Before the Star Wars hype takes over the movie world for about six weeks, it’s a great time to catch up on some other magical cinematic opportunities being offered right now. For some people, there’s Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron. That’ll certainly suit someone’s fancy… For others, there’s a slew of festival circuit hits which have been making their rounds for sometime now and are likely available at a theater near you! For the rest of us (and those who are on Oscars watch) there’s films like The Shape of Water. For those unaware ( and that have been hitting the spiked egg nog a bit earlier), The Shape of Water is Guillermo Del Toro’s latest directorial adventure through a dreamy, cinematic, wonderscape. It also happens to be a leading Golden Globe contender with a ridiculous amount of nominations. For those die hard Del Toro fanboys, it’s about time! I mean they owe you after the Pacific Rim snub. Sheesh. But even for us more, fair-weathered Del Toro fans, it was a film worth the anticipation. All that waiting paid off last weekend in a delightfully satisfying way.
The Shape of Water, in an aquatic nutshell, is a modern, twisted, bizarre fairytale for adults. Director Guillermo Del Toro has a penchant for creating environments which blur the lines between reality and fantasy, aptly positioning him to helm such a film. His films often feature human characters in real settings, with an added element of the bizarre or otherworldly. Kind of like David Fincher with a twist of Lynch. In a way, Del Toro was made for this kind of work. His Central American origins (Mexico) and filmic apprenticeship have set him up to make the kind of polished work found in The Shape of Water – and it shows! The film is centered around a mute named Eliza who works on the custodial staff of a top-secret government facility. One day, a amphibian man under the guise of a “cold war asset” is brought into the facility where Eliza works. Much to the chagrin of her friends and coworkers, Eliza forms a bit of a bond with the creature after she sees it is just as capable of communicating as her. This world that Del Toro paints feels like a supersaturated look into the past. The film’s setting (early sixties Baltimore) is supersaturated with color, especially an emphasis on green. This is stark considering the film represents an era which has historically only been seen in black and white. But color is key here, as it is in many of Del Toro’s films. Green is not only the color of greed and envy (problems which, incidentally, plague our antagonist), but a color meant to invoke a sense of the bizarre – or strange. Even today, some of the things we associate being green like, say, extra terrestrials for instance, are painted with various shades of green. Go ahead and do a google image search on “Aliens” and see how many green creatures come up before the green-font text of Ridley Scott’s Aliens. My point is, the sense of something otherworldly exists in every corner of this film. But when it comes to otherworldly, Del Toro is a pro.
Del Toro’s first international hit was his 2006 fantasy-drama Pan’s Labyrinth. The film centered around a young girl in World War II Spain, who stumbles across a magical realm and is transported from the hellish state of earth to a bizarre, underground fantasy. The world he created for the film was visually stunning. The sets and creatures looked like they were something out of an actual fairytale. The visual mark that he left with that film was powerful enough to earn the film an Oscar or two as well as cement him as a notable contemporary, visually-striking filmmaker. This all from a Spanish-language film made by a Mexican filmmaker! Talk about breaking the mold. But the Latin world has a propensity for the blending of magic realities. Whether it’s literature by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or film with Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, magic realism digs it’s strongest roots south of the border. Naturally, Del Toro has his own interpretation of magic and reality. His is influenced a lot more from horror canon than anything else. But it’s what Del Toro does with his knowledge of horror history that’s interesting. The creature in the film is a dead ringer for another iconic horror figure who lived in a notable black lagoon. Unlike that creature, this one has an innocence to it. Throughout the film, we constantly see the stern project supervisor Strickland (played hauntingly by Michael Shannon) torture the creature as a way to learn more about it’s biology. But with every teeth-gritted shock of his taser staff, we cringe a little for this thing. As abhorrent as it looks, we don’t know it to have done anything wrong other than existing. It is, to follow a cinematic trope, another case of misunderstanding.
In 1933, this misunderstanding theme really hit the cinematic mainstream with King Kong. I’ve written about the movie before because it’s themes are timeless and it’s characters iconic. But at the heart of the movie is this misunderstood giant gorilla (if only that made it in more films). It wasn’t really discussed in the original film (and DEFINITELY not in the weird Tom Hiddleston one…), but I think it was captured best in Peter Jackson’s 2005 imagining of the film. Sure Jackson spends two hours breathing life into Kong, not to mention the two hours we spend talking about Kong, but he helps us understand that this inhuman thing is having a recognizable reaction to the spellbinding Ann Darrow: love. In the course of four hours, Jackson was able to elicit sympathy for this beast. And it’s no simple coincidence that twelve years later Guillermo Del Toro would embark on his own “beauty and the beast” tale.
A bit after Pan’s Labyrinth brought Del Toro into the Hollywood fold, Jackson took him under his wing for an informal mentorship. It all started with the ill-fated Halo movie, a video game adaption that has been in development hell for over a decade. In the early stages, Jackson approached then budding director Del Toro to helm the majorly anticipated project. At first, he was completely onboard, having just wrapped filming of Hellboy. But after a brief tenure working alongside writer D.B. Weiss, who gave us all the goodness that is Game of Thrones, nothing moved forward and things fell apart. Still, Jackson and Del Toro remained in contact and continued to have dialogue throughout the years. Eventually, Jackson had another big opportunity arise: The Hobbit. The prequel follow-up to his beloved Lord of The Rings series had a lot of hype to live up to and they needed a respected director with a penchant for dazzling sets and an artistic vision. Naturally, he had Del Toro in mind. For a long time it seemed like this was a match made in heaven. The crown prince of modern fantasy had been gifted the biggest fantasy film opportunity of all time! Alas, this also turned out too good to be true. Hollywood is as Hollywood does, production slowed, and Del Toro returned the project to his mentor. Though they haven’t had another collaboration opportunity since, the time they spent together has certainly made it mark on Del Toro’s work.
One of the more visually striking sequences in The Shape of Water comes towards the end of the film. Eliza is reaching a deadline to move the creature so it can escape Strickland’s grasp once and for all. In the short time that they’ve had together, we see how their love for one another has blossomed and in an instant, they begin to dance with one another. Like an old Hollywood film, the set transforms and the color fades to black and white. The complete magical fantasy element takes over and they break into a song and dance number reminiscent of 1930’s musicals – Fred Astaire style. It’s a special moment for the audience. For one, it provides our heroine with a voice! And it also manages to anthropomorphize this creature in a way that’s a bit in your face. It’s the one thing I wish Del Toro would have done more of in the film, because as much as we get to know the creature, we never quite get to see him the way Eliza does. This dance (and relationship overall) isn’t that different than Peter Jackson’s approach to Kong and Ann Darrow in his 2005 King Kong. In that film, which also pays homage to the films of the 1930’s, there’s a scene where Kong and Ann are hiding away in Central Park and they find an abandoned ice rink. They too engage in a final “dance” with one another on the ice which gave a little humanity to this iconic creature. The interwoven use of black and white to reference old Hollywood is a Jacksonian motif as well. In his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, another pair of forbidden lovers buries themselves in the world of The Third Man (Reed, 1949), where a black and white Orson Welles (as well as other elements from the film) permeate into their reality. Ultimately, it’s these distinctly cinematic suspensions from reality that create a rare lens through which we can see these creatures as more than just the beasts they appear to be – we can see some part of ourselves.
In 1973, Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice released his much lauded masterpiece, Spirit of the Beehive. The film follows a young girl growing up in Franco-ruled Spain, struggling to understand the fallout of the Spanish Civil War. The film Frankenstein comes to town and leaves quite an impression on her. She sees the creature as so much more than a hideous, zombie-like fiend, recognizing his vulnerability in his outsider status. The film bridges the magic of Frankenstein to reality, when a wounded soldier on the edge of town ignites her imagination and causes her to project the creature through the fallen soldier. In a touching moment akin to the ones Eliza and Ann share with their beasts, the little girl comes face to face with Frankenstein by the lakeside and they share an intimate moment of vulnerability with one another. Though no words are exchanged, we feel so strongly for the creatures in these films. We understand through the stillness onscreen the nonverbal communication that’s going on. Which is pretty damn cool and not an easy feat for any director to undertake. But it’s made all the easier in The Shape of Water.
Eliza’s muteness seems like a disability that would immediately maker her an outsider. In this story, she’s amongst a crew of amiable outsiders. Her two biggest human supporters (played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer) are a gay man and a black woman. Not exactly popular demographics in early sixties America! In a way, they all experience their own silence. For Jenkin’s character, it’s having to be silent about his sexuality. For black women including Spencer’s? Don’t even think that needs an explanation. Eliza’s silence is special, because it’s apart of her biology. In one particularly harrowing scene, Strickland fetishizes this. He tells her that her silence “arouses” him. Im fact, Strickland doesn’t really want anyone to do any talking (as noted by a scene where he covers his wife’s mouth during intercourse). But why? Talking, communication creates connection. The voice is a tool of expression. It’s a way for one living being to connect to the next. It’s one of our greatest biological gifts, but Eliza is here to show us that it doesn’t always require vocal chords to find your voice.
Throughout The Shape of Water and King Kong and Spirit of the Beehive and Frankenstein and on and on and on, were presented with this voiceless characters who exude emotion and feeling, but lack our ability to translate that so simply. But with the latter three films, we’re left with our own vague assertions as to what could happen, desperately extending a hopeful hand, hoping to feel something distinctly human. With The Shape of Water, Eliza is that hand. She, in her human form, holds our hand and walks us through the magic of connection. Though on the surface, we’re faced with an animalistic being, we see his ability to connect and know it to be familiar. Del Toro, the bull himself (Toro being bull in Spanish, for those who can’t keep up) manages to siphon all of his raw artistic animalism into something that transcends the eyes of the audience and goes straight for the heart. Led by Jackson, his sagely, wizardly mentor, he knows to lead the audience on just the right path so that, by the end, they find a little magic too. Because wizards and bulls and humanoid fish making love to human women may seem like something so distant you hardly recognize it, but somehow you are able to understand despite the distance. Jackson was able to work his wizardry and bring the world of ‘Middle Earth’ to life, but his protege has not only created his own worlds, but he has brought you into them, had you connect with them, and made you feel them. That’s the magic of The Shape of Water and also the magic of cinema itself.