Veteran actor Roy Scheider died yesterday. I am among those who best remember him for his 1975 role as Amity Island Police Chief Martin Brody in Jaws—one of my favorite films of all time.
I was too young to see Jaws when it first came out in the theaters and didn’t see it until I was in high school. I can’t remember if I first saw the film on VHS, laserdisk (remember that short-lived media form?) or television. But I do remember its effect on me. Heh, there was a period of time where I found it extremely daunting to swim in the deep end of a swimming pool—and to this day I have a very difficult time going into the ocean beyond my knees. And I still jump out of my skin every time that shark appears in the water while Brody is looking the other way. A bigger boat, indeed.
As I grew older, I came to appreciate other things about the film. I love how the ordinary-man-in-extraordinary-circumstances dilemma plays out in this film. I admire the respect and camaraderie between Brody and marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). After reading Moby Dick in college, I found Quint (Robert Shaw) priceless as a modern day Ahab (complete with a boat named Orca). And after getting married, I grew in affinity for Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary), especially the role she plays in interacting with and supporting Brody (the scene in Quint’s boat house where she goes to send off Martin on the infamous hunt is more affecting now). After I had children, I laughed a bit more wryly as Ellen chides Martin for ordering his son out of a boat—that is, until she looks at some of the pictures in a book of Martin’s. Oiy. I think I would have yelled even louder.
These things are easy to appreciate because (as industry friends helped me see) the film has genius and, as Roger Ebert (admitedly one of my favorite mainstream critics) put it at the time, the film “works all the better because it's populated with characters that have been developed into human beings we get to know and care about.” Undoubtedly, that’s why each time I watch Jaws I appreciate something new. When I recently saw it again (for the who-knows-how-many time), I found myself engrossed in another aspect of the film: Brody’s struggle between doing what he increasingly and intuitively knows is right to protect the community (which includes his family) and the pressure of his superiors who are motivated by the fear of losing tourist revenue for the island. Kudos to Scheider, who lets me experience Brody’s sense of guilt for (albeit grudgingly) caving into their pressure (which results in the death of a young boy), his determined steps to protect his people (who for most of the film don’t know they are in danger), and his resolute courage as he steps up and takes responsibility for protecting his community by going after shark itself (in spite of his visceral fear of water). Instead of letting his guilt and fears paralyze him or prevent him from acting, once Brody decides on the right course of action he is fully committed and doesn’t second guess himself again. (Well, maybe a moment or two on the boat, heh.)
I appreciate this. We all step off the path, and this film plays with how an individual’s misstep can ripple through a community. The mayor and other officials in town, while ostensibly focused on the community’s economic welfare, seem more concerned with their re-electability—and that permits death and danger to encroach into the community. Quint is so consumed by his past experience that it fogs his ability to sail straight, and that not only endangers his own life but those of Brody and Hooper (and if their mission fails, the community as well). Even Brody’s decision (albeit with much misgiving) to be swayed against his better judgment results in loss of life.
Yet the film also explores how choosing to get back on the path can save a community. Brody refocuses, refusing to give into his guilt or fears—but he doesn’t do it alone. Hooper is the best of comrades, fighting alongside Brody. And Ellen provides a solid background of companionship, a safe place for Brody to authentically struggle with his choices. In the end, I think these relationships strengthen Brody’s resolve and gird him as he faces down death and terror and prevails. Amity (which means "friendly relations" or "friendship", the name itself reflecting relationships and community) is saved.
In the end, as Ebert puts it, “it's one hell of a good story, brilliantly told.” And good stories usually have something to say to all of us about the choices we make and how those choices affect the people around us. And good stories invite us to ask questions like: Why do we make the choices we do? What do we fear? What do we value? What would we risk our lives for? What path are we walking?
And stories like that ultimately bring God-talk into open spaces.
(Images: copyrighted by Universal, via imdb and horrordvd.com)