Part 2—No cartoon left behind: Stating the obvious, some major mainstream film critics loved and admired Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-nominated film, The Shape of Water.
At least two major mainstream critics selected The Shape of Water as the best film of the year. (Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal; Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times.) At the New York Times, A. O. Scott's review appears beneath an upbeat headline:
‘The Shape of Water’ Is Altogether WonderfulScott included The Shape of Water on a list of eleven films comprising his "second ten" list. In hard copy, his review bore the type of headline which makes us go awwww:
A Monster Worthy of LoveFor our money, Scott is the strangest of mainstream film critics when it comes to the political topics which flood del Toro's film. We'll consider his review before the week is done.
That said, some critics loved The Shape of Water. They discussed the more literal of the two monsters the film brought to the screen.
Critics who didn't love this film still tended to review it favorably At the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday gave it only three stars of a possible four—and no, we don't mean three-and-a-half, a grade the Post's system permits.
As such, Hornaday basically gave the film a B. But her review, as it began, seemed to promise more:
HORNADAY (12/7/17): Less a movie than a conjuring, “The Shape of Water” plunges viewers into a mossy, aquamarine world of dreams and taboo desires, its contours as a wistful fable adjusted more than slightly for very real, present-day concerns. As a creation of the groundbreaking filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, this fantastical allegory bears the director’s fetishistic hallmarks, which run to monsters and surrealistic environments, bloody body horror and meltingly tender romance. “The Shape of Water” may not achieve the aesthetic and thematic heights of 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which still stands as del Toro’s masterpiece. But it’s an endearing, even haunting film from one of cinema’s most inventive artists, one who manages to bend even the hoariest B-movie tropes to his idiosyncratic, deeply humanistic imagination.In a movie which was more like a conjuring, one of our most inventive artists had created an endearing film which expressed his deeply humanistic imagination. So why did it only get three stars? There must have been something about this film which Hornaday didn't like.
As it turned out, she didn't seem to like its caroonistic "stereotyping"—though that's a term she herself didn't use. (We'll see David Edelstein use it below.) Indeed, The Shape of Water might well bear a subtitle:
No demographic cartoon left behindNo demographic cartoon left behind—and the more blatant the cartoon the better!
Hornaday didn't seem to like the ridiculous way del Toro peoples his film. She voices this critique fairly early in her review, which otherwise seemed highly positive:
HORNADAY: But if the world that del Toro builds reflects his usual attention to surprise and detail, the characters that populate it too often feel rote, crammed into roles whose metaphorical meaning too often feels simplistic and bluntly at odds with the rest of the film’s subtlety. Starting with Giles and Elisa’s work friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and continuing through Shannon’s depiction of masculinity at its most malevolent and toxic, the message of “The Shape of Water” comes through too loud and too clear, as Elisa and her band of outsiders suffer under the yoke of homophobia, racism, intimidation and self-righteous intolerance. (At one point, when he’s talking about God with Zelda, Giles suggests that “He looks like me—maybe even you. But probably more like me.”)We agree with Hornaday's assessment of the portrayal of Elisa, the mute woman who falls in love with Scott's lovable monster—with a creature which is half-fish and (something resembling) half-human.
Amid such obviousness, [Sally] Hawkins’s portrayal of Elisa stands out with gemlike beauty...
That said, even Elisa is part of the problem to which Hornaday alludes. Del Toro has peopled his film with easily-identified standard victims—victims of racism, of homophobia, and, appallingly enough, of lazy, shiftless black men who shuffle off, at the moment of truth, to cow-tow to The Man.
In fact, there's a fourth hero in this "simplistic" film beside the three Hornaday names. (More on that fourth hero later.) Beyond that, as Hornaday notes, the villains of the piece are cartoonized figures who act out cartoonized versions of "masculinity at its most malevolent and toxic."
This seems to be the part of the film which held Hornaday to three stars. That said, her complaint about the "obviousness" of del Toro's film is more explicitly expressed in a review from a major critic who seems to have liked The Shape of Water much less than Hornaday did.
In truth, del Toro's film is a clown car of cartoonized heroes and villains. Writing for Vulture, David Edestin calls the roll, then rolls his eyes at del Toro—and at the cartoonized thinking which increasingly typifies our own failing liberal tribe:
EDELSTEIN (9/14/17): The heroine, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), is a cleaning woman in a top-secret underground facility that’s the setting for [Cold War government] research. One day an Amazonian Gill Man (known as “the Asset,” played by Doug Jones) arrives in a tank in the custody of an agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon), who talks about how the creature is an affront to God, not “being made in His image.” He’s also fond of using an electrified cattle prod, which he refers to as his Alabama how-dee-doo. The way he used it reminded me of how southern policemen beat black civil-rights protesters. Perhaps what reminded me was footage on nearby TV screens of southern policemen beating black civil-rights protesters.In our view, even Edelstein is too kind in this review. He exhibits thinly-disguised scorn for the way del Toro "stacks the deck," giving us three lovable heroes and heroines who stand in opposition to "a God-and-country white fascist" with an "Alabama how-dee-doo" which he uses early and often. (The state is named in case someone's so dumb as to miss del Toro's pathetically cartoonized point.)
Did I mention that the heroine is mute and suffers from the feeling that she’s “incomplete?” She was apparently mistreated as a child.
I should mention that the lovable, mute heroine lives (above a movie theater) with a lovable, talkative gay painter (Richard Jenkins) who keeps trying to create Norman Rockwell–like illustrations for an advertising firm that has let him go (because he’s gay?). And that Eliza has another natural ally in her fellow cleaning woman, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who chatters away about her lazy, good-for-nothing husband. So you have a poor mute woman, a poor black woman, a poor gay man, and a so-called freak of nature versus a God-and-country white fascist who buys a Cadillac because it represents “the future” and is shown in bed mechanically grunting over his impassive blonde Stepford wife. Did I mention that he and his five-star general boss want to dissect the Gill Man rather than keep him around? Talk about stacking the deck.
I didn’t fight The Shape of Water off—I tried to surrender to its romance...But the characters are always drifting back and forth over the line that separates archetypes from stereotypes...[T]he story goes exactly where you think it will. It’s an utterly lovely, complacent movie, too comfortable with itself to generate real dramatic tension.
But despite his visible scorn for the "stereotyping" which Hornaday also criticized, Edelstein fails to capture the depraved extent to which del Toro stacks this deck. He fails to list the fourth hero, whose demographic qualification seems to take us to something resembling insanity. (More on this third man tomorrow.)
Beyond that, Edelstein fails to capture the sheer depravity of the second monster in this film, the monster we're scripted to hate. We're supposed to empathize with the "monster" who's only half-fish. At the same time, we're supposed to loathe the second monster, the one with the how-dee-doo stick.
In fact, that second monster's use of that stick is just one marker of his fantastical derangement. For today, let's end with Edelstein's call of the roll:
On the one hand, we have the gentle mute woman, the gay older man, and the hard-working black woman—the hard-working woman with the shiftless, cow-towing black husband. We also have that fourth Good Person/hero, whose demographic suitability takes us all the way to the ocean floor.
On the other hand, we have the southern fascist male with his Alabama cattle prod and his fondness for the missionary position. What else does that cartoonized figure do in this "utterly complacent" film?
Come back tomorrow to find out! For today, we'll only say this:
Four out of five mainstream critics agreed. There was something like "stereotyping" taking place in this film. (Other names might be employed—"cartooning" or "caricature.")
In fact, cartooning runs wild in this film. It's built around standard demographic groups; it's designed for small, childish minds, especially those of the defeated.
The cartooning represents the way we flailing, failing progressives tend to explain our ongoing defeats. This film adopts the shape of blame. All the blame is aimed at a hateable monster, the monster who, predictably, is found all the way Over There.
Tomorrow: The shape of monster