A FAIRY TALE GETS REAL
I am a classic film buff, who relishes Turner Classic Movies [TCM]. For example, I recently saw on TCM Richard Attenborough’s GANDHI, maybe the best bio-pic ever made, and John Ford’s GRAPES OF WRATH, possibly the best film adaptation of a novel. I have a social consciousness filter when I watch a movie. If the film has no moral content, like THE LOVER FOR A DAY by the French director Phillipe Garrel, I usually dismiss it as light as a feather. Finally, I am biased, as I believe the cinema is our greatest art form.
Last year, the Academy Award for Best Picture was given to the creators of MOONLIGHT. I was not impressed with the film, as the issue of white supremacy is absent. In my opinion, the best film of 2016 was HELL OR HIGH WATER, which follows two brothers who rob banks. They are robbing banks, because the banks are ripping off the poor and the forgotten people in small-town Texas.
Now I argue Guillermo del Toro’s THE SHAPE OF WATER is the best film in 2017. When discussing the film, I have discovered that some people who saw it did not grasp what the director was trying to achieve. However, this is a very complicated love story by a Mexican director/screenwriter who plants many hints as the reels unwind.
Another classic from del Toro is PAN’S LABYRINTH, one of the best films I have ever seen. In 1944 Spain, five years after Franco came to power, Ofelia, a child, and her ailing mother arrive at the military post of her mother's new husband, a sadistic fascist army officer sent there to quell a guerrilla uprising. While exploring an ancient maze, Ofelia encounters the faun Pan, who tells her that she is a legendary lost princess and must complete three dangerous tasks. Doug Jones plays the Faun, as well as the Pale Man, who eats children.
It is easy to recognize that THE SHAPE OF WATER is an updated version of 1954's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Del Toro calls his creature "The Asset," as the military hopes it can be used during the Cold War in the interests of national security. It is early 1960s Baltimore, and most of the action takes place at a secret military laboratory called OCCAM. Fleshing out this story is a fabulous cast of well-developed characters.
Elisa [Sally Hawkins] is a mute who is employed at the laboratory as a part of the nighttime cleaning staff. She was found as a child with mysterious scars on her neck, and communicates using sign language. Because she is mute, others, probably including herself, see her as incomplete. At a nearby restaurant, an African-American couple is told they can't sit at the counter.
Our protagonist lives alone in an apartment above the Orpheum movie theater where THE STORY OF RUTH  is playing. According to this biblical tale, Ruth is to be sacrificed to a pagan god. She is spared, though, and eventually discovers the redemptive power of love and faith.
Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man who lost his job because of his sexuality, lives next door to Elisa and struggles to sell his advertisement illustrations. His television set seems to always be on to a station which plays old movie musicals. At times, Elisa joins him to watch television, and they connect with Bojangles and Alice Faye and the fruit-laden Carmen Miranda, all a bit off from an All-American perspective. The television is also used to show contemporary injustices of that time, such as the use of fire hoses to attack civil rights advocates.
The mute’s other friend is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American who works on the cleaning staff and serves as her interpreter. It becomes evident that these characters are at the bottom of the pecking order. One can speculate which one is lowest on the totem pole.
Richard Strickland [Michael Shannon] who runs the laboratory, is the real monster of the movie. This character is an imperialist, a racist, a misogynist and a homophobe. Like the fascist captain in PAN’S LABYRINTH, he is also a psychopath who tortures the asset, which he commandeered from a South America river. He uses an electric cattle prod, similar to the device used in the South to quell civil rights protests.
Strickland reads Norman Vincent Peale's “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Donald Trump attended Peale's Calvinist church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The preacher told his flock that there are winners and losers in society. Of course, Strickland, like Trump, is a winner--beautiful wife, two children, and a lovely home in the suburbs-- and he drives a Cadillac. Like Trump, he is a sexual predator.
When the villain watches television, he is upset by the show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,“ as Maynard G. Krebs [Bob Denver] is a beatnik. How revolting to see this loser on national television.
There are two more losers in the film. As in PAN’S LABYRINTH, Jones plays the creature. He is not Hollywood handsome, and like Elisa he cannot speak. But she teaches him sign language.
The final loser is Robert Hoffstetler [Michael Stuhlbarg] who in one skin is a scientist at the lab, and in the other a Soviet spy. His handler is the alter ego of Richard Strickland.
One of the pivotal scenes in the film is when the monster brings his bloody prod into the lavatory while Elisa and Zelda are there cleaning toilets. His bigotry, his meanness are on full display.
The head of the lab is all powerful, so what can five losers do to question a winner’s authority. As Gene Sharp has taught us, we must band together as a community. Despite their lowly status, together they move mountains.
In a time of climate chaos, the film recognizes the fragility of water as a precious resource. The colors green and blue permeate the movie, and love can happen above and below the water.
The Golden Globe Awards gave composer Alexandre Desplat its Best Original Score for THE SHAPE OF WATER. In accepting the award, he said to del Toro, “Your movie has moved me so much because it’s made of your humanity and your passion.” Desplat, whose score is nominated for an Academy Award, also said this, “At the end of the day, this movie is about love. Nothing else. Love. Sharing. Humanism and respect. The music just had to convey that.”
Max Obuszewski can be reached at mobuszewski2001 at Comcast dot net.
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski2001 [at] comcast.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs