‘The Story of Ruth,’ ‘The Little Colonel,’ etc. in ‘The Shape of Water’

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017) is soaked, saturated, inundated with movie love and consciousness, pun definitely intended. The look of the underwater creature around whom the plot revolves, identified in the credits as “Amphibian Man,” is copied from The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The beauty-and-the-beast story is a King Kong update. Amphibian Man and Elisa (Sally Hawkins), the heroine, do an imaginary (?) black-and-white dance number that’s based on the Astaire-Rogers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet. (The song they dance to, “You’ll Never Know,” first appeared in the 1943 musical Hello, Frisco, Hello and is more or less the theme song of Shape of Water.)

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A gif of the big dance number, thanks to sixactstructure.com

Elisa’s close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist, has an in-progress drawing of Audrey Hepburn on an easel in his studio. He and Elisa live in apartments above The Orpheum cinema, and del Toro gives us to understand that the movies being projected seep through the floorboards and cast a spell on them.

As the film opens and the credits roll, we get a glimpse of one part of the double bill, the 1960 biblical epic The Story of Ruth (Shape of Water is set in 1962), playing to a near-empty house.

An article on the website Vox finds significance in the director’s choice of this film.

The most famous passage from the Book of Ruth is when Ruth, who is a Moabite, entreats her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her come to Israel with her, even after Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) has passed away. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” Ruth says. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

The words are spoken between a widow and her mother-in-law, but most people know the passage as a familiar reading at weddings. The devotion it expresses — love that transcends the speaker’s home, family, and beliefs about the world — is the purest distillation of what it is to fall in love and give oneself over to the commitment that entails.

It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same.

I can’t argue with any of that but I prefer to heed the filmmaker’s own words, regarding  all the films seen in The Shape of Water. That sizable list includes Mardi Gras (1958), a Pat Boone musical that makes an unlikely Orpheum double bill with Ruth, and four ’40s and ’30s musicals all seen at various times on Giles’s apparently never-turned-off television: That Night in Rio; Sun Valley Serenade; Hello, Frisco, Hello; Coney Island; and The Little Colonel, featuring yet another unlikely couple, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They inspire Elisa to do her own lovely impromptu dance.

Interviewed by Jason Garber shortly after the film’s release, del Toro said,

I spoke to [his friend director Alejandro Iñárritu] and he said to me I think it would be wise that the more obscure the movie, the better it is. The only one that is sort of famous is Little Colonel with Shirley Temple; the rest are really not well-known. Alejandro said that gives the movie a reality even in the fantasy. If everything is heightened, then tonally you’re screwed. I followed his advice and looked for specific movies that were in some instances kind of crappy, like the dancing horse number with Betty Grable or the beautiful but cheesy stuff in The Story of Ruth and the [truly goofy] bouncing giant ball in Mardi Gras.

In other words, sometimes a toga is just a toga. One more thing: Shape of Water was a Fox Searchlight production, and all the movies shown came from its predecessor company, Twentieth Century Fox, making it easier and cheaper to secure permissions.

There’s an interesting tension in The Shape of Water concerning screens. On one side is the big, enveloping one at the ornate Orpheum movie palace (actually the Elgin Theatre in Toronto), which never seems to have more than four or five patrons. On the other are comparatively tiny TV screens, which, when you look closely, are everywhere in this movie. As mentioned, Giles always has his set on, and so does the family of bad guy Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). At various times we see his kids watching the TV shows Hong Kong and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and the 1959 animated Mr. Magoo comedy 1001 Arabian Nights. (How’s that for obscure and cheesy?)

But that’s not all. As Elisa walks to her bus shop, she passes a TV shop with what appear to be nine sets in the window, all showing different hot-button news events of the early 1960s: JFK speaking, civil rights marchers, Vietnam helicopters. Not only is del Toro collapsing time but the very presence of nine TVs with different content is anachronistic: in 1962 there were only three networks and two or three independent stations in a market like Baltimore (the film’s setting); and they would never all be running news at the same time. Of course, you don’t watch a movie like The Shape of Water expecting realism.

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Television turns malignant when the scene moves to the top-secret research center where Amphibian Man is being kept. Whenever we see Strickland in his office, behind him are banks of monitors on which he keeps watch on everything and everyone in the facility. In a film that’s not infrequently heavy-handed, this is a subtle nod to a future (ours) where the promise of privacy is more and more swiftly starting to recede.

 

‘Father of the Bride’ and ‘Red River’ in ‘The Last Picture Show’

bogdanovich-last-picture-show1Set in rural Texas in 1951, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) is informed and sometimes seemingly suffused with the entertainment of the period. That’s most noticeable on the soundtrack. Pop music provides a near-continual backdrop, including such songs (according to the American Film Institute website) as

“Blue Velvet,” “Slow Poke,” “A Fool Such as I,” “Kawliga” and “Jambalaya.” The onscreen credits include the following acknowledgment: “For their music we thank Hank Williams; Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, courtesy of MGM Records; Eddy Arnold; Eddie Fisher; Phil Harris; Pee Wee King; Hank Snow, courtesy of RCA Records; Tony Bennett; Lefty Frizzell; Frankie Laine; Johnnie Ray, courtesy of Columbia Records; Johnny Standley; Kay Starr; Hank Thompson, courtesy of Capitol Records, Inc.; Webb Pierce; Jo Stafford, courtesy of Decca Records.”

The list conjures up on a pre-rock-and-roll world and time all by its lonesome. Bogdanovich frequently uses the music as ironic counterpoint to the characters’ world. In one early scene, the town icy beauty, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shephard), applies cold cream to her face while Tony Bennett’s Hank Williams cover “Cold, Cold Heart” plays on the radio.

And in Jacy’s house the television set is constantly going; on it we see scenes from Your Show of Shows and Strike It Rich. As her parents are wealthy and miserable, the latter game show counts for more ironic commentary.

But the movies are key. Although The Last Picture Show was adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel, both the title and theme were perfect for Bogdanovich, a movie critic before he started directing and, then and now, a champion of classic American film. Both plot developments and the era see to it that the “picture show”–in better times the center of town life–must close. As the cashier/popcorn vendor/manager tells high school friends Duane (Jeff Bridges) and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), “Nobody wants to come to the shows no more. Baseball in the summer, television all the time.”

The Last Picture Show is anchored by two movie-in-movie scenes in which the idealized material on the screen contrasts ironically (again) with the grim reality the characters are living. In McMurtry’s novel, the characters go to the movies to see the 1951 Ronald Reagan-Doris Day melodrama Storm Warning, described this way by IMDB:

Marsha Mitchell, a traveling dress model, stops in a southern town to see her sister who has married a Ku Klux Klansman. Marsha sees the KKK commit a murder and helps District Attorney Burt Rainey in bringing the criminals to justice.

Bogdanovich switches it, big time. Early on Sonny meets his steady girlfriend, Charlene (Sharon Taggert) at the picture show to watch a scene in the affectionate comedy Father of the Bride (1950) in which the Spencer Tracy character greets his daughter, Elizabeth Taylor.

Tracy: What’s happened to you? You look different.

Taylor: I do?

Tracy: Yeah. You look all lit-up inside. You’re not wearing your usual deadpan look, your how-did-I-get-in-this-family? look.

Sonny and Charlene move to the back row for a make-out session. All the while Sonny keeps his eyes on the illuminated visage of the girl of his and so many young men’s dreams, Elizabeth Taylor.

At the end of the novel, McMurtry’s characters watch an Audie Murphy western, The Kid from Texas. Bogdanovich swaps this one Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. One possible reason for the switch is that the Hawks film is in black and white, as is The Last Picture Show–a daring move for a studio film in 1971. Another is that Red River is one of the greatest westerns of all time, maybe the greatest. And the scene that unfolds before Sonny and Duane and the other one or two patrons  is one of the most thrilling examples of anticipation and release–and use of close-up montage–in the history of movies, the start of the cattle drive. As Duane says to Sonny as they walk out, “That was a good movie.”

One final touch. Outside the picture show lobby in the Father of the Bride scene is a poster advertising a coming attraction, another western, John Ford’s Wagon Master.  It happens to have been the first starring role of one of Ford’s company of “players,” Ben Jonson. It’s the same Ben Jonson who plays the moral center of The Last Picture Show, Sam “the Lion,” stealing the picture and winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

‘A Summer Place,’ ‘Little Women,’ ‘The Seventh Seal’ and ‘GE College Bowl’ in ‘Diner’

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Shrevie with customer: “Don’t like that color for nothing.”

Barry Levinson’s debut film, Diner–which came out in 1982 but is set in 1959–has movies on its mind, specifically ’50s movies. Start with the fact that its story, about a group of buddies in their early 20s who stubbornly refuse to grow up, is loosely adapted from Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), with the setting transferred from Fellini’s hometown, Rimini, to Levinson’s, Baltimore. Beyond that, the Diner kids are movie buffs. Kevin Bacon’s Fenwick has a poster for The Journey (1959) on the door to his room, and a minor character is obsessed with Sweet Smell of Success (1957); he sidles around quoting lines from the Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay, like, “JJ, it’s one thing to wear your dog collar, but when it turns into a noose, I’d rather have my freedom.” Movies even insinuate their way into TVs in the appliance store where Shrevie (Daniel Stern) works; a number of them are showing Little Women (1949) as Shrevie tries to make a sale.

The customer, played by Ralph Tabakin (who had small parts in every Levinson film from Diner through Liberty Heights in 1999), says he isn’t interested in one of the new color TVs. “Don’t like that color for nothing,” he says. “Saw Bonanza at my in-laws. It’s not for me. The Ponderosa looked fake. Hardly recognized Little Joe.” In Levinson’s world, nearly everyone–or every male–is a standup comic in waiting. One of the siding salesman in his 1987 movie about aluminum siding salesman, Tin Men, was played by a real-life comic, Jackie Gayle. He riffed about the successful TV western, too:

You got these four guys living on the Ponderosa and you never hear them say anything about wanting to get laid….  I mean you never hear Hoss say to Little Joe, “I had such a hard-on when I woke up this morning.”…  You never hear Little Joe say, “Hey, Hoss, I went to Virginia City and I saw a girl with the greatest ass I’ve ever seen in my life.” They just walk around the Ponderosa: “Yes, Pa, where’s Little Joe?” Nothing about broads. … I’m beginning to think that show doesn’t have too much realism.

A couple of the Diner guys have adventurous tastes, going to an art-house screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). The camera stays on them as they slump down in their seats listening to Bergman’s portentous dialogue.

Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) stage whispers some standup-style riffing: “What am I watching? The movie just started and I don’t know what’s going on.”

Billy (Tim Daly): “It’s symbolic.”

Symbolism apparently doesn’t play in Baltimore; they walk out.

The big movie-in-movie set piece takes place at a showing of A Summer Place, which wasn’t a huge success in 1959, other than its ear-wormy theme, by Max Steiner, but was much more mainstream fare than Seventh Seal. Almost all the guys are there, in large part because they’re in on a bet: whether Boogie (Mickey Rourke) can get some action from his date. He succeeds, but the Fenwick call the bet off because Boog’s methods are deemed irregular.

It’s a noteworthy scene for two reasons. Most obviously, it puts on display the guys’ attitude towards women, which is basically “bros before hoes,” fifty years before the phrase was coined. The interesting thing is Levinson’s attitude toward the attitude. Sometimes–for example the depiction of Shrevie’s lack of interest bordering on contempt for his wife, Beth (Ellen Barkin)–he coldly and convincingly nails it. But other times, as in this scene, it’s played pretty much strictly for laughs and we feel complicit.

The other thing is Levinson’s use of A Summer Place, specifically that film’s last-gasp-of-’50s-repression treatment of sex and sexuality. In 1959, Hollywood’s morals-protecting Motion Picture Production Code (sometimes known as the Hays Office) was being pushed to the breaking point by such films as Suddenly Last Summer and Some Like It Hot. Delmer Daves’ A Summer Place–based on a novel by Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit–wasn’t as explicit as those films. But not only is it suffused with unexpressed sexuality, such repression is one of its themes. In one of the scenes shown in Diner (and by the way, Levinson takes poetic license in this sequence, jumping around and presenting highlights from various points in Summer Place), teenage Molly Jorgenson (Sandra Dee) is on a boat with her father, Ken (Richard Egan), and looks through binoculars at a nearby island.

Molly: There’s a boy up there watching me!

[He runs off]

There he goes. Funny feeling being looked at without knowing it. Remember that family that lived next door to us back home?… Their son used to look at me.

Ken: Without you knowing it?

Molly: Well, his bedroom was right across from mine and… one night I felt naughty and went right on undressing so he could see. Then all of a sudden I… I got terribly ashamed and I ran and pulled the curtains down. I’ll never forget… I had hot and cold flashes all over me afterwards. Wasn’t that awful?

Ken: Well, I guess every human being on earth has a few things he’s ashamed of.

We’re in a sort of time warp. A Summer Place was made and set in 1959 but is a decade or so behind the times when it comes to sex. Diner, you feel, is unrealistic (as Jackie Gayle’s character would put it) the other way; its look back of 1959, while not grossly anachronistic, is colored and informed by all the sexual changes of the ’60s and ’70s.

The other movie-in-movie scene in Diner is short and easy to overlook, but it’s my favorite scene in the movie. Alcoholic, dissipated, and self-loathing, Fenwick is a total fuck-up. But then we see him in his bedroom, slumped in an armchair. On the TV (black and white) is GE College Bowl, a quiz show featuring college students that aired from 1953 to 1970. Every question posed by the host, Allen Ludden, Fenwick nails. We glimpse that maybe he’s not such a loser after all. Then Boogie walks in and asks Fenwick for some money, and the spell is broken.