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