Video: An Absurdly In-Depth Study of the Beach Scene in Jaws

By  · Published on April 8th, 2015

“Spielberg at his most Hitchcockian.”

That’s how the team behind The Discarded Image (a new video essay series focused on cinema) describes the beach scene in Jaws where Brody watches a ton of potential beach-loving victims, helpless to save a little boy who’s ripped apart by the shark. I can’t disagree. Mostly because Alfred Hitchcock also loved bad hats.

The video does a striking and thorough job explaining how Steven Spielberg tortures the viewer by forcing them to identify with a powerless figure caught in the middle of a violently chaotic moment. It’s about framing, camera direction and dramatic irony. It’s also about color coordination, foreground imagery and the culmination of earlier character decisions. It’s also about a dozen other things that allow us to marvel at Spielberg’s genius and allow aspiring filmmakers to shudder at the sheer level of detail that goes into making something this powerful.

I don’t want to diminish the strength of the video essay here because it’s truly outstanding, but on a cosmetic level, the thing I got most out of watching the scene broken down was how absolutely gorgeous it is. The Discarded Image asks us to pay special attention to blocking and camera movement, and I can’t say that I noticed just how balletic the sequence is until now, despite having seen Jaws a dozen times. It’s stunning, particularly the first long take where we bounce from a large woman to the little victim pleading with his mother to have more time in the water, then transition to Chief Brody pensively questioning whether he should have closed the beach against the will of the financial interests. One thing I’ll add to the essay is how alien Brody is. The scene mentions it later when Bad Hat Harry mocks him for not swimming, but immediately you see a man on the beach who isn’t dressed for the beach. He doesn’t belong. He’s not part of the culture. He’s going to have to be the one to save it.

This is the first episode in a series that I hope continues for as long as possible. It makes a great companion to Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting, it’s clear that the Discarded Image folks know their stuff, and there are a lot more movies out there to study.

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