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Surf N Turf: Love and Acceptance in Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”

Still from “The Shape of Water.”

I have seen Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) three times since it opened here in Arizona last Friday (three times in five days). Every time I watched, I loved the movie more. I’m going again after I finish writing this.

Perhaps having just watched Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Devils’ Backbone (2001) during last month’s del Toro retrospective at The Loft Cinema whet my appetite for his particular vision of mythological yet real worlds where adult humans (particularly fascists of all variety) are the monsters, and monsters and human innocents are vulnerable, tortured, misconceived, persecuted and tortured. Del Toro films blend magic and realism, darkness and light, and offer worlds of mythical mystery firmly grounded in the horrors of reality. Difficult to classify, most think of del Toro as a B monster filmmaker. Surely many of his movies, including The Shape of Water have that quality, but they are so much deeper and richer.

The Shape of Water is a fairytale for adults, a movie that acknowledges the senseless brutality of the human world, but then turns its cheek to that everyday ugliness by creating a whole cast of characters and a story that rebuke cynicism. Set in 1962 Baltimore, alternating between a top secret government aerospace facility and the skid-row apartment of the film’s female hero, the mute Elisa Esposito (beautifully and impeccably performed by Sally Hawkins), the film mirrors the America we live in today, a country whose government propagates and legislates fear of the other – fear of blacks, of gays, fear of the Russians, fear of science, of nature, and fear of anything that does not tidily fit into the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) tidy vision of American success. This type of mass fear was ludicrous during the Cold War during which the film is set, and it is equally tragic now. Del Toro took that Cold War fear and the style of the movie genres of the time, and he created a movie to win the hearts of everyone today in 2018. He describes The Shape of Water as “a movie against cynicism,” and says “I wanted to make to make a completely honest heart-on-the-sleeve non-ironic melodrama.” He has done just that, and it is a movie we need now like we need a fresh drink of water.

I saw the film in three different Arizona theaters – one in Phoenix and two in Tucson. All three were packed with people from a wide range of demographics, but because this is Arizona, they were mostly packed with conservative Christian whites, whites who probably voted for Donald Trump. Yet these people were captivated by a movie that opens with a woman masturbating in a bathtub and tells the story of a carnal (as in actual sex) love story between a mute woman and a mysterious amphibious creature from the Amazon jungle. The heroes of this film did not mirror the audience I watched it with. The heroes are the people who are largely marginalized in movies and in life – the ethnic cleaning ladies, the unemployed gay man, and the villainized Russian scientist. The actual monster in the movie is a man (Richard Strickland played by Michael Shannon with his usual perfect blend of menace and psychosis), whose name actually stands for the America’s white Evangelical conservative patriarchy – “Dick Strict Land” – and who also stands for what the audience I watched the film represented to a large degree – the American white middle class. Yet very audience that on some level mirrors Strickland and what he stands for loved this movie. They laughed at the humor; they cheered and smiled for the triumph of the film’s cast of outcasts, and they embraced the sweet innocent yet carnal sexual love relationship between a mute cleaning lady and an otherworldly amphibious South American creature. Audiences everywhere are watching the film with audible delight. They embrace not only the central love story but the other outsiders who shore up that love. Del Toro set out to make a movie about “falling in love with the other rather than fearing it”, and clearly he achieved his goal, but how?

Maybe it’s the fluidity of The Shape of Water that makes it so successful. It blends familiar yet classic genres, and it shows that living things (people and creatures) are capable of being good while also recognizing them as the adults they are. In his previous films, the innocents were children who were victimized at the hands of xenophobic patriarchal racist sadists. In his new film, del Toro makes the adults the innocents, so the audience identifies with them regardless of their personal politics. What they see on screen is a cast of earnest honest people with desires and needs and who want to do good things from the goodness of their hearts.

I understand why I love this movie. I was born to love it. Born in July 1962 (the year in which the film was set), I was born under the sign of Cancer (the sign that loves water above all else), and I have always been attracted to everything water, including The Creature for the Black Lagoon (1954) after which del Toro modeled his creature in The Shape of Water . I cried for that poor creature every time I watched the movie when I was a girl because I also was born loving classic movies. I have always understood that monsters are the fragile ones and that the men in power are what should be feared. I also learned early on that movies are a way to both translate and transcend the horrors of the real world. Perhaps that is why del Toro’s film is so successful. I think today most people somehow feel threatened, shaken, and unsure in this world, even if their fear is unconscious.

Guillermo del Toro has given all of us a gift offering us a portal to possibility, a plea for acceptance and tolerance, and a gorgeously painted entry into the world of mystery and all that awaits us if we move outside constricting boundaries that offer only the illusions of comfort. Perhaps this why people of all skin and age love this film – because through del Toro’s cinematic magic, they are able to tap into their inherent innocence and open their imaginations and their minds to allow room for the outsiders to breathe, just like the central creature in the film is able to breathe both on land and in water. In one comic scene, a villainous Russian spy stabs a piece of tender lobster with a fork. A slab of bloody steak awaits its stabbing on a plate. The Russian chortles, “Surf N Turf.” The audience laughs, because it is funny. But it is also sickening and cruel. The Russian explains how they boil the lobsters alive for maximum tenderness. The empty tank sits on a table behind him where the lobster once lived. Del Toro is giving us our own Surf N Turf in the form of a love story that survives because people band together to allow love to triumph over evil. The movie is saying there is possibility for life, love and magic in the shape of water merged with land, the union of the known and unknown, the surf of the creature and the turf of the film’s central character Elisa.

The shape of water is not predetermined but fluid. It moves, conjoins and changes shapes seamlessly and without abrasion. This is why it has the magic ability to seep into so many minds and hearts. The movie is a monster love story that shows that people have the potential to be good, that there are all kinds of beauty in the world, and combined they can combat ugliness.  Certainly, anyone who is half awake these days, feels a desperate need to combat ugliness, to find magic, to turn the world from a horror story into a fairytale. The Shape of Water does that but not without a good solid dose of adult sensibility, carnality, and acceptance.

The movie is set in October – November, 1962, right on the heels of Marilyn Monroe’s death, the icon of cinematic beauty who was entangled in politics as much as Hollywood tragedy. The film is also dead center in the Cold War, the Space Wars between Russia and USA (when those damn Russians sent that damn dog into space) and during the heart of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film literally ends on JFK’s birthday, November 10. JFK, of course, was a fairytale president whose life ended in a bloodbath one year after this movie ends. The media spectacle of the fairytale presidency masked the nightmare of things like the Vietnam War. Things weren’t much different then than they are today. The Russians and Americans are still at each other’s throats for power. Black people are still being beaten and killed on the streets (as seen on TV in one scene in the films); gays continue to be persecuted. White fascism is ever on the rise, and anyone other than your average WASP is still considered an outsider. Del Toro is no stranger to the unfair persecution of “others” in the United States. He is a Mexican immigrant who has gone through immigration process countless times. He says each time is like living Midnight Express. He has been in the room with the man with the cattle prod (Strickland), and his empathy for what those who are different and marginalized endure at the sadistic hands of the white monsters in power shines clearly in this film.

Though largely a B monster film, the movie is a genre mash-up, and includes elements of classic musicals, spy thrillers, melodrama romances, and film noir. The film also includes a nod to biblical epics. At its core, the movie plays like a silent film. The mute Elisa Esposito carries the film in complete silence and falls in love with a creature who also cannot speak language. Other than a scene when she bursts into surreal song and dance with the creature (who is referred to as “the asset”), Elisa remains mute, and the creature never utters a single word. Elisa communicates through sign language, but mostly through body language. She is a female Charlie Chaplin, showing a huge heart in a life limited by physical disability, ethnicity, gender, and hard economics. Hawkins’ Elisa is a wonder to behold. Her face is the real narrator of the film as her eyes look out with love, hope, outrage, empathy, humor, and desire. She bursts spontaneously into dance, expresses the curiosity of a child, empathetic horror and outrage, and she possesses the carnal desires of every primal being. Elisa is primal hope.

Elisa lives above an old theater with her downtrodden gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). They are two outcasts living above a theater that turns out to be another endangered species. We can hear the films playing from below, and film canisters line the hallway, reminding us that del Toro is relying on the magic of cinema and the need to keep it alive. Maybe film can’t save the world, but in a movie like this one, it can transform a small part of it. Maybe somewhere deep inside all of us, a projector plays with these old movie that the movie references, including The Red Shoes (1948). Perhaps that unconscious flicker inside the human heart is why audiences are hooked on The Shape of Water.

Then again, so many movies have idealized the insiders, the “haves” over the have nots. On the other hand, this movie champions the underdogs. Strickland refers to them as “the help”, “the shit cleaners and piss wipers,” yet they are also the heroes. The black cleaning woman Zelda (played with incredible humor and heart by Octavia Spencer), the gay and rejected starving artist Giles, and a Soviet scientist Bob/Dmitiri (Michael Stuhlbarg) band together to save the day, save love, and make this movie something very special for our time.

Besides Elisa, the Creature – another being without intelligible language – wins our hearts. Actor Doug Jones (who also played Pan) somehow infuses such life, intelligence, sensitivity and yearning inside a rubber amphibious suit. The creature has no name but is simply referred to as “the asset”, showing that money and power are of preeminent importance in this world. The Asset will give the US power over Russia. He was taken (stolen, kidnapped) from his primal natural home in the Amazon, where he was worshipped as a god who, among other things, protected the land from oil drilling (in yet another reference to today’s political climate). At the hands of the American government represented by the cruel hateful face of Strickland, the Asset is tortured endlessly with an electronic cattle prod and is set for a vivisection. The worthless “help” Elisa sees the Asset, and lo and behold they fall in love – a magical creature and a mute woman – a government asset and a person with no economic standing. Even when he eats a cat, he is forgiven because it is natural versus Strickland’s unnatural sadistic taste for torture. The outsiders, invisible and marginalized rise in rebellion not to save the world, but to save magic and save love, a simple and accomplishable goal, and a message that nearly every human being should be able to relate to. Note, I say nearly.

The first thing that Giles notices about The Asset is that he is “so beautiful,” which he states in honest open awe. But beauty is not of high importance in the white world of Strickland and the other homophobes, racists and sadists of the world. While acknowledging the Asset’s beauty, Giles accidentally takes out the front end of Strickland’s brand new Cadillac, keeping authentic beauty intact while demolishing the commodified wrecked ugliness that the car represents.

Strickland is indeed ugly. A hypocritical mixture of God and sadism, Christian values at the expense and pain of others, Shannon’s character is a Make America Great again character who reveals the perversity of that entire ideology. How can a land built on genocide and slavery ever be great again, or in the first place? But Strickland has bought this dream hook, line, and sinker (and caught an Asset in the process). But in the end he is just the Dick his name represents, a sadist masked as a man of Christian values who in one scene even says God looks like him. He uses his erect baton for sadistic torture, and for humiliating and defiling women. Dick’s “strict land” is one cluster fuck of white privilege, Christian hypocrisy, global power, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and self-righteousness. As the film progresses, the patriarchal white Dick literally becomes the toxic being he is – a pill popping gangrenous mutant, oozing puss and with fingers turning as black as the skin of people he despises.

Race and homophobia do make appearances in the film. Elisa’s neighbor Giles is fond of getting pie at a local pie shop that prides itself at representing the heart of America. The guy who works the counter, simply acknowledged as the Pie Guy in the credits, turns out to be a lie, a racist, and a homophobe. Sporting a false southern accent, he kicks blacks out of the restaurant, and also gives Giles the boot when he discovers the man is gay. The Pie Guy bears a hideously wholesome grin while he dishes out hatred and pie that apparently tastes like shit.

For some reason, Giles has a thing for key lime pie, but it turns out, when Elisa tries it, that the key lime pie tastes as hideous as Strickland’s gangrenous fingers smell. But the pie has to be key lime, because key lime is green, and green is the color of this adult fairytale. It represents both the primal natural world which gets corrupted by government and American greed, and it represents the toxic sickness of the American dream and its insatiable appetite for power and money.

Green is everywhere in this film. The movie opens in a surreal underwater scene where furniture and a woman float in a place out-of-time, and Giles begins to narrate the story of the princess who lives there. We soon learn that the princess is Elisa, a mute cleaning lady, not the typical princess of fairytales of old. Perhaps green saturated film is a nod to the romantic standard of the Frog Prince and every story where a princess kisses a frog or lies in a death sleep in a green forest or is left a voiceless little mermaid underwater. Except this is an adult fairytale. There is no princess and no frog, though there is a woman who yearns for love and a merman, who is a beautiful green. Iridescent and magical, he glows blue to heal wounds and to show love. Elisa’s world is full of magical green – the green of water from which her merman surfaces; the green scales of his beautiful body; and the soft green light filtering through her apartment as the two make love underwater.

But there is more than one shade of green. There is the artificial green of consumer culture and money, which the outcast heroes in this film will never conform to. That is the world of green Jell-O molds and green Cadillacs. Green is the color of Strickland’s Cadillac though the salesman calls it “teal” to sell the car (and sell a lie). Green is also the color of heartless bureaucracy where natural green has been corrupted. Within the government facility, the workers wear green aprons, push green cleaning carts, and punch green timecards. The tiles of the men’s room where Strickland commits offensive sexually sadistic acts are green as are the tiles that imprison the merman. The Sadist in Charge, Strickland, is coming down with a bad case of gangrene, symbolizing the illness of the System he represents and how it defiles the natural world, because above all else, green should be the color of primal nature not of institutionalized torture prisons.

Green is the color of algae, of undersea life, and of the mysterious world into which the lovers descend at the end of the film. Ultimately, green is the color of the wild natural world, of the Amazonian jungle from which the “asset” was stolen. Perhaps the film is about reclaiming green – for fertile imagination and beautiful carnal nature – as Elisa and the Merman float in a green luminous underwater love embrace in the film’s final scene.

Green isn’t the only color of the film, though it is its predominant undercoat and under-glow. Warm light sifts through Elisa and Giles’ apartment hallway in juxtaposition to the cool cold grays of the Cold War government facility. Spot colors of vivid red alternate between magic and horror. Red shoes represent Elisa’s never ceasing belief in love and magic. Red blood, red phones, and red lights on surveillance cameras remind us of the underlying violence of the government that Strickland represents. But red is also the color of the velvet seats and interior of the movie theater, which is an endangered place and a place where real magic happens, where people can be transported, where, in fact, Guillermo del Toro transforms us in this film.

The vivid use of color immerses us in a bipolar world torn between magic and cruelty, much like the good and evil that reside at the core of most fairytales. It also reminds us of the subtle splits in time in the film. Though the film is firmly anchored in 1962, as the calendar on Elisa’s wall affirms daily, the films shown within the film are nostalgic for past times when the TV screen wasn’t filled with black people being beaten in the streets, but rather movie theaters showed epic films of kingdoms built on slavery. In one beautifully self-reflective scene, “The Asset” stands in an empty theater watching slaves carry boulders on their backs to build temples. He sees himself in what he sees on the screen, and we as the audience see the seamless history of the oppressed and the oppressor. The movies of the past may show a nostalgic view where Betty Grable sings and dances with a horse, but that doesn’t mean that outside the frame racism, homophobia, xenophobia and the violence that the white righteous unleash on the vulnerable and the marginalized does not exist.

The future is also interwoven into this intricately threaded film. The reason why the American government wants control of “The Asset” is because they fear the Russians will beat them in the Space Wars and take control of the future. After all, the Russians have already sent a dog into space. Fear of the future inspires gluttony for control. In Strickland’s obsessive and sadistic desire to control everything and everyone, he reads Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), a self-help book in which Peale argues that his technique has the ability to give people the power of God. In one scene, Strickland humorously states that God most likely looks like him (and not like the black female Zelda). Strickland and all the men he represents want to be gods of the future, and that makes him an easy sale for a Cadillac dealer who sells him a car by telling Strickland the car will make him “The Man of the Future” (in addition to convincing him that teal is not green). Strickland is indeed the man of the future. He is the very man who stares out of the TV today or who types outrageous hatred in 140-character tweets. He is the man who thinks he will make America great again through cruelty, hatred, power, and sadism, not understanding that he’s already achieved his goal because those are the very “values” on which America was built, and they are as gangrenous as Strickland’s fingers. They are the antithesis to the heroic core of this film, a group of outcasts who have neither power, money, race, gender, nor sexuality in their favor, yet they triumph because they are good.

Why are they good? Because they are the shape of water. They are fluid, innocent, and honest. They embrace natural carnality, not the corrupt sadistic and lewd sexuality of Strickland, but an honest love of spirit. They are naked – in spirit – and in the case of Elisa and the Merman in body. This is not the traditional romantic tale of characters shrouded in gowns and knightly armor. They are naked in innocent carnality and desire, and in the end the audience accepts them even if they are not wearing crowns and gowns, and when you come right down to it represent a comingling of species. It is not about what the film is on the surface. The magic occurs below the surface, just like below the surface of water. It is about accepting what is honest and true rather than propagating lies, torture, and hatred.

How does the movie end? I couldn’t give you a spoiler if I tried because like other del Toro films, it ends with mystery. The creature and Elisa descend into the natural environment of water. They float and glow and embrace, and we know not where they will go. They dissolve into the shape of water which means they are not trapped by shape, but rather have the freedom of fluidity. The movie ends with a blending of the ordinary and extraordinary into a world of mystery. Ending in mystery is ending in hope because in mystery possibility has no limits.

In the end, there is no image of perfection or transformation into castles and royalty. Love, understanding, and, above all else, acceptance reign in del Toro’s fairytale, a story that urges us to accept the faults of ourselves and of others. We live in a time when humans often seem monstrous because the monsters are what fill our screens. Del Toro has given the screen to the beautiful spirits of the scarred and the marginalized. Through their dreams and their cohesive bond, del Toro has shown that maybe it’s time for us all to take a close look at the magic potential of the human spirit and take a deep dive into the liquid depths of possibility

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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