One of the appealing aspects of living in the modern age of Western entertainment is when a particular film, TV show, or song becomes woven into your life. I don’t mean it’s simply something you recall from your past. I mean, it actively exists within your personal timeline from the formidable years onward, contributing a little something to who you are and possibly skewing your DNA slightly for either the benefit or detriment of future generations. I’m sure you can think of an example. As you read to this sentence, I bet you’re thinking of something.
For me, a great example is the 1975 movie, “Jaws.” I don’t pretend to be a movie critic, so I’m not going to attempt reviewing “Jaws” for you here. Still, there is a particular phenomenon surrounding this movie that I want to explore a little bit, and that is, it’s apparent universal appeal with guys like me. In particular, I’m referring to men in their 50s and 60s who would’ve been between 10 and 20 when “Jaws” debuted on the big screen. Simply by the law of averages, we’re talking about a lot of dads and granddads. For this reason, I’ve decided to proclaim “Jaws” the Greatest Dad Movie of My Generation.
(I’m sure director Steven Spielberg will catch wind of this and call me up immediately to express his appreciation. Waiting… Waiting… OK, I’d better move along.)
“Jaws” in 1975
To really have a personal history with a movie, it helps if you can recall its theatrical release. “Jaws” debuted in theaters on June 20, 1975 — when I was 9 — and my parents had the good sense to forbid me from seeing it, although that didn’t really matter. In the summer of ’75, you didn’t have to actually see the movie to be affected by it; its influence was everywhere. The entire country was talking about “Jaws,” and the plot quickly became ubiquitous within American culture, like a plague of locusts starting on the West Coast and slowly eating the entire country over the course of one summer.
This wasn’t a good summer to be a shark. They were caught and killed by the score, much to the chagrin of marine biologists. Shark fishing, shark attacks, and shark experts were repeatedly featured on the nightly news — back when that was a big deal. A new word, “blockbuster,” appeared in People and Parade magazines in reference to the film due to the lines of movie-goers that extended from one city block to another, pausing to accommodate the intervening street. “Jaws” t-shirts, mugs, buttons, caps, and everything else was available in most stores, and the movie was a hot topic of conversation among us kids as we terrorized our neighborhoods on our Schwinn banana-seat bikes and Big Wheels, singing the already famous “duh, duh, duh, duh” theme music as we snuck up on our buddies to simulate a bloody attack.
But more than anything else, the entire country was terrified of going into the water, and I’m not just talking about the ocean. I mean any water. People felt weird about stepping into lakes, swimming pools, and even their own bathtubs for fear that a great white shark might somehow wriggle through the faucet and swallow them whole. A little shakin’, a little tenderizin’, and down you go.
The tack shop
Like I said, I was only 9 and wasn’t allowed to see “Jaws,” but all of this mania had a profound effect on me for one particular reason: my family’s annual summer vacation visit to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This would’ve been only a month or two after “Jaws” was released, so the hysteria was in full swing, especially in coastal areas.
My most vivid memory of that trip, though, had nothing to do with the beach or being afraid to go into the ocean. Instead, it was when my dad stopped at a very old-school tack shop, probably in Nags Head, to pick up fishing supplies, bags of ice, beach inflatables, Coppertone suntan lotion, and other stuff like that. I’m sure this was as we drove into town in our big, fake-wood-on-the-side station wagon on the first day of the vacation. The shop’s decor featured authentic, cobweb-draped, nautical rope hanging from the ceiling and dozens of deep-sea-fishing poles stacked in wall-mounted racks. The place was claustrophobic, poorly lit, and smelled like a combination of dead fish, diesel fuel, and saltwater taffy.
But what really stands out in my memory were the old, flannel-clad, leathery, Outer Banks fishermen who wandered around in there, a couple of them playing a game of checkers while spitting tobacco juice into brownish-green brass spittoons. They seemed as ancient and worn as the wooden floor of the shop, and spoke English with a strange, almost Scottish dialect. In my little 9-year-old mind, overloaded with a torrent of “Jaws” input from recent days, every one of these fishermen WAS Captain Quint, played famously by the late Robert Shaw, in the movie. Even having only seen the movie trailer on TV and various clips here and there, I knew exactly who Quint was, and for some reason, these old guys in the tack shop just scared the ever-lovin’ hell out of me. Somehow, they personified blood-thirsty, man-eating sharks, even if that didn’t make any logical sense. I stuck close to my older siblings until we made it back outside to the safety of our station wagon. From the summer of 1975 onward, the memory of that day in a Nags Head, North Carolina, tack shop would be inexplicably connected to the movie, “Jaws,” an extra splash of childhood trepidation that, for me and only me, elevates the creepy factor of the film to this very day.
The making of an aficionado
Eventually, I actually got to see “Jaws,” starting with its release on network TV around 1980. By then, I was in my mid-teens and felt enough confidence in myself to watch the edited-for-TV version, probably hiding my face behind a pillow for most of it. Again, I don’t have clear memories of the first viewing, but just recall being excited to tune in and feeling very grown up. By 1984 or so, the Johnsons had a VCR in the house and, one weekend, I got up the nerve to rent the actual, unedited version from our tiny, hometown video store that weirdly, was also an appliance retailer, a tanning salon, and a sub-sandwich shop.
Late that Saturday night, I got myself a bowl of popcorn, waited for Mom and Dad to go to bed, and started the tape. Holy cow. When Ben Gardner’s un-edited, severed head popped out of that hole in his wrecked boat, I nearly went through the ceiling. When Quint met his demise, I felt my stomach churn with a wave of nausea. But more than those things, I was mesmerized by the characters, the acting, the music, and that hard-to-explain Spielberg … thing.
Thus began my development as a “Jaws” aficionado. Since 1984, I’m sure I’ve viewed the movie at least once per year, on average, if not more. By the late 1990s, I began to notice that other people — again, usually guys — were as enthusiastic in their love for “Jaws” as me, including my cousin, Jeff, who is two years my junior. In Jeff, I found another “Jaws” fan who appreciated it probably more for its humor than anything else.
Wait, what’s this, you say? Humor?
Oh, yeah. In contrast to almost any other classic thriller you can think of, “Jaws” is a very funny movie. Each of the three main characters has multiple brilliant one-liners, which make them human and likable. Jeff and I immediately latched onto this, and for the past 25 years, have been basically communicating in “Jaws” code language. The movie is so absurdly quotable that there is a quote for almost every conceivable situation in life. For example, use the following line to respond to any statement of fact that another person says. Ready? Here it is: “Love to prove that, wouldn’t you? Get your name into the National Geographic…”
Go ahead and try it, but be sure to speak the line in Mayor Vaughn’s distinctive raspy voice. Here are a few test statements for you:
• Other person: The sky is blue. You: Love to prove that, wouldn’t you? Get your name into the National Geographic…
• Other person: We’re almost out of gas. You: Love to prove that, wouldn’t you? Get your name into the National Geographic…
• Other person: I can’t find my car keys. You: Love to prove that, wouldn’t you? Get your name into the National Geographic…
There are plenty of overtly funny lines in the movie, usually delivered by Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss, who in nearly every role, walks a thin line between a smart-aleck, Ralph Kramden-type college boy and a very likable — if left-of-center — everyman. But it’s the sly, character-based humor sprinkled throughout “Jaws” that makes the scary parts so effective. This is how Spielberg toys with our emotions, lightening the mood in one moment before shocking us to our toes in the next.
This brings me to why “Jaws” is a great movie — not just for dads, but for anyone — and that is its characters. The character development is simply masterful for a movie that’s traditionally been billed as a thriller (which, in my opinion, is entirely incorrect; it should be in the “adventure” category). Each of the three main characters — Quint, Hooper, and Brody — have their own individual quirks, and we are provided with enough backstory about each to get to know them.
Granted, this is coming from a perspective that is now 45 years removed from the release of the picture, so to a movie critic in 1975, the characters probably seemed more shallow than they do now. But in 2020, it feels like Brody, Hooper, and Quint have been around forever, and will be eternally locked in time as the cynical, water-hating, out-of-his-depth, New York City cop; the young, wise-cracking, highly-educated oceanographer trying to make a name for himself; and the salty, grizzled, vaguely maniacal, New England shark fisherman whose post-traumatic stress syndrome from surviving modern history’s worst recorded shark attack continues to inform his life 30 years on.
Speaking of Quint, there’s not much I can say about Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis monologue that hasn’t been said before. Without it, the movie would’ve still been great and successful at the box office, most likely. But the fact that it exists places “Jaws” in a category of its own. There are simply very few moments in any movie of any genre that can match the sheer power, horror, and gravity of this performance. Prior to the scene — which, incidentally, takes place only 30 minutes before the movie ends — Quint is a bit of a caricature, an old-man-of-the-sea stereotype. He’s funny, brash, and interesting, but his mania regarding sharks is a mystery. After this scene, though, the entire movie takes on a much higher level of seriousness and irony.
But I defy anyone to show me a creepier scene than this. No blood, no guts, no axe-murderers, or no spinning devil heads or demons necessary. Only the worn-out galley of that old fishing boat; the light and shadows cast by the fixture swinging over the table, moving about with the rocking waves; the creaking of the vessel as the ocean horizon bobs in and out of view through the galley window; the eerie whine of composer John Williams’ masterful score in the background; and the bone-chilling horror of the scene that Quint describes quietly as Hooper and Brody look on and listen, hardly breathing. It is THIS — not millions of dollars worth of CGI effects nor gratuitous sex nor overdone profanity — it is this quiet, four-minute monologue that makes “Jaws” one of the most effective movies in cinematic history. Robert Shaw deserved an Oscar for this scene alone:
The ’70s on celluloid
“OK, yeah, we get all that,” you’re saying. “But what makes it such a great dad movie, as you so boldly proclaim at the outset of this story?”
Good question, but remember that I said it’s the “greatest dad movie of MY generation.” That’s important.
First of all, it’s a matter of timing. The movie was released in 1975. Like I pointed out earlier, this means that if you were around to remember that, you’d have to be at least 50 years old. Just playing the odds and assuming that you are a male, that would probably make you a dad or a granddad. So, like me, you have the benefit of actual memories of the “Jaws” mania that swept the country that particular summer.
Also, for anyone around then, the cultural aspect of “Jaws” is irreplaceable. If you know anything about Spielberg, you know that he was a master of incorporating 1970s and ‘80s suburban culture into his classic movies. Just watch the interview scene with Mayor Vaughn on the beach. You know, the “Amity means friendship” scene. Look at all those floppy-haired, 1970s kids trying to get into the shot behind Mayor Vaughn. Any one of those kids could be me. Or you. Or they could be the kids that we grew up with.
“Jaws” just feels like the 1970s.
And there is a quick shot of a video arcade game, “Killer Shark,” being played. I used to play that very game at the beach arcade in Nags Head, North Carolina! I can still remember it. So “Jaws,” kind of like “E.T.” for ’80s children, provides us with a glimpse of our childhood forever preserved on celluloid.
And then, it became a ‘dad movie’
But it wasn’t until about 10 years ago, when I was well into my career as a father of three, that “Jaws” became a dad movie for me, and took on new and unexpected meaning, mainly due to the character of Chief Brody. I think Roy Scheider‘s straight-man performance is criminally underrated. He is entirely believable as a devoted dad and husband. Brody has moved his family from New York City to the (fictional) island of Amity in search of a better life, just like many of us dads have done. (Moms, too, of course.) In addition, he has taken on the responsibility for the safety of the entire town, so when people start dying — particularly little Alex Kitner, who is essentially the same age as Brody’s own sons — the chief takes it very personally.
But when his own son is nearly eaten by the shark and ends up hospitalized for shock, Brody transforms. He becomes a Papa Bear, no longer concerned about the economic impact of closing the beaches. His kids are now in danger.
But Brody isn’t the only dad at the hospital. Remember Vaughn? As much as we love to hate the beauracratic, blustering politician, our hearts have to break for him during this scene. After essentially causing the death of the Kitner boy by insisting that the beaches remain open, Vaughn, played masterfully by the late Murray Hamilton, is now a mumbling, shattered person, and his statement, “My kids were on that beach, too,” is simply heart-wrenching.
I don’t mean to sound sexist when I say this, but I think it’s true: only a dad can really understand the pain of this scene, both in Brody and Vaughn. In many ways, it represents a father’s worst nightmare: the inability to protect our children from a horrendous threat.
Such is Brody’s worry over the situation and his concern for his family that he overcomes his irrational, lifelong fear of the water to put himself in harm’s way — onto a boat that should be bigger (arguably the most famous ad lib in movie history). In the ultimate irony, Brody is the character who actually kills the shark, and does so with a witty, kiss-my-butt comment.
Smile, you sonofa…BOOM!
This is why “Jaws” is the greatest dad movie of my generation, if not one of the greatest movies, period. Although we love all their quotable lines and quirky behavior, it’s not Hooper and Quint that all us guys are ultimately drawn to … it’s Brody. He’s only slightly capable, a fish out of water, in over his head, and crushed by the weight of his responsibilities. Sound familiar? But he loves his wife, adores his kids, and in the end, saves the day. It’s what we all hope for in life — to blow up the shark.
I could probably write a book about my take on “Jaws,” and someday I might. There are lots of other scenes and elements of the movie I could get into, but this is only a blog post and by then, you would’ve probably tuned out, so I’ll end it here. Plus, I believe I’ll go take a walk since it’s such a pretty day out.
You: Love to prove that, wouldn’t you? Get your name into the National Geographic…
Previously Published on Doofus Dad
The post Why JAWS Is the Greatest Dad Movie of My Generation appeared first on The Good Men Project.