Monday, March 5, 2018

What "The Shape of Water" Winning Best Picture Means to Me

Credit: Naki for Variety
There's certain things that people have come to expect from a Best Picture winner at The Academy Awards. They are prestigious dramas conveying deep and conflicting resonance of the moment it came out. It's supposed to be serious, often contextualizing a piece of history through an artistic prism. But, as someone who has loved classic monster movies, I've also known that another thing is true: genre movies don't win. Comedies or musicals maybe, but never sci-fi, horror, fantasy, or anything considered niche. After all, the Best Picture winner is something agreed upon of thousands of people from differing tastes. So to see The Shape of Water win two of film's most prestigious awards this past Sunday gave me an incredible feeling. Somehow it validated the idea that The Oscars have always preached: all movies matter. For the first time this millennium, that's felt like more than hyperbole.

There's a timeline that things normally would go on Oscar night in 2018. Following an incredible run and winning almost every prize, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri was locked to win Best Picture. How could it not? It followed every guideline that's been the standard for decades. It's a literal message movie, and one about how conflicting the times are. It's a movie that's won close to everything, and most of all it was normal. This is how The Academy used to vote, or at least how they  were publicly interpreted. As much as they were the definitive award in a long season, they usually played to some strategy that was predictable and often "safe." The Shape of Water and Get Out weren't surprising as Best Picture nominees given the expansion in 2010, but they were never "serious" movies, as one anonymous voter recent had people believe.

But here's the thing that's impossible to ignore. If one remembers the mission statement of former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Cheryl Boone Isaacs claimed, she wanted to modernize the voting body, which included diversity on race, gender, creed, sexuality, and everything in between. It's been a rough road, starting with the infamous Oscars So White movement that highlighted the issue of diversity when all acting categories in two consecutive years failed to feature anyone who wasn't, well, white. It didn't help that a few years later they banned transgender Oscar nominee Anohni from performing, and the winners still remained of a conventional class. Birdman and Spotlight were definitely quality films, but what did it say about The Academy NOW? 

Isaacs' plan was a slow, methodical one that resonated at last night's Oscars, in part because of its reference to the 89th Academy Awards ceremony where Moonlight famously won over La La Land in a moment of serious gaffing. While it's a deserved punchline, it also perfectly symbolized Isaacs' mission statement. Things were changing, and what was once conventional (a winner like La La Land) is no longer the case. Moonlight wasn't like an Oscar winner before, in part because it had an entirely black cast, and featured a gay love story where nobody was painted as a martyr. This was an era where everyone would be recognized, and it was important to make a big deal about it. Even the choice to have transgender actress Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman) present seemed like a small moment of progression in recognizing non-white filmmakers. 

The Shape of Water
While change is only effective if it's permanent, there was a concern about where things would go for The Academy Awards in 2018. It was a new class, and one who didn't follow the predictable patterns of the past. As much as quality is a major factor in who wins and loses, there's something bold and exciting about The Shape of Water winning. It continues the inclusion trend with a film that celebrates the lives of those disabled, gay, or a non-white male in America. It's a clever subversion of Civil Rights dramas like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and finds a way to update monster movies in a way that's not just popcorn flick that plays as a b-side to the prestige movie. No, the monster movie IS the prestige movie. That is the biggest takeaway, especially given that the closest film to The Shape of Water in the Best Picture camp is Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and even that featured seemingly normal white males as the inevitable heroes over the vicious beasts of J.R.R. Tolkien folklore.

It's a win that may seem silly to most. After all, it's been derided unfairly as the "fish-man love story" (with more juvenile and erotic insults attached). But here's the odd thing about monster movies: they have never been taken seriously. While it's just as important to recognize queer cinema as being as valid as Lawrence of Arabia or Casablanca, The Academy has dropped the ball on showing it in a complex way. Moonlight was groundbreaking because it painted LGBT issues in a way that has been widely overlooked in favor of negative depictions in films like Silence of the Lambs, Braveheart, or American Beauty. While films like Moonlight still have a ways to go to be publicly accepted, the idea of a monster movie being a Best Picture was silly. How could a man in prosthetic chasing around people ever be considered art?

Scene from Bride of Frankenstein
Fans of genre movies have known this for awhile, but it's been overwhelming to notice general audiences get the gist that monster movies are just as valid forms of art. I think back to James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, a film made in 1933 that epitomized horror at the time. If the themes of The Shape of Water seem revolutionary, simply watch Whale's film where The Monster visits a blind man's house and learns a sad truth: "Alone bad, friend good." In that moment, The Monster has empathy in a film coded with gay subtext. Universal Horror Thrives in the outsider status, which many find underlying themes of loneliness or the more taboo homosexuality (of which Whale was himself). This is just one example of horror being used to explore deeper and more complicated emotions. Sure, traditional dramas could present conflict in a more realistic way, but horror conveys a more literal sense of outsider status that is more universal than someone merely being different. 

It's true that you can't expect every monster movies to hold deeper resonance. Just from last year, films like Kong: Skull Island or The Mummy failed to capture a deeper sympathy for the monsters of the film. They were cool antagonists. In that way, horror is a conflicted genre because sometimes pulp is more exciting, and that's fine. Still, there's something powerful in the humanity of del Toro making The Shape of Water and having it resonate. I've always suspected him to love horror more than me, but his reference point of The Creature from the Black Lagoon has always charmed me. He fantasized about the creature dating the girl, and created the film out of that logic. There's always been the sense of trying to understand those different from you, and for once the opinion of "Alone bad, friend good" was going to resonate with an audience who never saw monster movies as art.

What is more important than them seeing the film as art was understanding the subtext that has been in cinema for almost a century now. It was coded 85 years ago, but was now being presented in an open and honest way. A gay character was allowed to be described as such without being a pariah. The disabled lead was allowed to hold agency over her own life. Most importantly, there was a sense of bonding that comes from these people finding themselves in a troubled society. It isn't that the world is magically cured of animosity, but that there's optimism in finding value in relationships that matter. Sure, The Shape of Water has some vulgarities, but even then del Toro treats the bigger picture as art with a deeper psychological understanding of not only why these characters come together, but how monster movies fit into the grand scheme of cinema, splicing it alongside Mark Sandrich homages and neo-noir Cold War imagery. It's the type of budget most genre filmmakers would love to get but can't without promising some vapidness. It's why del Toro in general has been a great gift to movies when he tries something clever.

There is of course the prophecy of the Three Amigos: three Mexican directors who were predicted to be the future of cinema. With Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu winning Best Director in previous years, it does suggest some accuracy to this myth. However, it's in part because what their films have generally embodied is a sense of community and innovation. Each filmmaker has tackled cinema with their own ambitious technique, with Cuaron's Gravity almost becoming the first sci-fi film to win Best Picture. Still, it's a sign of what makes the Oscars, and cinema in general, so integral to culture. It isn't just about who makes the films, but what perspective they bring. Del Toro has a love for monster movies that drew him to make one that resonated with audiences, showing that genre cinema could be more than pulpy nonsense. These were men who came to Hollywood to make a difference, and in the process showed why it's important to not be "traditional" in an era where social media makes any daily exchange into something global. 

The Shape of Water also has the benefit of being the film that's resonated with me the longest, as I've found more to nitpick and admire about the production and story in subsequent months. It's incredible to think it's also the first movie with a lead female protagonist to win since Million Dollar Baby, and that the films are so radically different. The new era of Oscar voting is exciting when films like this and Moonlight dominate over traditional titles. Sure, I would've been fine if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri had won, but it wouldn't convey anything interesting about The Academy, or art in 2017. The Shape of Water is exciting because it gives hope that genre cinema is no longer relegated to technical wins, and that the general winners for the next five years are going to reshape a group defined by classicism. Who knows. Maybe the 100th Academy Award winner will be the third or fourth sci-fi film to win. It's exciting to think, for the first time ever, that that may not be off base. 

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