Part 3—Monster versus monster: The New York Times' A. O. Scott is a major mainstream film critic.
We have no doubt that he's a good decent person, like pretty much everyone else. That said, he may be the most "correct" of all our mainstream critics.
We draw on the phrase "politically correct," a term we've always rejected as a tool of right-wing propaganda. That said, the behavior to which the term refers has become so absurd in recent years that a fair-minded person will have to agree:
We liberals have managed to turn ourselves into the people The Others have long said we were.
How "correct" is Scott? Last Thursday, he penned his second recent long rumination about the need to rethink his lifelong love for Woody Allen.
Scott's piece appeared on page C1, the front page of Thursday Styles. This allowed his bosses to publish a large photo of Diane Keaton, echoing the way Maureen Dowd's front-page piece in last weekend's Sunday Review let them give us a large photo of "goddess" Uma Thurman.
In these ways, we Times subscribers get to pretend that we're thinking hard, even as we thumb the pages of our own movie mag.
Being heavily "correct" (and a Times employee), Scott can't stop ruminating on the need to rethink Allen. Last December, he also offered a fascinating review of The Shape of Water, the Cold War thriller cum monster movie he seems to have liked a great deal.
(In his year-end top ten list, Scott included The Shape of Water in his second group of ten, which actually numbered eleven. This means he rated it as the eleventh to twenty-first best film of the past year.)
Plainly, Scott seems to have liked The Shape of Water a lot, as did quite a few other critics. Online, the headline atop his review describes the film as "altogether wonderful." In hard copy, the headline said this:
"A Monster Worthy of Love"
That headline referred to only one of the film's two monsters, the one we're intended to see. In the part of his review shown below, Scott offered a weird assessment of the second, less literal monster. He also demonstrates the extent to which he is wildly "correct:"
SCOTT (12/1/17): The most obvious reference point for ''The Shape of Water'' is ''Creature From the Black Lagoon,'' a Cold War-era camp-horror classic about a strange beast, quasi-fish and sort-of human, discovered in the rain forests of the Amazon. In Mr. del Toro's update, such a creature is brought to Baltimore in the early 1960s and kept in a tank at a government research lab, where he is subjected to brutal torture in the name of science and national security.In that passage, Scott refers to the literal "monster," the one we're intended to see. He also describes the film's second monster, the cartoonized caricature we're apparently meant to see as something drawn from actual everyday life.
“The Asset,” as his minders call him, poses no threat to anyone. He is, as wild things tend to be in movies nowadays, an innocent at the mercy of a ruthlessly predatory species, which is to say us. His 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 Asset’s defense...
As Scott explains, The Asset is a literal "beast," or monster. We're supposed to think that he's half-fish and maybe almost half-man.
It's somewhat odd to be told that this beast "poses no threat to anyone," since he bites two fingers off somebody's hand early in the film. Whatever! The interesting part of the passage shown above involves Scott's account of the second monster, the one who isn't a familiar callback to "monster movies" of the 1950s.
This second monster is Richard Strickland, the "square-jawed" government agent who recalls the unfeeling bureaucrats who almost kill E.T. in Steven Spielberg's famous film.
Back in 1982, those government agents were merely blind and unfeeling. This government agent is something else.
This government agent is a fully deranged insane fascistic violent crazy monster. Let us count the various ways Strickland's status as a (figurative) monster is put on vivid, unending display in this childish, unfeeling film:
In the passage posted above, Scott rattles some of the ways del Toro paints Strickland as The Other. Good God! He lives in a suburban split-level house; buys a very large Cadillac; reads and quotes from “The Power of Positive Thinking;” and he even engages in mechanical missionary sex!
In these ways, the childish minds of our failing tribe will identify the pitiful Strickland as being unlike Us. That said, Scott glosses the deeper behaviors which identify Strickland as this film's sexond, non-literal monster. Let us count the many things this monstrous character does:
As Scott notes, he carries "an electric cattle prod." In fact, he uses this weapon, in plainly sadistic ways, at various points in the film.
As Scott notes (though only in parentheses), he engages in "workplace sexual harassment" at one point in the film. More accurately, he seems to be on the verge or committing a violent sexual assault before his target, one of our heroines, is able to wriggle away.
Near the end of the film, he shoots and kills one heroine and one monster, or at least he seems to or tries. He also sadistically tortures another hero who has been shot by someone else, convincingly saying he wants him to suffer before he is able to die.
These are some of the larger offenses committed by this federal worker. Now let's turn to the smaller behaviors which define him as what he is:
In his very first scene, he walks in on our two heroines as they're cleaning the men's bathroom at the government facility where they all work. Exhibiting his disdain for these women, he simply walks over and takes a leak while they're standing right there, embarrassed.
Before he takes his ostentatious leak, he puts his cattle prod down at the sink, telling the women that it's his "Alabama howdee-doo," The state is named so even the dullest among us will know what we're being told.
After Strickland takes his leak with the embarrassed women looking on, he engages in the first of the lunatic musings he'll offer throughout the film. After he has taken his leak, one of the women puts out a towel for him to use after washing his hands. But he washed his hands before taking his leak! And so he tells them this:
"A man washes his hands before or after tending to his needs. That tells you a lot about that man.Already, we're being told that Strickland is nutcase crazy completely and totally out of his freaking mind. Later in the film, his crazy musings do of course start to include crazy Bible recitations, letting even the dullest among us know what we're being shown.
"He does it both times? Points to a weakness of character."
In E.T., the unfeeling bureaucrats were simply unfeeling bureaucrats, as Freud said they sometimes were. Since then, our tribe has come a long way. In del Toro's film, the top unfeeling government agent is now a full-blown Southern racist crackpot religious nut. Presumably, nothing less would be enough to please our childish minds.
Who the heck is this second monster, the one who isn't a literal monster? In reviews of the film, David Edelstein (he didn't like the film) described Strickland as "a God-and-country white fascist."
Joe Morgenstern, who called this film the best of the year, called him "spectacularly evil."
In The Daily Beast, Nick Schager called him "a military brute...whose rancid, rotten nature is plain for all to see." More significantly, Schager is one of the few critics who explicitly described Strickland as what he plainly is:
SCHAGER (12/1/17): Strickland, a military brute who prefers that his cheery domestic wife stay silent while he’s ramrodding her in bed, and who—courtesy of losing two fingers to the merman, and having them unsuccessfully reattached—is a beast whose rancid, rotten nature is plain for all to see.It's absurd to think that Strickland became a beast because he got his fingers chewed off. Still and all, good for Schager!
Schager plainly liked the film, but he explicitly said that Strickland is The Shape of Water's second "beast." Indeed, right at the start of his discussion, Schager explicitly notes that this childish film actually features (at least) two monsters:
SCHAGER: Guillermo del Toro loves scary, slimy monsters—the sort that slither across dank floors and lurk in inky shadows. In addition to that creature-feature fandom, however, he boasts the eye of a sly social critic and the heart of a romantic, and that’s never been more apparent than in The Shape of Water, the Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth auteur’s entrancing fairy tale about a mute woman and a fish man whose interspecies love crosses all barriers.Good for Schager! He explicitly notes that there is more than one fiend in this film. Several of the fiends, but principally Strickland, don't get to cite the tired excuse of being half-fish.
Led by a phenomenal Sally Hawkins, it’s a fantasy cast in a familiar del Toro mold: all slick subterranean locales, affectionate classic cinema shout-outs, deftly detailed protagonists, and fiends of a decidedly human variety—and one that functions as a poignant parable about the ugliness of discrimination, and the transcendent beauty and power of “otherness.”
Strickland is this film's second, non-literal monster! He's a monster of violent sadism and of crazy, cartoonish religiosity. He'll piss right in two women's faces as he names his howdee-doo stick. Later, he'll try to assault one of these woman, making weird remarks as he does.
Later, we'll see him shoot and kill her. He's just that kind of a guy!
Plainly, Strickland is the beast! But what does it mean to be "correct?" Scott somehow sat through this film and came away describing the fellow like this:
SCOTT: 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 Asset’s defense...Strickland is all-American normal! So it seems to a decent person who is tragically "correct" to an astounding extent.
As Strickland was monstrous, so too was Scott, when it comes time to talk about monsters to our failing minds.
Tomorrow: More "caricatures" from this tribalized film
Friday: Michael Shannon, discussing The Others: It's time for Them to go