Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #4 – The Shape of Water

Posted: January 8, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Wow! There’s a pull quote for you contemplating seeing Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, The Shape of Water. Just wow. The director is back in his weird but playful element weaving a Cold War era tale of a secret base, the young mute lady pushing a mop therein and…her amphibian lover. And there is a Busby Berkley style dance number to boot.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is mute. She pushes a mop in a secret base in Baltimore, 1962. She lives alone above a mostly empty movie theater next door to Giles (Michael Shannon), a man in the closet living with cats. One day a new “asset” rolls into the lab with the strongest steel door contained in a secure fish tank. Elisa is curious to the consternation of her good friend and sign language interpreter, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Romance and a daring escape from the facility ensue…

Mister del Toro brilliantly captures the nostalgia for the America that might not have actually existed except in the movies that distracted us. In the movies we danced with our lovers for whom we had undergone an emotional journey just to get to the black and white waltz in clothes for which the shoes were likely too small for the occasion. And then we popped off the screen in vivid Technicolor that requires a restoration print and celluloid surgery about every twenty years to preserve that feel.

And then because the director has read enough books about the real America of the time, he brilliantly reminds us that two 800-pound gorilla superpowers rattled sabers at each other. That a black couple in the South had about as much chance of sitting at the counter as I do being invited into Al Qaeda to lead the struggle. All of this happens in the background while we’re caught looking at Ms. Hawkins eat up her scenery and then chase it with the production scripts slathered in mustard.

I can’t speak highly enough about Ms. Hawkins as she gives Elisa an enigmatic smile, especially baiting Amphibian Man with hard-boiled eggs. And the lady in question doesn’t need words to express the eternal conflict between the Frankenstein Monster and his creator…how far do we go with a new mostly sentient creature that might teach us about our place in the universe, but will also eat our cats when we fall asleep at the switch?

Because of the all around deft handling of the seeming incompatibility between America as we wanted to see it versus the America as it really was, we see Ms. Hawkins be fierce signing a hearty “Fuck you!” in all-caps to the union mandated evil or perhaps just scared Security Chief. Of course, said torturer doesn’t understand American Sign Language and Zelda does a bit of creative “interpreting” to keep the guy about to lose fingers to gangrene from blowing his stack. The solidarity of ladies who push mops and clean up piss from places where urine should fear to tread.

Pretty much the rescue aided by a scientist spying for Russia takes place and Elisa and Amphibian Man get to know each other in her bathtub as they wait out the coming rains that will fill the canal to the sea. We hope Giles’ cat served raw tastes like chicken. Amphibian Man becomes progressively sick because the bath water isn’t exactly to taste for his survival. And for the second go around, Elisa floods her bathroom for the full aquatic experience. Then all the threads meet at the canal and bullets fly.

Anything, I might say bad about this film is so far into the realm of needing to invent things just so I don’t write a completely warm and gushing review. I got caught up into this world where principled people can see the Other as more than a lab rat. The music, photography and the probably disgusting key lime pie that informs Giles’ subplot popped off the screen as intended (the pie filling looked a lot like green Jell-O instead of actual Key Lime…ick!). So, I have to work to find things for Mr. del Toro to think about next time.

If I had my way, I might suggest making more of the downstairs movie theater as a story element. Amphibian Man escapes the apartment after eating Giles’ cat and he is found in a middle row staring at the screen. Could someone use a really good old movie to deepen Elisa and Amphibian Man’s relationship beyond the Nurse-Patient tropes we see on screen? Yes, and I hope Mr. del Toro lets us know on the Blu-Ray that he cut those scenes for time.

But, the problem for this thread is that you can hear gears of the studio footage-licensing machine working behind the scenes. The film in question is The Story of Ruth, to my mind a Sword and Sandals “classic” to which I’ve generally reacted indifferently in the past. I bet the studio producing The Shape of Water owns The Story of Ruth. Thought experiment time, what does Amphibian Man learn about Elisa and people if he sees Ben-Hur? Lawrence of Arabia? Casablanca? Or pick another classic movie from 1962 or before?

Of course, this suggestion only works if there is time to depict at least two back and forth exchanges of the conversation in American Sign Language between Girl and Amphibian Lover. It could be seen as an interesting parallel to the many conversations Elisa has with Giles at his TV set where the lonely gay artist next door needs company, but will do anything to skip over the disturbing TV footage of riots in favor of the Betty Grable movies that taught Elisa how to dance.

Now, if at some point Mr. del Toro says “Yes, I’m not stupid and could see the character possibilities sixty miles away, but we were five minutes long…” then okay, it’s called the Red Pen of Editorial Doom for a reason. Otherwise, pay for the meaningful footage and milk the thread for more. Just saying.

Quibbles aside, The Shape of Water is one of those movies we can’t be sure the Hollywood System even makes these days. Then they sneak it out while we’re still recovering from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. This one goes on the disk shelf. High praise indeed. See you at movies.

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