I saw a porn actor recently post, on Instagram, Andy Warhol’s illustration for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle. It sparked in me some questions: Why don’t we talk about film and mainstream porn in the same spaces—or, at least, why don’t they exist in similar, or more adjacent, aesthetic and cultural spaces? How has art and culture shaped those that are a part of what is designated as a niche space, in spite of its popularity?
So, to maybe answer some of those questions, or at least explore them, I’d like to introduce a new column: Adult Film Watchers.
Here’s how it works: I’ll take a porn star to the movies and afterwards we’ll talk about the movie, inevitably talking about broader ideas regarding where art and porn intersect and how they’ve shaped us.
This week, I spoke to Ty Mitchell, whose work can be found at GuysInSweatpants, Lucas Entertainment and ShowerBait, as well as Mic.com, and we went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Golden Globes darling, The Shape of Water.
And to be perfectly clear, the following discussion is saturated with spoilers:
Kyle Turner (Paste Magazine): So one of the things that struck me was the use of language in the film. Eliza (Sally Hawkins) is mute and so is the Creature (Doug Jones), by nature of him being non-human. They have to communicate by sign language. What was interesting about that was this idea of those that are Othered have to create their own language in order to communicate with one another.
Ty Mitchell: That was less of a salient thing to me. A lot of people have brought up the otherness of the Creature, and I did appreciate the way—I think Eric Eidelstein remarked about how she loves him because of his difference, not in spite of it: The way that they’re mutually wounded or othered people. And then [the Creature] takes away her otherness, and I’m kind of wondering, when you find out he has this kind of power, if she’s going to be able to speak at some point in the movie, if she’s going to be repaired or healed, because if that happened, it would take away her otherness, it would take away the way in which she’s marginal. And it was kind of a huge relief that when he does [use his power on her], he stays a freak under water.
Paste: Why do you frame healing her, or her scars turning into gills, as an act of the Creature taking away Eliza’s otherness?
Mitchell: He didn’t actually take it away, but converted [her otherness] into something else. I think had he taken away her weakness, had she been able to speak earlier in the film, he would have taken away how they are mutually marginal. Their whole romance is predicated on how they’re both alone.
Paste: I thought of it as that otherness being recontextualized, put into a context in which otherness is normative.
Mitchell: Yeah, yeah, like: “I’m going to take you to my mermaid kingdom, and you’re gonna be my princess. Where we belong together.” What I found interesting about the film was how it operated on all these different axes of “difference,” in this fertile, historical moment for difference. Race kind of comes up repeatedly throughout the movie, but also, ability is this axis of difference, gender is this axis of difference, class is an axis of difference in terms of [Eliza and Zelda (Octavia Spencer)] being “the help.” There are all these forms of marginality that are working throughout this film.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whether the Creature represents this additional form of difference, like human vs. non-human, or whether this [difference] was this thing we can’t place [in] society. This monster is this thing that transcends all the ways in which people are different. He exists totally outside the existing social structure.
Paste: Something that was brought up to me the first time I saw it was that the original Creature from the Black Lagoon always maintained a somewhat androgynous presentation. I think it’s similar here, although Eliza genders the Creature as “he,” describing his anatomical sex organs as—
Mitchell: It’s a little yonic.
Paste: Yeah, it has both a yonic and phallic nature. I thought that was interesting, as if the Creature straddles gender binary.
Mitchell: Hmmm. I don’t know.
Paste: Is that stretching it?
Mitchell: I think that might be stretching it, because, there’s no receptivity to his sexuality. It was a phallus. It was just like an animal-like phallus. There are other creatures in nature that have retractable penises. I felt like that moment where [Eliza and Zelda] talk about his dick kind of confirmed that this was an unequivocally male, masculine, virile masculine, muscular… Never in the film did they discuss the Creature being ugly in any way. It was like part of the Creature’s power in intimidating other characters, or enchanting them, was that he’s this kind of freakish Adonis.
Paste: Would you fuck him?
Mitchell: Without a doubt! [laughs] Do you know how much time they spent on that ass?
Paste: I think I heard you say, at some point during the film, “That ass!” [laughs]
Mitchell: I did, once we got a really good look at it! I had to applaud.
Paste: You mentioned the idea of being alone. That comes up throughout the film, especially concerning Giles (Richard Jenkins). He asks the Creature, “Have you always been alone?” And Strickland (Michael Shannon) being a “man of the future,” who has this family, has attained the nuclear familial structure, has attained the American Dream—he says, “This is America” in one scene—how could you contrast the Utopian quality of Strickland’s idealized life and the Utopian quality of the Creature?
Mitchell: There is a queer Utopian quality to the Creature. Col. Strickland’s entire narrative is one of imperiled white masculinity. He gets castrated right at the beginning of the film! Early in the film, he’s taking a piss in the bathroom with the girls watching, and there’s a gesture to his dick, and then he says, “It’s a look but don’t touch,” referring to his electric baton. Immediately we have his dick displaced into this baton. Moments later, we see him stumble out, his fingers amputated by the Creature. There’s this castration that happens to this character right away.
Paste: Similar to in The Thing.
Mitchell: Yeah. So we see this character’s full storyline, even with the Cadillac, trying to create prosthetics for his castrated cock that was castrated by this queer, racial Other, alien thing. It explains why he’s so incredibly hateful towards it. Even towards the end, when he has this discussion with General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) about decency, he feels like he has lived sexual decency at its finest, racial decency—
Paste: Masculine decency.
Mitchell: Right, and he fucks up this one time. And the General is like, “All these things about decency are bullshit, actually.” Especially in the scene where [Strickland] buys the [Cadillac], we have this rare view into this character that is seperate from the rest of the narrative: him having having weird sex with his wife, or him buying a car to compensate for his castration by this monster.
Paste: And the story that he tells about Samson and Delilah, the towers, also phallic imagery.
Mitchell: One thing I really love about Guillermo del Toro, first of all: There’s a total lack of pretension [to his films], which is really refreshing in my opinion. There’s a certain amount of relaxed sophistication to the way that del Toro tells a story, where he’s making these kind of references that would appear very heavy-handed for someone else, but they appear as sweet and lovely in del Toro’s hands. And one of the things I really love is his appreciation for mythology. It’s funny that Samson comes up so often, because right at the beginning of the film, you see that the movie theater is called the Orpheum Theater, and so you’re immediately, like, “We’re going to take another trip into the Underworld.” But this time it’s going to be an Orpheum one, as opposed to a Persephoneon one, like in Pan’s Labyrinth. Right upon seeing that theater, I knew, “OK, there’s going to be a moment where someone is going to have to look back, and it’s going to be fatal.”
It’s kind of like a full-proof red flag that you’re going to have a trial of faith at some point, or moment of hesitation that’s going to cost a life.
Paste: With regards to Orpheus, del Toro uses music is able to transport these characters into another world.
Mitchell: The lyre taming the Cerberus. It’s just funny that it’s the female protagonist who’s the Orpheum character. Eliza is the Orpheus of the story. She looks back, and it seems to be fatality. Where I said that in someone else’s hands, it could be annoying, here: It’s sweet the way that [del Toro] rectifies the tragedy by having [both Eliza and the Creature] go into the water.