Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The Shyamalan Series: Lady in the Water (2006)

M. Night Shyamalan’s 2006 movie Lady in the Water (2006) is a cinematic bedtime story, and on that basis, I find that it succeeds quite admirably as a work of art.  The film most decidedly isn’t a fantasy spectacular or epic like Fellowship of the Rings (2001). In terms of comparison it is merely a story that a parent might tell a child on one night, or on many successive nights. 

So you don’t get armies or orcs or elves battling it out here, just a few mer-people and one very big, very bad wolf (called a “scrunt.”)

A modest bedtime story like this -- a tale shared between generations -- conforms to a specific and familiar structure, and indeed, Lady in the Water seems to determinedly ape that structure. In fact, the story is based on an original bedtime story that Shyamalan told his children.

In the first case, the film tells an adventurous story, featuring some fantasy and adventure elements (Story and the world of the Narfs). 

Secondly, bedtime stories and Lady in the Water generally feature a fixed routine of cliffhangers or twists which build upon one another, and just as often deal reverses as victories. 

In this case, that description means that the film hinges largely on the discovery of secret identities.  Characters here must determine who among a small community is a healer, who is a guardian, who is a symbolist, and finally, what people form a group called a “guild.”

In many cases, the discoveries are wrong, dealing the characters grave and dangerous set-backs at the most inopportune of times.

Imagine watching or hearing the story of this film over several days and you start to sense how cleverly Lady in the Water functions as a bedtime story. You believe you have discovered the identity of the healer, so the plot moves forward. Then you discover you were wrong and back you go to rethink your assumptions.  Each twist in this routine is a high point in a story meant to possess peaks and valleys.  Remember Cole Sear’s sentiment in The Sixth Sense that a good bed-time story needs “twists and stuff.” 

Well, that’s exactly how Lady in the Water plays.

And finally, Lady in the Water ends with the final quality of a bedtime story: sheer emotional exhaustion…since “sleep” afterwards is the overall goal of the narrative. 

Accordingly, we are left, at film’s end, a pile of qyucweubf mush, having gone through all the ups and downs with the characters. We are worn out, spent, but satisfied with the nature of the happy ending.  

And that happy ending, of course, is another key element of bedtime stories.

Don’t want the little ones having nightmares, do we?

In terms of our on-going Shyamalan Series, it is clear how, in significant fashion, Lady in the Water reflects the same concerns the director has obsessed upon in his other works.  For example, this film is about a person (in this case, the character played by Shyamalan himself), discovering his purpose. 

However, the tale has been “flipped” in a sense.  Now, the story is also about the catalyst, Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), and her ability to show others (including Mr. Heep), their purpose in this life.  She catalyzes the whole community, essentially, making every person recognize the potential within.

And much like Graham Hess, Malcolm, David or Elijah, Mr. Heep (Paul Giamatti) is burdened with a strange lassitude, a “soul sickness” in the film because he is not doing what he is meant to do.  He has abandoned his destiny as a healer (after the deaths of his wife and child), and is “hiding” at the Cove apartment complex.  Only his interface with the catalyst, Story, enables him to get back on track with his “correct” destiny. She shos him what he is meant to do.

Finally, Lady in the Water represents Shyamalan’s most caustic commentary on the nature of storytelling.  In fact, he features a despicable character in the film, Farber (Bob Balaban) who is clearly supposed to represent a plague upon all storytellers: the critic

In the film, Farber is a joyless, loveless, bloodless soul who takes pride in tearing to shreds artists and works of art.  He believes he has seen it all, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that his wisdom is greater than that of the filmmakers he reviews.  Farber is such a stick-in-the-mud he can’t even conceive of an occasion in which two “real” people would actually stand in the rain, facing each other, getting all wet. 

So naturally, Shyamalan makes that set-up, that composition -- two people standing for a long duration in the pounding rain -- the final, valedictory image of his film. 

He thus demonstrates how, in context -- and without a doubt -- that image can make total emotional sense. 

If it is the last time you will ever see a person who has transformed your life, the pounding rain is not an obstacle. Shyamalan thus proves that it is the critics, not the storytellers, who are all wet.

I know and fully understand that Farber is Shyamalan’s revenge against my profession and its practitioners; those who he feels don’t understand his work and worse, actively resist his work. I don’t take the charge personally. I try not to be that kind of critic, but I can tell you this with certainty: there are folks out there who do take a challenge like this quite personally. They don’t see the put-down as playful, they see it as a declaration of war. So in this case, Shyamalan may have started a war that he can’t win, and the savage critical response to the film proves it. Thus, the over-the-top attack on critics in the film might qualify as self-destructive, from a certain viewpoint.

If you look at a sampling of reviews, you see Shyamalan widely referred to as arrogant, vain, and thin-skinned. That may actually be projection on the part of some critics, but the blows landed on Shyamalan and his film nonetheless.

The result? Negative noise has drowned out the simple, heartfelt virtues of this fable, of this bed-time story.

“Man does not listen!”

By night, a mysterious stranger has been swimming at the pool at the apartment complex called The Cover.  The handyman, Mr. Heep (Giamatti) attempts to catch the perpetrator, and encounters a beautiful young woman, named Story (Howard), in the pool.  The further she gets from water, the sicker she becomes.

Story is a "Narf," a sort of mermaid from the "Blue World," come to change the destiny of the human race for the better. She must "see" a writer living in the Cove and influence him to write a book that will change the world. 

But Story is more important even than that.  

She is actually a future leader of her people, a Madame Narf.  Because of this, a monstrous being, a green wolf called a scrunt, is hunting her, attempting to kill her.  This being doesn't want her to return home to lead her people, and prevents Story from hitching a ride with a giant eagle back to the sea.

Mr. Heep learns, however, that several humans -- a healer, a symbologist, a guardian and a guild -- can protect Story and help her accomplish her mission.  At the very least, they must protect her until supernatural judges, the Tartutic, arrive to dispense justice.

“What kind of person would be so arrogant as to presume the intention of another human being?”

I once asked a friend why he did not like Lady of the Water, and his response was that the story felt made up as it went along.  

I actually understand and appreciate that comment, but feel that this structural quality is sort of baked into the movie.  Lady in the Water is a bedtime story, and bedtime stories are, often, made up as they go along. 

Why? Children are eager and curious listeners, and so they call out the storyteller when something doesn’t make sense. (Think of the sick kid with Peter Falk in The Princess Bride [1986]).   

Therefore, as a storyteller you go back, retcon your story, and then adjust, going forward, so that it makes sense to the listener.  

I have to undertake this process with my eight year old son, Joel, all the time during our night-time ritual.  I have to explain exceptions. I have to reveal why something that happened couldn’t happen in the way he now sees it could have, and so forth.  Kids are smart.  They see how threads connect, and they are aware when they don't connect.

As a bedtime storyteller, you have to be nimble; you have to be a quick thinker.

Hence the “fixed routine of cliffhangers” and “setbacks” in bedtime stories. A good storyteller needs not only to throw in “twists and stuff,” per Shyamalan, but also constantly re-adjust the narrative's trajectory towards the conclusion, in the face of questions and speculation.  Or, described anotherway, in light of constant interruptions from smart kids.

This is what the process of communication is, actually. Think of Gamble and Gamble's Model of Communication for a moment, with encoder and decoder working together, adjusting to the feedback of the other.  That's also how a bedtime story works; the sender must adapt to the responses of the receiver, and change approach.  

In the film, we get the wrong symbolist, guild and healer, and then have to do it all again.  In the film, we get the wrong writer (Farber) and then find the right one.  And we miss the first run of the giant eagle to collect Story, and wonder why the Tartutic (the judges) take so long to find and eliminate the Scrunt.  

All these things have to be explained.

Questions? We have a lot of ‘em!

But if the film’s approach is to feel like a bedtime story, to approximate a bedtime story's feints and lunges -- and Lady in the Water was advertised, actually, as a “Classic Bedtime Story for a New Generation” -- we must ask a question.   

Is this a valid and creative way to structure the narrative?  

My answer would be affirmative.  

In fact, this is an inspired way to tell the story. In the Monomyth, we know we’re going to get the hero, the elder, the gatekeeper, the loki-like mischief maker, the call to action, the quest, and the community changed.  A bedtime story -- a different kind of story -- offers a different set of variables or elements, and as I note here, Shyamalan does his best to conform to them.

He's not making a conventional fantasy. He's not making an epic, or a quest film. He's explicitly crafting a bed time story, so there is no better way to go about his tale, is there?

As a consequence or effect of this type of storytelling, we might feel that it is being made up as it goes along, but is that so bad?  

Did it take away from your bedtime stories, as a kid, knowing that your Mom or Dad was making it up as he or she went along, adjusting to your input, devising new schemes, going one way and then another?

Lady in the Water apes that approach but if you study the actual scenes, it’s clear that Shyamalan knows where it is going all along.  My evidence: information presented early recurs later.  For instance, Farber criticizes the movie romance he sees in a theater, noting that it was stupid for having two characters stand in the rain.  And as I noted above, that’s how Lady of the Water ends.  The movie is actually tightly-structured I would argue, it only seems like it is out of control, in part because of the constant addition of new mythology and new terms (such as Narf, Madame Narf, Scrunt, Tartutic, and so on…). 

Like Mr. Heep, we are constantly having to pay attention as the story twists and turns, and some new elements comes into play.

I also understand why people object to Mr. Farber. He’s kind of a straw man character; the vessel for Shyamalan to bottle all his anger and resentment towards critics.  

In the quotation at the beginning of thus section of the review, a character observes that he can’t understand a person who presumes to understand the intentions of another.  

To me, this is much like Shyalaman asserting that no one can look at art and judge for themselves, based on film grammar, observation, or thematic analysis, what a work of art means.  

And I object to that.  I disagree with that vehemently.  

What kind of person presumes to understand the intentions of another human being?

Just about every person you’ve ever met.  

It isn’t just critics who do this.  

But critics are necessary and valuable in the culture I believe, to remind us that there is a difference between “art” and “entertainment.”  The best critics look to art, see how it fits in with the culture, and reveal to audiences how it was assembled, what it means, and how it means what it means.  

That is significant.  Who else but critics discusses art at all these days?  I don’t defend the critics who have dismissed Shyamalan outright, but I also know that critics have their place, and it is an important place.  

And, also, we all go before critics.  I have a new book out.  And critics will take it on.  They’ll either love it or hate. Those who dislike it, or don’t understand it, will make assumptions about me as a person, as a writer and as an artist. That’s just how it is.  

But it is still worth having the discussion. Shymalan can't expect to make films and have critics not attempt to interpret it, analyze it, or even second-guess it.  

The worst thing, in my experience, that can greet a writer is not harsh criticism, but silence.  

I’d rather be raked over the coals -- and this has happened to me more than once -- than have nobody discuss my thoughts; to greet my musings with nothing but deafening silence. Shyamalan's critics have been unfair to him on more than one occason, I believe, but the answer isn't that critics are terrible, inhuman people deserving of death.  

The answer is more nuanced than that.

In conclusion, I belive that Lady in the Water is quite beautiful, and that the bed-time story structure allows us another lens by which to view the typical Shyamalan obsession: a person denied their destiny. "Story" gives Heep a second chance. And Heep, in turn, assures Story's destiny as Madame Narf.  There's a nice symmetry to this bed-time story, and a powerful emotion release, in that rainy denouement.

You can't count tear drops in the pounding rain, can you?

I understand that the critics of the films of M. Night Shyamalan see the beginning of his “fall” from artistic grace in The Village (2004). They see the descent continuing with Lady in the Water (2006).  

I disagree with that time line. 

I believe that Lady in the Water is consistent with his other works in its obsessions involving destiny and storytelling. I don't believe it is a failure if you understand what the film is (and what it actively declared it was): a bed time story.

Now, The Happening plays on a whole different level, perhaps, but I blame that film’s flaws on the poor casting. Mark Wahlberg has many talents, but playing smart isn't one of them.

But that’s a “story” for another day.

Tomorrow, I begin my multi-day celebration of the 40th anniversary of Space: 1999 (1975-1977).  But next week, starting Wednesday, I will return to the Shyamalan Series with reviews of The Happening (2008), After Earth (2013), and the director’s new film, The Visit (2015).

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