The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

With “The Shape of Water” I think director Guillermo del Toro has composed a timely and marvelously entertaining illustration of the struggle between paranoia and empathy. He has artfully told an allegorical tale that shares with his audience important and complicated stuff much more effectively than reasoned discourse could ever manage.

For example, I think that in general a person in the grips of paranoia sees her or himself as alone in their understanding of their own ongoing personal jeopardy. On the other hand a person unencumbered by paranoia and capable of empathy accepts their own uniqueness as just the way it is…the uniqueness of others is simply some sort of paradoxical commonality. We’re all the same – we’re all different.

To a paranoid person anyone else that appears on their radar in any sort of stressful situation is perceived as a menacing something else, taking on an over the top monstrous aspect. And interaction with such loathsome beings, especially unwanted interaction, triggers fear. For paranoid people, frightening others, especially obviously different others, are particularly fear inducing if they are acting like, or being treated like, people. Seeing “those people” pretending they are not loathsome beings…treated as if they were not loathsome beings…is experienced by paranoid people as monsters maneuvering and conspiring to destroy them.

To a paranoid person self-interest, and preventing monstrous lesser beings from having things, is essential to self-preservation. But strangely, self-centered, paranoid people can clot together on a grand-scale (another paradoxical situation), drawn to each other through mutual recognition of their shared unshakable certainty that “every man for himself” is the only sensible way to engage the world.

On the other hand, for people capable of empathy it is extremely challenging, almost unnatural, to rally behind any single idea or cause since their primary commonality is diversity…in thought, size, color… And their enthusiastic expression of the merits of diversity makes paranoid people bat-shit, murderously crazy. Del Toro would have us understand that when such crazies have the upper hand, empathy is dangerous and heroic.

I think “The Shape of Water” is a beautiful distillation and illumination of all the cranky ideas I’ve strung together above and lots more. If you haven’t seen it I hope you will check it out.

PS: For a sweet, low-budget, small-town version of essentially the same story check out the movie “Hunted” (not “The Hunted”) which includes a wonderfully natural and impressive performance by David James Elliot who played Harmon Rabb for 11 years on the television series “JAG.”

[This post was strenuously rewritten on 12/21/19. Apologies to any who may have struggled through the original version.]

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The Tunnel

The Tunnel

The big and small screens currently offer lots of opportunities to appreciate “good sociopaths”. Perhaps because, lacking typical human responses, sociopaths appear driven by artificial programming – and at a cultural level there may be a growing intuition that we will soon be obliged to make room in our world for non-human intelligence. But whatever drives the fascination, “The Tunnel” introduces into the pantheon of highly entertaining fictional good sociopaths a marvelous young French woman named Elise. And part of her charm is her conscious decision to embrace habits of behavior that are beneficial to society. So much so that she has become a police sergeant in the precinct of Calais.

Her foil is an all too human English inspector named Karl whose blunders of love and embarrassed kindness slowly rub off on Elise. And she, so desirous of doing right no matter the cost to herself, awakens in Karl a fierceness that has enough momentum to push him over the edge into heroic action when an opportunity to “get it right this time” comes along.

There are two seasons. Best if you can binge watch. Much of it is full of villainous mayhem that provides the sometimes unlikely pretext for Karl and Elise to show each other how to become their better selves. I don’t think it will spoil the fun if I mention that one of the amazing things the story brings into the light is the paradoxical idea that wholeness may not be possible, but loss can offer a glimpse of what wholeness might be like. The last few minutes of the last episode are some of the most beautiful, moving and memorable I’ve ever experienced.


A later thought (September 2018): This is, of course, just my two cents…there is a Season 3, but I strongly discouraging anyone from watching it. The creative team said all they had to say in the first two seasons. And sadly, to put it another way, they had nothing to say in the third season except nonsense. I wish I could un-see it.

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8mm Ideas – Small Works of Wonder

8mm Workspace

For many happy years, Molly and Ryan were my neighbors. To give you a sense of their style, a while back they brought home a beautiful, petite and anxious rescue dog named Stella. One of my fondest memories of the trio is seeing them at a distance walking together in the neighborhood. Something unexpected would happen and Stella would bark. Always, Molly and Ryan’s response was the same. They would lean down and say something gentle to their small friend, and all would be well. If called upon to draw an image of patience and kindness a tableau of the three of them in silhouette would be what I’d try to sketch.

Molly is an artist whose work can be seen at Molly C. Meng. I’m especially a fan of her cards. I suppose greeting cards is the conventional name for what I’m talking about, but I don’t think that really works in Molly’s case since she is a purveyor of sly entertainment – of complex ideas expressed in compact images.

In the 60s Marshall McLuhan proposed that the way that an idea is expressed conveys a message that is more significant than the content of the idea. In other words, I might employ a Google search to learn the answer to a particular question. And though the answer I obtain might seem important to me in the moment, what’s more important is the implications for my life of the fact that I can secure answers in that way. The implications for my life is the message, but I can only receive that message if I look beyond the immediate answer I receive and contemplate how my life is changed by being able to secure answers in that way.

I guess that sums things up

I think Molly’s work provokes such contemplation, and in some cases the unsuspecting viewer is tossed into a contemplative hall of mirrors. For example, one of her images offers a representation of the English alphabet as expressed in American Sign Language, over a fragment of paper torn from the upper right corner of a sheet upon which an observation has been typed via an old manual typewriter: “I guess that sums things up”. And all of that appears on the front of a “greeting card.” The image content and the implications for my life message are blended together. The interpretation that came to me is that what’s important…what sums things up…is that Molly’s image describes and also embodies communication as what we do with our hands. The motion of our hands is the A, B Cs. And perhaps she is also hinting that such a notion falls on deaf ears.

Of course, it could be that I’m imposing ideas on Molly’s images that would not resonate with her at all. And I love that about her work. At least for me, her images provoke interpretation. Each is much more than the expression of a sweet idea. It is also a gentle, deeply layered provocation to tumble through carefully choreographed associations.

I Want You Here Now

Take, for example, her image I Want You Here Now in which retro elements suggest the timelessness of a particular sentiment – the desire for the return of the beloved. Carefully chosen type faces, complete with ascender elements that wave like banners, and words arranged with careful imprecision, convey the urgency of someone hastening to compose a sentence before the magic of the moment slips away.

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