Wednesday, February 14, 2018

"The Shape of Water" and the Three Forms of Loneliness

Scene from The Shape of Water
*Note: Spoilers for The Shape of Water

It is a moment that comes between two phases of Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and Amphibian Man's (Doug Jones) relationship. They have escaped the lab and are in their last passionate moments together before Amphibian Man returns to the sea, possibly without the requited love of Eliza. She is mute, only ever able to communicate through a mix of sign language, eggs, and Benny Goodman records. Yet it's in a fantasy moment that she gets her only spoken lines of the film. As the scene trades a dumpy apartment with a leaky room for a black-and-white set out of a musical set, she sings "You'll never know how much I love you." It's a moment where repression breaks through, and moves the subtle themes of the film to the forefront. The Shape of Water is more than a film about loving someone different, it's about understanding loneliness when you don't have love readily available. It's may be a story that's been trivialized as the "woman who loves a fish" story, but it's so much more. It's a look at how loneliness can be used for good as well as bad. 

For the sake of a clear structure, let's borrow the concepts from The Alignment System which presupposes terms such as: chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and chaotic evil. The terms are self-explanatory, but will make more sense when given context later applied to individuals in the realm of loneliness. For now, it's a barrier that the broad idea of isolation and sadness rarely gets applied with. In general, this behavior is read as negative, as people only wish to be in love and associate positive experiences with being social. After all, humans are social creatures and as thus need that stimulation. However, in a 21st century understanding, loneliness is a far more complicated idea. One can be alone but not be sad and can be in fact peaceful. It's where the person gets to be meditative, or even productive in an environment that doesn't challenge them. Likewise, loneliness can have negative impacts in which it leads to destructive behavior whether of self or a community.

In The Shape of Water, it would be all too easy to associate this with Eliza and Amphibian Man. After all, they are the central characters whose journeys we follow closely. They are the ones who throw their arms around each other and flirt in cute montages. They sacrifice each other for their safety, and it leads to the conclusion that, by some luck, Eliza's (whose last name, Esposito, means orphan) scars that made her mute are actually fins. She finally has a family, and it's to live in the sea. The narrator Giles (Robert Duvall) likely provides a better perspective, suggesting that the conclusion is hypothetical. Is Eliza happy in spite of her death at the hands of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon)? If the final moments are taken at face value, she is. If taken as ambiguous, it becomes far more complicated. Maybe she was buried at sea, still at the hands of the creature she loved. The audience and their desires will inform how seriously things are taken from there.

But how does the film explore loneliness then? In spite of Eliza's central role, the entire cast is predominantly driven by that isolation. Some of it is forced upon the person while others build walls for themselves. As much as the film also serves as a progressive narrative of treating everyone equally, it's also a film that explains something deeper and more sympathetic of these archetypes. The Shape of Water borrows heavily from the 1950's and 1960's, both in its cinematic language of horror (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and film noir (Strickland and his misery seems like an arc out of a late Humphrey Bogart movie), but also of his references politically. The TV plays riot footage and speeches by John F. Kennedy play. This is a time of the "New Frontier" when the world was supposed to change and the young generation would take over. It was still a fraught time for Civil Rights, but it only adds to the many levels that del Toro wishes to explore.

The easiest starting point would be the lonely good. In every case, lonely represents a disconnection from some facet whether emotionally or socially. In the case of good, it is used as a tool for producing the best out of people in a fraught situation. The most obvious starting point would be, of course, Eliza. She is the first character introduced visually and lives a normal life where she takes the bus to work every day to work at an undefined government facility. By nature, it's a place full of secrets, but part of her reliability is that she's mute. She couldn't speak truth if she wanted. At work, she turns to who is perceived as the only person who literally speaks her language: Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), the janitor who holds her place in line to clock in and help her deal with Strickland. The presence as a lowly servant helps give Eliza the sense of submissiveness in her environment. She is there to clean bathrooms while others deal with top secret experiments. She is both useless and useful in a greater sense.

The conceit to the isolation theory is how they perceive the Amphibian Man, who was dragged by Strickland from the jungle in a brutal fashion. It makes sense then why he's the victim of finger dismemberment following a brutal assault by Strickland's stun gun. The cruelty makes it easier to understand the sympathetic core that draws Eliza initially to Amphibian Man. She thinks of the creature as a "Him," even choosing to feed and treat it with compassion. They bond over their status as outsiders abused by Strickland, which is a category that Zelda also falls into. Her story is however more complex, as she is unable to communicate with her husband Brewster (Martin Roach). She is lonely, but she only learns to have compassion for Amphibian Man in large part because of how it fulfills Eliza's life. 

The good features the isolated characters coming together to do something productive. Eliza, Zelda, and Giles form a bond over rescuing Amphibian Man from the facility. To some extent, they each have their own form of loneliness that drove them to this moment. For Eliza, it was the feeling of being undermined thanks to her mute condition. For Zelda, it was the recognition that Eliza is the only person that listens despite not being able to talk back. For Giles, his story could arguably be more metaphoric (more on that later), but he finds joy in entertaining Eliza with his "starving artist" routine and his vast knowledge of classic cinema, whether it stars Betty Grable or Shirley Temple. Together, they service as the core group of "lonely good" and their struggle bonds them, forming a communication that is inevitably productive and effective to the story's plot.

Giles is a character who evolves from "lonely neutral" to "lonely good" over the course of the first act. Early on, he doesn't understand Eliza's struggle. She is merely infatuated with a strange monster that doesn't deserve rescue. However, he understands her struggle within himself as he visits a pie shop that puts on a friendly demeanor, but is inevitably hostile. Giles is in love with Pie Guy (Morgan Kelly) and misunderstands his friendly demeanor as flirtation to the point that Giles wears a toupee to impress him. For him, the status as a homosexual is immediately contrasted with the Civil Rights movement as he is kicked out of the pie shop as a black couple enters, whom Pie Guy immediately tells to leave. Again, the early 60's were socially progressive but still didn't recognize the struggles of blacks and homosexuals as definitively. The Civil Rights movement would continue to develop, and events like Stonewall would help redefine the LGBT movement towards the end of the decade. But in this moment, one thing was clear: neither was socially acceptable. For Giles, his loneliness comes from social rejection, which helps him to notice the value in Eliza's cause.

In some respects, Giles may secretly be the central character. Seeing as he's the narrator, he has the ability to shape the tale in his own manner, possibly using "the girl next door" as a stand in for his own personal struggles. Giles is seen being cast out of places for being gay, and maybe he sees it as him being unable to express himself much like Eliza's muteness. He is an artist who loses himself in TV, constantly mentioning his love of escapist fantasies with musical numbers and an overall sense of joy. His connection with Eliza may reflect his struggle to find that special someone who understands him, but is consistently persecuted by the government. It's a stretch to suggest that everything beyond him is fictionalized, but the metaphor helps to layer his status in "lonely good" with a deeper and more certain clarity. Much like del Toro borrows a lot of cinematic references, maybe Giles too borrowed them to make his own allegory.

"Lonely neutral" exists in a bit more complex world than either side. It is a figure who is unable to be totally sympathetic to doing the right thing, nor able to use his loneliness for evil. While Giles starts at the neutral, he moves to good following a traumatic revelation. To better understand the conflict of the "lonely neutral," it would be important to view the sole character who falls into this camp: Dr. Robert Hoffstetler. He is a man who works both for Strickland as well as a group of Russian spies who wish to possess the "specimen" that he is studying. In this way, he starts the story as a "Lonely evil," or so it would seem. He is introduced almost exclusively each time in the shadows, suggesting a shady past or a disconnect from the world around him. As a spy, he could never be fully honest with either Strickland or the Russians, making his position more difficult since he can't communicate clearly with anyone.

He would be "Lonely neutral" if it wasn't for a few moments of conscience. As he spies on Eliza playing with Amphibian Man, he sees the humanity in their chemistry. As Strickland stuns him in a vulnerable state, Hoffstetler interjects and suggests that Amphibian Man is better to them alive and to kill him would defeat the purpose. It's an easy thing to suggest sympathy, but what is this comment for? Is he really doing it for the humanity of the character, or is it so that he has bait for the Russians? At the moment, it's difficult to say despite the sympathies starting to alter throughout the course of the story. 

The most decisive moment comes when Eliza is scheduled to save the Amphibian Man from the facility. Since Hoffstetler was going to do so anyways, it becomes intriguing to see him cooperate with Eliza, who wishes to free Amphibian Man. Maybe he grew a conscience when he saw the creature suffocation and writhing in pain on the floor a few scenes earlier. Still, he chooses to assist by disarming the electricity and killing a guard for the sake of Amphibian Man's freedom. In spite of this predicament, he never rats out Eliza and instead maintains neutrality by neither directly helping any further but also not breaking off contact with either the Russians or Strickland. In fact, it becomes clear that he would rather murder the Russians just to break out of this coil than admit that he did the right thing. He can't communicate his intentions in any significant way, which leaves him dead in the rain once Strickland discovers his status as a Russian.

As much as good and neutral are easy to see as sympathetic forces, it becomes harder to acknowledge this with lonely evil. While Strickland is mean and could be simply read as a cartoon villain, he does possess a surprisingly rich character life that may even be tragic. In this case, "lonely evil" is defined by the inability to communicate properly. Throughout the film, he follows the idea that carrying a big stick makes him in control. He stuns whatever he despises and has no love for anything that doesn't look like him. He harasses "the help" (Eliza and Zelda) consistently and sees no use in keeping Amphibian Man alive. On one hand, he is evil by the simple act of lacking a moral compass. However, he is far more tragic than that would suggest.

What makes Strickland into the bad guy necessarily? All that the audience has seen is him abusing this one creature. Yes, it's awful and his commitment to murdering it out of existence is reprehensible. But what if his communication was seen as a self-inflicted wound? Where every other character is a victim of circumstance, Strickland drove himself to be the villain by not recognizing the love in his life? Figures like Eliza, Giles, and Zelda recognize love because it was removed from their lives in some significant way. For Strickland, it seems quite opposite. He's a man of power and has a loving family. He also seems to be materialistic, believing in the future that has jet packs and driving a car that's teal colored will gain him respect. He is insecure and unable to understand love because he doesn't want to communicate. He is a man who learned a handful of metaphors (notably Samson and Delilah) and built himself into the myth of the hard-working American. He seems villainous, if just because he's not sympathetic to the rights of the disabled, blacks, and environment. For what it's worth, his exaggerations could be a symbol of the times he was raised, much like a more sadistic Don Draper.

He defines "lonely evil" because he chose to not communicate properly. He had the world to help, and instead he used the line "You'll never know how much I love you" to suggest that it's a low bar. Even in his brief sex scene, he's a dominating force over a clearly uncomfortable wife that's being bled upon by two recently sowed on fingers. He has a vision of his life, and he wants it his way. The only one who could satisfy his needs is himself. In that way, he depicts loneliness in its worst form. He isn't empathetic. He can't be. He won't be more than the hero in his journey. He never helps anyone that won't forward his career, removing him from the facility as soon as possible. Whereas the other forms of loneliness find a way to evolve through understanding, he doesn't stand a chance to learn. By the end, he dies through the irony of becoming as disabled as the people he mocked by the people he mocked. 

For what can easily be read as a monster movie, The Shape of Water has an incredible look into something universal. It may be a story about progressive culture in a time of oppression, but it's more about the psychology and understanding of what those people face when forced to address the situations. It just happens to be a fairy tale allegory that uses the 60's as a stand-in for the current era. It's heartwarming because del Toro understands the three forms of loneliness, and knows that it's all about determining what we do with this uncontrollable force. For some, it's helping others and simply being there to entertain. For others, it can be a self-destructive behavior that leads to their demise. It's only a matter of how the person uses it in their daily lives. 

1 comment:

  1. zmovies - Fantastic atmosphere, amazing camerawork, moving story. Roles of Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon absolutely perfect. Some scenes combined with wonderful music, especially with the song You'll Never Know, are really breathtaking. Nothing more nothing less. IMO, this movie really deserves an Oscar(s). Besides, I bet you've not seen anything like it before, so it's worth seeing. An old story about love, friendship, human fears, intolerance etc., told in a new way.
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