I saw an interesting post on Facebook over the weekend. Someone asked if anyone had seen the movie “The Shape of Water” and liked it. OP apparently did not like it at all, and wanted anyone who did enjoy the movie to explain why.
I almost commented – in fact, I did post something, but within seconds I had reconsidered and deleted it. After all, at its heart, this post was a futile request. When it comes to art, you either like it or you don’t. No one can explain to you why you should think a sunset is beautiful, for example.
However, I found the comments and replies rather more interesting. This should be expected. Art is meant to hold a mirror up to society. When you listen to music, read a book, observe a painting, or watch a movie or a play, what you see in it is often a refection of yourself – or at least, your memories, feelings, beliefs and prejudices.
We tend to project ourselves into whatever we experience, or to put another way, we experience things through the lens of our personal experience. We can’t help it, it is how we are built. We understand things by relating to them (or not). With that in mind, reading a movie review or an essay by an art critic can often tell you more about the critic than the particular art they are discussing.
Now, I saw the movie myself, and I enjoyed it very much. I haven’t seen enough of the other nominated movies to say whether or not I think it deserves an Oscar, but I can certainly see, from a technical standpoint, why it was nominated. The cinematography and other visual components were elegant and unique, the direction was tight and suspenseful, and there were excellent performances by Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins. Doug Jones, who played “The Creature”, was particularly impressive. It is tough to give any kind of performance while wearing a rubber suit.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, here is a brief synopsis without giving away any spoilers (hopefully). The time is the early 60’s, Cold War Era. Elisa is a young mute woman, who communicates via sign language. She was born with mysterious slits on the sides of her neck, we find out during the tale. She is employed as a janitor in a secret research facility in Baltimore. There she meets one of the experiments, an amphibian hominid found somewhere in South America by Colonel Strickland.
Although the Colonel treats it like an animal, keeping it chained and torturing it with a cattle prod, Elisa finds herself intrigued by it. After all, like her it is trapped in a world where it cannot speak to those around it. She befriends it with hard-boiled eggs, music, and companionship. She finds that it can learn sign language, and they begin to communicate.
The conflict in the story comes when the Colonel decides the only way to get the data he needs for the military from The Creature, is to vivisect it. Elisa conspires to free the hominid, with the unexpected assistance of a Soviet agent, who has also comes to feel that the “beast” is actually a sapient hominid.
The rest of the story involves her attempts to hide away her new friend until it is safe to release him to the open waters, helped along by her neighbor Giles and her co-worker Zelda. During this period, Elisa and the hominid fall in love, and there are some PG-13 sex scenes involved. No need to give away the ending, so I won’t.
The story is recounted by the neighbor, Giles, as almost a fairy tale or myth. This type of storytelling is what us writer people call “magical realism”. It is a story set in what we think of as the “real world” (regardless of whether it is the past, present or future), but with one magical element – in this case, an amphibious hominid who may (or may not) have certain healing powers.
Some of the comments on the post were what you might expect for any work of art. One person found it “terrible and boring”. I’m not judging here, by the way. It is ridiculous to try to contradict that person’s opinion. To him, it was terrible and boring, and nothing I or anyone else can say will change that. I for one might say the same about a Korean opera, or the paintings of Jackson Pollock. The art is the same for everyone, but I personally find nothing to relate to in it, consequently, I do not like it.
Similarly, some who liked it reported they found it “a love story” and they liked “the sweetness of the creature”, and so on. Again, I’m not saying one side is right and the other is wrong. It is just some found a point of resonance, and some did not. The same art, different filters.
The best art evokes a reaction. Whether it is good or bad, weak or life-changing, it doesn’t matter. Did it evoke a response in you? What does that tell you about life or about yourself?
What I found very interesting along that line was one comment, summing up the story as “E.T. with bestiality”. This to me strikes at the heart of the theme of the tale, and helps define The Shape of Water as an allegory of prejudice and xenophobia in today’s world.
It should be obvious to anyone who saw the 1982 Spielberg classic, even just based on the synopsis above, that the basic storyline is pretty much the same. I myself thought of the movie as E.T. with sex, or E.T. with adult themes. What is intriguing to me is the use of the word “bestiality”.
This suggests that the critic, like Colonel Strickland in the film, sees the hominid as an animal. Those who saw the movie as a love story clearly accept the hominid as a person, as did Elisa, Giles and the Soviet agent in the film.
The art is the same – everyone saw the same movie. So what is different? I’ll answer that with a question – what is the shape of water?
The answer of course is that water has no shape of itself. It is shaped instead by its container. A water balloon may be a sphere, a pool may be a box or a cylinder, or how about the shape of water in a crazy straw? The water is the same, but the container provides the shape.
In the same way, art by itself is meaningless. Like the tree falling in a forest, if there is no one to interact with art, it has no “shape”. When we experience art, we provide the shape. For one person, the shape is unattractive, or uninteresting. For another, it is beautiful and instructive. Neither person is “wrong”, they are just different containers. The beauty of art, is that sometimes it fills a container in us that we did not know existed before. We can learn about ourselves or about the human condition if we acknowledge and accept that shape.
The difference in how you see the aquatic magical element of this movie is central to the theme, and indeed, central to homo sapiens as a species. We tend to have a built-in bias to distrust or even to hate “the other”. The more the stranger resembles us, the most virulent the feelings. This is not a new thing.
Anthropologists have identified at least seven members of the homo genus that have walked the Earth. At least three of those likely co-existed with homo sapiens. Where are those three today? Nowhere. At some point, sapiens managed to wipe the planet clean of them. Some think they were just out-classed or out-performed, but the fact remains that only our genus has just one species.
The most closely related animals to us, the chimpanzee, are of the pan genus and have at least three species. The gorilla genus has about seven, and the canis genus has as many as ten. Yet we stand alone.
So firmly is xenophobia ingrained in us, that it becomes the justification for much of our history. Columbus praised the gentle and giving nature of the natives in the New World, but in the same sentence stated “they would make good slaves”. The African slave trade persisted for years, because the Africans were after all, not like real men. The decimation of Native Americans in the US, or the treatment of the people of India by the British are other good examples. They don’t look like us or live like us, or share our values – therefor they are not really human, and can be killed or treated any way we like, and what is theirs is rightfully ours.
The shape of prejudice is like the shape of water. That person’s color, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation does not fit well in my “container”. Therefor they are “the other” and do not deserve to be treated like me. How often have you heard the justification for banning gay marriage as “what’s next – bestiality?” In the 60’s as mixed-race relationships became more open, there was the same reaction – some thought you might as well mate with an animal if you are going to mate with a different race.
This is alluded to in the movie as well, by showing the reactions of others in Giles life, as they discover his homosexuality. He is treated like the creature, is it a wonder he accepts it and finds it beautiful?
We aren’t given any information as to the phylogenics of the hominid in The Shape of Water. It is possible he is from a different genus, or he may be a long-lost homo amphibious. There is the interesting detail of Elisa’s mysterious neck slits. She was found abandoned as a child. When the movie opens, before she has encountered her future lover, we see her asleep in an aquatic world that disappears as she wakes. Was she a product of another meeting with an amphibian hominid? Genetic mutation? We don’t know.
All we know is that it is a story of two thinking and feeling beings who fall in love. Perhaps it is best summed up by the narration in the opening few minutes. Giles tells us, “perhaps I would just warn you about the tale of love and loss, and a monster who tried to destroy it all”.
For me, the most evocative attribute of this film, is that it is up to the viewer to decide what is lost, and which character is the monster.