Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Shape of an Oscar-Part Two

I didn't mean for there to be a part two to this article, but I read something on Friday night, after I had written part one, that fits so perfectly with this topic and this title that I have to tell you about it.

I found last week a book called Seeing Is Believing, or How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the 50s by Peter Biskind (1983, 2001). In my reading, I skipped to Chapter 3, "Pods and Blobs," about science fiction and monster movies of the 1950s. Here is an excerpt from the author's discussion of the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy of 1954-1956:
In the first film . . . the Creature was mildly appealing, more sinned against than sinning, almost but not quite a noble savage tormented beyond endurance by the arrogant scientists who mucked about in his lagoon, and driven into a frenzy by the proximity of Julia Adams in a one-piece bathing suit. . . . In the second and third films the Creature gets increasingly put upon. In [John] Sherwood's 1956 version [The Creature Walks Among Us], "he" has been taken out of his natural habitat entirely, removed in chains to a cage on land. Here, he's unambiguously sympathetic . . . . But he's unable to protect himself from the mad scientists who perform all sorts of grim experiments upon his body while prattling about "reality and facts." They transplant this, amputate that, move a fin here, a gill there, until his own mother wouldn't recognize him. One of the scientists even tries to frame him for murder, and in the end, the creature is killed. (Bloomsbury, 2001, p. 121)
That sounds a lot like The Shape of Water. There's a difference, though, and it's a significant one if you look at this movie of today in the context of the science fiction movies and monster movies of the 1950s. In those movies, there is a dichotomy between the military man of action and the scientific man of words and ideas. Sometimes the moviemakers were on one side of the dichotomy, and sometimes they were on the other. I can think of no better example than The Thing from Another World vs. The Day the Earth Stood Still, both from 1951. In The Thing, the military men are the heroes. It is by their action that an invasion (or infestation) of Earth is prevented. The scientist on the other hand, Dr. Arthur Carrington, wants to understand and communicate with the alien creature. He even goes so far as to propagate it by feeding it blood, including his own blood. He very nearly wrecks the whole operation, thereby threatening Earth with destruction. In contrast, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the military men are the tormenters of the alien. They even shoot and kill him, only to see him resurrected. (The Gill-man in The Shape of Water is shot, killed, and resurrected, too. Earlier, he is tormented by electric shock, like the giant carrot in The Thing.) By their actions, the whole of Earth is threatened with destruction. It is the scientists who sympathize with the alien and to whom he appeals. If the planet is to be saved, it will be by their ideas rather than by militaristic action.

So, in The Creature Walks Among Us, the scientists--"mad scientists," Peter Biskind calls them--torment and mutilate the Creature. They are, then, scientists of the first type, i.e., bad scientists. This, I think, is the more conservative version of the military man/man of science dichotomy. (Not conservative in the contemporary political sense but in an older, non-political or anti-political sense.) In The Shape of Water, there is an inversion. The military men or quasi-military men are now the tormenters of the Creature, and it is the scientist who sympathizes with him. (Significantly, the antagonist is the only character in The Shape of Water to quote from the Bible.) Instead of the conservative version of the dichotomy, we have the more liberal or leftwing version. (The scientist in The Shape of Water is a Soviet spy. I think his humanity and sympathy for the Creature are more to the point than his nationality or political affiliation.)

In any case, I haven't seen The Creature Walks Among Us in a long, long time. There may be more similarities between it and The Shape of Water. But as I wrote the other day, The Shape of Water is basically a sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I think that's okay. Universal Pictures doesn't have exclusive rights to the idea of a lizardman, nor to the idea that a monster or beast might love a woman, a story as old as humanity. (The Creature of the Black Lagoon is essentially the same story as King Kong.) But in any movie a person might make, art should trump politics. More essential than that, bad storytelling should always be banished in favor of good storytelling. Like I told a friend, a good story is what counts. Nothing else in storytelling matters very much.

Finally, I mentioned how I found something in my reading that pertains to the title of this article. Well, the second series of ellipses in the quote above are in place of the following parenthetical statement:
(The Creature's distinctive costume was reputedly derived from a sketch of the Oscar statuette.) (1)
I didn't know that when I wrote the first part of this article, but by a bit of serendipity, my title closes a circle.

(1) According to the blog Psychobabble: "Millicent Patrick, who designed the Gill Man, was a television and film actress and had been the first female animator at Disney Studios. She was also responsible for the Mutant alien in This Island Earth." (July 25, 2010.)
(2) According to Wikipedia: "Producer William Alland was attending a 1941 dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane (in which he played the reporter Thompson) when Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about the myth of a race of half-fish, half-human creatures in the Amazon River. Alland wrote story notes titled 'The Sea Monster' 10 years later. His inspiration was Beauty and the Beast." And so another circle is closed in that a Mexican moviemaker, Guillermo del Toro, has made a movie based on a story told by another Mexican moviemaker more than three-quarters of a century ago.

The Gill-man and swimmer from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). You could write more than a few sentences about this image: about the Creature's superior position vs. the woman's inferior position; the fact that his hand is positioned just right to cover a part of his anatomy not intended for display; about her passiveness, fear, and averted gaze. But look at the background. Note the series of symmetries. Is this an unaltered image? Or did the original rocky background, in all of its symmetries, look like a view through a kaleidoscope? Where is Richard Shaver when you need him? He could tell us what these things mean.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley


  1. The conflicts of The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still are, basically, the conflict between different placements on what modern psychologists would call the "openness" personality trait. As I understand it, it's how much a person welcomes and values and seeks out the new.

    Neither extreme works all the time. The new is only sometimes beneficial and only sometimes dangerous.

    I suppose it's inevitable that writers embody those values in institutions like science and the military because, in reality, they are embodied to a large degree there.

    But I wonder if stories might have a longer shelf life if they tried to represent those values through individual characters stripped of institutional membership or make that institutional allegiances irrelevant.

    And I think writers, of whatever political persuasion, would be well served to try their best to stop setting up straw men to represent their ideological devils and instead empathize with their foes at least enough to make them human, even if humans who can't be allowed to prevail.

    Art trumps politics? I suppose it depends on what you mean by politics. Arguing policy prescriptions and political scraps of the moment in a work of fiction is not generally a recipe for being long read or watched.

    If you use art to talk about the fundamental disputes and worldviews and questions of politics -- the nature of justice, egalitarianism vs. hierarchy, how much the new should be welcomed, the rule of law vs. private vengeance -- and do it in a compelling plot with well-drawn characters, it can work. And you just might produce something people will love for a long time.

    1. Marzaat,

      Great comment. You have come at it from a different angle and said it in a different way that I would have, but I agree with what you have written.

      I agree that it's really important to make all of your characters recognizably human, even the characters you don't like or with whom you don't or can't sympathize. A story full of well-rounded and fully human characters is a whole lot more interesting than one populated by stereotypes passed off as people.

      I agree with your statement of the problem of art vs. politics. What I meant (and what I should have explained) is that the minutiae of current political issues shouldn't really go into a movie if you expect your movie to age well. Bigger topics are a different story. The anti-Bush content of War of the Worlds (2005), for example, is forced and gratuitous. The movie would be better without it. The more general political content of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), on the other hand, is just right and still rings true today.

      Thanks for writing.


  2. I think that when you see differences in the treatment of military men and scientists in a 50's movie, the first thing to look at is the politics of the directors and authors of the movies. The Hollywood flirtation with globalism is not a new thing, and many a Communist and left-winger found his way to Hollywood in the 40's.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I'm reading a book right now on this very topic. It's called "Seeing Is Believing, or, How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the 50s," and it's by Peter Biskind. The author's thesis is that in most movies from the 1950s, there is a meeting in the middle of conservatives and what he calls corporate liberals (aka the organization man), who get together to form a united front or consensus. Outside that consensus are the extremists or radicals who attack the center (less often, each other) either from the left or the right. The Thing might be the more conservative film but according to Mr. Biskind's scheme, it is in the end a consensus movie. He considers The Day the Earth Stood Still more nearly a film of the left. If we look at it today, it's hardly that, I think. It is idealistic, though, and has a kind of postwar "a united world would be great" ideal behind it. I guess that's what you're calling globalism, and exemplified by the United Nations, that ideal was big after the war and even into the 1970s. Times have changed, though. The last thing anybody would want now is a bunch of hoity-toity bureaucrats or guys in blue helmets showing up and saying, "We're from the U.N. and we're here to help." The people of Europe are turning against that ideal, too. They understand that we're not one big happy world, nor should we want to be. On the contrary, I think we're happier when we're among our own people, whether that be our own family or the people of our own nation.

      Thanks for writing.