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Much like The Artist, some will say that Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water won this year’s best picture Oscar® being an homage to the movies loved by Hollywood. The iconic image of an amphibious humanoid cradling an unconscious woman is a direct reference to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There are also plenty of nods to ’60s settings, 1950s horror but also movie musicals of the ’30s and ’40s, classic noir and even Cinemascope biblical epics. This is undoubtedly a classic “Beauty and the beast” story where love transcends all imperfections.
Beyond the obvious, and an ode to the love of the movies, here are some other contemporary societal reasons for you to consider.
The need for love and kindness. Unfortunately, we are living in a divisive time where we finger point and place blame in an ‘us ‘and ‘them’ world. Fear is the pervasive tone and society is in a constant state of fight or flight. These feelings create the illusion that we are fractured and there is no overall ‘us’. When others treat the Amphibian Man as a monster,
Sally Hawkins’ character Elisa Esposito exhibits gentleness and concern toward the being.
Bigotry, intolerance, and racism are the same problems we’re facing today. Michael Shannon’s character Richard Strickland initially displays prejudice when he introduces himself to Elisa and a black coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Since Elisa can’t speak, he presumes that she can’t understand what he’s talking about. The anger and disdain he displays for the creature stem from a deep seeded need for power where anger masks his fear, insecurities, and intolerance of anything out of his norm. Strickland abuses the creature with little or no compunction and his ignorance and actions are despicably hateful.
Aliens and immigration. An obvious theme is the alien nature of the creature. The film also serves as a metaphor for cultural intolerance and how undocumented immigrants often face cruel and unusual punishment. The notion of humane treatment versus enumerable types of abuse is wonderfully elucidated. Real world situations where similar handlers deny breaks for meals or the restroom are also brought to the surface. This speaks volumes about arrogant mistreatment and the dire need for compassion and tolerance in a modern world.
The environment. The Shape of Water intentionally places emphasis on greens and teals, which works well on a number of levels. The lab is all green and the walls are green, the tile is green, and even the soap is green. Green represents the future and progress where Jell-O is the latest food. The characters that embrace progress are all associated with shades of green especially the artist who frequently orders Key lime pie so that he can playfully flirt with the clerk behind the counter. The creature also comes from the Amazon which has been a hot topic when discussing the environment. The Amphibious Man may also represent a more evolved being having survived a post-apocalyptic world inevitability.
Gender, disability, and sexual preference. The film’s opening moments include masturbation in the bathtub. The mute princess isn’t free of sexual needs and takes action into her own hands instantly removing possible misconceptions about the handicapped. Her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) is gay and the device of depicting the monstrous is comparable to filmmaker James Whale’s gay life in historic Hollywood having directed Frankenstein to express his true feelings. Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters does an excellent job of portraying this.
Elisa and the creature’s sexual relationship takes on an added layer of taboo when one considers how rare it is to see characters with disabilities having healthy sexual relationships onscreen. This also offers up further fear of accepting all LGBTQ individuals into society and their xenophobic freakish treatment.
Misogyny and sexual harassment. Strickland corners Elisa and takes advantage of her sexually. This portrays disability and merges it with fear of harassment, sexual assault and the inability to vocalize it. This enforces Strickland’s thirst for power and control especially from someone who presumably can’t fight back. Del Toro’s inclusion of this speaks directly to more awareness toward how we treat each other in positions of power and desire. The movie amplifies recent developments with sexual abuse in and out of Hollywood.
Russia and the 60’s. Beyond taking place during the Cold War and Russia being in the headlines, the 1960’s were a time when America was believing in the future. Modern conveniences were being enjoyed by the public and the automobile industry was booming. The 60’s were a progressive time of love versus war and radical thinking in contrast to the government and the establishment.
In retrospect, The Cold War appears “Keystone Coppish” as a needless ploy to justify billions of dollars spent on the military. It represents an illusion of fear created by both sides to create an overall world psyche of divisiveness. We are reminded of the current media narrative with Russia which forces the audience to reflect on what director Guillermo Del Toro is telling us or asking us to question.
Sometimes kindness is misinterpreted as weakness. In a competitive world which is so concerned with winning and nastiness, progress and success sometimes go together. This may also be a form of self-protection for those who feel less-than, fearing exposure, and having adopted an “I’ll get you before you get me,” attitude.
Being loving and kind requires courage. Mistrust and misguided feelings that everyone else is out to get us is exhausting and doesn’t help us at all. Fear of those different from us, other ethnicities or those with varying opinions might not be real. We are social beings and our joy depends on the positive relationships and connections we have with others. The Shape of Water may have won best picture because it struck a nerve with voters that empathy, patience, generosity, and respect are needed now more than ever. Listening to someone else without judging and accepting their point of view as valid, even if you disagree is crucial. The loyalty and trustworthiness embodied by the characters in The Shape of Water, not only encourages good, positive action and results; but promotes the intense need for greater kindness, and compassion indisputably creating far more powerful energy with love than that created by fear.