Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Bull Productions, Double Dare You, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the San Diego Public Library to see Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Shape of Water. I’d previously seen the films I regard as del Toro’s masterpieces, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), both fantasy-horror melodramas about children victimized by the oppression of the late-1930’s Civil War in Spain. I watched Pan’s Labyrinth at a Landmark Theatres press screening when it was new and gave it a rave review which began, “Like the title character(s) of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — which would actually make a good story for him to film — Guillermo del Toro is two personalities in one body. The American Guillermo del Toro knows what’s required of a modern-day horror-film director, and methodically churns it out: steel-grey Gothic imagery, teenagers in peril and blood, blood, blood spurting everywhere. But get him out of this country — either to his native Mexico or to Spain, where he’s made his two best films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth — and he turns into a different director altogether, filling his films with human emotion and genuine terror, and creating legitimately frightening sequences instead of just freaking out his audiences with the modern-day de rigueur blood and gore.” The Shape of Water was his attempt to combine his two approaches, making a movie in English and with an American studio (20th Century-Fox’s Searchlight specialty film division) backing him — though the movie was actually shot in Canada — with at least some of the poetry and emotion of his Spanish masterpieces. It emerges as an oddly schizoid film, restrained in some ways while all too blatant in others, and at times genuinely moving and touching in ways del Toro and his writing collaborator, Vanessa Taylor (the first woman he’s ever worked with in co-writing a script), intended, while at other times it gets so risible it begins to look as if Mel Brooks had seen Pan’s Labyrinth and decided to do a parody of it. The Shape of Water takes place in a super-secret U.S. government lab in Baltimore run by five-star general Hoyt (Nick Searcy) and his straw boss on the project, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

While on a trip to South America Strickland discovered a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like evolutionary throwback, an aquatic hominid who has both gills and lungs so he can breathe either air or water. He captured the creature but it bit off two of his left-hand fingers, though they’ve been surgically re-attached. Hoyt and Strickland decide to kill the creature so they can autopsy it, figure out how it breathes and use that information to help the American space program. Meanwhile, a sinister group of Russians are determined to break into the lab and kill the creature themselves so the U.S. can’t use the information from it to help their astronauts survive in space. Early on in The Shape of Water it becomes apparent from the big cars and the black-and-white console TV’s that the time the film is set in is not the present, but it’s only about two-thirds of the way through, when we hear President John F. Kennedy deliver his speech announcing the Cuban missile crisis and demanding that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pull out the missiles he was sending Cuba, that the time is definitively established as October 1962. So this is the height of the Cold War and after the Russians embarrassed us big-time first by sending a dog into space in 1957 and then a human, Yuri Gagarin, into earth orbit in 1961. As part of their plot the Russians have infiltrated a scientist into the lab, Dmitri, under the identity “Robert Hoffstetler” (Martin Stuhlberg), only Martin has become scientifically fascinated by the creature and believes the human race can learn more from it alive than dead. The film’s heroine is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute (but not deaf) cleaning woman at the lab, who accidentally stumbles on the creature and instantly takes a liking to it, offering it a hard-boiled egg and playing music to it via a portable phonograph and two big-band LP’s, The Great Benny Goodman on Columbia and Music from “The Glenn Miller Story” by Glenn Miller. (The Goodman LP has the correct red-and-black label Columbia was using in 1962 but the Miller is on a green label. Miller’s record company, RCA Victor, used black labels with white lettering and the colored “His Master’s Voice” logo for their LP’s at the time. Miller never recorded for a company that used a green label.) She thus breaks through the creature, determines that he (it’s definite from later on that it’s a “he”) has emotions and can communicate — he picks up some of her sign language — and therefore it’s intelligent and the last thing that should happen is that he should be killed for science.

Elisa’s only friends are her fellow cleaning worker, Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer), an African-American who’s married to a singularly uncommunicative male-chauvinist asshole named Brewster (the appropriately named, given his unsympathetic character, Martin Roach), and her roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins), a super-closeted Gay man who laments that age and the loss of his looks keeps him from having sex with anybody anymore. He’s also an artist who at the start of the film gets fired from an advertising agency and keeps submitting work with which he hopes to get his job back. We don’t realize Giles is Gay until he goes to a pie stand and hears the owner making snippily racist comments about two Blacks, including Zelda, who try to buy pie from him; then the pie man makes some comments along the lines of Howard da Silva’s comments as the bartender in The Lost Weekend to the effect that he’s as much a psychiatrist as a dispenser of comestibles. Somehow this convinces Giles that the pie guy is interested in him, and he puts his hand around the pie man’s arm — and the pie man flinches and orders him never to come to his shop again. (One wonders if del Toro, a cultural omnivore if there ever was one, deliberately copied that scene from one of the most famous literary “outings” in the pre-Gay Liberation era: the crude pass teacher Adolph Myers makes at one of his students in “Hands,” the opening story in Sherwood Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio.) The plot thickens as Elisa realizes that they’re going to kill the creature within hours unless she can rescue him, so he enlists Giles in their plot, he makes them fake ID’s and paints a van to look like a laundry truck — only the very night and time they pick to kidnap the creature and hold him somewhere until the river floods the canal outside town and they can safely release the creature back into the water is also the night the Russians (ya remember the Russians?) use an Israeli gadget to turn off the building’s electricity and enable the four plotters — for “Robert” and Zelda have stumbled into the plot as well — to get the creature away, where they keep it in Elisa’s bathtub and buy large quantities of salt because it’s a salt-water creature and needs to be in water that contains 3 percent salt.

Elisa and the creature ultimately make love twice — the second time they flood her bathroom with shower water so she can be in his sort of environment — and there’s a bizarre sequence in which Elisa pantomimes for Zelda’s benefit how the creature opened its body to let out its cock. (This would answer Charles’ objection to the Creature from the Black Lagoon that the creature as depicted couldn’t be male because you never saw evidence of a penis — so, he reasoned, since it kept falling for human females it must be a Lesbian Gill-Woman.) Unfortunately the second time she floods the bathroom and it starts leaking into the movie theatre below — a grungy third-run place that only shows old 20th Century-Fox films like The Story of Ruth and Mardi Gras — and ultimately, on a night when a driving rainstorm signals that it’s time for the creature to return to the sea, everyone converges on it. Strickland finds out the creature’s whereabouts, he also pulls out his severed but reattached fingers because they’re turning gangrenous, and he hijacks another staff member’s car to chase the creature — whom he corners at the canal and shoots Bob, tasing him with the electric cattle prod he’d previously used on the creature, and getting him to reveal who helped him abduct the creature and how many Russian special forces agents are involved. The dying Dmitri a.k.a. “Bob” tells him it’s just the janitorial help, which freaks out Strickland that much more that a bunch of mere shit cleaners and piss wipers (as he referred to them earlier) outwitted him, and eventually Bob is mortally wounded but Giles gets the gun and shoots Strickland, while the creature returns to the sea and Elisa returns with him, presumably to drown for love of him, though one imdb.com “trivia” contributor suggested that the slashes on her neck, which we were told earlier were made by the injury that rendered her mute, may actually be nascent gills so she’ll be able to be with her aquatic boyfriend under water as well as on land. The Shape of Water has some of the rich stew of allusions that made The Devil’s Backbone and especially Pan’s Labyrinth so great, but it’s also got some bits that are just silly — I found myself laughing through much of the film, and though some of the laughs I believe were intentional, I doubt that others were.

The film’s most bizarre scene occurs when Elisa is alone after one of her nights with the creature and she’s starting to make little noises with her mouth — earlier she’s been depicted as totally silent — and they soon take the form of a vocal to Irving Berlin’s song “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” del Toro changes the image to black-and-white, and soon she’s dancing with the creature against a backdrop of columns from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet and they’re duplicating Fred and Ginger’s moves in Carroll Clark’s original setting. Indeed, I believe del Toro and his effects crew simply used digital CGI technology to “paint” Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, the tall, lanky actor who played the creature (and who did similar roles for del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies) over Astaire and Rogers, thereby posthumously turning Fred and Ginger into motion-capture actors. It’s supposed to be a magical moment but it just seemed risible to me! It also doesn’t help that, despite the wide array of computer artists and technicians listed on the final credits, the creature, especially in its first appearance, looks like del Toro did it the old-fashioned way, dressing up Doug Jones in a body suit with a helmet-like mask over his head, and just like in the old days at Universal in the 1940’s and 1950’s, you can all too easily see where the creature’s eye sockets end and Doug Jones’ real eyes begin. And it doesn’t help that del Toro tried to turn Strickland into a psychopathic villain in the mold of General Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth whereas the film might have been more chilling if he’d been a cold, insensitive “just following orders” bureaucrat instead of a monster in human guise — though there is a nice scene in which he and his wife are having a sexual quickie, she begins to speak and he puts his hand over her mouth in a threatening-looking gesture and tells him that only if she keeps completely quiet can he reach orgasm. (It’s one of del Toro’s sophisticated allusions, only reinforced when he makes a crude, Weinsteinian pass at Elisa later in the film — this is a man who’s so afraid of women speaking up that he can only have sex with one who’s totally silent.) To sum up, nice try, Guillermo del Toro, but you won the Academy Award for this film you really deserved for Pan’s Labyrinth! Indeed, it does seem as if del Toro’s inspiration for this film was the thought, “Hey, what would The Creature from the Black Lagoon have been like if the leading lady had actually reciprocated the creature’s affections?”