Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Shape of Water

THE SHAPE OF WATER                 C+                  
USA  Canada  (123 mi)  2017  d:  Guillermo del Toro                      Official Facebook

Not withstanding del Toro’s imagination, which is immensely popular and even notorious in some circles, this is more garbage that comes out of the Hollywood crap machine, pure and unadulterated 100% artificiality.  Despite its clever intent, and all the critical acclaim, making a film about love and tolerance, audiences are forced to endure buckets of blood and endless bouts of torture, not to mention hateful behavior that leads to inevitable gunshots and murder, all routinely mixed into the Hollywood sausage, where even the best laid plans end up as typical commercialized crap.  Sorry, but this film is no different.  While ostensibly a fantasy love story, a Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, just how much hatred must be absorbed by this audience in order to make its salient points?  By deflecting the central message away from violence, one assumes the effects are negligible, but nothing could be further from the truth.  As part of the Hollywood production machine, violence is what it essentially propagates, including the most pernicious and sadistic forms of hatred, all of which is taken for granted in a Hollywood movie, yet this is the brick and mortar of the entire structure, the foundation upon which the entire model rests.  How does this effect audiences?  For openers, it teaches viewers how to ignore hatred, as it is so normalized in the ordinary circumstances of every Hollywood story.  It teaches viewers that sadism is just a part of life, not to worry about its machismo implications, as it seems to be part of every action movie.  It desensitizes viewers to violence, so when they witness it firsthand in real life, they will be less inclined to report it or take it seriously, even in their own relationships, families, or personal lives.  It devalues sensitivity, instead emphasizing the violence all around us, exaggerating its impact, making senseless violence seem like so much more fun than expressing one’s feelings, which can be difficult.  This is particularly acute in targeting an exclusively male audience, teaching them to stay in an arrested developmental state of teenage adolescence, prone to video games and Star Wars slaughter, where the multitudes of extinguished lives don’t matter in the slightest, thinking might makes right, using violence to gain victory and power instead of words and thoughts, where young men are more apt to use physical force against women, for instance, when they are satiated by these same images onscreen.  Basically it teaches men the wrong values, where bullying is completely acceptable, also it’s OK to be sexist, as male figures dominate the movie screens, including men being attracted to women purely on looks and appearance, using exclusively superficial criteria.  How many middle aged men seek women half their age in the movies?  Movies suggest this is socially acceptable.  And then more importantly, what message does this send to women, as they are completely overlooked and devalued in the movies except when they are needed to tell fairy tale love stories.  In other words, something that’s not real.  This is the Hollywood norm, as evidenced by the unending assault upon the senses that comprised the abnormally violent trailers shown even before the movie started.     

British actress Sally Hawkins has had an interesting year, largely defined by two films, Maudie (2016), where she plays an ignored and abused woman with a severely debilitating arthritis condition, viewed throughout as a sight for sore eyes, yet she transcends her lowly position in life through the art of painting, while here she plays a mute woman whose job is mopping up bathrooms and hallways at a government facility, yet again transcends her lowly position through her highly active imagination, able to communicate with a captured top secret sea creature, a riff on Jack Arnold’s 50’s fantasy, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), which includes falling in love with this amphibian life form (with an actor, Doug Jones, underneath the costume), where both express an innate humanness by coming together, something neither one could ever achieve on their own.  So once more, her role as Elisa is playing damaged goods, a somewhat pathetic figure, whose best friend and neighbor, Richard Jenkins as Giles, older by nearly thirty years, is even more pathetic than she is, without a friend in the entire world, a closeted gay man filled with self-loathing, addicted to old movies (playing constantly on his black and white television), with a household of cats, attracted to a way of life that’s come and gone, still living in the cobwebs of his mind.  Elisa at least has a job, and a comrade in arms, where she is joined by her fellow cleaning lady, Octavia Spencer as Zelda, as upbeat and gregarious as they come, chatting away all day long, making up for all the words Alisa never says, though she’s surprisingly able to read sign language.  While Zelda is grounded to the real world (what little there is in a Hollywood movie), Elisa is a dreamer, spending much of the picture lost in her own imagination, imagining herself doing the dance routines that she sees on TV, but she’s a good-hearted soul, as she looks after the frumpy Giles who is completely scatterbrained, having a fixation on eating pie, which is the only thing seen in his refrigerator.  Giles is an illustrator in the Norman Rockwell mode, but he’s been laid off with a drinking problem, and his style of work just doesn’t sell any more, so he’s outlived his usefulness.  The two women work at a secret governmental location that is covering up their latest “asset,” an amphibian sea creature captured in South America, where the sadistic security detail is provided by Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland, the mirror image of Sergi López from PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006), whose liberal use of an electric cattle prod leaves bloody wounds all over the creature, who remains under lock and key, chained to the side of a fish tank.  Elisa, naturally, takes pity on the poor creature and nurses him back to health, offering treats and companionship, playing love music on a portable phonograph, while also teaching it sign language.  Captivated by her secret friend, she reads all of her repressed emotions into its magnificent nobility, thinking it an exquisite one-of-a kind-creature that couldn’t be more enchanted by her daily presence.  Without ever uttering a word, they turn into a pair of smitten lovers. 

But of course, evil drives the plot, set in the heart of the early 60’s Cold War, where the Russians are after the merchandise.  Michael Stuhlbarg is Dr. Robert “Bob” Hoffstettler, the scientist in charge of the creature’s care, yet also working as a secret Russian agent, where his meetings with the other side are little more than exaggerated cartoonish stereotypes, along the lines of Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle (1960 – 64).  Nonetheless, compared to Strickland’s brutal tactics, Bob is at least concerned about the creature’s welfare, becoming an unwitting ally of Elisa even before she realizes it.  The sense of urgency and desperation reaches overdrive when both the U.S. military and the Russians have diabolical plans for the creature, as the Americans want to send it into outer space, like the Russians sent dogs plucked from the streets of Moscow, or perhaps cut up and studied for scientific purposes, while the Russian makeshift plan is to prevent any of that from happening by killing the merchandise.  When Elisa overhears this discussion, she has no time to spare and initiates a rescue plan, secretly abducting the creature and bringing him home, keeping him safe in her bathtub, with Bob providing the needed chemical ingredients to keep him alive.  Zelda, of course, is horrified at the thought of getting caught and having to face the authorities, but Elisa commandeers Giles as the driver for the mission and the guardian of the creature while she’s away at work, keeping him safe and sound.  Of course he quickly escapes, has an encounter that ends badly for one of the cats, and secretly exits to the old, decrepit movie theater next door, where Elisa finds him alone in the theater watching a classic Biblical epic, THE STORY OF RUTH (1960).  Retreating back to the safety of her home, it’s only a matter of time before things get interesting, as Elisa undresses before the creature and hops into the tub, with both becoming the dreamlike centerpiece of an old black and white Hollywood romance musical, breaking out into song and dance, like a tribute to the industry itself.  Looking all tingly and smiley at work the next morning, Zelda has to hear all about it, amazed that anatomically it was even possible.  One of the interesting aspects of the film is with a mute lead character, most of the dialogue comes from a black woman and a closeted gay man, both groups that would never have been allowed such prominence on 60’s movie screens.  While there is an obvious lesson of tolerance there, in no time Strickland (whose perfect suburban family eerily resembles the conformist 50’s TV sitcoms) is on the loose, first tailing Bob, realizing he’s up to no good, then making tracks to Zelda’s home, where her dimwitted husband reveals all the details about Elisa, quickly on her tail like a man possessed.  While the outcome is never in doubt, it does get ugly, with bullets flying and bodies falling, creating an over-hyped version of an action sequence, all led by Strickland’s fiendish mindset, as he’s a ruthless 50’s villain, hell-bent on getting his way, driven by an ingrained superiority that teaches him to hate anything out of the ordinary as un-American.  Wrapped in the American flag, he’s a wretched, xenophobic, modern era Trumpian monster (ironically designed by a Mexican, of course, having the last laugh), while Elisa and the more sympathetic creature escape into a mythical storybook life together beneath the sea, bookended at the beginning and end by a fairy tale narration read aloud by Giles, creating a whimsical notion of Hollywood romance.  


  1. Greetings, Robert.

    Thank you for this article. As I live in peripheria, I only had a chance of seeing this one just a couple of days ago. While I am not a fan of del Toro, I was still expecting a lot from this after its win in Berlin. Initially, your negative comments came as an unpleasant surprise in light of all the critical praise.

    But the reality is, that you are spot on. If anything, you went soft on the movie. I haven't felt as frustrated and bored (and rather insulted) watching a major movie in a long time. To me, it is an utter mystery as to why such an artificial piece of garbage (to use your words) has made its way to become the critics' darling. For myself, I was ANGRY for an hour after the screening. And by their sighs, I could tell that my reaction was shared by my fellow sufferers. I also felt that, perhaps, my European point of view made me indifferent to some degree of the movie's American subtext: del Toro's revisionism seemed insubstantial. Thus, even del Toro's choice to put a mute and a gay man in the centre didn't feel fresh in the year 2018.

    What a waste of time this movie was. My grade is D-.

    Always a joy to read your musings. Best wishes.

  2. Can't speak for the euphoria of the masses, or the Hollywood voting public that nominated this among the year's best, but I do appreciate your comments.

    I felt more indifferent watching this, as there was little connection to what was happening onscreen, knowing how much better other less lauded films are, yet few people will ever see them. That's the problem nowadays, accessibility, as unless it streams on television, most don't get out to the theaters anymore except for these declared blockbusters, totally relying upon this critical consensus that is leading them astray.

    Glad to know you're out there, which suggests there is a balance in the universe.