Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is well known to many moviegoers. Each moment in the sequence keeps viewers' attention, enhances the victim's humanity, characterizes the victim (or alternately dehumanizes her) or her companion, intensifies viewers' emotions, establishes contrasts that heighten emotion and sharpen theme, suggests despair, and/or leads up to the victim's savage and horrendous death. The blue font indicates how the action sequences accomplish these tasks.
A young blonde woman runs, Chrissie Watkins, along a fence, or what is left of it, pursued by a young man. Is he a threat? Does he mean her harm? Is he a stalker?
This sequence of action creates suspense, as the viewer, having no clue as to why the man is chasing the woman, wonders whether she is in danger.
He trips, falls, but is again on his feet in a second, and the pursuit continues. Chrissie glance back, over her shoulder, as she runs, shedding her denim jacket. Beneath her sweaters, her breasts bounce as she runs, suggesting she is braless. The man continues his pursuit.
Chrissie may shed her jacket because it impedes her range of motion, slowing her down. The motion of her breasts calls attention to her femininity and her sexuality, suggesting a possible motive for the man's pursuit. Is he intent upon rape?
She pauses to remove a shoe, before stumbling onward, her pursuer giving chase, as he doffs his sweatshirt.
Perhaps she removes her shoe for the same reason she removed her sweater: it slows her flight.
Chrissie pulls off her sweater; she is, indeed, braless. Viewers see her bare breasts bounce as she runs. Although she continues to flee from the man following her, viewers begin to suspect the couple are playing a game, as she has voluntarily removed her shoe and top.
The suspense dissipates, as viewers realize the couple are playing a game of sorts. Chrissie is not in danger. (However, since she soon will be, this segment of the film's introductory sequence creates a false expectation for viewers.) Her braless states suggests she is a modern, “liberated” young woman who is comfortable in her own skin.
As the man tumbles down a hill at the side of the trail, Chrissie, now completely nude, runs toward the ocean, her buttocks drawing viewers' gazes.
When suspense is unavailable, nudity can keep viewers' attention. The fact that she has chosen to be naked suggests she is a carefree young woman, just as the game of flight-and-pursuit she plays with her friend suggests she is playful.
She enters the surf and dives into the sea. She is a strong swimmer, and, by the time her friend arrives on the beach, removing more of his clothing, she is nearing a buoy some distance off shore.
The young man remains only a figure, rather than a character, he's little more than a prop; the introductory portion of the film remains focused on Chrissie. For this part of the film, at least, she is the protagonist.
Projecting her leg into the air, her foot extended straight, in a manner similar to that of a ballerina standing on her toes, she lets herself sink into the ocean. For a moment, she is lost to sight.
The positioning of her leg indicates Chrissie has a sense of humor.
A closeup shot shows her resurface, mouth wide as she gasps for breath, water streaming down her face. She smiles, before turning as she dog paddles, to look west, toward the sun, which is low on the horizon. Sunset is on its way.
Although she is in her element and is enjoying herself, Chrissie hasn't much time left: symbolically, the near-sunset indicates that the end is near for her.
On the beach, her friend is a silhouette against the wash of the surf, a stretch of low land, and a sky in which scattered clouds are illuminated, yellow and pink in the setting sun. He falls as he struggles to remove a shoe. Perhaps, given his clumsiness, he is drunk.
It seems clear that he is not the type of man who is apt to be able to rescue a damsel in distress. He cannot even take care of himself.
Chrissie resumes swimming, her gliding silhouette seen from below the calm, blue waters as she performs the breaststroke. Then, the back of her head and her arms are seen at a distance, as she continues to swim.
Seen from this perspective, below and at some distance, Chrissie is dehumanized. She might as well be a maritime animal, a fish or a seal, as a human being.
Pausing for a moment, as the camera shows her closeup, she turns her head from side to side, smiling.
Her moment of joy will contrast sharply and dramatically with her coming horror and pain.
She sinks below the surface of the ocean, kicking her legs and waving her arms. The camera views her from below. Her pubic hair is a dark, triangular patch, her breasts discernible as a pair of firm, buoyant mounds topped by her nipples.
Her sexuality is highlighted by this shot, but it is, at the same time, darkened by the lack of light, both below the surface of the ocean and in the dusky sky above. She is undoubtedly a beautiful and sexy woman; her death will seem all the more a waste. She could be a mother. Instead, she will become a corpse. Sexuality and life are established, through her nudity, as contrasts to her upcoming demise.
At the surface again, she smiles. Then, her head jerks back and she is pulled violently downward. Her eyes widen in surprise. She turns her head slightly to her right, looking puzzled. Her head dips below the surface, before reappearing. She looks panic-stricken. In a splash, she vanishes beneath the waves. When her head pierces the surface, her mouth is open, her eyes shut tightly, a grimace of terror and pain freezing her features.
Chrissie feels surprise, followed by shock, followed by horror and pain, as she realizes she is in the grip of an adversary too ferocious and powerful to resist and that, alone at sea, she is on her own.
A splash, and she is pulled across the water, past the buoy, only her head and shoulders visible above the water. She struggles. Her body is pulled to the right. She straightens, and her body is again pulled to the right. Water churns around her.
It is as if, clinging to the buoy, she hopes against hope, even in her hopeless situation, to survive somehow. Of course, she has no chance.
On the beach, her friend sleeps, as Chrissie continues to struggle for her life against her unseen adversary. She is launched toward the buoy and clings desperately to its platform. It turns, and, cast off, she swims toward shore, but, a moment later, she is seized. Her face flashes with anguish amid the roiling water, as she cries out. She is taken underwater.
This seems to be her last moment: she is buried, as it were, at sea, the closure of the water above her body a metaphorical closing of her grave.
Her friend continues to sleep on the beach, despite the breaking waves that wash over his lower body. The sky is now nearly dark.
The near-darkness suggests both the young man's sleep (and his unawareness of Chrissie's death) and Chrissie's own demise.
In well-made movies, regardless of their genre, every moment of screen time contributes to the film's overall effect while moving the movie forward. The same is true of well-written novels, although, sometimes to their detriment, novels are allowed more leeway than movies, probably because feature films cost millions of dollars to produce, while novels typically cost those who write and distribute them far less. A tightly written novel, though, in which every chapter, paragraph, sentence, and word contributes to the narrative's overall effect while moving the story forward is apt to be a superior one. Whatever their medium, one type of artist can often suggest ways to improve another one's work, regardless of its medium. The opening sequence of Jaws, like the movie's other scenes, has a lot to teach those willing to study and to learn.