13 March 2018

A Great Showman and the Shape of the Other

Over the past couple of weeks we saw two films, The Greatest Showman and The Shape of Water. Some have criticized The Greatest Showman for its lack of fidelity to the life of its titular character, P.T. Barnum. Others have seen in The Shape of Water an elision of the difference in kind of human and non-human creatures. Common critiques of both films have suggested obeisance to contemporary notions of political correctness or seen in them evidence of an invidious plot by the Prog-Left political-entertainment complex. Of all these criticisms, the last may have some traction in The Shape of Water but all of them miss the obvious common mark: both films valorized love for the Other, a notion that has long antecedents in Christianity.

Those who criticized The Greatest Showman for lack of historical verisimilitude must have failed to notice that it was a musical. Since when have successful Hollywood musicals been anything more than an opportunity to take a snippet of reality and mix it with large doses of singing and dancing? The score of The Greatest Showman was terrific, the dance scenes were great, and a plot centered around the dangers to character and family of hard-won success was as traditional as apple pie. Was the real Barnum as concerned with the personal well-being of his circus "freaks" as the character played by Hugh Jackman? Did he really reject the advances of the real Jenny Lind? Don't know; don't care. On the other hand, is a representation of a character advancing the interests of social misfits and outcasts always timely? Are great talents often hidden behind physical and social barriers? You bet. Following last year's success with the musical La La Land, I can heartily recommend The Greatest Showman.

Winning an Oscar for best original music score struck me as a no-brainer for The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro taking the Oscar for best director seems eminently reasonable. I'm a bit surprised that it didn't also win for its juxtaposition of jarring and languid cinematography. But Best Picture?

The Shape of Water is not about erasing the barrier of intimacy between humans and other creatures. As was evident from the first few minutes, it was about how outsiders relate to the larger world (and vice versa), and how most outsiders, on finding a comfortable niche, are content to let other Others struggle. Only the mute Elisa Esposito is willing to risk herself to save the humanoid creature and she eventually manages to bring along first her neighbor, a stereotypical gay--but unemployed--commercial artist who spends his days watching old Hollywood musicals on his black and white TV but blanches at watching news of violence deployed against Civil Rights workers. And next is Elisa's African-American co-worker who is satisfied with a steady job and at first wants nothing to do with saving the strange amphibian creature.

The venality of satisfaction with comfort and avoidance of risk is the fundamental source of conflict in The Shape of Water. Of course, there must be some external (and existential) source of danger against which the protagonists struggle and it is here--in the film's population of that danger--that The Shape of Water takes the easy way out.

Those aiming to end the life of the creature whom Elisa and her friends seek to save barely qualify as cardboard cutouts. The "bad guys"--American and Soviet--are conscienceless automatons whose stated motivations hardly warrant the sorts of malicious actions they undertake. del Toro is reported to have said that he set The Shape of Water in 1962 Cold War-era America because to have set it in the present would have made viewers too uncomfortable. Perhaps del Toro had in mind the outsized fears of undocumented aliens or of refugees from the Middle East. Regardless of the contemporary Others whom the creature represents, not all those who express some concern about illegals or resettling Muslims should be counted as the epitomes of evil represented by security director Richard Strickland, US Army General Hoyt, and the Soviet handlers of scientist-spy Robert Hoffstetler. There are many prudent reasons to be concerned about unrestrained migration of peoples but del Toro was not one to paint in shades and hues when it comes to projecting his vision of oppressors of the Other.

In short, del Toro pushed all the rights buttons to get an Oscar. A suspenseful and well-told, intricately filmed, and superbly accompanied story coupled with the political proclivities of the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was just the ticket. There is little question that a vision of the Other as unemployed, rural, and White would not have been as well-received.

Although I am glad to have seen The Shape of Water, I can't recommend it to a general audience. The film's nudity and depictions of sexual activities make it inappropriate for many. And, while it can be enjoyed on its own substantial artistic and story-telling merits, regrettably I was left with the sense that The Shape of Water was tainted by virtue-signalling to the political sensibilities of our elites.

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