A reader writes to ask if I’m going to do an Oscars post. The answer is no; I didn’t watch the show, or see the movies nominated. He responded by saying that I really ought to write something. “The Academy used to play it safe with controversy, but now it’s moving the Overton window faster than in real life,” he wrote. “Who’d have thought one decade ago that the most prestigious award in the film industry would go to a film about bestiality, and casting it in a positive light?”
He’s talking about The Shape Of Water, a movie in which the female protagonist falls in love with a humanoid amphibian, and has sex with it (“cod coitus,” according to Sonny Bunch). The reader continues:
Even more astounding is that no one seemed to care: the critics, the media and now the Academy all applauded at director Guillermo Del Toro’s “boldness”. The Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film winners — respectively about a pederastic love story and a trans woman fighting prejudice — look almost tame in comparison, though they’re symptomatic too.
The Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñarritú has praised The Shape Of Water like this, in Daily Variety:
“Shape of Water” is a love letter to love. And a love declaration for cinema. And Guillermo changed the paradigm of the monster tale because no monster or princess has to change. The only real transformation comes from within, by loving and accepting each other as they are.
A film that loves, without conditions, the marginalized, the rejects, those beings that are “different” and have no voice. It has a perfect villain that embodies those ideologies from the past, but are so relevant, recycled, and even more dangerous today. The fear of the otherness. Blinded by fear and ignorance, he cannot see the others for what they really are, but loses control and reason with the idea they represent for him.
In other words, you can have sex with anyone or anything you want, because love is love, and love wins. The reader continues:
I agree with the things you say most of the time, but something I think you miss is how the turmoil we’re witnessing is basically a transfer of power from “regular” people to the freaks. Everything previously deemed inferior, abnormal, marginal, obscene is now not only normalized but embraced, even glorified. In his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche denounced Christianity as a perversion of all good and healthy values. He called for a total revolution in values, to overturn Christian morality and replace it with its opposite. That’s what we’re seeing now, at a very deep level.
This wouldn’t matter that much if our new lords weren’t so full of rancor and determined to get their revenge on those who humiliated them, hence the attacks on the various “privileges” that systematically target the representatives of the old order: patriarchy, masculinity, heterosexuality, “whiteness” and — yes — Christianity. As a member of a minority group, this shouldn’t worry me so much, as many aspects of said “old order” were not worth preserving or friendly to me. But I’m telling you, what is coming threatens to be much worse because it’s revenge, not justice.
Thoughts, readers? I don’t pay attention to the Oscars, or Hollywood, because I’m interested in other things. But what this reader says about Hollywood and the power of culture-making is absolutely true. Did you see The Shape Of Water? What did you think? I watched the trailer just now, and it seems interesting to me that the action takes place at a research facility named “Occam,” as in William of Occam. It is Occam who is mostly credited (or blamed) with setting into motion the separation of meaning from matter, via his philosophy of nominalism (I wrote about this in The Benedict Option). Could it be in this film, what happens at the Occam facility is Elisa, who works there as a janitor and first encounters the creature, learns to separate morality from matter, so that she can open herself to a sexual relationship with an aquatic creature? In other words, if there is no intrinsic meaning to matter, including humanity, then we can do with it whatever we want. Including submitting sexually to animals, or any creatures that give us pleasure and affection?
Based on the summary of the plot on Wikipedia, and on Inarritu’s praise, it sounds like the movie is exactly what this reader says it is. What’s more, it’s an inversion of the classic Beauty and the Beast story, in that the love of the woman doesn’t change the beast, but the love of the beast changes the woman. “Revaluation of all values!” (to quote Nietzsche’s command).
Yesterday I started watching the Netflix series “Babylon Berlin,” a crime drama set in the Weimar Republic. In the first episode, the vice squad busts a porno shoot in which the actors are turning the Nativity into an orgy. What is so chilling about that scene is the banality of the blasphemy. It’s just business in Weimar Germany — and that, I take it, is the point: that late Weimar culture is so decadent that even something as defiling as that porn scenario is treated as par for the course (though technically a crime). We know what came next for Weimar Germany.
Listen to me, conservative Christian readers:
- there are no politicians on earth capable of turning this tide of decadence; the power of culture is far too strong;
- you cannot expect your children to be salt and light to a culture that gives its highest honor to a movie celebrating bestiality as an act of liberation, and a “love letter to love”;
- soon, people who believe the things you do will be regarded as perverted and dangerous to the common good; are you ready for that?
You had better be ready for that. The handwriting is on the wall, and the cracks are widening in the foundations. May I introduce you to Peter Sanlon? You need to know him.
UPDATE: Of course. How did I miss this? The Shape of Water is the cinematic epitome of liquid modernity. A society that casts off all structure, all sense of meaning, is one in which emotion is the only guide — and one that ends up with movies celebrating screwing animals.
UPDATE.2: You guys, knock it off with “you didn’t see the movie so you don’t have the right to say anything about it.” I conceded early on that I hadn’t seen the film, and that my comments are based only on the Wikipedia description of its plot, and things both the director and others favorable to the film have said about it. Of course I could be wrong! If I’ve made a mistake in my description of the plotting, then I welcome correction. Nobody has yet said that I got that wrong; they only object to my interpretation. I’m not going to publish any more “You didn’t see it” whining, unless your point is to correct what I’ve assumed about the plot (in which case, again, I thank you for the correction).
UPDATE.3: Let me try a different angle. Look, I don’t think this movie is telling people to go out and tap the tilapia. Come on. Rather, this movie appears in a culture that fetishizes the Other, and that also holds sexual expression to be at the core of one’s identity. Within the context of the plot, “normality” is portrayed as cruel and repressive. The female protagonist, Elisa, only finds her true self through a romantic and sexual relationship with a humanoid, who opens her hidden gills and sets her free. Her “liberation” occurs in the context of the civil rights movement and the Sexual Revolution. It cannot be for nothing that the research facility where she learns compassion for the swamp monster (her future lover) is named Occam — this, given that it was William of Occam who is credited with overturning traditional Christian metaphysics, which taught that purpose is intrinsic to matter. In other words, the film expresses historian Yuval Noah Harari’s take on modernity: “The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.”
If there is no intrinsic meaning in matter — including in the human species — then individuals have the power to follow their desires wherever they lead. Including into bed with a swamp monster. This is liberation, because it overturns the power of the repressive white male Christian normies. You, too, viewer, might find that your innermost repressed desires, which white male Christian conservative society considers to be monstrous, can be activated and revealed to be something life-giving, if only you will open yourself up to a sexual relationship with a so-called monster.
That is the message of this film, based on the descriptions I’ve read of its plot. Unless I’m missing something about the plot — and again, please correct me if so — then it ought to be bloody obvious what The Shape Of Water means in this particular culture. It’s a total inversion of the Beauty And The Beast story, in which the love of a human activates what is most human inside a monster, and transforms him into a human. In this one, it’s the love — including sexual love — of a monster that brings out what is monstrous inside a human, and transforms her into a monster. Which is not really a monster, because the real monster is the repressive white male Christian Cold Warrior…