Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Long Shot Week: Best Original Screenplay - "The Shape of Water"

Scene from The Shape of Water
Welcome to the first Long Shot Week, where I will attempt to persuade you to think outside of the Oscar box. While it's too late to change voters' minds, I believe that audiences need to take a moment to look at the other contenders in any category and give them a chance. Long Shot Week is designed as a way to highlight these talents that likely don't stand a chance of winning, but more than deserve a chance to be appreciated for what they bring to the game. In a way, this is my list of "Films that should've won," though it's not always indicative of my favorite. Join me all week as I look at different categories and pose the question "Why not?" in hopes that The Oscars still have a few surprises up their sleeve.

Long Shot: The Shape of Water
Category: Best Original Screenplay
Other Nominees:
-The Big Sick
-Get Out
-Lady Bird
-Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Likely Winner: Get Out

The Case for The Shape of Water

In some ways, the idea of The Shape of Water having 13 nominations is one of the greatest long shots in recent movie history. The film is so niche in subject and genre that it would've failed to get nominated outside of technical fields possibly even five years ago. Of course, similar things could be said about Get Out, which is now well over a year since its release and is no less a front runner for the Best Original Screenplay category. To be fair, it deserves this status because it's a perfectly crafted look at modern race relations in America. It's so good in fact that it joins 12 Years a Slave as one of the few Oscar-nominated movies to be inducted into the school system during its first year of release. Get Out is now offered as a college course somewhere, and that alone is incredible testament to its skill.

But really, how did two horror films wind up being Oscar front runners? There's no suggestion that last year was measly and that the few films it beat out were terrible. However, it does seem like it's part of a wave of horror that is "socially conscious." This has always been there going back to the gay subtext of Bride of Frankenstein. However, the fact that The Academy is recognizing it is exciting, and I think it's in part because the idea of exploring major sociopolitical themes through film often needs to lend itself to fantasy. In the case of The Shape of Water, it did so by finding a universal love story wrapped up in Universal Horror dressing with fringes of film noir, and a story that wouldn't be out of place if Guess Who's Coming to Dinner had a fish tank at the dinner table. As much as the film is surprisingly leading Best Director nominations, it does seem like in any other year Best Original Screenplay would be the field it would stand out in.

The screenplay categories have always been key in noticing films outside conventional narratives. It just so happens that the original side of things features 4/5 of the Best Picture nominees - all of which have excellent scripts to differing capacities. However, I propose that the one thing exciting and possibly revolutionary for The Shape of Water as a screenplay nominee is that it manages to be contemporary while also being nostalgic, finding a layer of fairy tale lining that is executed succinctly. It's also a film that works because it understands a variety of conflicting emotions within the same scene. As I wrote last week, the film also works because it isn't just about supernatural intimacy, it's about loneliness. It's a study of what connects and disconnects us from each other, and how communication determines how that will be achieved. Despite being at times the most alien screenplay, it's also the most human.

The film's texture of the past has more than cutesy references in its mind. While it's likely that writer Guillermo del Toro wanted to give a shout-out to figures like Shirley Temple and Mr. Ed, they were also figures who took away these characters' loneliness, forming an escapism through art in a time where life couldn't be more depressing. Yes, it does include disabilities and racial discrimination, homophobia, and abuses of power. All turn to something for their joy, whether it be art or more material objects like a teal-colored car. The quest for happiness goes beyond del Toro's belief that this is a story about The Creature from the Black Lagoon if it were an erotic love story. Culture connects in inexplicable ways, and the film captures that empathy in a story that juggles varying plots to an effective conclusion, with small revelations along the way.

Yes, it's easier to see it as a progressive narrative for a time when they're fully welcomes. There's no denying that this adds an extra weight to its overall impact. However, that alone would make it more gimmicky than persuasive. Even the fact that del Toro has reportedly worked on this film for over a decade seems to mislead the core of the film's intent. It's one that captures something earnest, and also something that arguably doesn't get associated with monster movies that much. It's an empathy for those who are different, which is often what these monster movies symbolize. Bride of Frankenstein set a bar with its exploration, but not too many others have tried to make something richer and prescient, save for maybe The Elephant Man. The choice to see the beauty in those different from yourself is a powerful message, and one that The Shape of Water achieves by even altering the realm of horror into something beautiful.

With all things considered, The Shape of Water probably doesn't need to win this category. It's already got a lot of traction in other fields, especially Best Director and Best Original Score (not to mention technical fields). Get Out more than deserves to win, though its story is theoretically richer on a visual reference level. With that said, the two horror films that could definitely add to the excitement of this year's Oscar season, and it gives hope that horror is going to be perceived as a valid genre going forward. Much like Mad Max: Fury Road a few years back, the idea of busting genre barriers with prestige films is how The Academy should always be. It's great that The Shape of Water is having more luck than it would've a few years back. One can only hope that it's part of one of the most unpredictable Oscar years in recent memory.

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