Friday, October 15, 2004
'Jaws' is scary, but not all
due to the shark
The other night, I watched "Jaws" on TV. I thought I'd seen it before, but
I hadn't. That fact, however, didn't stop me from ridiculing the film
all these years. I hate it when that happens, but there it is.
For most folks, the biggest horror in "Jaws" is the image of that open
mouth rising from the depths to grab a swimmer.
For me, though, the most awful part of the movie is when the crusty
fisherman Quint runs his fingernails -- slowly -- down a blackboard to
get attention at a town meeting. The shark hadn't even appeared yet, and
I was screaming.
And then came the scene in which a marine biologist prepares to swim
beneath a half-sunk boat to check out the hull damage. What's that sound
he's making, I wondered? Then I knew. In an effort to load his body with
oxygen for his free-dive, the man was taking rapid, shallow breaths.
Now that's scary. Breathing like that is called hyperventilation, and
experienced free-divers know to never do it before going underwater.
Hyperventilating is dangerous because it causes people to blow out too
much carbon dioxide, and it is the buildup of that gas in the
bloodstream that triggers our urge to breathe. It doesn't take much
carbon dioxide shortage to delay that urge.
Breathing a little later than we should causes us to faint. Underwater,
of course, that's a catastrophe. The condition, well known among
Hawaii's veteran divers, is called shallow-water blackout and is the
cause of some drownings in Hawaii.
Besides fingernails giving me chicken skin and panting making me cringe,
"Jaws" also enlightened me. I've always wondered where the conspiracy
theory about sharks came from, and there it was: In the film, locals
don't want the beaches closed after a shark incident for fear of losing
Some people believe that happens in Hawaii, too. Paranoid types have
told me repeatedly over the years that our local government and local
newspapers are in cahoots to keep shark attacks quiet. They do this,
these theorists whisper, to preserve tourism.
Right. Government officials and members of the media are such great pals
they work together to keep shark tragedies secret from the public. Now
there's some laughable fiction.
Some of the most entertaining parts of "Jaws" for me involved the boat.
I laughed out loud when the captain makes the landlubber sheriff sit on
the deck and practice tying bowline (pronounced BO-lin) knots. That
captain had a wreck for a boat, but he knew his knots. I make my crew
practice bowlines, too.
The film isn't all exaggeration. In the middle of the mayhem, the
biologist pauses to take pictures. The biologists I know would also do
whatever it took to photograph a great white in action.
But not that great white. It was mechanical and tended to sink. This
malfunction turned out to be a blessing because it caused (Steven)
Spielberg to shoot most of the film from the shark's point of view. This
camera-as-shark made the movie scary and Spielberg famous.
I once thought "Jaws" created mass hysteria over sharks, but Spielberg
didn't invent shark phobia. He cleverly tapped our innate fear of these
predators and gave it a four-letter name.
Seeing "Jaws" upset my notions about the film. Funny how that happens,
but there it is.