I have seen the film Jaws more times than I count. This viewing, however, was my first viewing of the movie under academic circumstances, with some beginner’s knowledge of the filmmaking craft under my belt. As such, this time around many realizations about the film’s cinematography and the underlying, almost subversive tactics used in camera positioning became blatantly apparent. I counted and tracked no less than 7 distinct strategies in the cinematography of this film, most of which had been completely unknown to me, despite my repeated viewings of the film, and most of which all culminated in the ending sequence. However, I have chosen to relate the specific strategy detailed below because of how blatantly it smacked me in the face the first time I realized its presence in the work.
Anyone who has seen Jaws once can tell you that the character of the Mayor of Amityville, the movie’s prime location, is an idiot. Having seen the movie over and over, upon the first appearance of the Mayor, I knew the oblivious ignorance that was about to come. Each time, the Mayor converses with a protagonist, save the final scene he appears in, the protagonists get nowhere with him. Brody wants to close the beaches, the Mayor refuses. Hooper wants to perform a necropsy on the shark, the Mayor refuses. Figuratively, the Mayor cannot be swayed from his position, literally, when the Mayor is onscreen, we get nowhere with him.
What I mean by this is that anytime the Mayor is onscreen, and especially when he is arguing with the protagonists, all of the characters are moving, quite animatedly in fact. Yet, the camera is positioned in front of the Mayor, zoomed in tightly on all the characters integral to the scene, and shot at just about chest-up. This completely flattens the image, taking all sense of depth out of the shot and completely negating any physical movements toward or away from the camera. In this way, every conversation with the Mayor gets no where, literally. There is no depth in the shot, just as there is no depth to the Mayor’s perspective, and there is no discernible range of movement, just as there is no change in the Mayor’s staunch position. In fact, the only bits of discernible movement and depth in scenes with the Mayor occur precisely when he or a protagonist make a point, or when the conversation is ending. The camera becomes the Mayor. It is the Mayor’s shot. There is no depth and no give, just like the obliviously ignorant character himself.
This technique can be seen most well in one specific scene: this scene being the very first appearance of the Mayor, in which he declines Chief Brody’s wise decision to close down the beaches of the island. Throughout this conversation, the characters are actually moving on a ferry across an expanse of water, with ships and other things moving in the background. And yet, the camera positioning keeps the characters staunchly in place throughout the entire talk, utilizing a long take to never let the characters move from their position or get any depth out of the Mayor’s perspective. The only time in the scene that depth can be discerned, and it is only a small amount of depth, is just as the conversation ends, the Mayor makes a point, and Brody has lost this first of many verbal spars.
This hilariously played technique, which directly describes the Mayor’s character, is used over many scenes of similar content, culminating in the final scene involving the Mayor. This scene, occurring right after an undeniable shark attack, gives us the most depth available in any scene with the Mayor and features Brody literally leaving his biggest, and least bright, roadblock far behind. The Mayor gets ever smaller, as Brody gets ever bigger, indicating that all power to halt Brody’s progress has been lost by the Mayor. Indeed, the Mayor is never mentioned or seen in the rest of the film after this this breaking of depth and movement, and except briefly in a conflict between two diametrically opposed protagonists, this technique of flattening the image to an extreme degree never occurs again. The Mayor, and his ignorance, have been broken forever by our main protagonist.