(*homocinematically inclined)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Reverend's Interview: A Queer Classic Takes Shape


As a boy, acclaimed writer-director Guillermo Del Toro thought the title monster of his favorite movie, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the human woman with whom it was smitten should have swum off into the sunset together. Del Toro has now taken a step toward correcting this perceived slight of cinema history. The Shape of Water, opening in wide release December 8th, isn’t only a magnificent mashup of horror and romance. It also works gloriously as a comedy, a political allegory, a valentine to classic Hollywood, a religious parable, and even as a quasi-musical. 

In The Shape of Water, a mute cleaning woman named Elisa (exquisitely played by the Oscar-worthy Sally Hawkins) finds herself drawn to an amphibious being from the Amazon (Del Toro regular Doug Jones) held captive in the government facility at which she works. She hatches a plan to free him with the help of her co-worker Zelda (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer), and her neighbor Giles (Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins). They all have to evade the creature’s seriously disturbed captor, played by two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon.

Del Toro, who was born in Mexico, is known for his previous genre-bending films Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, Hellboy and Pacific Rim. “I like to make movies that are liberating, that say it’s okay to be whoever you are,” the director states in his latest production’s press notes, “and it seems that at this time, this is very pertinent.”

Though set in 1962, numerous themes explored in The Shape of Water are as timely as ever, including racism, sexism, and America’s treatment of its LGBTQ citizens as well as people with physical disabilities. Jenkins’ character is a gay man who has found his job opportunities as a graphic designer limited due to his sexuality. Subsequently, he has had to stay closeted with everyone except Elisa.

Jenkins has given memorable performances in such diverse movies as The Cabin in the Woods, Eat Pray Love, Jack Reacher and The Visitor, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He recently called me to chat about his latest role.

CC: What was your response when you first read The Shape of Water screenplay?
RJ: Truthfully, I loved it from the very first scene. And if you are a character actor like me you start thinking “I hope I don’t die in scene two” (laugh). I loved it from the beginning.

CC: Similarly, what was your initial reaction to the finished film?
RJ: I forgot I was in it. I thought I had a handle on what it would look like. It is so beautiful and so different. Guillermo is such a visionary and he told us how things would look but I had no idea until I saw the finished film. It’s amazing.

CC: You grew up during the era depicted in the film. Were there any particular memories or people you drew from for your character, Giles?
RJ: It wasn’t that so much, although my local pie shop really looked like the one in the film. I loved growing up in 1962. I grew up in a small farm town (DeKalb, Illinois) as a straight, white man. Life was very simple then, which in hindsight was both good and bad.

CC: What was your perception of the treatment of gay people at the time?
RJ: I didn’t know any. There weren’t any gay people in my high school until our 35th reunion (laugh). There weren’t any black people either. Guillermo refers to the characters played by me, Sally and Octavia as “the invisible people” of the time. There is the scene in the film where Giles tries to hold hands with the man who works in the pie shop. Something that is so simple today had to involve such risk back then.

CC: How have you seen things change, or not, for LGBTQ people since then?
RJ: Things do move forward, but at times they take a step back and then start moving forward again. Love is love, so (anti-LGBTQ people should) stop trying to do something to stop it. It’s a whole different world. (Being gay) wasn’t even on our radar. No one talked about it.

CC: What was it like working with the wonderful Sally Hawkins?
RJ: She’s incredible, sweet and fun. She’s my friend now. She is who you see on the screen. We had so much fun together.

CC: It shows. I loved your soft-shoe tap dance scene!
RJ: Thank you. Wasn’t that great? One thing about working with Guillermo is that everything in the film is made with a purpose. Nothing in the film is there by accident. I mean, accidents do happen on a film set but Guillermo often uses those too.

CC: What do you hope viewers will take from this film and/or your performance?
RJ: I hope people get lost in it like I did. I’m not asking anyone to be enlightened by it, although that would be nice.

CC: What are you working on now?
RJ: Nothing. I’ve done two seasons of Berlin Station on TV. I just got back from Germany and now I’m taking a well-earned break. I’m looking forward to it.

Del Toro directing Jenkins and Hawkins on the Shape of Water set.

Not so fast, Richard. I expect the actor will be required to work the awards season circuit of screenings, parties and other events in support of The Shape of Water. Jenkins could well secure a second Oscar nomination for his funny, moving performance as the closeted but ultimately brave Giles. Del Toro could also receive his first, well-deserved nomination as Best Director. He was previously nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Pan’s Labyrinth but has yet to win an Academy Award.

Admittedly, The Shape of Water is a hard-to-define movie that may not appeal to all Academy members. It struck me as a sexier, gorier, adults-only update of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (E.T. and his human friend, Elliott, never had sex though). Some viewers may have difficulty accepting Del Toro’s uninhibited romance between Elisa and her gill man.

And what of the film’s unusual title? According to Del Toro: “Water takes the shape of whatever is holding it at the time and although water can be so gentle, it's also the most powerful and malleable force in the universe. That's also love, isn't it? It doesn’t matter what shape we put love into, it becomes that, whether it’s man, woman or creature.”

All of this is reason for LGBTQ moviegoers to rejoice. If queerness is best defined as unclassifiable “otherness,” then The Shape of Water is unquestionably the queerest movie of 2017. It could also be a cinema classic in the making.

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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