Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lady in the Water

The court is in session here at The Agitation of the Mind. In the dock: 'Lady in the Water'. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will be asked to consider a film that many people flat-out can't stand. The prosecution have piled up a welter of evidence. The defence are relying on playing devil's advocate. You will hear much in the way of opinion and theorising. I would ask that you keep one question uppermost in mind during these precedings: does 'Lady in the Water' deserve the hate?

Before we hear from the prosecuting counsel, a brief opening statement:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, 'Lady in the Water' is a feature film written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It concerns the discovery of a narf (a type of water nymph) named Story (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) in the communal swimming pool of an apartment complex called The Cove whose janitor, Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti), has slid into the anonymity of his dead-end job while he deals with the aftermath of a personal tragedy. Story's job is to locate "the Vessel", a writer whose work will bring about positive social change but at the cost of his own life, and inspire him to persist in his work. Others, including "the Healer" and "the Guild", will play their part in assisting Story's safe return once she has found the Vessel. Her task, however, is endangered by scrunts*, vicious beasts which blend, chameleon-like, into the long grasses surrounding the complex. Cleveland, motivated by the tragedy in his past, elects to help Story, but first has to determine which of the The Cove's residents fulfill the roles of Vessel, Guild and Healer .

Right, then. Case for the prosecution:

1) Shyamalan casts himself as the Vessel. This is essentially a Christ-like role and is therefore indicative of gross egomania on Shyamalan's part.

2) One of The Cove's residents, Harry Farber (Bob Balaban) is a movie critic and Shyamalan takes pains to paint him as a prissy, pedantic and humourless individual. This is indicative of contempt on Shyamalan's part for gentlemen of said profession, and sour grapes over negative reviews of 'The Village'.

3) The film is burdened with an incomprehensible narrative.

The prosecution calls the following expert witnesses:

Antagony & Ecstasy, who has testified that M. Night Shyamalan is an affront to art.

Brandon Fibbs testifies that it is Shyamalan's first misstep as a film-maker.

Kevin Koehler at Pretentious Musings discusses evidence that this is a director's love letter to himself.

Case for the defence:

Your honour, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I do not have a case to make for 'Lady in the Water' as a lost masterpiece, an overlooked gem, or a classic-in-waiting that is begging for re-evaluation. The film, as its creator has insisted all along, is a fairy tale. I refer to Mr. Shyamalan as the film's "creator" with good reason. As writer, producer and director on all of his projects - as a man who has yet to helm an adaptation or direct someone else's script - he personifies perhaps more than any other mainstream American director the auteur. This, I believe, exacerbates the severity of the first charge levelled against him.

Before turning to the three main areas of the prosecution's case, let us briefly consider the film's subject matter. We have already established that 'Lady in the Water' is a fairy tale; it is a mistake, however, to consider the milieu (the action never moves outside of the apartment complex) as the real world into which the fairy tale elements (quite literally) surface. 'Lady in the Water' is not realistic and is not meant to be realistic. It is a movie full of movie characters; I believe that such subtext as exists here is a send-up, by Mr. Shyamalan, on film-making and film theory, an irreverent and satirical deconstruction of established narrative tropes and structural requirements.

As regards the charges against the defendant:

1) Shyamalan as messiah/egomaniac. Given that Mr. Shyamalan had demonstrated, from 'The Sixth Sense' up to and including 'Lady in the Water', a commendable talent for drawing notable performances from first-rate casts, and given that there has never been a shortage of highly talented actors who want to work with him, he could easily have cast someone other than himself as the Vessel. Why did he choose not to? Moreover, Mr. Shyamalan has always come across, in both on-camera and print interviews, as articulate, perceptive and intelligent. Surely he would have had some inkling of the controversy that this self-casting decision would result in. And yet, ladies and gentlemen, he cast himself. Why? It is my considered opinion that Mr. Shyamalan's role in his own film is a satire on the auteur theory, and both an acknowledgement and refutation of any criticism that, as an auteur, he risks isolationism in his approach to film-making.

Furthermore, he is not the only director to cast himself in a showy and narratively important role. We call Mel Gibson, director and star of 'Braveheart' (a role which allows him to progress from romantic lead to action hero to martyr); Orson Welles in 'Touch of Evil' (seldom has a director filled the screen so completely with himself; and what of Marlene Dietrich's breathy "He was some kind of a man" epitaph?); or how about Woody Allen, star of a good couple of dozen of his own films - would Allen's nebbish protagonist copping off with a radiant Diane Keaton in 'Manhattan' be dismissed as wish-fulfillment if it weren't for their brief real-life relationship?

And doesn't the whole issue of director as actor depend on whether their performance is any good or not? Shyamalan is a low-key but quietly charismatic actor. Now look at, say, Quentin Tarantino's flashy, motormouth appearances in his own work - as Jimmie in 'Pulp Fiction' or the bartender in 'Death Proof'. A small but worthwhile consideration, I think.

2) The movie critic character. It is easy to see why Bob Balaban's portrayal of Harry Farber is something of a red rag to a bull. But pause should be given to consider a couple of points. Firstly, Balaban is terrific. He takes a potentially one-note role and turns it into a tour de force of deadpan comedy. A lot of things get overlooked in critical treatments of 'Lady in the Water': just how good Balaban is, is one of them. Secondly, Harry is not just a movie critic, he's a movie character. Ultimately - and again, this simple fact is often conveniently overlooked - 'Lady in the Water' is a movie movie. Let's establish a quick definition.

Tarantino once said something to the effect that while 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction' were movies, the 'Kill Bill' duology (is that the right word? did I just make it up? whatever) were movie movies; that if the characters from 'Dogs' or 'Pulp' decided to go and see a movie, then 'Kill Bill' was the kind of movie they'd go and see. 'Kill Bill', therefore, is a movie that exists solely within the perameters of movie logic, where a vengeful woman can take a samurai sword aboard a plane as hand luggage, where the aesthetic can bend elastically to Eastern cinema and the whole "heroic bloodshed" subgenre or to the expansive vistas of the spaghetti western purely at the film-maker's whim. Shifts from colour to black-and-white are acceptable, as well as non-linear chronologies, hyper-stylisations and basically an entire bag of cinematic tricks. And Tarantino is feted for it. What do we make of this, ladies and gentlemen? It seems that Tarantino is permitted to make movie movies while Shyamalan isn't.

'Lady in the Water' is a movie movie. Harry is there to highlight this - cueing Cleveland's gradual understanding of the narrative he's found himself complicit in - as well as sending the whole thing up. Harry reminds us, right up to his stand-out final face-off with a scrunt - that this is just a movie.

3) Incomprehensible narrative. Or is it? It's an offbeat narrative, sure, but - hey! - Shyamalan's telling an offbeat story. And, once more, he's doing so in a deconstructive manner. He takes traditional narrative requirements and turns them upside down. For instance: a character is called up to decipher something; the resulting message gives the protagonist another piece of information, therefore the plot advances. In, say, 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', Harrison Ford directs a beam of sunlight onto some arcane markings on a dusty stone floor; in 'The Da Vinci Code', Tom Hanks blathers on about the Fibonacci sequence and gets his head round a couple of infantile riddles. How the codes/clues/messages are worked out is unimportant: these scenes are about (a) making the hero look cool because they figured it out, and (b) moving the film's narrative from point A to point B. So when, in 'Lady in the Water', a little kid divines a hidden message in the colours of a cupboard full of cereal boxes, not only is it no less arbitrary than in either of those other films, but Shyamalan is actually admitting, satirically, how arbitrary such narrative devices truly are. This brings us back to the fact that it's just a movie. It does what a lot of movies do - and has no more complex a narrative than most movies - it just does these things in a deliberately deconstructed manner.

But doesn't all of this make 'Lady in the Water' an exercise in anti-film-making? Maybe so. But I must admit, having recently watched it for the third time, that I find 'Lady in the Water' a relatively entertaining film. It's not without its flaws - there is too much of the hushed, portentous dialogue that stymies 'Signs' and 'The Village'; there is a directorial heavy-handedness in dealing with 'meaningful' themes; the healing scene just plain doesn't work - but it has its share of pleasures, not least a terrific cast obviously having fun with their movie movie characters. Christopher Doyle's cinematography nails the slightly off-kilter atmosphere crucial to the non-realistic movieness of the film. After the solemnity of his earlier films, the playfulness of 'Lady in the Water' is a pleasant change; and - best of all given the flogging-a-dead-horse inclusion of it in 'The Village' - there's no frickin' twist ending.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, here, at random, are a few mainstream films I've seen in the two years since 'Lady in the Water' opened, all of which, I think you'll agree, are egregiously bad examples of film-making: 'Next', 'Ultraviolet', the aforementioned 'Da Vinci Code' and the piss-awful 'Wicker Man' remake, none of which I'd waste my time on with a second viewing. And yet Lee Tamahori, Kurt Wimmer, Ron Howard and Neil LaBute received none of the vitriol that was directed at Shymalan for 'Lady in the Water'.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the decision is yours. But I for one do not believe that 'Lady in the Water' deserves the hate. It's just a movie.

*And depending on your knowledge of low-brow colloquialisms, you might raise an eyelid at how ill-chosen the name is.

No comments: