All for the love of a gentle monster

Shapeofwater

I see you: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) opposite the creature (Doug Jones). Photograph courtesy www.indiewire.com

YOU MIGHT SIT there in the auditorium watching Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water, and quietly begin to think you’ve stepped into a time-zone. This beautifully crafted fantasy love story is like a rendition of 1950s schlock horror tradition ramped up all the way. It’s a delight to watch from beginning to end and contains all the fabulously one-dimensional stereotypes that leave you in no doubt as to who the good guys and the baddies are.

Set in the early 1960s in the mad little heart of the Cold War, the piece presents the American guys opposite the Russians in a quest for scientific advancement. At the heart of all of it, is a kind of amphibious beast with an utterly beautiful texture and a guileless face. Played by Doug Jones, he’s the quintessential colonialist’s dream: exotic and unknown, he’s kept as a government secret and both sides want to do a spot of vivisection to see what he’s made of.

That is, until Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) discovers him.

Endowed with a peculiarly self-deprecating physicality, fitting a mute, damaged and introverted young woman who is almost completely alone, and works a strange routine, where her job, alongside her pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is to clean the latrines of the facility, Elisa is the “Fay Wray” in this quirky love story. And it will wring your heart in the finest of ways.

There follows a delicious tale of discovery and boiled eggs, of explicit white male malevolence, homophobia and racism, and a rip-roaring adventure which sees rotten fingers tossed on the lounge carpet, a smashed up teal Cadillac which will make you roar with schadenfreude and some monster sex, not to mention the seductive use of Glenn Miller’s wonderful swing standard I know why. Oh, and water, there’s lots of water.

It’s as poetic an extrapolation of the genre as you can imagine and the sentiments sing with the kind of monster narrative that saw Wray in the arms of King Kong more than 80 years ago, and left audience members weeping. Replete with the dark green Art Deco tiles on the walls everywhere, and the insane nuances of Hawkins with her other friend in all the world, Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay graphic designer who mourns his lost hair, the work is completely delicious, offering as it does, insight into the complexities of Cold War society with all its crude and petty races for new technology, and its deep biases and tendency toward social violence.

Featuring a lovely little cameo with Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame), as the Russian Dr Robert Hoffstetler, aka “Dimitri”, who recognises the ability of the monster to communicate and indeed to love, it’s the kind of film that will leave your heart dancing with a mix of nostalgia for comics and how stories were told, and a love of the underdog monster who is neglected or ousted by social etiquette.

  • The Shape of Water is directed by Guillermo del Toro and features a cast headed by Evgeny Akimov, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Shaila D’Onofrio, Madison Ferguson, Deney Forrest, Diego Fuentes, Allegra Fulton, Karen Glave, Jayden Greig, Jonelle Gunderson, Sally Hawkins, David Hewlett, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, John Kapelos, Marvin Kaye, Morgan Kelly, Cameron Laurie, Dan Lett, Wendy Lyon, Brandon McKnight, Sergey Nikonov, Vanessa Oude-Reimerink, Alexey Pankratov, Martin Roach, Nick Searcy, Michael Shannon, Lauren Lee Smith, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Cody Ray Thompson, Edward Tracz, Dru Viergever, Danny Waugh and Clyde Whitham. Featuring a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, it is produced by J Miles Dale and Guillermo del Toro and features creative input by Alexandre Desplat (music), Dan Laustsen (cinematography), Sidney Wolinsky (editing), Robin D Cook (casting), Paul D Austerberry (production design) and Luis Sequiera (costumes). Release date: January 19 2018.

The newspaper that would not kowtow

thepost

WAITING to hear what’s what: Newsroom dynamics with the cast of The Post. Photograph courtesy foxmovies.com

THE MESSY BEAST of the print media, in all its procedural glory and inky mechanisms comes under scrutiny in this completely magnificent Steven Spielberg film that deals with the notorious Pentagon papers. Featuring Meryl Streep opposite Tom Hanks in the leads, it tells the story of the Washington Post, a family-run paper, which finds itself fighting beyond its size for national credibility in the face of secret government documents that contradict the need for the longevity of the Vietnam War.

And of course, you know how the film will end, but getting from point A to point B is not the primary point of the work. It’s a story about the early 1970s with all its sexism and women’s big hairdos, about the values that are projected by the media and about the need in the world for a free press. More than all of this, it’s a work that grants you gritty and wonderful insight into the pre-computer era energy of a newspaper newsroom, where the need for accuracy is tantamount and the smoke and stress of the pooled environment of committed professionals attests to the collaborative passion that made a print newspaper the beautiful thing it was.

Streep utterly shines in this complex role – Katharine Graham inherited her role as publisher of The Post when her husband, Phillip committed suicide in 1963. Armed with a fierce belief in the value of the paper and great loyalty to its heritage, she steered it through the muddy and oft bloody waters of the Pentagon papers to a victory that changed the nature of the media and government secrets, going forward. Streep embodies this woman who teeters between the cultural imperatives of men and women in a world run by men in suits and ties, with characteristic grace and elegance.

You will see interesting cameos by the likes of Michael Stuhlbarg – who you might recognise from the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man – in the role of Abe Rosenthal, the editor of the New York Times, as you will see beautiful reflections of the nub and texture of 1970s American social protocol. It’s a true tale of the meaning of integrity in a world on the cusp of madness, and is the kind of film you need to buy and keep in your repertoire of great classics.

Similar, in a sense, to the 1976 film The Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, The Post offers astute insights into the value of the media in society. There are caveats enfolded into its nuances that point to the way in which society is broken or kept whole by the pen and opinion of the team of journalist, sub-editor and editor, who bring their readers what matters.

  • The Post is directed by Steven Spielberg and features a cast headed by Saul Alvarez, Celeste Arias, Kelly AuCoin, Tom Bair, Estelle Bajou, David Aaron Baker, Jordan Baker, Seth Barrish, David Beach, Will Blomker, Walter Brandes, Alison Brie, Dan Bittner, Susan Blackwell, Annika Boras, Dan Bucatinsky, Brendan Burke, Brian Burton, Philip Casnoff, Carrie Coon, Lilli Cooper, David Costable, John Henry Cox, Michael Cyril Creighton, Rick Crom, David Cross, Thaddeus Daniels, Juliana Davies, Johanna Day, Will Denton, Michael Devine, Brett Diggs, Curzon Dobell, Jon Donahue, Francis Dumaurier, Jennifer Dundas, Caleb Eberhardt, Gary Galone, Odiseas Georgiadis, Deborah Green, Bruce Greenwood, Tom Hanks, Pat Healy, Angus Hepburn, Rick Holmes, Christopher Innvar, Lauren Lim Jackson, Mark Jacoby, Austyn Johnson, Brittney Johnson, Cullen Oliver Johnson, Steven Kearney, JaQwan J Kelly, Leslie Kujo, Tracy Letts, Brent Langdon, Fenton Lawless, Ben Livingston, Jerry Lobrow, Kevin Loreque, Deirdre Lovejoy, Stephen Mailer, Ginger Mason, Hazel Mason, Don McCloskey, Carolyn McCormick, Gannon McHale, Robert McKay, Shawn Allen McLaughlin, Sean Meehan, Kelly Miller, Jessie Mueller, Joel Nagle, Patrick Noonan, Ned Noyes, Shaun O’Hagan, Bob Odenkirk, Alexander Sage Oyen, Sarah Paulson, Coral Peña, Matthew Piazzi, Mark Pinelli, Jesse Plemons, Frank Ridley, James Riordan, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Rowe, John Rue, Amy Russ, Stark Sands, Kaylyn Scardefield, Armand Schultz, Luke Slattery, Brett G Smith, Cotter Smith, Sasha Spielberg, Sawyer Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Michael Stuhlbarg, Justin Swain, Clarke Thorell, Kenneth Tigar, Joseph Tudisco, Sonny Valicenti, Anthony M Walker, Peter Van Wagner, Theis Weckesser, Aaron Roman Weiner, Jeremiah Wiggins, Steve Witting, Bradley Whitford, Gary Wilmes, Catherine Wolf and Zach Woods. It is written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, it features creative input by John Williams (music), Janusz Kaminski (cinematography), Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn (editing), Ellen Lewis (casting) Rick Carter (production design), and Ann Roth (costumes). Release date: January 26 2018.

 

Why there are stories in this world

Reimagined

VERY OCCASIONALLY, THROUGH the course of living, reading and looking, you may come across something so overwhelmingly perfect that will reaches you so directly simply you have to have it, at whatever cost. And then, having acquired this thing of great beauty, it doesn’t matter, whether you sit and ponder its treasures every day, or whether you never look at it again, but just rejoice in the fact of your ownership, because that ownership attests to the fact that something as wise and beautiful as this actually exists in the world. This is what Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal will  trigger for you.

Impeccably designed, this over 300-page foray into the life’s work of easily contemporary Jewish art’s most unexpected giant, will touch you deeply, whether you are Jewish or not, religious or not. It’s about the magic of metaphor and the cross pollination of ideas that infiltrates everything from the kind of angelology that infused the thoughts of German Jewish thinkers Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem in the pre-World War Two years, to the political value of ritual objects to the ways in which ritual values can splay into shocking and unexpected directions.

A man who can turn the eight-branched candelabrum, traditionally used by Jews in the celebration of the festival of lights, Chanukah, into a series of sinister railroad tracks; or a child’s noise-maker into a gallows, Podwal (b. 1945) is an unexpected giant because he wasn’t trained to be an artist and nor did the trajectory of his career take the expected twists and curves in this kind of road.

Podwal was educated as a physician. He is not a religious man. His unique handling of line and metaphor, with wit and intellect, mysticism and astounding simplicity begs comparison, to an extent, with the line work of American-Lithuanian artist Ben Shahn (1898-1969), the imagery of Belorus-born artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), and yet, nothing jades the scalpel like sharpness of Podwal’s reflection on everything, from the Golem of Prague to kabbalistic overtures. He makes Hebrew letters dance with a robustness that enables you to hear the jollity of hassids of yore, and an instinctive knowledge of colour and line work that takes hold of you, eyeballs first, and sucks you into the kind of mad, death-defying conflation of superstition and truth, politics and history, that make you believe you can reach the ineffable, just by looking at these drawings.

A colourist as much as a draughtsman of lines both bold and cross-hatched, historical doodles and the jigsaw puzzle of shtetl geographies, Podwal is an entity unexplored by conventional art historical scholarship. This book is a magnificent celebration of the litany of his work. [The review is premised on a pdf of the publication and for this reason does not comment on the quality of the printing or the texture of the paper]. The layout of the book is conventional and elegant. While you may not believe that an occasional use of bold blue background is a good unifying idea for pages in a tome of this nature, when Podwal’s line art is juxtaposed in this context, it glimmers with an effervescence that makes you remember why there are stories in the world.

This is not an academic tractate celebrating the art historical contribution of Podwal to visual culture. Rather, it is an event all of its own – it’s an experience which you will want to visit and revisit, haunted as you will become by a curiously witty metaphor, by that beard that has turned into a fish, by the city that sits on top of the Golem’s head, like a crown; by the cry of a woman that pours from her mouth, palpably, by the sense of surreal possibility that Podwal evokes with his lines and crayons, just as Polish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) or Czech writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) make magic happen with their words and stories.

Along the lines of the Coen brothers’ film A Serious Man (2009), which features a mentaculus – a kabbalistically-inspired probability map of the universe – the body of Podwal’s work, from his liturgical illustrations to his tapestry designs, plays with the simple complexity that feels both obvious and so deep and rich you can lose yourself in it.  This is the kind of book that overrides ownership of a whole library of texts. It embraces the universe at its core.

  • Reimagined: 45 Years of Jewish Art by Mark Podwal features a foreword by Elie Wiesel, a preface by Cynthia Ozick and an essay by Columbia University Professor of Jewish Studies, Elisheva Carlebach. It is published by Glitterati, London (2016).