The dynamic dance of status (featuring the cast of Jaws)

One of my favourite films of all time is Jaws. I remember seeing it for the first time when I was probably too young to see it and loving the action and the suspense. However as I got older I began to love the film for a different reason – the characters. In particular the three characters that are the only people on screen for almost the entire second half of the film: Martin Brody the Chief of Police of Amity Island played by Roy Scheider, Matt Hooper a Marine Biologist and shark expert from the National Oceanographic Institute played by Richard Dreyfuss and Quint, a professional fisherman and captain of the Orca commissioned by Brody to catch the shark, played by Robert Shaw.

I came to realise that it wasn’t the action of these three characters trying to catch a killer shark that I found worthy of repeat viewing but the interaction between them as they continually attempt to change each other and are simultaneously changed by each other as the story unfolds. It is a masterful piece of writing and acting to be able to simultaneously have this interplay going on between the characters whilst telling the story. It helps us better understand the characters and form an opinion about each of them, choosing whether we care about what happens to them or not. I wonder what the film would be like if it instead simply focused on the action of hunting and assassinating a killer shark?

I was reminded again last year of these characters when I attended a workshop in London run by Impro legend Keith Johnstone. At the workshop (and in his seminal book Impro) Keith devoted a huge amount of time to helping us better understand and play with status – they dynamic dance and shift of power that is an inevitable consequence of the process of human interaction. (..and is likely also true in the animal kingdom). Whilst I personally believe human social interaction is far too complex to be reduced to any one model or explanation I find Johnstone’s simple ideas and exercises an incredibly powerful lens through which to better understand what we witness and are part of on a day-to-day basis and to realise that status (and power) is not something that somebody has but something that somebody does.

Johstone suggests that status can never truly be equal as each moment sees a subtle shift in the dynamics of a relationship. He describes status as a ‘see-saw’ – as one person’s status goes up, another’s goes down. He helps articulate typical behavioural and embodied traits of playing high and low status – physiology, stance, breathing, language, use of space (etc) and suggests that there are four basic ‘moves’ in any status game:

  • Raise self = lower other
  • Lower self = raise other
  • Raise other = lower self
  • Lower other = raise self

His simple exercises encourage participants to secretly choose a status they wish to play in a scene and then to ‘fight’ for their position in the pecking order. Through doing this one can learn how the status see-saw idea plays out in practice and the advantages and disadvantages of any particular position for any particular situation – it isn’t simply the case that a particular status is good or bad. These scenes are even more insightful if stereotypical pecking orders are reversed – the servant is higher than the master, the schoolgirl is higher than the teacher, the defendant is higher than the judge, Chaplin’s tramp is higher than the establishment.

I became curious as to what the status dance between these three characters in Jaws was so watched the film again recently with Johnstone’s ideas in mind. As a result of this I picked three particular scenes to study in detail and have added some subtitles and a little pecking order graphic to capture my thoughts as to what is going on between the characters.

Scene 1: This scene is one where the three characters come together for the first time and a fight to establish a pecking order ensues. I began with a stereotypical pecking order: Brody top as Chief of Police, Hooper middle as an educated Marine Biologist and Quint bottom as a fisherman.

Scene 2: A new pecking order is established when the three board the Orca and head out to sea on the basis that Quint is the Captain, Hooper is an experienced able seaman and Brody is very inexperienced aboard boats (he gets to shovel the chum!)

Scene 3: On board the Orca in the evening, after many whiskeys a different, more subtle and ultimately bonding status game emerges.

I’m not suggesting that my subtitles are correct, in fact as I went through the editing process I realised I had missed many subtle shifts and cues and some of the complexities of characters lowering themselves in order to raise others. I’m simply sharing my experiment as an invitation to be more curious as to the wonderful, dynamic dance of status that we witness to and participate in on a day to day basis and how Johnstone’s simple ideas of pecking orders can help us make more aware and choiceful about what status we play in any particular situation. You don’t have to watch Jaws in order to do this…simply take a look around you wherever you are at the moment and think to yourself “I wonder what’s going on here?”

NOTES
1 – I do not own the copyright of Jaws. It is copyright of Universal Pictures and the book is copyright Peter Benchley. I just had the idea of using some clips to illustrate an idea.
2 – I skim the surface of Johnstone’s ideas about status in this blog. I highly recommend you buy a copy of Impro which has an entire chapter devoted to it.