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The Shape of Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp
A middle-aged woman named Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) works in a government research facility where she cleans toilets and floors. She is lonely and alone, partly because she doesn’t speak; she is mute and communicates using sign language. She is not without friends, though. Her co-worker and friend of ten years is a funny and straight-talking woman named Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Another friend, and apparently her best friend, is a man named Giles (Richard Jenkins), an obviously gay, past-middle age, depressed, alcoholic commercial artist who was recently fired from his job for drinking too much. Elisa and Giles are next-door neighbors in a seedy apartment building over an old movie theatre, from which they hear perpetual movie dialogue. The place is Baltimore and the time is the early 1960s, when there existed an intense competition between the United States and Russia for domination of space.
The research facility where Elisa works has recently acquired from South America an amphibian man-beast that looks something like the creature from the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, only more human-like and not as scary. The man-beast, of course, is lonely and sad because he has been taken away from his natural habitat to a faraway country and placed in a confining tank, awaiting…what? Elisa makes surreptitious visits to the tank where the man-beast is held, and she recognizes in him a fellow being in pain in a cruel, callous world. She gives him hard-boiled eggs and plays sentimental retro music for him, and the two of them develop a friendly rapport.
Most of the management of the research facility, with one notable exception, view the man-beast as a “thing” instead of a thinking, feeling being. The idea is to experiment with him to get a better understanding of how men might fare in space and thereby gain an advantage over the Russians in the space race. (I don’t see how this is possible, but never mind.) The one member of management who views the man-beast as a miracle, “a beautiful creature who can reason and who understands language,” is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, who played a dapper gangster in Boardwalk Empire and the understanding father in Call Me by Your Name). Dr. Hoffstetler is, in reality, a secret Soviet agent. He is working behind the scenes to get the man-beast to the Russians. Or is he? Wouldn’t the Russians be just as cruel as the Americans, and maybe more so?
When Elisa hears that the cruel, uncaring men plan to vivisect the man-beast (i.e., cut him into pieces to study him), she knows she must save him, any way she can. Dr. Hoffstetler, Zelda and Giles assist Elisa in stealing the man-beast from the research facility and hiding him in her apartment. The idea is to keep him hidden there until a rainy period in October when the water in the canal that connects to the sea (remember, this is Baltimore) is high enough to release him so he’ll be safe. It’s while the man-beast is in Elisa’s apartment that the two of them “fall in love.”
The Shape of Water is about two opposing forces in the world: the force for good (compassion, empathy, sensitivity, understanding) against the force for—if not exactly evil—then hard-assed reality, practicality, and insensitivity (the failure to recognize beauty and uniqueness). It’s a whimsical fantasy that requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. An isolated, unattractive, human woman with a physical defect falls in love with a man-beast from South America who may be a kind of god and tries to save him from the world. If reality is what you crave, then The Shape of Water is probably not for you.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp
You Can See Them but They Can’t See You ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Erdra Jasmine Belknap awoke from what seemed a long sleep. It wasn’t morning, though, and she wasn’t in her canopied bed in her room. She stood up and looked around her. Nothing looking familiar. Nothing looked as it should. She wanted to run, out or away, to find her mother, her father or her brother, but there was no place to run to; on all sides were walls of darkness and she was afraid of them, afraid of what they might be concealing.
She heard a sound and looked sharply to her right. She was a little comforted by the sight of an old woman, and not just any old woman, either, but an old woman who contained her own glow, as if she was a lantern with a candle in her chest.
“Where am I?” she asked the old woman, on the point of crying.
The old woman held her hands out as if to comfort with them. “Remain calm, child,” she said. “What has happened to you is what must happen to all of us.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’ve crossed over.”
“Crossed over where?”
“From the living to the dead.”
When Erdra realized what the old woman was saying, she began to panic. “No, no, no!” she said. “That can’t be true!”
The old woman laughed at the foolishness. “Oh, my goodness! Don’t get beside yourself, child!”
“Who are you, anyway?” Erdra asked.
“I’m your great-grandmother.”
“Why haven’t I ever seen you before?”
“I crossed over long before you were born.”
“Is this heaven?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why aren’t we in heaven?”
“We’re where we’re supposed to be for now. That’s all I know.”
“All right, if we’re not in heaven, where are we?”
“We’re in the family crypt. In the cemetery.”
“Oh, that can’t be!”
“I’ve seen the family crypt. From the outside. Father drove by it once when we were taking a Sunday drive and pointed it out to us. It looked scary to me, like a little church without a door. Once inside, you can never get out again.”
“It’s in the neo-gothic style, if that means anything to you,” great-grandmother said. “Your great-grandfather had it built and was the first to take up residence.”
“I don’t think I belong here. There’s been some mistake.”
“Everybody feels that way at first, especially the young. Give it time. You’ll get used to it, as all the rest of us have had to do.”
“But I don’t want to be here!”
“You’re going to have to disabuse yourself of that notion, child. When you are born, nobody asks you if you want to be in the world and when you die nobody asks you if you want to leave the world.”
“What year is it?”
“Oh, my goodness! What does it matter? Here there is no time. Only the living need to worry about what year it is.”
“I was born in the year nineteen hundred. The beginning of a new century. I’m twelve years old now. That means it’s the year nineteen-twelve.”
“For you it will always be nineteen-twelve, and you will always be twelve years old and not one day older.”
Erdra’s mind was running around in circles. “I was just thinking,” she said, “that when poor people die, they go into the ground, don’t they?”
“I suppose so,” great-grandmother said.
“They rot in the ground and their bodies are absorbed into the earth.”
“Not a pretty picture. The rotting part, anyway.”
“Then they go to heaven. The reason we don’t go to heaven is because our bodies are not absorbed into the ground. We’re stuck forever in this crypt.”
“You should be glad you’re in a crypt, surrounded by family, and not in the cold damp earth.”
“Maybe I’d rather be in the ground so I could go to heaven,” Erdra said.
“Your body will conceivably be preserved here for centuries,” great-grandmother said, pridefully.
“I think I’d rather be in heaven.”
“You’re not, though. You are here, and here you will remain. There’s nothing for you to do but make the best of it.”
“Where are my mother and my father?”
“Where do you think they are? They’re still alive. They’re where they’ve always been.”
“Will I ever see them again?”
“Who can say?”
“But I have cats. What will happen to my cats now that I’m no longer there to take care of them?”
“You don’t think your brother will take care of them? They’re his cats now.”
Erdra thought about it for a few seconds. “I suppose he will. I know he would hate to see them die of neglect.”
“I feel certain they’ll be in good hands.”
“When they cross over, will they come here to me?”
“I don’t think so. I think animals go someplace else.”
Erdra had herself a little cry and afterwards she slept. The next time she woke up, great-grandmother was standing over her, but there was somebody else there too.
“Time to meet the others!” she said cheerily.
There were others and they all had the same beautiful glow radiating outward from their chests that great-grandmother had. There were the twins, Parry and Lomax, who drowned when they were ten years old. They looked at Erdra with curiosity. She knew from their manner that they were shy of her and didn’t know what to say.
Then there was great-grandfather, the millionaire who paid an enormous sum of money to have the family crypt built. He was tall and broad, in a dress suit, with the elaborate mustache and side whiskers fashionable at the time he crossed over. He smiled at Erdra and patted her on the head. Then he was gone.
Uncle Evan, great-grandfather’s son, was handsome in his military uniform. He crossed over in Cuba when a bullet struck him in the neck during the Spanish-American War. He smiled at Erdra and winked and touched her on the shoulder.
Aunt Ursula was a tall, thin woman with a sad face. She carried her three-month old son, George, in her arms. George crossed over thirty years before aunt Ursula, but ever since she arrived she held him in her arms and would let none other touch him. They would be as one throughout eternity.
And then there was aunt Zel, great-grandfather’s sister. She was a large woman with elaborate coiffure and much jewelry, necklaces and rings. By her side was her husband, Little Otis. People always called him Little Otis to distinguish him from his father, Big Otis. He was a half-foot shorter than aunt Zel, with one arm missing. At age ten, he developed gangrene in the arm from the bite of a skunk and had to have it amputated.
Uncle Jordan was dressed in an expensive dress suit, with diamond stickpin and silk cravat. He kissed Erdra on each cheek clumsily, or tried to, and then he was gone. He avoided being around the other family members for too long because they didn’t like him, or he them. In life, he had enjoyed himself a little too much, spent more of the family fortune than he had a right to, and died, deeply in debt, in young middle age of alcoholism.
Cousin Phillip crossed over at age thirty-two as the result of a burst appendix. His young wife, Odette, immediately married a man she hardly knew named Milt Clausen. Odette was not in the family crypt and never would be. Cousin Phillip had renounced all women in the spirit world, bitter than his lovely young Odette had not honored his memory by staying a widow.
By this point in the introductions, Erdra was growing tired of the whole thing. There was cousin this and cousin that, aunt this and uncle that. She wasn’t paying a lot of attention until she met cousin Gilbert.
Cousin Gilbert was only fifteen when he crossed over as the result of a crushed larynx that he sustained in a game of roughhouse with some of his friends. As with Erdra, he was unbelieving when he found himself in the spirit world. He had learned to make the best of it, though, as great-grandmother told him he must.
Erdra immediately saw cousin Gilbert as a kindred spirit. He had a look in his eyes and about his mouth that told of mischief and separateness. His glow was a little brighter than anybody else’s.
“How do you like being a ghost?” he asked.
He pointed to the middle of the Erdra’s chest and when she looked down she saw she had her very own glow.
The others were gone without leaving (that’s the way things worked here), and Erdra found herself alone with cousin Gilbert.
“I can show you around, if you’d like,” he said.
She was delighted to learn she could leave the family crypt at will. Cousin Gilbert showed her how to press herself against the outer wall. Since the wall was solid and she was not, she could pass through it with the right amount of concentration, a trick of the will.
The cemetery was vast, much larger than Erdra imagined. Gilbert took her to visit some of his spirit friends, including a twenty-seven-year-old policeman in uniform, a Civil War soldier who had exchanged words with Abraham Lincoln, a victim of the Johnstown Flood (“the water came roaring down the mountain and swept all of us away”), a former governor of the state who one day hoped to be president but never was, a group of twenty girls who died in an orphanage fire (all buried in the same grave) and a twelve-year-old boy who stood just outside his vault until another spirit came along and engaged him in conversation.
“He’s lonely, you see,” Gilbert explained.
Another time when Gilbert took Erdra outside the crypt, they came upon a funeral in progress, with many people in attendance, all of them dressed up as if for their own funerals.
“This is the fun part,” Gilbert said.
He walked among the funeral attendees, pretending to kiss or touch or put his arm around certain of them. He also demonstrated the technique of coming up quickly behind them and making the more sensitive of them turn around to see who, or what, was there.
“They don’t even know I’m here,” he said, “but I am here.”
“On a different plane,” Erdra volunteered.
Gilbert made Erdra laugh when he floated over a couple of old ladies in large hats and, assuming a reclining position, pretended to pat them on the sides of their heads.
“They might die if they knew there was a ghost hovering over them,” he said.
“Can I fly, too?” Erdra asked.
“We don’t really fly,” he said, “like a duck going south for the winter. What we do is float. We float because we’re lighter than air.”
“Can I try it?” Erdra asked.
“If you want to do it, you can. If you don’t want to, you can’t.”
He demonstrated his floating technique and they spent the afternoon floating all over the cemetery.
“Maybe there are some good things about being dead,” Erdra said.
“Of course, there are,” Gilbert said, “which everybody must learn on their own.”
“No more head colds,” Erdra said. “No more stomach aches. No more trips to the doctor. No more nightmares, math quizzes, boring church sermons, liver and onions or squash.”
Gilbert laughed, but then Erdra started thinking about all the things she had left behind, like her cats and her beautiful room at home, and she started to cry.
“I think it’s time to go back,” Gilbert said.
Erdra began venturing outside the family crypt often, either with Gilbert or on her own. And then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in October, she saw them.
She recognized father’s motorcar that he was so proud of, and then she saw who was riding inside: father, mother and her brother, Reginald. She floated after the car—it wasn’t going very fast—and attached herself to the back of it.
Father pulled the motorcar into the driveway of the old house. The first thing Erdra did after she dismounted was to go around back and check on her kittens. They were all there, seemed healthy and happy, and had grown since she left them. She cried when she saw they knew she was there and looked back at her. She longed to pick them up and nuzzle them and hear their sweet purring, but she knew such a thing wasn’t possible.
Her room upstairs was the same. Everything was just as she left it, the books on her desk, the dolls and stuffed animals on the bed and the chair, the pictures on the wall, the lamp, the rocking chair, the clothes hanging neatly in the closet. Mother hadn’t changed a thing.
While mother, father and Reginald were having their Sunday dinner in the dining room, Erdra walked around the table, stopped and put her hands on the back of mother’s chair. She wished she might do something to let them know she was there, but she knew it was better if she didn’t.
It felt good to be home, but now that she was a spirit nothing could ever be the same. She could only observe life in her house from a distance without being part of it. But still, wasn’t it better than nothing?
Since she dwelt in the spirit world, time, of course, didn’t exist. All time was the same. A minute was the same as an hour, a day the same as a year. In the time that was no time, her brother grew up, got a job in another state and left home. Mother and father grew old and frail. At ninety-one years, father died in his own bed and mother was left alone.
On winter evenings, while mother sat and read or knitted, or sometimes played the piano, Erdra was nearby.
“I’m here, mother!” she said. “Don’t you see me? I want you to know you’re not alone!”
At times she was certain mother knew she was there but at other times she wasn’t so sure.
In the time that was no time, mother also died. The house was sold and all the furniture moved out. Another family took up residence, four children and two dogs. Erdra preferred cats.
She couldn’t stay in a house that was no longer hers, even if she was a spirit, so she went back to the family crypt. She wasn’t sure if she remembered how to get back, but all she had to do was “think it” and she was there.
Since time didn’t exist in the spirit world, Gilbert and great-grandmother and the others didn’t realize she had been gone, although, in the world of the living it would have been decades.
There were additions to the family crypt, of course, in all that time that was no time. Mother and father were there with their own glows and they had a surprise for her: her cats were there, too—all the cats she had ever owned. Nothing else could have made her happier. She experienced a feeling of completeness, then, of going full circle and ending up where she was supposed to be. Happy in life and now happy in death. Death, where is thy sting?
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp
The Handmaid’s Tale ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, is set in a nightmarish dystopian America where the government has been usurped, its leaders murdered and the Constitution discarded. People no longer have individual rights, except for the right to serve. If people are not exactly slaves, they are chattel. Everybody must live in fear because any perceived infraction can result in exile to the Colonies (cleaning up dangerous hazard waste, resulting in death) or hanging in a ritual execution called a “Salvaging.” Dead bodies appear overnight hanging from hooks on a wall for everybody to see, and it’s not always certain what the people hanging there did to deserve such a fate.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not, however, about revolution or the overthrow of a government. It’s a personal story about one “Handmaid” whom we know as “Offred.” (We never learn her real name.) She’s thirty-three years old and had a husband and young daughter in times before. Offred is narrating the story in her own voice. We are privy to her private thoughts and inner feelings, which she must keep secret to go on living.
Childbirth is in decline. The country needs babies to replenish its dwindling population. Since Offred is known to have reproduced before, she is chosen as a “Handmaid.” She lives with an older couple and her job is to provide them with a baby. (She must wear a red habit-like dress and a stiff white headdress with wings, rather like an old-time movie nun.) The man is known as the Commander and his old lady is the Wife. Offred and the Commander copulate mechanically, fully clothed, and with the Wife present, of course. Offred is supposed to bring forth a baby from these couplings. She has three chances and if she fails she will end up in a much worse place, being forced to do very unpleasant work that could easily end in her death. It’s better to be a Handmaid than not.
The Commander has a young chauffeur named Nick. He flirts with Offred surreptitiously when he has the chance. Offred knows that any association she has with Nick could be dangerous. When she fails to conceive a child by the Commander, the Wife arranges a clandestine session for Offred with Nick in his room over the garage after everybody has gone to bed. Nick is happy to oblige—it’s part of his job—but he makes sure Offred knows there is to be no romance involved. Offred develops “feelings” for Nick anyway. He represents for her what her life was like before her world was turned upside down. Where exactly do his loyalties lay? Will he help Offred to escape to another country, or will he betray her in the worst way by turning her over to the authorities?
The obvious comparison of The Handmaid’s Tale is with George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Both novels are about the individual in a world where individuals don’t matter and survival is never certain. It’s a harrowing world and one that most of us, thank goodness, will never have to experience firsthand. You experience it, without any danger to yourself, by reading the book.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp