Tuesday, December 26, 2017

At the Heart of “The Shape of Water”

The Los Angeles Times review of The Shape of Water compared this mesmerizing new film to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast as well as an important childhood influence for writer-director Guillermo del Toro, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Del Toro, best known for the equally phantasmagoric Pan’s Labyrinth, is an expert on finding the reality in a fantasy world. Perhaps his comfort in combining the grotesque with the mystical comes from his Mexican Catholic upbringing: his native land is a place where the Day of the Dead is celebrated and skeletons romp through the fine arts in all their manifestations. 

Curiously, The Shape of Water made me think of an equally watery but far sunnier film, Ron Howard’s Splash. This 1984 romantic comedy, which made a star out of Tom Hanks, introduces a mermaid (Daryl Hannah) who comes ashore in Manhattan in search of a special young man who’s terrified of water. After various escapades, some of them involving a mad scientist, the movie builds to an undersea conclusion that’s charming and optimistic. In The Shape of Water, though, sunlit New York City is replaced by a grim and dreary Baltimore, where scientists and military types are conspiring in a  retro-futuristic lab to study a captive being cryptically called “the asset.”     

The era, crucial to The Shape of Water, is the late 1950s, a time when Americans were panicky about the success of the Soviet space program. The Cold War tensions underlying the film provide its external drama: there are creepy government operatives (Michael Shannon is the chief one) calling the shots, and equally creepy Russki spies lurking about. But del Toro, whose eye for picturesque visuals is uncanny, also gives us the flip-side (what a terrifically retro word!) of the late 1950s. Shannon’s character lives in a cheery suburban home with wife and kiddies straight out of Dick and Jane. Late in the film he treats himself to a glossy “teal” Cadillac with tail fins out to there. TV sets are ubiquitous, featuring scenes from Dobie Gillis and ads for JELL-O. Percy Faith’s lush rendition of “Theme from A Summer Place” is a highlight of the soundtrack.

Against all this candy-colored domesticity, del Toro sets the lives of several 1950s misfits. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spencer), one of a fleet of cleaning ladies who clean up the muck and the pee of their betters. As a black woman, she’s used to being rendered invisible. There’s Giles (a highly sympathetic Richard Jenkins), an artist who feels himself being shoved aside for reasons both professional and personal. And, crucially, there’s Elisa, who is Zelda’s co-worker and Giles’ neighbor in a strange and beautiful old building above a dying movie palace. As unforgettably played by Sally Hawkins, Elisa’s an orphan who’s been rendered mute by some mysterious childhood mishap. Though she can’t speak, she can hear and understand all that goes on around her. Precise and self-contained, she’s also at base a dreamy and creative soul. She and Giles bond over old romantic movies, tap-dancing, and pie. Her personal soundtrack is dominated by Alice Faye soulfully warbling “You’ll never know how much I love you.” When her heart is captured, she gives herself completely.

Finally there’s “the asset,” the supernatural creature whose presence propels all the action. Between him and Elisa there’s instant communion, with no need for speech. He’s strange, disturbing, and gorgeous, just right for a mysterious fairy tale in which all the participants seem totally real.  

Friday, December 22, 2017

Glory, Hallelujah – Saluting the Men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry

In 1989, the movie Glory brought to the nation’s attention a young actor named Denzel Washington. For playing the role of an African-American soldier fighting for the Union cause during the Civil War, he was awarded an Oscar as best supporting actor. The highly regarded film introduced to many the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a regiment composed of free black men determined to help win the fight against slavery in the American South. Those men, and their white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, are memorialized in a plaque erected in Boston Commons in 1897. Featuring a dramatic bas relief by noted sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the plaque faces the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, a prominent and permanent reminder of men who courageously put their lives on the line to end a social evil.

Many of those men didn’t live to see the Union win the war. Glory focuses on young Colonel Shaw (a rare dramatic role for the baby-faced Matthew Broderick) molding inexperienced volunteers into a fighting unit. Washington’s character is used to show the anger of black men who are denied respect and proper uniforms because of the color of their skin. But he and the others rise to the occasion during a bold (though ultimately futile) assault on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner that leaves many dead, their bodies tosses into a ditch, black and white together, in the ultimate expression of Southern scorn.

It’s a stirring movie, one that deserves its Oscars. But it hardly covers the entire history of the 54th, nor does it go into full detail about the indignities suffered by these black men who were risking their own freedom by marching into a place where--if  captured—they could legally be treated as chattel. It falls to my colleague Ray Anthony Shepard, a writer and educator whose grandfather was born a slave, to give us the whole chronicle of this courageous group of soldiers. His new book is called Now or Never!: 54th Massachusetts Infantry’s War to  End Slavery. It’s intended for classroom use, but all of us can learn a great deal in its pages. 

Shepard’s extensively researched account makes particular use of the writings of two volunteers, George E. Stephens and James Henry Gooding. Through their letters and their newspaper accounts from the front lines, both give the perspective of free black men gambling everything to free their enslaved brethren. One didn’t survive the war; the other grew increasingly bitter as he was repeatedly denied a promotion to officer’s ranks because of his “African ancestry.” It was not until 1891, well after his death, that he was granted the lieutenant’s stripes he had long ago earned.
The Union side, it seems, was by no means color-blind. Colonel Shaw himself started as no fan of the idea of emancipation, though he was soon pleasantly surprised by the intelligence of the black soldiers under his command. Higher-ups in the Union army played cruel tricks on men who’d been told their pay would be equal to that of white soldiers. When their expected $13 pay packets were reduced to $10, with an additional $3 charged toward their uniforms, there was a near-mutiny. So concerned were some in the War Office that black men were being trained to use rifles that there was talk of allowing them to face the enemy with only long pikes in their hands. But their courage in battle quickly put an end to that idea.

Shepard’s account is disturbing but fascinating. It shows us how much more there is to learn—and maybe there’s a movie in that?

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Backdraft: Fighting Fire with Fire

As wildfires continue to rage across Southern California, scorching thousands of acres and putting homes (and lives) at risk, my thoughts return to a 1991 film that treats fire with the respect it deserves.

Backdraft began as a concept by screenwriter Gregory Widen. Before entering film school, Widen had spent three years as a Southern California fireman. In the line of duty, he saw a buddy blown across a six-lane highway and impaled on a metal post by the deadly explosion known as a backdraft. Widen’s goal was to write a tense thriller built around the working lives of firefighters and their heroic dance with danger.

When Ron Howard came aboard as director, he chose to play up the complex rivalry between two brothers from a Chicago firefighting family. Stephen (Kurt Russell) and younger brother Brian (William Baldwin) are both still reeling from the death of their fireman father. Stephen has grown up with a personal vendetta against fire: he’s the first to rush into any precarious situation, and he refuses to wear a gas mask. Brian, having tried in vain to stay away from the family profession, is both enthralled and intimidated by his elder brother’s brash heroics. He sees in Stephen’s crumbling marriage a reminder of the price some firemen pay for their obsessive insistence on grabbing every fire by the throat.

Where Backdraft works best is in its depiction of fire itself. Howard discovered that firefighters see fire as a living creature with a will of its own, one that “has its own thought patterns, it behaves in odd ways, it slithers and it laughs and hisses and giggles, and we’re trying to create a sense of that in the fire scenes.” Through state-of-the-art visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic, but also through the gutsy willingness of cast and crew to move in close to actual flames, Backdraft conveys the elemental power of fire in a way no previous film had ever done.

The Backdraft team chose to focus on the Chicago Fire Department because of its reputation as the most stubbornly macho in the country. Chicago firemen traditionally disdain those who stay on the perimeter of a burning building, shooting water from hoses in what they call a “surround and drown.” Their own preferred method is to rush inside and tackle the blaze, thus exposing themselves to the possibility of great personal harm. In shooting Backdraft, Howard and his crew followed much the same pattern. Though camera operators were encased in fire-suits and though the leaps of the flames were carefully choreographed, danger was always present. By the time shooting ended, there had been more than one close call. An actual fireman playing a minor role had his eyebrows singed off, his first accident after twelve years on the force. The moment production wrapped, Howard nearly wept with relief. He insisted that if movies, like Olympics events, were judged on a degree-of-difficulty scale, “this would be a nine and a half. I was constantly riding this line, trying to maximize the excitement and be safe at the same time.” No wonder he’s never considered a sequel.

Since Backdraft’s release, Howard has been treated as a hero by firefighters throughout the nation. His heightened awareness of the hazards faced by firemen has led him to appear on Capitol Hill, lobbying for federal funds to improve their training. But his serious interest in the work of firefighters never kept him from appreciating Universal Studio’s now-shuttered Backdraft theme-park attraction, in which visitors experienced an actual chemical blaze. Said Howard, appreciatively, “You can feel the heat on that ride.”

Dedicated to the many brave fire fighters now on the front lines in California and elsewhere