The Shape of Water

As the temperatures in my area were arctic this weekend, I did a rare thing:  I went to the movies twice.  My first movie was The Shape of Water.  I had read about this and was very impressed with Guillermo de Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.  However, having seen the dark fairy tale of Pan’s Labyrinth, I was prepared to expect some graphic violence and yes, it is there.  The story, however, is about difference and how our fear of it leads to our own destruction. But acceptance can redeem us.   Each of the characters, both good and bad, are isolated from the rest of the world because of some aspect of non-normalcy, of difference.  The main character is, of course, an aquatic person who is treated as a monster creature by his captives but profoundly accepted by the janitor Elisa Esposito, a mute who was abandoned at birth with scars to indicate that someone had cut her vocal chords, depriving her of speech.  Her friend Giles is gay and suffers from the  rejection by the society around him, the early 60s in Baltimore.  Elisa’s friend at work is black, exemplifies courage  and looks out for her but is marginalized for being who she is.  Dr. Hoffstetler is the scientist with compassion for the creature as he observes Elisa communicate with him but he is also a Russian and this takes place in the middle of the Cold War.  In the end his own countrymen execute him  The villain of the fable is Richard Strickland and while one cannot help but hate his cruelty and torture of all around him, he too is afloat in a world where he is rejected and dismissed.  Instead of reaching out to others, his response is to try to kill anything different.  Similar to the ending of  Pan’s Labyrinth, the finale leaves us with the hope that  magical realism offers, a fairy tale ending that suggests it is both true and yet possibly but a dream.  We humans cling to that one item left in Pandora’s Box where all evil, illness, cruelty, and divisiveness escaped.  We were left with hope.

My second movie was both completely different and oddly similar:  Call Me by Your Name–a coming of age story set in 1982 Italy where a professor’s summer assistant falls in love with the professor’s 17 year old son.  This love relationship is a secret one as both are young men.  Tuscany plays a leading role in this beautifully imagistic film which borrows images from Hellenistic statuary of sensuous young men to echo the flesh and blood relationship as it slowly develops.  Desire, fear, regret, and joy intermingle with the ripe apricots that grow on the orchard trees.  However, here too, Oliver, the assistant, leaves and during the winter snow, calls Elio and tells him that he is engaged to get married.  The sadness is the abandonment of identity so as to fit in, to “be normal.”  Yet both young men are Jewish–yet another form of otherness in their social settings.

Both movies trace the importance of courage in facing who we are, and who others may be–however different,  Hope offers an alternative ending to tragedy:  we can be ourselves and accept others.  We can offer eggs as friendship to an alien water being.  Just as Bach can be transformed through the lenses of Liszt and Busoni into other forms, so too can we humans see humanity in the face of the other.  And how wondrous that experience might be if we can let it happen.


Apollo- in Delfi

Apollo- in Delfi

I recently returned from a educational trip to Rome and Greece with my students and those of colleagues.  As I walked around the Plaka and every small town that we visited on our Classical tour, I saw endless shops with souvenirs: from cheap trinkets to pricey replicas and interpretative artistic renderings.  All the students–and I–took hundreds of photos. In fact most of the time we viewed the ruins through the lens of a camera, be it a phone or fancy SLR.

On returning home our suitcases bulged with objects acquired along every stop of the way.  And this got me thinking: have we replaced interior experiences and memories with exterior objects, things?  As a culture we own more stuff than any previous generation  in the entire history of the world.  Museum visits always end–sometimes start–with a visit to the museum store.  We start them young. Disney and Pixar movies are accompanied by merchandise, often before the movie is even released.  What does this all mean, apart from enterprising Capitalism?  DSCF0462

Have we replaced our memories with physical objects to record our lives?  Photos rather than recall?  Souvenirs rather than imagining walking through the ruins at Delfi, Olympia, Corinth?  We seem not to trust the transformative and enveloping experience itself and want some physical trace to represent our travels, both near and far.  We are our possessions, rather than our gathered thoughts, feelings, recollections.  As Plato noted in the Symposium, we are entranced by beauty, lulled by the glow of shiny things.  But we must also move beyond this level of simple understanding to a higher/deeper entrancement.

sunset in NauplioI spent one evening sitting on the pier in Nauplio watching the sun set behind the mountains, across the gulf.  Every other minute I was compelled to take a picure and I watched every passerby do much the same.  We could not but look at the beauty that radiated from the sunset through the clouds, illuminating the water and the small Venetian fort in the harbor.  We humans long for beauty in a deep and irrevocable way that translates into desire– a pure, simply, passionate desire to own and to have that beauty.

But what are we really seeking here? Johann Gottfried Herder captured this best in his poem , Ein Traum:

Ein Traum, ein Traum ist unser Leben
Auf Erden hier;
Wie Schatten auf den Wogen schweben
Und schwinden wir
Und messen unsere trägen Schritte
Nach Raum und Zeit
Und sind, wir wissen´s nicht, in Mitte
Der Ewigkeit.

We are indeed in the middle of eternity and the things we cling to will vanish.  Only memory  lives on.

the land of echoes

IMG_2686Last weekend my brother, husband and I took a walk down Shell Beach, a long spit of land that juts out into the Bay on the south side of Shelter Island.  It was the first day in memory where the temperature reached the 40s–a relative heat wave.  The sun was warm even if the wind was brisk as it blowed off the frigid bay.  The dog zoomed around, happy to be sniffing at the millions of shells littering the beach.  As it turns out “Shell Beach” is aptly named.   As we rounded the point and began the trek back to the car we came across a place of magic incantation.  Well, that is what I immediately thought as I gazed at the grove of stunted and seemingly dead trees emerging from the beach sand.  Each tree boasted conch shells in various forms of brokenness which were placed on the barren branches.


Where did they come from?  Who was the first person who placed a shell on a branch and how did that beckon others to do the same?  Here nature and culture collided in silent witness to the fetishizing of the natural world.  Now natural elements (conch shells) were transformed into sign/symbol/icon of meaning (culture.)  Was this a cultish religion?  a druidic memory?  a game of children?  (No, the shells were too high on the tree branches for children to have begun this event.)  An offering to the sea gods?

There remained something both startlingly human and almost sinister in this vision of trees with shells.  The violence with which each shell was impaled on a branch was not lost to us viewers.  We shivered… and moved back towards the warmth and safety of our car, our culture.  But I think often of those branches and I am tempted to return to sit silently as a witness.