Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2006

Ain't no mountain high enough . . . for M. Night's ego

Once Shyamalan gets off his high horse, he might realize he could have really had something with 'Lady in the Water'

Lady in the Water
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, M. Night Shyamalan, Cindy Cheugn, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Freddy Rodriguez and Mary Beth Hurt
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes
Opened July 21, 2006
(out of four)

In Lady in the Water there are two M. Night Shyamalans at work, and they are at odds, pulling one another in opposite directions and with opposite intentions. It is a nasty struggle.

The first Shyamalan is a rapidly-progressing filmmaker, a man of uncommon talent whose films continue to grow in ambition and complexity. The other Shyamalan is petty, childish, arrogant and self-absorbed to such a degree that it makes it impossible for him to remain focused on what his other half has tried so carefully to create. It is the combination of these two personalities that makes Shyamalan's latest effort so intriguing, yet so off-putting.

(Oh, and there's one more Shyamalan -- the one who is a lousy actor but insists on casting himself in his own movies, but we'll get to Him later.)

The first Shyamalan comes across during the first half, as he crafts a hypnotic and visually arresting tale of a mysterious sea nymph living secretly in the pool of a Philadelphia-area apartment complex. Shyamalan guides us into the kind of fairy-tale world that is just south of reality, the kind of world where stoner philosophers, eccentric old ladies and a bodybuilder who works out only one side of his body all seem right at home.

Shyamalan gets the atmosphere just right in these early scenes. His rich visual palette, which has always been one of his strengths, works beautifully as the nymph, named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) gets discovered by the apartment super, a lonely but friendly middle-aged man named Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti). Without revealing too many details, Story is there for a reason -- and it involves many of the people living in this apartment complex. It has something to do with a grass-covered werewolf-like creature that seems to be after Story. And it is up to Cleveland to help her.

What Shyamalan is going for is a sort of oddball fairy tale, but he takes it a step further. The story wraps around itself -- becoming, in some part, about its own telling, while still remaining focused and urgent -- and Shyamalan creates layer after layer as Cleveland rushes to unravel the story by any means necessary. From the plot structure to the clever dialogue, the set-up of Lady in the Water is pretty fantastic. For a little while there, it seems -- especially for those of us still reeling from the wretched, disastrous The Village -- that Shyamalan has gotten his touch back.

And then the Evil Shyamalan takes over. And he proceeds to completely lose the essence of the story in exchange for his own self-indulgent grievances and vanglorious self-promotion. It is the Evil Shyamalan that decides to cast himself not only as a writer who is going to change the world, but as a writer who is going to change the world as a martyr! This is a colossal misstep not just because of its transparency, but also because Shyamalan -- in his meatiest role yet -- is not a good actor. In fact, he is a bad one. Someone needs to tell him this. Maybe one of his other personalities could clue him in.

His writer character -- who goes by the name of Vick Ran but might as well have been dubbed, oh I don't know, M. Night Shyamalan -- is very important to Story's quest, and vice versa. She tells him his future, that his book -- which he says is just his "thoughts on the world, on leaders, etc." -- will be the springboard for a societal revolution in the not-too-distant future. What is curious about Shyamalan's decision to play this all-important writer is that, for all his fame and ego, he has never been known for any heavy sociopolitical discourse…and now this is how he sees himself?

What exposes that as such a phony plot device is that we never get any hint of why this writer is so important -- no hint of any tangible ideas or critiques or anything. And that's because Shyamalan doesn't have any ideas, at least not as far as we the audience can tell. The character is a completely useless one; without the proper depth or explanation, Vick Ran serves no purpose at all. This is masturbatory self-aggrandizement at its worst.

Even worse is the use of the film critic character (played by Bob Balaban), which most have probably already heard about. In an obvious attack on the critics that have made him a whipping boy -- primarily for The Village, for which they were absolutely correct -- Shyamalan paints the critic as arrogant (Hi, Kettle? Yeah, this is Pot. Um…you're black.), humorless, narrow-minded, pompous, stodgy and, yes, completely one-dimensional. Interestingly enough, Shyamalan at first finds a brilliant way to use the character within the story -- and I thought M. Night was actually off the hook.

And then came the critic's already-infamous death scene. Just before getting eaten by a monster (don't worry, I'm not ruining anything important to the plot, I assure you), the critic launches into a smug, self-referential diatribe that, on Shyamalan's part, is a complete travesty, and inexcusable. On paper, it might have seemed clever. But in execution, the speech completely takes us out of the moment, ruins the illusion, destroys the reality created by much of the rest of the film. It turns a would-be haunting bedtime story into an outright farce -- and all just to stick it to 'em. (News flash, M. Night: The Village sucked. It wasn't just the critics, it was the fans, too. It was everybody.)

Now, you might be thinking I'm getting a little off-topic here. You might be asking what happens to the rest of the plot. Well, you might as well ask Shyamalan that. In the midst of all his heavy-handed posturing in the second half of the film, he loses what he had so effectively created in the first half. Story is a compelling character for a while…and then she's practically non-existent, lost in the fog while Shyamalan's All-Important Voice takes over.

What keeps the film going -- even working in parts -- are the performances, particularly that of Giamatti. He has long been one of our best actors, and proves it once again, giving us such an outpouring of conviction and urgency and emotion that we can't help but be captivated, even when his own fairy tale is crumbling around him. But by the time the third act rolls around, the perfect balance the film found in its early scenes is gone -- everything afterward is either too blatant or too ambiguous. There's no in-between.

Now here's the thing: All artists and all filmmakers have egos. Big ones. To be even more specific, good filmmakers, talented filmmakers, great filmmakers have enormous egos. They all do. There are no exceptions to this rule. Shyamalan cannot be blamed for that. The problem he has is that his ego is actually getting in the way of his art. He's become his own worst enemy. For all its great points -- and there are many -- Lady in the Water, in the end, comes across as one giant act of self-defense. I was fascinated and repulsed at the same time. He can't really be this insecure, can he?

The craftsmanship is clearly there. The materials are there, and the possibilities are there. There is a lot to like in Lady in the Water, and somewhere in there is a great movie. It's just a shame that M. Night Shyamalan couldn't find it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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