Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sometimes a Shark is Just a Shark

"For instance, patriarchal power in Jaws clearly is meaningful only inasmuch as it excludes and subordinates woman. She means something which must be external to patriarchy, if it is to mean what it pretends to mean. The idealizing patriarchal meaning deconstructs at those moments when literal material connections back to woman emerge. This is especially clear during the metaphoric quest for the shark, a quintessentially male, public adventure severed entirely from female-dominated life. Yet that quest cannot do without certain literal motifs of sexual power and potency. Brody's literal glance into his pants in search of the missing phallus establishes a metonymic connection which both enables and disables the sexual metaphor of the quest. For the quest doesn't make sense except as a confirmation of manhood, that is, as the ability to perform with women. Woman is always there, in other words, as threatening perhaps as the shark."
--from Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of
Contemporary Hollywood Film, by Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner (1988)

Hoo boy. First of all, in the famous scar-sharing scene, Brody does not look into his pants, at least not in the way the authors are suggesting; he pulls up his shirt to reveal an appendectomy scar, then tucks it down because it pales compared to Quint and Hooper's wounds. It's also a bit of a stretch to claim, as Ryan and Kellner do a few pages earlier, that a boy is killed by the shark because an attempted seduction by Brody's wife "distracts him from his duties." Said seduction is nothing more than a tame back rub to assuage Brody's nerves; in any case, he's distracted not by her but by a man who appears in front of him and obstructs his field of vision.

I'll admit that my frontal lobes can get buzzed by this kind of subtextual analysis. Too much film criticism takes the filmmakers' interpretations at face value, when those are often the least reliable (and most monosyllabic) accounts. When an eggheaded approach turns me off (right around, say, page 64), I can always stop reading and return to my Netflix queue. But I'd hate to be a young film studies major forced to scarf down a semester's worth of Camera Politica, the very sort of intellectual cholesterol that killed my enjoyment of literature for years after graduation. (If Jaws is as much a glorification of male machismo as the authors contend, why is the salty war veteran Quint devoured while the pensive Brody and the bookish Hooper survive?) It's great to consider movies worthy of serious scholarship; it should happen more often. But if you're going to be scholarly you should still write clearly. And if you're not going to write clearly, at least get your facts straight.


Unknown said...

This reminds me of the Cinema Studies Department when I was at NYU. Due to reading texts that resembled Camera Politica, male movie characters were often interpreted as being either impotent, gay or Jesus Christ. Sometimes, all three.

Craig said...

Unless the director is Cronenberg or Lynch, almost any deeply symbolic interpretations of contemporary cinema come across as serious reaching. Especially when the topic is Spielberg, always the most surface-sheen literal of filmmakers. (That's not altogether a putdown; it's one hell of a surface, and one of the keys to his success as an entertainer.)

A Cronenberg-directed Jaws would have been perversely fascinating, come to think of it. Or maybe Aronofsky can do a reboot where Natalie Portman plays Brody's daughter and gradually sprouts fins and gills over the course of the film. ("You must become ze white shahk, Nina...ze Great White Shahhhk....")

Jason Bellamy said...

Ok. Both of those comments made me laugh out loud. In high school I had a great English teacher who was also a Jesuit priest. Dude could find Christ imagery in anything with perpendicular lines.

On a serious note ... I don't mind it when people go nuts with interpretations of what a film EVOKES, because that is open to personal interpretation. But when folks claim to understand, without flexibility for other opinions, a director's INTENT it gets messy.

By the way, Raiders of the Lost Ark was clearly about Indy's desire to return to the womb.

Adam Zanzie said...

Back during the Spielberg Blogathon, I proclaimed Jaws to be among the most complex of New Hollywood films, but simply because of the richness of its three principal characters--not for any psychosexual Freudian reasons. All of those philosophical theories about the shark being the epitome of the "castrating vagina" are amusing, no doubt, but I don't think they make the movie any more fascinating. To be sure, Spielberg was pleased when he heard that Fidel Castro saw the film as anti-capitalist; but I think Spielberg was, in fact, more interested in painting a portrait of three strong, flawed men who have to learn how to deal with each other if they're ever going to eliminate the "bad fish". And few films since then have ever equaled it in such an absorbingly humanistic light.

Craig said...

I don't mind it when people go nuts with interpretations of what a film EVOKES, because that is open to personal interpretation. But when folks claim to understand, without flexibility for other opinions, a director's INTENT it gets messy.

I think that's a good distinction, one that underscores the difference between some of my favorite and least favorite film criticism. When Pauline Kael conveyed how a movie made her feel, her work could be elating. When she started psychically divining a director's nefarious objectives, I tuned out. Her disciple, Our Fair Armond, has of course become a master of the latter.

I think true "intent" emerges only through patterns established over a filmmaker's career. It's safe to assume that Spielberg seems vastly more interested in suburbia, divorce, and parental abandonment than, for instance, vaginal dentata (as Adam mentioned). Even then, I don't think Spielberg has anything particular to say about those subjects; they're just a recurring theme, the backdrop for some of his strongest work. What they evoke about our era is another matter entirely, and the kind of criticism that I like to read.

Stephen said...


You're quite right. I'm not particularly interested in the intent of the director and if something occurs to me with enough force to feel real then that's all that matters.

In that case I would say/think "Jaws does this..." instead of "Spielberg does this..." with an unsaid 'to me'.

As long as you don't go looking for these things and let them come to you then there should be no problem of reading something that has no basis in FACT. You can only attack another person's opinion on the basis of fact.

One thing, though: I'm not particularly keen on people (including in the comments here) seeing 'depth' as something better than a lack of depth. What does the film require? Reading Jaws in the way this critic does completely scuppers it for me. The quality of delivering the stories and ideas is paramount not the amount of stuff you can cram into it.