Friday, 9 March 2018

At Which Point I Emerged Blinking Into the Daylight

The Shape of Water was a worthy winner of the best picture Oscar on Sunday. It was not only deeply engaging and frequently surprising, but it had an attention to both detail and rhythm that fully justified its separate awards for direction, production design and original score, as well as excellent and subversively humorous acting. Sally Hawkins and Oliva Spencer have something of Laurel and Hardy about them, which I most definitely mean as a compliment. As the title makes clear, water is the symbolic heart of the film, but it's a symbol with multiple meanings, from sexual longing and freedom to pollution and destruction. This film is set in the early-1960s, an era that is usually imagined as sunny, if troubled by the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, but here is darkly green-hued and seems on the verge of being drowned rather than burnt to a crisp: the rain on a bus window, a flooded bathroom that leaks into a cinema auditorium, a rising tide that penetrates the city. Though many critics have characterised it as a magical realist homage to classic Hollywood films (itself a cliché in the analysis of Hispanic directors), I think it was inspired more by a mix of European surrealism and American comics, which should hardly come as a surprise given Guillermo del Toro's previous work, from Pan's Labyrinth to Pacific Rim.

If the sombre comic-book feel heightens the sense of heroic tragedy, the everyday surrealism undercuts it with both pathos and bathos (a lurid Key lime pie represents thwarted desire while the ubiquitous pail and mop represents the supporting role of women, forced to clean up the men's various messes). The tension between the tragic and the surreal is particularly evident in the supporting male characters, played by Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg, who each present a compressed and conflicted man as much at odds with the world as the aquatic "Asset". The Amphibian Man is the apotheosis of this type, being both a fish out of water and "some kind of god". In many ways it is a film about the difficulty men have in establishing meaningful relationships, not just with women but with each other. Language is problematic, rituals have become empty forms and violence is always in the air. In contrast, the women communicate so well that they are repeatedly silenced by male authority. Playing a mute, and therefore a woman who is both ideal and subversive, Hawkins must act through her facial expressions and gestures, which called to mind the subtlety of Setsuko Hara in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deservedly won two acting Oscars and I suspect it was a close finish between it and Get Out for the best original screenplay. Martin McDonagh's script has a classical foundation, though it deliberately eschews resolution, centring on the vengeful Hecuba that is Frances McDormand's character (still visible beneath the John Wayne mannerisms) and Woody Harrelson's epistolary, Stoic police chief. Jordan Peele's Get Out similarly avoids predictability and defies genre categorisation as it subverts tropes from American Gothic, police procedurals and modern horror. The denouement, where the black hero doesn't get shot (in the manner of Night of the Living Dead), being a case in point. Critics have compared it to The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby, but I think it would be just as relevant to cite H G Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. The "experiments" are all flawed and unstable, while Daniel Kaluuya's protagonist finds himself travelling through time in a chair and appalled by the reality hidden below ground. Like Richard Mathieson's I Am Legend, Get Out exists fruitfully on the border between horror and science fiction.

Three Billboards has been criticised for allowing a racist character, Sam Rockwell's cop, the opportunity of reform and redemption, while Get Out was given a free pass for essentially endorsing segregation (albeit in self-defence). It would appear that Malcolm X has finally triumphed over Martin Luther King Jr. in the liberal imagination. Many critics have interpreted the latter film as an attack on liberal hypocrisy, but this ignores that the Armitage family are defined less by their progressive cant than by their extensive property holdings. It also suggests that the problem with lying psychopaths is their dishonesty. In fact, the satire in the film largely revolves around black paranoia, a topic most critics scrupulously avoided. In some respects, Three Billboards is the greater satire on liberal pieties precisely because it doesn't resolve that revenge is bad and reform is good. The racist cop is not redeemed and the bereft (and guilt-ridden) mother is not avenged. The lesson to take from both films is that satire is apolitical. In contrast, the least satirical film of the year was Blade Runner: 2049, which made it one of the best political films (this is probably a minority view). The best film about politics - not the same thing - was The Death of Stalin: a cross between Shakespeare and a version of Fawlty Towers in which Sybil dies (I imagine it was this that got it banned in Russia).

The hot Oscars contender that came away empty-handed was Lady Bird, though I can't say that I was surprised. If Three Billboards is dramatically plausible but sociologically improbable, Lady Bird is sociologically convincing but to the point of predictability, which neutralises its limited dramatic tension. This doesn't matter so much because of the comedy and the deft direction, and the knowing enjoyment of the coming-of-age stereotypes (suburban boredom, teenage anxiety, appreciating your family etc), but it leaves the film feeling insubstantial: a pleasant collection of linked short stories whose sense of progress is purely chronological. Despite Saoirse Ronan's strong central performance, some of the film's better moments come when it focuses on the parents, played by Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, simply because they are more than stereotypes and have dramatic depth. It makes for an interesting contrast with 20th Century Women, which tackled many of the same themes and featured Greta Gerwig in front of the camera, but which had an individualism just the right side of quirky. That under-appreciated 2016 release just missed out on the #MeToo wave and the assertion of the female interest crystallised in McDormand's "inclusion rider", which perhaps propelled Lady Bird to unrealistic levels of expectation. Gerwig will get further opportunities - she is obviously a talented director - but needs to move on from the autobiographical.

One film that missed the 2017 Oscars cut was Black Panther, though I doubt it will have the staying power to bother the 2018 judges. It has understandably enjoyed a lot of goodwill, and is certainly fun, not least in Andy Serkis's over-the-top villain, but it was a pretty conventional addition to the Marvel canon. The idea that Wakanda should have remained a tribal society subject to animism and absolute monarchy despite its urbanism and technological progress is not only absurd but verging on the culturally essentialist. These antique forms do however make it easier for the film to successfully integrate a series of familiar tropes from James Bond, Rider Haggard's She and Lord of the Rings. Tellingly, the villainous Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B Jordan, is a more interesting character than T'Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, while Letitia Wight's Shuri steals most of the scenes she is in. This is because they are the most recognisably modern characters. While The Shape of Water manages to address contemporary pathologies through a fantasy set in the past, Black Panther seems too respectful of heritage and uncomfortable in the present. That it ends with talk of "outreach" suggests that Marvel is now wholly under the sway of corporate lawyers.

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