Like many people I had been looking forward to seeing this much acclaimed movie at the cinema. I missed it because the 'Beast from the East' hit home and the entire cinema was closed down. So, with life returning to normal after the brief milk and bread shortage, I returned to the cinema and watched it last week.
It looked beautiful, as one would expect from a Guillermo del Toro film. It was well acted and capably directed (though not Oscar worthy in my opinion). It nevertheless scooped up four of the golden ones at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony. But I was left feeling empty at the end of it.
My problem is this.
The villain in the film, who is depicted working for a military organisation, has a gun, which is to be expected. The amphibious being who is central to the film did not. But at a crucial moment in the film it had a choice. And it chose to kill. My point is that it might as well have been carrying a gun, given that it chooses vengeance over benevolence, and this is so typical of Hollywood right now. The gun is a very well used symbol over there. And it has been used imaginatively in many a Tarantino or Scorsese film, which is fine by me, because if you watch a film about gangsters you expect them to have guns. But here, the director could have created something quite beautiful, in keeping with the rest of his film, but I think he made the wrong choice. The gun is too often wielded in Hollywood filmmaking and I believe it has become a short cut to bad storytelling. It's misuse renders most narratives black and white, with no grey areas, and characters become caricature. A case of shoot first, talk later. And whilst it can work in certain films I think that del Toro had the opportunity to ensure that The Shape Of Water rose above such limitations, but he allowed that opportunity to sink without trace.
Now, I'm a crime writer. But I've never used a gun in my books. Perhaps that's because I live in Scotland, where, thankfully, we have a very sensible view on gun control. It's simply not part of our culture. But if I was to use a gun, then I believe such a decision would have to be earned. It has to count for something, otherwise you'd be as well simply clubbing your character over the head with a mallet, which is increasingly how gun depiction in films is beginning to feel.
Maybe I'm just overtly sensitive to this at the moment, what with the recent shootings in Florida, but I'm sure I'm not the only one. The increasing volume of criticism against American gun laws would seem to validate my concerns. In America, the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the police are no longer required 'to protect and to serve' - in other words they no longer protect and serve the public. In Florida four police officers hid behind their cars whilst 17 teenagers were massacred by one lone gunman.
At the Oscars a huge deal was made of the Hollywood industry trying to show it's acceptance of gender equality and diversity. But it still has a long way to go, and I feel this is reflected in the way Hollywood chooses to tell its stories involving guns. I'm not saying that guns should be banned from films or any of that nonsense, (though I did wonder at the 15 certificate for a film which depicts violence, gore, masturbation and explicit sex - maybe I'm just behind the times). If a gun must be used in a film it must be used constructively. It has to serve the story. The creature commits a not entirely necessary act of violence. But how much more interesting might it have been if it had chosen another route?
Art is always a reflection of life and perhaps I should just accept that this is only a film at the end of the day. But with the continual dismissal of good common sense on gun control by the authorities, I do fear that in America they are becoming increasingly isolated by global opinion. Guns are no longer sexy. Even in films they are becoming dull - a tired and overused deus ex machina. As a result never has Hollywood appeared more like a dinosaur than it does now.
I think that Scotland, and the rest of the British Isles, are a much richer place for needing to earn the use of a gun and this is reflected in our storytelling. Good fiction can and should produce good heroes. On my side of the water we have a fictional hero called The Doctor. He too encounters villains (of all shapes and sizes) but the similarity ends there. He never uses a gun to kill anyone, or anything for that matter. He abstains from violence and instead he simply uses the oldest weapons of all - speech and diplomacy.
The other side of the water needs a hero, and Mr del Toro's film could have been the answer to that. It's amphibious entity gave it it's best shot.
Ian Skewis is the author of A Murder Of Crows and has contributed a short story called Inkling to the Speculative Book anthology. This is the link to his author page: https://nrnk.co/a/B06XHMZ2JY
He will appearing at the Aye Write! festival on Saturday 24th March in Glasgow, Scotland. For more info please click on this link: https://www.ayewrite.com/Pages/Whats-On.aspx#/event/ff3bf4d8-0c16-4fec-84ca-a85d00eb7b61