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.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."
"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."
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 rogerebert.com, 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