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...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.
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.
(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.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."
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.
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.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!
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.
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.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!
He does it both times? Points to a weakness of character.
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?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?
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.
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.Ole Massah started gettin' crazy again. So Brewster tugged on his forelock, shuffled his feet and sold out his wife to The Man.
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.
"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