Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Shaver Mystery Interlude

My friend Hlafbrot has been reading my series on the Shaver Mystery and brought to my attention another odd manuscript, this one from the Middle Ages. It's called the Voynich manuscript, and it has defied understanding for centuries. Hlafbrot sent me links to two articles, one on Wikipedia, the other on the website of the New York Times Review of Books. That second article is called "Secret Knowledge--or a Hoax?" and it's dated April 20, 2017. (Click here to read it.) It's a fascinating article on a fascinating case. The author, Eamon Duffy, gets to what I have been writing about recently (or I'm getting to what he wrote about last year). The following paragraph, in which the author considers the Voynich manuscipt as a hoax, leapt out at me:
Why might such a hoax have been perpetrated? The sheer scale, expense, and complexity of the Voynich manuscript would seem to preclude the notion that it was assembled as some kind of joke: it's hard to imagine a punch line that required so elaborate a buildup. That leaves lunacy or lucre as possible motives. Madness can't entirely be ruled out: mania takes many forms, and a well-to-do obsessive convinced he (or she) held the key to great secrets might drive the production of such a compilation. [Emphasis added.]
An "obsessive convinced he (or she) held the key to great secrets"--that phrase precisely describes Richard Shaver and countless men like him. (And they're nearly all men.) Like the author of the Voynich Manuscript, these men (and a few women) work out in exhaustive detail their entire systems. This the most ambitious and driven among them commit to writing, calling it Mantong and "A Warning to Future Man," The Communist Manifesto or Progress and Poverty, Isis Unveiled or Worlds in Collision, The Book of Mormon or Dianetics. Some of these works are more interesting than others, more entertaining than others, more readable than others, more successful than others, but all amount to the same thing: the obsessive--mad or not--who believes he has found "the key to great secrets" and wants the world to know about it. The idea that they might be hoaxes is a non-sequitur, for the obsessed author has no interest in jokes or hoaxes. He doesn't even know what those things are. He is instead driven by his vision and his discovery. He has seen the light and he wants you to see it, too. (He might also want you to come across with the cash, but that's the subject of the next paragraph.)

Here is another phrase from the quote above, the phrase that gets right to my point from yesterday: "lunacy or lucre as possible motives." Mr. Duffy makes an either-or proposition. But what if it's actually a both-and proposition? What about both lunacy and lucre as a motivation for these things? Both madness and money? Europeans may not always be good at this combination, for they tend to be mired in the past, in ancient and medieval institutions of power and culture. They're not forward-looking enough nor perhaps energetic or obsessive enough to make a go at it. Only in America do we have the free-wheeling, anything-goes attitude that allows for the legitimacy of a person's ideas to be measured by the size of his bank account. Maybe Americans are the first people (or the only people) to perfect the combination of lunacy and lucre, madness and money. Maybe it took Puritanism or Calvinism afoot in a New World or a strange mixture of salvation and success, Reason and Romanticism, Utopia and the Millennium before this new man could emerge. That's what I was trying to get at yesterday with my terms the commercial crackpot and the earnest conman. They're still not the best terms. I'd like to find something better. But I think this is an American type, and the combination Richard Shaver-Raymond Palmer gives every appearance of having been of that type.

Copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part Three

Born on October 8, 1907, in Berwick, Pennsylvania, Richard Sharpe Shaver was of a type that just might be unique to America: the commercial crackpot, alternatively the earnest conman, a guy who isn't exactly trying to put anything over on anybody because he honestly believes his own BS. He's not lying when he gives you his sales pitch because what he's trying to sell you is true and it's for your own good that you believe him. His life was saved when the lights came on and the doors opened to his new beliefs. Yours can be, too. Sometimes the earnest conman is motivated by religious belief. Sometimes his beliefs are non-religious but backed by a religious intensity or fanaticism. Typically, he mixes quasi- or pseudoscientific concepts with pseudo-religion, pseudo-history, or other pseudo-fields, such as pseudo-economics or pseudo-psychology. Pseudoscience, however, is the backbone of his system, the reason being that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Science, having slain God, was seen to have become the ultimate authority on all things. (1) We still live in an age of Scientism, and there are still countless fields of pseudo-studies and countless earnest conmen among us peddling their wares. Whatever you've got to sell these days, it had better be scientific or pseudoscientific if you expect it to go very far. (2)

Richard Shaver was more than just an earnest conman, though, for the things he created and in which he believed came from a diseased mind. (His.) We can't at this distance diagnose him, but he is thought to have been schizophrenic. If he wasn't schizophrenic, Shaver was at least so bad off psychologically that he was institutionalized for much of the 1930s. When he wrote to the editors of Amazing Stories in December 1943, he may only recently have been released. No one seems to know, as the facts of his early adulthood are now pretty well lost. And to be fair to him, when Shaver wrote his letter, he displayed a decided lack of confidence in his ideas, unlike the typical earnest conman. Although he claimed that his discovery of a lost language--and by extension, a lost and ancient civilization--was "an immensely important find," he also closed his letter with these words: "I need a little encouragement." It might be more accurate to say that Richard Shaver was only one-half of the crackpot equation. The ideas were his, but he needed an advertising man, a booster, a promoter, a huckster. Maybe that's the real American type, the guy who's half sincere when he's trying to put one over on you and half full of BS even in his sincerity. Maybe the true American innovation is the attempt at turning a crackpot idea into a moneymaking opportunity. After all, the business of America is business, and material success is a sign of God's grace. In any case, Shaver found the other half of the equation for what became known as the Shaver Mystery in the editor of Amazing Stories, Raymond A. Palmer.

* * *
Richard was said to have been a wild child, playing many pranks, several of which backfired on him giving him a reputation as a "troubled youth." He was reported to have [had] imaginary companions, one his friend, the other his enemy. He had names for these imaginary companions, and fifty years later they were said to be more real to him than other past acquaintances. (3)
Like his father before him, Shaver lived an itinerant lifestyle. He was reared in Berwick and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. In the summer he sold ice door to door. As a young man he worked in a meatpacking plant and for a tree surgeon. In 1930, Shaver moved to Detroit, where his older brother, Taylor V. Shaver, was holding down a good job with the U.S. Immigration Service. (4) While in Detroit, Shaver studied at the Wicker School of Fine Arts (5) and made a little money on the side sketching portraits in the park and modeling for life-drawing classes. He also became involved in leftwing causes, joining the John Reed Club in 1930. (6) On May Day that year, he even spoke at a communist rally in Cass Park in Detroit. (7)

In addition to being a student, Shaver was an instructor at the Wicker School of Fine Arts. One of his own instructors, after that presumably one of his colleagues, was a young Russian-born artist named Sophie Gurvitch. Sophie was a prize pupil at the Wicker School and a rising star on the Detroit art scene. On June 29, 1932, in Detroit, she became the bride of Richard Shaver. Neither was employed at the time, but as their family grew with the birth of their daughter, Evelyn Ann, in 1933, Shaver would have to go to work. And when he did, things started to get weird again.

To be continued . . .

(1) The development of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century ran pretty well parallel to the development of the United States as a nation. However, poorly understood science often leads to pseudoscience, in other words, a new mythology for an age of Science, and that's what happened in America. Throw some pretty potent Romanticism and utopianism, the fervor and fanaticism of the Second Great Awakening, and the hustle and bustle of the Early National Period into the mix, and you might have the beginnings of crackpottery (my new word) in America.
(2) The current Cult of Global Warming is a good example. So is the growing fascination with finding Bigfoot. Here's my Unified Field Theory of global warming and Bigfoot: He's getting harder and harder to find because his habitat is being destroyed by global warming. If we want to save Bigfoot, we have to give up on heating our houses and driving our evil, fossil-fuel burning cars. And that means all of you. Not me. You.
(3) From "The Shaver Mystery" by David Hatcher Childress in Lost Continents and the Hollow Earth (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999), p. 220.
(4) I have not found Shaver in the census of 1930.
(5) The Wicker School of Fine Arts was established in 1911 by artist John P. Wicker (1860-1931). See the photograph and caption below for more information.
(6) According to Wikipedia: "The John Reed Club was founded in October 1929 by staff members of The New Masses magazine to support leftist and Marxist artists and writers. Originally politically independent, it and The New Masses officially affiliated with the Communist Party in November 1930." Shaver may have come to the John Reed Club by way of associating with leftwing art students at the Wicker School. Then again, if he didn't start at the school until September (see the advertisement below), maybe he encountered communism by being a tramp and an idler in the first year of the Great Depression.
(7) Shaver's involvement in communism is an example of the concept of continuity, the overarching theme of this series. Again and again, we find examples of authors of science fiction and fantasy who were also involved in Forteana, pseudoscience (e.g., UFOlogy), pseudo-religion (e.g., Scientology), pseudo-history (e.g., Marxism, aka scientific socialism, which is also a kind of pseudo-science), and various combinations thereof. Even the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are broken down so that they become continuous as well. The Shaver Mystery, passed off as the truth but taking the form of fiction, is an excellent example of the continuity of fiction with non-fiction, more accurately perhaps, pseudo-non-fiction.

An advertisement for the Wicker School of Fine Arts from the Detroit Free Press, August 24, 1930. If Richard Shaver attended the school during the 1930-1931 academic year, then maybe he began on September 22, 1930. By the way, the Maccabees Building is still in existence.

The head of the Wicker School was the well-loved teacher and painter John P. Wicker. Born on February 23, 1860, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Wicker established his school in 1911. The 1930-1931 academic year was sadly his last: Wicker died on February 12, 1931. Did Richard Shaver know John P. Wicker? Was he in any way close to him? If so, his teacher's death would have been the first of three to hit Shaver in his years in Detroit. Was Detroit, then, the place where disintegrant energy (de) first made itself known and felt in Shaver's life?

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part Two

Richard Sharpe Shaver was born on October 8, 1907, in Berwick, Pennsylvania. His father, Ziba Rice Shaver (1875-1943), was descended from Philip Shaver (1762-1826), a native of Vienna, Austria, who lived and died in Pennsylvania. Shaver's mother was Grace T. (Taylor) Shaver (1871-1961), an author of verse and true confession stories. She was the daughter of Thomas Benton Taylor (1837-1915), a Pennsylvania cavalryman of the Civil War era. (1)

Richard S. Shaver was one of Ziba and Grace Shaver's five children:
  • Donald Shaver (b. Sept. 27, 1899; d. Apr. 29, 1979), a U.S. Navy man (Oct. 4, 1917-Aug. 19, 1919) and a railroad brakeman. He married Marion Harder.
  • Catherine Claire Shaver Haughton (b. Nov. 26, 1901; d. Aug. 22, 1993). She married Henry Osburne Haughton.
  • Taylor Victor Shaver (b. Nov. 9, 1903; d. Feb. 24, 1934, Detroit, Michigan), a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps, a Pennsylvania state trooper, chairman of the Board of Inquiry for the U.S. Immigration Service in Detroit, and an author of stories for Boys' Life and The Open Road for Boys.
  • Richard Sharpe Shaver (b. Oct. 8, 1907; d. Nov. 5, 1975), the subject of this series. He was married three times and had a daughter by his first wife.
  • Isabel or Isabelle D. Shaver (b. April 23, 1915; d. April 20, 1988), a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers and an advertising copywriter in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
All were born in Pennsylvania.

In the chronicle of public records, you will find Ziba Shaver in the 1900 U.S. census in Philadelphia, where he was employed as a laborer. He had been married for about a year and a half when the enumerator found him. By 1910, he had made his way up in the world and was working as a press operator in a steel plant. In his household in Berwick, Pennsylvania, there were his wife and four children, plus five boarders and a servant. Richard S. Shaver, age two, was the youngest of the four. When he filled out his draft card in 1918, Ziba Shaver was still in Berwick and working as a salesman for Prince Furniture Company.

Things changed greatly by the time of the next U.S. census, for in 1920, Ziba Shaver and family were living in Bloomsburg, Columbia County, Pennsylvania. His oldest son Donald, then only nineteen, was working as a clerk in a restaurant. There was no occupation listed for Ziba Shaver. Change had come again by the next census when, in 1930, the enumerator counted Ziba, his wife, and his youngest child Isabel or Isabelle in Philadelphia. Ziba was at the time employed as a chef at a college.

If a newspaper article from the Detroit Free Press is accurate (2), the Shaver family moved to Detroit in about 1930. They may have followed Taylor V. Shaver there, for he was pretty gainfully employed with the U.S. Immigration Service in that city during the early years of the Great Depression. Tragically, Taylor Shaver died on February 24, 1934, after a brief illness. By 1940, Ziba Taylor was back in Pennsylvania, in Douglass Township, Montgomery County, where he ran a restaurant. His wife was with him, but their children were out on their own. All but Richard Shaver, that is, for he was being cared for by someone else in a faraway place. That's a story for another part of this series.

Ziba R. Shaver died on June 10, 1943, at his home in Barto, near Niantic, Pennsylvania. Also at home were his wife Grace and his son Richard, who helped bear his casket to the grave. Richard S. Shaver was at the time between marriages. His first wife had died in a bizarre accident. His second was still on the horizon. Shaver's seminal letter to the editorial staff of Amazing Stories was still five months off, too, but if he was telling the truth when he claimed that he had been working on his decoded alphabet for "a long period of years," then the death of his father in 1943 and that of his brother nine years before could only have confirmed him in his suspicions about the secret meanings behind the English language. After all, Taylor V. Shaver had died in Detroit, while Ziba R. Shaver had succumbed, according to his death certificate, to pulmonary edema due to cardiac decompensation.




Disentigrant energy--de--was evidently going about its detrimental work within the Shaver family.

To be continued . . .

(1) Ziba Rice Shaver was born on November 1, 1875, Dallas Township, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and died on June 10, 1943, at home, in Barto, near Niantic, Douglass Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, at age sixty-seven. Although there is a Shaver cemetery in Dallas Township, Shaver was buried at Fairmount Springs Cemetery, Fairmount Springs, also in Luzerne County. Ziba's wife, Grace T. (Taylor) Shaver, was born in August 1871. In the 1900 census, while her husband was in Philadelphia, Grace was counted with her parents and her infant son Donald in Fairmount Springs. Thereafter, she was counted with her husband in the U.S. census (1910, 1920, 1930, 1940). After his death in 1943, she presumably lived with Richard Shaver, though perhaps not continuously. She died at his home in Lanark, Portage County, Wisconsin, on July 21, 1961, at age eighty-nine and was buried with her husband in Fairmount Springs.
(2) "Taylor V. Shaver" (obituary), Detroit Free Press, February 26, 1934, page 3.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part One

One afternoon in December 1943, Raymond A. Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, was sitting in his office, listening intently as assistant editor Howard Browne read from a recently arrived letter. It had come from a reader in Barto, Pennsylvania, a man who expressed his hopes that the editors would place it in their magazine "to keep it from dying" with him. The "it" of which the man wrote was his discovery that within words in English there are hidden clues to an ancient and forgotten language. "This is perhaps the only copy of this language in existence," he continued, "and it represents my work over a long period of years." Accompanying the letter was a separate sheet illustrating the secret meanings behind the letters of the English alphabet. For example, the letter A means animal, while B means be, C translates as see, and D represents a novel concept, disintegrant energy or detrimental (presumably abbreviated de), meaning harmful or destructive. The word bad, then, can be broken into its constituent parts: be a de, or be a disintegrant energy or detrimental. (I guess a can mean either animal or the indefinite article.) "It is an immensely important find," the man wrote of his discovery, "suggesting the god legends have a base in some wiser race than modern man." Howard Browne laughed at it as one of countless crank letters received every year in the offices of Ziff-Davis of Chicago. Then he crumpled it up and threw it away. "What kind of editor are you?" Palmer asked as he retrieved the pages from the trashcan. He handed them back to his assistant editor and said, "Let's run the entire thing in next issue's letter column."

And that's how the Shaver Mystery began.

The Shaver Mystery, launched by Palmer from the writings of Richard S. Shaver of Barto, Pennsylvania, was both a boon and a bane to science fiction during the 1940s. Some readers and fans loved it. Once Palmer started running its stories in Amazing Tales, sales took off, and the magazine began receiving thousands of letters in response. "This is real," many claimed. "This happened to me," wrote others. "I, too, have come in contact with detrimental forces." Others hated it, a very young Harlan Ellison most prominently among them. (Sam Moskowitz and Forrest J Ackerman were part of that group, too.) The arguments and controversy raged for about half a decade, beginning in 1945 and reaching its height in 1947-1948. Then, suddenly, in December 1949, Palmer was out as editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, and the Shaver Mystery faded from mainstream science fiction (if any science fiction can be called mainstream). There were Shaver Mystery stories published in these and other magazines after 1949, but they were pretty well consigned to the fringes. That is of course where they had originated, for they had come from the diseased mind of Richard Sharpe Shaver.

To be continued . . .

"Mr. Shaver's Lemurian Alphabet." The source is unknown. This may be an image reproduced from the letters page of Amazing Stories. According to Fred Nadis, biographer of Raymond A. Palmer, the initial letter written by Richard S. Shaver to Amazing Stories arrived at Ziff-Davis in December 1943, and Shaver's letter and alphabet were published in the issue of January 1944. Author David Hatcher Childress says they appeared in the issue of December 1943. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) says there was no issue of December 1943, but I also couldn't find any listing of Shaver's initial letter and alphabet in the ISFDb. For now, we'll say Mr. Nadis is right. In any case, the published letter
included an editor's note asking readers to try it out and see what percentage of root words made sense when the alphabet was applied--would it be higher than pure chance? Rap [Raymond A. Palmer] told readers, "Our own hasty check-up revealed an amazing result of 90% logical and sensible! Is this really a case of racial memory, and is this formula the basis of one of the most ancient languages on Earth?" Dozens of readers responded. Many discussed the philological value of Shaver's discovery while others scoffed, curious why the interstellar root language depended so highly on English-based phonetics to impart its concepts. (The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey by Fred Nadis, 2013, p. 59)
The answer of course is that the alphabet is pseudoscientific and pseudo-historical nonsense, an attempt to reveal Earth's secret history, just as so many cranks and crackpots have attempted to reveal that history in the centuries since the Scientific Revolution began. John Cleves Symmes, Jr., (1780-1829) was one of them. So was Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891). Both provided ideas useful to Shaver and Palmer in their promulgation of what became known as the Shaver Mystery. These and countless others assert and have asserted basically the same case for themselves and their special place in history:
I am special.
I am chosen.
I am the first.
I am the only.
I was specially chosen to reveal this to you, to carry to a benighted humanity the truth about the world.
I alone know the truth. I alone am the prophet and purveyor of these things I tell you.
I was there at the beginning. I preceded all others.
I alone know the secret. I alone have the key.
I am the creator, the originator, the discoverer.
Time and again we have seen it, in Joseph Smith and Karl Marx, in Henry George and George Adamski. They have claimed discovery to the key to history, to economics, to religion, to human nature, and on and on. Richard S. Shaver was just another in a long line of cultists, crackpots, crazies, and cranks, some of whom have been rewarded by humanity, while others have been forgotten. If only some of the rewarded--Marx is the best example--could be among the forgotten.

I alluded earlier in this series to the significance of precedence in the various fields of pseudoscience, pseudo-religion, and pseudo-history. The men and women working in these these pseudo-fields invariably seek precedence, very often backdating their observations, experiences, and theories to support their claims to being first or to coming first. Rapuzzi Johannis did it when he claimed to have encountered a little green man in the Italian Dolomites in the summer of 1947. Fred Crisman did it, too, when he claimed to have seen and recovered parts from a flying saucer earlier that summer at Maury Island, Washington, before Kenneth Arnold's sighting near Mount Rainier and Mac Brazel's discovery of a supposed crashdown near Roswell, New Mexico. And Raymond A. Palmer did it when he wrote:
On December 27, 1949, Albert Einstein came out with a new theory of gravitation and electromagnetic fields. Months before that, Mr. Shaver (minus the mathematical formula) told me the same thing! For the record, I want to say that if any credit for a new and revolutionary theory of gravity goes to anybody it should go to Richard S. Shaver, on the basis of prior publication. (Quoted in "The Shaver Mystery" by Richard Toronto, Fate, March 1998, here.)
The examples could go on and on--and they will in this series, if only a little.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, March 12, 2018

Barker, Bender, Shaver, Palmer . . . and Beyond

I have been working on an idea and a series for many months. That's too long for this kind of thing, but that's just how it is. Before continuing, I would like to provide links to previous entries. Although the idea for this series started earlier last year, the first entry is from July 2017:

The Cosmic Question (February 2, 2018) (a segue way and an aside)

Next comes The Shaver Mystery-Part One. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Shape of an Oscar-Part Two

I didn't mean for there to be a part two to this article, but I read something on Friday night, after I had written part one, that fits so perfectly with this topic and this title that I have to tell you about it.

I found last week a book called Seeing Is Believing, or How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the 50s by Peter Biskind (1983, 2001). In my reading, I skipped to Chapter 3, "Pods and Blobs," about science fiction and monster movies of the 1950s. Here is an excerpt from the author's discussion of the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy of 1954-1956:
In the first film . . . the Creature was mildly appealing, more sinned against than sinning, almost but not quite a noble savage tormented beyond endurance by the arrogant scientists who mucked about in his lagoon, and driven into a frenzy by the proximity of Julia Adams in a one-piece bathing suit. . . . In the second and third films the Creature gets increasingly put upon. In [John] Sherwood's 1956 version [The Creature Walks Among Us], "he" has been taken out of his natural habitat entirely, removed in chains to a cage on land. Here, he's unambiguously sympathetic . . . . But he's unable to protect himself from the mad scientists who perform all sorts of grim experiments upon his body while prattling about "reality and facts." They transplant this, amputate that, move a fin here, a gill there, until his own mother wouldn't recognize him. One of the scientists even tries to frame him for murder, and in the end, the creature is killed. (Bloomsbury, 2001, p. 121)
That sounds a lot like The Shape of Water. There's a difference, though, and it's a significant one if you look at this movie of today in the context of the science fiction movies and monster movies of the 1950s. In those movies, there is a dichotomy between the military man of action and the scientific man of words and ideas. Sometimes the moviemakers were on one side of the dichotomy, and sometimes they were on the other. I can think of no better example than The Thing from Another World vs. The Day the Earth Stood Still, both from 1951. In The Thing, the military men are the heroes. It is by their action that an invasion (or infestation) of Earth is prevented. The scientist on the other hand, Dr. Arthur Carrington, wants to understand and communicate with the alien creature. He even goes so far as to propagate it by feeding it blood, including his own blood. He very nearly wrecks the whole operation, thereby threatening Earth with destruction. In contrast, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the military men are the tormenters of the alien. They even shoot and kill him, only to see him resurrected. (The Gill-man in The Shape of Water is shot, killed, and resurrected, too. Earlier, he is tormented by electric shock, like the giant carrot in The Thing.) By their actions, the whole of Earth is threatened with destruction. It is the scientists who sympathize with the alien and to whom he appeals. If the planet is to be saved, it will be by their ideas rather than by militaristic action.

So, in The Creature Walks Among Us, the scientists--"mad scientists," Peter Biskind calls them--torment and mutilate the Creature. They are, then, scientists of the first type, i.e., bad scientists. This, I think, is the more conservative version of the military man/man of science dichotomy. (Not conservative in the contemporary political sense but in an older, non-political or anti-political sense.) In The Shape of Water, there is an inversion. The military men or quasi-military men are now the tormenters of the Creature, and it is the scientist who sympathizes with him. (Significantly, the antagonist is the only character in The Shape of Water to quote from the Bible.) Instead of the conservative version of the dichotomy, we have the more liberal or leftwing version. (The scientist in The Shape of Water is a Soviet spy. I think his humanity and sympathy for the Creature are more to the point than his nationality or political affiliation.)

In any case, I haven't seen The Creature Walks Among Us in a long, long time. There may be more similarities between it and The Shape of Water. But as I wrote the other day, The Shape of Water is basically a sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I think that's okay. Universal Pictures doesn't have exclusive rights to the idea of a lizardman, nor to the idea that a monster or beast might love a woman, a story as old as humanity. (The Creature of the Black Lagoon is essentially the same story as King Kong.) But in any movie a person might make, art should trump politics. More essential than that, bad storytelling should always be banished in favor of good storytelling. Like I told a friend, a good story is what counts. Nothing else in storytelling matters very much.

Finally, I mentioned how I found something in my reading that pertains to the title of this article. Well, the second series of ellipses in the quote above are in place of the following parenthetical statement:
(The Creature's distinctive costume was reputedly derived from a sketch of the Oscar statuette.) (1)
I didn't know that when I wrote the first part of this article, but by a bit of serendipity, my title closes a circle.

(1) According to the blog Psychobabble: "Millicent Patrick, who designed the Gill Man, was a television and film actress and had been the first female animator at Disney Studios. She was also responsible for the Mutant alien in This Island Earth." (July 25, 2010.)
(2) According to Wikipedia: "Producer William Alland was attending a 1941 dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane (in which he played the reporter Thompson) when Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about the myth of a race of half-fish, half-human creatures in the Amazon River. Alland wrote story notes titled 'The Sea Monster' 10 years later. His inspiration was Beauty and the Beast." And so another circle is closed in that a Mexican moviemaker, Guillermo del Toro, has made a movie based on a story told by another Mexican moviemaker more than three-quarters of a century ago.

The Gill-man and swimmer from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). You could write more than a few sentences about this image: about the Creature's superior position vs. the woman's inferior position; the fact that his hand is positioned just right to cover a part of his anatomy not intended for display; about her passiveness, fear, and averted gaze. But look at the background. Note the series of symmetries. Is this an unaltered image? Or did the original rocky background, in all of its symmetries, look like a view through a kaleidoscope? Where is Richard Shaver when you need him? He could tell us what these things mean.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Shape of an Oscar

We saw The Shape of Water a few weeks back. I was going to let it slide without comment, but then the thing won Oscars for best picture and best director this past Sunday, so here I am with my two cents' worth.

I read a long time ago that in a decadent culture, everything is reduced to allusion. I would add a remake or an outright swipe to the end of that sentence. Avatar (2009) is really just Ferngully in space (or Dances with Smurfs). The recent Star Trek and Star Wars movies are simply retreads of previous entries in those series. And The Shape of Water (2017) could easily be called E.T. from the Black Lagoon, or The Splash of Water (you know, the movie with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah), or The Little Mermaid in Reverse. There is still some originality, creativity, and imagination in movies today, but these things are becoming increasingly rare. The Shape of Water may be a nice movie in some ways, but it has some really debilitating flaws, too, and in my little opinion, it should never have won an Oscar for best picture. You could take its winning as a bad sign in creative or artistic terms because it's such a step down from previous winners. But I think there's actually something different at work here. It may be something that will blow over. But if our culture keeps going in this direction, it won't blow over. It could actually be the thing that blows other things over, and people will stop going to movies as a result.

I wrote sometime back about the idea that politics ruins everything it touches. Put another way, politics is sewage, art is wine. Pour a cup of wine into a barrel of sewage and you still have a barrel of sewage. Pour a cup of sewage into a barrel of wine and you have just another barrel of sewage. This year at the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences poured sewage into the art of moviemaking. Many of the major awards and probably some of the minor awards were tainted, either in actuality or by association with politics. They mean comparatively little because of it. The Shape of Water won an Oscar not for its artistic merits but because it checked so many boxes on the scorecard of political correctness. The members of the Academy see themselves as part of the so-called "Resistance" to the current presidential administration, which they deem as horribly and atrociously racist, sexist, and xenophobic or anti-immigrant. And so, seeing their chance to stick their finger in the eye of our current president and to do some conspicuous moral preening before the world, the members of the Academy handed out awards based on something other than merit. They chose sewage over wine. I have not seen Coco, but I don't think it's any coincidence at all that movies made by and/or about people from Mexico won Oscars for best picture in their respective categories this year. I don't know about you, but as an artist, I would not want to receive an award tainted by political considerations: I would want instead to have my work judged solely on its artistic merits. If I were Guillermo del Toro, I would always have to doubt the integrity of an award given with a political asterisk attached to it.

So what are the problems with The Shape of Water? Let me count them. Actually, let me not count them, as I don't want to spend too much time on this topic. I guess I'll start by saying that a person should not make a movie using a sledgehammer. That's how this movie was made. Okay, yes, we know by now that you, being a Hollywood-ite, believe that pre-Beatles America was a horrible, terrible, unlivable place. It was also horrible and terrible. We know that. Quit reminding us. Quit hitting us with this sledgehammer. (Never mind that Saint John F. Kennedy was president when The Shape of Water is set.) We also know that heterosexual white men attached to the American military-industrial complex are the worst villains the world has ever known and ever will know. This villain is even worse, though. He's got it all covered: he lives in the suburbs with his 2.5 squeaky-clean whitebread (and white-bred) children. He has a Stepford Wives wife who whips out her lovely breast the second his children are out the door and submits to sex in the starfish/missionary position with his disgusting gangrenous hand over her mouth so that she'll shut up while he's going about his bidness. He calls black people "you people" (signifying his racism), sexually harasses the protagonist (signifying his misogyny), makes fun of her disability (signifying his making fun of people with disabilities), torments and tortures the Gill-man (signifying not only his xenophobia but also his mindless and motiveless cruelty and psychopathy), and packs a pistol (signifying his inherent violence and probably also his unnatural feelings for the Second Amendment). He is also former military, and as we know from watching Avatar and other films made by James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, and their co-religionists, anybody who has served in the military is necessarily a mindless, stupid, aggressive, insensitive, racist, misogynistic, violent, psycho knucklehead.

So the villain in The Shape of Water is a twofer, threefer, fourfer, or morefer. The other characters are twofers or morefers, too. The protagonist is not only a woman and disabled, she's also Hispanic, an orphan, and working class. Her co-worker is not only a woman, she's also black and working class. The protagonist's friend may be white, but he's also homosexual, and we're led to think that he lost his job because of his homosexuality (signifying the homophobia of pre-Stonewall America). (If he's white but gay, he's okay. If he's white but straight, we gotta hate.) There's a twofer in the restaurant where he likes to eat, too: not only does the man at the counter refuse his advances (signifying the man's homophobia), he also refuses service to a young black couple who are looking for what we're all looking for in this life: a good piece of pie. This of course signifies the counterman's racism and the general overall racism of pre-Civil Rights America. In short, this is moviemaking with a sledgehammer. And so much of it is gratuitous--gratuitous, that is, unless moviemaking with a sledgehammer is your purpose: unless politics rather than art is your guiding inspiration.

So if you disregard all of that (not an easy thing to do), you arrive at a love story in the form of a magical-realistic/contemporary urban fantasy/weird-fiction/fairy tale. It's hard to accept the idea of love, specifically physical love, between a human being and a reptile, amphibian, or fish. After all, we have an atavistic revulsion towards these creeping, crawling, swimming creatures, those made on the fifth day of Creation rather than the sixth. (It's much easier and more natural to believe in the love of Beauty for the Beast, as he is at least soft and furry, i.e., mammalian.) But for an hour or so, you can set that aside, too. The protagonist is, after all, very lonely, and we can all identify with loneliness, even extreme loneliness. In our loneliness, we might even envision love with a toad.

You can also accept impossibilities, like the bathroom filling up with bathwater so that the two new lovers can enjoy a kind of sexual aquacade, like the contrastingly chaste underwater scenes in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) in which the Gill-man spies on and soon abducts Ginger Stanley, standing in for Julia Adams. (The Shape of Water is basically a sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon. Screwy, but a sequel.) What you can't accept is the ignorance and lack of imagination on the part of the moviemaker when it comes to storytelling. I'll give just one example of each. I think each one of these is pretty disastrous. 

First, one of the badguys in the movie is U.S. Army General Frank Hoyt. We already know he's bad because he serves in the military. He's worse because he's in command of this whole operation in which the Gill-man is supposed to be used for some kind of nefarious secret government conspiratorial plot, just like all government operations were until our most recent ex-president got into office. (If we ever know what the plot is in The Shape of Water, we have forgotten by the end of the film. This reminds me of a Squatcher I know who thinks the U.S. Army is hiding evidence of Bigfoot. Why? Who knows.) Anyway, Hoyt is not just a general. He's a five-star general. I guess in Mr. del Toro's stunted imagination, the U.S. Army hands out stars the way you hand out candy at Halloween. Never mind that there have been exactly four five-star army generals in American history (and five previous generals-of-the-army). Hoyt might as well have been called a Super-Duper General. That would have made just as much sense. Mr. del Toro's gaffe is reflective not only of the hostility moviemakers have towards the military but also of their breathtaking ignorance when it comes to military matters. Somebody should have stopped him before he made his mistake.

Second and more serious is that when the Gill-man is brought into the military-scientific facility for study, he arrives inside a tank with a window. Any Joe (or Jane) Blow standing around picking his nose or mopping the floor can see what's inside--and she does, the protagonist that is. For a place that's supposed to be about secrecy and security, there is astonishing incompetence when it comes to actually keeping anything secret and secure. The cleaning ladies wander around on their own, going wherever they want, seeing whatever they want, talking to the Gill-man, playing him records and feeding him hardboiled eggs, like the cheapest date there has ever been. (What does he know? He lives in a river. And what about the eggs? They're her eggs, aren't they, meaning her own symbolic ova? She of course prepares them by the egg timer she uses every morning for another purpose.) The screenwriter should have thought of a better way of telling his story. Instead he took the easy way out, and so we have a whole movie based on an entirely unbelievable premise. This may be a fantasy, but even a fantasy has to follow basic rules, one of which is that people must act like real people instead of like incompetent morons when the moviemaker requires them to because he's too stupid or lazy to figure out how to tell his story otherwise.

Now see what has happened? I have written way more than I was planning to, and I'm not even done yet. This will be the last, though, I promise. I have written before about the idea that fantasy and weird fiction tend to be conservative genres and generally about the past, while science fiction tends to be progressive and generally about the future. The Shape of Water is not science fiction, despite any science-fictional elements it might have. It is obviously a fantasy, but it's a progressive fantasy. Is that a self-contradictory thing? Can there really be a progressive fantasy? Maybe. But The Shape of Water is a progressive fantasy not in that it imagines how things might be in a progressive world. Instead, it's a fantasy imagined by a progressive moviemaker. In other words, it's not the movie itself but the moviemaker who is progressive. Guillermo del Toro has told a story from a progressive point of view. In so doing, he has relied on extreme and unrealistic stereotypes*, gratuitous episodes and gratuitous story elements, implausible or impossible situations, ignorance as to history and human nature, and extreme laziness or incompetence in his storytelling. Despite the opinion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, his movie is middling in its accomplishments. So if this is an example of a progressive fantasy, it falls pretty flat. I would argue that any progressive fantasy is likely to fall flat, as: a) fantasy is an artistic genre; b) art is about the nature of human beings, life, and reality; and c) progressivism is basically out of touch with these very subjects. If anyone can come up with a progressive fantasy that can stand on its own two legs, I'm willing to listen to your case. Just make sure it's a strong one.

*Speaking of stereotypes, did anyone in the Academy or the media notice the stereotype of the black man as weak, cowardly, unreliable, lazy, or afraid in The Shape of Water? I suppose in this age, stereotypes of men are permitted, no matter what color they are, especially if the stereotype is being peddled by another person of color (although Guillermo del Toro is a pasty-faced white dude with brown hair and blue eyes), and especially if that person is of a higher caste in the hierarchy of political correctness.

Copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley