The Shape of Water

I just don’t really respond to the work of Guillermo Del Toro. There was some bit of mood-over-story issue that made me hate Pan’s Labyrinth (can’t remember what it was now) and the two Hellboy films are absolute garbage, as are Pacific Rim and let’s not overlook the godawful Crimson Peak. That last film made me think that Del Toro really, really should not write his own films, and this one made me think that he really should not write his own films. That’s only one “really” this time, which describes the degree by which this film is “better” than his others.

If you don’t know, we’re in the 50s, with all clichés of the 50s solidly in place, and our heroine Elisa is a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with an aquatic fish-man being kept in a lab by the evil government. My central issue, and the big lost opportunity of the film, is that the relationship between Elisa and the creature is rushed and poorly developed. We barely get to know her (she’s a lovely person but a little lonely!) before she suddenly, inexplicably plunks herself down and decides to befriend this fish-man. The first thing she knew about him is that he bit off a man’s fingers; then she’s tying to befriend him, with no sense that he even has any consciousness, or would not hurt her. Next thing we know she’s sneaking in Benny Goodman records and they suddenly have some “relationship.” It’s just not built up, it’s too sudden, and it’s a fatal flaw of the movie, because all we’re left with is a visual design and a succession of clichés because the central relationship has no meat to it.

This sums up the problem with Del Toro in general; he thinks in visuals but can’t tell a story or write characters (which is why he should not write his own work). With their love story crammed into the first 30 minutes, I was thinking—where does this movie have left to go? And the misshapen structure of the film that follows is evidence of this; scenes seem pointless and aimless, scenes go down blind alleys and then just end. And while you may like the movie—it creates a lovely mood, even though mood is almost all it’s got—just imagine how good it could have been if the we really felt the connection between the two, rather than just that “they’re lonely” and “they’re misfits.”

The common response to this is that “It’s just a fable,” to which I would respond: “Yes, but some fables are well-written.” The idea that “it’s a fable” is often used as an excuse to give up all notions of quality and accept any dreck that’s handed you—and believe me, Del Toro knows this better than anyone. He’s built his career on it. It is a fable—but it could be a much better fable if the characters had a deep, rich connection and everything else wasn’t just a collection of clichés. Compare this to the Disney Beauty and the Beast (animated one, obviously) and see how, in just 90 minutes, they build up a rich relationship that suggests further depths, instead of our having to try to add on dimension in our imaginations, because it just isn’t in the movie, as in this case.

And can we fucking see some other color than green for, like, one second?

There’s a certain kind of historical writing that takes “what we know” about the period and makes it everything, lacking a certain kind of imagination that could really bring the past to life. In this movie, we know that in the 50s, there were significant problems with racism, therefore, in this movie, EVERY white person is a racist. Some government honchos were obsessed with power and order, therefore our villain is a borderline psychotic willing to do anything to maintain his control. We like to think that all black working class women were tough broads with hearts of gold, with no-goodnik layabout husbands, so that is what we have here. All of the characters are clichés, which leads those who allow “fables” to excuse any flaw to say “they’re not clichés, they’re archetypes.” I guess it comes down to how well the archetype is handled, whether it hints at more depths or whether you, the viewer, have to try to add onto it in order for it to work.

What else? I’m honestly getting to the point where I have seen enough fucking Richard Jenkins. Especially not in the sad-sack-cat-person-gay-best-friend role he has here, some scenes of which I literally had to turn away from.

Anyway, here I am, rambling on and I need to find a fucking job in an industry that has gone gig economy! The point is, Del Toro is clearly gifted visually, I just wish he would let an experienced writer do his scripts. This film is more tolerable than many of his others, but is still paper-thin and simply a mood blown into a movie. We may like the mood, and the thoughts it requires us to add on in order to make it work may be pleasant thoughts, but imagine how much more powerful it could have been if some of that stuff had actually been in the movie.

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18 thoughts on “The Shape of Water

  1. Did you also wonder at how Sally Hawkins was able to just hang out w/ the fish-man, play records, give him eggs, etc etc in a facility that was supposedly top secret, high security? I just thought “Well this is very lazy screenwriting.” Surely she would have had to have been far more surreptitious. I enjoyed the movie ok but if it actually wins BP at the Oscars that would be weird.

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    • I doubt very much that it will win BP, the valuation of it nibbled away by lesser awards. I liked the movie (I’m a del Toro sap) but I wonder how much of its popularity is due to the political climate. It’s a story that celebrates outsiders that are held largely in scorn or indifference by the alpha types. I wonder if any Trump voters like it. I heard a preacher rail against it recently because he felt it promoted bestiality. I guess he’s afraid people will start fucking their goldfish.

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    • That’s the kind of thing that bothers me about Del Toro films… it’s just that lazy storytelling, which he tries to cover up with “Oh, it’s just a fable!” Yes, we can fill in and overlook stuff to enjoy it… but it could also be made more solid and waterproof to be geninely moving.

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      • Might it not also be feasible that these cleaning women were virtually invisible to the authorities (remember Shannon’s dismissive attitude toward them), beneath their notice, and thus able to get away with a lot more? Also, if Eliza paid her visits at 3 a.m., who might be around for that? They might also have assumed, in their dismissive way, that most people wouldn’t want to get within range of a big humanoid fish monster, much less sympathize with it, or have the courage to free it. But now I’m getting into what real people might do, and this is a fairy tale.

        But I do agree with you, Scott, that Ophelia would never have eaten that grape.

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  2. Could you elaborate a bit on your reaction to Richard Jenkins? Was it his attitude of defeat or the way the movie perpetuated gay stereotypes in having him adore old musicals, or both of those things, or more? Jenkins is an actor I always look forward to seeing and who as yet I have not grown weary of, maybe because he is always in supporting roles (my enthusiasm for Dustin Hoffman faded pretty quickly, after I loudly claimed that I would see anything he was in). Can you recall the specific scenes you had to turn away from?

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    • Jenkins is brilliantly talented, it’s just that he’s been in so many movies lately, positioned as the “quality actor.” I didn’t like the cliche character of the sad sack old gay man who has accepted his tragic fate–especially as written by some straight, “sympathetic” director. When he came on to the pie place kid, we’re supposed feel that it’s beautiful and tragic–but what does this guy THINK coming on to a straight kid half his age? So it was all a straight person’s musty-dusty old version of what tragic lives gays lead, and it wasn’t any special scenes with Jenkins after the failed come-on, but I just found THAT CHARACTERIZATION, of poor sad tragic gays, excruciating. What did you think?

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      • Yeah, his move on the pie kid was pretty stupid. It’s incongruous that he would feel culturally oppressed in the early sixties and still be able to be that free, or even in this day and age. And in real life, stupidity is punished as severely as evil, probably more so, and certainly more quickly. Although, in another movie, I might have thought that the kid sensed his attraction to him and was responding in kind (in fact, that did occur to me here, although this kid proved to be just clueless as well as mean). But again, that would be an entirely different movie.
        (By the way, I hope you don’t mind readers replying to other respondents as I did above, although I know that is officially your role, and I’m butting in. I have become so comfortable on this site that I just plunged on ahead, but will desist if it is annoying (to you or to them).

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  3. Barry… no problem responding to other commenters, respectful disagreement or agreement is fine, we’re all exchanging ideas… but I will remove or not post any attacks from one user to another… I just don’t want this to be that kind of place.

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    • I guess I was getting close to the brink of offensiveness there, although I didn’t realize it. I don’t want this to be that kind of place either. I’ll be more careful.

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      • Oh, I was not at all chastising you, don’t misunderstand… just stating the rules in general, that I don’t want that kind of thing here. I thought your comment was fine, but I have had some in the past that haven’t appeared on the site.

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  4. I don’t know what it was about this movie–I could see all the tropes falling into place and I knew pretty much what was going to happen–and I was STILL a sobbing mess at the end.

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  5. I guess I took this more as a romance between del Toro and old movies than as something we are expected to take realistically. He throws in so many “references” (or plaigiarisms, depending on your mood), all of which push the outsider buttons that are so hard to resist. There’s the mysterious, soulful mute woman (“The Piano”), the mystical otherwordly being persecuted by a blindly callous government (“E.T.”), the wistful gay best friend (take your pick), the sassy black woman (ditto), the fantasy movie-theatre sequences (“Cinema Paradiso”, “Pennies from Heaven”, “La La Land”) all of which are fused in what is essentially a reverse-gender remake of “Splash” (the ending is identical). This mixture will either make you laugh or swoon (or maybe both), depending on your temperament. But I can’t imagine anyone feeling lukewarm about this movie. Love him or hate him, del Toro goes all the way with his choices–he’s fearless.

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    • The only thing is, I *am* lukewarm on this movie! I neither love nor hate it, but it just feels like a bunch of mixed metaphors to me, it somehow just never totally gelled.

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      • I too, am lukewarm. But I have never really liked del Toro ever, even Devil’s Backbone is, you know, fine. Did anyone see the godawful Crimson Peak? That was, like this, a bunch of moods and images put together to symbolize a story, but not be a real story. I think his work illustrates the fine line between “echoes of other films that somehow create something new, timeless and archetypal” and “echoes of other films that are a collection of moments from other films.” With this one, he has assembled a group of movie moments we already like and in this case, chosen ones that are already freighted with meaning and appeal to people. With Crimson Peak, he assembled a bunch of movie moments that didn’t really resonate with people. So I completely understand that people love the moods collected here and he has done a good job of assembling them–AND he has that great cast–which makes this one work better for many people.

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      • Yeah: no to Crimson Peak. It’s gorgeous to look at, but again, what was the point of it all, why was he telling that story. I never quite figured that out (maybe Del Toro didn’t either, hmm). Honestly, the ghosts didn’t even seem to serve any purpose, except as spooky window dressing. As I was fond of saying after I saw it in the theater, it had plenty of crimson, not enough peaks.

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  6. Re: Crimson Peak / Rob, I think it’s a good comparitor to Shapr of Water because it is also a pastiche of gothic horror tropes, the same way SoW is a pastiche of 50s monster movie tropes, but in that case, it didn’t work, and in this case, it kind of does. Crimson Peak is a retelling of the Grimm’s fable Bluebeard, in which the awesome new husband tells the wife “don’t look in this room,” and that room is where the bodies of the former wives lie. In both cases, I completely respect that anyone likes it or it works for them, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be better told, with the connecting character tissue built up so that it works better as a piece on its own.

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  7. I loved the look and the idea of “Crimson Peak.” The story it told has been told MANY times before (the “shocking” secret it was building up to would be obvious to a 12-year old) and the signposts were so familiar I couldn’t believe the leading lady wouldn’t have turned and left at first sight of the creepy titular house. (I am also weary of movies where characters survive serious injuries and walk around afterward unconcerned). It was almost a parody of the film-student school of thought that only “the visuals” matter. If there isn’t a good story to connect the images, you might as well be looking through a book of still photographs.

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  8. Incidentally, Sally Hawkins has my Best Actress vote. Whatever you think of the movie, she is visual and dramatic poetry throughout. The Oscar coverage has rather ignored her, despite the consistently fine work she has done to this point. I think perhaps because her role is the kind that used to win Oscars automatically (mutes, cripples, mentally challenged people), and there is a backlash against that way of thinking.

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