Male Bonding in the Movies: Cinematography and Editing in Jaws

Dylan Hintz
Intro to Film
Dr. Johnson

Male Bonding in the Movies:

Cinematography and Editing in Jaws

Over the course of eight minutes an entirely new character dynamic is created in Steve Spielberg’s 1975 Horror-Adventure, Jaws: Three men of different backgrounds, perspectives, and levels of seafaring skill become friends through an exhibition of scars and the telling of a war story. It is the main moment of character development for Quint, and strongly affects the other two characters, Hooper and Brody, as well. The four minutes that wrap around Quint’s tale give the viewer a focused presentation of the evolution of male camaraderie under the tone of shared terror.  One intriguing part about these eight minutes, from the cinematic studies perspective, is that the scene includes a total of only thirty cuts. As based on David Bordwell’s formula, this equates to roughly 3.75 shots per minute, with an average shot length (ASL) of 26 seconds. The interdependence of the cinematography to the editing of a blockbuster such as Jaws is what keeps the audience on the edge of their seat, even when they are not being hit by a bombardment of quick-cut images as blockbusters have grown to do.

Because there are so few cuts over time, it requires the individual shots themselves to be even more powerful. It is also through the utilization of these cuts and shots that the narrative, themes, and tone of the film are made present during one of its most important moments: Quint’s war story from the U.S.S. Indianapolis. David Bordwell’s essay, “Visual Style in Contemporary American Film” states that the basic formula of classical and post-classical Hollywood film making is “as the scene develops the shots get closer to the performers, carrying us into the heart of the drama” (Bordwell 16). During this scene, the shot time is increasingly allotted to Quint, and it is through the cinematographic framing and editing relations that he has with the other characters, that their bond is shown as it forms over time, while also loading the film with dramatic tension  through close ups of this central character.

Starting with an extreme long shot that establishes the setting—an old boat floating on the ocean on a very dark night, almost in the middle of nowhere. This shot, the boat lost on the water, gives the film a sense of eeriness that preludes to the dark tone that the scene is about to take. From here, the drama cuts closer to the characters, immediately establishing their distance from each other. Each character is shown in a singles, “medium shots or close-ups showing only one player” as Bordwell states their purpose being to “allow the director to vary the scene’s pace in editing and to pick the best bits of each actor’s performance” (Bordwell 18-19). This leads the viewer to establish each character as a separate entity, and that they have not yet reached any sort of unity.

Their separate notions of fear and chaos have led each man to the same place with the same intention but with different methods and motivations to carry out the task. The character dynamic up to this point is that Quint is a crazy old fisherman with nothing to lose, that Hooper is an egotistical rich kid with something to prove, and that Brody is the know-nothing sheriff with a heart of gold but a complete lack of ability. They have yet to reach a point of understanding between each other, which has the potential to harm their mission. During this scene specifically, it is because of Brody’s inexperience with the ocean world that he does not yet sit at the table with Quint and Hooper as they joke about their scars. He observes them from away and above, only included in the scene through cuts, and it is only from the establishing shot and later eyelines that his location is still known as the “shots/reverse shots reiterate the information about the character position given in the establishing shot, and so do the eyelines and body orientation” (Bordwell 17). This develops Quint’s speech as well, because the majority of it is given with his eyeline matching something above him, almost as if from a high angle shot. This adds a sympathetic edge to his war story, as Brody is established to be distanced from the other two men in this scene, a silent observer, giving him a chance to learn from their experiences, and they a chance to bond through those old stories.

Going between the two rivals, the camerawork moves from single shots in single cuts to longer two shots, the two opposing sea-farers become closer comrades. Camera motion is the start of their bond, with a long take swaying the shot back and forth, from Quint to Hooper, back to Quint, and then bringing the two of them together in a naturally framed two shot, impressively done without a dolly or zoom in, keeping them on equal grounds in their bonding. This framing keeps the audience’s attention focused, as “in a film, the frame is not simply a neutral border; it imposes a certain vantage point onto the material within the image” (Bordwell and Thompson 252). In this case, the vantage point is that of a witness to a conversation where two men finally gain a mutual understanding and respect, and eventually one of a sympathetic, and equally terrified participant in a round of graphic storytelling.

The joking about old scars begins a very primate-like competition, the men showing off their masculine scars and trying to one-up the other with their stories. Brody is hardly cut to, as he still has yet to find a place at the table, and can only look on these men and their mythical notions of the dangerous life at sea. When Quint is cut to, it is a medium close up, with a two shot in the wide screen framing. Hooper, though he is present, is starkly out of focus. His reactions are not as important to the scene as the actual telling of Quint’s story. This is his moment to admit to his fears, to his internal motivation for the destruction of the shark, and his thematic likeness to Captain Ahab. It is something he is alone in, with the focusing-out of Hooper and the cutting away from Brody adding to this tone of isolated, personal terror, while simultaneously dealing a new hand of character development about Quint’s past as he brings his war story to the dinner table.

Quint is shot in close up for the majority of the scene, the takes lasting over a total of two minutes, with his monologue ending with a dolly in that draws tension to his character as he explains the “time I was most scared.” It is the one time he is shot almost directly from the front, and based on his words it is the most candid he has been with anyone in a long time.  As Quint’s story wraps with the line “Anyways, we delivered the bomb,” he glances up at Brody for his judgment, and receives only a sympathetic glance. An understanding has been established between the characters (though the audience will find out later just how unhinged Quint really is), and the shot now transfers to a three-shot, wherein all three of the heroes are within the framing, as equals, sitting together at the dinner table in Quint’s old boat, singing “Show me the way to go home”.

Through a story of completely relatable fear, a bond between the men has been established and the development of Quint’s character has reached a new level. This has a stronger impact on the audience through the director’s choices of framing and cutting. The cinematography of the close up is utilized and the pacing of the editing is kept slow so that a focus can be established on one character, while engrossing all three in a deadly tale. It is a climactic moment for the film, as soon after the terror of the real and present shark will come for them, but now through their bonding they will hopefully stand a better chance.

Books Used:
Film Theory: 7th Edition by David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson

Intensified Continuity by David Bordwell

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Male Bonding in the Movies: Cinematography and Editing in Jaws by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.