I heard del Toro’s film The Shape of Water had a politically correct agenda touted by the recent Oscars, but I still watched it. As soon as I saw the trailer I was drawn in. Whatever, its political orientations, this is one of the more aesthetically appealing films I’ve ever seen. You might even say it kind of feels like bioshock/fallout, the movie with its retro tech feel and color scheme of oceanic aqua, golden lights, and rich amber tones with rain perpetually pouring(one of the atmospheric effects I liked about Blade Runner.)
This shouldn’t be completely surprising given Del Toro’s previous love of making surreally realistic films in the tradition of the Spanish speaking world. Nor are his leftist sympathies anything new in his work.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the film that really made Del Toro recognized internationally had Captain Vidal, an evil right-wing White male in sharp uniform who’s a complete raging dick with a submissive wife and no redeeming qualities to speak of. Years later, the villain in this latest film, Colonel Strickland, fits a very similar profile but manages to be possibly an even more over-the-top cartoon mustache-twister.
Whereas Vidal was mainly a symbol of authoritarianism with some sexism thrown in, Strickland is a brimming cauldron of multiple “isms” in a film that’s very consciously set right before the Civil Rights Era.
We meet Strickland in a restroom where he walks in on the female janitor protagonists, starts peeing in a urinal right in front of them and starts talking to them midstream like LBJ might have done. Then as he continues to relate to the ladies in an off-puttingly affable manner he tells them his baton is actually a stun prod, an “Alabama Howdy Do.” I think it is hard to be any more heavy handed than this and that’s just the very beginning.
We soon discover Strickland is using his baton to regularly torture the water creature for no reason. Captain Vidal also loved torturing people but at least he was motivated by his desire to get information from suspected spies and enemy combatants. Why would Strickland do that if he took the trouble to capture it and bring it all the way back from South America alive to a top secret base? The creature is supposedly the key to technological secrets that could decide the Space Race and ultimately, the Cold War. It can’t talk to them vocally nor are they interested in communicating with it. Why on Earth would even a villainous person want to risk harming “the asset?” Strickland even loses two of his fingers playing this pointless game and then keeps doing it. At one point a five star general walks into the room with the creature beaten and bloodied right in front of him and sees nothing wrong with it. What the hell?
Alas, we know why. The visuals of the Southern White good ol’ boy cop and then the curmudgeonly old general standing over the lacerated water creature in chains says it all. The fish man obviously represents the diversity crowd as a whole, the White males, the ultimate evil oppressors of the secular mystery religion.
The main protagonist is Elisa, one of the female janitors, who is mute and while quite White has the Spanish surname to perhaps give her another fraction of a diversity point. I enjoyed seeing subtitled sign language on screen and how that added to the physical acting in the film. The main character and her companions are actually well-written and quite charming even though each of them blatantly represents a major diversity lobby.
The goofily heartwarming gay best friend inexplicably goes to the same pie place frequently to get the same pie, even though it’s just a chain and the pies are terrible(his refrigerator is full of barely nibbled-on slices). It finally makes sense when we realize he’s gay and has a crush on the guy who runs the place. The sassy female Black sidekick punches in her mute friend’s timecard whenever she’s late for work holding back a whole line of other co-workers to do it. While these archetypes don’t behave like they do in real life, in my experience, these are fun and loyal people anyone would want to be friends with. Contrasting the cast of good guys with the overwhelming villainy, crassness, creepiness, and cruelty of the White men and the gorgeous aesthetics gives us the makings of some very persuasive propaganda.
We have the disabled, the gay, the Black woman but one team member is still missing, a Jewish scientist Soviet spy with a heart of gold. He turns a blind eye to Elisa’s interactions with the creature and even ends up pretty much recruiting her once he needs to simply save the creature from being vivisected as part of his mission. His own feelings implausibly get in the way, even though it is established he is quite ruthless when he needs to be. He was prepared to kill the creature if he couldn’t rescue it and at one point, he murders a clean-cut White military guard who did nothing wrong to help the fish man escape. None of the protagonists, normally thoughtful of others’ suffering, seem to care. There are for all of us those who fall outside our circle of empathy, a rule of human nature the “open minded” always prove true in spite of themselves.
After taking these extraordinary measures, the spy then lies very obviously to his Soviet handlers about his knowledge of the creature’s whereabouts and instantly seals his own fate, for no compelling reason as far as his previously shrewd character is concerned.
Every narrative will carry ideological messages of some kind but a well-crafted story tries to keep the message of the story consistent with the narrative structure. In good storytelling even the most vile villains have plausible motives and perhaps some redeeming qualities to add an element of tragedy to their downfall. Most movies tilt leftwards to say the very least so when I watch one that is well made, I can suspend my ordinary beliefs for a couple hours and just enjoy it on its artistic qualities. This is where it gets complex for me. The Shape of Water has good acting, good dialogue, amazing attention to detail and aesthetics, how can it manage to still go wrong?
Despite everything the movie has going for it, I can’t quite immerse myself. As biased as Pan’s Labyrinth was, I could just enjoy the story on its merits. According to Del Toro the “pale man” from that film was supposed to be a politically correct jab but back when I saw the film, I’d never seen a more unsettling and terrifying monster. The political subtext was inlaid deeply enough I could just appreciate the story and the artistry. That Del Toro had to make a statement about it years later, demonstrates it was at least somewhat subtle.
Over a decade later, what once was muted is now a blaring airhorn. It’s impossible to ignore the politics anymore. At some point, a story reaches an event horizon where the message starts to supersede character development and structure until eventually all that’s left is a spittle-spraying preacher pounding the pulpit.
Perhaps Hollywood learned its lesson from Avatar where I found the gung-ho duty-bound white male antagonist, Colonel Quaritch, far more sympathetic and badass than the indulgent and selfish “hero,” Sully, who finds an Indian village and predictably throws everyone else under the bus for a chance to bang the chief’s daughter.
So now, the antagonist is made into a caricature of even a real-life shitty person and the story misses many opportunities in its monomaniacal obsession.
If we pretend for a moment that I could go back in time and help out Del Toro with the script, maintaining fidelity to his political vision, here are some suggestions that would have made the story less preachy, more complex, with better character motivation.
-Having Strickland torture the water creature serves no purpose. He’s already established as a huge douchebag. If anything, a sincere guy who is just doing his job might make for a more believable antagonist. Or at least if he must be truly evil, try not to make him a caricature since this is a drama, not an action film.
-Having the muteness of the protagonist as a feminist allegory of women “silenced by the patriarchy” is beyond ridiculous. This point could have been more subtle but Strickland’s fetish for women being silent during sex(and in general) pounds in that point with a sledgehammer.
-Every blond character turns out to be mean or unlikable in some way. Strickland and his blond wife are shown be somehow debased and perverted while the goofy gay guy is awesome even though he flirts with a blond straight guy who doesn’t take kindly to his advances. Even more sinful, Strickland has two White kids. They stare like zombies at the TV screen watching cowboys shooting Indians rather than the quirky melange of dance numbers and nostalgic clips the good guys always watch. We never even see Strickland interact with his kids because any humanizing touch would be too much. This is all overkill. Just stop and try to portray real people.
-The Soviet spy tells his handlers exactly what’s going on and where the creature is as we would expect. Even if he has emotional reservations he has a bigger mission and knows he would be endangering his own life if they suspect he is withholding information. The film then reaches its climax as the American military and undercover Soviets converge on Elisa to stop her from helping the fish man escape. I think that would lead to a pretty cool ending. But no, the communist spy has to be a revisionist good guy, even if the script has to make him stupidly sacrifice himself to make it work. Whatever.
One last thought, the single most disturbing moment for me might have been when the fish man goes out into the apartment to explore and eats one of the gay guy’s pet cats. Everyone seems to take it in stride, rationalizing that the creature didn’t have a moral understanding of its actions and has been through a long period of torture and oppression. Confronted with kindness it begins to understand it did wrong and starts doing things to make up for it. This struck me as an allegory for the way the establishment always excuses terrorist attacks and consistently high crime rates from some minority ethnic groups. Even within the context of a story, this propaganda message was particularly hard to sit through.
Nevertheless, that I could find this level of shilling as compelling as I did reminds me why our establishment has been so resilient. The so-called left still dominates the realm of story-telling and aesthetics. Though their grip on the popular imagination has begun to slip, there seems no clear replacement yet.