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Jaws / Der weiße Hai

Amity, mid-1970s. A beach party. Everyone is young, blond(e) and tanned. There is some unnecessary guitar strumming. Two pairs of eyes meet across a campfire. He’s holding a can and is a bit pissed, so as she runs towards the sea he struggles to keep up. Just as well really, as when she enters the water, that ominous cello music starts.

Not a good time for Brody (Roy Scheider) to start his new job as chief of police. Although that’s just a title really. The whole Amity police department consists of him and someone else, though they’ll be sent some backup when the annual regatta starts on July 4th. And he soon learns that the responsibility comes without any power. When he tries to shut down the beaches, he is quickly overruled by the mayor.

The shark strikes again, causing a $3,000 bounty to be offered for its head. A shark is found and killed. Enter marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). He is beardy and wears glasses, so you’d think he was a hippie layabout but in truth he’s old money. Whoever gave him his job has no money to fund the operation so he pays for most of the operation from the family inheritance.

Hooper says that they may have caught a shark, but it isn’t “the” shark. This should have been obvious by the sheer rubberiness of what appears on screen, but, maybe more importantly, the bite of the shark which made the initial kill was much larger. And yet the mayor is still insistent to profit from the brief tourist season, so refuses to allow the beaches to be closed.

After another fatality, a strange boat crew is assembled to find and kill the shark. As well as the scientist Hooper and Brody, the voice of quiet authority, there is the shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw), whose precarious boat they use. Quint is supposed to be the representative of the working class, who knows how to tie a knot, unlike the intellectual Hooper. In fact, he’s more a self-employed bounty hunter. Quint is a bit like Captain Ahab, except that he will only get involved when the price is right.

The grouping of Brody, Hooper and Quint helps bring everything together symbolically. They are all individuals, who prefer working alone. Hooper and Quint are apparently single, and Brody’s wife has little say in things. And they have all quite different and conflicting personalities, which adds to the dramatic tension. As said, it makes symbolic sense as long as you don’t consider whether in reality, this group would be sent out instead of, say, the coastguards.

Let’s leave that discussion to a different time. The three board the very small boat and immediately bicker. Then they start drinking together and bond when they show each other their wounds and tell war stories. At times like this, you realise just how male a film Jaws is.

Confession time. Before tonight, I’d never watched Jaws all the way through. I’d seen the last ten minutes’ battle with the rubber shark countless times as the film was never off the telly when I was growing up, usually straight before something I actually wanted to see. But I was never enthused by Steven Spielberg (still aren’t, and I know, that’s my problem), so it just kind of passed me by.

I know that the film critic Mark Kermode often says that Jaws is not a film about a shark, by which he means of course its a film about a shark, but its about so many things as well. And, watching it at the moment, it’s impossible to ignore that one of the things that it’s about is COVID-19. To take this in, we have to break from the idea that what a film is about is what was in the heads of the writer and director. Because of course Peter Benchley and Spielberg were not psychics, of course they did not predict the Coronavirus, but still, it is there for all to see.

So, we have the danger from outside, the scientific evidence that we need to act quickly, the voice of reason being overruled by politicians who want to keep the economy going. The people, who initially don’t want to go swimming but are coaxed into it by the slimy politicians. We have the panic and the long periods when nothing happens, and there seems to be no real threat. And then the rubber shark jumps out of the water, leaving blood in its trail.

Worse than that, and lest we forget, Jaws begat a series of sequels, each one less credible and more scary than before. The only thing these sequels brought was one of the greatest quotes in movie history. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Michael Caine was asked about Jaws 4, in which he starred. “I haven’t seen it”, he said, “I’ve heard its terrible. But I’ve seen the house that it bought for me, and that’s great”.

Whatever. The fact that Jaws can lay itself open to all these various interpretations means that there must be something in there, at least for the first film. And although, I found the second half was occasionally dull, the set-up was great, and was wilfully stolen from by the great anti-capitalist film, the John-Sayles scripted Piranha.

I’d like to write more about the right wing libertarians tropes (cops hindered by careerist politicians, individuals breaking all the rules, mistrust of beardy scientists who have never got their hands dirty), but let’s leave it there for the time being. Let’s just say that, yes, it was worth finally watching. I’m still not fully convinced by Spielberg, though.

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