Let me say upfront that I liked The Shape of Water. But I don’t think it was a great movie that will be remembered as a great movie.
Still, in many respects, it was the perfect movie to win Best Picture at last night’s Oscars.
On a recent edition of the GLoP podcast (special, in part because Rob Long was replaced by Kyle Smith and Ross Douthat and in part because Rob’s absence let us geek out on Black Panther and other subjects), John Podhoretz made an interesting point: One reason the ratings for the Oscars are down is that few Americans see most of the nominated movies anymore. If you’re not invested in the movies, why waste time watching the increasingly tedious award ceremonies honoring them?
This is just one facet of the larger problem with Hollywood fare these days. While there are more and better niche movies appealing to different segments of the society, there are fewer big “event” movies that everybody goes to that are also worthy of Oscar consideration. Yes, Black Panther was an event movie, but it was also just a (very good) comic-book movie at the end of the day. It will probably get a bunch of Oscar nominations, but can anyone dispute that politics will be an important consideration in those nominations?
And that gets me to The Shape of Water. The politics of the movie are almost Soviet or even allegorical in their obviousness. The heroes are the people at the margins of “white” American society. The heroine is a Hispanic mute janitor. Her heroic accomplices: a gay guy chewed up by the grey-flannel-suit-wearing bosses of bourgeois society and capitalism, an African-American woman in a dysfunctional marriage, and a Soviet secret agent. The villains are all white male misogynist cogs in the Military-Industrial Complex (and one homophobic and racist soda jerk).
As I said on the podcast, the movie was sort of like a mash-up of Pleasantville, American Beauty, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. The setting of much of the action, an apartment above an old-style movie theater, will be touted in countless film-school papers as a brilliant commentary on how popular culture marginalized the intersectional denizens living on the outskirts of bourgeois culture.
At the same time, it was visually captivating and, if this makes sense, in love with its own cuteness and cleverness. Thanks to a charming dream-sequence song-and-dance number, it was also an homage to Hollywood itself, updating old tropes from Hollywood’s golden age.
That is the Oscars to a T: Obsessed with the visuals — Who are you wearing? Look at all the beautiful people! — soaked in nostalgia for the Hollywood of yesteryear, while unrelentingly self-congratulatory. The speeches — and speechifying — are all about celebrating diversity, providing solidarity with victims, and denigrating what was once mainstream bourgeois culture and norms.
Acknowledging, inadvertently, John’s point that most people don’t see the movies that the Oscars honor — only two of the nominees for Best Picture grossed more than $100 million — Jimmy Kimmel said that making money isn’t the point. “We don’t make films like Call Me By Your Name for money. We make them to upset Mike Pence.”
Hah hah and all that. But Kimmel’s right (though probably not literally). Hollywood does make a lot of movies to be transgressive. In one sense, that’s fine; self-styled artistes are allowed to make the movies they want. And as I said, some of them are great. But no one should be surprised when the ratings for the Oscars are lousy, given that they mostly celebrate movies that are hostile — or simply unappealing — to vast swathes of the movie-going and TV-watching audience. Particularly when those honored are so liable to preen about how clever and brave they are.