What Jaws can teach us about our present economic crisis
Throw away Keynes. Despense with Marx. The answers you seek to the riddle of our economic maladies lie in celluloid, and in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in particular.
To start with, there is no film that wouldn’t be improved by the inclusion of a large rubber shark. That has been my firm conviction since first seeing Jaws as a kid in 1975. But the film is intriguing also for the way in which it pitches public sector values against those of the private enterprise. No? You just can’t see it? Bear with me.
To the untrained eye Jaws is merely a monster flick but in truth it works on many other levels. It is reported to be one of Fidel Castro’s favourite films because he detected in it a critique of capitalism. Well, that’s maybe giving the film a little too much credit but without doubt private enterprise is cast in a bad light in Jaws.
When the business people of Amity Island, lead by the parsimonious Mayor Larry Vaughan find that their profitable little holiday resort is confronted by a deadly threat in the waters around them, they bury their heads in the sand, putting profit before people. They ignore the warnings of marine expert Matt Hopper and Police Chief Martin Brody’s intuition, and keep Amity’s beaches open over the lucrative 4th July holiday, presenting the killer shark with a smorgasbord of tasty bathers.
Through this contradiction – Amity’s commercial interests and Brody’s duty to protect the broader community – Jaws plays out the dichotomy of private enterprise verses public service and comes down very firmly on the side of public service. The Mayor Vaughan and his cronies eventually concede the need to take action, but even then it is a mixture of political expedience and commercial self-interest that seems to move them. They hire the mercenary fisherman, Quint, to hunt and kill the shark, and he is joined by Hooper and a reluctant, fearful Brody. In the end Quint is eaten, undone by his proclivity to see himself as joined in some private dual with the shark. Brody then overcomes his cowardliness to slay the shark, something that the aggressive individualism of Quint couldn’t achieve and the free-marketeers on the island worked only to hinder.
Now some will say that this is a very partial reading of Jaws and that I have neglected to mention how the film seeks to reassert a fairly traditional version of patriarchy through the agency of its male hero, Police Chief Brody. This is true. Brody is not only the bearer of public service value in the film he is also representative of constitutional phallic power, which he eventually welds against the terrifying fish, itself of monstrous phallic proportions, emphasised in the film’s promotional material (left).
So Jaws is a bit of a psycho-sexual drama. Remember the opening scene of the hippie beach party where the young woman tempts an inebriated young man into a little skinny-dipping. As she runs down to the beach shedding her clothes, he stumbles after her shouting ‘I’m coming, I’m coming’ and as she goes topless he says under his breath, ‘I’m definitely coming’. He has no such luck. Instead he collapses semi-conscious at the water’s edge, while she is devoured by the shark. After her violent death we are returned to the shore-line were her useless suitor lies prostrate and drunk. He burps, establishing an association between his lascivious sexual craving and the shark’s ravenous appetite.
Enter Police Chief Brody, whose task it is to quell these monstrous libidinal stirrings but first of all he has to overcome his own impotence. For Brody is a thoroughly domesticated and emasculated figure, having left the city for the quiet life on Amity island. In a way he resembles Sherif Will Kane in High Noon, who hands in his badge to settle down to married life but is forced out of retirement to confront his nemesis, the villainous Frank Miller. Jaws is a reworking of such Western themes, with Brody eventually raising a posse (Quint and Hooper) and heading out into the wilderness to defend the community from a threatening, uncivilised agent represented by the Great White shark, standing in this time for Injuns and Wild West bandits.
For a film based on a pulp fiction novel that Spielberg is reported to have deeply resented having to direct, Jaws is deep (if you’ll excuse the pun). Sex, cowboy inferences and a great big shark – all that in one movie isn’t bad going. But the most important and enduring thing about Jaws is that it reminds us that private enterprise, in the pursuit of a quick buck, will happily feed us to the fish.