The Shape of Water – a movie review

The Shape of Water – a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

When I wrote my last blog on last week’s Torah portion, I said that the parshah was about recognition. To my surprise, this movie that I saw last evening is also about recognition, about a mute but not deaf woman, a “princess without a voice” who is as alien to her fellow humans (except one of her fellow cleaning partner, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer) as the alien amphibian, neither centaur nor satyr, with whom she falls in love. It is also about the loneliness of the Josephs of this world who not only interpret dreams, but live their lives in a semi-permanent dreamy state.

This movie is La La Land on LSD, a paean to the power and magic of movies and dreams over the rational, the manipulative and controlling powers that be. Recall the lyrics of The Fools Who Dream:

My aunt used to live in Paris

I remember, she used to come home and tell us

stories about being abroad and

I remember that she told us she jumped in the river once

Barefoot

She smiled

Leapt, without looking

And She tumbled into the Seine!

The water was freezing

she spent a month sneezing

but said she would do it, again

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

She captured a feeling

Sky with no ceiling

Sunset inside a frame

She lived in her liquor

and died with a flicker

I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make

She told me:

A bit of madness is key

to give us new colors to see

Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us.

So bring on the rebels

The ripples from pebbles

The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools

who dream

Crazy, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that break

Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back

to then

Her, and the snow, and the Seine

Smiling through it

She said

She’d do it, again.

 

This a fusion film of a potpourri of modes – farce and melodrama, tragedy and comedy, horror (think Creature from the Black Lagoon) and cold war spy thriller (think of The Manchurian Candidate and its story of cold war conspiracies), cartoon-coloured amid the predominant film noir bleakness, a movie about a gaggle of inept misfits and a coldblooded (literally) square-jawed professional CIA agent with an electric cattle prod, “an Alabama howdy-doo,” that sparks memories of the sheriffs in the deep south reinforced when we catch a glimpse of news on the TV. But most of all, it is a romance and an alien movie for adults, a very different version of Beauty and the Beast, for the maiden is far from a beauty on the outside, but, on the inside, this Chaplinesque heroine has a heart of pure gold.

Sally Hawkins, who plays Elisa Esposito, lives a lonely life with a gay next-door neighbour Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. Appropriately enough, both live above a dying movie theatre where together they watch romantic musicals on TV. But this is a feminist age. Elisa is not only lost in her dreams; she is both resourceful and courageous, calculating and down to earth. She masturbates in her bathtub every morning to an egg timer. She lives in Baltimore and never jumped into the Seine. But on a cold rainy night, she ends up in the Patapsco River.

The cameo on homophobia and racism in the second diner scene may be viewed as odd, but it fits in – if only because everything in the film is odd. Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed Pan’s Labyrinth, wrote, produced and directed this romantic fairy tale set in Baltimore in the early sixties at the time of the struggles against Jim Crow in the southern U.S. The movie is as relevant today as it was more than fifty years ago, even though “the times they are a changing.”

It is a film of beauty and pluck, of dark shadows and pastel coloured daylight. Reality is said to be the domain of rules and responsibilities in a crabbed and paranoid world, but the authentic realism belongs to the dreamers whose imaginations sore beyond the narrow strictures that could suffocate us all. For it is the primal and animalistic married to grace rather than gravity, wed to the sensual rather than the intellectual, that offers salvation. The enemy of beauty, the enemy of dreams, the enemy of the imagination turns out to be Occam’s Razor, for OCCAM is the name of the massive and secretive spy complex where the CIA agent worked. (Look for the huge sign on the front of the complex.)

Occam’s razor was a principle penned by an English Franciscan philosopher in the fourteenth century who insisted that simplicity was to be preferred in understanding the world to complexity. This movie turns Occam’s razor on its head and insists that complex realities are far more important than simplistic theories; the imagination is richer than uncomplicated but dogmatic heuristic guides.

Heraclitus wrote that we cannot step into the same river twice. Everything changes. But that does not mean we should not leap into it once, that we should not embrace change and difference rather than marry the stolid and the solid. In this movie, the devil is the CIA agent, Strickland, played wonderfully and menacingly, but comically, by Michael Shannon, while the divine role goes to the amphibian creature from the Amazon played by Doug Jones. Of course, the latter, like Jesus, can heal wounds with his touch – and even grow hair.

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish, as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

 

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On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

On Dreaming and Morality: Va-y’chi Genesis 47:28-50:26

by

Howard Adelman

In the last few blogs, as well as some earlier ones, I wrote about dreamers, individuals who marry personal ambition and self-sacrifice to realize their dreams (La La Land), and those who translate and transform dreamers and dreaming into brilliant works of art (Guillermo del Toro who wrote, produced and directed The Shape of Water). Dreamers belong to a Dionysian world of the imagination, an imagination which insists that reality is complex and not a world of simple and simplistic maxims characteristic of the Apollonian world of reason and Occam’s razor. Reality for the dreamer is about grace rather than gravity.

I repeated the refrain from La La Land about “The Fools Who Dream”:

Here’s to the ones who dream

Foolish as they may seem

Here’s to the hearts that ache

Here’s to the mess we make.

Dreamers are fools – or so they seem. They break hearts and make messes. But Elisa in The Shape of Water mends hearts (and as her gills restored), not only her own, but the hearts of the sensitive souls around her. Further, she does not appear to be a mess-maker. After all, she works as a cleaning woman who may, in her imagination, live in la la land, but this Chaplinesque hapless heroine proves that she can be as conniving and courageous, even more so, than the stick figures that rule over her daytime drudgery.

The longest narrative in Genesis is about a person who is purportedly one of the great dreamers of all time, but not a dreamer like his father Jacob. The latter, when fleeing his brother Esau whose blessing from his father he had stolen (going well beyond his treacherous bargaining for his brother’s birthright when he was younger), had a dream. It is a vertical dream of a ladder that reaches up towards the heavens on the rungs of which angels clamber up and down. (Genesis 28: 10-19)

Jacob’s dream is radically opposed to the dreams in the Joseph story. When Joseph was a teenager, he “prophesied” in a perilous pair of dreams that he would lord it over his brothers, though the meaning of the dreams was so plain that he did not have to interpret or divine their meaning. In total insensitivity to his brothers’ natural reaction, he followed his story of his first dream with another dream with the same interpretation. No wonder his father was annoyed with him. When Joseph later interpreted the dreams of the cook and the butler, Joseph did interpret and foretold their radically opposite futures. The situation was similar, though with far greater global and historical consequences, when Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s two dreams.

Joseph’s horizontal dreams, in contrast to Jacob’s vertical one, stretched into the future rather than towards the heavens. In the case of Pharaoh’s dreams, they adumbrated first seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of want. Joseph’s dreams were used for self-elevation and were those of a diviner. Jacob’s dreams were those of one chosen by God. He was guided by predictions delivered by God’s messengers. In contrast, Joseph is the deliverer of the interpretations of messages attributed to God. “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.” (41:16) But God does not interpret the dreams for Joseph. Joseph’s story belongs to the wisdom literature of diviners rather than the prophetic literature of the Israelites. As Pharaoh says, and he is not corrected by Joseph, “there is none so discerning and as wise as you.” (41:39)

God spoke to Jacob as he did subsequently to Moses and as he had to Abraham. However, as often as Joseph cites God as the author and the authority behind his dreams, Joseph is never addressed by God. God does not speak to Joseph, even to chastise him, as he does Jonah. God does not reprimand Joseph for engaging in malicious gossip about his brothers when he was a teenager or his enigmatic accusations of their being spies and thieves, and, most significantly, his puzzling demand that they return home and come back to Egypt with their brother Benjamin. He continues this mistreatment, but under the guise of charity, at the end of Genesis. And the irony!

בראשית נ:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי. נ:כ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב.. Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. (Genesis 50:19-20; my italics)

The intentions of his brothers do not matter in moral judgments. For Joseph, a good will is not the only good without qualification and a bad will may even be an expression of God’s will. The divinely inspired dream of Jacob is radically different than the divination dreams of Joseph. Jacob’s dream humbles him. Joseph’s dreams, and even more so, his expertise in interpreting dreams, inflate his ego to proportions well-beyond the narcissistic fabulism of his teenage years. That arrogance is best illustrated when Joseph, in a false humility, claims that his dreams of divination are divinely inspired, that they are not his dreams, but dreams that come unbidden and, therefore, are supposedly delivered by God. He makes this assertion, not God.

Look more closely at the contrasts between Jacob’s dream and those of Joseph or the ones of others that he interprets. Jacob, like most prophetic figures in the bible, is his mother Rebecca’s boy; Joseph is his father’s favourite. Jacob in his flight from his brother Esau travels from west to east, having fled Beersheba for Haran. Joseph is transported from east to west and, not only settles in Egypt, but entices his whole family to leave the Promised Land and resettle alongside himself in Goshen. Jacob’s dream belonged to a certain place and came at a specific time, after he fell asleep at dusk with his head on a rock. Joseph’s dreams are more akin to daydreams and embrace vast territories of space and time rather than having a specific locale at a very specific time. There is no spot that is regarded as holy. There is no encounter with God’s messengers. Jacob’s vision is the guilt dream of a deceiver. Joseph’s dream is that of an achiever, a revealer who never feels a spark of guilt or recognizes his own role in deceiving others and deceiving himself.

Jacob was hated by his brother Esau, Joseph was hated by his ten half-brothers. Esau vowed to kill his brother after their father died; Joseph’s brothers are determined to kill him when Jacob was still very much alive. Joseph is saved at the last minute by Judah who sells him into slavery; Jacob flees towards his dream and purportedly comes to realize his mistakes and their consequences, though he can never accept that his brother loved him and forgave him. Joseph is transported away from his dream; it is his brothers who never cease distrusting him even when Joseph excuses their actions and insists that everything happened according to God’s will. They were not accountable and, by implication, neither was he. We are all mere instruments of divine will, according to Joseph.

The story of Jacob is one of self-transformation. Look at the harsh blessing he gives his sons before he dies compared to those Isaac bestowed on both him and his brother, Esau. The story of Joseph is radically different again. It is a tale of a brilliant administrator who saves the nations under the rule of Pharaoh, but then deprives Egyptians of their autonomy, of their status as freeholders of land. Joseph’s policies reduce them to serfs.

Jacob pursues freedom; Joseph does not, as his dream seemed to foretell, accept his brothers’ offer to become his slaves. But neither does he ever expressly forgive them or hold them accountable for what they did. Instead, he proclaims that there is no autonomy. There is no freedom. We are all instruments of a divine unfolding plan, a plan that made him viceroy over Egypt and the saviour of his family. Joseph claims – God never says it – “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (45:7, my italics) Joseph sounds like Donald Trump praising his own fabulous contribution, not recognizing that he, Joseph, would be the agent that delivered the Hebrews into years of slavery by a people that resented what Joseph had done to them.

Joseph, unlike Jacob, never hears the words of God, because he is so caught up in his own beauty and brilliance while, at the same time, taking no responsibility for his own actions or assigning responsibility to others for their actions. Joseph is akin to ones who hear the words of the Delphic oracle and can interpret the puzzle, but Joseph cannot hear the words of God that are always direct and straightforward. Further, Joseph always remains totally oblivious of the ironic ultimate meaning of his dream even as he demonstrates the cleverness of a shrewd mind. At the end of Genesis, he claims to understand his dreams as God’s communicating his divine plan to him and, thereby, reveals himself to be a diviner without a prophetic bone in his body.

Jacob goes to sleep at sunset and by sunrise, following his dream, he has moved from distress and angst to the path of deliverance. But in the Joseph story, though there is a deliverance from starvation, there is no moral deliverance. There is no autonomy. There is no responsibility. There is no accountability. But most of all, there is no forgiveness. And forgiveness – the ability to give it and to hold it back – is the highest expression of our freedom. Joseph never has to struggle. Jacob, in contrast, struggled with both humans and God. For those struggles, Jacob, meaning trickery and deceit, was renamed Israel, from שרה, “to strive with” and אל (El), God..

בראשית לב:כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב. לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל. Said the Other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 32:29 Said He, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28-29)

Israel henceforth struggled and tried to be open and straight. But Joseph practiced even greater trickery on his brothers and was not straight. Joseph did not struggle even when he was a slave of Potiphar (Pharaoh’s steward). Potiphar’s wife repeatedly tried to seduce him when he had risen to the status of running the family household and Joseph had been such a blessing to that household. (Joseph would later rise to the status of running the whole of the Pharaonic kingdom.) God was always at Joseph’s side, but God never intervened on his behalf. The text reads:

בראשית לט:ב וַיְהִי יְ-הוָה אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי. לט:ג וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי יְ-הוָה אִתּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְ-הוָה מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ… לט:ה וַיְהִי מֵאָז הִפְקִיד אֹתוֹ בְּבֵיתוֹ וְעַל כָּל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ וַיְבָרֶךְ יְ-הוָה אֶת בֵּית הַמִּצְרִי בִּגְלַל יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי בִּרְכַּת יְ-הוָה בְּכָל אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ לוֹ בַּבַּיִת וּבַשָּׂדֶה. YHWH was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. And when his master saw that YHWH was with him and that YHWH lent success to everything he undertook… And from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, YHWH blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of YHWH was upon everything that he owned, in the house and outside. (Genesis 39: 2-5)

Joseph rejected the advances of Potiphar’s wife, a theme of wisdom rather than prophetic literature. Why? Because, as he claimed, Potiphar has placed his complete trust in Joseph and put everything, except his wife, in his hands. How could Joseph make her husband a cuckold? That would be wicked and a sin before God. (Genesis 39:9) Joseph escapes, but leaves his coat behind. Potiphar’s wife uses it as evidence that Joseph had tried to sleep with her, just as Joseph’s brothers once used his coat of many colours to cover it with blood and claim that animals had probably killed Joseph.

Again, at another disastrous negative turn in his life, God evidently intervenes again. Joseph is delivered and raised up to a higher status. Is that because he declined to do a wicked thing with Potiphar’s wife? But if each turn and twist is about God’s predetermined plan, then he cannot take credit for his good fortune. Nor does he deserve any credit, even without God’s help, for he makes clear that he rejects her offers to sleep with her because he does not want to jeopardize his social and economic status. Jacob betrayed his brother’s and his father’s trust. Joseph, much sharper politically, refused to make that mistake, but is unjustly thrown into jail for his efforts. He repeatedly professes his innocence. At four different points in the overall story, he insists that everything that takes place is a manifestation of the guiding hand of God.

God, not Joseph, brought these events to pass. Joseph insists that he was not responsible for the good that emerged. But then neither could he be held responsible for the bad. And, because of the blindness of his soul, rather than that of his eyes, he will bring about the greatest calamity for the Israelites – their departure from the Promised Land and their eventual enslavement in Egypt, resented as they must have been by the Egyptians who had been reduced from freemen to serfs by Joseph. When Joseph introduces his father to his two sons when Israel’s eyes “were dim with age,” Israel switches the blessing in contrast to the trickery of his own father, he blesses the younger before the older. And he blesses Joseph and is no longer capable of struggling with God. He blesses Joseph and prophesizes, “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” (48:21) But, as it turns out, only to bury his father and then to resettle the Israelites in a foreign land.

Immanuel Kant insisted that the categorical imperative to treat others never as means to an end only is the sine qua non without which there can be no moral code. Others must be respected. Others must be recognized for being free men responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental principle without which there can be no moral behaviour. Freedom is the essence of morality, freedom which directs one’s attention to the needs of others rather than one’s own passions and desires. Joseph is oblivious of others’ needs, even though he emerged as a remarkable diviner and administrator.

Forgiveness is both the recognition of the other’s flaws and the error of their ways as well as the recognition of their autonomy and their need to take responsibility for their deeds. Joseph never gives his brothers an opportunity to repent and never offers them forgiveness. Instead, he relies on the old empty maxim that God is responsible for all that is and for all that takes place. None of us are responsible for our own actions. Joseph carries this principle forward to provide a ground for converting the status of free and autonomous Egyptian farmers to serfs and, therefore, indirectly to the recompense to the Hebrews when they are made slaves in Egypt.ut Kant was not a dreamer. For it is reason which provides the foundation for morality. It is reason that provides the foundation for the recognition of beauty. In this way, rather than Apollo being at loggerheads with Dionysius, reason permits scientific knowledge, morality and aesthetics to be complementary and consistent. In Kant’s world of ends and final causes, in his teleological worldview and recognition of judgment as the ultimate arbiter, science and morality can be reconciled. Kant cannot bless the ones who dream, cannot bless those who are foolish, cannot bless those who fall from grace from his lofty perch of his pure practical moral reasoning based on a maxim that is the ultimate expression of Occam’s razor. Kant cannot bless those whose hearts ache for the other, and, ultimately, cannot accept the mess they make.

However, rationalists like Kant are not the only enemies of dreamers. Diviners who pose as dreamers are even greater foes. They deny freedom by viewing the future as pre-determined by a divine hand. They deny freedom by eliminating forgiveness from their vocabulary. They deny freedom by eliminating the principle that each one of us is responsible and accountable for his or her own actions.