"The Shape of Water" as an Antidote to the Age of Trump

Review and recommendation by Karen and Charles McFadden of Guillermo del Toro’s movie, “The Shape of Water”

Our view of the movie is based on the fleeting images we are left with after twice viewing it at our local heater. After the first viewing we recognized that the movie, set in the early 1960s and told as a magical, fantastical allegory, addresses some of the major socio-political challenges of this moment in history, particularly the need for human solidarity to meet the organized challenge from the neo-fascism which has found a current home in the White House and Cabinet of the best-armed military power in human history. In the second viewing we were able to identify and afterwards recall scenes and themes from the movie we believe are highly relevant to all who are today attempting to deal with climate change, the advent of neo-fascism, the renewed threat of a nuclear holocaust and other current existential threats to humanity.

In no particular order, here are some of the reasons why you should see this movie.

Water

Treated as a reservoir for the disposal of industrial and commercial waste by the current masters of the Earth, water is recognized in this movie for the essential role it plays in human and all life. The principal protagonist in this movie, a companion of all who are exploited and oppressed by Capital, water, its flow and the shapes it takes, is celebrated by Director Guillermo del Toro. A far remove from its disregard within an economy governed by the unrestrained drive for capital accumulation, all else be damned.

A great work of art, as exemplified by del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” stimulates the imagination endlessly. It works on the conscious and subconscious on so many different levels. In its opening scene a voiceover calls our attention to the eternal story of the princess and the monster, the fairy-tale motif in which the monster can never hurt the princess, who in return redeems the monster. But does this couple “live happily ever after?” The reader will have to see the movie and its unconventional ending for its answer to this question.

But this is not a movie for conformist thinkers. “The Shape of Water” addresses many of the ugly “isms” that continue to characterize capitalism in its rapidly declining moribund phase: racism, authoritarianism, mindless militarism & neo-fascism, sexism, homophobia, Russo-phobia, colonialism, and consumerism fueled by commercial advertising. In particular, this December 2017 released movie delegitimizes the latest round of McCarthyism and Russo-phobia, all the while achieving a block-buster piece of popular entertainment, much in the manner of Shakespeare’s influence in the era when capitalism was still an emergent, progressive social formation. Emblematic of the present critical historical juncture, this movie is a cultural expression of people in transition to a culture beyond capitalism, a negation of the age of Trump.

Giles and Elisa

Oppressed humanity is represented in the movie by the most salient tendencies among its varied responses to its oppression, on the one hand turning away when others are evidently being victimized, on the other joining them in acts of resistance, solidarity and mutual respect and love.

In a succession of scenes in a fast food franchise of a successful chain, Giles (Richard Jenkins) encourages the service worker behind the counter through friendly conversation and repeated patronage. In a final scene in which Giles expresses affection for the young worker, he is abruptly rebuffed, told not to come back again, that “this is a family place.” But when a black couple enters the establishment, Giles reprimands the service worker for turning them out.

When a TV news broadcast shows civil rights protesters being beaten by police using cattle prods, Giles asks his mute friend Elisa (Sally Hawkins) to turn the TV to a different channel. Elisa obliges by turning to a channel that features a tap-dancing Shirley Temple with her Afro-American mentor in a black and white video relic of a time when society and movies were more explicitly racist. But the music and tap-dancing give pleasure to Elisa and Giles, who express their joy by joining together in imitating the tap dancing moves. Indeed, “The Shape of Water” is filled with representative elements of US popular culture that continue to give joy and pleasure to generations of movie and TV audiences.

Having been fired from his job as a commercial artist, Giles is unable to find work. His former boss salves his own conscience by feigning assistance to Giles, without providing it. The implication of these scenes is del Toro’s recognition of the suffering caused by homophobia and the role of those employers who use their economic power to perpetuate it.

Elisa and the Creature

In a later scene which is pivotal to the movie, Elisa realizes that the security establishment of the aerospace research center where she works has for its own reasons condemned a mysterious, captive creature to its death. She begs Giles to help her save him. Giles at first protests that the creature “is not even human.” But Elisa, who has already communicated and bonded with the creature, replies, “if we do nothing, neither are we”.

Strickland, Zelda and Elisa

In this movie set in the early 1960s, security agent Strickland encounters Elisa and her Afro-American co-worker & close friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) cleaning the men’s washroom at the highly secured Space research station where they all work. In their presence, Strickland places his electric cattle prod across one wash basin, cleans his hands in another, then takes a leak in the urinal, before announcing to them upon leaving that his manliness necessitates cleaning his hands only once, not both before and after handling his manly parts.

Strickland and the Creature

In a later scene, we witness Strickland using his electric prod to torture the mysterious creature. We learn further that Strickland was responsible for capturing the creature from the Amazon, where the creature was regarded by the local indigenous people as a god, but whose significance for Strickland was only the creature’s potential as a pawn in the competition with the Russians to land a man on the moon.

Strickland’s use of his electric cattle prod in maliciously torturing an evidently humanoid creature from the Amazon serves as a reminder of the similar use of instruments of torture on the contemporary victims of police violence. It also calls to mind the entire ugly history of colonialization, enslavement and forceful confinement of the human subjects of imperial rule.

Further on, Strickland describes the creature as primitive and recalls that the natives of the Amazon who considered the creature a god also tried to prevent oil drilling. Strickland adds, “but that didn’t work out very well for them, did it?” An apparent put down of indigenous peoples’ adherence to different belief systems than Strickland’s belief in the literal validity of the stories told in the Old Testament.

Strickland and Zelda

In one particular scene, Strickland questions Zelda in a manner so thick with racism you could cut it. Zelda studiously avoids confrontation with Strickland when he questions her about her middle name, Delilah, threateningly asking her whether she was aware of Delilah’s betrayal of Samson in the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. No, Zelda responds, she was not familiar with that part of the bible. But menacingly muttering under his breath, Strickland raises the question of whether he should take action now to cut off the risk that Zelda would later betray him.

Inescapable from these and other scenes in the movie is the conclusion that racism – at many different levels and manifestations - is a central theme of “The Shape of Water”.

The creature viewing an early movie depiction of slavery

In another scene involving the creature, who has at this point been liberated from captivity by Elisa and Giles with the help of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the scientist employed to determine the creature’s exploitable characteristics, the creature runs into a movie theatre where on old movie is being shown in which Imperial Roman soldiers are working their slaves in a rock quarry, a scene that recalls the similar slavery of indigenous peoples working the mines in South America once owned and managed by their early Spanish and Portuguese conquerors and today owned by multinational mining companies.

Dr. Hoffstetler

Dr. Hoffstetler and his Russian handlers are the central purveyors of cold war mythology in this melodrama. A Soviet Russian patriot Dr. Hoffstetler, is employed by the aerospace research center based on his credentials and references as a US educated scientist. But in later scenes it is made clear that he is under the control of his Soviet handlers. He reports his findings to these handlers, who in turn give him his marching orders, all conveyed to the viewer through translation of their conversation in Russian. Their ultimate decision is that Dr. Hoffstetler is to kill the creature to prevent the Americans from gaining advantage from the use of this asset.

But Hoffstetler’s relation to the creature and its protector, Elisa, changes when he observes its ability to communicate, recognizing that he is dealing with a sentient being, not merely an object. He abandons his Russian patriotism (and betrays his Russian handlers), abetting the escape of the creature, declaring, “I don’t want an intricate, beautiful creature, one that can communicate with us, destroyed.”

General Hoyt

In relation to Strickland, the archetypal sociopath in the service of ruling class law and order, and Dr. Hoffstettler who argues on scientific grounds for the survival of the creature, General Hoyt is the big cheese, a point the latter emphasizes by pointing to the five stars on his lapel and proclaiming that these mean his word is the final one in relation to the fate of the creature, “It is my damned decision.” These and numerous other scenes in the movie speak to del Toro’s antipathy to authoritarianism in its many variants, a theme that runs like a connecting thread through his artistic work and that of his principal collaborators in this and other of his films.

This theme is underscored by an otherwise inexplicable opening and closing scene in the movie. In an opening scene, we see the marquee of a movie theatre being completed with the words, “Mardi Gras”. The boss shouts up to the worker completing the sign, “No, you moron, it is spelled G R A S S,” pronouncing the work grass. A final scene shows the marquee, with the words “Mardi Gras” reminding us of the arrogance of those many employers who in this manner assert their authority, and corresponding inability to learn from those they employ.

Concluding comments

There are many other powerful scenes in the movie, but to relate a couple of the most powerful ones would give away the ending. The reader will have to see the movie for these. And, of course, without a manuscript in hand, our recollections are bound to reflect what we brought to the movie with us (see more from us on www.greensocialdemocracy.org) and less than you will learn from seeing the movie yourselves. We did note from the closing credits that among those del Toro thanks for their advice and assistance are fellow filmmakers Cuaron, Inarritu,  Cameron and the Coen Brothers, which already should tell you a lot about the movie and remind all of us that works of art, like scientific “discoveries” are collaborative endeavours, the work of thousands and expressions of the thought and efforts of millions, captured in the very languages we share.

Above all, “The Shape of Water” is an expression of humanism, popular solidarity and the convergence of the peoples’ movements towards a more just, democratic and sustainable society, one which capitalism’s supporters once promised but were never able to deliver. Today, these defenders of capitalism (both their neo-fascist and liberal democratic contingents), menace the world with the alternative of nuclear and environmental destruction, the premature end of human civilization, if their ruling class privileges (or aspiration to such privileges) are threatened. “The Shape of Water” is sustenance for all who aspire to a world in which imagination, science, democracy and human development are fully supported, not denied.

Our initial impression is that this movie is a classic, one that will be remembered by humanity as such, particularly its coincidence with this critical turning point in our history. We welcome your views after seeing this movie. Our present intention is to revise this review when the screenplay and digital copy of the movie are made available, that is sometime after the end of this February (2018). Of course, with the present momentum of the neo-fascist regime in the White House, their allies within the Republican Party and their handlers in the financial and fossil fuel world, there will likely be many other fires to put out by that time, work for millions and ultimately billions of people if there is to be a more just, democratic and sustainable society for future generations.

Welcome!

This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New

NEW & REVISED

Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them

OPINION

Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement

REVIEWS

Charles and Karen McFadden, “The Shape of Water” as an Antidote to the Age of Trump 

Charles McFadden, Decolonizing the U.S. & Canada: The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.

US CORNER

William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class

CANADA CORNER

George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP

RECOMMENDED

Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018

FEATURED WORK

ECONOMICS

1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism

HISTORY

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems

LABOR

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.