(2006) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
I’d read a lot of amusing critiques of this film over the summer when it was playing in theaters. I was recalling 2002 when he released Signs and Time Magazine declared him to be the “new Spielberg”. Something about being so anointed made sense. This is clearly what he was aiming for, a very well-produced mainstream series of films with some fantasy aspect through them all (of course Spielberg plays the field a lot more, works with a lot more range than that). Of course, Shyamalan writes all his own work which may well become his undoing.
This film has a bit of an interesting back-story, as Shyamalan had this film at Disney and apparently took it elsewhere when some “creative conflicts” arose. This can easily be read, and perhaps I have more explicitly read, that Disney thought this film wasn’t quite right and Shyamalan took his creative control and finished his vision elsewhere, undaunted. Now this is an issue for many a filmmaker over the years. The studio disagrees with their vision, makes changes, often ruins the work. And in most of these stories, it was the filmmaker who was right, the artist against the corporate machine. In this case, one has to wonder whether or not Disney was right.
Shyamalan certainly sees himself as a creative genius. Between the book that was written about this film’s creation, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale and his American Express commercial that he starred in, showing him in a restaurant surrounded by his imaginitive fancies all literally appearing around him (the creative mind of the writer exposed), it seems clear that Shyamalan is developing a bit of an ego and perhaps a Jesus complex.
Actually, that is all part of what attracted me to see the film. I like bad movies as well as good ones, and this film is basically a treatise on his genius and has explicit stabs at his critics. Not to go into the convoluted narrative, which grew from a bedtime story that Shyamalan told to his daughters, but basically, a water nymph comes to find the man who is going to save the world with his writing (she is named “Story” by the way unless anyone misses the point of the fairy tale) and who should it turn out to be? None other than the director/writer/actor Shyamalan himself. He is going to write a book that will inspire great positive change in the world, but he will die before his time as a result of writing it.
If Mel Gibson was a little more fantastical in his interests, he might have been very jealous to see someone else cop the self-as-Jesus thing.
It’s a piece of megalomania. And when the one unlikeable character in the film, a soulless film and book critic (are there any other kind?), begins to outwardly read the narrative, saying explicitly that “this is like a bad movie” and that “this is what is happening”, it’s a moment of breaking the diegesis and self-referencing up the yin-yang, and of course, he gets his comeuppance by being the only one in the whole film to be killed.
Lady in the Water is almost awful. The story is hilariously ridiculous and scenes when the neighbors all band together to talk the gobbledygook of the fairy tale, taking themselves serious as a heart attack, it’s pretty goddam funny. It’s an amazing piece in that sense, such a ego-tripping, self-reflexive commentary on the magic of creativity of the artist while being completely goofy and ridiculous. It’s insane.
But where can he go after this? Much speculation is on that he will not get to work from one of his own scripts, and this could be a good thing for him at this point. Who knows? A man who has made a career off of one decent film, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, he might just keep going.