What’s interesting in writing about films that attempt to move the medium forward is that such films tend to impact the mind of the critic a little bit more than others. They begin a thought process where one idea inevitably leads to another in an interesting, intuitive but generally causal way. Such it is with The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor and directed by Mr. del Toro.

I admittedly lack an in-depth knowledge of del Toro’s previous work – most of which I haven’t seen – but this film provides a successful example of combining the feminine and masculine voice in storytelling, something that the collaborative nature of film allows to happen. The film also taps into some intriguing philosophical territory, even while conveying an essentially melodramatic love story involving a mute young SOW-005woman (played by Sally Hawkins) and a primordial and monstrous amphibious creature (played by Doug Jones) reminiscent of the 1954 horror film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Another, more recent, corollary being the film version of The Beauty and the Beast.

Vanessa Taylor, who scripted the sci-fi film Divergent, honed her skills primarily as a television writer. The advantage of television writing is that it tends to force the writer to focus on character interaction and subtleties (when it’s good), and because of constraints of budget and time often tends to shy away from a dependence on special effects. It is the strength of the character’s interactions – coupled with a compelling story told in a unique way – that makes The Shape of Water so easy to watch.

The Shape of Water, sometimes billed as a fantasy/drama, also brings together a mélange of philosophical ideas in a very impressive way – ideas that may often be the brainchild of Mr. del Toro. While the film’s execution budget and scope are relatively modest in Hollywood terms ($19 million), the intellectual scope of the film extends quite further. Now, whether or not all of this philosophical ‘profundity’ is a result of my own personal meanderings over the past few years, or the intended result of the filmmakers, we’ll never know (unless I happen to meet them). Nevertheless, some readers might find the following reflections of value.

While many film professionals have, for a variety of reasons, recently flocked to television, I have continued to advocate for film as a viable art form, and also tried to promote certain kinds of films that, as Plato would describe in his dialog Phaedrus, SOW-003reflect a sort of ‘divine madness.’ Two types of ‘divine madness’ are on display in The Shape of Water – that of the Muse for the Artist and that of Aphrodite for Elisa. Plato himself would probably like The Shape of Water, and not be so inclined to support the dehumanizing trends in modern society outlined below.

Interestingly, one could interpret The Shape of Water being simply a fantasy played out in the mind of the Artist (played by Richard Jenkins) who finds his helper and Muse in the mute woman Elisa. One interpretation of the film could be that the Creature is simply a fantasy of the artist’s repressed homosexuality – or further, sublimated sexuality. Like the mystical art of Tibetan Tantrics, the Artist ultimately comes to SOW-001portray the embrace of his Muse – the Goddess – with the Godhead, the Creature in a way that is outside of his commercial artwork.

As such, the film could be interpreted as a fantasy of the Artist, and primarily their own story of madness, divine or otherwise. In another era, the explicit madness of the artist may have been the approach taken by the writers. But because they don’t go down that path, the film’s narrative also exposes well our current cultural problem regarding the nature of truth and reality; in other words, in our era of ‘fake news’ when supposedly no information can SOW-002really be trusted and all purveyors of ‘truth’ are corrupted, reality itself becomes questioned. Madness, in a sense, becomes the norm.

The pervasive – if not often discussed – issue of cultural madness is what attracts people to philosophies such as Buddhism. Buddhist philosophy challenges us to examine the nature of our ‘givens’ – our truths – and posits a variety of responses to that analysis, some positive, some not so. Thus the correlation between the art of Tibet and the ‘tantric’ drawings of the artist of the Creature and his Muse is no stretch.

One not so positive outcome of postmodern philosophical analysis can be nihilism – one of the philosophical traps (along with eternalism) that Buddhists try to avoid. Nihilism being a general tendency to believe that if all truths (including the notion of beauty) are ultimately fabricated constructions, that none matter, and that the only rational response is to use our ‘enlightened self-interest’ – AKA selfishness – as a guide. Many in the West, having adhered to this guide for several centuries, are starting to doubt it – primarily because of the havoc wreaked on nature as a result.

The corruption of mankind and the destruction of the natural world (as portrayed not only in this film but other fantasy films such as Okja – another allegory about modern society), is the direct result of a world that is increasingly trapped in an endless cycle SOW-008of gain, success, and failure. Again, gain and success being on display in our ‘Enlightened Self Interest’ and ‘Positive Thinking’ as evident in book The Power of Positive Thinking, read by the The Shape of Water’s antagonist Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. That The Shape of Water inverts the ‘goodness’ of that quintessentially American text is certainly no accident. Strickland, who has the traditional good looks of a leading man, is inverted into the ugly monster. On the other hand, the repulsive Creature in this film – as did the giant pig in Okja – become emblems of the beautiful.

What Mr. del Toro and Ms. Taylor allude to in some of their writing is an understanding of the Hindu and Buddhist notions of maya (illusion), and the conceptual nature of reality (it is also no accident that the action mostly takes place above a movie theater – the ultimate purveyor of illusion). Concurrently, there is the tragic loss of the natural (and feminine) world due to the ambitions of men and women alike. The Creature in The Shape of Water, reflects this primordial and natural being, free from the constraints of modern society and modern machinations of success and failure. He is a metaphor for the primordial and primitive mind – the reptilian mind some would say – the apex of the brainstem, the core, the crux of our intelligence that transcends language.

It is interesting, therefore, that our Muse Elisa in this film is mute – incapable of speech and language, and thus able to communicate with the Creature and ultimately to fall in love with him, as he too is incapable of language.

The philosopher René Descartes, among others, considered this primal (reptilian) brain and the tiny organ associated with it – the pineal gland – as the center of SOW-006thought and, as some Hindu yogis and mystics would describe it, the gateway to the infinite – to the Godhead of infinite consciousness. Thus the (reptilian) Creature in The Shape of Water is paradoxically both good and evil – for he is at once primitive and primal but also naturally and organically connected to the whole.

In my mind, The Shape Of Water is ultimately a fable about the failed consumerist model that has attempted to subdue and supplant primitive, indigenous systems (the Creature is from Amazonia – but the ancient cultures in the West could be included here).  These ancient systems worked just fine for thousands of years – at least in terms of the flourishing of the natural world (human freedom and comfort being another question altogether!). The ultimate alternative to this indigenous, natural mind as proposed by Western Societies, is artificial intelligence. The natural mind, say its proponents, is capable of a mystical union with the entirety of consciousness (water representing that consciousness, particularly as it ‘drips down’ from above to Enlighten us, as it did in the movie theater in The Shape of Water). This is contrasted to technological heavy-handedness of Western civilization that tends to dehumanize everything in its path and lead us toward the Nirvana of the technological mind.

Another film that delved into similar philosophical territory is Prometheus. The Builder Race in Prometheus, one could argue, were very similar to the Creature in The Shape of SOW-007Water. There is a seemingly inexplicable scene in Prometheus where a representative of the Builder Race reacts wrathfully at the ‘perfected’ AI of the Robot, and rips his head off. The Shape of Water reflects similar sensibilities: our ancestors would likely judge our embrace of AI quite harshly.

The alternative to the dehumanizing influence of modern society is, of course, love. But love in the case of The Shape of Water, is shown to be infinite and subsumed into a wider consciousness that has no ultimate shape or form  –  thus the title of the film: The Shape of Water. The natural, organic path of mankind is, to the mystic, the compassion and love that lead via experience, both human and transcendent, to something beyond our world, and, to paraphrase from Puccini’s Turandot, “the night journey that has no morning sun.”

The Sun, in the context of this film, becomes the human heart – a human heart that leads us inevitably to love and compassion. In other words, The Shape of Water gives the divine madness of Aphrodite the final word.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

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