Last week, the world witnessed as acclaimed fantastical director Guillermo Del Toro took the stage not once, but twice at the 90th Academy Awards to accept his win for Best Director and Best Picture with The Shape of Water, a politically set romantic creature feature about a mute custodian who falls in love with a gilled lab experiment during the Cold War.
During both speeches, Del Toro, a man of Mexican descent who directed his first English language feature back in 1997 with Mimic, referenced both his and his films place in the world, tenderly saying that “for the last 25 years, I’ve been living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it is in Europe, part of it is everywhere.” He made reference to the invisible lines of diversity art and the film industry erases, declaring that the world tells us to “make them deeper.” Del Toro, upon accepting his statue for Best Picture, a first for the director who was previously nominated for Best Foreign Language Film with 2007’s war torn fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth, cited his many inspirations as a Mexican child growing up with film. “I was a big admirer of foreign films, like E.T. or Billy Wilder, or Douglas Sirk, or Frank Capra,” and like Del Toro himself and the films he creates, his inspirations stem from different facets of the world, and even the galaxy.
Billy Wilder, a Jewish man from Poland, came to America in 1933 during the rise of Adolf Hitler, while Douglas Sirk left Germany around 1937 with his Jewish wife, Hilde Jary, 34 years after a young Frank Capra emigrated to the States with his parents from Sicily. The other, well, they came to California in 1982 from the distant planet Brodo Asogi, according to the sequel novelization, E.T: The Book of the Green Planet.
While all three immigrant directors dabbled in separate genres – Wilder in film noir, Sirk in striking melodrama and Capra in the romantic, they all, like our favorite botanist alien, created magic and light with their fingers, inspiring a little boy in Guadalajara, Mexico to grow old (but never up!) and create extravagant genre pieces, which like the immigrants Del Toro represents and idolize, stem from all sorts of life’s many pieces.
Del Toro, a known horror collector and Frankenphile, stitches his films together from his collective love for the noir (Wilder’s Double Indemnity), the musical (Capra’s Here Comes the Groom) and the romance (Sirk’s Written on the Wind), creating monstrous films that unearth sympathy from the hideous nature of man. Because no matter the genre, there’s a deep seeded struggle to discover compassion, and most importantly, to discover within one’s self that they really do deserve that crazy little thing called love. And woven together like the iconic monster derived from Mary Shelley’s mind, Del Toro’s films find their parts constructed from cinemas many appendages, reaching out to embrace an acceptance that only genre pieces truly understand.
And this is precisely why genre is so encompassing and intrinsically linked to humanity. It forms a shared bond within film by utilizing all of its parts, which speaks to the very core of what makes us tick! Del Toro realizes this through an understanding of what all his shared inspirations communicated in their respective genres; love. Even Spielberg’s sci-fi film was and still remains rooted in that deep hearted emotion, giving us rhyme and reason for feeling so deeply for a galactic emigrant with a penchant for Reese’s Pieces.
Like Spielberg, Del Toro amasses sympathy for the outsider because the creatures of his world reflect not evil or wrongdoing, but us. We as film goers, as escape artists, know what it’s like to feel that need to withdraw and become someone or something else. But like Wilder, Sirk and Capra, Del Toro knows that at the root of each story is a human connection, one that drives one another to either create or discover love, allowing our hearts to feel just a bit bigger once the lights come up.
There’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, two Spanish language films that tackle the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist Period, decanting the horror and fantasy genres in order to recall the plight of war. At the heart of both are children, one a group of orphan’s who live a life cut-off from the outside world and another who searches for a world outside her own through the fairy tales she reads. Both are heavily ensconced in the childlike whim of fantasy that plays alongside the horrific realities of war.
The ghostly child of The Devil’s Backbone that roams the grounds of the orphanage is equally a product of man’s own torment, as he too is the side effect of a war ravaged land. Similarly, the faun of Pan’s Labyrinth is a product of the war torn land, his body aged with moss and soil, as well as that of a little girl’s imagination. At the root of it all is a sense of discovery, as if Del Toro’s characters are miniature Frankenstein’s monsters – or even more important, the emigrants he idolized – uncovering worlds that feel new and at once less hostile than the one they knew. In this excavation of the fantasy, the realities that seem too volatile for children become darker, both enriching yet deteriorating their moral sense of belonging, further pushing them and us into a world comprised of genre.
And surely it’s this word – genre – which undoubtedly ruffled a few feathers and caused quite a kerfuffle when Del Toro’s 2015 gothic romance, Crimson Peak, was marketed to the world. In it, a young author played by Mia Wasikowsa, enters a relationship with an unsavory baronet (Tom Hiddleston) who lives with his sister (Jessica Chastain) while receiving warning signs from a clay-red ghost during her stay at their estate, Crimson Peak.
Many audiences came away seemingly disappointed, feeling the trailers offering of a straight horror film, no chaser, was misleading. And to a certain extent it was, as it, like its Mary Shelley-esque author proclaims, is not a ghost story, “it’s a story with ghosts in it.” The reason for Universal’s spurious marketing, as I can only speculate, is that the easiest form of promotion was to extract a single element of the genre and offer that to audiences as not a piece of the pie, but the whole damn thing. Because after all, this is the same studio that decided the only fathomable way of making their Dark Universe investment palatable was to turn The Mummy into a Tom Cruise action vehicle.
Well, we all know how that turned out.
Yet with the massive success of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, pulling in six times its $19.5 million dollar budget and receiving four gold statues at the Academy Awards (the other two deservedly for Original Score and Production Design), perhaps genre filmmaking will finally see the attention it deserves. Perhaps when it once again stumbles into the town square like the famous monster Del Toro holds an infinite amount of empathy for, its horrific moans really a heartfelt plea caught between the mind of a killer and the heart of a child, that we’ll embrace its individual pieces not for what we think they are, but what we feel they can do.
Because the titular botanist alien of E.T came to earth solely to study the physiology of plant life, but instead, like Del Toro, observed a different kind of life, understanding their emotional trials and tribulations. And Del Toro himself who, embracing the likes of Sirk, Capra, and Wilder, but most importantly, empathy and fantasy, came from a distant land to the medium of film to guide us, but instead showed us with poignant observations on love and acceptance, fantasy and horror, that perhaps the ultimate paragon of film is after all, the genre.