How fantasy films like The Shape of Water provide feel-good solutions to actual problems

MK Raghavendra

Apr 23, 2018 18:03:12 IST

The popularity of a film genre in a nation tells us many things about the times a country is going through. Cinema being an art for the masses, characters in popular films are not individuals, free to act as they please, but ‘national exemplars’ mirroring the concerns of the public, giving shape to its self-image and articulating its anxieties. In India, Bollywood is roughly the national cinema addressing a public across India — globalisation and India’s growth story have consequently seen a large number of films in which rich Indians spend money conspicuously abroad. There is evidently pride that Indians have the wherewithal to spend like a Westerner. Hollywood has similarly mirrored the concerns of the American public, though it has also been targeting a global audience to which it projects the ‘American way’.

The fifties were dominated by noir in Hollywood because of the nation’s experiences in World War 2. What was noticed about noirs in general was their exposing of an inner core of darkness in American society. There was no counterpart in America to the physical devastation of Europe but there was fear, alienation and psychological dislocation. But beneath the stories of double crosses and betrayals, private passions erupting into heinous crimes and the moral compromises made by the principal characters, can be sensed the political paranoia and violence of an entire period.

The late sixties is the period given to the counterculture in American cinema on account of popular resistance to the Vietnam War and many key films – Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), M*A*S*H (1970) — are marked by anti-establishment sentiment.

Until the seventies a characteristic noted about American films was the way in which their narratives incorporated details about working people’s lives with an emphasis on how work was done. The kind of detail could pertain to matters as different as police work as seen in The French Connection (1971), shark hunting in Jaws (1975) or even exorcisms as in The Exorcist (1973); it was typical of the times and may seem incongruous in a film today. Even if the detail was not always authentic, there was still an effort to show people involved in their vocations. There was a sense of the ordinary person absorbed in their work and knowing the job intimately. This can be traced to the citizen’s sense of involvement in most aspects of the nation, the sense of everyone contributing in some way to the structure or being a working part of it. In a political thriller like All the President’s Men (1976), the emphasis is not on what the protagonists discover but that all things are ultimately knowable to the citizen.

With technology increasingly ruling the world, the sense of knowing and wanting to know has declined. If we consider only one continuing genre — that of the robbery film — one has only to compare Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) or Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), in which the clarity of the plot is an essential part of the film’s appeal. With Ocean’s Eleven (2001) or The Italian Job (2003) in which the ‘how’ is left deliberately indistinct; one might wonder what the ‘pinch’ is in Ocean’s Eleven or how traffic signals are manipulated so effortlessly in The Italian Job. It is in this context where so much of what was known has been replaced by ‘not knowing’ that the fantasy film has emerged, at the expense of most other genres.

The term ‘fantasy’ fails to encapsulate the range of films ranging from Iron Man (2008) to The Shape of Water (2017) because traditionally, fantasy was a children’s genre of fiction meant for a fertile imagination not yet bound by a sense of what was ‘possible’ and what was not. Works of literature like those of Lewis Carroll or films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) were meant for children. The animated film, which was often a vehicle for fantasy, was also for the young. Today on the other hand, the fact that such a large number of films are from the animation genre, is an indication that the association of the genre specifically with children is no longer valid; adults more than children are watching animated films and the same goes for so called ‘fantasies’.

In today's cinema, there is so much ‘adult content’ in contemporary fantasies and animation – I mean evidence of socio-political anxieties and not sex – that they work more as allegories than fantasies, providing ‘feel-good’ solutions to actual problems. Wall-E (2008), for instance, is about waste and the crowding of the earth by garbage; Iron Man responds to the entanglement in Afghanistan by concocting an invention with the potential to help America overcome military adversities. If some characters in these films were created a long time ago the problems they provide fictional solutions for are all contemporary.

How fantasy films like The Shape of Water provide feel-good solutions to actual problems

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water, a ‘fantasy’ which won the Oscars for both best film and best director in 2018, is set during the Cold War, with Russian intelligence and the American military establishment as its principal villains. The protagonists are a mute Hispanic woman (physically challenged racial minority), her African-American friend (racial minority) and her next door neighbour, a closeted gay (sexual minority). Thus, the film adroitly includes all the political categories relevant in the US today. Needless to add, the good people — represented by minorities and disadvantaged — take on the might of the military and eventually triumph, as a liberal might dream.

In the film, Elisa Esposito lives alone above a cinema and works as a cleaning woman at a top secret military establishment, with Giles, an illustrator in advertising, as her neighbour. One day, a mysterious swamp creature (described as an ‘asset’) is brought in and she learns that it was worshipped as a god by a South-American tribe until it was captured by the military and transported here in a container. The creature, which is humanoid, is also an amphibian and the military intends to vivisect it. The scientific information thus obtained will be of help in the space race. The ‘asset’ antagonised Colonel Strickland, the security-in-charge, whose fingers it bit off, and Strickland relishes tormenting it with an electrical prod. But Elisa discovers that she can communicate with it in sign language and that it shares her love for music. She falls in love with it and the two have a relationship. She finds allies in Giles, her African-American co-worker Zelda and Dr Robert Hoffstetler, entrusted with studying the creature, but also a Russian spy; he is a benign scientist at heart and doubted by his Soviet superiors.

‘Fantasy’, by definition, depends on an imagination unfettered by ‘knowledge’ and the fantasy genre from Hollywood depends on an entire public not knowing, thereby driving them to use their imagination instead. For example, a wonder suit as a solution for Afghanistan. The distance between the socio-political experience depicted or allegorised and the shape it is given in Hollywood ‘fantasies’ corresponds to the gap between what is happening and what the public does not know about, but partly suspects. There is also an enormous body of fact the public ‘knows’ only through terminology which it does not understand and these terms could be in the law, forensics, technology, politics or military usage etc. Because they are in use the public is ‘acquainted’ with them although it has a small understanding of what the terms actually mean. But these terms become cues for the imagination and serve to inspire fantasies among the public. The term ‘asset’ is such a term in military usage, it can be argued.

The Shape of Water itself apparently deals with the political issues of today but ‘allegorises’ them in such a way as to distance them from the actual experience of socio-political life. One can interpret the swamp creature as a recognisable political entity — for instance a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay who represents no threat but who might still have information extractable through illegal procedures. If the ‘political prisoner’ were represented as such, the audience would need to confront the inconvenient fact that they are participants in a democracy but can do little to prevent successive elected governments — including one headed by an admired President like Barack Obama — from stopping such unlawful work.

Transforming him into a humanoid amphibian allows the public to recast the entire possibility as a benign fantasy about love between individuals with contrary capabilities, desires and affiliations. The public is deliberately led to feel good although the political truth underlying the story might make it uncomfortable. The swamp creature brought back from the jungles of Brazil becomes token representation of what the imagination of the public makes out of US military doings abroad.

This leads us to an uncomfortable recognition which is that as the world we live in gives us access to things which make our lives easier and seemingly more enriched, the gap between what we use (socio-political as well as technological tools) and our understanding of them is growing, and making the citizen more and more powerless. The proliferation of fantasies in Hollywood points to the increasing non-understanding by the public of the milieu in which it is placed, and hence ‘the imagined’ gradually supplanting what is knowable in virtually every domain.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

Updated Date: Apr 23, 2018 18:11:28 IST