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Monday, July 31, 2006

Me and Last Month's Hair: Lady in the Water

So, I'm behind the times, stuck on the last fad, not getting all my memos, etc., etc. It's deeply uncool to like M. Night Shyamalan movies, and I keep on liking them. So this is a public service announcement: Feel free to send me all your jelly shoes, leg warmers, pet rocks, rubicks cubes, fondue pots, and ouija boards. I'm sure I'll find a use for them. Spoilers follow in the unlikely event that anyone but me cares.

By way of disclaimer, I'll remind you that I was one of the 7 people, globally, who liked The Village, so you may want to decide either that I have a brain tumor or a congenital lack of taste and move on. And, yeah, I do rather feel like an ass joking about Ebert having a brain tumor, given his current state of health. In the plus column for Roger, though, I certainly think that his pinch hitter, Jim Emerson, did him proud in bearing the frothy torch (mmmm . . . frothy torches and mixy metaphors---two can play at that game, Mr. Emerson) of Shyamalan hate.

I'm rarely known for my centrism (pause for shocked reactions), but I think that moderation (and not really giving a shit about the twistyness of his twists) has been the key to retaining my cordial relationship with Shyamalan's movies. I liked Sixth Sense---thought it was visually interesting, enjoyed its moody atmosphere, liked the relationships he created and the ways in which he allowed them to unfold---but I didn't love it. If I honestly loved any of his movies, it was Unbreakable, but I get that it's probably pitched too directly to a particular audience (i.e., giant nerds like me) for broad appeal. Signs was my least favorite, but even in what was basically a mess of a story, I liked some of the relationships, and I thought he got a solid performance out of Joaquin Phoenix---something I thought impossible at the time. And, well, The Village . . . yeah, I liked it, despite that fucked up SciFi thing. I'll never get why he agreed to that.

Lady in the Water has its flaws, too. Even though it's relatively short (clocking in at 108 minutes, according to the NYT), there are some self-indulgent moments. Of these, there are some I'm not willing to give up, because they work, despite being gratuitous. To me, the untimely, tongue-in-cheek death of Bob Balaban, the bitter critic, falls into that category. In contrast, having a character say "Who would be arrogant enough to think they know another human being's intention ***cough***cough***cough bitter film critic ***cough***cough***cough" is just childish and clunky.

On a related note, I'm not sure who he was indulging with the odd "Paul Giamatti IS Aquaman in M. Night Shyamalan's The Little Mermaid" jaunt to Ariel's secret cavern. Given that this was based on a serial story he told to his daughters, I can either see his invention running out one night and him---like Bessie in Jane Eyre---resorting to "borrowing" or his daughters clamoring for something Disneyfied. Maybe it was another self-indulgent metaphor for the years he spent "trapped' in his association with Disney. Whatever the reason, it certainly was a segment I thought wandered pretty far afield from anything.

Other things, though, I found myself cringing at not because they bothered me, but because they seemed certain to have the Shyamalan-hating public throwing up their hands and shouting, "See? I told you!" Of course, the biggest instance of that is casting himself as Vick---the young writer whose work and death are destined to change the world. Given Shyamalan's reputation as a raging narcissist, it's hard to defend this against charges of hubris (although, I have to give Manohla Darcis props for "The slavish attention of a media that mocks his narcissism by publishing articles about his narcissism").

All I can say is that for me, neither the role itself nor Shyamalan's performance read that way at all. In fact, if I may pick on Joe Emerson again ('cause, you know, it's like a reunion. We should do this every two years, boys) for a moment, I'd say that he seriously misses the boat in his criticism of this move when he is moved to misquote John 3:16, "For he so loved the world that he gave his only narf . . ."

Yeah, I know it's a joke, but in all seriousness, I think that in Lady in the Water, Shyamalan is taking a first and very definite step away from theistic religion. Of course, as issues of that kind of faith are not especially dear or interesting to me, I wouldn't mind if he got a new thing entirely, ethically and morally speaking. But given that Shyamalan seems taken with the empowerment born of the communal aspects of organized religions, I'm not sorry to see the backside of Abraham in this movie.

Like most fairy tales, LitW is animistic. In the theater, I wasn't especially wild about the animated legend (narrated by David Ogden Stiers) at the beginning. In retrospect, though, it's certainly key to putting the audience (or 22% of the audience, anyway) in a frame of mind receptive to a children's story. But it also establishes the "why" of all this.

The basic mythological backdrop holds that, in moving away from the water, humanity has moved away from the parts of themselves that transcend the material. Despite the fact that humans have turned their back on the natural and the supernatural. And, well, it's hard to say what happens next without rocketing back into theism, but humans and the land on which they live, have since been steadily heading hellward in a handbasket. The "narf" (yes, it's goofy, I will give you all that) are not of the human world, but like good animistic spirits, they have some power to effect change within it.

As is also common in both fairy tales and animistic contexts, these opportunites occur in highly specific contexts bound by uncommon constraints. The points of articulation between the human world and the "narf" or "spirit" world are limited and fragile. They demand extraordinary (i.e., ritual) behaviors and uncommon, indirect approaches that often resemble games. There are those who have knowledge, but it's not knowledge easily gotten (and it's seldom knowledge that can be gotten by oneself alone). In my view, Shyamalan weaves these elements in pretty deftly. The hoops and hurdles that Emerson finds baffling, dull, and too unreal, I found stimulated pleasant memories of childhood games that got positively roccoco with rules, but also reminded me of the role that mastering local games often plays in ethnographic research.

In the NYT review, Darcis says, with neutral-to-mocking subtext: "As before, this film involves characters who, when faced with the inexplicable, behave less like real people than idealized movie audiences: they believe." I dunno, maybe it's because of all the overflowing "Unwarranted Skepticisim" jars I have from my other forms of entertainment, but I was relieved (especially considering that we're talking about a giant apartment building here) that we didn't have to soak in every individual character's conversion to belief.

Bad things are drawn to the Hellmouth. The people crucial to this particular transient moment between our world and the world of the narf are "drawn to the place." I'm down with that as a narrative device. Even if I weren't satisfied with that, though, I don't have to go too far afield to invoke the misfit rule: XANDER: Yep. Vampires are real. A lot of them live in Sunnydale. Willow will fill you in.
WILLOW: I know it's hard to accept at first.
OZ: Actually, it explains a *lot*.

The characters have been drawn to the apartment complex by failure, tragedy, and lack of any other place to go. They are the left out, the down and out, the chewed up and spit out, the whacked out. They've seen most of the fall out (OMGWTF? I'm OUT addicted) in the human world. Why WOULDN'T they believe? What have they got to lose?

On the level of the individual characters, the "why" of the story is the fact that these ritual contexts are transformative. "No one gets told who they are," and they must find it out for themselves. In some cases, this is through these games. But at other times, the role can only be found out through introspection, interaction, and daring to fail. In the case of Cleveland Heep (the amazing Paul Giamatti---this is worth the price of admission for his performance alone), he comes into his role by admitting that he is not culpable for his failure in another (I'll be a complete maverick here and say that I think Shyamalan could have added a bit more explicit backstory for Heep---in my scenario, he was not home to act as guardian to his wife and children, because he was out being a healer). He takes the tragedy of his life and lets his experience of that grief work to the good.

And in those individual transformations we see one part of the point of all this---animus is endowed, revealed, and restored as characters unearth strengths in themselves and in one another. And I'm back to picking on Emerson again. He invokes the spirit of Joseph Campbell to rail against Shyamalan for not recognizing that myths "speak to the hunger for meaning deep within our species." Joe, I think you should pop a Xanax and see the movie again, because the Cove is totally full of people who hunger for their individual meanings and find it.

But although the individual discoveries are interesting and compelling on their own (at least to me---but I'm just roller-discoing through life, remember), they are a bit . . . fiddly for a once-in-a-generation crossroads. That's where Vick comes back in (and, to a lesser extent, Story). Story's return to her world is contingent on her meeting with her "vessel," who will experience an "awakening." They (Vick and Story) do. He does---his head clears and he can hear himself again, just for having seen her. In the grand scheme of things for OUR world, this is what it's about---not providing the seed, but allowing it to be sown and opening a way for change in the future.

As it turns out, Story has a burden similar to Vick's, although she only discovers this as the events unfold and her path to return gets more dangerous (as is the way of these stories, as the Zombie Mr. Campbell would be happy to point out to a certain temporary film critic). She is herself a misfit, but is destined to lead her people, despite the fact that she doesn't see herself in the role. It's not the strongest element of the story, partly because there's so little time devoted to it, but it works in a way to have her facing a future that, in some ways, is as grim as Vick's.

Although the NYT and Mini!Ebert seem to agree that the story is silly (evidence of madness in the NYT's case), they split on the technical achievements. Emerson repeatedly calls the visual style clunky and amateurish, complaining specifically about POV and relationships. Uh, I'm not gonna say brain tumor, because that's tacky, so I'll make oblique reference to the fact that maybe he shouldn't try that Xanax on top of whatever else he's on.

In some ways, LitW is vintage Shyamalan---lots of shots in reflective surfaces that would be too cute and precious if they weren't so lovely, for example. But in terms of POV, he seems to have made a conscious effort to work past his reliance on the two-shot from a distance. I'll admit it was disorienting at first, because much of the dialogue (particularly with characters who have a problem with self-concept) is shot in an over from behind one of the conversants. It's a new thing, so I'll give him time to work these up to the elegant level of the rest of his film, but they were awkward at times. Still, I don't think it was just a new method for new method's sake---it establishes the interdependence of the characters and stresses that they are all multifaceted and cannot move into their roles unless they are willing to see themselves as others see them.

In terms of directing people, I'm not sure Shyamalan had a tough time of it this time around. Bryce Howard wasn't nearly as limp and lifeless as she could have been in a role that is all about becoming increasingly limp and lifeless. Giamatti breaks your heart every second of every scene. Sarita Choudhury is bright, funny, and gorgeous as Vick's sister (and she pulls off some of the stinkier dialogue with enough quirk that it doesn't completely go CLUNK). Jeffrey Wright and the kid playing his son had nice rapport. I wasn't so sure about Cindy Cheung, but on balance I think she fleshed out a role that appears quite pivotal in the beginning, but then diminishes abruptly.

But, really, what can I say? I like kiddie lit. I like myth and transformation. I like when we get the Scooby Gang assembled, so I liked the movie.

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