Video Reviews
Close Calls: Jaws and The Threat of Big Business in Small-Town America
by Steven Spielberg
Zanuck/Brown Productions and Universal Pictures (1975)
Close Calls: Jaws and The Threat of Big Business in Small-Town America
9 / 10
*To commemorate the death of Roy Scheider: We are SO going to need a bigger boat.

The 1975 movie "Jaws" is set on the small, fictitious island of Amity. This seemingly irrelevant fact gives us a secret glimpse into the real Jaws. This second Jaws is an extraordinary metaphorical tale about economic evolution and anxiety in America. From some of the first words uttered by the town’s mayor, “Amity is a summer town; we need summer dollars,” it’s clear that what’s at stake has more to do with a fear of economic mortality than human fatality. The great white hunting and killing the islanders and tourists can easily be compared with Wal-Mart or other such mega-business, wholesale, all-inclusive stores that threaten small, privately owned businesses and, hence, the tiny towns that rely on them.

Granted, in 1975, Wal-Mart and the like weren’t the super-giants that they are today. Corporate businesses and chain retailers were already threatening the livelihood of small-town America though. Kmart, Target, and Wal-Mart were all in existence and expanding (which we can recognize as corporate code for pushing Mom and Pop into early retirement) by 1962. Like the shark Jaws, Wal-Mart was underestimated in every way. Wal-Mart began as a single store in Rogers, Arkansas, and in less than 10 years was publicly held. By 1971, the company’s first 100% stock split, doubling the value to stockholders.

Jaws’s first attack was also initially written off as an accident, caused by a drunken swimmer colliding with a boat’s spinning rudder. But, when the shark eats a young boy in broad daylight, there’s no denying the shark’s presence and intent. Similarly by 1975, the very year "Jaws" was released, Wal-Mart’s third 100% stock had split. This signaled the fact that Wal-Mart’s success up until that point was no fluke, and it was only the beginning of expansion for the mega-store.

In "Jaws," once Amity realizes that there is a real threat to the island, bounty hunters troll the waters in the hopes of collecting a reward from the dead boy’s mother. But, yet again, they underestimate Jaws’s power, stamina, and size. Fishermen bring back a shark that they believe to be the culprit. It is, however, easily proven that the shark they’ve caught is too small to be the giant man-eater for which they're hunting.

Wal-Mart too grew faster and larger than anyone imagined. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Wal-Mart ate up over 10 smaller retail chains and countless individual locations, including Mohr-Value, Hutcheson Shoe Company, Woolco, Grand Central Stores, Western Merchandisers, Inc., McLane Company, and The Wholesale Club, Inc. On a relatively smaller scale, Jaws’s eats about four people, a dog, a pier, two boats, a shark-deterrent cage, a scuba tank, and countless other smaller items. Today, Wal-Mart and its almost equally successful counterparts have locations in Asia, Europe, and South America, and are being traded publicly on an international scale. Yet, after a fierce battle, Jaws is defeated.

Amity seems no match for the likes of this gorging, eating machine. In fact, in a cheesy attempt at promotion during a news interview, the mayor says that, “Amity means friendship.” Amity’s name also harkens back to the word America, in all of its early idealism of harmonious democracy. Despite what Wal-Mart and other corporate mission statements would have you believe, big business has nothing to do with the concept of friendship.

No matter how many smiling, waving, elderly “people greeters” Wal-Mart puts at its door, make no mistake about it, the corporation’s not only after your money, but your way of life. And if you’re distracted by the 86-year-old whose nametag reads “Buster” for long enough, you’ll miss the sharks as they chew your little town to bits. The great white doesn’t manage what the great Wal-Mart does every day. So why does the analogy between Wal-Mart and Jaws end with the shark’s death? To understand how the shark is beaten (and, therefore, how Wal-Mart could be beaten), we have to closely examine the events leading up to the movie’s finish.

What’s immediately noticeable about the rescue of Amity from the jaws of big business is that all except one of the townspeople is inactive in protecting their primary source of income from tourism. The New York transplant and water-phobic police chief is one of two outsiders, or non-islanders, who help to kill the shark. Also, the non-natives, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider, big ups deadie) and shark specialist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) are the only two to return from the mission alive. The grizzled fisherman (who’s reminiscent of the vanquished title character from "The Old Man and the Sea") is the sole islander on the hunt for Jaws. And he’s literally eaten alive by the shark.

Interestingly, the original screenplay and the book that the film’s based on depict Quint’s death as a drowning. Leaving one to wonder if his death in the mouth of Jaws was chosen based on the power of putting a figure of speech in business into action. The handiest illustration of this is Harvey Mackay’s business book "How To Swim With the Sharks Without Getting Eaten Alive" (Ballantine Books, 1996). Oh, if only the old man had read that book.

This metaphor becomes even more powerful when considering certain elements of "Jaws" in terms of “business speak” and eating/consumption metaphors as relate to the economy. For example, Jaws churns the water (as do all sharks) before each of his attacks. A greedy businessman (or corporation) “churns” the accounts of his clients by making frequent purchases and sales to gorge himself on commissions.

Fisherman Quint’s role in the task of defeating the shark is pivotal. But, the native’s failures and inadequacies in adapting are evident at first sight of the “rogue shark.” He bases his assumptions on previous shark-killing experience. This is just what the mayor does when he incorrectly weighs his assumptions of the danger this new predator poses against the public’s panicky reaction. On first seeing Jaws though, it is the Chief’s reaction that seems fitting: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Indeed, the undersized Orca (Quint’s boat) seems ill-suited to the task of killing a shark of that size.

Even before this epiphany is spoken, though, the islander’s outdated and undersized knowledge is highlighted. On seeing Hooper’s shark-deterrent cage, Quint rhetorically quips, “You go in the cage?…Cage goes in the water?…Shark’s in the water?” As Hooper replies, “yeah” to each of these questions, it’s obvious what Quint thinks of such newfangled contraptions—-that they will only help to turn the crew into shark bait.

When threatened by big business, a small shopkeeper would probably have a similar reaction to advice that s/he should decrease stock and sell only specialty items, rather than offering a large range of goods as was done in the past. So the smaller storeowner and Quint are in the same boat. When times change, common sense and experience often ultimately fail in the face of counter-intuitive marketing and innovative strategies of defense. And while, the shark does eventually penetrate the shark-deterrent cage, Hooper escapes and lives. Quint, who symbolizes the pure essence of outmoded and old-fashioned business strategies, dies a gruesome death.

Additionally, it is another piece of new wave, expensive, and (to Quint) seemingly useless equipment that saves the day. When the Chief fires the shot that causes Hooper’s scuba tank to explode in the shark’s mouth, big-box business is defeated in the name of small-town America. But, the fact that the islander must die is the film’s concession to the history of economic (and for that matter, natural) selection and evolution. Because the townsman fails to adapt, he not only fails to thrive, he fails to survive.

For all its concessions to the reality of a changing economy, "Jaws" is a skin of the teeth, David and Goliath story. After all, the shark is driven away, and presumably the town survives. The people of Amity escape the fate of most American small towns and businesses that were left rudderless after the emergence of larger retailers.

The mostly optimistic vision presented in "Jaws" shows us that without the early help of Quint, representative of the native inhabitants of the town, the mission to preserve the island’s economy would have failed miserably. This is because the Chief, who loved the island, hated water and didn’t have any seafaring knowledge. And, let’s face it, Hooper needed some toughening up. Although, it’s important to note that after Quint offers what he can in the way of guidance (oh, and a traumatic tale of WWII and sharks), he’s thrown over in the name of progress. Eventually, it is the outsiders who take over.

These events demonstrate that the only way to prevent your small-town way of life from turning into chum is to get help from the outside. This translates into letting the yuppie tourists and their money take up permanent residence in your “quaint village.” The savvy New Yorker Brody is wary of the water but leaves the big city, as many do, to reclaim an idealistic vision of America that is unspoiled by modern hustle. He firmly believes that, “In Amity, a man can make a difference.”

Although the Chief’s contribution in rescuing Amity is undeniable, he and his middle-class means plus one salt-of-the-earth seaman don’t add up to success. They need Hooper, who has what they both lack: money. Hooper adds not only his resources to the mission, but his expertise and infatuation with sharks.

When the credits roll, it becomes clear that it is only with this mix of money, technology, education, and modernization (represented by Hooper); plus a desire to get back to basics in American idealism and optimism (furnished by Brody); plus the homespun horse-sense, work ethic, and instinctual opportunism (which Quint brings) that a town like Amity can be saved from economic ruin by larger and more powerful competition.

Or so we think...at the close of "Jaws," we believe that Amity has been saved, but when it comes to defeating a giant with endless resources, only horror movie logic will play out—-If you think the axe murder’s dead, don’t turn your back on him because he’s about to spring to life. A few short years after the release of "Jaws," "Jaws 2" (1978), and "Jaws 3-D" (1983) pummeled small-town America all over again. Just when you thought it was safe to reenter the free market, Wal-Mart moves in down the block and under prices you. These sequels seem to prove that no matter how much energy and savvy small retailers put into fending off the Great White of Wal-Mart-types, they’ll always be too small and too weak. (The 3-D element offers a new and particularly horrific outlook for personal attack.)

The late 1970s and early 1980s marked substantial growth for Wal-Mart and other superstores, making small-town victories over big business a rarity that’s solely the stuff of movies and fantasy. In fact, in 1979 (just one year after the release of "Jaws 2") Wal-Mart became the first company to reach $1 billion in sales in such a short period of time: $1.248 billion. And, by 1983 (the year "Jaws 3-D" was released) Wal-Mart’s sixth 100% stock split, making the market price $81.625 a share. That same year Forbes ranked Wal-Mart Number 1 among general retailers for the eighth straight year. This Number 1 ranking was obviously based on sales and hence the shear quantity of consumption. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the “duh nuh..duh nuh” sound of the approaching predator.

The "Jaws" series filmmakers ultimately portray a bleak future for small business in America, but can anyone argue that it’s an inaccurate account? The sharky business practices of organizations like Wal-Mart are probably enough to make F.D.R. spin in his grave. But contemporary American society that’s grown up in the mouth of the shark likes that you can buy 24 jumbo-sized rolls of TP for under $12. The only thing that we can hope is that we continue to grow enough fat to feed the endless need of the watery grim reaper, or that maybe, just maybe, we’ll come to our senses and support small businesses that offer unique items and don’t chew all the charm out of our lives.
Posted by: Molly O'Donnell

Video Reviews (February 14th, 2008)