Tooth Decay

Somewhere in Georgia this summer, Newsweek reported, a group of swimmers shore. Someone yelled, "Sharkl" and scores of people ran back to land to scour the sands for weapons. Armed with driftwood clubs and beach umbrellas, the bathers re spotted the creature, surrounded it and beat it to death. When the thing drifted motionless and the people could get a better look, they saw it wasn't a shark after all. It was only a baby whale.

That probably wouldn't have happened last summer. A bad case of shark scare settled down on the country's beaches a couple of months ago when Jaws came out. But it's a funny kind of fear. It isn't just a shouting-fire-in-a crowded-theater kind of panic. It's more than beaches closing down, and lots of sweaty swimmers staying on grilled sands to the dismay of resort owners and confirmed bathers like William E. Buckley whose wife won't even go into the goddam swimming pool any more."

And if isn't simply another bogeyman that people love to fear, like the Red Scare and UFO's of the fifties. Although shark fever certainly has become a cult as some pendent entrepreneurs will swear to by the burgeoning market for shark's tooth pendants and spin-off products like posters, T-shirts and beach towels.

What makes this fear different is that it's fun. Fun enough to inspire a New Jersey ice-cream stand to rename its flavors sharklate, finilla and jawberry. It seems that the recent demand for jawbones at $50 a set is a kind of rejoining, as though people want to grab the slippery monster and set it up like some fishy Baal.

Jaws's appeal is different from a lot of other horror movies and an afternoon of adrenalin-whirling escape. The difference is that it can really happen. While skeptics could nervously laugh off The Exorcist because, after all, what civilized person really believes in demons, no sane person can doubt the reality of shark attacks.

And it can happen often. Unlike The towering Inferno, which might strike one building in the whole country in an entire year, shark attacks can hit an area five times in two months as they did in Florida this summer. The point is that the chances of getting gobbled up by a shark, however slim, are good enough to get a lot of people thinking it could happen to them.

It's all pretty exotic. Sharks have been around in basically the same form they are in now for about 63 million years. They have some mysterious soft staying power that bypassed their early contemporaries the dinosaurs and icthyosaurs. Yet no one knows how many types exist or how many attack humans. No one can predict for sure how they will belive in captivity, much less in their natural habitat. Or as one shark expert told Time. "Of course their actions are predictable." The problem is that "we are still so totally ignorant of shark behavior that we can not do it yet."

So here you have this enigmatic creature what might strike any beach bum at any time and no expert knows enough to prevent it. That's pretty exciting stuff for a commuter from Scarsdale or a teacher in Tucson Jaws is hitting it big because it adds a spark off danger, a touch of unpredictability into otherwise too-predictable lives. While other horror flicks transport you for a trembling evening or maybe a law sleepless nights afterwards. Jaws widens the possibilities for the rest of your beach-going existence. That could really be something to celebrate.

It may seem odd that in a civilized society where people are beaten into submission with a fear bludgeon that fear should be the most potent subject for cinematic entertainment Uaws is already overtaking the Godfather in box-office revenues). But its appeal transcends the fright of the victim. The audience can also identify with the aggressor. You don't see the first two attacks from the victim's perspective. You don't even see the shark. What you see is a naked pair of nubile legs fluttering several feet above, or two tiny feet kicking a rubber raft a short distance to the surface. You circle around, sensing your prey, and when you're sure, you rise up at full speed.

Jaws is almost like a latent dream. While the observer may not consciously realize it, the film offers a metaphor for aggression. It plays out violent tendencies willed but suppressed by the spectator. The relief that meets the end of each shark attack does not just come with the certainty of death, it also marks the relaxation following a thorough purge. Sort of like an easy feeling of release you'd get if you told off the bastard who just fired you. Earthquake had a similiar man-on-the street life gamble element to it but it played on violence without aggression. People could scream with the victims but they couldn't wreak disaster with a conscious, directed attacker.

While producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were counting on the audience identifying with the victims (and so delayed release of the film until the start of beach season), director Steven Spielberg seemed to be going for the pure fun of it. He knocks out the extramarital affair that pads out the best-seller as well as most of the character conflicts and shoots for the thrills. The only problem is that character development in the novel not only served to relieve tension, it also offered several different, presumably philosophical perspectives on the beast. Matt Hooper, the icthyologist, sees the shark as a work of almost supernatural beauty. "It's the kind of thing that makes you believe in a god." To Police Chief Brody the shark is an invincible nightmare of violence and guts, a glittering evil intelligence that forces him into the ring to defend the good town of Amity. Brody senses that the fish is supernatural too, not as God's work, but as God's vengeance wreaker. "The fish is too much for us. It's not real, not natural. All we can do is wait until God or nature or whatever the hell is doing this to us decides we've had enough. It's out of man's hands.

Quint, the shark catcher, initially dismisses his partners' charges of divine intelligence or beauty as hogwash. "Don't make him out to be more than he is. He's just a dumb garbage bucket." But as the chase goes on, he finds himself more drawn to the fish, almost hypnotized into the death duel. "Brody saw fever in Quint's face--a heat that lit up his dark eyes, an intensity that drew his lips back from his teeth in a crooked smile, an anticipation that strummed the sinews in his neck and whitened his knuckles." To Quint the fish is real because he feels some kind of bestial identification with it, as though he has to satisfy some vendetta that dates back to wild ancestors.

The thrust of the novel appears to be a modern attempt at D.H. Lawrence's St. Mawr--the good versus evil, wildness versus civilization animal as metaphor for our darker, more ancient selves kind of struggle. It's all lost in the movie. Jaws flows along the course of a lot of films adapted from hooks--to shallower waters. Brody is a piece of white bread. Robert Scheider's portrayal of a keeper of the peace is about as inspiring an Andy of Mayberry. There's nothing wise or animal about Robert Shaw's Quint. What you get is the perennial tooth missing, rough and ready sea captain. The only character played to the nines is Richard Dreyfuss's spoiled and reckless kid icthyologist Hooper. While he rarely gasps in awe at the shark's shiny hide. Dreyfuss's terrific comedic talents gives the film exactly what it needs for balance--sparking and believable touches of levity to humanize the nightmare.

You can tell that Dreyfuss and Spielberg were right in synch because the balance between tension and release--a crucial asset to horror movies--is what the director does really well. Unlike The Exorcist, which constantly kept your stomach gnarled waiting for what atrocity you would be subjected to next, shark attacks in Jaws are well spaced until the end when Spielberg turns it on full force, Swooping you up and whooshing you down, it's the fun of a fishy roller coaster ride. Spielberg is better at the slow thrills--that sort of slither up on you and let you fall quicker than the lightning shocks. The shot of Ben Gardner's one-eyed face was about as plastic and unbelievable as a horror house thrill at Disneyworld.

But clearly Spielberg meant the film to be good clean fun, and apparently that's how a lot of people are taking it. WRKO radio is advertising a name-that-song contest which offers the grand prize of a shark hunt; a trip to Martha's Vineyard where the movie was filmed, two tickets to Jaws and a "shark repellent kit"--a baseball bat. Some fun.