FISH AND FROGMARCH: The shape of anger!


Part 1—A monster designed for Us:
Why did we go to see The Shape of Water? Let us count the ways.

Had we gone to see a movie all year? We don't think so! Mainly, we hadn't gone because they charge admission.

This day, though, was different from all other days. On Saturday, January 27, there was no football game on TV! What was a person to do?

We went to see The Shape of Water, our curiosity having been piqued in at least two ways.

First, the film had received 13 Oscar nominations, the fourth highest total ever. It had been showered with Oscar nods despite appearing on the "top ten" lists of amazingly few mainstream critics.

We were curious about that apparent contradiction. We were curious for another reason too:

Reviews of the film sketched an obvious resemblance to E. T., the 1982 Spielberg fantasy which became the highest grossing film of all time (to that date). In the earlier film, a group of children discover a being from another realm. In The Shape of Water, a lonely woman who's unable to speak makes a similar discovery—and she falls in love.

We've been fascinated by E.T.'s appeal since the night we saw it, long ago—a night on which a packed theater rocked with emotion. In the film's two waves of loss—first when E.T. seems to be dead, then when he famously phones and goes home—the audience in which we sat was racked by audible sobbing, including loud bellows from the sensitive fellow with whom we were in attendance.

That fellow was the late Jimmie Miller, a Baltimore artist and a sensitive soul. He too had sometimes been seen as a type of "other," as the Baltimore Sun explained in a lengthy obituary at the time of his death:
BUTLER (8/15/05): Throughout his life, Mr. Miller suffered from ataxia, a neurological condition that affected his balance and speech. The condition can make people appear intoxicated, and Mr. Miller was at times denied access to public transportation, restaurants, bars and social gatherings because of his disability, according to his longtime friend and caregiver, Gracie Thompson Claxton.

"It got worse as he got older," she said. "People were prejudiced. They thought he was intoxicated."

As a longtime resident of Federal Hill, near Cross Street Market, Mr. Miller came to be called the mayor of South Baltimore, Mrs. Claxton said, because he was frequently seen walking his Bedlington terriers.

"He was a friendly and entertaining artist," Mrs. Claxton said. "He had many friends."
In a famous earlier film, George Bailey was blessed with many friends too. Famously, these friendships ended up making George Bailey "the richest man in town."

The artist known as Jimmie Miller had a lot of friends. The entire theater was under water the night the two of us saw E.T., but amid the astonishing volume of sobs, his wrenching clearly stood out.

We remain astounded, to this day, by the reaction to that film in that theater that night. We wondered how The Shape of Water would handle a story line resembling the one which produced that outpouring of empathy and grief.

In our view, The Shape of Water handles that story line very poorly. On the other hand, we'd say the film helps us identify a curse afflicting our current progressive tribe—our incessant need to create The Monster, our need to have others to hate.

Let's start with those top ten lists. The Shape of Water received 13 Oscar nods, even though it appeared on amazingly few mainstream lists.

At the New York Times, it wasn't listed among the year's top ten by A. O. Scott or by Manohla Dargis—and Dargis listed the thirty best films.

At the Washington Post, it wasn't picked by Ann Hornaday. Out in Chicago, it wasn't picked by the Tribune's Michael Philips or by the Sun-Times' Richard Roeper.

It didn't make the "best film" lists at Slate, Salon, or Vox. (Slate listed the year's 15 best films; Vox listed the top 21.) It didn't make the top ten list at USA Today or at the Christian Science Monitor. It didn't appear on either list from the AP's two film critics.

The Shape of Water didn't appear on NPR's three lists. It didn't make the best films list at Time or at The Daily Beast, or at Vanity Fair, Esquire or The New Yorker. (Esquire included 25 films; The New Yorker 35!)

At, thirty critics published lists. The Shape of Water appeared on just five. To peruse top ten lists, click here.

For a film which received a near-record number of Oscar noms, that was a lot of top ten lists to miss! That said, such lists are subjective, of course, and The Shape of Water certainly did make some best movie lists.

It was picked as best movie of the year on the Wall Street Journal list. It was fifth best at The Atlantic, seventh best at Rolling Stone.

Meanwhile, how odd! Way out west, along a parched coast, the film was widely favored. At the Los Angeles Times, it was the year's best film on Kenneth Turan's list; Mark Olsen picked it second. (Justin Chang, not at all.) All in all, The Shape of Water appeared on 10 of 14 top ten lists in Tinseltown—those from the Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, Variety or the Hollywood Reporter.

Go figure! The film was a runaway favorite in Industryville, much less so everywhere else.

We can't explain the geographic distribution of these mainstream lists. We did wonder how a film could rate no many nominations while appearing on so few lists.

For ourselves, we haven't produced a top ten list; we've only seen one film so far. That said, we came close to being disgusted by The Shape of Water the first time through, and we didn't like it a whole lot better when we went to see it a second time, trying to double-check our initial perceptions.

(After reading its pretentious screenplay last night, we like it even less.)

We didn't much like The Shape of Water. On the other hand, we think this absurdly jumbled Cold War creature-feature fantasy film holds a mirror up to the face of our floundering, flailing modern progressive tribe.

As we've noted for some time, we liberals love to loathe The Others; it may be our floundering tribe's least attractive, least helpful trait. We think Guillermo del Toro's peculiar film holds the mirror up to this destructive impulse, which plays a large, increasing role in our failing political lives.

The Shape of Water tells the story of a lonely woman who falls in love with a creature who is half-fish and half-man. This creature is viewed as a monster by certain figures in the film. Like the children in E.T., the woman played by Sally Hawkins sees with a keener eye.

We liberals are inclined to praise ourselves for such moral goodness. Del Toro's film is drawn from this destructive, self-flattering script.

Alas! In order to let us praise ourselves, del Toro creates an alternative monster in his film. This monster, who isn't human at all, is a monster for Us to hate.

This second monster is a creature from a very familiar lagoon. As our floundering tribe routinely makes clear, we long to frogmarch this monster into the sea for reeducation and death.

Almost surely, this hatred of ours won't turn out well. Beyond that, our need for The Monster is inhumane, if also all too human.

Tomorrow: No stereotype left behind


  1. Whoa. That's profound, man.

    1. If a tree falls in Ostrav Letnyy Sad and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound, comrade?

  2. "a creature who is half-fish and half-man. This creature is viewed as a monster by certain figures in the film. Like the children in E.T., the woman played by Sally Hawkins sees with a keener eye.
    We liberals are inclined to praise ourselves for such moral goodness."

    Yet "moral" lefties can't bring themselves to love creatures who are half human and the other half human, when those individuals are very young, without political power, and temporarily physically dependent on their mothers.

  3. I saw ET in the theater. One of a fairly short list of movies I can say that about (probably less than 20) I don't remember any sobbing.

    I remember being very annoyed by the ending. Seemed like horrible story-telling. Suddenly ET is dying - we don't know why. He dies, and then suddenly comes back to life. How is that possible? Then suddenly he can fly too? Not just fly, but levitate himself and a bicycle with a kid on it.

    That's not an extra-terrestrial, it's a fairie or something. Okay, Starman does some of those things, but it is established early that he can do that with his magical orbs. He survives a fiery crash and re-animates Jenny's husband and a deer before he brings Jenny back from the dead.

    He also starts mysteriously dying, but not so suddenly. Oh, and unlike ET the government does not just suddenly appear, we are shown their activities all along.

    ET's government is mysterious and malevolent. As I remember it, they say less than a Charlie Brown adult. They don't need a warrant. They don't need to explain anything to the parents or the mayor. Apparently they declared martial law. Starman's government is fairly toothless, only able to threaten the professor with the loss of his stipend and then later grind their teeth when he defies them and blows smoke in their face.

    Maybe ET is more realistic that way, or have we become acclimated over the last thirty years, been told more stories where the fascist power of the American state is taken as normal. Whereas before, like the waitress in Maximum Overdrive, we would have at least incredulously protested "This is America!" ("We made you") before the police state gunned us down.

    ET seems to have an "Other" as well - the darned Grups. Whereas myself, from the time I was about twelve, thought grown ups were far cooler than my peers. I would hang around with them while they talked grown up stuff.

  4. This post illustrates what is called "confirmation bias". Somerby believes certain things about liberals and finds them in "The Shape of Water."

    What makes Somerby think that his view of this film matches del Toro's intentions? Perhaps del Toro is trying to illustrate something more personal; perhaps he sees himself in the main character. Perhaps it depicts something in del Toro's life.

    And Somerby's view, that the film is simply trying to make liberals feel good, isn't exactly validated by his listing of so many critics who didn't rank the movie highly, nor by its extremely modest rating at the box office. I guess Manohla Dargis didn't get the memo from Lib Central.

    Next, artists often create characters that embody certain characteristics, as a way of praising or condemning said characteristics. Scrooge, in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", illustrates the emotional and spiritual bankruptcy of greed and selfishness. But Dickens never implied that Scrooge is a representative of any political party or even of all rich men. Similarly, del Toro's creation of "stereotypes" (if you buy that that is what he is doing) is, possibly at least, meant to condemn attitudes and frames of mind like racism or bigotry. To view this, as Somerby does, as some sort of gamesmanship to "make liberals feel morally superior" is to short-change del Toro. It makes more sense to just say you didn't like the movie.

    A final note: it's hard for me to see how Somerby is only talking about liberal "press" or "thought leaders" with this kind of post. Is he not suggesting that liberal audiences are among the ones who will like feeling morally superior after watching this film?

    1. Re: your final note, he isn't only talking about the press or "our liberal leaders." That's a Bobgoblin narrative.

  5. Perhaps Hollywood needs to return to the "good old days" when blacks were depicted as in "Gone With The Wind" (or "Birth Of A Nation") or Indians as in so many John Ford Westerns.

  6. One reason why people tend to avoid those with physical disabilities is that survival of the species is aided when propagation occurs among the healthiest individuals. Mate selection involves identifying indicators of reproductive health.

    Not only do we avoid mating with those with physical disabilities, deformities, abnormalities and oddities that make us appear different, but we actively shun them, avoid them. That is because mechanisms of contagion have been poorly understood during prescientific times. It is safer for our species to stay away from those who appear in any way different because they may be physically dangerous to us.

    This isn't something that is part of logical thinking or conscious evaluation, it happens below the level of consciousness and appears to us in the form of disgust reactions, distaste, dislike. Difference is dangerous and our instincts guide us away from interactions with those who are different, guided by negative feelings toward them.

    Now Somerby wants to pretend this is a moral issue. It isn't. Our culture may evolve, but the species doesn't change that quickly. It may be safe to embrace difference these days, but our feelings haven't caught up with that knowledge. I prefer not to blame people for their instincts.

    Somerby seems to enjoy blaming liberals for trying to be more evolved. I'm not sure why, since it seems like the better way to be.

    When those people thought his friend was drunk, nine times out of ten they would be correct about the behavior they were seeing. How then are they bad people for misjudging Somerby's friend?

    1. The species not only doesn't change that quickly, it won't change at all absent Hitler's brand of selective breeding. We don't select for ethics and couldn't. The use of "evolved" to describe fashionable ethics, much of which is technically devolution from civilization back to chaos or barbarism is inaccurate. A good example is the barbaric trend of celebrating mutilating the genitals of patients who are mentally ill and cannot accept their normal, functioning body.

    2. This is funny. Your way of speaking about trans people was so convoluted I thought you were referring to circumcision, something that happens to children when they are too young to decide for themselves.

    3. Circumcision of infants is backward. Disfiguring and mutilating genitals to resemble those belonging to people of the sex the one is not and ruining their function is sickness, and doctors who do it are unethical barbarians.

  7. Being sensitive is not the same as being sentimental. Someone can be sensitive but not buy into the manipulative silliness of E.T. Crying at such a film strikes me as ridiculous. Now Somerby refuses to buy into the premises of Del Toro's film. Does that make him an insensitive person? I'd say yes. There's nothing noble about preferring Spielberg's images to Del Toro's.

  8. " a creature who is half-fish and half-man"

    There is no such thing as a creature that is half fish and half man. They cannot interbreed. This is a creature that is distinct from both humans and fish. Nothing is gained by comparing him to either species.

    When someone is compared to a man but is not a man, he can only be seen as a defective man -- while he may be a uniquely perfect specimen of his own species. So this idea that he must be a monster is stupid. Somerby's friend, the artist, strikes me as a better example of a monster.

  9. Perhaps an artist who uses his art to point out racism and bigotry is hoping to show the ugliness of such attitudes and to change a few minds. But Somerby reduces it to mere political games by liberals trying to make themselves feel superior. Elsewhere, Somerby has criticized the liberal elite for discussing or even mentioning racism. Now, he wants artists not to mention it either? What kind of world is Somerby asking liberals to live in?

    1. Subtlety is not your strong suit, 6:02.

  10. This is why I like this site. Bob watches culture industry vomit like Maddow and Shape of Water so I don't have to.

    1. You like to let others do your thinking for you.

  11. Is it not possible that the "fish/man" represents a conservative that is misunderstood by liberals, as well as other possibilities? Perhaps del Toro's message is larger than Somerby wants to admit, and Somerby is the one guilty of stereotyping.

    1. Why does it have to be political all the time? Not everything in this life is about liberals and their (most unfortunate) zombie problem.

      I thought the message was that an unhappy lonely woman will fuck anything.

    2. Mao is a film critic I'd read.

    3. You may want to start with this.