Commentary


25 Years After Jaws, the Sharks are Still in the Water


by John W. Whitehead
July 23, 2000

The 25th Anniversary Edition of Steven Spielberg's classic movie, JAWS, has now been released on DVD, and it's superb. But JAWS is not a simple story about sharks. Instead, a deep social commentary lurks beneath the surface, a message about the way we live our lives that runs throughout all the Spielberg films.

JAWS opens during the Fourth of July weekend, a time when Americans celebrate the founding of our marvelous country. But in the town of Amity, just before the celebration is about to begin, a vicious shark attack occurs. Blinded by their fear of losing the holiday tourist trade, the mayor and townsfolk ignore the warnings to keep people out of the water. It seems that money speaks louder than their consciences.

But then there's another shark attack, and yet another. Finally, those in authority begin to see and understand the enormity of the danger around them, but not before several people have been sacrificed for their failure to act.

Like the people of Amity, somewhere along the way many of us have also traded our ethics for entertainment and sensibilities for success. We have lost our way and are left foundering. We no longer believe in the things that those who founded our country considered so important. We no longer believe in God or absolute truth or speaking our minds or taking strong stands on moralissues. Or, at least, we no longer take such things seriously.

Sadly, we have relegated ourselves to the sidelines, watching television news reports of genocide in Bosnia and the Sudan. It's too far away for us to care, and what could we really do, anyway? We see our neighbors beaten and robbed on the nightly news. But we can't do anything about it, we're just ordinary people, after all. Pass me another Bud. Turn the tube on 'cos the Bosox are playing the Orioles. It's okay if I fritter away my existence; my sins will be forgiven come Sunday morning.

All around us life goes on. We bask in all our materialism. Our values disintegrate. And we continue to swim in the seemingly calm waters of our desires.

Shark attack? Something eating away at our foundations? Freedom dripping away as our neighbor's home is robbed and his life threatened? Hey, we'll be okay as long as we stay out of the water. We're not going to get involved. But then the shark starts devouring our families. And by the time we try to do something about it, it's too late.

Now we're shark bait, and we vaguely hear the doctor say, "His right arm has been severed above the elbow. He doesn't have much longer to live."

This is the real message of Spielberg's blockbuster 1975 film. It's our basic fear that our social fabric is being ripped apart by something we don't understand. But we ignore it; that is, we drown our fears in booze, drugs, vacations, new cars, furniture or whatever will distract us from the reality of our loss. Yet our loss is real. It is the loss of truth, values and faith in the goodness of humankind.

Events of the past several years bear out the extent of our problems: our President was impeached because he conducted sexual escapades while in the White House and then lied to us about it. At least 180 Branch Davidians were burned alive as our federal police--led by the FBI--ransacked their Waco commune.

A building in Oklahoma City was blown to bits as a fireball killed 168 people in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Little Elian Gonzalez was torn from his home in Miami as American police, dressed as black storm troopers, whisked him away in a cloud of tear gas.

Our airwaves are flooded with inane images. We tune into Survivor TV and watch while the weakest contestants are voted out. Jerry Springer's topic this week: "My mom slept with my brother and then had sex with my sister." And a rock singer cavorts about with a boa constrictor around his neck while blood drips on the floor. The children are watching, you say?

AIDS is literally destroying millions in Africa and Third World countries. Other horrible epidemics come and go. Violence and killings plague our inner cities and sometimes our schools. The economic giants raise gas prices. We complain, and our leaders say it's beyond their control. We intuitively know that something's up. But we take it in stride, as we always have, and go on as before.

Yes, there's a shark in the water. And you know who it is? It's none other than you and me. We're eating ourselves alive because we're all too willing to sacrifice our freedom, integrity and what we once called sacred values for a few minutes of what we deem to be "fun." It's okay if it entertains us.

The alarm bells are going off, but we can't seem to hear them. Like in the movie JAWS, "Won't You Call Me, Sweetheart" is playing on the seashore. And the beaches are open, as always. Anyone for swim?