January 09, 2007

Lady in the Water


His uneven track record notwithstanding, I'm predisposed to like films by M. Night Shyamalan. I generally admire artists who, to paraphrase Stephen King, stay in touch with their own popular culture and aren't above crowd-pleasing when it's called for. And even more daringly, create entertainment without a pretentious intent to shock or offend, and with a modicum of good taste.

Shyamalan, you might say, has perfected the "family horror film," and all the power to him.

Back in the day, all horror films could be said to be "family friendly," at least in the PG sense. (And anybody younger just got bored.) The 1942 version of Cat People, for example. But then Hollywood discovered the R rating, latex makeup, and body casting, and the race to the gross-out bottom began. The 1981 American Werewolf in London and the 1982 Cat People, for example.

I liked both movies, by the way.

At least during the 1980s, it seemed that the horror schlockmeisters figured that as long as they were in the exploitation business, they might as well exploit everything (often with tongue wedged in cheek), and so even the early installments of slasher flick crapola like Friday the 13th were sure to feature plenty of gratuitously naked nymphets, which did make the gory parts measurably more palatable.

Hollywood has since become curiously puritanical about nudity, with the perverse result that there are far fewer gratuitously naked nymphets in horror flicks, but a lot more (now digitally enhanced!) beheadings and disembowelings and flayed flesh and gushing fountains of blood and the like. Funny, because I've always considered psycho-killing more morally reprehensible than an attractive woman taking her clothes off on camera.

But maybe that's just me.

Worse, this new and improved genre of "horror" is rarely entertaining and never scary. Startling perhaps, but popping a balloon behind your ear is startling too, and costs a few pennies a shot. This vivisectionist wasteland created the breach into which the more restrained and visually interesting J-Horror stepped, but then too much J-Horror can be a lot like spending an eternal winter in Seattle. All that damp grayness gets to be depressing after a while.

Nobody gets naked in an M. Night Shyamalan movie either, even a movie about a lady who apparently spends most of her life underwater. But that's okay because he spares us the gore as well. Thus forced to use his brain instead of special effects and cinematic cheap shots, Shyamalan creates scenes that are genuinely frightening. Far more so than can be found in any splatter flick.

Unfortunately, he shares a key failing with another auteur who did his best work early in his career. Shyamalan is a better storyteller than George Lucas, but his latest efforts have been similarly hamstrung by an overestimation of his own talent. Yes, impressive that he can write, produce, and direct. But the feat by itself is not a substitute for real artistry in any one category.

In Star Wars, with a little help from Akira Kurosawa, Lucas latched onto the narrative motif of the heroic journey, and then being informed of the fact after the fact, stirred condensed Joseph Campbell soup into whatever he was making, regardless of whether the recipe called for it or not. The result has been the same as throwing Thanksgiving dinner into a blender. Sure, all the necessary ingredients are there, but blah.

Even at his worst, Shyamalan is more clever than that. But relying on his own wits, he has increasingly become too clever for his own good, or rather, more clever than smart. This shows up as the sheer dumbness of hydrophobic aliens invading Pennsylvania in the middle of the summer (average humidity: 75%), or as in the case of The Village, sheer cluelessness about what his own script is saying.

As for the latter, I really don't think Shyamalan purposely intended to make a movie about using terror and xenophobia to terrorize a population into conformity with a warped utopian ideology based on economically-bankrupt notions of socialist self-sufficiency. It makes for a nice rationalization of the maniacal rule of Kim Il Sung, though.

Maybe he did, and like Lucas his conceptualization of evil never graduated beyond Sesame Street Manicheanism. But I'd rather think it just didn't occur to him. That's why, when it comes to plotting 101, it's a good idea to stick to the classics: because our ancestors have been there and done that and ironed out the kinks already.

A proven narrative structure also disciplines the storyteller. Shyamalan's most popular film, The Sixth Sense, and his best film, Unbreakable, both benefitted greatly from the traditional scaffolding holding everything in place during construction. Especially in the latter case, adherence to the comic book archetypes he took as his premise kept the storyline from wandering off into the tall weeds.

Which unfortunately is what happens in Lady in the Water, Shyamalan's most untenable and belabored film to date. The story is one familiar to horror and fantasy: the fairy tale or "bedtime story" that comes to life. It's a good idea. Shyamalan always starts with good ideas. It's the execution where he gets increasingly bogged down.

You see, it's not a real bedtime story or fairy tale. He's just making it up as he goes along. As Lucas did with the archetypal heroic journey, after a noteworthy start, he then rambles along as if taking a multiple choice test after studying the wrong cheat-sheet. He's got most of the right answers, just not in the right order or right context.

What's most disappointing about Lady in the Water is that there was no need to make anything up. World folklore is hardly starved for stories about mermaids and water sprites and the like. And the idea of having one show up in the swimming pool of a suburban apartment complex is delightful. Yet without a proven canon to refer to, Shyamalan is left to spend most of the movie trying to torture some smatterings of logic out of his own invention.

It therefore becomes necessary for his characters to be as clueless as himself. The one "expert" on this "bedtime story" turns out a Korean lady with no command of English. This makes for a few (low brow) comic moments, but also makes no sense, as none of the details of Shyamalan's fairy tale she provides have even the barest resemblance to anything even vaguely Oriental, or are linguistically consistent with the Korean language.

(To see a modern take on an authentic Korean fairy tale, check out Chunhyang.)

Nobody in the movie apparently knows how to use a library or access the Internet either. One of the many great things about Whedon's Buffy is that the "Scoobies" actually have to read and study and look stuff up to figure things out. But everbody in Lady in the Water is winging it because, well, Shyamalan is winging it. It shows.

The one bright moment in the movie comes when the grumpy theater critic who just moved in next door breaks fourth wall and muses about the odds of getting bumped off based on the structure of the plot and the MPAA rating. The scene is both funny and scary. But Shyamalan only uses it to show us how wrong, wrong, wrong those nasty movie critics are. Hardly a worthy use of his directorial talents.

That the scene is wasted as Shyamalan tries to do the exact opposite (but ending up doing exactly the same thing), while melodramatically snatching obvious plot elements from previous movies (enough of doctors with tragic pasts!), says to me that's it's time for him to humbly face his limits, hire a couple of good script writers, and get back to cementing his reputation as the Frank Capra of the family-friendly thriller.

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