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, the “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, etc. 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 Rufus, 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.]