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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Fiddling with Water

By Source, Fair use,
I've never tried screen-writing (probably poems, stories, novels, and some nonfiction are quite enough), but a movie often makes me think about how I would write its story differently, even when it is hung with glittering nominations and awards. For example, The Shape of Water was a stylish, often ravishing-looking piece, a lovely Marvellian "green thought in a green shade," but I found myself wanting to tinker with its pieces: I wanted more transformation, metamorphosis, change. Such fiddling, of course, is none of my business, but who can stop a writer from playing with words and stories?

Obviously del Toro's tale (screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) was indebted, among other sources, to the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, which in turn springs beautifully from the ancient Greek myth of the perfectly married body and soul, or Eros (Cupid or Amor) and his beloved, Psyche (Anima.) Portrayals of Eros and Psyche go back to the fourth century B. C. in Greece. (Apuleuis wrote the first full narrative of their story in Latin.)

And so I end up considering The Shape of Water in the light of Eros and Psyche, a story of metamorphosis, of a woman gaining strength as she passed through many trials, of two impossibly-different (one a winged god, one an earthly princess) strangers finding sacred union and giving birth to their child, Pleasure. Through her many tasks and her difficult journey to the Underworld, Psyche becomes more than she was, and at last she wins immortality and becomes the equal of Eros. Eros and Psyche has always been a story of the achievement of wholeness, and through the centuries it has been popular and multivalent, giving rise to varied and rich meanings. I played with the story some years ago in The Throne of Psyche, so I am guilty of adding to that heap of meanings.

Alphonese Legros, Cupid and Psyche (1867)
Public Domain / Wikipedia / Google Art Project

Toying, tinkering with a shape of water

What if the amphibian-with-powers was also, like the Greek god Eros, more complex, more human in his acts? That is, what if he appeared to have a soul, so that Elisa's discovery of his worth appeared more powerful?

What if he refrained from slashing flesh, munching on Giles's cats, and murdering those who do not understand what he is? (As is, it's a possibility that Strickland's harsh, cartoon view is a bit more accurate than the viewer would like--after all, the Amazonian fish-man repeatedly chooses to be violent, even though he is shown as powerful enough to make other choices.)

What if the amphibian lover performed a redemptive, possibly transformative act at the close, giving life and change (redemption? a speck or a peck of penitence?) to Strickland rather than simply killing a baddie drawn too firmly in cardboard? What if Strickland was transformed from something less to something more, and in the process the creature was also elevated to something more in Elisa's mind and in our minds?

The close gives us the pattern of death and resurrection, but the Amazonian is no god for Easter--he's a god for sex and death and a happily-ever-after we had better not examine too closely. For like Psyche, Elisa meets death and is changed somewhat (gills! whether brand new or simply opened because she was already part fish), but it's hard to puzzle out how she and her amphibian love will keep house together underwater in the Amazon.

What if, like Psyche, Elisa had a more complicated relationship with her lover, one that further developed the idea that she is fearful but learning who and what he is, that gave her uncertainty when others were fearful for her, and that showed her changing (in more than gills) to pursue her love?

What if the story was a kind of Eros and Psyche story without side tales that hammered home obvious messages about the patriarchy and How Bad and Illiberal American White People Especially Men Were Not So Long Ago (but now at least we who chose to see the movie are good and love everybody, even Amazonian monsters)? What if the movie didn't pat us on the back in this manner? What if the story didn't tell us how much better we viewers are now than people were before but made us long for our own transformation into something more beautiful and human?

What if...

Note: One of my favorite pieces about Guillermo del Toro is The New Yorker feature by Daniel Zalewski. See it here. And I would like to see a del Toro version of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness...

Note no. 2: Maybe it's time to re-watch Pan's Labyrinth. And here's a documentary about the Pale Man, the Faun, the toad, and the stick-insect fairies.

The Minnie Youmans Place

From "19th-century farmhouse, Lexsy" by Brian Brown. This is grander than
my grandparents' house, but it is in Lexsy--my grandmother Kate once had
a fistfight with another woman in Lexsy, back when she lived there for a time.
Evidently Kate "Little Bear" was defending one of the children...
I am hoping Brian will not mind if I "borrow" his image, as he once
borrowed from one of my posts to illuminate something about
the house my maternal grandfather, a house builder, made for his wife
Be sure and visit his wonderful site, Vanishing South Georgia.
     It never belonged to my grandparents, even though they worked the land near Lexsy for decades, plowing with mules, shaping the resistant earth until gullies became flat and usable. Even the girls plowed, at least until the last baby came along. Preston and Kate labored as tenant sharecroppers in south Georgia, and if you have ever read James Agee's passionate Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or seen Walker Evans's photographs wedded to that prose, you have a hint of what that means. It was a postwar world, after all--why wouldn't the neighbors eat dirt, why wouldn't my father see his first jealous, throat-slitting murder before he was ten, why wouldn't he early on see the rural ways of sexual congress in a field, why wouldn't he run to join up with the Army Air Corps at 17?
       A long pale road of packed dust led by swamp and blackberry tangles: then a turn, and a visitor drove between fields of horse corn, tobacco, and cotton. The shack with its burst of trees in the midst of flat fields, its tumbledown outbuildings, the rusted stove that sometimes held rattlers, the gaudy flowers rioting from coffee cans, the half-fallen cedar with tiny scorpions in the cave underneath, the cloyingly sweet but tiny white blooms in the shining hedge that sheltered the porch from a blaze of sun: there is not one picture of the place. Not one. No one thought it worth the cost, I suppose. And later on the four-room house (living room, two bedrooms, kitchen--no bathroom, no hall, no closets or frills) was burned by vandals.
Public domain, Wikipedia. Walker Evans photograph of 3 sharecroppers,
Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs, Summer 1936
     Long ago I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as I biked around the perimeter of Ireland on my green Peugeot that German tourists fondled whenever I left it outside a pub. (They seemed to spring into being whenever I lashed the bike to a post.) I left the book behind somewhere in a Derry that, terrorized only hours before, was full of drifting smoke. I hope someone found the book, took it home, read, and passed it on.
     How I still wish there was a photograph somewhere! One of the reasons I wrote A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage was to make a sort of picture for myself. And it is a book where my family slips in--my grandfather's mixed race brothers (my great-grandfather Nathaniel Youmans/Yeomans sired twenty-two legitimate children and at least two illegitimate children, though doesn't know the half of it!) inspired the loss at the start of the book, and Pip contains elements of my father and one of my children. The well with ferns growing inside, the pomegranate trees, the chinaberries, the smolder of summer sun, the graveyard with its stones topped with shells: I wanted to keep those things, as much as I wanted to hold on to people.
     Some years past I went back to the site of Lexsy and then the Minnie farm. No one then lived in Lexsy; perhaps they have come back now, though I doubt it. The farm was now owned by an international corporation; there were signs meant to bar us from a place that was one of my loadstones in this life. My mother and I bumped down the road, still pale dirt, between the blackberry ravels, and turned down the drive toward the house. Nothing built by hands remained, not the shack, not the outbuildings, not the well. Doghobble ran wild in the yard. The chinaberries still stood in a messy row. The fields went on forever under the hot Georgia sky.

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
Ecclesiasticus 44:1 King James Bible

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Melt, you snows, melt!

Nor'easters dumping feet of snow, multiple family ER visits, care for the laid-up, busyness to the Nth power: it has been a monster of a Lent so far. In lieu of a proper post, here's a snip from Glimmerglass, a story about the rebirth of a woman in mid-life, Cynthia Sorrel, who thinks of herself as a failed painter, and set in a version of that semi-mythical village, Cooperstown. Ghosts! Faux European castles! Confusion between the real world and the fictional realm invented by James Fenimore Cooper! Etcetera. I picked a bit of a flood scene, since I am longing for our feet of snow to melt and leave me with no car-clearing, no shoveling...

And here's a little snip from a review by Tom Atherton that mentions the flood: "On the surface it’s a real-world drama about a woman’s later-life discovery of adventure, love, ambition, and artistry. In light of its concerns for both coming-of-age and the real rubbing against the magical, it’s fitting that much of the work is given over to images of thresholds being crossed, of locked doors being opened, and of rivers overflowing their banks. And while it’s a literary-critical truism to remark that the source material of many fairytales is much darker than their popular Disney-fied incarnations, Glimmerglass really is an adult fantasy, not in the sense that it’s violent and sexual (though this is an aspect of the text), but in its emotional complexities, and its themes of loss and redemption. It’s brilliantly well-written, shockingly raw, and transportingly—sometimes confusingly (but not in a bad way)—weird." (For more review clips, go here.)
     The art--dragon study, inner illuminations, and jacket images and lettering--is by the marvelous, bookish painter-and-more, Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales. Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt of Burt and Burt of Atlanta. Published by Mercer University Press.

Mid-way in chapter 8, "The Spring Freshet"

       The creek surged above the bank—the boy was gone—and she flashed away, her feet sliding on patches of ice, past the cottage with its seven doors thrown wide, past the firs, and through the
gateway with its stone pedestals for ironwork arch and griffins.  A wave tangled with her feet, slammed her to the ground.  She picked herself up and raced on in deepening water; gaining the lake road, she jogged on a glaze of muddy liquid until she came to dry pavement.
       There she panted, hands on muddy knees, and surveyed the invasion of her domain.  The stream had flown through the cottage and out the other side, making a shallow lake of the lawn.  For an instant she saw the flooded grounds as magical—the reflective surface gleaming like a jewel, the cottage like a moated castle.
“All my things,” she whispered.
Though the high waters were already subsiding and draining out the doors, many of her pictures and the upholstered furniture might be ruined, even from such a brief soaking.  Had the tide overthrown her tables, broken what was breakable?  She dreaded the thought, recalling that when she had moved here, the chance of flood hadn’t seemed like such a risk.  Less than a year ago, loss had been nothing to her.  Just stuff, she thought, giving a one-sided smile.  Such a quick, fierce dousing wouldn’t ruin everything, surely.  Old photographs, family possessions:  those she couldn’t replace.
       Cynthia squatted at the edge, watching, until she remembered the painting of the boy and sprang up.  She dashed off, heels kicking up spray, slowing as she reached the lake around the house.  Chunks of ice, twigs, and leaf litter bobbled on the surface, and last year’s flattened grass shone green through the meltwater.  Cold lapped against her legs.
        Once a pair of small red dragons made her pause:  salamanders from the cellar!  Having struck the safety of a tree, they now groped upward and, like two drenched flames, sank into fissures of bark.
Inside, the flood was everywhere, though already the depth had sunk to only five or six inches.  The line of the watermark showed that the tide hurled through the open doors must have crested at about three feet.  She told herself that it could have been much worse, that perhaps it was best that the doors had been free to let the flood in and out again.  She slopped down the hall, rescuing a gilt-framed photograph, a set of overturned nesting tables, and a doll-sized dresser that had belonged to her mother.  When she reached the studio, she realized that it had taken the full force of the surge.  Drawings together with miniver, sable, and bristle brushes floated on foot-deep water.  Collecting her flotsam, she dumped it onto a worktable.  The old map chests full of sketches were safe, but anything half-finished had been torn away, the paints pitched out the door and scattered.  Her hand, blind in the murk, closed on a tube of Caput Mortum.  
The painting!  She hadn’t even dreamed that it might have vanished.  Water damage she could deal with, but not total loss.  She waded along the north side of the house, scanning the shadows for a patch of canvas.  It could be anywhere between the walls and the shore—it could even be in the lake, she realized, and perhaps, if face down, could fill with water and sink.
“I’ll swim if I have to,” she said, head bent, as if warning the opaque waters.
She skittered through the yard, twice stumbling to her knees but pushing off again.  Discolored where
the creek had tumbled its cargo, Glimmerglass was sprinkled with uprooted saplings, dead leaves,
and a lone pink plastic frisbee.  But nothing like a picture floated on the waves.  Sticks and stones clogged the mouth of the stream; with unslakable invention, the water continued to murmur its story and found fresh paths into the lake.
“The only thing I ever did that was any good!”
She crawled onto a heap of debris, peering through gaps, and began to work her way up the heavily pouring creek, poking into the depths with a stick.  Nothing.  Not until she came within a hundred yards of the house did she glimpse the oval of the boy’s face in a deep pool.  A mass of wood had forced much of the pell-mell plummet into a nearby channel, although innumerable fingerlets of water felt their way between and over logs.
The banks had been sheared away, so Cynthia climbed downward until she couldn’t find footing and abruptly sat, digging her nails into the muck for purchase until the steep wall collapsed, and she smashed sideways into meltwater.
Bubbles shot from her mouth as a branch raked her side.  She surfaced, choking and splashing, with clay squeezed in her fists.  Something about the clay, soft as raw hanks of flesh in her hands, made the thought of her own death come home to her.  Fright was in her like iron left to frost in the woods, with the nightmare of being overrun by a tumult of wood and water.  Blood made a jagged path down her ribs.  Cold tightened its grip until she gasped.
But she wouldn’t climb up; she wouldn’t crawl back home in fear.  She would claim the boy.
Gingerly she extended her legs, pedaling until her feet found an uneasy perch on the creek bed, and reached for the boy.  With a jerk, the canvas escaped from the grip of mud, though it didn’t float to the top as she had expected.  
Millais’ painting of the drowned Ophelia came into Cynthia’s mind as she looked at the boy’s heartbreaking, beautiful face and at the white hands glowing under water that was spring clear in places but deepened to mud and blackened emerald in others.  Strands of dissolved loam swirled across his chest.  She plunged her arms into ice cold and grappled with the canvas, struggling against earth and roots and the weight of water.  An answer to a question she hadn’t known to ask, memory and desire rose in her like a fountain and then a flood that ravished:  the boy’s backward glance from the hill; the receding shape, half-hidden in trees; Andrew, leaning with his hand on the hill door at Sea House or standing close to the juncture where stone walls yielded to the demand of earth; the sighting of the three beavers, who had perhaps just that day abandoned their dam and gone searching for a new home; Teddy, arm out, gesturing toward the last floes of ice on the lake; Hale, declaring mystery, Lydia in her hat; and even Iz, like a splinter-faced fire demon wrapped in a cocoon of smoke.
If there were tears, they were hidden by the force of spray; if there was regret, it slid away in the spill of pictures.
Mystery.  Something I’m meant to do.  Something remaining.  Enduring. 

Updated: my Catherwood page...