by Tom Batten
Thirty-nine years in, Jaws is still the best and most prescient movie about American life ever made. A small beach town terrorized by a murderous monster, the town council determined to brush the problem under the table lest they disrupt tourism over the lucrative 4th of July weekend, a populace placated by half-assed solutions that lead to more and more easily preventable deaths. If the movie came out today people would call it a parable for guns or terrorism or the tobacco industry or GM. It’d win the Palme d’Or and NPR would devote so much coverage to it that they’d just flat out skip pledge week to cram more in.
It’s a summer movie, and summer is the most American season, right? Fall is too quietly introspective, a little too British; spring mixes formality and exuberance, which seems Japanese to me. Winter is all grim determination and there’s some of that in the American character, but lets face it, winter is Russian. But summer, man. Summer is all about freedom and the pioneer spirit and unnecessary risks. The sun causes cancer, you can drown in the ocean, but fuck if that’s keeping anyone from going on vacation.
Summer is the most capitalist season, too — think of all the boardwalk novelty shops partially stocked with things you could reasonably need at the beach, like sunblock and boogie boards, rounded out with cheap, tawdry junk that no one would ever need any under circumstances, ever. I’m thinking Big Johnson shirts, I’m thinking enormous novelty cigars packed with sawdust. Knock-off Simpsons apparel, totally licensed Family Guy stuff. To me, that says everything you need to know about Family Guy and why The Simpsons will always be the superior property. These stores are at the service of people enjoying leisurely vacations, staffed by kids having anything but. Someone once said that what makes Americans crazy is that they’re promised equality and thrust into a system which demands that someone win and someone lose. These poor saps working on the boardwalk, mopping the flip-flop aisle while some kid drips ice cream on the tile right behind them, illustrates that pretty well.
Maybe I feel this way because I grew up down the street from the Yorktown Battlefields, where we won our independence from Britain in 1781. The Battlefield is just a bunch of hills, though, who cares, the real action is at the bottom of the cliff the battlefield culminates in, down at Yorktown Beach. There’s still wreckage from the fight sunken in the river down there, and Cornwallis cave, where Cornwallis (or more likely his goons) chilled during the siege. The cave is sealed with a big gate, so you can’t go in, but you can look inside, and if you hit a button a pre-recorded message tells you all about it.
You ever read an interview with like Richard Hell or Patti Smith or someone like that, about how they miss the Times Square of the 70’s and 80’s, when it was all cocaine, handjobs, and switchblade knives? That’s how I feel about Yorktown Beach. When I was a kid, it was not a place reasonable people went. All there was down there was a bar, a hotel, and an ancient seafood restaurant staffed by enormous ladies draped in polka dot cloaks. The walls were decorated with dark, confusing paintings of ships at sea, each with a price tag hanging from the frame, the average price around one thousand dollars. Cornwallis cave smelled like piss, all day everyday.
I went down there as much as possible in the summer. This is when I was in High School, and a little bit after. My friends and I would stand in the surf, cigarette butts and broken glass flowing around our feet, and watch people stumble out of the bar. Sometimes we’d see fights. A couple times we saw fights that involved knives. One time we saw a crowd gathered in the hotel parking lot, rushed over and just missed a couple having sex on the balcony. We’d get girls to come along when we broke into the hotel pool and drop hints about how skinny dipping was something we’d always thought sounded interesting (this worked once: this girl whipped her top off and I froze up, said “I was being hypothetical” and ran away) or else we’d scale the side of the cliff looking for the secret entrance into a rumored cave system that supposedly went for miles and miles.
There were always developers trying to fix the place up, and they were always countered by petitions claiming the beach was a landmark and not to be fucked with. I don’t know if the people floating these petitions ever visited the beach. I mean, does a place lose its value as a landmark when the chances you’ll get tetanus from being there drop? Reminds me of Petersburg, Virginia, if you’ve ever been there. It’s all piles of rubble with fancy plaques telling you what the rubble used to be.
In the early 2000’s a hurricane destroyed Yorktown Beach, and the developers got their wish. That seafood restaurant is a parking deck now. There’s a fancy restaurant with live music a couple nights a week, a store that sells nothing but American flags, a Ben and Jerry’s, but most importantly, there’s always a crowd. People actually go there on vacation. That same balcony where a couple once publicly performed, walk by now and you’re more likely to see a Dora the Explorer towel draped and drying in the sun.
I went down there to sit on the beach the other day. Talk about the summer being the most American season, think about the beach. A super public space where people act as though they and their little group are all alone to maximize their fun as they see fit. Next time you go to the beach, see if you don’t pass two groups of people, each with their own radios playing different stations, volume cranked, within seven feet of each other. I was sitting on the beach reading when this big group of dudes came down and set up a cornhole game on either side of me. They zipped their beanbags right over my head, back and forth, until I finally got up to move. They were drinking beers, and they all had their own beer koozies that they kept in their pockets between drinks and snapped out with fetishistic flourish when it was time to crack a new can. Is there any better signifier that your culture is decadent than that? You need a special accessory to drink a beer? God forbid your hand get a little cold or your beer a little warm. If you went back in time, kidnapped someone to the present and showed them a man using a beer koozie, they’d be like, So at what point did you guys eradicate poverty and disease?
Another group of guys were fishing in the surf, right where children were swimming. Would you go to a playground and swing a hook around? Fuck no, because one of those heroic gun-wielding patriots who are always on the news for stopping maniacs in their tracks would put you down. But these guys thought it was fine to cast their lines around kids, because they were on vacation and they wanted to catch some damn fish. Someone gets a hook in their eye, well they shouldn’t have been near what I wanted or where I wanted to be.
I think that basically sums up American foreign policy, right?
God, I sound like some coffee shop ghoul in black jeans, croaking out Bill Maher quotes between drags on a Marlboro Red.
Listen, back to Jaws. It’s got all that stuff I mentioned earlier, but it’s also about three men with nothing in common — a straight-laced family man, a hip, denim clad scientist, and a gnarled old veteran — who don’t necessarily like each other all that much, teaming up to solve a problem. That shark, at first it’s fairly large but not outside the realm of realism, by the end it’s big enough to eat a fucking boat. The shark is impressionistic, it’s as big as their fear of it, but they don’t give up. They work together and they win. I don’t know if it’s always realistic but that’s the dream of America, right? That by coming together we can accomplish great things. Maybe it’s corny, but America is a corny place. I don’t know, maybe it’s faint praise to applaud a people and a country based on their most idealistic elements, but it’s something. The kid mopping up the surf shop dreams of being the customer one day, right? Eventually, if he works hard and gets an education, he probably will be. Summer and American life, maybe the main thing they have in common is that we always approach both thinking that somehow it’ll all work out to be a good time after all.
NOTE: I just read an article in the New York Times about the student loan crisis and I take back what I said about the kid mopping up the surf shop. He’s fucked. His best bet is to steal what he can from the register and use that to buy enough weed to start dealing.