Unfolding mysteries, left right and centre. Blake Matich reviews the dark fantasy film; The Shape of Water.
Human society is limited to two operating systems: one is conversation, and the other is violence. Where the former ends, the latter begins. The Captain makes precisely this point after striking Paul Newman to the ground in Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a single-act study of Love and Injustice through the corrupted communication of the voiceless. However, just as Eliza (Sally Hawkins) suffers an inability to speak in the film, so too does the film suffer for having gathered its thoughts, but ultimately failing to speak its mind. To dive into the deep end of The Shape of Water is to immerse oneself in the film’s obscured profundity. It is in this murky ambiguity, much like film’s opening sequence, that we hear the stifled cry of the great love this film possesses. This is not a romantic love, but the much deeper love that is our true attention, the love that shapes the space between people – empathy. Our curiosity spiked, we dive ever deeper, but exhausting is the work we have to do on the film’s behalf. Humans understand through stories, so no matter how profound the underlying idea, the faintness of a meagre story will work to obscure it.
On the surface, and it is really only the shape of the surface that the film describes, The Shape of Water is Beauty and the Beast as if it had been made by Rex Hunt, or some similarly amorous fisherman. A bestial romance between a mute woman (Eliza) and an amphibious god-like creature (referred to as The Asset, played by Dug Jones) captured in the Amazon by U.S. agents in pursuit of a scientific advantage over the Soviets. The mighty theme of the film is subsidiarily conveyed by contexts, and so it is that we find ourselves following Eliza, a cleaner in a top-secret Cold War facility somewhere in 1960s Baltimore.
I say the facility is ‘top secret’ in spite of the fact that the cleaning staff seem to enjoy unrivalled access to the nation’s clandestine activities. It is indeed a wonder that the Soviets bothered to entrench a spy, the scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), in the U.S’s highest scientific and national security institutions years previous, when they could’ve just handed him a mop and minimum wage.
The facility bears the name OCCAM – bringing to mind Occam’s Razor, which says, more or less (the Razor arguing on the side of less): ‘It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer.’ This is to say that the simpler explanation, the one requiring fewer assumptions, is usually better. It would explain quite a lot if Occam’s Razor was a significant influence on the making of this film. It would explain why the general themes are left general, although it wouldn’t explain why a filmmaker would think a principle of logical analysis would prove fruitful to his art.
In his Essay on Man, Alexander Pope sees mankind as: “In doubt to deem ourselves Gods, or beasts.” The truth is, we’re beasts with the power of Gods, and that power, obtained by a great Promethean heist, is consciousness. The irony of the theft is, of course, that it weighs upon our conscience.
Like Beauty and the Beast, or King Kong, the theme of bestiality serves not to be obscene or degrading, but rather to establish through that Orwellian joke, that man is already degraded. After all, the real beast in a bestial relationship is man. “A beast,” says Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, “can never be so cruel as man. So artistically cruel.” Beastliness is central to the intercourse of themes in The Shape of Water, not only as Love battles it out with Injustice, but also as women suffer the weight of men.
It’s telling that Eliza jumps at her first opportunity for love with a figure other than a man. It’s evocative of a rather concerning idealism in some aspects of contemporary feminism that flirts with Utopianism and may even be teetering toward prophecy; there is no more dangerous political belief than a prophecy. I am not speaking of a particular movement, rather, I am speaking of the kind of rational argument that screams with single mind, however rightly, that women are half the human race, apparently forgetting that the other half are men, and there’s the rub.
It is difficult to think of an individual in history that had a more conscious determination to empathize than the philosopher Simone Weil. In the depths of every human heart, thought Weil, there is an unassailable voice that cries out at injustice. Weil isolated this cry in the universal question: “Why am I being hurt?” Tragically, because injustice is suffered disproportionately by the voiceless, that visceral human cry is rarely heard, and even rarer still is it made articulate.
Unfortunately, Eliza’s symbolic silence isn’t maintained throughout the entire film, at one point she even breaks into song, but the less said about this absurd suspension of the film, in which Eliza and The Asset suddenly burst out into a Golden Era Broadway show tune, the better. One can only guess that del Torro was so determined to win an Oscar, that he was willing to abrogate his whole film to sate Hollywood’s unquenchable lust for its own nostalgia. After all, it worked for La La Land, well, it worked for a few minutes. Of course, in the end del Torro did win the Oscar, and we have to suspect it was the dancing fish routine that did it.
Eliza’s voicelessness says more than anything else in the film, it’s the denial of her critical human ability to cry out at injustice. The film supplies a barrage of voiceless contexts: racism, sexism, homophobia, McCarthyism, colonialism, conservatism, classism, nationalism, and the list goes on. Del Toro features more isms than the Dictionary, and yet the Dictionary features more of a narrative.
The context of The Cold War and McCarthyism are an unambiguous example of the societal rot that occurs when conversation is hindered and voices silenced. The reason Free Speech is the bedrock of liberty, and the real treasure of our civilization, is because it provides as much space for conversation as possible.
McCarthyism, described by James Baldwin as “the national convulsion…a foul, ignoble time”, was the pursuance of a deafly tyrannical state of affairs in which certain ideas could not be said. It is the indictment of contemporary movements and anxieties, some of which ironically describe themselves as pursuers of social justice, that Free Speech is, most importantly, not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, is it the right of the audience to listen.
What is vaguely established as the metaphorical shape of water, the divide that empathy is able to cross, was for Weil a metaphorical wall. She imagined two prisoners tapping messages to each other through a cell wall. This divide was given political reality in the Iron Curtain, and physical reality in The Berlin Wall. In Conor Cruise O’Brien’s introduction to his essential Writers & Politics, the Irish statesman recreates this metaphor in the idea of those great honest writers, Hungarians, Poles, Russians, chipping away at the wall of silence. The only thing that can help them, wrote O’Brien, was that if from our side, they too could hear the sound of chipping.
No matter how just the fight, any abrogation of conversation is an invitation to injustice; one doesn’t get their voice heard by silencing others. A conversation requires different points of view, that’s the inherent strength of pluralism. Freedom is not safety in numbers, and it is not the freedom to live in ignorance. “Freedom is always, and exclusively,” as the great Rosa Luxemburg put it, “freedom for the one who thinks differently.” If there is a Utopia worth thinking about, a Utopia requiring no sense of prophecy, it’s a society in love with the freedom of honest conversation.
There are those who find a perverse pleasure in provoking this universal cry of injustice, and then there is the vast majority who simply don’t hear the cry, either because they’re ignorant of it, or because they don’t want to. In The Shape of Water, these provocations of injustice are conflated in the McCarthyist character of Strickland (Michael Shannon), a white, chauvinistically conventional type typical of that era, but in no way isolated to it. In case there was any illusion as to what Strickland’s identity might have been caught up in, he marches around the facility with a cattle prod he calls an “Alabama howdee-do”. More revealing however, is Strickland’s bathroom etiquette, or lack thereof. In a scene that proves to be one of the most clarifying of the film, Eliza and Zelda stand awkwardly with their cleaning gear in the men’s restroom. They watch as Strickland washes his hands prior to using the urinal, but not afterwards. Strickland explains that it shows a weakness in character in a man to do otherwise.
Jimmy Carr has a joke in which he tells the audience that he doesn’t need to wash his hands after going to the bathroom, because: “I wash my cock in the morning so I’m good for the day!” The joke points out the absurdity of that solipsism, and that’s precisely the point. Strickland is completely without empathy; a man should look after himself and no one else.
Empathy is the connectivity between consciousnesses; it makes that cry of injustice from the heart’s depths audible, and in doing so, vindicates the sentiment and amplifies the voice. To be without empathy is to be deaf and dumb. I say dumb, because one must be very small minded to be completely without empathy, one must never have read a book, or worse – only read self-help books, as Strickland does.
Most people maintain their deafness because it reinforces their ignorance and delusions, an agreeable system. Seductive is that which distracts us from reality. Conversation requires suffering the weight of your own consciousness; so few are willing to bear the load. Simone Weil went so far as to argue that war, particularly civil war, is so intoxicating because it alleviates people of their own lives and turns them into puppets. We allow the puppeteer to pull the strings, because in doing so, he takes our weight.
The muting of racial others, political others, sexual others, is to condemn them to the most heartfelt torture – that of giving the human heart the silent treatment. It’s the attempt by the powerful, oft successfully, to convince hearts that they don’t exist. However, the cogito of the empathetic heart not only says: I love, therefore I am, but crucially, I love, therefore you are. Weil thought that love was the belief in the existence of others. That belief is, I think, the nobility of mankind and the glory of art.
It was Molière who said: “It is the great ambition of women to inspire love.” He should have added that it was the great folly of men to find inspiration in anything else. There is nothing more inspiring than empathetic love ferrying people across the ocean of space between each other. True love, true because it is just and beautiful, is also the most difficult. It’s easier to launch a thousand ships to war, than a single ship of the imagination to understanding.
Empathy, in pushing you through the annihilation of another’s suffering, is the love that forces you in turn to deal with yourself. Women, much the stronger and more courageous, are more willing to suffer the weight of life, men are so willing to be relieved of it. Love, thought Weil, is radical self-sacrifice. I am not saying that women should endure more suffering than men. I am saying that men are less willing to face their suffering, but more importantly, that suffering is not inherently a good or bad thing. It is rather, the whole thing. The Buddha held it to be the First Noble Truth – life is suffering. Our humanity is our burden. To follow the Buddhist line, we can also say that the reason we suffer is because we do not see the world clearly; honest conversation is, I believe, the best way to clear things up.
If the inspiration of love is the great ambition of women, man’s great ambition is to responsibility. It must be said of course that responsibility is a human need, although in men particularly, the need is exacerbated, for men suffer their pride, and in return pride ensures the suffering of everyone else. Paradoxically though, might it be men who need love more? History tells us that men are willing to give all they have for their ambitions, but these ambitions are not wholesome but desperate, they are suggestive only of what men are so rarely willing to give, that which they defend with furious irrationality, their love. Men will suffer great physical pain if only they won’t have to confront any emotional pain. Perhaps then, what men seek in responsibility, in bearing a load, is an excuse. Indeed, most men, with perhaps the notable exception of Byron’s Don Juan, rest their ambition on responsibility out of fear. This ambition is not only trivial, but morally and ethically suspect; an ambition for responsibility is unbounded to any sense of good or evil. A man could find responsibility in the care of his family, but equally his ambition could be sated in the destruction of the arbitrary enemy of whichever puppeteering collectivity he has surrendered himself to: the party, the nation, or the perceived race.
Collectivity, it must be said, is a copout. A despicably pitiful crime, more prevalent than Internet piracy, and even more socially acceptable. All collectivity is idolatry, and Strickland is a criminal of idolatry. It’s difficult to discern which is more dangerous, a man whose ambition for responsibility finds satisfaction in doing evil, or a man whose ambition for responsibility is unsatisfied, for it is then that they implode all over the voting booth, or explode all over the public square.
Such are our aversions to the examination of our own suffering; and yet, that trial is just the beginning, for only then can we dare to brave the suffering of another. To put oneself in the shoes of the afflicted is to volunteer to experience, or at least witness, the atrophy of their soul.
The journey through the annihilation of another is the only way to give attention to the voiceless. Only with this attention, which Simone Weil called “the rarest and purest form of generosity”, can some truth of their affliction be revealed. No man is an island completely unto itself because conversation carries across the permeable shape of water between two souls. We are each of us one mind lapping empathetic attention on the shores of another’s isolation.
In another tale about a monster of the sea, a much better tale, Herman Melville informs the reader, and reassures himself, that: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” In The Shape of Water, del Torro chooses a mighty theme, voicelessness, but unlike Melville’s Moby Dick, he makes the mistake, to paraphrase George Lucas, of using thematic tools to tell a story rather than telling a story using thematic tools.
Profundity, because it resides in the depths, is only perceptible through clear waters or with strong craft. That I, here a commentator, had to go to such effort to unravel this film is testament to the obscurantism with which it ultimately masks its profound potential. The film becomes a Clockwork Orange – it has the appearance of something full of lovely juice and colour, but really it is a clockwork toy. The film’s one act structure, pursuing no openness to real change or moral evolution serves only to undermine the very function of empathy the film is so suggestive of, but so unwilling to cry out loud.
In contrast, Frankenstein’s Monster was, in the beginning, no beast. It might be said he wasn’t so beastly in the end either (notice that Mary Shelley showed change in her characters, honest to our complexities). The Creature only became a monster when the insufferable silence with which humankind fearfully treated him, due to his grotesque appearance, made conversation impossible, and so he had nowhere to go but violence and hatred. This Promethean figure, symbolic of that original theft of consciousness whose unfulfilled need for validation and Hegelian association, turned a gentle, curious, charitable, and sensitive figure into a dreadful, labouring creature of violence and
The creature asked his creator to provide him with a female companion, to quash the loneliness of life devoid of conversation. A silence that had already driven him once to kill. Frankenstein, worried about the potential harm another monster could cause to the human race, eventually refused the request. As the events of the novel go on, one can’t help but think, and Shelley no doubt felt herself, that the presence of a woman in any conflagration of men is always an improvement. It could be said that Frankenstein denied his Monster love, but it would be better said that the denial of love creates monsters.
Admirably, The Shape of Water attempts, and in many aspects succeeds, in evoking the real power of love, but at no point does it show, as Mary Shelley did with courageous honesty, just what that power, or lack of it, can do. The Shape of Water makes you think, and for this reason it cannot be a poor film, but unfortunately the film is only a catalyst for thought, it’s not a companion to it, and for this reason it cannot be a great film. The filmmaker, like the novelist, is not there to preach, but to show. The preacher is all allusion, he demands that you do his work for him. We watch a film to be shown a story, that’s the point.
It’s conceivable all this was del Toro’s intention, after all, Orwell didn’t give the deprived miners any stories in The Road to Wigan Pier because stories would have given them a voice, thus undermining the reality of their suffering. I must remain wary though, if you look hard enough for poetry, you’ll probably find it. Nevertheless, there is an incredibly beautiful idea in The Shape of Water, but you have to suffer the crossing of an ocean to get to it.
1 Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, Ch. XIV: Franciscan Schoolmen
2 James Baldwin, No Name In The Street
Words | Blake Matich