How "The Shape of Water" Interrogates Nostalgia
On Guillermo del Toro’s “beautiful ugly fairytale” and how it reveals the dark side of the Golden Age
I make it a habit to follow the principle of being late because, as Wilde put it, “punctuality is the thief of time”. So I was in no rush to see The Shape of Water, and ended up watching it in March this year – in the same week it was already winning four categories of the Oscars. On the same day, incidentally, that I had read about Italy’s general election. I read of the growing support for far-right factions and a willingness to excuse bigotries so long as the party supported some isolated concern. That evening, I considered the social ebb away from inclusion and flow towards fascism in certain quarters. I kept hearing, in a sardonic inner voice, the title of Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel: It Can’t Happen Here. Of course, it has happened here. And then the lights went down in the cinema and the movie began to play.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water opens with the question of where one might begin in telling the story that follows. Our narrator tells us in a ruminative tone that he might be inclined to “start with the time”, a self-reflective variant on the “once upon” approach. He declines to place us in a definite year, and while we are situated in an era by casual details (the US have not yet set a man on the moon, televisions take the coveted display space in store windows), this ambiguity of historical setting speaks throughout the movie.
This might be any time at all, the movie suggests. What separates then from now? Is it anything more than the superficial, the change in clothing styles and the particular social group up against the wall in a given time? Del Toro’s movie dares to suggest there is no substantive difference. One character lives anxiously under the threat of deportation, a socio-political situation unchanged for many today. The despicable government operative who serves as the movie’s antagonist is an overtly masculine, white tyrant who tells the mute cleaning lady he is sexually harassing that not only does he not mind her silence, he gets off on it – as does every abuser up to today’s roll call of Hollywood cretins. There is even a moment when our suburban G. I. Joe of a baddie sits in his crisp white kitchen with his crisp white family straightening the creases out of life around, where he intones (prefiguring Childish Gambino), “This is America.” Not “was” – what used to be always exists as a potential present.
In a scene somewhere towards the middle of the story, an important moment plays out with such emotional honesty that a casual study might miss its significance. An artist is rejected for an ad he has painted, and he is fobbed off with the line that now is not a good time to discuss the matter. Within the space of a few seconds, we have two beats that deliver the central thesis of the movie: First, we see the ad and read the phrase in a bold typeface at its top, The Future is Here, a moment before the artist snaps, “What would be a good time for you?” The headline for the poster serves to underline the warning that (as Faulkner told us) “the past is never dead”. What we remember as “then” can always become “now” once again. The artist’s scornful riposte can be directed at those who subscribe to nostalgia for the old days. Any so-called “golden age” was only better in a limited context and without regard for all the ways in which things were worse.
“Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.”
~ from The Shape of Water
An informal law of debate has it that the invocation of the Nazi spectre shows such bad faith or desperation that it is almost always a losing move in an argument. This is not, however, the main reason that those who spend time connecting dots between the person or politics of Hitler and the person or politics of Trump should reconsider their efforts. The primary reason should be that the similarities either simply aren’t there – Hitler was never as bumbling, inarticulate, or unable to strategize beyond an opening move as the orange faced demagogue – or are not particularly revealing.*
The noteworthy feature is, rather, the similarities between the ways in which liberals and intellectuals of history and of recent times disregarded a threat. Writers more perceptive than I have written on the left’s disregard for working class anxieties and its link to Brexit, Trump, and other recent triumphs of populism for the right; according to Stefan Zweig in his memoir, The World of Yesterday, even “in 1933 and 1934, none of us in Germany and Austria would have contemplated the possibility of one hundredth part, one thousandth part of what was about to break over us a little later”.
Too many intellectuals of now and of then, so assured that their own inability to be persuaded by demagogic rhetoric must be shared by society at large, did not take the threat seriously enough. In Zweig’s own time, this manifest as the muffled giggles from heads buried in sand: “Those few writers who had really gone to the trouble of reading Hitler’s book did not look seriously at his programme, but laughed at his pompous prose style instead.” That same unfounded confidence in the rationality of people and the ill-founded belief that reason will always hold more sway than emotion, than economics, than the priorities of the daily struggle to stay financially or spiritually afloat, was on display during the Trump campaign for presidency. Not until it was far too late did many see that what made him a buffoon in our eyes made him something different – the low standard wrought by the crushing defeats of and disillusionment in a broken political system – and thus worth voting for in the eyes of important swathes of the electorate.
At the bottom of how these deniers of Cassandra, dismissing the oracle’s warnings, view the world and its wending through history is a particular faith. It is a conviction held with little critical examination in the inevitability of progress – and not any old progress, but a very particular manifestation of humanist ideals. This is the kind of faith that leads certain thinkers to announce “the end of history”. Its aetiology can be traced back at least as far as Hegel, who pronounced that “the History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom”.
Their faith in progress also led to a self-reassuring belief that, because what will be must be better than what was, things could never be as bad as (time period X) again. This is the faith Zweig wrote of in his memoir: “With our rooted ideas of justice, we believed in the existence of a German, a European, an international conscience, and we were convinced that a certain degree of inhumanity is sure to self-destruct in the face of humane standards.” Even after Hitler’s rise from the ashes of the Reichstag fire, “the comforting phrase, ‘This can’t last long’ was on all lips”, an echo of the self-deception that mollified Zweig’s Russian publisher during the Revolution’s early days. So it goes, round and round.
Or does it? It would seem, to take a different kind of lesson from the past, that Zweig himself overcame the blinding nature of his humanist faith, as evidenced in the candid way he wrote about his ignorance and the misery it led to. He learned that such simplistic optimism can undermine the possibility of the very peace it believed in. John Gray writes in his introduction to Messages From a Lost World, a selection of premonitory essays by Zweig, that “high idealism coexisted in him alongside a painful perception of the fragility of civilisation”. Sadly, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction, and his optimism fell to pessimism, which resulted in Zweig’s suicide in despair at the damage done to the world he once loved.
“Time is but a river flowing from our past.”
~ from The Shape of Water
No view of history and of the future worth anything will be simple, no single path will be found through it, and no picture will be entirely rosy nor completely bleak. A method of navigating somewhere between beauty and discord, profundity and meaninglessness, success and failure must be found. The Shape of Water allows for this delicate balance, and in this way, Del Toro’s narrative-thematic style is matched to his visual style, which might be described as “beautiful ugly” and defined as richness to the point of near nausea. Astringent bigotry is expressed with lyrical crudity (the vile antagonist loses two fingers but is consoled that at least he still has his “thumb, trigger, and pussy fingers”); visceral violence tears its way through the biliously lush green (or teal) palette with rich blood-red; the soft, stylised sets and cinematography lionising a golden age of cinema are split at the seams to reveal the racism, sexism, and homophobia – the unholy trinity of prejudice – embedded beneath the gorgeous surface. The best and the worst co-exist in this world, as they do in reality.
It is easy to dismiss credulous optimism as gullibility, as indicative of an inability to perceive the world as it is, because optimism often is exactly that. But it is also too easy to slip into a comfortable pessimism, a pose of hip nihilism or of having the “courage” to accept the darkness around. But this is lazy, because it demands nothing of us. We tell ourselves that nothing we do will change anything and, hey presto, nothing becomes the thing to do. It leads us to become like the artist in the first half of The Shape of Water, who insists that the television be turned to another channel, something playing happy old show tunes, when footage of civil rights protestors suffering under canons of water intrudes on his bubble of comfort. This is no better than the faith of those who complacently assume that what they value will be upheld and allowed to prosper in spite of the efforts of reactionaries and bigots who want to halt the “inevitable” flow of progress.
Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark, defines hope as meaning that “another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed”. Certainty is a prerequisite for delusion, for the ability to assert regardless of evidence to the contrary that “X is the case”, but hope operates with no regard to certainty, insisting instead only that “X is possible”. And we have evidence for such a belief, so much so that it should not really be considered optimism more than simply conceding to reality. Votes have been won, segregations nullified, rights finally afforded, walls collapsed, hearts and minds (and with them laws) changed.
And the tide has washed back on itself again in many cases: having abolished one form of slavery in many countries, it has been established in other forms in other nations; the pernicious effects of factory pollution have been diminished from the air over our own heads while it has been transported to skies over other lands; small readymade measures for tackling climate change, from tax on plastic bags to widespread use of energy saving appliances, are everywhere in our daily lives, leading some to a complacent attitude that they are now “doing enough”. This is the evidence that reminds us to take nothing for granted.
We cannot assume that things have to get better or that, once they have improved, they must stay that way. What is given can be taken away, and there is perhaps no better motto or mantra for this than that of Camus: “There is no love of life without despair of life.”
There is a biting moment that stops time just for an instant in The Shape of Water when two characters argue over whether to help the fish-man fighting for his life. One of them says, “It’s not even human!” To which the other character replies, “If we do nothing, neither are we.” And on revisiting this line, as I write a conclusion to an essay all about how we perceive the shape of history, I wonder if all of that is secondary; perhaps what really matters is the shape of humanity. Perhaps the film is saying that it does not matter what era it is, or what place we find ourselves in, it only matters who we are and what we do.
I’m going to go watch it again.
* Far better comparisons can be made between Ronald Reagan and Trump. Reagan prefigured the current president in his denial of facts on the public record (“I did not openly criticise [Carter] in the closing days of the [Iran Hostage Crisis],” he declared in a 1985 news conference, despite the statement he made in October 1980 that “this administration’s foreign policy helped create the entire situation that made their kidnap possible”) and facts of reality (he claimed the Russians had no word for “freedom” – ignorant as he was of the word “svoboda” – and that submarine ballistic missiles can be “recalled” once launched – a far more terrifying ignorance). And Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again”, was only one word longer than Trump’s 2016 rallying call.
• Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890)
• The Shape of Water, dir. Guillermo del Toro (2017)
• William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951)
• Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (1942)
• George Wilhelm Hegel, The Philosophy of History (1837)
• John Gray, in ‘Introduction’ from Messages From a Lost World (2015)
• Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark (2016)
• Albert Camus, ‘Love of Life’ in Lyrical and Critical Essays (1970)