with their mouths’ full of human victims. Perhaps I should mention at this moment that I have never murdered anyone. I may be a sociopath, but one must draw the line somewhere. I was indulged: Mrs Milne, my first grade teacher encouraged me to present a shark themed slideshow at the end of the school year. My parents gave me a Jaws themed 6th birthday party, replete with a carcinogenically blue iced cake with the movie’s logo airbrushed onto it and a rubber shark bursting from the icing. My great-uncle Harry, another perenial bachelor, gave me a 3 foot long plush shark, which I slept with until I was 12.

Jaws also replaced Dr Seuss as my choice of bedtime reading: I think this relieved my father, who’d had to read Green Eggs and Ham to me so often that I’d memorized it. He was probably overjoyed to read an adult’s novel to me. Of course, he read from the Readers’ Digest Condensed version of the book (excising the graphic affair between Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody) but to me it was marvelous. Of course, I wouldn’t set foot in a swimming pool, let alone an ocean, before I was 10, but oh, how I loved sharks.

I saw the movie for the second time in the late-ish 70s, when my sister Tay (Erin and Chris had comparatively normal names, but George and Martha got a little creative with Tayreze and Padric) took me to a double feature of King Kong (the one with Jessica Lange) and Jaws.


I adored both–if nothing else, I’m a child of my decade–but couldn’t understand why the audience mourned Kong’s death but reveled in the destruction of the shark. At this time in my life, I hadn’t read Moby Dick. My prepubescent attempt at Melville did occur at the age of 10, after seeing the film with Gregory Peck. I think I managed 12 pages. What kind of name is Ishmael, anyway? I finally plowed through Moby after becoming acquainted with the failed West End musical, set in an all girl’s school (???) and read it again after consuming, sharklike, Nathaniel Philbrick’s amazing In the Heart of the Sea (long before Opie decided to make it into a movie with the Australian boy from The Hunger Games) the most unforgettable nonfiction book I’d read since In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (avoid that movie, please.)

In the age of VHS, it didn’t take me long to wear down Jaws into something resembling Bette Davis’ throat after 60 years of cigarettes and gin. More and more catch-phrases entered my–and the country’s–lexicon:

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

“Y’all know who I am… Know how I learn a living…”

“Well, this is not a boat accident! And it wasn’t any propeller; and it wasn’t any coral reef; and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper! It was a shark.”

“Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine.”

“Now, if the people can’t swim here, they’ll be glad to swim at the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island…”

“Come down here and chum some of this shit.”


“So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

“I used to hate the water…” “I can’t imagine why.”

“Smile, you son-of-a-bitch!”

I upgraded to dvd and bluray, and last year, saw the movie in the cinema for the first time in over 30 years. Hooray for American Cinemateque and the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood: if you’re not gonna see Jaws at a drive-in, see it in a movie palace. I’m sure that by 2013, I’ve seen the movie more than 100 times, but it was as terrifying in 2013 as it was in 1975. The audience agreed: screams, laughter, gasps, and shouting out of lines echoed my own. In many ways, this was a validation: while I was not the oldest person in the audience, I was far from the youngest, and people of all ages were GLORIOUSLY terrified. All I’d read or heard of complaints of the hokyness of the “rubber shark” or “how fake it looks” were vilified. Jaws is Jaws is Jaws is Jaws, as Gertrude Stein might say, and what follows celebrates the film and the shark.

At this point, I’m awfully tired. I can make my journey with Jaws last the summer, and I think that’s what I’m gonna do. Just remember, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”more to come.

About What would Julia do?

Being timid and meek like Dorothy Gale, I have surprised myself by starting this blog. But a few people have suggested I do so, so there it is. I love to eat and I love to drink, so although this blog could be about almost anything I choose to type, there's likely to be a lot about what you put in your mouth. Why the title? Anyone who knows me knows my reverence for Julia Child. I don't think it's hyperbolic to say that our country's interest in the culinary arts would be all but non-existent but for Her. I would not attempt to count the number of people who have cited Her influence in their lives and careers. What Atticus Finch is to lawyers, Julia Child is to the cook, be s/he servantless or professional. Honesty demands me to say that it is not simply Her advocacy of GOOD FOOD that has immortalized her; She had the happy circumstance of coming into her own at a time when media was in her favour. We can all be thankful for that. I would name Julia Child as the patron saint of second starts, but I'm a happy heretic. Julia's dogma goes beyond the kitchen: She has famously stated that "[y]ou've got to have the courage of your convictions..." Her statement applies as equally to any part of one's life as it does to flipping a potato gallette. I will conclude by noting I have my own personal trinity of Js--Julia, Judy Garland, and Joanna Rowling. Please refer back to that part about my being a happy heretic.
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