“The Shape of Water,” a sci-fi romance directed by Guillermo del Toro, is about a fast-blossoming relationship between Elisa, a mute custodial worker at a top-secret government lab (played by Sally Hawkins), and an amphibious being nabbed from South America that’s being forced to undergo experimentation at said government lab.
And it all is set in Baltimore. Last night, the movie took home Best Picture at the Oscars.
The segregated city in the 1960s provides an apt backdrop for a movie that fixates so much on other-ness. As for why del Toro decided to use Charm City as his location (albeit while actually filming in Toronto), look to The Sun’s Chris Kaltenbach, who wrote this morning that the Mexican-born director wanted to pay tribute to Barry Levinson’s “landmarks of American cinema” all set here: “Diner,” “Tin Men” and “Avalon.”
Beyond that, it’s not clear if any research was put into learning about local landmarks, and if there was, how it inspired what was shown on the screen. Even so, for the local viewer, it’s a little fun to consider various plot points and speculate as to their locations. Where was this secret government facility? And what about that movie theater that our protagonist lived above? And where was that diner with the awful key-lime pie that Elisa’s good buddy Giles kept visiting?
The first question is less interesting the second and third, and leaves fewer hints for a real answer. In the film, Elisa takes the bus early each morning to work, fighting against the clock to punch in before her shift begins. The few outside glances we get of her workplace show a bustling commuter behemoth, which would imply a location outside the city with some considerable open space. If we’re drawing modern parallels, Fort Meade, which houses its fair share of top-secret military property, would be a longer commute than Woodlawn, which holds the comparatively mundane offices for the Social Security Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Clues exist for an answer to the second question. Elisa and Giles live in neighboring apartments above a grandiose old movie theater called The Orpheum. While Baltimore was replete with such theaters during the mid-20th century—as many as 119 were operational during the 1950s, photojournalist and local movie theater expert Amy Davis told magazine Jmore last year—a good number of them were concentrated on the west side of downtown, specifically near Howard Street.
The exterior of the theater in the film, specifically its marquee, calls to mind the beloved Senator Theatre on York Road, though that area is missing the commotion outside Elisa and Giles’ abodes in the film, which are, again, more reminiscent of Howard Street just before its commercial decline. As for the name, Baltimore had an Orpheum Theater, though it was operational only in Fells Point for most of the 1990s.
For query number three, it’s anyone’s guess, though downtown’s west side did make history for the protests that unfolded at its segregated eateries.
One other local landmark stands out from “The Shape of Water”: the city’s crown jewel, the harbor. The section visited in the film doesn’t call to mind any specific areas, though we can safely rule out the Inner Harbor, which photos show wasn’t quite so remote as the scene in the film during the 1960s.
The viewer can catch a glimpse of what appears to be a highway ramp in that frame, which is reminiscent of the view from the channels of S. Clinton Street, south of Canton, or the waterfront at Ridgely’s Cove or Kevin Plank’s planned mega-neighborhood, Port Covington, both of which sit next to I-95 ramps.
All of this is, of course, purely speculation, and the more thoughtful answer would be that it doesn’t matter, as del Toro made a delightfully weird and magic-tinged Academy Award winner without having to depend too much on his setting.
In actuality, the win for “The Shape of Water” offers a nice rebuke to sharp remarks from film antagonist Col. Richard Strickland about his newly adopted city during the movie: “No one likes Baltimore.”
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