Mary Arline (queen_of_kithia) wrote,
Mary Arline

Best Movie Picks for 2006: Lady in the Water

One of the characters in M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water is a film critic who, at one point in the film, bemoans the fact that, (and I paraphrase), there's no originality left in the world.

I find it ironic that this line can be found in what is one of the most original movies I've ever seen. I find it even more ironic, almost heartbreakingly so, that this character's real-life counterparts almost universally dismissed this movie and the depth of originality, creativity, and substance that it has to offer.

Ironic, but not necessarily surprising. I imagine that professional movie critics might have taken offense at movie-critic character, who turns out to be a minor antagonist and generally unlikable and meets with a rather unfortunate end (one wonders if Mr. Shyamalan was working through some past frustrations in writing this character). However, even that doesn't seem to account for the vitriol with which some critics have attacked this movie. Most notably, Rex Reed sneers, "In a war of wits, brains, imagination and talent, Mr. Shyamalan would be defenseless."

I'm forced to wonder whether or not Reed and I were watching the same movie. Reed is, of course, entirely entitled to his opinion, but I find calling M. Night Shyamalan unimaginative to be disingenuous. If anything, Mr. Shyamalan suffers from an excess of imagination.

Many people have echoed the movie-critic character's mournful requiem for originality in Hollywood and elsewhere. I've joined my voice to the lament myself. And yet, while unoriginality can be boring and sometimes even meaningless, there is a certain comfort to be derived from a familiar pattern or formula, in film and in life. For example, I know in my heart that Wal-Mart and McDonalds are evil corporations and I try to avoid them whenever possible; yet, as an agoraphobe, when I travel in a strange city I find it comforting to see familar store chains and franchises, to know that any time I go to McDonalds I will see familar decor and be able to order familiar food (which is particularly comforting as I'm a rather picky eater).

So too it is in films. While films that follow a particular pattern can sometimes be monotonous, when a film messes with the pattern or does something unconventional, it can be very disconcerting, even bewildering, for a viewer. For example, I recently watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the first time since it was an Oscar contender in 2001. At that time I had difficulty appreciating it, which was due to many factors, but part of the reason was that it came from another country and another culture in which there are different narrative and film conventions. For example, if a character got poisoned in an American movie, that character would either die because there was no antidote, or would be saved by the antidote in the very nick of time, but an American filmmaker would never tease us with the possibility that there might be an antidote, only to have the antidote arrive just a few minutes too late. So while we film enthusiasts, amateur and otherwise, might proclaim loud and long that we want originality in films, it's possible that once we get it we're a little discomfited.

I suspect that critics were bewildered by Lady in the Water. Not only is it entirely original, but it also transcends classification by genre. Again, given the natural human proclivity to classify, label, and pigeonhole everything we encounter, I think that many critics and moviegoers alike were bewildered, even intimidated, by their inability to file Lady in the Water in a particular genre. Rather than take the time to truly appreciate it, the pervading impulse was to dismiss it. Crap, after all, is an all-encompassing genre.

Probably another strike against it from the viewpoint of critics and other post-modern audiences is that it's a very Romantic film, in the sense of the 19th-century literary and philosophical movement. I said before that it transcends genre--and I stand by that--but, if pressed, one could categorize it as a fairy tale, and indeed, Mr. Shyamalan refers to it as such. As a fairy tale, of course it has fanciful and fantastic elements, yet it takes place in the everyday world in which we all live, and I think that, while postmodern audiences will sometimes embrace such stories (like the Harry Potter stories, for example), they are more hesitant to embrace such stories than to embrace fantasies that take place in fantastic settings. A fantasy that takes place in our own time and in our own place could be dismissed as "unrealistic" (which, it could be counter-argued, is the whole point of fantasy). The film is also Romantic in its emphasis on emotion rather than intellect. The over-analytic movie critic, while not openly hostile to the intentions of the protagonists (indeed, he remains unaware of them throughout the piece), is an antagonist in the sense that his overly intellectual and unimaginative analysis of the problem frustrates the efforts of the protagonists by leading them down the wrong path. Yet it is only through emotion--dare I say it? the "power of love"--that the protagonists are able to prevail.

Reed also describes the film as being "pretentious," and I haven't found the stomach to read the whole review, but I suspect that, when he talks about pretentiousness and I talk about originality, we are really talking about the same thing. It was risky of Mr. Shyamalan to make a movie that bears only the slightest resemblance to anything that has been done before. One could say that he's built an entire career out of playing against an audience's expectations, citing his use of surprise endings in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Village. On the other hand, if you consider which films of his have been the most successful, The Sixth Sense and Signs, I don't think it's coincidental that those happen to be the two films of his that fit most comfortably in a particular genre (horror and science fiction, respectively). I would argue that in all his films he's playing with the audience's expectations, but he doesn't always play with them in the same way. In The Sixth Sense he gives us more or less what we expect in terms of a ghost story, and then, when the story is nearing its conclusion, when we're sitting back in our chairs thinking, "Well, that was certainly an entertainingly spooky movie, but I fail to see what exactly the big deal was," that's when he throws us a curveball out of seemingly nowhere...and no, I still don't feel comfortable openly discussing the twist, just in case there are people out there who haven't seen it yet but want to. Contrast this with Unbreakable (currently my least favorite of Mr. Shyamalan's films, although I really feel that I should give it another chance sometime). This is a film related to a particular genre, the genre of superhero movies, but it doesn't really make use of any of the conventions of that genre: spandex, outrageous science, plots to destroy/take over the world (although the hero is similar to many Marvel heroes in that he finds his gifts something of a burden to struggle with). Speaking for myself, it was the ending--which, with apologies to Mr. Shyamalan, I found contrived--that makes it less effective for me, but I think that other people, used to the conventions of comic-book-inspired superhero movies might not have been able to cope with his messing with their expectations, just as it took me five years and two viewings to be able to appreciate Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its death by poison and its antidote that arrived two minutes too late. It seems to me that audiences are more accepting of Mr. Shyamalan's messing with their expectations if he sets it up by giving them something that they're familiar and comfortable with. When he doesn't provide that framework, audiences are sometimes less forgiving.

Actually, looking back at IMDb, it seems that Unbreakable was more successful than I realized, so I must have just been projecting my lukewarm feelings about it onto others. Nevertheless, I believe the point is still a valid one, and can be further proved by the example of The Village, which was less successful than any of the big three that preceded it. Mr. Shyamalan considers The Village to be a love story rather than a horror movie, but, whether intentionally or not, he presents it in a similar way to the way he presents Sixth Sense and Signs, i.e. dark opening credits with spooky background music. That plus his reputation for making scary movies might have informed people's expectations, so when it doesn't turn out to be a traditional horror movie (or a traditional love story, for that matter), people may have gotten confused and even been disappointed.

In my opinion, the greatest problem with making Lady in the Water, which I think Mr. Shyamalan dealt with beautifully, is that, since he is literally creating an entirely new mythology with which the audience will not be familiar, the exposition has the power to overwhelm the plot. Personally, I think Mr. Shyamalan struck a very successful balance between exposition and action. Come to think of it, there's really not much of a difference between the exposition and the action. To the artist known as Shakespeare, the play was the thing; in Lady in the Water, the story's the thing. The plot, for those of you unaware of it, is the efforts to save this mythical creature named Story from these other mythical creatures who are trying to kill her. It is only through finding out the story, or the myth, of these creatures that they are able to save Story, so ergo Story is the story.

Looking back over those last couple of sentences (which I swear made sense in my head) I can understand why critics such as Jack Matthews of the New York Daily News could consider the film "convoluted". But I didn't find it so. Complicated, yes. Challenging, yes. But I didn't find it to be anywhere near as convoluted as, say, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, out of which I probably would have walked halfway through were it not for Johnny Depp as my beloved Jack Sparrow, who kept me entertained despite the fact that I had no idea what was going on in the story and, when he was not on screen, sat holding my head in my hands, inwardly moaning, "What is going on? Would someone please tell me what's going on? I need some exposition now, please!"

So no, I didn't find Lady in the Water to be "convoluted", nor did I find it to be "pretentious". I would define a pretentious film as one that is purposefully opaque in order to confuse all but a small portion of the audience, the elite who share some similar mental qualities with the filmmaker which allow them not only to comprehend the film but to look smugly down at those of us who do not comprehend it, who obviously lack the sophistication to understand the auteur and his masterwork. I've seen films like this, and they are as annoying and frustrating as those that assume little to no intelligence on the part of the audience. Probably the most pretentious film that I've ever seen is Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 (although granted, I missed the first five minutes or so and maybe, like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that's when they explained everything). I've not seen Vol. 2, so I can't make a comment on it, and I can't say that Vol. 1 is a bad film because Tarantino was obviously trying to be as pretentiously incomprehensible as possible and confuse, bewilder, and horrify unsophisticated hicks such as myself. Since he succeeds spectacularly, it's actually a good film ... but I hate it. HATE it. I not only hate the film, but I hate the fact that Tarantino is not only allowed to be pretentiously incomprehensible but PRAISED for it. It's not fair, dammit. Other filmmakers are sometimes forced to cut stuff out of their movies that would make them much better. Other filmmakers also are humble enough to cut meaningless crap from their films because, even though it may be very entertaining, especially to the filmmakers themselves, it does nothing to advance the story. But not Tarantino, oh no..."there's too much incomprehensible, pretentious crap in there? I'll just make two movies out of it and leave in all the bizarre, meaningless, completely unmotivated discussions about frickin' sake that bring the whole stupid pretentious plot to a grinding, shrieking halt!" And he's loved for it! But poor Mr. Shyamalan gets called pretentious and's just not fair.

I got a little off track there, and I'm sorry, but my point is that it's not fair to call Lady in the Water pretentious because I think Mr. Shyamalan made a concerted effort to bring the audience along with him on the journey, and let us know what's going on with the story without slowing it down too much with exposition. I think that, unlike Tarantino, he wants a wide audience to be able to appreciate and enjoy his films, so just because someone was unwilling or unable to follow where Mr. Shyamalan was leading, I don't think it's fair that he* should project his failure onto Mr. Shyamalan by calling the film pretentious.

If there's any argument to be made about the pretentiousness of Lady in the Water, I think the strongest such argument (though I don't buy into it personally) is Mr. Shyamalan's bold choice to cast himself as the writer who is destined to be the proxy savior of humanity. He's no stranger to acting in his own films, of course, but this is the largest part he's taken so far, and I admit that I had a little bit of trouble with it myself at first. I detected a whiff of pretentiousness about it, yes, I'll admit it. Yet he's taken so many small roles in his movies (the smallest is probably in The Village, in which only his reflection is seen) that I think he's earned the right to take on a bigger role. The bottom line is, was he effective in the part? I think he was. I nearly forgot that it was him, although I was rather distracted (albeit pleasantly so) by the fact that, in that wardrobe and with that hairstyle he reminded me of my friend Tony. When all's said and done, is it any more pretentious to cast oneself in a small but pivotal role than it is to direct oneself in the starring role? That's a discussion for another day (but no, I don't think that directing oneself in a lead role is necessarily pretentious; it depends on the role and the actor/director).

I regret that this has been less about the film itself and more about people's reactions to it, but I'm just so frustrated that more people didn't appreciate it as I did, because true originality is so rare in American films that I believe that, when it occurs, it ought to be praised, encouraged, and nurtured rather than ruthlessly picked apart and shat upon. Needless to say, I loved this film. I found it to be entertaining, of course, but--like most of Mr. Shyamalan's films--I found it to be intelligent and thought-provoking, as well as emotionally moving. For me this movie was, if it doesn't sound too hokey to say it, life-affirming. I experienced an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual epiphany watching this movie, and I wish I had written down my impressions immediately following the movie, because I find that trying to put them into words now is like trying to remember a dream upon waking (although I suspect that, had I actually written down my feelings immediately after seeing the movie, they would have fallen as flat as dreams tend to do upon waking and trying to write them down).

I don't mean to give the impression that the movie doesn't have flaws, of course. I found the special effects to be pretty lackluster, which is really a shame because those demon-dogs really should have been more frightening than they were. Admittedly, it was, at times, difficult to follow the plot, and while I was a pretty open-minded audience, willing to suspend disbelief, that whole thing with the kid reading the cereal boxes was a little weird and hard to swallow. The cast is excellent; there are too many wonderful performances to mention them all individually, (if they don't at least get nominated for the SAG ensemble performance award it's a sin and a crime); nevertheless, it's true that it's a rather large dramatis personae and it's sometimes difficult to keep track of everybody. It's not the best of Mr. Shyamalan's films, nor is it my favorite (Signs holds both those honors), but it's wonderful: creative, imaginative, thought-provoking, Romantic, and poignant. Probably the main thematic question of the movie is, why do we tell stories? why are stories important? and the film itself is an answer to this question. This is why we tell stories; we tell stories to teach, we tell stories to entertain, we tell stories to provoke the thoughts and touch the hearts of others.

Please keep telling your stories, Mr. Shyamalan; I, for one, will always be there to listen.
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