An unseen presence haunts M. Night Shyamalan’s films — an unacknowledged but tangible force that in Lady in the Water finally steps into the light. One senses a growing awareness in the writer–director’s films of this presence that watches and sits in judgment, an uneasy consciousness of a power which he has perhaps sought alternately to placate or defy in previous films, but which he has never openly confronted… until now.
I speak, of course, of the film critic.
Shyamalan’s career has become rigidly defined with the trademark twist, the reversal of expectations. With each outing, the question “How can I pull the rug out from under the audience this time?” looms larger and larger. And yet, as Shyamalan knows well, Story herself tells us that there are laws. No kidding: Story is the name of the titular Lady in the Water, and she says “There are laws.” To be sure, the laws of drama, like The Code in the original Pirates of the Caribbean, are “more like guidelines than actual rules.” Yet in the hackneyed world of Hollywood filmmaking, rules are, well, the rule, and exceptions are almost as rare as water sprites in swimming pools.
Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary offers a helpful compendium of such rules. Take the Law of Economy of Characters, which states that “all characters in a movie are necessary to the story — even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie’s plot: This ‘mystery’ person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous.” “Everyone has a purpose” is how Story puts it in Lady in the Water. But Shyamalan wants you to be surprised about what that purpose is. He doesn’t want critics using rules to deduce the identity of characters before he’s ready to reveal them. He wants to be above the clichés in Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary.
In Lady in the Water this preoccupation with defying critical expectations looms so large that it is actually embodied in the film by a character who is in fact a film critic, a figure who provides onscreen analysis of the plot in light of rote Hollywood practice, and whose presumptive ability to predict what would happen in a movie is sought by the protagonist for guidance as to what is actually happening to them, who the players are, and so forth. Shyamalan takes great glee in upending the critic’s predictions, or at least one character’s application of those predictions. What he doesn’t do is generate the slightest sense of revelation, insight, or even mild surprise when he finally tells us what’s what. All he does is replace one arbitrary, unconvincing and uninteresting set of conclusions with another set that is equally arbitrary, unconvincing and uninteresting.
The Lady in the Water, not to be confused with the Lady of the Lake of Arthurian mythology, turns out in fact to be the Lady in the Swimming Pool at a Philadelphia-area apartment building, where after-hours activity in the pool draws the attention of sad-sack superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man). After a bad fall, Cleveland discovers himself confronted with a mysterious young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Village) wearing nothing but a shirt from his wardrobe, who says she is from the “Blue World,” and calls herself a “Narf,” a word that means nothing to him, and I guess meant nothing to Shyamalan, although to those of us familiar with “Pinky and the Brain” from “The Animaniacs,” “Narf!” — along with “Poit!” — are the familiar nervous ejaculations of Pinky, one of a pair of lab mice with delusions of grandeur bent on taking over the world. (I’m guessing that Shyamalan’s kids, for whom the director made up the story of Lady in the Water as a series of bedtime stories, haven’t seen “Pinky and the Brain.” By a strange coincidence, the first DVD editions of “The Animaniacs” and the spin-off “Pinky and the Brain” series hit shelves next Tuesday.)
At any rate, “Narf” means something quite different to a pair of Korean residents in the building, a party-girl college student named Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung) and her mother (June Kyoto Lu), who remember Narfs from the bedtime stories Young-Soon’s grandmother used to tell. In part through the recollections of Young-Soon’s mother, translated by Young-Soon, we are introduced to an obscure mythology of Narfs, Scrunts, Tartutic, and the Great Eatlon, as well as a passel of archetypes including the Vessel, the Guardian, the Symbolist, the Guild, and the Healer. Oh, and there’s the assorted residents of the apartment complex: a self-doubting writer (Shyamalan) and his sister (Sarita Choudhury), a crossword-puzzle guru (Jeffrey Wright) and his young son, a goofy bodybuilder (Freddy Rodriguez) who only works out the right side of his body, an animal lover (Mary Beth Hurt), a family with five hysterical daughters, etc, etc.
Who is the Vessel? Who is the Guardian? The Symbolist? The Guild? The Healer? Call in… the film critic!
That would be Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), who declares that there is no originality left in the world, and confidently offers advice on matching characters with roles. Then Shyamalan drops the other shoe: Film critics are always wrong — dead wrong! Ha ha! Is this Shyamalan’s revenge on critics who panned The Village? A preemptive strike against the savaging Lady in the Water is sure to take? Who cares? Just make it interesting. Make me believe.
Whether the critic’s guesses, or my guesses, about the identity of the Guardian, the Symbolist, the Healer and the Guild are right or wrong is beside the point. I don’t care that I knew right away who the Symbolist really was, when the characters all thought it was someone else. I do care that the movie expects me to accept a young boy gazing at figurative tea leaves (they’re actually cereal boxes) and discerning messages like “She will lead a ceremony of seven sisters to bring strength to the moment.” Narfs and Poits and such-all I can buy, but not this.
It doesn’t bother me that one character seems to be the Guardian, and then isn’t, and at the last minute we find out who the real Guardian is. It does bother me that when the Guardian’s identity is revealed, it tells us absolutely nothing about the character, the archetype, or anything else. There’s nothing to it but arbitrary directorial fiat; It could just as easily have been any other character, and I wish it had been. (My pick would have been either Young-Soon or her mother.) It’s neither here nor there whether the Guild turns out to be one group of people or another. What does matter is that neither group of people actually has any meaningful role to play, though the movie pretends they do. Story claims that “Everyone has a purpose,” but while that may be a sound humanistic principle, dramatically it doesn’t actually apply here. In a sense, Shyamalan does manage to escape the rules of Ebert’s glossary: Not every character is actually necessary. In fact, very few of them are.
Lady in the Water wants you to believe that if I don’t like this movie, it’s because I’m not willing to accept it simply, like a child. That is obviously false. Give me Babe or Bambi, and I’m six years old again. I’m hardly too jaded to accept a nymph in a swimming pool — I think it’s a fantastic idea. My problem is that Shyamalan has absolutely no idea what to do with her. Why, in fact, has Story come to the human world? To deliver a message to a writer who is working on a book about the state of the world. It seems this book will have a profound effect on political thought, and will inspire a movement of change that will lead to the election of an American president who will base his policies on the writer’s ideas. Why, I haven’t come across a fairy-tale premise calling for such childlike wonder and acceptance since the taxation of trade routes was in dispute and the greedy Trade Federation set up a blockade around the planet Naboo. The fact that this pivotally important writer is played, in his most substantial role to date, by Shyamalan himself resonates distractingly with the writer-director’s alleged messiah-complex ego. Gazing at the actress who was the breakout star of his last film, Shyamalan tells her, in effect, that she’s his muse, and she in turn tells him that he’s a really great writer who will change the world. Yikes.
It would be easy at this point to conclude that The Sixth Sense was “a fluke,” but I suspect the reality is more complicated than that. Shyamalan is far from a hack; the evidence of his genuine talent is still evident in this, easily his most spectacularly misconceived film. What he is, I suspect, is creatively paralyzed, twisted in knots by his own legacy and the legendary status to which he aspires. With every film, the knots grow tighter, and he slips further and further into impotence and irrelevance. At least he continues to be canny or fortunate in his leading players. Giamatti’s vigorous performance gives Lady in the Water whatever watchability it has, and Howard, though largely left to languish in a towel slumped in the shower, is persuasively otherworldly. Cheung, too, is entertaining as the free-spirited Young-Soon, though she and a number of other characters are little more than stereotypes.
But so what? As Gene Siskel used to say, is this film more interesting than a documentary about the same actors having lunch? Or as Charlotte Observer critic Lawrence Toppman recently remarked in reviewing The Devil Wears Prada, “Meryl Streep would be superb in a high school production of ‘Carousel,’ and that would be about something.” Granted, Siskel and Toppman are only film critics, but, you know, even film critics can’t be wrong all the time.
A ubiquitous tagline and a mind-bending climactic twist made M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit The Sixth Sense a monster sensation — yet this deliberately paced, psychologically sensitive paranormal thriller is much more than a one-trick puzzle movie, and holds up well to multiple viewings.
With The Village, Shyamalan has gone to the well once too often. Whether or not you see the anti-climactic twists coming is almost beside the point. For the first time, Shyamalan has created a puzzle movie populated by characters we can’t identify with, living in a world we can’t relate to. The viewer has no stake in this story; he comes to the Village a stranger in a strange land, and remains so through the course of the film.
Signs has the
heart that was lacking in Unbreakable, but stumbles badly
in its treatment of the paranormal, in this case the world of
"X-Files" / "Twilight Zone"
Such “hope” as Shyamalan has to offer is less persuasive and less memorable than the fears and horrors he conjures; the overall impression created by his film is an ultimately dehumanizing, depressing one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.