What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19
Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.
If the coronavirus pandemic marks the death-blow—as some commentators have suggested—to the current arrangement of late-capitalist yobbery, then last week (16-22 March) must figure as a kind of deoxygenated hallucination. While the market has a nervous breakdown, 'stay-at-home stocks' are cheerily touted by major investment banks. In the UK, conservative Chancellor Rishi Sunak emerges as the unlikely saviour of British socialism through an 'ambitious' bung of grants and loans. Meanwhile, phoney stories of wildlife flourishing in quarantined areas bring to mind the spectre of a kind of ecofascist Zootopia. Aren't humans, after all, the real virus anyway?
Amid these surreal times, some may have missed one of the more eyebrow-raising cultural tidbits to appear, like a green flash, in the online news cycle. Dating from 2006, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's admiration for the famously gung-ho mayor of Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster Jaws, highlights mayor Larry Vaughn's (Murray Hamilton) unwillingness to close the beaches, despite attacks by a 25ft Great White. Demonstrating an initial reluctance to take the threat seriously, the comparison has raised some particularly unsettling questions about the prevalence of panic and the management of public consent by the British government.
As Alex Shepherd writes in The New Republic, Jaws offers perhaps the perfect cinematic metaphor for the slow-motion anxiety induced by the Novel Coronavirus: Covid 19. Set on the sleepy Amity island, the terror of the shark (affectionately named 'Bruce' by Spielberg's cast and crew) has since become the archetype for suspense in genre movies of all stripes. Everything appears normal, and yet we know the threat of breakdown lurks ever closer.
Enter mayor Larry Vaughn, the premiere public figure of the fictional New England island. Presented with a series of brutal shark attacks, the mayor's stubborn determination to keep the beaches open for sun-seeking tourists attracts the approval of Johnson, quipping that Vaughn is 'the real hero of Jaws'—'a gigantic fish is eating all of your constituents and he decides to keep the beaches open.' Unsurprising perhaps, from a Premiere who is alleged to have jokingly named his NHS ventilator appeal, 'operation last gasp'
So far, Johnson's praise for Vaughn has been connected to the government's initially laissez-faire approach to the pandemic—encouraging ' herd immunity' by allowing for the spread of coronavirus among the physically fit and healthy. While the British government has since diverted course, many have seen in Johnson's flip comment a depressingly apt metaphor for the irresponsibility of the Tory government, along with its stubborn departure from the more-timely precautions taken by other European states.
If one risks clutching at pearls, it is worth remembering that for Johnson (as for Freud) the joke is rarely neutral. Firmly of the breed of post-ironic, right-wing populists that have made their mark in the past decade, the joke is treated as the primary currency.
Right now, in the early days of a quarantine that, for the elderly, could potentially last up to four months, the sunny shores of Amity Island feel a far cry from the decrepit British Isles. And yet, while the usual vaudevillian flourishes of Johnson's rhetoric have been toned down of late, one is nonetheless given pause by the Prime Minister's tendency to slip into chummy affirmation. Johnson's commitment to 'send coronavirus packing' in 12 months implicitly assures us (in the words of Vaughn) that this too will be a 'summer town' open for 'summer dollars'.
In most circumstances, the Prime Minister's embrace of a venal, opportunistic politician—concerned with messaging rather than hard policy—would feel a touch on the nose. It certainly takes little imagination to envisage Johnson taking questions wearing a gaudy blazer similar to that sported by Vaughn throughout the film. Add to that Johnson's well known Atlanticism, often mirroring the kind of sunny optimism upheld by the Amity mayor. The Mayor bespeaks a friendly and welcoming ideal that attracts the film's protagonist, police chief Martin Brody, to move away from the crime and grime of New York City. After all, Vaughn reminds us, 'Amity means friendship.'
But there is more to Spielberg's classic that eerily resonates with the current crisis than perhaps meets the eye. As a film about male camaraderie, in which men, coming together with other men, square off against the dangerous unknown and come up smiling, Jaws presents a homosocial view of the world in which challenges are met and good sense wins the day. Throughout, the weathered and phlegmatic features of Roy Schneider as Chief Brody—drawn to Amity, and yet perversely afraid of water—serve as a fitting canvas for Spielberg's tale of 'leviathans targeting everymen.'
Following Brody's first glimpse of a young shark attack victim, the viewer watches as our hero tries to raise the alarm. Fearing the economic cost, the mayor turns a blind eye to the evidence provided by Brody and visiting oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). In a chilling remark (given the circumstances), the mayor clashes with Brody regarding the potentially disastrous effects of the shark attacks on local business and the threat of the town being on welfare 'by winter'.
Doggedly opposed to scare stories, and the 'gut reaction' of the crowd, the crisis in Jaws becomes less about public health and more about the control of information. Reporting on shark attacks are buried amid the grocery ads of the local newspaper; naysayers are treated as doom-mongers. As Vaughn states in the trailer for the film: 'It's all psychological…you yell shark, and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.'
Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of England and Murray Hamilton as Mayor of Amity
In the end, of course, following another fatal shark attack during the island's Fourth of July celebrations, the harried mayor accedes to the pressure of our heroes. The beaches are closed and the chase begins to vanquish the predatory shark by any means necessary.
Likewise, by Boris Johnson's own hermeneutic, the mayor's inaction ultimately proves ineffective. In the Prime Minister's own words: 'of course, it turned out that he was wrong. But it remains that he was heroically right in principle.' For Brexit Boris, the sanctity of Independence Day is preserved after all.
Thus, we have the Tory government's dramatic about-face to the COVID-19 outbreak: ordering the closure of schools, pubs, restaurants, and encouraging 'social distancing' measures. Business and the British workforce are catered for (at the expense of freelancers and the precariously employed) with those covered liable to reclaim 80% of their regular salary over the quarantine period. What appeared at first glance to be rising chaos contracts under the force of 'better science', giving rise to the retreat of political agitation, and a listless and uneasy quiet. 'Whatever it takes.'
And yet, even this peculiar détente feels like the ominous prologue to a deeper, more wide-reaching crisis. If Vaughn sees the light then, as Stuart Heritage amusingly observes in his column for The Guardian, he is, nevertheless, still the elected mayor of Amity in Jaws 2—and back to his old conniving ways.
Alas, the 'principle' as Johnson states, is Vaughn's 'rationality'—his 'refusal to give way to hysteria.' Between the truculent chief Brody and the economically minded mayor Vaughn, in Jaws the role of the safety keeper is largely opposed to the unruly passions of the crowd. While film historian Peter Biskind highlights Spielberg's film as typical of the post-Watergate miasma of anti-authoritarianism, it also demonstrates a somewhat suspicious view of 'the people' for whom the mayor, the police and the intellectual class of Amity allegedly serve.
Case in point: the moment a bounty is set on the life of the shark, all manner of chancers set sail to claim the $3k promised. Children enjoy arcade games, blasting away at a pixelized shark. Faced with the unknown, Jaws demonstrates the manner in which public crises can become public spectacles.
And Jaws is a spectacular film by every measure—maybe, the spectacular film. Generally accepted as inaugurating the summer blockbuster as a Hollywood staple, the film kickstarts what one might describe as the 'ruin value' of popular American cinema—in which greater and greater sums of capital are poured into increasingly excessive scenes of mass destruction.
Crucially, these films conjure the nearness-to-hand of some overwhelming, albeit invisible, disaster. In homage to the creature features of the 1950s, the looming proximity of an invisible threat is amplified in Jaws, with the titular shark remaining largely out of sight for much of the film's run time. Like the threat of COVID-19, it is this perilous proximity that is so memorable decades on—whether through the sub-marine POV shots or the sinister 'respiratory' effect of John Williams' instantly recognisable score.
Both too near, while also bespeaking a 'black-eyed' otherness, the horrors that Jaws (and other films like it) elicit serve as a reservoir for all manner of generalised anxieties. As American theorist Fredric Jameson writes, it is the 'polysemous' nature of Spielberg's creature that should be acknowledged: whereby 'the killer shark-lies less in any single message or meaning than in its very capacity to absorb and organize all of these quite distinct anxieties together.' The shark is like a 'garbage can' (as Hooper describes during a clandestine shark autopsy), accommodating stray metaphors, absorbing everything in its dark shadow.
If we feel compelled towards such symbol-seeking it is only because, much like the shark itself, the Novel Coronavirus, at present, feels perilously amorphous. Whether airborne or tactile, we are not yet certain of exactly how the virus spreads; furthermore, and due to the stalled approach to testing (particularly urgent in the Global South), the precise number of cases can only ever be a pale estimate. Add to this the daily drip-feed of information from government and you have a fertile testing-ground for all manner of baroque metaphors: whether the thinly veiled xenophobia concerning the 'Chinese virus', or paranoid narratives involving the Gates Foundation and George Soros.
Sadly, the shark doesn't anticipate coronavirus, any more than Boris Johnson necessarily is an analogue of mayor Vaughn. Nevertheless, it is precisely this tendency towards disaster-ism that, in the words of Jameson, allows for a seemingly natural threat to 'contain' the instability of social and political anxieties. With many looking at a serious period of increased screen-time, it is perhaps inevitable that a hunkering down into the realm of the imaginary, into the bewitching stream of Netflix (where do you think I watched Jaws?) is apt to happen.
And yet, if one dares pursue the fantasy, the future still looks bleakly uncertain. Even after Vaughn comes around, and the final chase to kill the shark sets out, the ensuing alliance of law enforcement (Brody), technocratic expertise (Hooper) and crackpot vigilantism is enough to warrant a few chills. In particular, the latter, embodied in the irascible fisherman and shark hunter Sam Quint (Robert Shaw) stands as the de facto leader of our troupe, sacrificing his own life in an Ahab-like act of self-oblivion. Defined equally by a disdain for young beachgoers and haunted by his service in the American army, Quint remains, perhaps, the archetypal hero for our times; not the hero we want -- but the hero we deserve.
At 8.30pm on the 23rd March 2020, the British government declared a full lockdown of all non-commercial travel, public gatherings of more than two people and non-essential commerce. This will be enforced by the police.
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Daly, Natasha. "Fake animal news abounds on social media as coronavirus upends life". National Geographic. 20 March 2020.
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