THE SHAPE(S) OF MONSTER: Analysts cheer a New York Times column!


Part 2—Our longing for Different attacked:
Can we talk? The film critics at the New York Times didn't much like the monster movie which swam off with this year's top prize.

At year's end, A. O. Scott did include The Shape of Water among the year's 21 best films. That said, he didn't put it on his top ten list.

Manohla Dargis was much less kind. She didn't include The Shape of Water in her list of the year's 40 (forty) top films! But on Sunday evening, in Tinseltown, the industry gave The Shape of Water the Oscar as the year's best!

Yesterday morning, the critics extended their failure to gush in this post-Oscar conversation. "I wish...another movie had won best picture," Dargis grouchily said.

That said, very few critics around the nation had included The Shape of Water on their "ten best" lists—except in Los Angeles, where the film appeared on the bulk of such lists, often placed very high.

In this earlier report, we puzzled over this phenomenon. Why had a film the mainstream critics didn't much like received so many Oscar nominations? And why had it been rated so highly by Los Angeles critics?

Last Friday, the Times' Cara Buckley may have provided an answer. As she correctly predicted the winners of all six major awards, she said this about Guillermo del Toro, the monster movie's director:
"Mr. del Toro is widely respected and deeply liked..."
In Hollywood, he's "deeply liked" (a good thing to be). We had guessed that this could be part of the answer we sought.

The Shape of Water made very few mainstream top ten lists, and yet it was named Best Picture! In part, this may have happened because del Toro is deeply liked. But we'll guess the answer also lies in the way the film responded to our current deep longing for Monster.

The Shape of Water satisfies this primal longing in two different ways. On the one hand, it gives us a literal "monster," a fishman a lonely mute woman can love.

Indeed, the film is explicitly based on the 1954 3-D groaner, Creature from the Black Lagoon. In that classic monster movie from a less developed era, the fishman in question abducts a woman, the alluring Julie Adams.

The Shape of Water gives us an updated fishman. It gives us a caring, sensitive fishman, a "monster" a person could love.

That said, the film satisfies our longing for Monster in a second, less literal way. Personally, we found this part of the film somewhat vile throughout. By the time the film was helping us loathe the shiftless black husband who shuffles his feet as he bows to The Man, we thought it was explicitly vile.

What kind of non-literal "monster" does The Shape of Water give us? Spoiler alert:

A type of monster for whom our liberal tribe deeply longs!

We'll return to this topic by the end of the week. But before we continue discussing our longing for Monster, let's consider a related longing:

Let's consider our longing for Different.

This very morning, we heard lusty cheers in the analysts' subsistence quarters. Still chained to their cots, the youngsters were cheering the rare New York Times guest op-ed column—a column which made perfect sense.

The column was written by John Quiggin, "a senior research fellow in economics at the University of Queensland." Indeed, the Times had been forced to go spanning the globe to produce a headline like this:
‘Millennial’ Means Nothing
Good lord! Right from the jump, the man from Down Under was attacking our longing for Different! We're dividing ourselves on the basis of birthdate. This is pure guff, he said:
QUIGGIN (3/7/18): ‘Millennial’ Means Nothing

The Pew Research Center announced last week that it will define people born between 1981 and 1996 as members of the millennial generation, embracing a slightly narrower range of years than the ones used by the United States Census Bureau. It would have been better, though, if it had announced the end of what I call the “generation game”—the insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group.

Yes, limited insights can be gleaned from thinking of humans in terms of generations, but this ultimately does more harm than good by obscuring the individual factors that actually shape our attitudes, politics and opportunities.
Quiggin is kinder than we are. We would have said that this "generation game" does more harm than good by making us even dumber than we already were.

Quiggins took the kinder, gentler, more thoughtful approach. From those opening grafs, he proceeds to use the "millennial generation" as a way to critique our "insistence on dividing society into groups based on birth year and imputing different characteristics to each group."

As Quiggin notes, limited insights can be gleaned from this popular practice. Still, the impulse to lump people into "generations" just isn't one of our brightest moves.

And yet, we're strongly attracted to the practice. (For one example, you can watch Michael Wilbon attack "the millennials" on ESPN almost any day of the week, as Kornheiser rolls his eyes.)

In yesterday's report, we discussed our prehuman longing for Villain. That isn't the same as our longing for Monster, and this longing for Different constitutes a third way to go off the rails.

That said, these impulses all float around in the sea called the longing for Other. From deep within our reptilian brain, we're strongly inclined to divide the world into Us and Them.

We humans! We used to based this unhelpful act on "race," ethnicity, gender, religion. In recent decades, we've gone all in on this new route to division.

Still and all, we're here this week to discuss the longing for Monster. It's a deeply destructive impulse, and it strongly drives the modern behavior of our own badly floundering tribe.

Did Tinseltown love The Shape of Water in part because it fulfilled our longing for Monster? We'll ponder that question before we're done. We'll guess that the answer is yes.

Tomorrow: The late Michael Brown wasn't "a monster," Patrisse Khan-Cullors says


  1. Best Picture has gone to some loser movies IMHO. La La Land - a musical with stars who couldn't dance and forgettable songs. American Beauty - a mediocre movie. IMHO the problem is that there aren't many good movies, based on the standards of the past.

    1. Birdman and The Revenant are amazing films that transcend good movies of the past. I disliked La La Land and also American Beauty and many other winners, but that doesn't mean wonderful films are not being made these days. No one thinks the Oscars go to the best films. No one has ever thought that. It is a Hollywood tradition to mock the Academy's choices. But the Oscars mean a lot in terms of career opportunities and salary for those nominated as well as the winners. A nomination is career-changing in the same way as winning the Masters tournament in golf. Because of the endorsements. The Olympics aren't the only world competitions. The World Cup means more in soccer. But the visibility is important to the athletes. The Oscars work the same way.

      I think today's films are infatuated with special effects and have ignored segments of the audience who used to be important, including older people and especially women. They only make action/adventure films and rom coms (for date nights).

      You should watch more Indie films. They are generally flawed but also generally interesting and often novel, quirky, odd. We watched Odenkirk's "Girlfriend Day" yesterday, for example. It was a bit dark but engrossing. Not Oscar-worthy but much more interesting than another glossy comic book film.

      Most of the movies of the past were horrible. They disappeared from our view as quickly as they left the theaters and we just don't know they ever existed. The better ones remain and you think all the past films were like that, but those are just the cream of the crop. That isn't a fair comparison.

  2. "We used to based this unhelpful act on "race," ethnicity, gender, religion. In recent decades, we've gone all in on this new route to division."

    What?? We 'used to'??

    This is your tribe's whole M.O., Bob. Identity politics. Without it, your tribe's in the crapper. Done and gone.

    1. Yes, we're especially concerned about the ethnic Russians in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Goddammit, who else is going to stand up for them besides us and Uncle Vlad!

  3. Today Somerby builds an epic strawman.

    On no evidence whatsoever, but attributed to anthropologists, he claims we long for different, other, monsters. He claims we want to divide ourselves into Us and Them, but asserts without evidence that focusing upon monsters achieves that division. It sounds deep but doesn't hold up under inspection.

    Yes, we divide ourselves into Us and Them, not based on race or nationality but based first on family, next on community (locality, neighborhood, city), then on larger social divisions such as state or ethnic group or race. But the first division is between self and mother and then ultimately self and all others. We then identify our selves with similar others and incorporate their characteristics into our own identity. Boys identify with their fathers to become men who see themselves as part of that group with shared characteristics. Men who work in fire stations are socialized into the role of fire fighter and become firemen. So seeing the sameness between ourselves and others is part of the formation of identity, the creation of self, and it depends on NOT seeing monsters or difference or Other, but sameness and Us-ness. Both processes are important. Differentiation and identification. Somerby wants to ignore one and emphasize the other but they work together.

    There is sameness and difference in the fishman. If there weren't there would be no romance possible in the film. It is not because we are attracted to monsters but because we are attracted to the humanity of that particular fish man. Somerby is upset because the film dehumanizes its villains by stereotyping them, omitting the good and the sameness to make them caricatures of evil. It is a fictional device, not a statement about reality.

    I don't know what awfulness Somerby will be attributing to liberals later in the week. Whatever it is, he is making us into his own monsters but attributing to us awful traits but ones we share with him and with all people. When he accuses us of behaving like human beings, dividing ourselves into Us and Them, he might as well be accusing us of breathing.

    Today I take offense at his remarks about Californians. We are not exemplars of whatever monster-seeking evil he wants to find in liberals. Some members of the academy may have voted for Del Toro's film because they like him, or because he is Mexican, but the Academy is not particularly Hispanic, it lacks representation of the diversity of the state itself. So I don't think that is the answer. I agree with analyses that suggest people didn't want to vote for some of the other nominees and selected this one as a safer, less political choice. In California, we are sick of the polarization of this past election, we hate Trump and we dislike being made his target, and we hate the way people we like are being scapegoated by him. We may have supported the alien fishman in support of better treatment of immigrants -- that makes as much sense to me as whatever Somerby will propose. And I endorse that sentiment. But I feel to see how that makes us monsters or the fish men monsters (it would be the opposite and we would see him as same, not other). The only monster I see is Trump and it is VERY hard to argue that he should be considered one of us and be respected for a humanity he refuses to respect in others and almost never displays himself. I think there is something majorly wrong with Somerby if this is the person he chooses to identify with.

  4. "Still and all, we're here this week to discuss the longing for Monster. It's a deeply destructive impulse, and it strongly drives the modern behavior of our own badly floundering tribe."

    If we liberals would just realize that we are a dumb, stupid tribe, as Bob has told us for years, and love the Republicans with an MLK-like, Lincolnesque, or Malala-like love, we would be able to trounce those beautiful, sweet Republicans in elections.

    No need even to grapple with the fact that Republicans are intensely tribal and create Others of Us, and are not about to un-tribalize themselves any time soon.

    1. Of course we are dumb and stupid. We lost an election to Donald Trump. The world's most blatant buffoon.

    2. The election was stolen

    3. "No need even to grapple with the fact that Republicans are intensely tribal and create Others of Us, and are not about to un-tribalize themselves any time soon."

      No wonder they don't control the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Oops.

  5. Bob likes to create Monsters. Rachel Maddow, for instance.

    Other examples: his favorite targets in the press corps; MSNBC; liberals.

    He constantly attacks liberals, sometimes in vicious ways, thus creating an Other that he no longer needs to deal with fairly or realistically, or even rationally. They are "pre-human", to take his description of Maddow from yesterday's post. That comes pretty close to saying "Monster."

  6. Somerby is probably using the word Monster because Khan-Cullors referred to the labeling of Michael Brown by Darrin Wilson using words like demon and monster. It was all over the liberal news that Brown had been called such names.

    Generalizing from Brown's fear while he thought he was being attacked to the larger treatment of black people and marginalized others in our society, do we label people who are not attacking us "demons" and "monsters"? I doubt it. But fear does have a way of making attackers look bigger and stronger and meaner than they perhaps are.

    If Somerby is using his words with special meanings or special contexts attached, he should say so. He shouldn't tease by throwing out such terms without explaining them. He shouldn't pretend that fishmen are being labeled the way Brown was, at least in court, in a defense of actions during a trial.

    I dislike being tricked as Somerby plays his word games, pretending that Michael Brown and Khan-Cullors are similar to a fish man in a movie, and that liberals love one but not the other, or perhaps love all monster-like people as long as they are not being attacked by them, or whatever Somerby plans to say when he finally reveals what he means by monster.

    I think monster is a perfectly good word to describe Roy Moore and Harvey Weinstein. But I doubt that's what Somerby is planning to discuss.

  7. Mao, ask Uncle Vova who poisoned Sergei Skripal.

    1. Colonel Mustard - in the library.

    2. Wearing mustard after Labor Day.