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Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 - 07:56

I'm in the unusual position of having a number of review to-dos stacked up. Rather than scheduling them for the next half dozen Fridays, let's just have some extras now.

My response to The Shape of Water is inextricably linked to my memories of, and response to, the movie it's a remake of: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) which I saw as a child on tv. The shared plot structure is: amphibious humanoid being is kidnapped from the Amazon and forceable brought to "civilization" for study and display. He forms an emotional connection with a woman who is a peripheral adjunct to the kidnappers and this connection is relevant to the being's escape.

The 1954 film follows a standard and rather pernicious trope-structure popular among "monster movies" of the day, in which the non-human (and always male) "monster" fixates romantically/sexually on a decorative white "damsel" who then becomes a focal point of conflict between the "monster" and the white male protagonists who subdue, defeat, and often kill the "monster". It's inescapable that this trope is deeply steeped in racialized symbolism, bringing in the assumption that innocent/helpless white womanhood is an automatically desirable object, and that the racially-coded "monster" is a sexual threat to white womanhood. With the "monster" overtly standing for the Other and simultaneously behaviorally coded as deficient in civilization, intellect, and typically communication skills, the white male protagonists are given narrative authorization to capture, torture, and murder the "monster" at will. We may be signalled to transient sympathy for the "monster's" plight, but that sympathy is undermined by his agressive behavior toward the white woman, by which he is meant to destroy our sympathy and "earn" his own destruction.

As a child viewing the 1954 film, I was oblivious to the racial undertones (being a product of a comfortable white middle class upbringing in a region where everyday racism was not particularly overt). But I found myself wholeheartedly in sympathy with the Creature, feeling that the kidnapping and torture placed him in a position of moral superiority that justified any agressive actions taken. The "damsel", I felt, had bought into the creature's captivity by her presence and support, despite any pity she displayed, and therefore could not entirely be considered an innocent bystander. I entirely discounted the theme of "non-human creature is romantically/sexually attracted to human woman" and interpreted that aspect of the story as the Creature simply fixating on the only human who had shown any sort of "humanity" toward him. And, of course, the Creature received my sympathy by default precisely because of being an Other, which was my primary emotional identity as a child.

So that's what I bring to my viewing of del Toro's The Shape of Water. I've noted the plot-structure overlap, but what of the differences? TSoW has distracted greatly from the most problematic racial aspects of the original, in part by framing the female protagonist, Elisa Esposito, as Hispanic, as well as giving her a Black friend and ally. This move is weakened somewhat by the extent to which Zelda (the Black friend) represents a fairly stereotyped "Sassy Strong Black Woman with a Useless Boyfriend". To complete the set of marginalizations among the team of good guys, Elisa's housemate is a lonely middle-aged gay man also given a number of stereotyped characteristics. Oh, and Elisa is mute (but not Deaf), setting her up to be the ideal candidate to try to communicate by sign language with the also non-verbal Creature. (Elsa Sjunneson-Henry has an excellent analysis of disability issues in the movie over on and her discussion helped me greatly in articulating some of my thoughts on that topic.)

The notion of the Creature's captors being framed as heros is completely undermined by portrayal of the project head as callous and sadistic. His villainy is also reinforced with a very broad brush by his behavior toward our female leads. As if it were needed, the last nail in the "white all-American man as hero" coffin is pounded in by the visual imagery of his life, taken from '50s advertising images of happy suburban families and fancy cars. (The use of advertising imagery is reinforced by the gay housemate's profession of painter of advertising images.) It's a stunning and effective use of visual symbolism, but it's far from subtle. Subtle is in the next universe over.

In TSoW, Elisa is not a passive pitying subject who exists to be a pawn for male erotic conflict, she is the driver of the action and the architect of the Creature's liberation. She is not Object but Other herself. But the way she is framed as Other due to her disability is itself problematic. One can easily see the overarching message being that being mute makes her a monster, and that therefore her only escape from isolation and loneliness is to partner with the more overt monster. It's an improvement on the 1954 film but still Has Issues. I will say that one high point of Elisa's characerization is showing her as a sexually desiring being (and eventually a sexually fulfilled one).

So what did I like about the movie? It presented the Creature as clearly the intended sympathetic protagonist and made a team of marginalized people the heros of the action. The visual imagery and effects are absolutely stunning. Within the understanding that certain elements of the plot are presented in a dream/fantasy context, we are allowed to believe that the ending is happy rather than tragic. And the film delivers on pretty much every piece of foreshadowing it offers up. (I'm thinking especially about the scars on Elisa's neck and how that reframes aspects of the resolution at the end.)

What didn't I like about the movie? In addition to the occasional issue with clumsy stereotyping in the characters, there are a few moments of gruesome body horror that I had to look away for. They were generally well telegraphed, but still...not my thing. The moral issues were painted with far too broad a brush for my taste, which detracts from what the film's message could have been. On the other hand, this is a monster movie at heart; they were never about being subtle.

But overall, the things I liked completely outweight the bits I didn't like.

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