FISH AND FROGMARCH: The creatures from the dark cartoon!

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2018

Part 4—Painting by demographics:
In this morning's New York Times, Cara Buckley ponders a bit of a riddle:

Why is The Shape of Water now the apparent "film to beat" for this year's Best Picture Oscar?

We raised a form of this question on Monday. We wondered why The Shape of Water had received so many Oscar nominations when it appeared on the top ten lists of so few mainstream critics.

What explains that peculiar pattern? In her essay, Buckley adds a second such question:
BUCKLEY (2/8/18): “The Shape of Water” stars Sally Hawkins as a cleaning lady who falls for a merman held captive in a government lab, and leads the race with 13 Oscar nominations, more than any other movie. It has also scooped up key precursor awards that often culminate in Oscar gold...

That a fantasy film has made it this far is highly unusual.
While some fantasy and sci-fi movies have been nominated for best picture (“Avatar,” “District 9,” “Inception” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”), with the exception of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” it is hard to name one that has gone all the way...

The movie’s winning trajectory has had its bumps. “Shape” was not nominated for best ensemble performance at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and, as forecasters invariably note, no film since “Braveheart” (1995) has won the best picture Oscar without previously landing a SAG ensemble nomination.
Holy buttered popcorn! The Shape of Water has scored three Oscar acting nominations, for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor. And yet, how odd! The Screen Actors Guild—the industry's actual actors and actresses—didn't even nominate the film in its top acting category.

(For what it's worth, we were surprised to see that Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins had received those "supporting" nominations. We aren't skilled judges of acting, but it seemed to us that their parts were perhaps a bit rote—possibly even "stereotypical"—and gave them relatively little to do.)

The Screen Actors Guild did nominate Hawkins and Jenkins for individual awards, though Spencer was given the boot. At any rate, our mystery only seems to expand in Buckley's intriguing report.

A movie which made few top ten lists in now "the film to beat" for Best Picture of the year. The same film wasn't nominated for ensemble acting, but it may walk off with three best acting awards!

Buckley does a decent job speculating about the reasons behind the move in Tinseltown toward Guillermo del Toro's film. We'll touch upon those speculations tomorrow. For today, let's continue calling the demographic roll of this highly cartoonized film.

Does del Toro's Shape of Water traffic in "stereotypes?" That's the word David Edelstein used, but he didn't seem to like the film very much.

As we noted yesterday, A. O. Scott used a different word. He described one major role as a "caricature," but he very much liked the film.

Many critics have mentioned the tendency in this film which dare not say its name. For ourselves, we'd be inclined to say this film is peopled by "cartoons." Just to refresh ourselves, here's what Scott said about that "caricature," with one final judgment appended:
SCOTT (12/1/17): [The fishman's] particular nemesis is Richard Strickland, a government-issue, square-jawed square played with reliable menace by Michael Shannon. Strickland lives in a suburban split-level with his wife and two kids, drives a Cadillac, reads “The Power of Positive Thinking” and is into mechanical missionary sex (and workplace sexual harassment). His favorite accessory is an electric cattle prod, a detail that links him to the Southern sheriffs occasionally shown terrorizing civil rights demonstrators on television.

A caricature? Maybe. But also a perfectly plausible villain, and in his diabolical all-American normalcy a necessary foil for the film’s loose rebel coalition, a band of misfits who come to the [fishman's] defense.

[...]

The most welcome and notable thing about “The Shape of Water” is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Zelda and Giles, an artist whose advertising career has been derailed, are not just supporting players. They have miniature movies of their own, as does Mr. Stuhlbarg’s scientist-cum-spook. And so, for that matter, does Strickland, though it isn’t a movie anyone else would want to be in, not least because it feels the closest to reality.
In our view, it's stunning to think that del Toro's film displays a "generosity of spirit." That said, Scott believed that the caricature to which he refers—the portrait of the lunatic Southern white male Biblical fascist—is the portrait that "feels the closest to reality."

We'd call that an ugly tribal judgment for ugly tribal times. For today, let's explore how fully del Toro engages in the type of "caricature" designed to please our increasingly small, angry and defeated pseudoliberal hearts and minds.

As noted, Strickland is a caricature of a sadistic Southern white male bigot. He attempts to assault the lonely mute woman played by Hawkins, then ends up shooting her at the end of the film. Along the way, he behaves in sadistic ways on several occasions; spouts Bible verses in such a way as to show us that he's out of his head; and of course, he refers to his electric cattle prod as his "Alabama howdee-doo," just in case we're too dumb to capture the message conveyed by the stick with which we're being hit on the head.

The five-star general to whom Strickland reports is a total complete nutcase too. To a man of Scott's refinement, these crazoid caricatures "feel the closest to reality" of anything in the film.

In fairness, it isn't just Southern Bible-spouting white males who come off poorly in this cartoonized film. As a film-maker, del Toro paints by the demographics, and only certain categories of men are permitted to come off well.

Strickland is such a lunatic that even Scott can see that he resembles a "caricature," or possibly a cartoon. But in del Toro's call of the roll, how many different ways exist for men to come off poorly?

Let us count the many ways. Let's visit a sprawling cartoon:

For starters, a white male can come off well as long as he's older and gay. Richard Jenkins play that familiar old role, right down to all the cats in his apartment (including the one who gets eaten). He's part of "the film’s loose rebel coalition," concerning which Edelstein complains.

In this film, as in the real world, older gay men are OK! But in the world del Toro creates, there are very few other ways for men to come off well.

Consider our first exposure:

Early on, we haven't yet met the lunatic crazy nut Strickland. Our two heroines are cleaning the men's room in the top-secret federal facility where they and Strickland work.

As the women mop the floor, the wisecrackin' Spencer tells the lonely mute heroine this. The lingo comes straight from the screenplay:
Look! Some of the best minds in our country, peeing all over the floor in this here facility.

[Looking up]

There's pee freckles on the ceiling!! How do they get it up there?

[Continuing to mop]

Just how big a target do they need, you figure? My Brewster, no one ever called him a great mind, even he hits the can seventy percent of the time.
In our first glimpse of the film's straight males, we learn that they pee on the floor, not in the urinals, and that they even manage somehow to place "pee freckles" on the ceiling!

As she marvels at this behavior, Spencer makes the first of her comments about her lazy husband, Brewster. Late in the film, he'll be "caricatured" in del Toro's ugliest scene, as we'll note below.

The brightest minds in this secret facility pee on the floor and the ceiling! At this point, the lunatic Strickland enters the room, pees in the urinal as the two embarrassed women look on, introduces them to his Alabama stick, and, as we noted yesterday, offers lunatic thoughts about the need to clean one's hands at such moments:
Man washes his hands before or after tending to his needs. That tells you a lot about that man.

He does it both times? Points to a weakness of character.
Already, we've been told that this cracker is crazy nuts. To a correct modern liberal like Scott, this cartoonized caricature "feels the closet to reality" of anything else in the film!

So far, the roll has been called as follows. A lonely mute woman is good. A lonely, older gay man is good. A wisecracking, rollicking, black working woman is good. But Southern white males seem to be crazy and, as a class, very bright men are strongly inclined to piss on the ceiling and floor.

In case we've missed any part of this stereotyping, we're soon taken to Dixie Doug's, a sandwich shop where the counter attendant speaks in stereotypical Southern white idiom. Our lovable older gay male has a bit of a crush on the counter attendant, and when he tries to hold his hand, the counter attendant coldly tells him he has to leave the store, which is a family establishment.

Moments before, the counter attendant has kicked a black couple out of the shop for the obvious reason. Is this just another one of these egregious Southern white crackers?

Well actually no, it isn't! In an earlier visit, this exchange has occurred:
OLDER GAY MALE: And would you be the famous “Dixie Doug” himself?

COUNTER ATTENDANT: Heck, no. Pies are trucked down throughout the country. It's called “franchising,” see? There’s thirty-two Dixie Doug’s all over the country...

They tell us what we gotta say,
what to wear and such. There's a manual lays it all out. They figured out what people like, scientifically. I don't really talk that way. I'm from Ottawa.

OLDER GAY MALE: You had me completely fooled.
On the next visit, this good-natured fellow kicks the black couple out of the shop. Is that intended to mean that they're all alike, even the ones from Canada? Is this whole peculiar business meant as a play on Colonel Sanders, on American materialism in general?

We can't answer your questions! But the cartooning is so extreme in this cartoonized film that we're inclined to answer "yes" all the questions you've asked.

Even Canadian men are like the Southern crackers! Eventually, del Toro even sets his sites on Brewster, the lazy, shiftless, shufflin' black man who gets defenestrated in the ugliest scene in this unpleasant, low-IQ film.

By now, we're late in the film. The three major heroes are trying to spirit the "fish man" away, to let him return to the wild. The lunatic Strickland is chasing them down, operating on lunatic orders from the crazy five-star general.

Strickland sadistically tortures a principled scientist, leaves him to die, then arrives at the black woman's home. We've heard her aim eye-rolling jibes at "my Brewster" throughout the film. Now, we finally get to see her husband—and he's an ugly stereotype from the ugliest depths of American racial cartooning.

In fairness, del Toro's from Mexico. Maybe he doesn't quite understand the warp and woof of American racial denigration.

But when we get to see the black male, he's shiftlessly sitting in his overstuffed chair, ordering his hard-working wife around, unpleasantly directly her to serve his needs and desires. And sure enough! When Strickland bursts into his home, he eagerly rushes to cowtow to The Man.

Strickland offers his latest crazy Biblical recitation, and Brewster rushes to sell out his wife. Stepin Fetchit wasn't available, so a different actor was asked to perform this part:
STRICKLAND: That story about Samson. I never told you how it ends.

After the Philistines torture him and blind him, Samson asks God for the strength he needs, and at the last minute he is spared. For Samson is a good man and a man of principle and the Lord gives his strength back to him. One last time.

And he holds the columns of the temple with his powerful arms and crushes them, and he brings the whole building down on the Philistines.

He kills them all. He dies. But he gets every single one of them motherfuckers. That is his will.

That’s how powerful his will is.

Now, do you know what that story means? For us, Delilah? It means that if you know something you’re not telling me, you will tell me. Either before or after I bring this particular temple down upon our heads. I am, for the time being, the true plight of the Negro, Zeldelilah.

BREWSTER: Gal done stole that thing right out the lab! Whatever it is! I hear them talking and talking and I have made my mind about it!!

Mute girl took it. She’s who you want to interminate [sic].

STRICKLAND: Thank you very much, Mr. Fuller, for your assistance.

BREWSTER: Don’t say nothin’ of it.
Ole Massah started gettin' crazy again. So Brewster tugged on his forelock, shuffled his feet and sold out his wife to The Man.

"Bitch deserves to be gone after," he angrily tells his wife after Ole Massah is gone.

That is one of the ugliest scenes we're ever sat through in a movie. Can it possibly be that del Toro's crackpot ideology is so pervasive that he even has to caricature, cartoonize and demonize the black guy in his Fable? Can this possibly mean what it may seem to mean—that no man escapes the wrath of our tribal belief except the older gay male? That these here men are all alike—Canadian, black or whatever?

Can del Toro possibly be that nutty? Consider one last peculiar part of the demographic roll he calls throughout this film.

Critics routinely discuss the film's three outsider heroes—the lonely mute woman, the hard-working black woman and the lonely older gay male.

That said, there's a fourth hero in the film—and yes, he is a second male hero. That said, his demography is right off the charts.

As in E.T., so too here. A sensitive, lone-wolf scientist decides to help the rebel coalition as they try to let the alien fishman escape.

In E.T., this caring scientist was played by Peter Coyote. As far as anyone could tell, he was a plain old white American male.

Del Toro doesn't permit this. His absurdly jumbled plot is, in part, a ridiculous Cold War espionage thriller—and good lord! As it turns out, the principled scientist who helps the fishman escape is a plain old white male who doesn't seem to be gay, but hails from the Soviet Union!

How odd! As it turns out, this sensitive, decent, principled man is a decent white Soviet male, an undercover agent! Can this lunatic bit of demography possibly mean what it seems?

Canadian, black, white Southerner males? They all seem to piss on the ceiling the same.

The Soviet man has a strong decent strain! Can this possibly means what it seems?

Tomorrow: Nietzsche gets it right! Michael Shannon doesn't

33 comments:

  1. "That said, Scott believed that the caricature to which he refers—the portrait of the lunatic Southern white male Biblical fascist—is the portrait that "feels the closest to reality."

    It would be hard for a character who is half man, half fish to come close to reality.

    It becomes clear now that Somerby is offended by the portrait of the white Southerners, even though men like Strickland do exist. But it is Somerby who claims all the characters in this film are stereotypes and not representations of individuals. By making them such, he creates an opportunity for affront.

    I don't know what to say to a man like Somerby, who chooses to live in the South but then denies what too many Southerners are like, as if his neighbors are all like himself simply because he lives there.

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  2. Is Brewster's wife also a black stereotype?

    Is Somerby now going to complain whenever a film portrays men behaving badly?

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    Replies
    1. No. It's the lip-smacking self-righteousness that's offensive.

      It is true too that this gay man/woman = good; white man = bad thing is getting pretty wearying. It's stupid.

      Delete
    2. fish man = good

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    3. I see Somerby appeals to the right wing (@1:47). I really do wonder if he is oblivious to the stereotype of conservatives that he is subliminally describing and that is bought into by his conservative commenters, who thereby confirm themselves as stereotypical conservatives.

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    4. How quickly we forget. It used to be that if you wanted to portray a character as bad, you made him gay (and thus deviant, a pervert, a bad person). Peter Lorre excelled in this role. Bond films did it. With a wink of course. Now there are a few good gay people on film and it is the new stereotype. What about Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Too long ago?

      Because there are a lot more white men, and even more roles for white men, there are going to be more white male villains.

      How do you make sure the audience knows who the villain is now that you cannot signal it via effeminate behavior, scars or tats, black hats, accents and so on? Military were the bad guys in the 60s because of the cold war and the Vietnam war. Military men are more likely to be Southern because that's where the bases were (congressional pork). And yes, there is that long history of racism against blacks that can be readily transferred to suggest bigotry against fish.

      Somerby and @1:47 suggest it is self-righteous appeal to liberal sensibilities as shameless awards pandering. I think it continues cinema traditions and conventions that audiences respond to because they are familiar and get the point across.

      What I don't understand is the frogmarch reference. Somerby knows that frogs are not fish, right?

      Delete
  3. Many comic books are about difference because the central task of adolescence is individuation, establishing one's identity and independence from parents. Any stereotypes and plot devices are in service of that, not the furtherance of political or racial stereotypes.

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    Replies
    1. Comic books?

      Remember when that they used to be emblematic of a bad and dumb thing?

      It's not a compliment! You're making Bob's point. This is dumb dumb dumb.

      Comic books. Perfect!

      Delete
    2. This blog resembles a comic book. Somerby is a lot of things, but a good movie critic he ain't.

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    3. The culture industry has hoodwinked gullible idiots into thinking comic books are good. Of course these people take the bait, they have nothing else. They don't know how to live direct lives with each other - which is the only way to truly experience life and being. Instead, they exist only as consumers of manufactured cultural commodities. Their lives are not about living, but about being recipients of images. Anyone who takes seriously a superhero movie or the Oscars or consumer fodder like the movie described here is essentially a fetishistic cult member. Anyone over the age of 8 that even thinks about comic books has been drugged by culture and must do what they can to wake up and reorder their inner lives. I would start with Dostoevsky.

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    4. My, aren't we sententious, Anon 3:00pm. Not an attractive quality. And not very persuasive, I'm afraid.

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    5. Of course it's not persuasive and you give an ad hominem response. Culture has replaced God in your life. Culture is your God. It is your religion. You are a cult member. You instinctually resist any suggestion that your God and religion are not all powerful. Work hard and you can begin to see how you are being fooled and you can begin to climb your way out of it. Maybe. Probably not. But maybe.

      Haha. It's just me right? It's my demeanor. That's the problem! Ha ha!

      Delete
    6. Anon 3:25, reading your comment was like reading Dostoevsky. Wow!

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    7. I think it is good that grown American men dress like boys with jerseys, hats and sneakers and spend their time admiring comic books and comic book merchandise en masse. What possibly could be wrong with that? Who could draw any negative symbolism from something so benign?

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    8. This might be an example of what @5:24 is talking about -- using culture (art) as a defense against life:

      http://yastreblyansky.blogspot.com/2018/02/literary-corner-economy-of-abstraction.html#more

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    9. I agree with 11:59. Del Toro is merely helping young boys individuate.

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  4. Somerby is either dishonest, or a blithering idiot.

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  5. Suppose the evil Strickland character had been black or Islamic. How many Oscar nominations would that version of the movie gotten?

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    Replies
    1. Well, he could've been a Sheriff Clarke figure, I suppose. It's just that in 1962, the year the movie takes place, there really weren't any blacks or Muslims in positions of authority in the military. I mean, here's a thought experiment: what if Sheriff Bull Connor had been black? Except he wasn't.

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    2. It takes place in 1962? Bob says Strickland reports to a five-star general. There were no five-star generals on active duty in 1962.

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    3. It takes place in 1962, but it's not a documentary.

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    4. Suppose the evil Strickland had been an a trolling retired actuary. How many Oscar nominations would that version of the movie [have] gotten?

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  6. Why is Somerby complaining about stereotyping? He engages in it almost daily.

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  7. You need to relax Bob, you sound unhinged. Have a drink, watch a musical. This is gonna be a long winter...

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  8. The one word missing from this post:

    Jews

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Damn. And here I thought it was Mormons.
      Anyway, why bring up Jared and Ivanka?

      Delete
    2. The one comment missing from this post? Unfortunately not 2:26's.

      Delete
  9. Somerby respects conservatives so much that he believes that they are simple-minded enough to think that a movie character with a Southern accent represents all Southerners, and that their thinking is so hopelessly stereotyped that they believe that a liberal movie maker must of course, a priori, without a doubt, create characters meant to malign all conservatives everywhere. And Somerby takes *del Toro* to task for offending the snowflake conservatives who might be offended by this movie. And Somerby, beautifully and for all the world to see, acts exactly like the caricature of a conservative that he himself has created. Priceless.

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  10. A liberal artist has a liberal world view. Stop the presses!

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  11. The movie, which re-imagines Creature from the Black Lagoon, takes place in 1962. Given that, some of the caricatures are quite apt. But villains, for the most part, can be treated as stand-ins: you can insert a more current villain. I haven't seen the movie, although it's on my short list of films to see. But seeing as Bob bungled his review of Moonlight, I am a little skeptical here.

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  12. >>> Toro engages in the type of "caricature" designed to please our increasingly small, angry and defeated pseudoliberal hearts and minds.

    So let me get this straight. You're upset this movie might be too enjoyable for its audience?

    ReplyDelete
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