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J. Hoberman | An excerpt adapted from Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan | The New Press | July 2019 | 30 minutes (8,492 words)
June 1975, six weeks after Time magazine headlined the Fall of Saigon as “The Anatomy of a Debacle” and wondered “How Should Americans Feel?,” brought two antithetical yet analogous movies: Robert Altman’s Nashville and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Each in its way brilliantly modified the cycle of “disaster” films that had appeared during Richard Nixon’s second term and were now, at the nadir of the nation’s self-esteem, paralleled by the spectacular collapse of South Vietnam and the unprecedented Watergate drama.
In fact, in their time, Jaws and Nashville were regarded as Watergate films and, indeed, both were in production as the Watergate disaster played its final act in the summer of 1974. On May 2, three days after Richard Nixon had gone on TV to announce that he was turning over transcripts of forty-two White House tapes subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, the Jaws shoot opened on Martha’s Vineyard with a mainly male, no-star cast. The star was the shark or, rather, the three mechanical sharks — one for each profile and another for stunt work — that, run by pneumatic engines and launched by a sixty-five-foot catapult, were created by Robert Mattey, the former Disney special effects expert who had designed the submarine and giant squid for the 1956 hit Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Brought to Martha’s Vineyard in pieces and cloaked in secrecy, Mattey’s sharks took longer than expected to become fully operational, and Jaws was further delayed by poor weather conditions. Accounts of the production routinely refer to the movie itself as a catastrophe only barely avoided: “All over the picture shows signs of going down, like the Titanic.”
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In late June, a month when Jaws was still unable to shoot any water scenes, and while Nixon visited the Middle East and Soviet Union in a hapless attempt to, as the president wrote in his diary, “put the whole Watergate business into perspective,” Altman’s cast and crew arrived in the city of Nashville. They were all put up at the same motel, with everyone expected to stick around for the entire ten-week shoot.
There is a sense in which Nashville represented a last bit of Sixties utopianism — the idea that a bunch of talented people might just hang out together in a colorful environment and, almost spontaneously, generate a movie. Even by Altman’s previous standards, Nashville seemed a freeform composition. It surely helped that neophyte producer Jerry Weintraub’s previous experience lay in managing tours, for Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley among others, and packaging TV specials.
A number of key performers — including comedienne Lily Tomlin and singer Ronee Blakley — were making their movie debuts, but as a director of actors, Altman was famously permissive. His performers contributed much of their own material — dialogue as well as songs. Altman filmed Barbara Baxley’s monologue on the Kennedy assassination without reading it first; he let Ronee Blakley completely rework her character’s breakdown. When Julie Christie and Elliott Gould visited the set, Altman built a scene around them. Joan Tewkesbury had considerable latitude with her screenplay, although one stipulation was that she write an assassination scene in which the victim would be a “mother figure.” Altman was said to have been obsessed with the Watergate endgame — among other current events such as the attempted assassination of South Korean president Park Chung Hee in mid-August.
Most unusually, Nashville featured a nearly autonomous character. The candidacy of the never-seen Hal Phillip Walker was developed by Mississippi novelist Thomas Hal Phillips, who had once managed his brother’s campaign for governor. Given his own budget, Phillips opened a campaign headquarters, ordered buttons and bumper stickers, and sent hired sound trucks through the streets. Altman’s only requirements for this simulated politician were that he represent a third party, be someone whom Phillips himself would want to vote for, and was a candidate whom Phillips thought could actually be elected.
Nashville was conceived as an open-ended quasi-documentary, Jaws as a tightly plotted thriller; yet, appropriate to Jaws’ mega-fantasy elements, its transformation into a movie was also somewhat improvisational. Richard Zanuck and David Brown had paid $175,000 for the rights to the novel and a Benchley screenplay. The script then went through three drafts, variously reworked by playwright Howard Sackler, John Milius, and actor-writer Carl Gottlieb. The last version was itself revised continually on location. As Spielberg told one journalist, “We have been making it up as we go along.”
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Few environments are more self-absorbed than a movie set. Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log spoofs actor Roy Scheider and camera operator Michael Chapman for their fanatical consumption of each day’s New York Times, but never bothers to acknowledge the summer’s other main drama. Nixon’s fall goes similarly unmentioned in a less detailed paperback quickie, The Making of the Movie Jaws by Martha’s Vineyard resident Edith Blake, although another political scandal is alluded to, for July 18 marked the fifth anniversary of Senator Edward Kennedy’s automobile accident on the tiny island of Chappaquiddick, off Martha’s Vineyard, and the resultant death of a young campaign worker, Mary Jo Kopechne.
Chappaquiddick was thus something like brother Jack’s wartime heroics, as commander of PT 109, in reverse — an act of aquatic cowardice that effectively sealed Kennedy’s political fate. In the summer of 1969, a year after the assassination of RFK, it seemed inevitable that the last Kennedy brother would fulfill the family destiny and run for president. But after ditching his car in the Atlantic (reportedly the first time in twenty years that anyone had managed to drive off the Dike Bridge) and — without ever providing an adequate explanation either for the circumstances or his subsequent behavior — leaving his passenger to drown, Kennedy consigned himself to political purgatory.
As Vineyard summer resident James Reston would write in his New York Times column that season, “Here perhaps more than anywhere else [Kopechne’s death] has remained a live and bitter controversy. On this island — aside from everything else — leaving a body in the water is unforgivable.” For Edith Blake,
It seemed that every news and movie organization was climbing around the satellite island collecting new material on an old subject. . . . Filming crews over the Chappaquiddick dike gave rise to new rumors that Universal was making a movie on the sly about Kennedy at the dike and secretly flying key figures to Hollywood.
(In fact, Bruce — the nickname the crew gave the mechanical shark — was filmed gliding through the same channel where Kopechne drowned and Kennedy supposedly swam to safety.)
Chappaquiddick was consistently in the news during the Jaws shoot. In mid-May, as part of its inquiry into the possible impeachment of President Nixon, the House Judiciary Committee requested and received legal papers filed for the inquest into Kopechne’s death (preparing for 1972, the White House had dispatched a private investigator to Martha’s Vineyard the same day that Kopechne’s corpse was pulled from the wreckage of Kennedy’s car, and subsequently tapped her roommates’ telephones) while the New York Times reported that the dead woman’s parents had recently visited the Dike Bridge — for the second time — and had lunch with the local sheriff. Two months later, the Times noted that the Kopechnes received a $150,000 settlement from the Kennedy family while the New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy article — subsequently described by another Times columnist as “a major political event” — devoted to the still unexplained circumstances of her death, a subject rehashed by Time, the Boston Globe, and 60 Minutes.
For the first half of 1974, Ted Kennedy outpolled all other Democratic possibilities — even though he was considered to be unelectable. Perhaps this yearning for another Kennedy was more Watergate fallout. The trauma of Nixon’s resignation was uncomfortably reminiscent of an earlier president’s “abandonment’” of his people. But then, as Reston later analyzed it:
When Nixon finally walked the plank, he took Kennedy over the side with him. Americans of all political persuasions are tired, sad, and ashamed of the frustrations and moral squalor of the age, and worried about the effects of all this on their children. To choose between Watergate and Chappaquiddick in a savage personal campaign during the 200th anniversary of the Declaration in ’76 seemed too much, even to many of the most enthusiastic supporters of President Kennedy and his brother Robert.
Kennedy had removed himself from the race by the time that Jaws wrapped, as much over budget as it was over schedule, costing twice the $4 million originally planned.
Like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, both of which opened in December 1974, Nashville and Jaws were positioned — and received — as Events. In a move designed to outflank every other critic in America (not to mention the Paramount executives who had not yet seen his footage), Altman screened a rough cut for Pauline Kael. Four months before the film’s eventual release, she published a preemptive rave in the New Yorker declaring Nashville “an orgy for movie lovers.” Thus launched by Kael’s influential and notorious review, Nashville would enjoy considerable critical success.
Nashville opens with an advertisement for itself. But what was this ironic self-promotion or the ensuing critique of packaging compared to the power of Jaws’ presold high concept? With Jaws, the culture industry began to contemplate itself. The week before the movie began shooting on Martha’s Vineyard, the New York Times Magazine published a detailed analysis of the novel to illustrate “the making of a bestseller.”
On the one hand, Peter Benchley, thirty-four when Jaws was published, seemed born to write a bestseller. The son of novelist Nathaniel Benchley and the grandson of humorist Robert Benchley, a graduate of Phillips Exeter and Harvard, he acquired a literary agent at the age of twenty-one. On the other, he had learned to articulate the Voice. After working briefly at the Washington Post and Newsweek, Benchley served LBJ as a speechwriter during the last beleaguered years of his reign. “I wrote proclamations like ‘On Your Knees, America’ for the National Day of Prayer,” he recalled. In composing Jaws, he would be instructed by his editor at Doubleday, Tom Congdon, “to think of the whole country as a child that climbs up on its daddy’s knee and says, ‘Tell me a story.’”
The Times tracked Jaws’ development from the initial one-page description Benchley submitted to Congdon in June 1971, through the completion of the manuscript eighteen months later, the selection of a title, the choice of cover art, and the development of a sales pitch, to the wild auction for the paperback rights, a full nine months before the hardcover would appear. (One losing editor maintained that she “never would have bid half a million dollars if it hadn’t been called Jaws.”). As the film rights had also been sold before the novel’s February 1974 publication, the entire period of Jaws’ bestsellerdom — much of which coincided with the making of the movie — could be considered a giant publicity trailer for a work in progress.
In a new and particularly self-aware way, the movie’s extraordinary box-office appeal further fed that appeal. The audience consciously participated in transforming a hit movie into something larger, a new form of feedback and a new model for the movies. “I have seen the future and it is Jaws,” is how Kenneth Turan opened his review in The Progressive.
Two kinds of filmmaking passed each other that month. Nashville was intellectual and exclusive, Jaws visceral and populist; Nashville looked back to the 1960s, Jaws ahead to the 1980s. Altman was a grizzled hippie whose “favorite things,” according to his wife, were “smoking dope and having good parties.” Spielberg had been an abstinent member of the counterculture. “In my entire life I’ve probably smoked three joints,” he told Rolling Stone in 1978. Spielberg’s drug experiences were largely vicarious. “I would sit in a room and watch TV while people climbed the walls.”
Old enough to be the twenty-eight-year-old wunderkind’s father, Altman had fought his way out of television to become the ultimate studio maverick; Spielberg grew up with television and was a precocious industry insider. (Julia Phillips, the Hollywood hipster who would coproduce Spielberg’s next project, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, considered it her duty to introduce him to a more youthful crowd: “Steven was hanging out with men who were too old for him. Who bet and drank and watched football games on Sunday. Who ran studios and agencies.”)
Altman was more direct in stating his intentions, setting his narrative in the Bicentennial Year of 1976 and calling Nashville his “metaphor” for America, but Jaws, too, was perceived as essentially American: in praising Altman, Kael evoked Fred Astaire and “the great American art of making the impossible look easy.” Time, meanwhile, termed Jaws a “rather old-fashioned, very American way of making a movie.”
No doubt that Nashville and Jaws appeared at a moment when Americans were looking for some way to feel good about themselves. The season’s other national success story had seemed similarly old-fashioned and impossibly easy. On May 12, with the new Communist states of Cambodia and Vietnam at war, the Cambodians detained the American container ship Mayaguez as it passed through the Gulf of Thailand. Coping with his first international challenge, President Gerald Ford convened the National Security Council, which was informed by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that there was a greater issue than the capture of a single American merchant ship: in order to reestablish the nation’s credibility, at home as well as abroad, it was necessary for the U.S. to exercise its military might.
After a twenty-four-hour ultimatum, American bombers strafed the boat used to transport the men of the Mayaguez to Cambodia’s mainland and then sunk seven boats harbored around the island of Koh Tang. The next morning, Koh Tang was stormed by U.S. Marines but, once the Americans were pinned down, Ford and Kissinger countermanded Congress’s twenty-two-month-old ban on bombing Indochina (along with the War Powers Act) by ordering air strikes on the port of Sihanoukville. After the crew’s release, Cambodia was punished with further bombing of industrial installations.
The forty-man crew of the Mayaguez was saved at a cost of forty-one American casualties with another forty-nine wounded — and if some were appalled to see the U.S. react so soon and massively against so puny an adversary, the victory nevertheless intoxicated the American media. Time’s eight-page cover story provided a detailed day-by-day account of the victory (“THURSDAY. As Betty Ford was gently shaking her husband awake at 6:30 a.m., an hour later than usual, the Mayaguez’s crew was stoking the freighter’s boilers.”) that had “significantly changed the image of U.S. power in the world” as well as that of President Ford, who “had been hoping for weeks to find a dramatic way to demonstrate to the world that Communist victory in Indochina had not turned the U.S. into a paper tiger.”
The Mayaguez operation was as star-spangled as Nashville, as popular as Jaws, as extravagantly praised as both. “I’m very proud to be an American today,” Vice President Nelson Rockefeller declared, while his old adversary Senator Barry Goldwater exulted that “it shows we’ve still got balls in this country,” and Senators Frank Church and Jacob Javits, two sponsors of the War Powers Act, echoed their support for what Newsweek praised as “a daring show of nerve and steel.”
Explaining that “the show of force had many of the gung-ho elements of a John Wayne movie,” Time did not neglect to describe the home front. Hugh Sidey’s sidebar evoked a JFK-era thriller with a happy ending: the crisis, he explained, “was the old-fashioned variety,” understandable and enjoyable for Cold War veterans: “a lovely bit of rascality — brief, definable, rightly punishable and done on the high seas, where U.S. men and machines still reign.”
Sidey was among the selected journalists summoned to the White House lawn, where a formal dinner for the Dutch prime minister was underway. “The White House in its spring splendor looked like a Hollywood set. With somber visages and firm jaws, the actors hurried through the mellow night in their sleek black limousines.” Carl Albert, the diminutive speaker of the house, seemed three inches taller. Those senators to whom the president had revealed the “scenario” were besieged by reporters. Informed spokesmen hinted that “it was going to be an American kind of show.” Henry Kissinger had returned.
On the big crisis night . . . back in his Washington office, [Kissinger] paced, ordering, listening, waiting. He flashed the V sign out the window once, and then, humor fully restored in the exhilaration of action, he made a lunging movement toward the window as he began to peel off his coat — Henry K into Super K. Deep laughter from the onlookers, buoyed up by the old-style American confidence, echoed up Pennsylvania Avenue.
Nashville was played out in a city of lost souls, of unstable idols and voracious fans, and the meretricious hustlers who prey on both — what some saw as a grotesque satire of Hollywood and Altman called a vision of “instant stars, instant music and instant politicians.”
A musical disaster film, Nashville unfolded against a backbeat of clichés and platitudes, and underscored by the search for a new national anthem. Throughout, self-righteous arias of idiotic boosterism alternate with schematic hymns to survival (“I’ve lived through two depressions and seven dustbowl droughts”). Joan Tewkesbury’s stream-of-consciousness introduction to Nashville’s published script positions the movie as the culmination of postwar American history.
“Perhaps the best thing about World War II was going to Sonja Henie movies,” Tewkesbury begins a breathless catalogue of Alger Hiss, Richard Nixon, and the Cold War Red Scare. “Somewhere between President Eisenhower and my boyfriend’s navy-blue letterman sweater, the Rosenbergs were executed,” and then it’s the John Birch Society, JFK (“against everyone else, he was Technicolor”), RFK, Timothy Leary, Angela Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Spiro Agnew, Kent State, George Wallace, Watergate, and finally Robert Altman, who “rounded out the Rashomon of the United States.”
In the American commercial cinema, Nashville was the culmination of the Robert Frank aesthetic — the appreciation of the American vernacular landscape that had nostalgically informed Bonnie and Clyde and, intermittently, Easy Rider (1969), was here programmatic. The once-exotic icons of national identity — the flag, the TV, political hoopla, chewing gum, Dixie; diners and honky-tonks, jukeboxes and motorcycles, preachers and drifters, waitresses and drum majorettes, cowboys and movie stars — appeared as tawdry, discombobulated, secondhand, the open highway now carnival midway.
Bracketed by two spectacular crack-ups, Nashville opens with a monumental traffic jam extending from downtown to the airport where the plane-carrying country music queen Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is about to land. It winds up at a Replacement Party rally on the steps of the imitation Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park, where the warm-up act sings of Watergate and impending food shortages, setting the stage for Barbara Jean’s onstage breakdown and her subsequent assassination by the frozen-faced loner who has been orbiting the action all movie.
In the chaos that follows, Barbara Jean’s spot is immediately filled by the runaway wife Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who effectively provides the new American anthem:
It don’t worry me, it don’t worry me.
You might say that I ain’t free
But it don’t worry me!
The crowd eagerly joins in. A star is born.
Describing Nashville as a “cascade of minutely detailed vulgarity, greed, deceit, cruelty, barely contained hysteria, and the frantic lack of root and grace into which American life has been driven by its own heedless vitality,” the New York Times political commenter Tom Wicker suggested that the movie was not fundamentally “apocalyptic,” quoting Altman on the last scene: “In the face of this disaster, they’re going to go on.” Or, as Tewkesbury had concluded in her introduction: “Whatever you think about the film is right, even if you think the film is wrong.”
In fact, Nashville inspired a remarkable critical unanimity — not to mention an extraordinary amount of attention from political pundits and high-profile literati. Reporting in the Village Voice on the glamorous advance screenings held a month prior to the movie’s release, Arthur Bell noted that “most critics and celebs who have seen Nashville this past week are feigning shellshock. Kurt Vonnegut claims it’s the best film he’s seen in his life. Roz Drexler told us in the elevator she was an emotional wreck. And Mrs. E. L. Doctorow cried so hard she lost her contact lens.” (That winter at the annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards, where Nashville won best picture and Altman won best director, Doctorow made one presentation and Vonnegut the other. At that time, Altman’s announced future projects included an adaptation of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions and Doctorow’s Ragtime.)
Robert Mazzocco’s thoughtful demurral in the New York Review of Books was a rare exception to the general excitement among liberals. Mazzocco accused Altman of presenting “the crackup of Middle America” as an in-joke and called Nashville “an artificial high — a symptom of the disease and not a diagnosis of it,” linking the movie to President Ford’s post-Mayaguez surge in popularity. Greil Marcus was another dissident, bracketing Ragtime and Nashville as the prime vehicles of what he termed a Failure-of-America fad. Marcus was struck by the enthusiasm with which these two essentially downbeat works were hailed as great fun and sure hits, and how both were instantly cited as “metaphors” for the nation — attributing this phenomenon to a reigning “spirit of passivity.”
The consensus was such that even the National Review critic thought Nashville might “perhaps [be] the most encompassing and revealing film ever made about what it is that defines this nation, this people, this age . . . at least as American as apple pie.” Perhaps in response, Harper’s published National Review contributor Chilton Williamson Jr.’s anti-Nashville jeremiad. But not even Williamson argued that Nashville was essentially false. To him, it was the response that seemed hypocritical; liberals were laughing at the grotesque spectacle they pretended to decry.
If anything, Nashville inspired Williamson to call for a rightwing critique of American vulgarity (the “dangers of mass culture and mass living”), hoping that “conservative critics would be able to condemn the more repulsive aspects of American culture without feeling that they are betraying their fundamental stance by sharing certain articles of condemnation with people on the Left.” In fact, the significance of the actual Nashville had already been appreciated by more pragmatic conservatives.
Not four months before Altman began filming, Nixon himself had attended the Grand Old Opry in its new $15 million home, located in the midst of the 369-acre Opryland theme park. The first U.S. president to attend an Opry performance, Nixon received a standing ovation after he took the stage, sat down at the piano, and played “Happy Birthday” to his wife. According to the New York Times, Nixon then “pulled a yellow yo-yo from his pocket and presented it to Roy Acuff, known as the ‘King of Country Music’ whose act has used a whirring yo-yo.” Noting that country tunes talk about family, religion, and patriotism, Mr. Nixon said, “Country music is America,” and swung into “God Bless America” at the piano, raising his voice loudly to lead the singing. “That’s what it takes to be a real President,” Mr. Acuff said as the Nixons left.
The movie Nashville would scarcely be so warmly received by Opry partisans. Indeed, Altman and Tewkesbury could easily have scripted its gala Nashville premiere — held, after Nashville had already opened in thirty-five other American markets, on August 8 (the first anniversary of the Nixon resignation) in the 100 Oaks Shopping Center, where shoppers dodged a country band, square dancers, and baton-twirlers while television crews and journalists jostled fans to get to the stretch limousines bearing the Nashville elite. The Nashville Banner, which had previously run a frontpage story on the movie’s New York press screening, gave the event major play (“ ‘Nashville’ Premiere Churns Sour Reaction” was the second headline after the lead story, “Grim Natural Gas Shortages Forecast”), reporting that most of the country music personalities in attendance thought the movie “stunk.”
Nashville was lit up by themes as boomingly obvious and brilliantly insubstantial as firework display on the Fourth of July. The rockets whiz skyward, the payloads explode, showering the spectator with flamboyant signs of national confusion, depression, exhaustion, and division — as Robert Hatch would write in The Nation, “You could hardly hold a Bicentennial celebration without playing into Altman’s hands.”
The synthesis of show business and politics predicted by Adorno and Horkheimer, deplored by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd, subsequently explicated by The Candidate (1972), accepted by Shampoo (which opened earlier in 1975 and would be one the year’s five top-grossing films), parades through Nashville as stridently as a brass band auditioning for John Philip Sousa himself. But Hal Phillip Walker’s platform was eccentric. In addition to a new national anthem, his proposals included the abolition of lawyers in government, the Electoral College, and farm and oil subsidies.
Addressing his audiences as “fellow taxpayers and stockholders in America,” Walker tells them that “a good man with some one-syllable answers could do a lot for this country.” On a more mystical note, he attracts college students with such sincere non-sequiturs as the question “Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?” (In recounting this, TV newsman Howard K. Smith — free to invent his own commentary — remarks that for him, Christmas always has.)
Walker, a true pseudo-candidate, is only manifest in the form of his publicity and his advance man, John Triplette (Michael Murphy). Although Newsweek found Triplette “the epitome of Nixon’s bright young men,” Tom Wicker was reminded of those presidential candidates who refused to be “pinned down,” like Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Nixon in 1972. The National Review’s David Brudnoy thought Walker an amalgam of Bobby Kennedy and George Wallace (“perhaps Altman and Co. have derived something very shrewd from those startling 1968 returns”). The vast majority of commentators, however, looked at Walker and just saw Wallace.
To that degree, Nashville did anticipate the 1976 campaign which, at least at the time of the movie’s release, was characterized by a fear of Wallace and troubled — at least before Mayaguez — by the possibility of a conservative third-party candidacy. In February 1975, members of the American Conservative Union and Young Americans for Freedom concluded a four-day Washington conference by creating a committee, chaired by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, to explore the viability of launching a third party, preferably behind Ronald Reagan. (The now-former governor, introduced by Senator James Buckley as “the conservative movement’s Rembrandt,” declared that “Americans [were] hungry to feel once again a sense of mission and greatness,” though he declined to announce his candidacy.)
Simultaneously, the Conservative Caucus, newly put together by Howard Phillips and Richard Viguerie, pushed the idea of a third-party candidacy for Reagan and/or Wallace. “I believe both of them are going to be denied their party’s nomination,” Phillips said in April, suggesting that “they could come together to run for the presidency.”
Nashville noted the inevitable growth of spectacular politics (during the 1976 presidential election, the first under a new campaign finance law that acted to further increase spending on television, media consultants were virtual policy advisers), and it correctly predicted that, after Watergate (and Vietnam), the presidential campaign’s major theme would be a longing for renewal. Walker’s oxymoronic campaign slogan — “New Roots for the Nation” — evokes the first positioning of Gerald Ford, while rival Reagan was cast as the honest outsider come to clean up the mess on the Potomac.
Even Nashville’s climactic assassination, which struck many as a tired cliché (although the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was preparing hearings on the Kennedy assassination), was echoed by the public. There were two attempts made on the life of President Ford during a three-week period following Nashville’s run: September 5 in Sacramento, Lynette Alice “Squeaky” Fromme brandished a .45-caliber Army Colt automatic at the president in an attempt to call attention to the plight of her imprisoned guru, Charles Manson; September 22 in San Francisco, Sara Jane Moore fired a shot at Ford from a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. (In between, Patty Hearst was captured after seventeen months on the lam.)
Two months later, at a Ramada Inn near the Miami airport, Reagan’s maiden campaign appearance was plunged into a Nashville-like confusion by the presence of a man wielding a toy gun. The assailant was later identified as a twenty-year-old resident of Pompano Beach who had made a call from a public phone booth and threatened the lives of the president, the vice president and Governor Reagan unless Lynette Fromme was freed.
In short, Nashville was recognizable and, in February 1976, the same month that Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver opened, political commentator Kevin Phillips wondered whether fiction had now become fact: Nashville, Phillips wrote in TV Guide, “has drawn a lot of criticism, but in some ways it was prophetic. Dangerously prophetic. Such a candidate can sneak past television news with a smiling blur of sincerity and generality. . . . Tooth-paste-smooth former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter can and has.”
Hal Phillip Walker’s synthetic populism and cheerful negation of complicated realities anticipated the inspirational message of Carter, the smiling, non-ideological, “born again” outsider — handled by Gerald Rafshoon, a former 20th Century Fox publicist who’d worked on The Longest Day and Cleopatra before relocating to Atlanta. For Carter, even more than for Walker, America was suffering a spiritual depression that might be dispelled by the regular application of single-syllable words like “right” and “wrong.” Carter also reminded his audiences of the country’s inherent virtue — a natural goodness only momentarily besmirched by corrupt politicians like Nixon and Agnew, repeating the mantra that the nation deserved “a government that is as good and honest and decent and truthful and fair and competent and idealistic and compassionate and as filled with love as are the American people.”
Carter’s perhaps-naïve insistence on refracting every issue through the prism of personal morality elevated his quest for the Democratic nomination into something resembling a spiritual crusade for instant renewal and the Great Second Chance. As the campaign progressed, the candidate would be increasingly compared to John F. Kennedy. Some even imagined there was a physical resemblance between the two.
Where Nashville exploded the disaster genre, Jaws imploded it. Spielberg stripped the disaster film, trimmed the flab, and turned it into a pure mechanism.
Gone were the novel’s adulterous wife and Mafia connection, impediments to Benchley’s original concept which, as he had proposed to his publisher, was “to explore the reactions of a community that is suddenly struck by a peculiar natural disaster [that] loses its natural neutrality and begins to smack of evil.” Nashville was fragmented, without the presence of a unifying protagonist, but Jaws projected a far crueler fragmentation up front on the screen.
Nashville had offered a glibly pessimistic view of American life, predicting the rise of a politics as meretricious and authoritarian as Adorno and Horkheimer’s sense of the culture industry. Jaws was glibly optimistic in offering itself as a solution. Altman’s complex interplay of sound and image — the overlapping mix of conversation, traffic noise, radios, and sound truck — was the precise inverse of Spielberg’s total orchestration, the musical score (so close to the angst-producing theme from the JFK-era TV show The Twilight Zone) functioning like a rheostat, everything working together in harmony to achieve the desired effect.
Nashville was about the entertainment machine. Jaws was it — the very post-TV multimedia Gesamtkunstwerk that Adorno and Horkheimer had predicted, the total integration of “all the elements of the production, from the novel (shaped with an eye to the film) to the last sound effect,” with a meta-narrative celebrating “the triumph of invested capital.”
To keep moving — just like a shark, which, also omnivorous, devours whatever comes its way. (Indeed, The Jaws Log opens by comparing producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck to sharks — nice sharks, hyper-alert but not predatory. “Just as the Great White Shark can sense the erratic vibrations of a swimmer in the water, so can Richard and David sense the movement of a literary property in the publishing world.”)
Nashville was supple where Jaws was rigid, but Nashville was superficial while Jaws ran deep. Was it while watching Nashville or Jaws that Kurt Vonnegut was “thunderstruck” by the realization of “how discontinuous with the rest of the world our culture is,” its “pure and recent invention, inspired by random opportunities to gain money or power or fame” so that “even the past is faked”?
Nashville was a party or a concert or, as Kael proposed, an “orgy without excess” — thus an improved version of the Sixties. Jaws was predicated on a more ruthless notion of movie as roller coaster. The buildup, certainly, was as long as the wait for a Disneyland ride. The monster remained invisible until eighty minutes into the movie. Then, with each appearance bigger than the last, it repeatedly violates human space, erupting into the frame from below — drawing on every primal conception of the sea as universal womb or collective unconscious, albeit here a repository of blood, monsters, and death. Jaws, said Spielberg, was “almost like I’m directing the audience with an electric cattle prod.”
The shark — particularly as it was visualized on the movie’s celebrated poster — is at once monstrous phallus and vagina dentata. It coalesces a whole nexus of submerged feelings and sadistic sexuality. In one scene, a dead shark is referred to as “Deep Throat.” The crew had dubbed the mechanical shark “Bruce” — a name then popularly associated with homosexuals — while, as several analysts noted, “fish” was a homosexual slang term for a woman.
And yet Jaws was set in a vacationland — which is to say an American utopia — with the welcoming name of Amity. It is the place to which an ex–New York City cop named Brody has brought his family so that they can live somewhere safe.
Jaws was adapted from a monster bestseller, but it had a narrative that might have been configured by computer, combining aspects of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (in which a town doctor discovers that the mineral springs which sustain his community are polluted and is pilloried for his integrity) with the obsessive mano-a-mano leviathan-battle of Moby-Dick. At one point, Spielberg wanted to shoot a scene with Quint watching John Huston’s movie version but evidently Gregory Peck, embarrassed by his performance as Ahab, nixed it.
Spielberg credited himself with streamlining the narrative: “I took the Mafia out of it, I took, not the sex out, but the affair out.” In the novel, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is sleeping with Mrs. Brody — a relationship that would certainly have complicated the eventual alliance between Mr. Brody and Hooper. But although no one goes to bed with anyone in the movie Jaws, Spielberg was certainly correct in acknowledging that he had not denuded the story of sex. On the contrary — and not just because Peter Benchley had publicly complained that the alteration of his material was equivalent to a “gang rape.”
Jaws opens with one of the most blatantly eroticized murders in the history of cinema — and one that openly encourages the audience to identify with the killer. A young woman detaches herself from a group of youths partying on the beach, a chaste and diminished orgy, and shedding her clothes, runs wantonly toward the ocean. She’s followed down the beach by a less-than-sober admirer but draws far more formidable interest once she plunges into the surf, swims out ten yards, and gaily raises a leg to the sky. Now the viewer, too, is submerged in the ocean, peering at the swimmer from underneath in a point of view that not only coincides with the introduction of the shark’s musical cue but also is, in fact, the shark’s. Back above the waterline, the woman jerks violently up and down, crying, “It hurts, it hurts,” as she rhythmically thrashes around. Meanwhile, back on the beach, her drunken suitor has collapsed on the sand and is moaning, “I’m coming, I’m definitely coming.”
Like the Chappaquiddick inquest, Jaws opens with the mystery of a young woman’s corpse left in the water. Had Bruce’s first victim been a man, Jaws would scarcely be the same movie. (Indeed, as if to reiterate the sexual nature of the crime, the novel delays a telephone report of the woman’s disappearance so that the policeman on duty can finish reading an account of a woman who castrates a would-be rapist with the linoleum knife she’d hidden in her hair.) Jaws is a movie in which sex and violence are indistinguishable forms of oral aggression. The Jack-the-Ripper joke made as the police view the woman’s remains is only amplified by Hooper’s “professional” excitement when he examines them.
In general, Jaws has a surplus of innuendo: “I see you got your rubbers with you,” Quint teases Brody. Quint’s toast “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged wimmen” is reinforced by his drinking song “Spanish Ladies,” in which a sailor bids farewell to the whores on shore. Misogyny is rationalized when Quint and Hooper compare their (women-related) scars.
“Part of a bracing revival of high adventure films and thrillers,” according to Time, Jaws “promises to hit right in the old collective unconscious and to draw millions irresistibly to the box office.” The movie was “mercifully free of padding — cosmic, comic, cultural,” it was (like Bruce) a most “efficient entertainment machine.”
It was also everywhere at once — like God or a television event. Released simultaneously at 460 theaters on an unprecedented wave of saturation TV advertising, Jaws needed only seventy-eight days to surpass The Godfather’s rentals and become the top-grossing movie of all time — or at least until Star Wars arrived in 1977. The coproducer Richard Zanuck accrued more money from his share of Jaws’ profits than his father, Darryl F. Zanuck, made in his entire career.
By late July, the novel Jaws had sold over seven and a half million paperback units, with Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log closing in on one million. Americans had purchased two million Jaws tumblers, half a million T-shirts, and tens of thousands of posters, beach towels, shark’s-tooth pendants, bike bags, blankets, costume jewelry, shark costumes, hosiery, hobby kits, inflatable sharks, iron-on transfers, games, charms, pajamas, bathing suits, water squirters.
The beach itself was an advertisement for Jaws — a beneficial side effect of the movie’s extended schedule. (Amazingly enough, Universal had hoped to release Jaws — like Earthquake — in time for Christmas 1974.) Both Time and the New York Times ran features reporting, respectively, that “formerly bold swimmers now huddle in groups a few yards offshore,” while “waders are peering timorously into the water’s edge.” An official for the L.A. County department of beaches now had to “force” himself to go into the water. Each day, lifeguards at Long Island’s Jones Beach and the Cape Cod National Seashore received hundreds of inquiries about sharks.
In the New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section, Stephen Farber maintained that the only difference between Jaws and William Castle’s Bug was hype. An insistent publicity campaign transformed Jaws into the entertainment “event” of the year. Was pervasive advertising sufficient to explain this orgy of participation? Newsweek noted that “the spell seemed larger than its merchandising hype alone could account for” and speculated that, as “the summer spectacle of the two years just past was the decline and fall of Richard Nixon,” Americans needed a respite. “The palpable hunger in this vacation season was for escape and Jaws offered it.”
Or, as Vonnegut had written of Nashville, Jaws was not just “a spiritual inventory of America” but also a spiritual salve, a fulfillment of the hope that art could be “wonderfully useful in times of trouble.” There were few American fears that were not displaced onto the shark. That summer alone, the Jaws poster was parodied to show the Statue of Liberty menaced by the CIA, Portugal by Communism, Uncle Sam by a Soviet Submarine Buildup, the feminist Gloria Steinem by Male Chauvinism (although here, the swimmer had submerged to attack the shark), American citizens by a New Tax Bite, American wages menaced by Inflation, American drivers by the Energy Crisis, American workers by Unemployment, and Gerald Ford by Recession, Ronald Reagan, and a toothless Congress.
By the summer of 1975 there was no more Vietnam War, no further talk of the space race, no new Miami or Las Vegas to construct. At the summit of American accomplishment, there was now only Bruce. “It looked like a Nike missile, but it was one of the [mechanical] sharks,” the Boston Phoenix had reported from the set, having casually penetrated Spielberg’s security system to note Bruce’s “inner workings of pumps, gauges, hoses, and clamps,” another daring show of nerve and steel. “Jaws should never have been made,” Spielberg would maintain, and his description of his “impossible effort” was elaborated by Carl Gottlieb in The Jaws Log: “Launching Jaws was a film production problem analogous to NASA trying to land men on the moon and bring them back.”
Nashville created such a compelling confusion that even the disgraced ex-president felt free to weigh in. According to Altman, Nixon himself wrote to the director to request a “copy” of Nashville for his daughter Julie, maintaining that it was her favorite movie. (How much hatred of politics and desire for normalcy may be intuited here?) Jaws, by contrast, was clearcut.
To the degree that both movies represented politics as a sleazy con game and capitalism as a selfish, rapacious system, both articulated a populist distrust of big business and governmental leadership. But where Nashville was fatalistic, suffused with what Robert Mazzocco called an “air of self-congratulatory befuddlement,” Jaws — which was, after all, an action movie — proposed a solution.
More than a fad or a marketing ploy or psychosexual roller coaster or middle-class Moby-Dick, Jaws — as much as it was a new business model for Hollywood — was the promise of utopia redux. Amity’s mayor is the tawdriest of gladhanders, shamelessly wearing a stars-and-stripes tie like a creature out of Nashville. What would Julie Nixon Eisenhower make of him? The actor (Murray Hamilton) has a marked physical resemblance to her father and, no less than Nixon, the character he plays is undone by an attempt to conceal a crime — compelling the town coroner to falsely report that the shark’s first victim, Chrissie, died in a boating accident. (Perhaps, Julie would have been sensitive to the unfairness: in real life, on the real Martha’s Vineyard, the mayor would be protecting the interests of the all-powerful Kennedys.)
Like the Watergate cover-up, the mayor’s (economically motivated) attempt to fool Amity’s citizens and tourists serves to divert attention away from the viewer’s own implication in the original crime and to channel it into self-righteous anger. This is compounded, in Jaws, when the shark’s second victim turns out to be an innocent child. The corrupt mayor’s decision to open Amity’s beaches on the Fourth of July, despite the presence of the Great White lurking offshore, creates the movie’s ultimate debacle. A tidal wave of panic hits the beach. It is with the July 4th collapse — the equivalent of Nashville’s ending — that Jaws’ final act begins.
In The Jaws Log, Carl Gottlieb would recall a lengthy cocktail party — perhaps even on Independence Day — at which New York Times political columnist and Vineyard regular James Reston buttonholed producer Richard Zanuck, a public Nixon supporter in 1972, and berated him for Hollywood’s apparent lack of interest in celebrating the impending Bicentennial. What Reston couldn’t know was that Jaws would be that celebration.
Jaws’ characters are almost less than television stereotypes. Brody is easily imagined as the protagonist of a TV cop show. It’s the 1968 Clint Eastwood vehicle Coogan’s Bluff in reverse — a former big-city policeman relocated to a picturesque High Noon town where, as Brody likes to say, “one man can make a difference.” (Of course, were Brody the actual police chief of Martha’s Vineyard, he might well have had to orchestrate his own cover-up.)
Charlton Heston — the Universal savior in Earthquake and Airport ’75 — had originally wanted the role for himself; as played by the narrow-shouldered Roy Scheider, the character is necessarily diminished. The actor’s broken nose seems more an emblem of vulnerability than machismo. Harried and bespectacled, Brody may represent the Law on land, but he’s powerless at sea — rendered impotent through his city-kid fear of the water.
In the novel, Brody is on-island working-class and his wife is mainland uppercrust. In the movie, the fisherman Quint is the blue-collar tough-guy, the would-be Dirty Harry of Shark City. Hooper, initially visualized as a scruffy hippie-type, is shown to be both privileged and educated. Throughout there’s class tension between Hooper’s “wealthy college boy” (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint’s “working-class hero” (Robert Shaw), as each characterizes the other: hippie vs. hardhat. One has no difficulty imagining their respective stands on the Vietnam War. (Time’s cover story helpfully notes that Dreyfuss registered with his draft board as a conscientious objector.) But Brody is a new sort of authority figure. (Scheider had played the good cop to Gene Hackman’s racist bad cop in The French Connection.) Outside the Hooper-Quint conflict and dependent on both, Brody is more sympathetic to Hooper — thanks to Spielberg’s thoughtful elimination of the subplot where the oceanographer is sleeping with Brody’s wife.
Spielberg also contributed to Jaws’ underlying mysticism, or at least, understood it. For it is not just business that is predatory and irresponsible. The shark is nature’s revenge. Like Night of the Living Dead, Jaws is rooted in the cheap drive-in science-fiction and beach-party monster movies of the Pax Americana. The true ancestor of the Great White is the Japanese monster Godzilla who emerged from Tokyo harbor, reactivated from eternal slumber by the atomic bomb. Jaws, too, is haunted by the idea of nuclear holocaust and a fear of retribution. The movie’s release coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, a subject of some media attention that implied no small desire for expiation.
The New York Times travel section for February 16, 1975, for example, ran a cheerful account of present-day life in the city where 78,000 were incinerated in a single blast and another 180,000 perished from the effects of radiation:
We had come [to Hiroshima] with long faces, feelings of guilt, ready to shrivel under accusing eyes. . . . And now my wife and I found ourselves in a Wizard of Oz city, plump with gaiety like a laughing Buddha, prosperous. . . . There was a poll recently among the schoolchildren. “Of all the countries in the world beyond Japan who are your favorite people?” the children were asked.
The majority wrote, “Americans.”
Oh, doubly blessed relief! Out on the sea, Quint tells the true story of the battleship USS Indianapolis which, after delivering the atomic bombs that would be dropped on Japan, suffered a suitably cosmic trial. The boat is hit by a torpedo and goes down, forcing its crew to abandon ship in shark-infested seas. Hundreds of seamen are devoured. Shaw’s description of this scene, a virtual radio play in this most visual of movies, is a tribute to language and the intensity of Shaw’s performance. (This powerful subplot does not appear in the novel. One wonders whether it was the inspired contribution of John Milius, whose enthusiasm for military history is well known.)
Who shall live and who shall die? Which individual or alliance can best preserve Amity from the terror of the Great White Shark? Which of the three is shark bait? The combination of Hooper and Brody — middle-class law-and-order plus youth-culture technocracy — not only suggests self-consciously hip cop shows like Mod Squad (ABC, 1968–73) or the later Miami Vice (NBC, 1984–90) but also the coalition that would develop behind Jimmy Carter. The sacrifice of Quint, meanwhile, has the additional advantage of canceling the nuclear guilt he articulates and the historical nightmare represented by his service on the Indianapolis.
Susan Sontag wrote that the “imagery of disaster in science fiction is above all the emblem of an inadequate response,” but that is scarcely the case with Jaws. Brody is born again — literally, baptized in the sea — to be precisely the Adequate Response. He overcomes his fear of the water and single-handedly slays the dragon. (In the novel, Hooper is devoured along with Quint, and the shark mysteriously expires just as its fearsome snout reaches Brody.) Thus, the film’s hero — a family man as well as a cop — triumphs over brute nature and mendacious politicians alike, defeating the Great White Shark where ivory-tower oceanographers and working-class fishermen had failed to do so.
Time ended its cover story with the sentiment that “in Jaws, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.” This evocation of the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt seems hardly inappropriate to a fantasy in which the American middle class survives the onslaught of a monster to regain control of a vacation paradise. Jaws presented a national rite of initiation. Revived in theaters, the day following Carter’s inauguration, it imagined the end of an old America and the birth of a new one.
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Copyright © 2019 by J.Hoberman. This excerpt originally appeared in Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.
J. Hoberman’s books include The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties; An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War; and Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan. He has written for Artforum, the London Review of Books, The Nation, and the New York Review of Books. For over thirty years, he was a film critic for the Village Voice. He lives in New York.
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