This is not a popular belief, but it’s true: over his last five pictures, M. Night Shyamalan has created one of the most consistent and thematically rich film cycles of the decade. Forget his boast that he’s “made four studio movies, super-personal, from [his] original screenplays [that] are the most successful four consecutive originals Hollywood has had in the last decade.” I’m not talking about how financially successful his movies have been – for all I know, “Lady in the Water” will crash and burn at the box-office and break his streak. What is so amazing to me is how Shyamalan has kept furthering his personal mythology and subtly stretching his style over the past 7 years, building up to the keystone that is “Lady in the Water”.
There’s a moment late in the film, during a nakedly emotional monologue by Paul Giamatti, when it all came together for me, as it often does for Night’s protagonists at the end of their stories. Suddenly, I fully understood what I vaguely suspected before: everything’s connected when it comes to Shyamalan movies. It’s always about finding back your faith (Signs), discovering your hidden powers (Unbreakable), realizing that you can’t isolate yourself from the undertoad i.e. the fear of the death of the ones you love (The Village), and understanding the true nature of your existence (The Sixth Sense). Each film has more specifically targeted one of these themes, but they all cross-pollinate each other, especially in “Lady in the Water”, where they all come together.
Yet, before it’s even hit theaters, the Indian-born, Philadelphia-based filmmaker’s latest has raised all kinds of controversy and been widely ridiculed. It even inspired a book, The Man Who Heard Voices – Or How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career On A Fairy Tale. I guess I can see why some wouldn’t get it. “Lady in the Water” is a delicate balance of creature feature, ensemble comedy, broken-soul drama and yes, fairy tale. The resulting concoction shouldn’t work, really, but doggone it, it does! I laughed, I cried, I jumped in my seat, I dreamed. It’s E.T. all over again.
Then why don’t people recognize it as an instant classic like Spielberg’s own bedtime story? A sea nymph dwelling in a swimming pool needs help from the inhabitants of an apartment building to be flown back to her world by an eagle before grass-covered wolves get to her. How is that sillier than an extra-terrestrial stranded in a backyard who needs help from suburbia kids to phone home and return to his planet before the army gets to him? Easy: Night had the balls to make almost all of his characters full-grown adults.
Shyamalan doesn’t even end there. He’s pushing it all the way, introducing quirky characters like a stuttering superintendent (the always brilliant Giamatti), a bunch of potheads, a bodybuilder (Freddy Rodriguez from “Six Feet Under”) who only pumps one side of his body, a crossword puzzle buff (Jeffrey Wright) and his breakfast cereal obsessed son, a Korean hipster and her hard-ass mother (exactly like Lane and her mom in “Gilmore Girls”!)… Night baits his detractors even more by casting himself as a writer who will change the world AND throwing in a jackass know-it-all film critic character (Bob Balaban)!
I’ve mentioned “E.T.” and my buddy Couture went for the “Neverending Story” comparison while we were chatting after the film. I could go as far as linking “Lady in the Water” to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It’s that epic and magical… Only, instead of taking place in Middle-Earth, Narnia (NARNIA!) or whatever, it’s set in contemporary Philadelphia. For a lot of people, that will make it harder to go along with the quest, the rules and so on. Even I was a tad iffy about it for a while, but once it got me, it got me gooood. That one smile from Bryce Dallas Howard‘s titular character at her most beautiful? Perfection, pure perfection.
Jean Carlo Lavoie (translation by KL) :
Shyamalan’s latest is clearly a Shyamalan film. By this apparently obvious phrase, I’m referring to the auteur theory. In other words, the touch of the director if easily recognizable from beginning to end. A unique touch, one that can suggest that supernatural things lie under the grayness of everyday routine. Up to Signs (Shyamalan’s pre-The Sixth Sense films are voluntarily omitted from this discussion), the supernatural was hidden behind the surface and the shyamalanesque heroes reached it by progressively purging themselves of their doubts and illusions. However, The Village, through its striking final twist (possibly the most meaningful one in whole oeuvre of the Philadelphia prestidigitator), made a full 180 turn. Indeed, the Ivy character actually had to surpass her superstitious fears to go through Covington forest and discover reality, i.e. the true nature of her world. Hence the film, in direct opposition of its predecessors, went from the supernatural to reality (a reality whose strangeness was perhaps even more troubling than any form of supernatural). A priori, Lady in the Water could be linked to the first three. But the supernatural is replaced by fantasy. Let me explain.
The supernatural depends of a relation to reality, it exists in contrast to it. Fantasy, though, springs from a parallel and self-sufficient world, it substitutes itself entirely to the one we know; it’s an alternate reality. A character is often sceptical of the supernatural when it encounters it, while the authenticity of a fantasy seems indubitable. Until now, Shyamalan’s oeuvre was strained between the desire to believe and the tormenting doubts:: Malcolm Crowe perplexed by Cole Sear terrors, David Dunn questioning his “super-powers”, Graham Hess refusing to hope for divine intervention, Lucius Hunt’s indecisiveness regarding the hostility of Those We Don’t Speak Of, Edward Walker having second thoughts about the underlying values of his ideals, etc. With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan delivers a bona fide profession of faith, which works into his genre shift from the supernatural to all-out fantasy.
Unfortunately, this thematic transition doesn’t extend into a renewal of the filmmaker’s ways. Lady in the Water, the sublime visual and musical inspiration of which is enough to make it into a powerful and poetic entertainment, suffers from two major narrative mistakes that holds it back from becoming the great film it could have been. To illustrate my point, I’ll refer to the fantasy masterpiece that is E.T., to which Shyamalan constantly gives knowing nods. In Spielberg’s movie, the characters go through an adventure with an extra-terrestrial. When they see him for the first time, each automatically knows he’s crossed over into another world (fantasy), because E.T.’s appearance is as explicit as it gets. In Lady in the Water, on the other hand, the Story character, around whom the plot revolves, is more of a supernatural being, because you don’t really think fantasy or magic upon looking at her. Sure, her extremely pale body, the changing colors of her hair and Bryce Dallas Howard’s unique face give an otherworldly effect, but not enough to instantly convince. This understated treatment, which worked in Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, undermines the credibility of the film. Shyamalan would have benefited from being as fanciful with Story as with the Scrunt, for example.
The other mistake concerns the character of Cleveland Heep. Shyamalan’s admitted intention to tell a bedtime story, which he otherwise succeeds at, doesn’t fit well with the annexation of a tragic dimension. Or at least, if fairy tales and tragedy are not absolutely mutually exclusive, here, in this film, a melancholy and ordinary (as we almost all are) Heep getting to accomplish the extraordinary would have seemed less affected. Because, again true to himself, Shyamalan contradicts his subject by tacking on artificially, though probably unconsciously, his usual obsessions and fears to a film that’s far from asking for them. If the symbiosis would have worked, I’d have been the first to applaud this tragic fairy tale, but the movie being what it, i.e. unequivocally plunging into fantasy (mostly), humor and candor, Cleveland’s repressed torments become accessory, maybe even cumbersome, like the symptoms of the worried mind of an author who doesn’t entirely assume the mutation he set out to accomplish.
Lord knows that I believe in the auteur theory, and I admire the vampiric appropriation of his subjects by Shyamalan, but in this case, I dare say he should have further succumbed to his devotion to Spielberg and less to his own demons. If he worried about telling a story without enough pathos, someone should have assured him that his visual style alone can give any cliché unequaled poetic depth. For instance, the final sequence sends all fantasy filmmakers back to the rank of common naturalists. The eagle! for God’s sake! the eagle! Such be the flight that my soul aspires to take on the day of my death. Just for that, my dear Shyamalan, I’ll let you stay on your king of kings throne. It ain’t like I didn’t warn you: I believe in the auteur theory!
“It was about strangers coming together. It was a recipe for the repair of the world. It was a comedy. It was a horror movie. It was a bedtime story, one he had invented for his daughters, one he had told them night after night. He wondered why he was struggling so much to get it to work in the form of a screenplay, the writing form that defined his life. And then he figured it out. This movie was more personal to him than anything he had ever written. It carried all his prayers. It was a self-portrait.”
“[In The Wizard of Oz], a trio of misfits comes together and helps a little girl get home – it’s a win-win. The residents of the Cove come to the aid of a creature called Story who’s trying to get back home. They help her and she helps them. The whole thing may be a dream, or not. Most significantly, the movie was about faith, about what you can achieve if you believe. Dorothy is going to get herself home, one way or another. Lady dealt with the same thing.” – From Michael Bamberger’s brilliant THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES
Post-finishing the book, post-second viewing musings of Kevin L.(07/29/06)
Went to see “Lady in the Water” again. Then walked home, taking my time. Thinking about it the whole time. Went to have a couple of beers. Still thinking about it.
Can I even put into words my response to this film?
I know everyone hates it. I can see the supposed flaws myself. But man! Before and after getting the inside scoop from Bamberger’s book, I could sense anyway that Shyamalan was putting his everything in this movie, trying to create magic in an age of cynicism. Way too many people aren’t able to lose themselves in fantasy storytelling anymore, they’re the kind of blasé motherfuckers who, if “The Wizard of Oz” or “E.T.” were released today, would say that they are corny nonsense.
Sure, it’s a different world we live in than 1939 or even 1982. And no, I’m not saying that Night’s movie is a timeless classic like those other two. But in a summer ruled over by sequels and remakes, at least, it stands out as a movie that’s trying to create a new canvas upon which audiences can project their own hopes and dreams.
I’ve said already how I love the cast of characters and the way Shyamalan goes back to the themes of his previous pictures, but I totally passed over one of the strongest elements of “Lady in the Water”: how damn well crafted it is. The first time I watched the film, I was mostly trying to follow the wonderfully silly and intricate plot. Whereas on outing #2, I was able to fully take in the ever inventive camerawork and gorgeous eternal magic-hour quality of the light… Christopher Doyle might be a crazed drunken pervert but gosh darn it, the man can shoot a movie better than anyone else. Say what you will about the story, but if you were to play the flick with the sound off, the naysayers would be hard-off trying to deny its beauty.
Until next time…
I just finished your book, which I devoured in five days, in between
my two viewings of Lady in the Water (which I loved too, go figure).
It’s honestly one of the best things I’ve ever read – I was more
fascinated and laughed more than with most fiction.
I was particularly taken with your depiction of Christopher Doyle.
What a great character – the crazy genius deserves his own book!
Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for your amazing work. I’ll be
going back to your words for years and years to come.
Oh, if only I had more readers like you–thanks so much. Yes,
Doyle’s a boo, no question. Best, Michael Bamberger