The Shape of Water

A fable is a story that uses animals or other creatures to teach a moral lesson, so clearly “the Shape of Water” fits that definition. There is an animal at the center of the story, an ethereal “princess” that moves the action forward, and there are morality tales everywhere in the events that take place. Keeping track of the main theme might be the most complicated issue related to this movie, because everything else is a little too spoon fed to us. The shifting of the story to another time period, but one that feels familiar, and in fact has been referred top by many as “Camelot”, makes it all seem even more like a fairy tale.

Guillermo del Toro has a mixed record of success as far as I can tell. “Pan Labyrinth” is a well respected and widely loved success. “Pacific Rim” was successful but not as widely admired, and the two “Hellboy” movies worked for fans but they don’t seem to have connected with many outside of the comic book world.  This is a film that would probably bring him a wider audience with one significant issue that is going to hold it back, the explicit sexuality. This is a beauty and the beast match which adds more to the story than our imaginations might need. For adult audiences with mature tastes, it is well presented and beautiful. An adolescent audience might find it gross or something to titter over. Younger audiences will probably find it creepy and that is what I mean about it being a bit too direct.

Ultimately the morality lesson that should be the central focus of the story is about the danger of loneliness and isolation. Elisa, the mute woman at the center of the story, has a solidary life with an older man as a friend and a co-worker that she can talk to, but she has no romantic life. The sadness of that is demonstrated almost immediately in the film by letting us in on her morning bathroom routine. Sally Hawkins is an average beauty but one that clearly has a spark of life that needs to be fed. Her mostly mute performance is designed to deliberately emphasize her separation from almost everyone else in the world. Del Toro shows her intimately but it is her face that gives us the greatest cues as to her feelings. Like Elisa, her neighbor Giles, played with fussy perfection by scene stealer Richard Jenkins, is isolted as well. He is an artist living in the post atomic age, he is a homosexual without the ability to create a connection that he so desperately crave. Octavia Spencer is Elisa’s work friend Zelda, a black woman working in a white mans world with a husband who largely ignores her. Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Hoffstetler is also mostly on his own but for very different reasons. The character that ultimately connects them all is the amphibian man who is the most lonesome of all. He has been dragged away from his domain, locked in a vault, chained and for the most part mistreated.

Elisa’s efforts to reach out to this unusual creature starts to unlock the loneliness surrounding her and the creature. As in most fables, before we can learn the lesson there have to be failures. This is the role that Giles fulfills. Unable to make a romance with a man he is attracted to, and clearly empathetic to the black residents of Baltimore who are also isolated in spite of their population, he capitulates to the needs of his one true friend and makes a gallant and dangerous stand against the oppressive feeling of being an outsider.

So far I have not mentioned the other major character of the film. He clearly qualifies as the villain of the piece, but his connection to the theme is interesting. Head of security at the facility to which he has brought his prize, Strickland has difficulty relating to others as well. He is verbally respectful at first of the two women who work as custodians at the facility, but that is all undermined by his non-verbal indifference to them. In one of the dangling strings of the story, he also has a sexual attraction to verbal silence. Elisa becomes an object of fascination and revulsion to him. The writer/director I think gives too much time to his personal peculiarities without connecting them very well to the morality lessons. Michael Shannon is a fine actor and he easily gets us to dislike him, we really don’t need to see his sexual hangups or the awkward family life. Except for how it fetishizes the culture of the early sixties, his whole sub-plot about buying a Cadillac is a trip to no where.

Doug Jones has done these creature characters in a number of othshape_of_water_ver2er movies and his body language is the main skill he is called upon to use. He manages to convey some emotions quite clearly with his posture. His arm movements are the tender element that allows us to accept Elisa’s attraction to him. The make up and special effects prosthetics help his performance but he shows he is an actor with range, even if he does not have the name recognition of Andy Serkis.

As I mentioned, except for the explicitness of the relationship, this movie follows the patterns of a hundred other variations of the Beauty and the Beast motif. It is incredibly lovely to look at but it has a lot of side trips that lead to dead ends. You can get the impression that there is a social critique here but it is truncated at best and certainly heavy handed as it is being delivered . The love story works against every expectation, but you have to be a fairly sober viewer to appreciate it.

 

 

Hidden Figures

I am a sucker for movies based on historical events. I don’t mean those that are just inspired by true events, I mean stories about history. All narratives are subjective so I recognize that the emphasis of some stories is going to change from one story teller to another, but the key events , they stay the same. A battle is won, a President is Elected or killed, or a human achievement is accomplished. You don’t have to make those things up. It is one of the reasons that I look forward to “Dunkirk” next summer. It is a key incident in the outcome of WWII, and even though the story may be dramatized, the events are real. “Hidden Figures” is exactly that type of movie.

For kids of my generation, the American Astronauts were the biggest heroes we could imagine. As a child, I never much paid attention to the technicians I’d see on television,  at their stations, monitoring all that could go wrong. I did however come to recognize them from mission to mission. This movie tells the story behind the scenes of the behind the scenes of the early space missions. The fact that it is an empowering women’s film and an important achievement in civil rights is what helps make it so much more interesting and worth telling. A movie about people sitting at desks doing math, sounds almost like the equivalent of watching paint dry. It may be important but it is only going to be of interest to someone who knows the numbers. The people who put those numbers together here are what the story is all about.

Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae are three bright math whizzes, working at doing computations for NASA, and facing two strikes. In 1961, women were largely excluded from the military and science community at NASA and these women happen to be black. They are not however, shrinking violets, they are empowered by their talents and more importantly their mission. Although there is a civil rights story here, it is largely powered by the exigencies of trying to build the math and engineering required for Americans to gain a foothold in the space race. There are a few of the traditional symbols of the movement, MLK speaking on television, violence in the south, and protests about segregation. The two obvious illustrations in this story are not however overtly about a struggle to achieve equal rights but to build an effective team. Henson’s character Katherine, has difficulty doing her job because of the bathroom situation. She is excluded in an overtly racist manner by a coffee pot. When Kevin Costner’s program director confronts these injustices, it is for building meritocracy, not to correct a social injustice. All of the women characters certainly want social justice, but first they want to be allowed to do their jobs and do them to the best of their ability. That is the most ennobling part of the story that I saw.

 

This is a film that could easily be a prism viewpoint of the space race as told in “The Right Stuff“. Many of the events and characters repeat in the time periods covered. Just as the movie focusing on the Mercury astronauts rightly pointed out, this film amplifies why the recently deceased John Glenn was a national hero. As the three women represent the hidden struggles of the space program and America’s self defeating institutional racism, Glenn represents the best in all of us. We want the talented and professionals to do their jobs so everyone else ca. These women showed that there were barriers preventing that from happening, and those barriers shackled our potential. We may not be completely out of the woods on these problems, but thank goodness we don’t have the same attitudes with the same prevalence today.

The film manages to be highly entertaining and accessible to all groups. There may be a few small children who would not enjoy it much but everyone else should be happy to see this. There is humor, tension, and heroic drama throughout the film. The few characters that might be seen as villains of the piece are mostly just trapped in the mindset of the time and need some opportunities to grow, just as the oppressed women did. Americans of all races should be proud of the accomplishments of the space program in the sixties. It should be a unifying experience to take the steps to the stars, and this movie reminds us that it would not have been possible if we did not all move forward together.