There is nothing fast-paced about the coronavirus. For months, dread has slowly accumulated in my midsection. Every day brings a succession of new anxieties about the virus and the economy; about my family and friends; about my hands and the many, many things they touch, particularly my face. Above all, there is the sense that everything that is bad today will be worse tomorrow. And the movie that best reflects that reality is not Contagion but Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
It is notable that the shark is barely in the movie, appearing for all of four minutes. This was not by design. Initially, Spielberg had three mechanical sharks made, but they looked hokey and frequently broke down. He was forced to embrace his inner Hitchcock, rarely showing the movie’s titular villain. As a result, the shark was more of an invisible threat, which turned out to be even scarier. “The visual ellipsis,” Molly Haskell wrote in her critical biography of Spielberg, “created far greater menace and terror, as the shark is nowhere and everywhere.” Sound familiar? If Jaws had been made only a few years later, we would have almost certainly been burdened with a CGI shark. Forty years after its release, the movie’s great white works as a metaphor as well as it does as a shark.
One of the strangest things about the coronavirus panic is how normal everything seems. Even with few people going out, my neighborhood looks the way it does on a Sunday morning. The difference is that I’m bombarded by a constant stream of push alerts and texts. That is a key part of what makes Jaws work. Even when everything appears fine, you know that terror is lurking just beneath the surface.
Our world is also divided between the types that Jaws establishes. There is Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody: apprehensive, well-meaning, but out of his depth. Then there is Richard Dreyfuss’s chatty Spielberg stand-in, Dr. Hooper: jittery, neurotic, a sudden expert on whatever topic is in front of him. The scene in which Brody, a transplanted New York cop who is afraid of boats and open water, comes home to spend the evening reading about sharks, feels particularly relevant. Set in 2020, he would be scrolling Twitter for updates—or, for that matter, watching Contagion.
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