You know, I tend to not read interviews. I know I should, I know it’s probably expected of me, but I just don’t. I simply cannot stand many of the canned answers and the clever dodges of good questions that pepper virtually every interview I’ve ever read, been witness to or performed myself. And when it comes to directors, I rarely have any interest in hearing what they intended with their film. Why? Because I give them two hours of my life to convince me what their film is about while watching it, and if they can’t convey it in that time, then as artists, they’ve failed. It’s like the old axiom If you have to explain the joke, it’s not a very good joke. I feel the exact same way about film.
Now granted, film is a subjective medium. There will always be audience members that either don’t get or simply don’t appreciate what you have to say in the time they give you. For those occasions I find myself in that category, I like to listen to commentary – because at that point the director is no longer promoting the film. They’re explaining it shot by shot, often talking about what works and what they wish they’d done better. That’s when you begin to get the real story – or at least as real as it gets outside of a behind-closed-doors, whispered conversation that usually begins “Now promise me that this doesn’t leave this room…”
That said, I am absolutely aching, dying and driven to read as many interviews with M. Night Shyamalan as I can find. Because Lady in the Water is a total fucking mystery. I am so on the fence about this one that I can’t even fathom which truth is definitive. This is either a work of devious genius or one of pure madness. Honestly, I don’t know which.
Shyamalan is a strange cat. Rumors about his ego and demeanor have been circulating since the Unbreakable days. It doesn’t help that he not only seems to worship Hitchcock, but tries to emulate him every chance he gets. Add to that the fact that he wrote a book that reportedly rips Disney, his old home, a new one – and even bigger questions begin to arise. And while his first big hit, The Sixth Sense, is considered a modern classic, his subsequent films have divided audiences and critics right down the middle. Rarely does someone walk out of a Shyamalan film feeling ‘meh.’ People tend to love them or outright hate them.
So when I sat down to watch this I had no clue what I was in for. And yet, having watched it, I’m still baffled. This is a vexing as hell film, one that is either the greatest hoax ever perpetrated upon film critics or the completely insane pedantic ranting of an insulated egomaniac. And when I say hoax, I don’t mean on the audiences. I mean the critics. Shyamalan calls us out and challenges us directly. He throws down the gauntlet and then proceeds to offer us up a pile of ammunition to fire at him.
What I’ve been asking myself for almost six hours now is: Am I supposed to take the bait?
Is M. Night sitting in a room somewhere like the Amazing Karnac - with an envelope to his forehead containing a version of our reviews already written with every criticism he deliberately set us up for? Is he daring us to make these complaints? There appears to be a startling meta-film within Lady in the Water – one in which the characters seem to achieve a kind of lucidity, and begin to question the rules of their own story in order to get to the proper ending. And the man they turn to to answer their questions? A film critic. A very opinionated films critic.
Now this is where Shyamalan really opens himself up to a volley of vicious criticism that will result in the same three complaints across the board. And frankly, whether intentionally placed to taunt the critics or not, I can’t defend them.
1) You do not under any circumstances answer or attack your negative critics. Not only does it make you look bad, but it lets them know they’re getting to you. Show one small crack and many will go in for the kill, using your response to ridicule you further. Here, with what Shyamalan does with the film critic character and the position he holds in the story, there is no mistaking his position on the profession. If this were the only flaw or point of contention in the film, it would be something that could be a poignant and harsh commentary on critics themselves. Unfortunately, it is not.
2) Once again Shyamalan has given himself a role in his film. However, since his brief appearance in The Sixth Sense, his screentime has increased exponentially with every subsequent venture (leading me to believe his next film may indeed be titled M. Night Shyamalan’s M. Night Shyamalan.) The role he plays this time is not only crucial to the story, but exactly the type of role he shouldn’t have played. The character would have been one some critics would have criticized for existing in this film to begin with – but with Shyamalan playing the role, accusations of not only egotism, but rampant megalomania, are bound to find their way into virtually every review.
3) The film has the very prevalent theme of Storytelling and the gift of inspiration. And there are points in the film in which the stereotypes of film and the rules of storytelling are laid out. Now, when you do this, you damn well better make sure you tell a story better than the one you’re putting down (see: Swordfish.) Many are going to feel that this film does not accomplish this. One of the most important rules of writing is that any rule can be broken – if you break it well enough. In Lady in the Water, this is going to be a huge point of contention. He may not have broken the rules well enough for some.
Man, do I ever want to see Shyamalan address these issues. I mean, I want to believe that these were absolutely intentional – that Lady in the Water is not only his full frontal assault on modern criticism, but a challenge to the critics to put together the puzzle he lays out in the second act. Why do I want to believe this so badly? Because other than these things that have had my mind reeling all night – I dug the hell out of this film.
It is by no means perfect – but there’s so much to love here, for those willing to go along with it. This is definitely one of those films that asks you to sign up for it, and ultimately it comes down to whether or not you embrace the conceit of it. This is a fairy tale, and it plays by the rules of a fairy tale. This leads to several problems that those not ready or willing to go along with it will scratch their heads and complain about. The character development is thin, the characters in the film never seem to question the reality of what is going on (except to question the nature of how the story is supposed to work), and the fantastical elements are bizarre and out of the ordinary – to the point that some will find it more nonsensical than mythological.
And yet the story is beautiful and uniquely original. Drawing its inspiration from classical and eastern mythology, this film tells a story unlike any you’ve seen in American live action cinema. Everything, from the creatures to the plot elements are symbolic and metaphorical, and the moral of the interconnectivity of us all is beautifully woven throughout. This is a think piece, one that asks you to take it apart and examine every fragment of it to drink in every last image and hint it has to offer. It is a complex telling of a very simple story. One that can be either enjoyed or loathed on several levels.
And as much as Shyamalan seems to be going to town on his critics, one thing becomes abundantly clear when watching this – he’s been listening to them. The two biggest criticisms of his previous work are remarkably absent in Lady in the Water. First, while his camera angles are inventive and very much his trademark style, there’s none of his over the top gimmicky shots he tends to pepper throughout his films. No strange camera rotations or bizarro placement. Secondly, and most important, there’s no twist.
Now early reviews have stated that this film once again has a major twist. But it doesn’t. Certainly there are some late game revelations and secrets, but there is nothing resembling Shyamalan’s trademark genre changing twists. In his previous four films, every ending changed the very nature of the film you were watching, so that on a second viewing it was a completely different film (if you didn’t figure it out or have it spoiled going in to begin with.) But Lady in the Water is the exact same film when it ends as it is in the beginning. He doesn’t change the rules, he doesn’t spend the bulk of the film lying to the audience just to pull the rug out from under them later. It is one, singular, cohesive story that plays out exactly as it leads you to believe it will.
Shyamalan has not only taken on making a film with classic storytelling elements, he went WAY classic. And that’s why I love this film. It so plays to my passions, that I can’t justly tell anyone else to see it – unless they share similar passions. I mean, this is a fairy tale that discusses the nature of storytelling and film, while presenting me with mind bending questions about the director’s intentions that have had me pacing around all night, blowing through an entire pack of smokes and a whole pot of coffee. If ever there was a definition of a film that appealed to my sensibilities, this would be it. I love that it’s kept me up all night. I love that it took me until 8 in the morning to put together my feelings on it. I love that it is risky and devil may care with the opinions of critics.
Yet I cannot strongly recommend it to anyone without caveats. This is a film you really have to be ready to embrace. It’s a film that’s going to challenge critical thinkers to get past some pretty steep self-indulgences. And you have to be ready to try and take it apart piece by piece to understand the fundamental logic of it. If any of these things seem like they might be a problem, I offer to you that you’re about to see this years AI. Clearly well made, but an epic level “What was he thinking” disappointment. However, if all of these things sound like something you’re ready for, then you just may be in for good time with something to scratch your head over a cup of coffee thinking about.
While Shyamalan may have dumped several of the hallmarks we’ve both at first loved and then come to criticize him for later, one hallmark clearly remains – he’s made a film that will divide audiences. And for the life of me, I’ve got to know what the hell he was thinking. Time to start tracking down some interviews and piecing this thing together.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em. I know I will.