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The Shape of Water

You know that feeling when you’ve been submerged in another world for two hours, and when you surface, everything seems less appealing, more mundane?

I’d assume that most people who read books, or watch movies, or undergo other intensive, immersive experiences offered by art are fairly familiar with it. I’d also assume that, given how much practice we’ve had in dealing with it, we’d be better at the surfacing by now. That the rush up for air is less a headlong, pressure-induced splurge than a measured, calm rise air and the ‘real world’. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m still fairly horrible at handling it, yet another way in which I disappoint myself as a human being.

My latest immersive experience (all the puns intended) was with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I’ve been waiting to see this movie for months; it seemed totally up my alley, based on promos. Happy to report that unlike with some other movie experiences this year (sigh, Spiderman Homecoming) my excitement was not misplaced.


The Shape of Water is a gorgeous fairytale, and I use that term with all the literary weight it carries. At its heart, it is just that—the story of a princess ‘without a voice’ who finds her prince, and must overcome hurdles, some institutional, some personal. The means she uses range from the strangely mundane (towels) to beautifully fantastical (no spoilers). She receives help from her misfit friends, and faces danger from the powers that be. She is very much the hero of our story, the damsel and the saviour both.

Both del Toro and numerous reviewers have been going on about how revolutionary Shape is, the biggest reason being the fact that instead of the conventional, handsome prince, it’s the monster, an ‘amphibian man’, who gets the girl. In an interview, del Toro speaks about how watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon inspired him, how one brief shot of the heroine swimming in the water, the monster lurking beneath, made him hope that they would ‘end up together’. Shape is his fulfillment of that wish, and it’s a beautiful fulfillment yes, but I’m not sure the ‘monster gets the girl’ trope is all that revolutionary by now. Vampire and werewolf love stories have been dominating the big and small screens for years, some darker and less sparkly than others. The moment they decided to make Dracula sexy instead of horrifying, the monsters won.

the shape of water

What I found most ‘revolutionary’ about the movie wasn’t the monster, but the princess herself. It’s a cliche now to say that fairy tales are not exactly the best places to see a woman use her agency. Many princesses are confined to towers, to sleep away centuries, or pay the price for the errors of others. When they do make decisions, it tends to go very badly, and resulted in entire kingdoms being swallowed by thorns, or having to marry warty, demanding frogs. There’s little they do besides look beautiful (without any effort, because no woman in a fairytale has ever had to wax or get her upper lip and eyebrows done) and wait for reward in the form of a handsome prince. Sometimes that prince is a corpse-kissing wanderer in the woods, and at others he’s a book-loving softie hiding behind a fierce facade. Whatever the case, he’s the hero, despite the women being, ostensibly, the centre of the story.

How does Shape rewrite this? Not only is our princess Eliza (Sally Hawkins) riddled with might be seen as ‘defects’ in a traditional fairytale (she is a mute cleaning lady), but those very limitations are what give her power. Her relative invisibility (as the ‘help’, and a not especially glamorous woman) allow her to slip, unnoticed, into places she might not otherwise be allowed to enter; her ‘difference’ is what foregrounds her desire to befriend and rescue the stranger (Doug Jones, encased but not unexpressive in a rubber suit) trapped in a tank. ‘He sees me,’ she signs to her neighbour, seeking to explain his importance to her. The ‘monster’ does not see her flaws; he accepts her entirely for who she is, and having been alone all her life, Eliza feels nothing but compassion, fascination, and eventually, love for this being who has no peer that she can see, or imagine.

To watch Shape is to drown, for what might be a disappointingly short time, in a world that’s markedly similar to ours. There are evil security officials (a great and convincingly horrible Michael Shannon), warmhearted, caring friends (Octavia Spencer, playing to type), Cold War politics all drenched in del Toro’s fantastical colours. There is homage to the sweeping Hollywood epics of the past—both the historical fare that plays in the largely-abandoned theatre below Eliza’s apartment, and the black and white musicals that fuel her romantic daydreams. It’s worth pointing out how art—in this case, music and movies—is what really connects the monster and the maiden, and puts them on the path to communication. Del Toro’s movie is both an homage to that art, as well as a seductive object itself. It reels you in, and submerges you, and when you emerge, the world above seems a little colder, a little less magical, than the depths you’ve left behind.

The Fury of a Goddess Scorned

I hate it when blog posts open with the words ‘It’s been so long since I posted.’ For a long time, I thought it was ridiculous to call attention to the gap between one’s posts. ‘It’s okay,’ I wanted to tell those offenders, ‘We get it, you have a life, and the commitments that come with it.’ Now I’m one of those people.

The point of that long paragraph was to say the words without actually saying them. I think I succeeded.

Thor: Ragnarok spoilers are coming at you below.

Anyway, I have so much to write about, I don’t knew where to start. I saw Thor: Ragnarok the day of its release, so I suppose I should lead with that. I liked it, not loved it, and my favourite part was not Loki (Tom Hiddleston is still in my bad books), but Cate Blanchett’s Hela. I walked out of the theatre thinking, ‘Wow, I have so many deep things to say about her and her claims of being written out of history, I can reference imperialism and the sacred feminine and the monstrous feminine and all sorts of other smart things,’ but then because I was lazy and/or consumed by the process of ‘having a life’, someone else got to it first. But I won’t be bitter about it; here’s the article on Tor, which does a fairly good job of laying out Ragnarok’s anti-imperialist stance, so enjoy that and reflect on the idea that someone in the world usually has the same good idea as you, so don’t get distracted but sit down and write it out RIGHT NOW.

hela with hammer

But I do want to dwell on Hela a bit, so bear with me. First of all, Cate Blanchett was great, which was no surprise. Second, Hela’s motivation, while decidedly non-original, seemed, to me, perhaps more weirdly sympathetic and understandable than that of many other Marvel villains. For one thing, the Thor franchise seems to have learned from its mistakes (cough Dark Elves cough) and actually allowed for some development of their big bad here. For another, Hela’s rationale, of coming back to claim her rightful place was, strangely enough, a surprisingly strong rationale. Yes, she had been denied her rightful place. Yes, she had been shamefully cast aside by her father once she had outlasted her value. Yes, she had been too ‘monstrous’ for him to keep by his side, and had to be put away. Odin had used her talents to expand his rule to Asgard’s Nine Realms, but when her ambition ‘grew too much’, and her appetites were beyond what he deemed acceptable, he cast her away, and removed her image and memory from his kingdom. Hela’s face when she realizes that nobody knows who she is is actually heartbreaking, a moment of rare emotion from a character who is otherwise the consummate chilling, angry, sword and spear-casting villain. Hela is actually hurt by Odin’s absolute removal. He keeps the ‘gilded’ image of Asgard, and papers over the memory of her; he has his people worship him and his sons, but burns away any knowledge of his daughter, without whom, it is implied, his rule would have been very different.

I do not support Hela’s agenda at all, let me make that clear. Of course it’s not cool to go around enslaving other worlds simply because you’re good at it. But I also think that it’s no small thing that she’s a goddess who has been slighted. Female anger has traditionally been hidden away, with women who have gone ‘beyond their use’ locked away or simply disposed of—think of all those ‘witches’ who were drowned or burnt, or otherwise inconvenient women who faced brutal ends. Megan GArber’s piece in the Atlantic, ‘All the Angry Ladies,’ is a brilliant illustration of this history. Hela’s anger in a time of cascading revelations regarding sexual misconduct, its arrival near the anniversary of the women’s march, makes it seem timely. Hela is magnificent not only because she’s a literal goddess who can destroy a god’s symbol of phallic power, but because she channels what women have felt for so long: anger at having been put away, silenced, when she was no longer convenient for the patriarch.

So it was with some discomfort that I watched as she was vanquished, left to fight an unending battle with a one-dimensional fire giant while her brothers made an escape. There was no redemption for Hela, and she did not seek any. Her actions through the course of the film were unforgiveable, and she betrays not a shred of pity for the people over whom she rules. But even so, even though she is such an obviously horrible figure, I felt a tiny spark of recognition for her. I wonder whether it’s problematic, my recognition, or whether it’s more problematic that the film quashed her so ruthlessly at the hands of a blonde, buff man and his merry band of misfits. Characterized as angry, and needlessly violent, Hela is a discomfiting figure, but her imprisonment and defeat do not do anything to ease us. If anything, they make her more compelling, and worrisome, in their own way.

Rumblings of war too distant: American Gods on TV

Every good reader and writer knows that to build a good story, it requires a structure, and often, that structure is the bones of another, older tale. Almost every fantasy series does just this, bringing us into a world whose battle for existence is really just another in an ongoing conflict, only the gaps between them are so large that it feels new for those involved. A Song of Ice and Fire, Lord of the Rings, even Harry Potter, many of them hint at what has come before, and often make it sound as though that battle, the one we just about missed, was actually the more exciting and epic and dark one; too bad we got the watered down present instead.

Neil Gaiman’s work of genius, American Gods, comes at this in a slightly different way. Here, the past, one of bloody glory and sacrifice, literally wages war with the present and future. The old gods, fearing irrelevance in the modern world, go to war against the smug new ones, and a crisis of belief envelopes the United States. ‘This is the only country that doesn’t know what it is,’ the mysterious Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow, our protagonist, at one point. The book was first published in 2001. The TV series debuted this year, but it’s eerily timely, considering everything that’s happening, not just in the US, but many other places in the world.

american godsMy relationship with American Gods is one of deep respect, bordering on an almost reverential awe. I think this is Gaiman’s greatest work, and nothing he’s done, before or after, comes close. It’s such an ambitious idea, to distill the soul of an entire country, and pour it into these forms from all over the world, but somehow, he managed it. The sheer audacity of it, to take all these immigrant stories and not just elevate them to the level of the divine, but to actually have the divine take form on your page and give it an almost disturbingly human quality, so the gods piss and fuck and act as ridiculously human–if not more so—than the believers they need so badly—this is soemthing that so few writers do with any grace, let alone the mastery that Gaiman displays. Our myth writers, who sell in the thousands, cannot compare. This, this is myth writing or retelling or casting or whatever you want to call it. It’s making the old new in such a way that you can see it happening, and only marvel at the sheer craft with which its done, like a glass house in which you can see all the beams and rafters, and appreciate the architect’s vision for what it truly is.

Anyway, enough blathering about the book. How did the TV series do? I was nervous, coming to it, which is why I put off viewing it for so long. The book was so cerebral, so intense an experience, that I felt no TV show could do it justice. The avalanche of great reviews calling it the show of the year and whatnot only made that apprehension worse. There’s something about extremely glowing reviews that puts me off; maybe it’s the hipster in me, who refuses to like what the mainstream has dubbed incredible. Not unless I dubbed it incredible first, ya know.

Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.
Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon, lost soul in a lost nation.

So how does the show compare? Some of the key elements are the same: Shadow, a taciturn, brooding, muscular man gets out of jail to find that his wife has died in an accident. He is hired by Mr. Wednesday, a tricky old man who has some sort of grand plan up his sleeve, one which Shadow does not entirely understand. There is a crazy leprechaun named Mad Sweeney. The dead wife comes back to life and follows Shadow around. Gods old and new turn up in Shadow’s path and taunt or tease him, with lethal consequences or not depending on whose side they are on. And the whole is interspersed with flashbacks, stories of side characters, from the past or the present or in between, and how they came to America, bringing with them their beliefs and traditions, and their gods. Now, the gods feel abandoned, their followers turning to newer deities like Technology and Media (played by a totally-enjoying-herself Gillian Anderson), and the incense and sacrifice that once formed the staple of their diets, their very existence, is gone.

mr wednesdayThe casting is pretty damn good. Ian McShane plays Mr. Wednesday, and he does bring the character’s slippery charm and humour to the fore, but doesn’t let viewers forget that within, something else roils and churns, soething much older and more sinister. Ricky Whittle is broody and beautiful as Shadow, and I really liked Emily Browning as Laura Moon, or ‘dead wife’ as she’s more often called. The show has the added advantage of focusing on Laura more than the book did in some ways, following her journey, which parallels Shadow’s own. Just as Shadow journeys from doubt to belief and back, Laura, a much more nihilistic character, does the same, and Browning plays her clutching at meaning in an understated manner, which perhaps makes it all the more impactful. There also seem to be expanded roles for some of the side characters here, such as Bilquis, a fertility goddess, and Mad Sweeney, who really lingered on the edges in the book, only careening chaotically into the middle of the action now and then. I suppose this is done to pad out the whole season, and leave enough meat for a second, if not third and fourth as well.

Emily Browning as Laura Moon
Emily Browning as Laura Moon

There are downsides to this padding—and that means that the ‘conflict’ doesn’t really start until well into the season, if then. Some of the episodes are stuffed with too much long drawn out conversation, which works well for a comedy, or more ‘realist’ drama like Mad Men, but here runs the risk of being boring. I could have done with less hijinks with Laura for instance, and more of Mr. Nancy, the form of Anansi the Spider. Or perhaps more of the old gods and their stories, and less of Mr. Wednesday and Shadow conversing? Shadow is never the most entertaining conversationalist, so really, these are one man shows that we could have done without.

Would I recommend it? Let me put it this way: you can live without watching it. It’s stylistically done, yes. Some of the acting is great, yes. But does it string together well as a story? So much that is great about the Gaiman novel is that though it appears a little fragmented, though it takes a while for the shape of the ‘quest’ to come together, and even then it is only a small glimpse of what we must understand as a much larger battle that human minds cannot possibly comprehend, the whole works together. This? It’s a bit draggy in parts, and too incomprehensible in others, and overall, lacks the big picture amazement that say, Game of Thrones or Legion have. Hopefully it’ll be tighter next season.

But if you haven’t already, go read the book. Trust me, that is one thing you will not regret.