Friday, March 9, 2018

The Shape of an Oscar

We saw The Shape of Water a few weeks back. I was going to let it slide without comment, but then the thing won Oscars for best picture and best director this past Sunday, so here I am with my two cents' worth.

I read a long time ago that in a decadent culture, everything is reduced to allusion. I would add a remake or an outright swipe to the end of that sentence. Avatar (2009) is really just Ferngully in space (or Dances with Smurfs). The recent Star Trek and Star Wars movies are simply retreads of previous entries in those series. And The Shape of Water (2017) could easily be called E.T. from the Black Lagoon, or The Splash of Water (you know, the movie with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah), or The Little Mermaid in Reverse. There is still some originality, creativity, and imagination in movies today, but these things are becoming increasingly rare. The Shape of Water may be a nice movie in some ways, but it has some really debilitating flaws, too, and in my little opinion, it should never have won an Oscar for best picture. You could take its winning as a bad sign in creative or artistic terms because it's such a step down from previous winners. But I think there's actually something different at work here. It may be something that will blow over. But if our culture keeps going in this direction, it won't blow over. It could actually be the thing that blows other things over, and people will stop going to movies as a result.

I wrote sometime back about the idea that politics ruins everything it touches. Put another way, politics is sewage, art is wine. Pour a cup of wine into a barrel of sewage and you still have a barrel of sewage. Pour a cup of sewage into a barrel of wine and you have just another barrel of sewage. This year at the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences poured sewage into the art of moviemaking. Many of the major awards and probably some of the minor awards were tainted, either in actuality or by association with politics. They mean comparatively little because of it. The Shape of Water won an Oscar not for its artistic merits but because it checked so many boxes on the scorecard of political correctness. The members of the Academy see themselves as part of the so-called "Resistance" to the current presidential administration, which they deem as horribly and atrociously racist, sexist, and xenophobic or anti-immigrant. And so, seeing their chance to stick their finger in the eye of our current president and to do some conspicuous moral preening before the world, the members of the Academy handed out awards based on something other than merit. They chose sewage over wine. I have not seen Coco, but I don't think it's any coincidence at all that movies made by and/or about people from Mexico won Oscars for best picture in their respective categories this year. I don't know about you, but as an artist, I would not want to receive an award tainted by political considerations: I would want instead to have my work judged solely on its artistic merits. If I were Guillermo del Toro, I would always have to doubt the integrity of an award given with a political asterisk attached to it.

So what are the problems with The Shape of Water? Let me count them. Actually, let me not count them, as I don't want to spend too much time on this topic. I guess I'll start by saying that a person should not make a movie using a sledgehammer. That's how this movie was made. Okay, yes, we know by now that you, being a Hollywood-ite, believe that pre-Beatles America was a horrible, terrible, unlivable place. It was also horrible and terrible. We know that. Quit reminding us. Quit hitting us with this sledgehammer. (Never mind that Saint John F. Kennedy was president when The Shape of Water is set.) We also know that heterosexual white men attached to the American military-industrial complex are the worst villains the world has ever known and ever will know. This villain is even worse, though. He's got it all covered: he lives in the suburbs with his 2.5 squeaky-clean whitebread (and white-bred) children. He has a Stepford Wives wife who whips out her lovely breast the second his children are out the door and submits to sex in the starfish/missionary position with his disgusting gangrenous hand over her mouth so that she'll shut up while he's going about his bidness. He calls black people "you people" (signifying his racism), sexually harasses the protagonist (signifying his misogyny), makes fun of her disability (signifying his making fun of people with disabilities), torments and tortures the Gill-man (signifying not only his xenophobia but also his mindless and motiveless cruelty and psychopathy), and packs a pistol (signifying his inherent violence and probably also his unnatural feelings for the Second Amendment). He is also former military, and as we know from watching Avatar and other films made by James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, and their co-religionists, anybody who has served in the military is necessarily a mindless, stupid, aggressive, insensitive, racist, misogynistic, violent, psycho knucklehead.

So the villain in The Shape of Water is a twofer, threefer, fourfer, or morefer. The other characters are twofers or morefers, too. The protagonist is not only a woman and disabled, she's also Hispanic, an orphan, and working class. Her co-worker is not only a woman, she's also black and working class. The protagonist's friend may be white, but he's also homosexual, and we're led to think that he lost his job because of his homosexuality (signifying the homophobia of pre-Stonewall America). (If he's white but gay, he's okay. If he's white but straight, we gotta hate.) There's a twofer in the restaurant where he likes to eat, too: not only does the man at the counter refuse his advances (signifying the man's homophobia), he also refuses service to a young black couple who are looking for what we're all looking for in this life: a good piece of pie. This of course signifies the counterman's racism and the general overall racism of pre-Civil Rights America. In short, this is moviemaking with a sledgehammer. And so much of it is gratuitous--gratuitous, that is, unless moviemaking with a sledgehammer is your purpose: unless politics rather than art is your guiding inspiration.

So if you disregard all of that (not an easy thing to do), you arrive at a love story in the form of a magical-realistic/contemporary urban fantasy/weird-fiction/fairy tale. It's hard to accept the idea of love, specifically physical love, between a human being and a reptile, amphibian, or fish. After all, we have an atavistic revulsion towards these creeping, crawling, swimming creatures, those made on the fifth day of Creation rather than the sixth. (It's much easier and more natural to believe in the love of Beauty for the Beast, as he is at least soft and furry, i.e., mammalian.) But for an hour or so, you can set that aside, too. The protagonist is, after all, very lonely, and we can all identify with loneliness, even extreme loneliness. In our loneliness, we might even envision love with a toad.

You can also accept impossibilities, like the bathroom filling up with bathwater so that the two new lovers can enjoy a kind of sexual aquacade, like the contrastingly chaste underwater scenes in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) in which the Gill-man spies on and soon abducts Ginger Stanley, standing in for Julia Adams. (The Shape of Water is basically a sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon. Screwy, but a sequel.) What you can't accept is the ignorance and lack of imagination on the part of the moviemaker when it comes to storytelling. I'll give just one example of each. I think each one of these is pretty disastrous. 

First, one of the badguys in the movie is U.S. Army General Frank Hoyt. We already know he's bad because he serves in the military. He's worse because he's in command of this whole operation in which the Gill-man is supposed to be used for some kind of nefarious secret government conspiratorial plot, just like all government operations were until our most recent ex-president got into office. (If we ever know what the plot is in The Shape of Water, we have forgotten by the end of the film. This reminds me of a Squatcher I know who thinks the U.S. Army is hiding evidence of Bigfoot. Why? Who knows.) Anyway, Hoyt is not just a general. He's a five-star general. I guess in Mr. del Toro's stunted imagination, the U.S. Army hands out stars the way you hand out candy at Halloween. Never mind that there have been exactly four five-star army generals in American history (and five previous generals-of-the-army). Hoyt might as well have been called a Super-Duper General. That would have made just as much sense. Mr. del Toro's gaffe is reflective not only of the hostility moviemakers have towards the military but also of their breathtaking ignorance when it comes to military matters. Somebody should have stopped him before he made his mistake.

Second and more serious is that when the Gill-man is brought into the military-scientific facility for study, he arrives inside a tank with a window. Any Joe (or Jane) Blow standing around picking his nose or mopping the floor can see what's inside--and she does, the protagonist that is. For a place that's supposed to be about secrecy and security, there is astonishing incompetence when it comes to actually keeping anything secret and secure. The cleaning ladies wander around on their own, going wherever they want, seeing whatever they want, talking to the Gill-man, playing him records and feeding him hardboiled eggs, like the cheapest date there has ever been. (What does he know? He lives in a river. And what about the eggs? They're her eggs, aren't they, meaning her own symbolic ova? She of course prepares them by the egg timer she uses every morning for another purpose.) The screenwriter should have thought of a better way of telling his story. Instead he took the easy way out, and so we have a whole movie based on an entirely unbelievable premise. This may be a fantasy, but even a fantasy has to follow basic rules, one of which is that people must act like real people instead of like incompetent morons when the moviemaker requires them to because he's too stupid or lazy to figure out how to tell his story otherwise.

Now see what has happened? I have written way more than I was planning to, and I'm not even done yet. This will be the last, though, I promise. I have written before about the idea that fantasy and weird fiction tend to be conservative genres and generally about the past, while science fiction tends to be progressive and generally about the future. The Shape of Water is not science fiction, despite any science-fictional elements it might have. It is obviously a fantasy, but it's a progressive fantasy. Is that a self-contradictory thing? Can there really be a progressive fantasy? Maybe. But The Shape of Water is a progressive fantasy not in that it imagines how things might be in a progressive world. Instead, it's a fantasy imagined by a progressive moviemaker. In other words, it's not the movie itself but the moviemaker who is progressive. Guillermo del Toro has told a story from a progressive point of view. In so doing, he has relied on extreme and unrealistic stereotypes*, gratuitous episodes and gratuitous story elements, implausible or impossible situations, ignorance as to history and human nature, and extreme laziness or incompetence in his storytelling. Despite the opinion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, his movie is middling in its accomplishments. So if this is an example of a progressive fantasy, it falls pretty flat. I would argue that any progressive fantasy is likely to fall flat, as: a) fantasy is an artistic genre; b) art is about the nature of human beings, life, and reality; and c) progressivism is basically out of touch with these very subjects. If anyone can come up with a progressive fantasy that can stand on its own two legs, I'm willing to listen to your case. Just make sure it's a strong one.

*Speaking of stereotypes, did anyone in the Academy or the media notice the stereotype of the black man as weak, cowardly, unreliable, lazy, or afraid in The Shape of Water? I suppose in this age, stereotypes of men are permitted, no matter what color they are, especially if the stereotype is being peddled by another person of color (although Guillermo del Toro is a pasty-faced white dude with brown hair and blue eyes), and especially if that person is of a higher caste in the hierarchy of political correctness.

Copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

14 comments:

  1. We seem to have a extra decadent decadence going on today.

    Decadence is, as you said, making constantly allusions to works in the past.

    But the time horizon for modern decadents doesn't usually go past pop culture of 60 years ago and, usually, even more recent.

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  2. Dear Marzaat,

    I'll do some hypostulatin' here and say that in a decadent culture, people look back to a Golden Age, no matter when that might have occurred. In our popular culture, we have had several Golden Ages:

    For pulp fiction, i.e., science fiction, fantasy, weird fiction, etc.--1920s to 1950s or 1960s

    For monster movies--1930s to 1950s

    For science fiction movies--1950s to 1970s

    For comic books--1930s to 1960s

    For baseball--1910s to 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s

    For football--1950s to 1970s

    For rock and pop music--1950s to 1980s or 1990s

    For jazz--1940s to 1970s

    For the auteur-type movie--1960s to 1970s

    For movie epics--1950s to 1970s

    For the summer-movie/blockbuster-type movie--1970s to 1980s

    We could all argue about the dates, but the idea is the same: there was once a Golden Age and we want nothing so much as to bring it back. Call it a kind of nostalgia (or saudade). We want the things that made us happy as children.

    The current Marvel superhero movies are among the most inventive and entertaining being made today, but all of them are based on characters created no later than about 1966 (that very high point of pop culture in America) or so. I have heard that Universal wants to remake all of its classic monster movies. Creature from the Black Lagoon, released in 1954, introduced the last of the classic monsters. So Universal is going back at least 64 years and as many as 87 years (Dracula was released in 1931) in order to mine the past. And that's what we have come to. We are living among the ruins of a previous great civilization, and we are simply mining the past for our current accomplishments, however meager they might be. (Just look at this blog: Weird Tales first came out 95 years ago this month.) We are taking the blocks and bricks of those ruins to make what we will have for today. We are digging through past treasures and past trash in order to refashion a culture. Why don't we make something new? I guess the answer is that everything new has already been made.

    Except for technology, and so there may still be possibilities . . .

    Thanks for writing.

    TH

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  3. I think that what you have written is dead on and pretty much sums it all up. When something is political, it is propaganda, and propaganda is the direct opposite of art; art is designed to tell you the truth, and propaganda is designed to tell lies to get you to believe their political position.

    You know it is propaganda because they are not just content to make the white man the devil; no, he has to be the devil with horns. So let us make him a rapist along with everything else.

    What we are seeing, as has been said above, is that the creative spark in Western civilization is dead; all they can do is recycle the old ideas, and do a poor job of it. As Toynbee notes, this failure of creativity is what you see as a civilization is moving toward dissolution.

    On a better note, Black Dog Press has commenced a printing of the complete works of Francis Stevens, albeit with a nonsense introduction by F. Paul Wilson which refers to her influence on H. P. Lovecraft. This is really just more of the propaganda which we are speaking about. They just have to award the palm to a woman even if they have to lie about it. She is a pretty good author, as we have discussed previously, but her influence has been nil.

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous, on your comments.

      I like the distinction that art should tell the truth, while propaganda peddles lies. I'm not sure that The Shape of Water reaches the level of propaganda, but it definitely wanders from the truth in that it avoids the facts of the human personality and human history.

      I agree with you that a loss or lack of the creative urge is a good measure of decadence in a culture. We see that not only in art but also in terms of life itself. If we don't create life, nurture life, love life, and value life, how will our culture and our society go on? The negative of that is that when we start hating and destroying life--when we start hating ourselves and the things we have created--we are also nearing our end. We have reached a decadent state.

      I'll reserve judgment on the introduction to the complete works of Francis Stevens until I read it. However, we have already seen that there's a lot of nonsense that has been written about her. I'm skeptical of the idea that she influenced anybody, as she more or less disappeared after her last original works were published. Influential people tend not to disappear. But there will be nonsense. One reason is that the typical critic or commentator of today doesn't want to face the fact that Francis Stevens was almost certainly a Christian and a conservative and that her works, especially "Serapion," are often suffused with Christian--or at least an anti-materialist or anti-nihilist--feeling.

      TH

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  4. The politics that The Shape of Water is propaganda for is identity politics.

    I think indeed that the creative spark has gone out of Western civilization, but I don't know if this is the end for us or merely a fallow period. We have certainly learned enough new information to fuel new stories, the question is whether we have the will to use them. The liberals scream and run for their safe zones every time a new idea is even suggested.

    I agree with you that Francis Stevens did not really influence anyone. She worked well within the confines of the Munsey style scientific romance. The two major asserted candidates for her influence are Lovecraft and Merritt, and all three writers are as different as could be both in style and subject matter. To the extent there are similarities, it is because all three of them were drawing upon a fund of ideas common to English and American popular writers of the time. For instance, they like to bring up the island in Claimed as something Lovecraft borrowed, but I don't see all that much difference between that situation and the one in C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne's The Lost Continent (1900)(manuscript from Atlantis vs. box from Atlantis). Lovecraft and Merritt wrote primarily science fiction and Francis Stevens wrote primarily fantasy.

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    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I guess you could say that The Shape of Water is propagandistic in that it says that white men are evil unless their white identity intersects with that of some oppressed or favored group. For example, the artist is a white man, but he's also homosexual, so he's okay. Likewise, the Russian spy is a white man, but he's also a scientist and an immigrant--I suppose an illegal alien (and probably only incidentally a functionary of a socialist state). Those things make him okay, too. The other good characters are good because of their femaleness, blackness, brownness, oppressed-ness, etc. The black man isn't okay for some reason, and neither is the white woman because she is the subservient, suburban, Stepford Wife of the antagonist. She is quite literally under him.

      I'm not sure that the spark has gone out of Western civilization, for if our civilization is in possession of any kind of truth, it will go on because truth is imperishable. It is only certain parts of our civilization that have gone down the blind alleys of nihilism, moral relativism, deconstructionism, socialism, cultural Marxism, etc. Those people are finished. (Hopefully they won't take the world down with them, which action seems to be their goal.) The rest of us still have an open road ahead of us.

      As for the people you have called "liberals," I don't use that word anymore to describe people who are in truth illiberal. It doesn't describe people who want everyone who doesn't agree with them to shut up and do what they're told. Like most political labels, this one has become practically useless.

      Like I said, I'm skeptical of the idea that Francis Stevens influenced anybody, and I'll stay that way until I see some sound evidence in support of that idea. Not just sound, but rock-hard. Anything else is just posturing by present-day authors and academics seeking to pad their C.V.s.

      TH

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  5. One of the pieces of evidence cited to show the influence of Francis Stevens on Lovecraft was a letter written by one Augustus T. Swift to Argosy magazine praising The Citadel of Fear. Sam Moskowitz cites this letter in his introduction to the Paperback Library edition of the book
    as having been written by Lovecraft. Moskowitz, as was his custom, apparently did not bother to verify that Augustus T. Swift was Lovecraft. The most recent information I can find is that Augustus T. Swift was not one of Lovecraft's pseudonyms, and in fact there is no evidence that Lovecraft ever read anything by her. My citation is to an article on sffchronicles.com dated Aug. 21, 2010, which initially starts talking about his story "From Beyond" but then veers off to the Stevens controversy. It was the opinion of the moderator J. D. Worthington, based on other sources, that there was no evidence to support a Lovecraft connection to her. A lot of misinformation comes out of that Moskowitz introduction, especially because academics are to lazy to do proper research. My experience is that you cannot believe anything written by Moskowitz without separately verifying it with an objective second source.

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    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I have heard of the "Augustus T. Swift was H.P. Lovecraft" idea before, but I thought it had been corrected or debunked. I guess I'd better re-debunk it on my blog, for there was a real guy by that name in Providence during the H.P. Lovecraft era. Maybe they knew each other, but they were not the same person.

      I'll say it again, I'm very skeptical of the idea that Lovecraft was influenced by Francis Stevens. He may have read her stories, but if "he may have read her stories" is all anybody can come up with, then the case is weak to the point of being non-existent. We need either something in Lovecraft's own hand (letter, diary entry, etc.) or a very close emulation of her work in his. And I mean really close.

      I don't know whether it's that academics are too lazy or that they're too focused on building themselves up and trying to look good in the eyes of their peers rather than focused on the research itself. They would seem to suffer from a problem with their self-esteem. (I would tell them what I would tell anybody: your self-esteem comes from your self, not other people. If it came from other people, it would be called "other people esteem.") They would all seemingly want to be the great discoverer, creator, or originator, like Darwin, Marx, Freud, or Einstein. I'm writing about this idea right now on my blog (Mar. 13, 2018, and after). (One of those men is not like the others, by the way.)

      I have heard of the criticism of Sam Moskowitz, too, and I guess I have to accept the truth of it, which is a shame, because he is the lone source of so much of what we know of science fiction history.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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  6. If you are writing on the esteem issue, I would, if you have not already done so, check out the "inner directed" versus "other directed" personality distinction made by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950).

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    1. Anonymous,

      I read The Lonely Crowd a long time ago and found it really interesting. The book I'm reading right now also refers to it. I would recommend it to other readers, too.

      TH

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  7. No one will convince me that the monster was not supposed, in the end, to use its healing powers in the villain’s gangrenous hand, demonstrating once and for all its moral superiority. What would be the point of that trope (or rather the two tropes) otherwise? The monster was so poorly delineated that one could argue either way if its killing the villain was out of character; I myself wondered for five minutes, didn’t figure it out and couldn’t care less.
    I cringed at the attempt of a Kuleshov effect in the scene the old faggot is rejected by the restaurant guy, who immediately proceeds to abuse a black family – if not causality, there is at the very least concurrency: every homophobe is also a racist. That is, if we call the unwilling object of attraction of an old gay man a homophobe.
    Speaking of ignorance, I wonder if del Toro has a dog. That dog would be all over him, if he followed the pattern the protagonist established for teaching words to the monster. ‘Egg’ is fine enough, but pointing to a phonograph and naming it ‘music’ is like trying to make a dog refrain from leg humping by lecturing him about the immorality of bestiality. Del Toro doesn’t seem to understand the difference between teaching words to a dog and to a child, hence the totally unconvincing contention, in the end, that the very much beastly beast is actually a god.
    One has to actually know things to write about them; watching old movies about them won’t do.

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    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I'll start with the same request to you that I make to everyone who leaves comments on my blog: Please refrain from using obscenity, vulgarity, and any and all slang words, etc., used to disparage, denigrate, attack, demean, insult, etc., any person or group of people. This blog is meant for a general readership. That means basically everybody. I welcome comments, but I don't want to see any words like you have used in your comment. You can take that kind of thing elsewhere. You may have a point, but please make your point without using vulgarity.

      "The Kuleshov effect" is a new term for me. I'm not sure that the scene you mention is an example of the Kuleshov effect, but I can't say for sure as I don't understand the concept completely. In any case, you're right: the idea is to show that if he is "homophobic," he must also be a racist. He's probably a misogynist, too, plus he probably colluded with the Russians to throw the election. And he likes to kick puppies. This is the kind of simplemindedness that was old and worn out when storytelling began. It hasn't become any fresher since then.

      Thanks for writing and please watch your language.

      TH

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  8. Hello, Terence! I used the term ‘Kuleshov effect’ broadly, or as figure of speech – it refers to the experiment by a Russian pioneer filmmaker consisting in editing an expressionless man and then a child, a meal, a gorgeous woman; the public would construe his countenance as one of, respectively, tenderness, hunger, lust. It was the sort of inserting Marxist dialectics in everything the Soviets would do.
    Once the character has been established as a bona fide homophobe (for nothing more than refusing the advances of a gay man), the thesis, you throw in an example of a universally condemned behavior (the racist fit), the antithesis, and the synthesis is everyone who doesn’t care for gays is a horrible person.
    It doesn’t work except as propaganda for the kind of audience akin to del Toro’s colleagues that gave him an Oscar; the general audience can see through it, I think, even if they can’t exactly put it in words. It’s often the case with the progressive agenda: it lacks an organic wholeness once you examine it for what it is, not for what it stands against. The guy in the restaurant was doing the same thing the ‘brave’ women of the #Metoo movement advocates as a course of action for women when confronted with unwanted attention from a man – why should we not celebrate his empowering example?

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    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I agree with you that this was art used for political purposes, in other words, propaganda, as you pointed out. The insertion of politics into a piece of art like this spoils what could otherwise have been an enjoyable movie. On the other hand, it won the director an Oscar. Other artists might want to make that kind of tradeoff, but it's not for me. I would rather be unrecognized for making something with integrity vs. lauded and awarded for making something corrupted by non-art.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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