SPOILER ALERT!!!! We encourage you to read this after you’ve seen the movie.
Artwork by Tsunami Huerta
Hoon: For years I wondered why an interesting character like the one in Creature From the Black Lagoon** had to be a feared villain rather than a wonder. The Shape of Water is in many ways an answer to this. The movie symbolizes humankind’s exploitive relationship with the environment. The amphibious male lead (identified in the credits only as “Amphibian Man,” played by Doug Jones) is said to be from a remote part of South America, an area that’s being invaded and ravaged by U.S. corporations. He has the ability to heal, which arguably makes him a personification of the rain forests he comes from and which we’re destroying. Like the “Amphibian Man,” the rain forests may have healing properties that would vanish without our ever even knowing.
(Just this week, Caroline Casey of KPFA’s Visionary Activist Show discussed these endangered resources with Dr. Joe Tafur, author of The Fellowship of the River: A Medical Doctor’s Exploration into Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine. (See: https://kpfa.org/episode/the-visionary-activist-show-march-1-2018/ or https://coyotenetworknews.com/radioshow/full-moon-entheo-endogenous-indigenous-medicine/ .) At one point, Casey repeated this line from her essay, Dreams and Disasters:
“In the outer rain forest, in the inner rain forest, our souls’ domain, lie untold medicinal plants that could well heal the plagues with which humanity is afflicted. The literal and symbolic question then is, will we find the thing that heals us before we kill it?”)
Tsunami: Being a disabled person, I felt very comfortable relating to the female lead. That’s the first thing people see; even being a woman is somewhat ignored. The character Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) was an abandoned youngster with scars on her neck; evidence of some kind of severe trauma. She was somehow adopted by a kindly advertising man (Giles, played by Richard Jenkins) who unintentionally ignored who she really was and had her waiting on him hand & foot—willingly & lovingly but still serving as a surrogate mom-wife of sorts.
Though her adopted dad was very respectful of her in his love, he was plainly not interested in who she was, for their focus was constantly on him. Her work environment echoed this also absolutely brutal and classist. This movie lays the groundwork for a common feminist plight we women go through: seen & heard but not really & truly.
It is no wonder she falls for her wild aquatic male—for the first time in her life she is genuinely seen & heard. He is sincerely interested in who she is & sees past her disability!
She, in turn doesn't care what he looks like; she values by far that she is really being seen & heard & appreciated. Also, she can relate to his plight; she's in a kinda prison at work & how society relates to her disability.
Tsunami & Hoon: The steadfast homophobia of the time is experienced by Elisa’s surrogate father as he explores an attraction with someone who arguably flirts with him and fortuitously becomes a catalyst for him finally understanding and paying attention to her needs and wants. This is illustrated when she wants to save her aquatic lover’s life. He can finally put himself in her shoes. For the first time in his life he truly sees her.
All of this is enveloped in a warm and fuzzy nostalgia of 1962 juxtaposed with the bittersweet reality of the time (the America many want to return to). The commercialism, the subjugation Giles has to go through in a freshly-stamped glamorous world of advertising. The facade of the space race-cold war that keeps us polarized with other countries and feeds the ravenous weapons manufacturers. Whether the filmmaker (Guillermo del Toro) intended it or not, these themes permeate the subtext of the character arcs.
Further illustrating our dysfunctional and pathological culture is the movie's main setting, a military facility devoted to cruel experiments on the aquatic being. So radically short-sighted is our prevailing global mentality, it doesn't realize the creature's gifts. Those at odds with this thinking include the amphibian and Indigenous people who share his home. At one point in the movie, a particularly nasty military man describes a massacre of these Indigenous people by the U.S. Thus, the aquatic being has commonalities with ancient Indigenous people as well as with the environment itself.
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Tsunami & Hoon: Another observation about this film’s female lead was made this morning by journalist Soraya Chemaly, guest speaker on Democracy Now (https://www.democracynow.org/). “I do think it’s notable for example the Best Film winner has a female protagonist--that’s the first time in 13 years. And it’s not lost on many of us that she actually was a character that didn’t speak, which is somewhat ironic in the time of #MeToo.”
Democracy Now is a 22-year-old radio/TV news show hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales that’s available around the world. It can be relied upon to acknowledge the positive as well as champion areas where more work is needed in all fairness. In this case, examples include deficient representation of women, celebration of men still under question as #MeToo aggressors, and questioning why Oscars and the film industry remain overwhelmingly dominated by white males (illustrated by #OscarsSoWhite).
Meanwhile, Democracy Now lauded the positive growth in the Academy of Motion Pictures this year with its emphasis on areas such as diversity, race, equal pay, #MeToo, #TimesUp, and immigrants’ rights. https://www.democracynow.org/2018/3/5/the_oscars_are_still_so_white
At the time of this posting, The Shape of Water won 4 Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Production Design, and Original Score). Normally we don't emphasize competitive awards—and certainly not box office earnings for corporations—but rather the story standing on its own. Story has been the form of communication for millenia via early humans naturally in sync with their environments. For people of color and Indigenous cultures, it is very common, in every day conversation, for a question to be answered with a story. Here’s to all the stories that continue to propagate within all of us!
*Hoon has trepidations, though, about using “rotten” as a negative description since decomposition of food scraps is good for the soil. Tsunami says, “He really loves his composting, which also provides sustenance for local wildlife.”
**Or for that matter the titular character of the 1971 TV movie Octaman.