What Trump has in Common with ‘The Shape of Water’: learning the nature of villians and the hopes of the good

What we are seeing isn’t specific to a particular political party or even a specific point in time. I can say that it’s always been something I have been keenly aware of. I remember as a little kid staying up way too late to watch the Academy Awards in 1983 to see if E.T. The Extraterrestrial would win Best Picture and feeling terribly deflated when Gandhi won instead. That’s when I learned the hard way that institutions are not in pursuit of goodness, but the status quo in almost every category because it allows the people working within those organizational frameworks to live modest, safe lives seldom challenged by any exceptional expectations. I was actually blown away and physically sick that E.T. failed to win Best Picture. Clearly there wasn’t any justice in the world as at that time I only ever wanted to be a film director when I grew up. In the year prior, I had gone through the same ceremonial castigation, Raiders of the Lost Ark was poised to win Best Picture and lost to the film Chariots of Fire. Something was very wrong and now almost 40 years later I sat watching the Academy Awards knowing full well there was a major liberal spin to the whole show, which is why I wasn’t a film director and no longer had a desire to be, when The Shape of Water won best picture essentially because it featured a female hero, she had nude scenes in it including masturbation, but in most other respects was a modern update to E.T. It was a stunning revelation that remained consistently bad, and points to a much deeper, darker problem.

And in so many ways, even in the serious world of politics, we are seeing the same thing that went on with E.T. at the Academy Awards in 1982 and 1983, happening now with the FBI and Justice Departments of the Obama Administration playing the same role. Even though I would argue that The Shape of Water could have easily have been made without the sex and nudity, or the F words in a film that children would have benefited from seeing in the theaters, the government agent in the film was wonderfully representative of the kind of parasitic order for which those modern institutions function. Richard Strickland in that film epitomized the ambitions of institutional control and in maintaining an order where the exceptional are locked away and tortured so that the stagnant expectations of below the line thinking could remain unchallenged. In that way The Trump administration under the direction of the FBI and DOJ were treated as the amphibious creature from The Shape of Water, tortured just for being there and seeking to be destroyed because the potential for life changing inspiration was something that institutions couldn’t allow to happen otherwise, they’d all be expected to increase their expectations for their own lives by default.

The crimes against not only Trump but against his supporters, most of whom are just as innocent as my 13-year-old self-staying up on a school night to hope beyond hope that justice would give the movie E.T. The Extraterrestrial the Best Picture award, are profound. There is so much more to the story than just the sad attempts at using the law as a weapon to beat down inspiring change, but in the abundant mechanisms for which all institutions function to preserve their salty ambitions anchored to the ground well below any above the line expectations. The corruption in society as a whole was deeper than any ocean on earth and the hopes and dreams of all mankind had been tossed to the bottom and kept their by the hostile depths too hard to dive by any mechanical means, or even the yearnings of the superhuman efforts, because sharks of every kind protect that bar from ever being raised to a level where the masses might ever be expected to perform from the merits of goodness.

A world where an Academy Award is given to a film that features a woman masturbating in a bathtub “a lot” is the same world castigating Trump for wanting to build a border wall, to create a dividing line between value and a lack of value, between a capitalist culture that has expectations of performance and a socialist one that informs people to not stick their heads up too high otherwise they will be beat down in response. That same world looks at Melania Trump and endlessly criticizes everything she wears and how she wears it but when Michelle Obama wears boots on national television that would make the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz blush, she is hailed as an expert on fashion. The reason is that the static order doesn’t want little girls to grow up to be like Melania, a woman who is as close to a perfect “10” as anybody might find in our current culture. But to be like Michelle Obama, an average looking woman filled with personality flaws and genetic mutations. Melania is attacked because she is too good, she as a change agent has raised the level of expectation among the voting population and the institutions are not happy about it.

Many years later I realized that instead of trying to make things work as a film director in a liberal town that certainly didn’t want to deal with a midwestern conservative that I’d turn toward business. When I was paid a salary instead of an hourly wage to officially announce that I was no longer just a floor worker, the expectations were quite severe on me to work within the parameters of a static order. I typically had always worked 12 hours a day or more but now that I was working with as a salaried member of management—and this was many years ago—but I was supposed to assume a certain order of conduct understanding that I work only what I was paid for. And salary people were only paid for 8.5 hours of their work day. So at precisely 5 PM I was expected to drop everything and go home. But when I didn’t do that and instead continued to work as I always had, until 7 PM or even 8 PM the other salaried staff were very angry with me. They would watch closely what time I clocked in and when I clocked out and eventually built up the courage to ask me why I was trying to make them look bad. My answer of course that I wasn’t, and that if they looked bad it’s because they weren’t willing to fulfill the parameters of expectation for which production required. Well, those were fighting words and long rivalries filled with animosity percolated from that time on, yet I never changed my behavior because I was simply not going to surrender my capability to the Academies out there that would pick Gandhi over E.T. or the FBI over President Trump. Those were simply not options.

The case against Trump isn’t about justice, or even politics—its about expectation. Trump as a change agent is being attacked to preserve the right of below the line thinking that has defined Washington D.C. culture in general and politics specifically. Much the way the sea creature in The Shape of Water was tortured and abused just for existing, Trump represents a raising of the bar for all future expectation, and the static order has demanded his destruction with all the animated ambition as Richard Strickland. The world cannot hold both characters, and traditionally the good have been beat down so that the bad do not have to rise to any occasions. And that is a dark little secret that continues to permeate all our lives, and the yearning to change it is certainly there. Even the Academy of Arts and Sciences can be touched by such hopes even if the medicine to make it go down are sex scenes and nudity. But the showdown between Trump and the FBI is not about legalisms, it’s about the hopes and dreams of all mankind, and that battle is happening right now. And for the first time in history, hope is winning out over stagnation, and that is very interesting to watch for me. I am rooting for hope and increased expectations, perhaps this time the villains won’t win.

Rich Hoffman

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