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.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.
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.
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.''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.
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.
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.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: 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.
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?