Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays

The Great American Eating Machine

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

The recurrence of certain thematic ideas clues us to a consistency of vision at work in Steven Spielberg’s last three films. For one thing, all are “disaster films” in the sense that they deal with the revelation of character in time of stress. Each of the three films, in one way or another, treats of a battle to the death between a pursuer and a pursued, each respecting and fearing the other’s power. Most fascinating, though, is the fact that all three films deal in some significant way with people’s relationship to machines. (It comes as no surprise that Spielberg’s current work-in-progress, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is about human encounters with UFOs.) Even his earliest television work is marked by an interest in the struggle of the human against the Object. The second section of the Rod Serling trilogy Night Gallery (1969) starred Joan Crawford as an art collector who arranges for an eye transplant, and awakes from the operation just in time for a New York power blackout, with frantic results. A more mature made-for-TV feature, Something Evil (1970), pitted Sandy Dennis against a houseful of poltergeists. But it was with Duel (1972) that Spielberg first dealt specifically with that curiously American simultaneous dependence upon and fear of machines.

"Duel" - The tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon

Richard Matheson’s script for Duel is a vertiginous plunge into the American collective unconscious, with an enormous, wheezing tank truck metamorphosed into a contemporary dragon that irrationally menaces the allegorically surnamed hero, David Mann. His first name is as apt as his surname: the fact that the driver of the truck remains unseen turns the truck itself into a giant Philistine enemy opposing this modern David. Spielberg presents the truck to us not from the point-of-view of Mann’s eyes, but from a fragile point deep inside the mind of the threatened salesman. In closeup, the truck is always overpoweringly huge; in middle- and longshot its size is emphasized by comparison with Mann’s car, making the truck more than ever an insatiable monster bent on gobbling up helpless prey.

The metaphoric impact of all this is heightened by the fact that Mann has chosen to drive this winding, hilly country road to avoid freeway traffic. In his life’s journey he has strayed—but willingly—from the Dantean true path, and found himself confronted by a ravening beast. The snake, too, that most allegorical of creatures, makes its appearance in one of the film’s most interesting scenes, Mann’s stop at a garage that, in the tradition of Cable Hogue’s “Cable Springs” stagecoach stop, offers an exhibit of snakes as a roadside attraction. Interestingly, the snake sequence comes just after an incident in which the truck has nearly forced Mann into the path of a train at a crossing, and precedes the climactic sequence in which a radiator hose gives out and spews steam about as Mann’s car grinds to a halt on a steep grade. Whether this is an intentional proliferation of phallic symbolism or merely a sequence of variations on shape, Spielberg’s emphatic treatment of the images demonstrates his awareness of the coincidence.

More obviously intentional in the snake sequence is the first occurrence in Spielberg’s work of what might be called the animalization of the mechanical. Momentarily out of his car, for the purpose of telephoning the police from the garage’s phonebooth, Mann finds the booth attacked and leveled by the truck. Fleeing for his life among the cages of “Snakerama,” Mann is pursued by the truck into an open, arena-like area. The truck pauses before the charge, the sneeze of its air brakes a bestial snort, as Mann stands to face the truck alone, knowing that the only way he can dodge its cumbersome bulk is to stay put as long as possible and whirl aside at the last minute. This darkly comic image is, unfortunately, forced into obviousness by the use of mariachi music on the soundtrack. Nevertheless, the more abstract point of the imagery is skillfully made: the truck becomes el toro; in the monumental confrontation between Mann and beast, the mechanical neutral participant train is succeeded by the lively snakes, which are overrun by the truck’s assault, preparing us imagistically for the broken coil of radiator hose. The snakes, in all this, represent the least danger of all to David Mann. Man’s primordial fear of beasts—specifically of being devoured by beasts—is here applied to his relationship with machine. Ironically, Mann’s faith in machines is in fact his greatest liability. For, the “Snakerama” corrida notwithstanding, it is when he is in his car that Mann is in the greatest danger. Nowhere is this clearer than at the climax of the film, when he gets out of his vehicle, in a desperate effort to face the truck alone, only to have this seemingly insane gesture save his life, as the truck smashes into his empty car and momentum sweeps both over the cliff into a monumental explosion.

Throughout the film, in fact, it is the inherent danger of machines, not their convenience, efficiency, and safety, that Spielberg emphasizes: the nightmarish horde of city and freeway traffic, the telephone that mediates an ugly confrontation with Mann’s wife, the radio that blares obnoxious and shallow comments on the American scene, the phonebooth at “Snakerama” that is leveled by the truck even before Mann can make his call to the police, and—of course—the automobile and radiator hose that fail him in a near-fatal way.

If Duel is an allegory, then this is likely its moral, and apparently the lesson Mann contemplates as he sits, at the end of the film, surveying the scene of the end of ordeal from a quiet perch on a hillside at sunset, somewhere between civilization and myth, as he gradually becomes part of an awesome, quiet natural landscape.

* * *

The characters in The Sugarland Express tend, even more than David Mann, to equate machines with safety and comfort. The automobile is unit and, in the eyes of characters on both sides of the story’s conflict, offers identity and security. The fugitives Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) and Clovis Poplin (William Atherton), bound for the town of Sugarland to rescue their infant son from the foster home in which he has been placed due to their alleged unfitness, spend nearly the entire film inside one vehicle or another. The title entity is the organic string of vehicles that pursues the Poplins and their patrol officer hostage (Michael Sacks) across Texas, a different manifestation of the snake metaphor from Duel: a winding serpent, with thousands of eyes that, by night, flash red, white, and blue. The “Sugarland Express” behaves as a single unit, even to the point that, when two Louisiana State Patrolmen attempt to become heroes by smashing into the Poplins’ car, their miscalculated crash into one of the pursuit cars precipitates a chain crash that disrupts the entire convoy.

The insulating, and insular, quality of the automobile is emphasized in a number of Spielberg’s (and Vilmos Zsigmond’s) shots, the most baroque and arresting of which is from the viewpoint of Patrol Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) in the lead pursuit car: We see, simultaneously, Lou Jean’s face in the rear window of his hijacked patrol car and Tanner’s eyes reflected in his rearview mirror. The people of this film become identified with, and defined by, cars.

There are moments of possible reprieve in the film, and they always come just before someone makes the commitment of stepping into a machine. At the very beginning, for example, even after Lou Jean has safely smuggled Clovis out of the minimum security prison on visitors’ day, with just a few months of his sentence left to go, we cling to the possibility that he will turn back, right up until he steps into the car in the prison parking lot. That gesture, both he and we know, is the truly decisive one that makes him a jailbreaker.

A little later, after the careening flight in an old couple’s Buick, by which Lou Jean tips her hand unnecessarily to the State Patrol, she and Clovis are again momentarily pedestrians. The Buick is wrecked, and this would seem to be a warning to them to let it be. The investigating patrolman, Maxwell Slide, gives the Poplins an oracular warning to the effect that they have a lot of small stuff against them already, but if they—holding him at gunpoint—get into his car with him, that’s kidnapping and a possible life sentence. His caution goes unheeded, but it proves sound on the film’s imagistic terms; for, having committed themselves to the apparent security of the machine, the Poplins find they are condemned to it. Each time they leave or seek to leave their car, danger awaits them. For them, the misguided equation of machine with safety and power has become bizarrely true. When Lou Jean has to make a comfort stop, the patrolmen agree to have a chemical toilet hauled in for her. As long as Clovis has a gun trained on hostage Slide, Lou Jean’s progress to the toilet would go unimpeded; but Clovis suspects dirty work and threatens to pepper the convenience with shotgun fire, upon which a defeated patrolman emerges from the john. Even this strange machine is imbued with inherent danger.

Seeking greater security, comfort, and convenience, the Poplins and their hostage hole up in a camper truck parked on a used car lot. This unwitting gambit precipitates the savage ambush of the three by a pair of “reserve deputies” out to make a name for themselves with hunting rifles. It’s become increasingly apparent that the Poplins are unsafe in or out of cars.

"The Sugarland Express" plays itself

Their absurdly paradoxical situation reaches a point of inaction outside the foster home in Sugarland, to which Tanner has allowed them to proceed, unwilling to risk violence because of the public attention that has by now focused on the strange chase. The Poplins sit in their car in front of the house. Lou Jean is certain that the baby is inside. Slide is equally certain that an ambush awaits, and we believe it too, because we have seen the set-up, and because the deadly silence, the stillness, bodes ill, just as it did seconds before the Dance of Death at the end of Bonnie and Clyde.

Clovis is stymied. Lou Jean urges him to go in; Slide cautions him to stay in the car. If he stays in the car he remains safe, yet nothing is accomplished. If he leaves the car, disaster is almost certain. Even Lou Jean begins to doubt the baby is inside the house, but she becomes painfully aware that there is nothing left to do. This is the destination, the end of the ride. They can’t stay in the car forever; and if they don’t get out here, where to go? Clovis gets out—and is shot.

A final wild chase toward the Mexican border climaxes with the death of the wounded Clovis, and the car lumbers across a dusty arroyo to halt by the bank of the Rio Grande. Lou Jean is arrested, and the shaken Slide emerges from the car at last, to stroll reflectively by the riverbank in an idyllic finale explicitly in the mold of the ending of Duel. The underlying vision of both films obtains: Americans see their machines as representing safety and power; and they are wrong.

* * *

But the vision established in Duel is even more obviously extended in Jaws. As interesting as the love-hate relationship Americans have with their tyrannical machines is their primitive terror of, and insatiable fascination with, the shark, the epitome of animal violence. It was the idea of shark, more than any other single factor, that made Jaws both a bestselling novel and the most popular motion picture of all time. The fascination stems, in part, from the fact that the shark is one of the few remaining animals capable of doing severe harm to human beings in a relatively normal situation—and Spielberg is above all interested in the dangerous possibilities of the normal. His films insidiously inject violence and the threat of violence into locations and events usually associated with the pleasurable activities of American leisure: the country road in Duel and The Sugarland Express; the picnic, camper trucks, roadside meals, impromptu parades, and spontaneous celebrations of The Sugarland Express; the beach and the boat trip in Jaws.

More deeply, the fear of and fascination with sharks stems from the primordial terror of being not simply harmed but actually eaten: the primitive animal’s—and man’s—desperate avoidance of becoming food. There is a certain dignity in being the victim of a violent attack, even if one loses the battle; but to be eaten, to be food for a lower animal, is to be obliterated, to lose identity completely, to stop being Miss T. and turn into something quite different. It is to have been something less than a worthy opponent in battle, and to come to an entirely ignominious and disgusting end. This is what draws thousands of people to the beaches at Amity, yet keeps them out of the water; this is what drew millions of people to theaters to see Jaws, yet—according to subsequent reports—kept them away from several Atlantic beaches in unprecedented numbers during the summer of 1975.

Set against that fear of the animal is an overweening confidence in the safety of manmade machines, epitomized in the attitude of Amity Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). When oceanographic expert and shark specialist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), in a night dive, discovers the ruptured hulk of a fishing boat demolished by shark attack, the possibility of this occurring has been properly prepared for by the picture in Brody’s book which shows a large shark attacking a boat, and it in turn prepares us for the shark’s repeated attacks on the boat in which Brody and Hooper accompany the fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) on his shark hunt—all of which serve to justify Brody’s repeated line, which grows in both comic and serious intensity with each utterance: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” The reliance on the safety offered by the machine is understandable in the non-swimming hydrophobe Brody. But, though he is finally right—the boat is destroyed by the shark’s attacks—Spielberg’s treatment of characterization and action in the film makes it clear that Brody should place his faith in something other than the illusory security offered by a machine.

"We're gonna need a bigger boat."

Balancing Brody with an exactly opposite viewpoint is Quint. From his riveting first appearance, scraping his fingernails across a chalkboard to silence a room full of bickering citizens, Quint is characterized by a contempt for devices. Where Brody repeatedly emphasizes his inability to swim, Quint stresses his hatred of lifejackets (which, he explains, stems from the Mae West’s inability to protect hundreds of his fellow seamen from the jaws of tiger sharks following the sinking of their ship in the Pacific during World War II). Where Brody insists that salvation lies in a bigger boat, Quint is cockily confident in his own craft, and in fact treats it with a cavalier disregard absolutely uncharacteristic of the independent professional fisherman, whose living depends on the performance of his vessel and gear. And Hooper survives by being out of the boat at the right moment.

The Ahab-Whale conceit of the archetypal struggle between Quint and the shark is hard-pressed and a bit tiresome: it doesn’t seem likely that the shark would continue to attack Quint’s boat when all he gets for his trouble is a harpoon in the guts; the feeding is too easy and too good elsewhere. But in stressing the obsessive nature of both Quint and the shark, Benchley and Spielberg have made bold to compare themselves with Melville. It doesn’t work in either case, though in Spielberg’s the comparison is more justified than in Benchley’s. The Great White Shark has not the ambiguous, atheistic whiteness of the whale, nor does it take on the whale’s superhuman allegorical character; rather—and this is central to Spielberg’s point—it is in the shark’s sub-humanness, even its sub-animalness, that the threat and danger of its determination abide.

Hooper tells Brody that the shark does literally nothing but swim, eat, and make little sharks. He refers to it as an “eating machine”—a metaphor that must have appealed greatly to the director of Duel and The Sugarland Express. If machines are repeatedly animalized in those two films, the shark in Jaws epitomizes Spielberg’s mechanization of the animal. The shark is presented in progressively mechanical terms: Early in the film the pieces of broken dock dragged through the water by the shark following the sportsmen’s unsuccessful attempts to capture the fish and tie it to the jetty become synonymous with the presence of the shark itself, and prepare us for the floating barrels used by Quint and Hooper late in the film to mark the shark’s presence and movement, and to try to keep it near the surface. Devices frequently stand in for the presence of the shark, real or suspected: the “fin” of an inverted surfboard, the gear of a surfacing diver, various water toys, and—arguably a different kind of device—John Williams’s pulsating, ominous musical score, echoing Wagner and Stravinsky.

The shark is finally destroyed with a mechanical device, a compressed air tank that Brody resourcefully tosses into the creature’s jaws and then detonates with a rifle shot. In the ensuing explosion the shark, in effect, becomes a bomb—the ultimate mechanization of the animal. Through all of this, we remember (and I wonder to what extent Spielberg himself may have shaped the film’s publicity to make sure we remember) that the “shark” used in the film was itself literally a machine, manufactured for use in the film, and intended to be as lifelike as a real shark. Animal and machine meet in one deadly, omnivorous image.

But when the shark is destroyed, the story is not yet over. The death of the shark in no way guarantees Brody’s safety. The boat, in whose tiny size he placed so little confidence to begin with, has by now been reduced to splinters, and land is nowhere in sight. A saving angel emerges from the depths, however: Hooper, presumed lost to the shark when his observation cage was destroyed earlier in the climactic battle, resurfaces to escort Brody on the long swim back to shore.

Hooper stands midway between the extremes represented by Brody and Quint. He is at home with the mechanical devices he employs, because he is their master, not their slave or their enemy. He is first and foremost a human being, as stressed in his jovial yet sensitive dialogue; but when human feelings threaten to inundate him, he can handle himself with devices, as evidenced objectively in his diving gear and technological equipment, and subjectively in the labored clinical detachment with which he fights his rising gorge as he examines the remains of the first shark victim (“This was no boat accident!”).

The final image of JawsBrody and Hooper, swimming back to shore as the camera pulls up and away, reducing them to incidental details in a sweeping seascape—evokes again the man-in-Nature resolution of Duel and The Sugarland Express. That climactic high angle shot is intended to emphasize the absence of any boats or machines, as much as it is to stress the final, welcome sharklessness of Amity’s allegorical coast.

The shark as eating machine

DUEL (1972)
Direction: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Richard Matheson, after his story. Cinematography: Jack A. Marta. Editing: Frank Morriss. Stunt supervision: Carey Loftin. Music: Billy Goldenburg. Production: George Eckstein.
The players: Dennis Weaver, plus Jacqueline Scott, Eddie Firestone, Lou Frizzell, Gene Dynarski, Lucille Benson, Tim Herbert, Carey Loftin.

Direction: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, after a story by Spielberg, Barwood and Robbins. Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond. Editing: Edward M. Abroms, Verna Fields. Music: John Williams. Production: Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown.
The players: Goldie Hawn, William Atherton, Michael Sacks, Ben Johnson, Gregory Walcott, Steve Kanaly, Louise Latham.

JAWS (1975)
Direction: Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (and, according to various testimonies, Howard Sackler, John Milius and Robert Shaw, all uncredited), after the novel by Peter Benchley. Cinematography: Bill Butler; underwater cinematography: Rexford Metz; live shark footage: Ron and Valerie Taylor. Editing: Verna Fields. Music: John Williams. Production: Richard D. Zanuck, David Brown.
The players: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gray, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Benchley.

© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.