Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I mean, it's practically begging you...

Another "Not Quite a Movie Recommendation":

So, when I finally got around to watching M. Night Shyamalan's The Lady in the Water (2006), I found that I actually liked it and thought that it was a pretty good movie. Which is not to say that I think it was unfairly panned by critics or that it was "underrated". Actually, even though I like the movie, it does three things that are impossible not to criticize and, while I was able to more or less ignore these things, if you can't ignore them or don't want to ignore them, my guess would be that the movie would drive you batty.

M. Night Shyamalan's First Annoying Thing:

He names the two species of fairytale creatures "Narfs" and "Scrunts". These words look silly enough on paper, but it is even sillier to hear actors say these words while keeping a completely serious look on their face. The silliness turns to something genuinely annoying, because we keep hearing "narfs" and "scrunts" over and over again. And while "narf" is just sort of ridiculous, someone involved in making the movie should have told M. Night not to give a fantasy creature a name that sounds like the combination of "scrotum" and "cunt". I expect this is fundamental to what killed the movie with the general audience.

M. Night Shyamalan's Second Annoying Thing:

In a rather petty, adolescent move, he makes the "jerk" character a movie critic (named Farber), I guess to get back at critics who didn't like Signs and The Village (or something). M. Night has always been bigger with the people than with the critics (although his first two films were fairly well reviewed for genre movies), but one would have hoped that he'd be able to rise above this kind of mean-spiritedness if only because he's been so successful despite what critics have had to say.

M. Night makes it even worse by giving his hero a speech that goes something like "How dare that critic interpret a story! How dare he assume that his interpretation is the only correct one!" This is so absurd because all of M. Night's movies are allegorical: they are crying out to be interpreted and at their best (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), like any good allegory, they support multiple readings!

M. Night Shyamalan's Third Annoying Thing:

Maybe he could have gotten away with it if he had stopped with the first two annoying things, but I think this one really pushed him over the edge as far as movie critics were concerned. It's one thing to suggest that all critics are know-nothing parasites, it is another thing, though, to cast yourself as an author of a book of such world-changing importance that magical creatures go to war over your very survival. It's not even cocky or conceited or arrogant: it's just absurd! I mean: though M. Night has appeared in his other movies, it's always in small (though not insignificant) roles. Here, while he's not the protagonist, he's at the center of the film and you can't help putting the pieces together. That is: he casts himself in the role because he believes (on some level) that he is the author whose work will have world changing importance. How's that for setting yourself up as a target of ridicule and scorn?

My favorite goofy character in the movie.

Actually, it's the size and obvious deliberateness of these "Annoying Things" that make it possible for me to ignore them (more or less) and like the movie anyway. In a perverse way, I might even like the movie more because of them: not because they aren't really annoying, but because they are such obviously bad ideas that they're almost too easy to beat up on. It's like he's asking for the abuse.

So - what exactly is there to like in a non-perverse way?

Well, have you read any of James P. Blaylock's novels? He's one of my favorite fantasy authors (I recommend The Last Coin and The Paper Grail). I tend to describe his books as being like Stephen King's with the horror/scare-factor dialed way down, although they're a lot more modest. They're generally about a contemporary American everyman bumping up against the fantastic in the middle of everyday contemporary American life. Despite some of the megalomania that manifests itself in Annoyances 2 and 3 (not to mention the huge budget), The Lady in the Water is similarly modest movie. "The Everyday" is never overwhelmed by "The Fantastic": rather, "The Fantastic" is always creeping around the edges. And, as in Blaylock's books, the characters are all refreshingly low-key.

(Alas, the climax of the movie features the kind of half-assed mumbo jumbo hand-waving as most recent Stephen King novels.)

From a film geek perspective, I like all of M. Night's long takes and his willingness to give his actors room (both time and space) to develop their performances. And I also like the way he works in self-imposed limitations, like never taking us outside of the apartment complex. It's a bit of a stunt, but (somewhat paradoxically) a low key stunt that doesn't call attention to itself. It's more noticeably in retrospect. I like seeing someone making a big budget movie for popular audiences that doesn't pander and doesn't ape all the standard conventions of big budget filmmaking.

That said, Adam at Film at 11 is probably right to put the Strained Seriousness label on M. Night.

1 comment:

The Derelict said...

I agree completely about Shyamalan's style as a filmmaker. His willingness to use long takes; to include the margins of the frame in his compositions; to use off-screen space to create suspense, tension, and surprise; to reject the frantic camera work and editing that characterizes modern "popular" filmmaking. And to do it all while making "crowd pleasers" and summer popcorn movies is one reason why I can't really get down on the guy.

I wasn't really that annoyed by Annoying Things Two and Three because I felt like the character of the Critic was enough of a real character that I could look past the meta-commentary to see the fictional human being underneath (I think a lot of credit goes to Balaban's performance), and because arrogance in artists never bothers me, and Shyamalan's "arrogance" in this respect is so over-the-top, it's hilarious, as you pointed out.

First Annoying Thing, however, is even more annoying than you describe, because according to the fairy world MNS has created, the narfs and scrunts are part of some Korean mythology, and I may be wrong, though I don't think I am, but I doubt anywhere in the Korean language current or past were there ever such words as "narf" or "scrunt". The words are so obviously English/Anglo/Germanic in their phonetics that it's hard to imagine such creatures as belonging to any folk lore or mythology other than a European one. It's, like, the very first rule in creating a fantasy world: Make it believable. That doesn't mean the world has to be "realistic" -- it would hardly be fantasy without fantastical creatures and magic and such -- but it still has to feel "real" or else it all turns silly (and not in a good way).

I bet if MNS had made his fairy tale an English fairy tale, instead of a Korean one, those words wouldn't seem as ridiculous. Sure they would still sound funny, but funny in the same way that the German Rumpelstiltskin sounds funny, even as he awes us with the power and menace of his magic. The spell was broken completely when I found out these names were supposed to be from a Korean(!) folk story. There's too much incongruity there. Even if the average audience member doesn't necessarily know the linguistic reasons for this, he will still sense, on some level, that the sound of the word and the supposed origin of the word don't match up, and thus the spell of the fairy tale being "real" is broken.

MNS needed to read up on his Tolkien before attempting to make up his fantasy names. Bad names have ruined many a made-up fantasy world, and unfortunately, they ruined this one.