We don’t have magic in America. The first European settlers made sure of that. It was the dawn of the Age of Reason, and there was no room in the New World for old superstitions. The wizards were crushed, the witches burned, the grimoires replaced with bibles. The magics of the native peoples were almost forgotten in the face of genocide and cultural assimilation. The songs and stories of the Africans stolen for forced labor were wrapped in chains and tossed into the Atlantic. And for centuries, downtrodden immigrants were robbed of last names and customs. Not that we don’t have myths and legends in America. We simply created them ourselves. Our Founding Fathers were deified, our Westward Expansion apotheosized, and our military victories woven into justifications for the supremacy of the American ideal.
But still we have no magic. Perhaps sensing the cultural void, we tried to spin tales of mythic heroes. A cowboy named Pecos Bill who lassoed and rode tornadoes. A giant lumberjack named Paul Bunyan whose footprints became the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. A black steel-driving man named John Henry who won a tunneling race against a steam-powered hammer. A nurseryman named Johnny Appleseed who blanketed the country with apple trees. But unlike the Old World’s legends and children’s stories, we know where these began. They were invented by newspapermen and advertising agents, balladeers and historical revisionists. We love them despite knowing they cannot be true. We even have a term for them: fakelore.
Neil Gaiman once wrote that America is no place for gods. But is it no place for fairy tales? Guillermo del Toro would say no. For the last twenty-five years, this Mexican filmmaker has established himself as the cinema’s preeminent teller of fairy tales—not since Georges Méliès and Walt Disney has there been a director more enamored with them. And with his latest film The Shape of Water, the story of a mute janitor working in a government facility who falls in love with a kidnapped Amazonian amphibian-man, he has turned his eye to his adopted country of America. In the past he has made several films partially or completely set in America, most of them adaptations of comic books or short stories by other creators. But only in the last five years has he started telling his own original stories set here. Even then, his films were international in scope and concerned America only as a part of a greater global whole. In Pacific Rim (2013) the chisel-jawed American hero controls a giant robot alongside a Japanese co-pilot to destroy giant monsters in Hong Kong. In Crimson Peak (2015) an American heiress is spirited away to Edwardian England where she falls under the spell of ghosts and blasphemous evils.
The Shape of Water takes place solely in America. And in a sense it’s his first film about America or more specifically the beliefs we hold about ourselves. It doesn’t take place in some timeless present or past, but in the midst of the mid-century Pax Americana. Not since the Old West has a specific time and place in American history been so culturally mythologized: it was the era of poodle skirts and rock ’n’ roll and the time of clean-cut nuclear families in perfectly manicured suburbs. But it was also an era of paranoia and social upheaval. As suited salarymen whistled off to work in new sports cars, black activists were murdered by Klansmen and assaulted by the police. As little children cheered The Lone Ranger, the government kept the world teetered on the edge of mutually assured destruction as spies waged a deadly Cold War against the Soviet Union. The era perfectly captured the very best and the very worst of who were are as a nation. As del Toro explained in an interview with A&E: “it’s the last fairytale time in America, a time in which America kind of dreams itself into what we conceive as the modern America…if I say once upon a time in 1962, it becomes a fairy tale for troubled times.”
Traditional fairy tales presume a world infused with magic and the otherworldly. But in a nation bereft of magic, del Toro focuses on mid-century America’s obsession with science. Primarily set in the Occam Aerospace Research Center in Baltimore, the facility is a labyrinth of harsh concrete tunnels and antiseptic laboratories tended to by a small army of janitors. Stone-faced military men hold court with harried, nervous scientists in giant board rooms overlooking imposing control centers. It’s perhaps no coincidence that these administrative nerve centers look more like NASA mission control rooms than traditional office complexes. For they focus on a different kind of exploration than outer space but one no less important to America’s scientific advancement and military supremacy.
It’s here that Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings the “Asset” (Doug Jones), an amphibian man worshiped by the native peoples of South America, what del Toro himself described as “an elemental god of the water…he’s a representation of a river.” And how do these soldiers and scientists react to a literal god? They seek to kill and dissect it. Never mind that it can communicate. Never mind that it’s an irreplaceable zoological marvel. Its sole value is whatever it can provide to give America an edge over the Soviets. Compare this to the wizards and royalty who task European heroes to kill giants, dragons, and monsters. They too seek their extermination. But del Toro recognizes America’s pragmatism. Destroy it, yes, but only after you figure out a way to profit by it. One of the film’s sweetest ironies is that if the scientists had treated the “Asset” with any kindness it might have revealed its magic powers: the ability to heal and restore living things. But they cheat themselves of literal magic.
These military figures, particularly Strickland’s superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), are depicted as a kind of American royalty. The president might have the nuclear football, but they control the bombers and command silos. With his highly tailored uniform and regal, satisfied air, Hoyt’s words carry absolute power within the Occam Center. Consider a later scene in the movie after the hero Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) rescues the “Asset” from the facility. Hoyt doesn’t threaten Strickland with demotion or termination from his post, he threatens to “leave a you-sized hole in the universe.” He may as well have threatened to have him drawn and quartered. It’s this terror that curdles Strickland’s cultivated self-confidence in scientific progress and his own can-do attitude—we see him reading a copy of minister Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking—into a maniacal frenzy that leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake.
But one of the most fascinating parts of The Shape of Water is how he differentiates America’s underclass from its “ruling” one. In European fairy tales, many of the heroes came from poor backwaters or villages—what later cultural critics would call the proletariat. But del Toro recognizes that economic standing, while important, is hardly the sole deciding factor in what makes an individual American a member of the underclass. In the 1960s, the underclass was comprised of anybody outside of the white, heterosexual, economically-mobile majority. Notice how del Toro’s heroes are all cultural outsiders: Elisa is a disabled, unmarried middle-aged woman with the audacity to explore and embrace her own sexuality; her friend and fellow janitor Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) is a black woman; her next-door-neighbor and companion Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a closeted artist; and Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the scientist who helps them steal the “Asset,” is a Soviet spy. Together they comprise a microcosm of everything mainstream America wished would go away in the 1960s. Additionally, Elisa’s non-Anglicized last name “Esposito” suggests an immigrant background, answering to del Toro’s stated ambition that he wanted the film to express what he felt like as an immigrant in America.
In del Toro’s American fairy tale, these outsiders unite to rescue the magic the mainstream wishes to destroy. And by rescuing the magic, the magic rescues them. The great evil is revealed not to be the monster but the very law enforcement and government forces sworn to protect the populace in the first place. It’s a curious reversal that is distinctly, uniquely American. It suggests that, for a nation long defined by our failures—the Native American genocide, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, unchecked police brutality—the only way America can save itself is to truly embrace our egalitarian ideals. We are our own evil kingdom. But we don’t have to be. We are all our own knights in shining armor. Our strength is our empathy. Our strength is our diversity. Our strength is our love. Unconditional and unquestioning.