Thursday, July 02, 2020

Jaws and Democracy

When the book, Jaws, came out in the 1970s, I was working as a tour guide on the Queen Mary.  I remember that we all read the book.  And, when the movie came out, we were almost too scared to go see it.  But, of course, we had to, we couldn’t look away.

Tonight, I watched Jaws again.  A young Steven Spielberg, Roy Schrieder, a really young Richard Dryfuss, and a sexy as all get out Robert Shaw.  Ten minutes into it, I began to feel uneasy, because the tension feels familiar, and recent. 

A shark attack prompts the police chief to ask for a sign, declaring that the beaches are closed.  The response:  We don’t have any signs like that.  The story takes place on an island town, economy based on tourism supported by its beautiful beaches.  The mayor is the first to insist that closing the beaches would be over-reacting. 

The sand is crowded, the water is enjoyed by every type of water recreation.  The police chief, sits on the beach and hears and sees danger at every turn, while island residents bombard him with their trivial concerns.  Then a sudden death, a child, shakes everyone apart, and everyone, panic-driven, tramples out of the water.  Yet, in a community meeting, the resistance to closing the beaches is shouted out by the community.  People say it’s a one-time thing, or maybe it wasn’t a shark at all, not to go crazy.  Surely, they can keep the beaches open but beef up the patrols.

Quint (Robert Shaw) screeches his nails on the blackboard.  “You all know me, all know how I earn a living.  I’ll catch this bird for ya.  It ain’t gonna be easy.  Bad fish.  It ain’t like goin down to the pond and  chasin blue gills and tommy cocks. This shark..swalla ya whole."  He offers to kill it for $10,000.

But by the next day, it’s a joke.  “Catch the shark” becomes a popular activity to pass the time while on a boat getting hammered.

Someone catches a large shark, and everyone thinks the danger is over, except the scientist and Quint laughing from the bridge of his boat.

The scientist wants to cut the fish open to prove that there isn’t a child in its gut.  But there is resistance.  Who wants to see that?

Is that all this is?  Health vs. economy?  Life vs. prosperity?  But look at the drama we wring out of that dance.  What we’re going through now isn’t a new story.  We’ve already thought of it.  We’ve fictionalized it a thousand times.  But here we are, saying that we never saw it coming.

Police chief:  So, this rogue fish keeps swimming around while the feeding’s good (territoriality, says the scientist), and if the food supply dries up…  No.  It isn’t just going to go away.  They have to kill it. 

But the Island’s police chief is afraid of water, of boats.

“It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”

But even scientists can be fools.  The scientist goes into the water to inspect the hull of an abandoned fisherman’s boat, stating, “Ah, there’s nothing to worry about.”  Say what?  I guess what I’m saying is…don’t believe that the knowledgeable are wise. 

4th of July weekend, and mass arrivals…I guess none of the recent events made the news outside of the island.

As politician and scientist butt heads, and the sand fills with people.  No one’s in the water for fear of the shark, but the mayor, with the town’s best interests at heart, talks a family of 5 into getting into the water.  Everyone follows.  The water becomes littered with joyous people.

Helicopters patrol the beach, expecting to see, what?  A fish under water?

By this time, the tension is almost unbearable.

The mayor talks to the press, declaring that all is well, when a fin appears.  People panic,  are trampled to death, getting out of the water, but it’s a prank.  The next time someone yells, “shark”, they move a little slower…but…the grisly truth finally sinks in.  this problem is real.  It’s bigger than any of us.  And it has to be stopped.

“…and shall nevermore ever see you again.”

The cop answers the call to adventure, and he, the scientist and the fish bounty hunter go out on a boat to catch the monster.  Who will survive?

Finally, the monster is confronted.

The cop is the first to get it, finally.  “Hooks and lines…what’s the point?”  Then he sees it.

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Now that they’ve seen what they’re dealing with, they all bend their wills to conquering this enemy.

Now it’s scientist vs. professional working dude who has more experience than all the books have ever fathomed (pardon the pun).

So, Quint dies, doing what he loved.  There’s a little bit of poetry in everything, isn’t there?

In the end, it isn’t the most educated or the most experienced person who prevails.  It’s the one who has listened to both of them and used his own intelligence and ingenuity.  With his knowledge, he remembers, at a critical moment, that the air tanks are explosive.  That, and a focus on the desired outcome, make him know exactly what to do. 

It is the cop who vanquishes the killer, shooting a harpoon into the shark’s mouth, exploding the air tank. 

Later on, the scientist shows up, unharmed, having done nothing to rid the world of the monster..  So, it is not the politician or the scientist or the professional who solve the problem.  It is the civil servant. 

The end.