FISH AND FROGMARCH: A monster movie for tribal times!

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2018

Part 5—Nietzsche gets it right:
The New York Times published two different "top ten" lists last month.

It didn't make either one.

It didn't make the Washington Post's list of the ten best films. The New Yorker's list featured 35 films. It didn't even show up there!

For whatever reason, The Shape of Water didn't appear on most mainstream top ten lists—except in Tinseltown itself, where it made 10 of fourteen. Now, though, the monster movie/forbidden love tale/gory Cold War espionage thriller seems to be "the movie to beat" for Oscar's Best Picture award.

Yesterday, in the New York Times, Cara Buckley—AKA, The Carpetbagger—tried to puzzle this matter out. She heavily leaned on the idea that director Guillermo del Toro may have captured the zeitgeist with his absurdly jumbled film, or perhaps the moment:
BUCKLEY (2/8/17): This awards season has been all about hitting the zeitgeist, or at least that's what the media, present company included, has been telling itself and you. Best picture nominees ought to tap into the #MeToo moment or, failing that, anxieties born in the age of Trump.

But is that narrative really true? And does it fully explain how a fairy tale about a janitor who hooks up with a fishman became the movie to beat?

[...]

The Bagger put the question of why ''Shape'' has surged to the fore to a handful of Hollywood insiders and academy voters, and received answers as varied as the colors of a merman's scales.

Among the many thoughts: The film was not just beautifully made but also emotionally resonant. It was an elegant genre piece that said something new. Some thought its success was helped by admiration that industry folks harbor for Mr. del Toro; others saw the handiwork of masterful marketers and campaigners, who overcame a familiar plot. Some said the ardor the film elicited had nothing to do with the zeitgeist, and besides, academy members don't think about such pedestrian matters when voting for best picture. Others said the film was totally plugged into the moment, with its story of a ragtag threesome of underdogs—a mute woman (who is sexually harassed), a black woman and a closeted gay artist—who work to save a demonized ''other'' from the man.
Why does The Shape of Water seem to be running uphill? By the end of her piece, Buckley had offered a wide array of ideas.

Plainly, though, Tinseltown observers seem to feel the film is crashingly current. One producer was quoted saying this:

''What this guy del Toro has done is say something very emotional about human connection and love...And that's why people respond.''

Does this film make some such statement about connection and love? In our view, it's striking to see how many reviewers expressed some such idea.

At Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson praised the film's "generosity of spirit," the "thoughtfulness of its messaging." At The Atlantic, Christopher Orr called it "a parable of tolerance."

Writing in The Daily Beast,
Nick Schager said the film's "overarching air of predictability...is what keeps The Shape of Water from achieving true greatness." In that assessment, he echoed the views of major mainstream critics who criticized its "stereotypical" characterizations and its "too often simplistic" feel.

Still, Schager praised The Shape of Water for its "empathy for the outsider's plight." As she concluded her piece for the New York Times, Buckley seized upon this general idea:
BUCKLEY: ''[The Shape of Water] is very human,'' Ms. Langan said. And ''Shape,'' she added, ''fulfilled a need at the moment in generating hope.''

There we are. In the time of #MeToo and divisive politics, Mr. del Toro has served up the cinematic equivalent of Calgon—with steamy bath scenes, no less—to take us all away.
We had to google Calgon. But why is Water suddenly hot? At this gruesome time of Donald J. Trump, the film is very human—or so its admirers say.

Our own experience of the film was very different. We weren't as annoyed as David Edelstein was by the familiar roll call of "lovable" heroes—the lonely mute woman, the closeted gay man, the hard-working black women with the lazy shiftless black husband who, straight out of stereotypical racial insult, longs to submit to The Man.

We were offended, again and again, by the film's demographic denigrations, which are scattered all through the film to instruct us in who to loathe and exclude from the human race.

The principal villain—the crazy sadistic Southern bigoted crackpot lunatic attempted sex criminal Strickland—is an absurdly over-the-top demonized demographic clown. He's a caricature, a cartoon.

That said, other messages are scattered through the film, reminding us of all the people who aren't among our band of approved outsiders. That list includes Canadian men; the aforementioned shiftless black men; and also highly educated men who piss on the floor and the ceiling.

In fairness, there's one straight white man who isn't disgusting. He comes from the Soviet Union!

Can Guillermo del Toro possibly be this dumb? More specifically, can he be so devoted to the basic idea of tribal life—the idea that only a narrow range of demographic types can be allowed on the ark?

Again and again, this monstrous film teaches us who to love but also who to hate. At the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morganstern was the rare mainstream critic who picked it as best film of the year. We aren't inclined to share that judgment, but we applaud this bit of insight:
MORGANSTERN: [The Shape of Water] qualifies as a monster flick. And in the hallowed tradition of the genre, the creature from the jungle, cave or lagoon is an innocent, while the real monster is human. Mr. Shannon bumps up that tradition pretty close to high art. We’ve seen him play meanies before—those are the roles this gifted artist usually gets, thanks to his formidable stature and striking physiognomy. Still, Strickland is something else, a racist nut and religious fanatic with an insatiable lust for cruelty.
Good for Morganstern! He saw that there's a second monster in this monster movie—the lunatic Southern monster Strickland, who ends up torturing and/or shooting three out of five outsiders. (He invades the home of a fourth.) That said, Morganstern doesn't ask the question we'd be inclined to ask:

What kind of people need a human monster so "spectacularly evil" (Morganstern's term) to enjoy a zeitgeist film about human connection and love?

What kinds of people need such caricatures? Again and again and again and again, it seems that we liberals do!

The Shannon to whom Morganstern refers is Michael Shannon, the highly-regarded if typecast actor who plays the "spectacularly evil" bigoted lunatic Strickland. According to The Atlantic's Orr, Shannon's performance "makes up for in intensity what it squanders through caricature."

Shannon is highly regarded for his performances of this type. In this film, he gives us liberals an insanely easy villain to loathe—a wonderful counterpoint to the trio of outsiders we are instructed to love.

What kind of people need villainy of this crackpot type to stimulate their empathy, enjoyment and thinking? Answer—people from the black lagoon of The Tribe, perhaps like Shannon himself.

In an interview from November 2016, Shannon described his political views in the wake of Donald J. Trump's election. In the headline on the piece, he's quoted urging us not to speak to our Trump-voting relatives.

When the subject of Trump is raised, he starts with a comment about human connection and love:

"I don’t want to live in a country where people voted for Trump. I want to live in some other f—ing country. But I don’t want to run away. So we’re just going to have to bust this thing up."

All righty, then! In thenext Q-and-A, he gives voice to a familiar set of modern liberal ideas:
SHANNON (11/10/16): There's a lot of old people who need to realize they've had a nice life, and it's time for them to move on because they're the ones who go out and vote for these assholes. If you look at the young people, between 18 and 25, if it was up to them, Hillary [Clinton] would have been president. No offense to the seniors out there. My mom's a senior citizen. But if you're voting for Trump, it's time for the urn.
Shout-out to the seniors out there! Hey seniors! No offense!

Human connection-wise, Shannon wants people unlike him to die. His next exchange went like this:
INTERVIEWER: My parents voted for Trump and I’m still not sure how to talk to them about that.

SHANNON: Fuck ’em. You’re an orphan now. Don’t go home. Don’t go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Don’t talk to them at all. Silence speaks volumes.
Please don't speak to your parents! As he continued, Shannon shared his thoughts about the millions of people who live in his home state, Kentucky:
SHANNON: There’s two cities in Kentucky that are filled with intelligent, vibrant people. And then there’s the rest of it. But my mom is a super cool and intelligent lady. She was a pollster; she was helping people vote. She told me about this old woman who walked in and needed help voting. My mom had to stand there and watch this woman vote for Trump. Then she turned around and said, “How do I make sure my vote gets counted? I want to make sure. I don’t want this conspiracy to happen.” Because that’s the ironic thing: On that day there were so many Trump voters who were saying, “I voted for Trump, but it doesn’t make a difference because they got it rigged anyway.” Yeah, they sure f—ing do, don’t they? F—in’ A, man.
There are intelligent vibrant people there—people just like Us. And then, there are all The Others. That includes the low-income people in rural areas who voted for Trump because he said they'd finally be able to afford to go to the doctor.

Fuck em, Shannon says. They just aren't smart like Us.

In fairness to Shannon, ideas like these are rather comment in liberal comment threads. They represent the angry, ugly thinking of a defeated tribe.

Reading reviews of The Shape of Water, we often thought of not-exactly-sacred Nietzsche, who said Christian ethics represent a resentful trick played upon superior people by those who were less able. When we see the cartoonish loathing our tribe now seems to enjoy, we sometimes wonder if Nietzsche may have had it right, modern zeitgeist-wise.

The tribe has always been full of human connection and love—connection and love for its own. In the case of The Shape of Water, that means gay men, lonely white women and black women with shiftless husbands who long to shuffle their feet for The Man.

Everyone else is very bad, even those from Ottawa. Except for Soviet men!

What kinds of people meet caricatures and cartoons of this type and believe they're seeing the year's best film? At times like these, tribal players have always tended to frogmarch The Others out into the countryside for reeducation and death.

Our tribe isn't likely to do such a thing. That said, what kind of human connection is this when we cartoonize with such joy, when we say, in interviews, that we can't wait to see Them all dead?

That's the way a Strickland thinks. In these highly tribal times, do we want to let Strickland be Us?

26 comments:

  1. "Can Guillermo del Toro possibly be this dumb? More specifically, can he be so devoted to the basic idea of tribal life—the idea that only a narrow range of demographic types can be allowed on the arc?"

    How can a fish man, a mute woman, a black woman with a shiftless husband and a closeted gay man represent a narrow range of demographic types?

    A white woman with a middle class white husband and two kids, an elderly white man, a non-gay artist, those represent a narrow range of demographic types.

    I have never met a mute woman or a closeted gay artist. I have met a black man who was 100% bought into the system and I have met black women with abusive husbands, given that domestic violence is even less acknowledged in the black community than among white people.

    Somerby doesn't like some of these stereotypes but that doesn't mean they don't exist. Use of stereotypes is artistic laziness. It isn't the creation of non-existent demographic types, the way the fish man was created.

    I've met non-closeted gay artists who weren't very nice people. Ditto for black women, who didn't have hearts of gold. It is possible for me to watch a movie full of stereotypes and understand that they don't represent all people.

    Somerby is offended because someone said something bad about Southern white men, again. Who is the snowflake today? Hint: his name starts with an R.S.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
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      Delete
  2. Somerby seems to be arguing that this film shouldn't win an Oscar because it didn't appear on enough top-ten lists. Is consensus really the standard for artistic achievement? It sounds like he is arguing that ability to appeal to the broadest tastes defines film excellence. Lala Land did that and it is a piece of crap, but who doesn't love young people dancing in bright outfits?

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  3. "The tribe has always been full of human connection and love—connection and love for its own.
    In the case of The Shape of Water, that means gay men, lonely white women and black women with shiftless husbands who long to shuffle their feet for The Man."

    So, is Somerby saying that the film suggests that "gay men" are all liberal? He says that our tribe loves "its own." And that the film suggests "gay men" are in that group. Or is he saying that liberals love gay men because they are gay? Except that isn't how he formulates it here. When you say that "our tribe always loves its own", that implies that we love members of our own tribe. Which would imply that "gay men", at least according to Somerby's reading of the film, are in our tribe.
    But even if one takes the least nonsensical view of what Somerby is saying, that liberals practice identity politics (which is also the most stereotyped thing to say), it still seems like an odd statement to make. The last time I checked, there were gay Republicans, lonely Republican white women, and black women with hardworking husbands.

    Also, when Somerby says "The tribe has always been full of human connection and love—connection and love for its own", I want to know what that means. That liberals always love other liberals? That liberals only love other liberals? The first statement can be disproven by pointing out the rancor between some Bernie Sanders supporters and some Hillary supporters. The second statement can be disproven by pointing out that programs designed to help the poor, like Medicaid, or the sick, like Obamacare, were not enacted to benefit only poor liberals, but all needy citizens.

    I wish Somerby could learn to write clear English.

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  4. "The Others. That includes the low-income people in rural areas who voted for Trump because he said they'd finally be able to afford to go to the doctor."

    Hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians finally got to go to the doctor, many for the first time in their lives, because of Obamacare, which the then Democratic governor of Kentucky implemented. This happened before Trump ran for president. So, why would someone vote for Trump "because they might finally be able to go the doctor" when they already were finally able to do that? That doesn't seem like a logical reason to vote for Trump. (By the way, the voters of Kentucky, including large majorities of their Obamacare recipients, subsequently voted a Republican governor into office who campaigned on getting rid of Obamacare in the state).

    Trump campaigned on repealing Obamacare, made empty promises about "cheaper, better healthcare for everyone", and then pushed for the Republican bills last September which repealed Obamacare without replacing it.

    It sounds like Trump lied about the "cheaper better" healthcare. But, according to Somerby's admonition, we mustn't say that to the Others. "He conned you"...is that more acceptable?

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    Replies
    1. I know a few people in California who voted for Trump. They were pissed off at politics in general and thought Trump was a hoot. Now they are disengaged. They are the ones who have given up. I wish they just hadn't voted at all and I tell them that regularly. Discussing any specific political issues with them isn't going to do any good.

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  5. You need to stop searching for subliminal messages, Bob.

    Sure, we all know they are there, but it's better to ignore or make fun them than obsess and analyze endlessly.

    Enjoy the show and forget it as soon as it ends. Or, if you aren't enjoying it, just switch it off, and do something else. It doesn't deserve to be analyzed.

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    Replies
    1. Somerby needs to quit reading literature or listening to music if he is just going to fret about the politics of the artist.

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    2. The 60s were the beginning of an influx of Russian immigrants to the Los Angeles area. They were mostly Jewish and settled in the Fairfax area. They arrived because of loosening of immigration restrictions on Soviet Jews, who were still being persecuted. Haven't seen the film, so I don't know if this is what is being represented in it. But it would have affected other culture, such as comics and movies like the Black Lagoon.

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    3. The big Soviet Jewish emigration began in 1967, and our story takes place in 1962.

      Delete
  6. Apparently, Somerby is quoting from critics who didn't rave about the movie to call into question the film's merits or whether it deserves to be an Oscar contender. But if the film was designed to make liberals feel morally superior (as Somerby has charged previously), then shouldn't he find out whether the critics who didn't rave about it were liberal or not? He seems to focus on the Academy and what he claims are near-unanimous raves from West Coast critics, presumably to prove something about us tribal liberals. Except, if there are numerous liberal critics around the country who do not agree with their West Coast colleagues, then doesn't that kind of undermine the whole "tribal" narrative thing?

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    Replies
    1. There is no reason why the judgments of so-called critics should correlate with the awards themselves. The people who vote for the awards are only sometimes critics. For the Oscars, they are members of the same profession as those who are nominated, e.g., writers, directors, actors, etc. No reason on earth why they should agree with the critics.

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  7. Somerby feels, like most conservatives, that liberals caring about gay men means that they don't care about straight men, or if they care about women, they must not care about men, or if they care about blacks they are therefore excluding whites. That's the essence of what conservatives mean when they use the term "identity politics." He, and they, are entitled to that view, I suppose. But it doesn't correspond to the realities that I know, with the liberals that I interact with, or with my own intentions. Somehow, conservatives, in their never-ending Orwellian attempt to re-define words, are claiming that being more inclusive is being exclusive.

    And Somerby sometimes likes to qualify his attacks by saying "well I mean liberal elites", but that is not the sense one gets when one reads a post like this one.

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    Replies
    1. Is that why "diversity" and "fewer whites" can reliably be used interchangeably when used by liberals?

      Delete
  8. Regardless of the topic du jour, Somerby's treatment is the same:

    Today's topic proves that liberals are tribal and thus defeated.

    Day after day after day.

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    Replies
    1. Why are Liberals being called Tribal when it is Republicans who have always insisted on party loyalty?

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    2. liberals being defeated is an objective truth.

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    3. 2:45,
      Because Bob now lives in Bizarro World, where you believe anything a Conservative says.

      Delete
    4. Courtesy of Paddy Chayefsky:

      "It was a perfectly admissible
      argument that Beale advanced.

      It was, however,
      also a very depressing one.

      Nobody particularly cared to hear
      his life was utterly valueless.

      By the end of the first week in June the
      show had dropped a point in the ratings."

      Delete
  9. I agree the Shape of Water has been overhyped. Can this web site move on to other more important issues?

    ReplyDelete
  10. I really like Michael Shannon . . . in Boardwalk Empire, 99 Homes, Waco and so on. Reading his comments I like him even more. I see someone who wants to liven up the debate, a bomb-thrower who tells it like it is. You'd have to be stupid to believe anything Trump says and you deserve to be reminded of it at every opportunity. F—in’ A, man.

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  11. What kind of people need villainy of this crackpot type to stimulate their empathy, enjoyment and thinking? Answer—people from the black lagoon of The Tribe, perhaps like Shannon himself.

    Careful there, Bob. You're dangerously close to stumbling upon the truth.

    ReplyDelete
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