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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

M. Night, NPH Forgives You

Friday, July 21, 2006


Way back in August, NPH flapped his arms all over the place to discuss our favorite filmmaker's latest project. "Lady in The Water," the sixth full length feature by writer and director M. Night Shyamalan, was to star Paul Giamatti and "The Village" heroine Bryce Dallas Howard. It promised to be another engrossing mythical yarn, set, of course in Pennsylvania.

Well, today the waiting finally ended, and NPH took in a matinee of the long-awaited film with the wife. We promised ourselves that we weren't going to let the reviews curb our expectations of the movie, since critics weren't exactly thrilled by "The Village," which NPH still thought was pretty darned good. But still, we read a bad review in the Pitch, and we glanced at rottentomatoes.com early on Thursday. What we read created the expectation of disappointment.

And disappointed we were. A little. I mean, "Lady in The Water" is still better than most of what you'll find in your local multiplex, especially in the summer; Shyamalan could craft a compelling story from a phonebook. It's just that the things he does with this film he's done before, and done them better. There's been a great deal of buzz about Shyamalan's feud with Disney, the producer of his last five films. When Disney told him they didn't like this script (which started as a bedtime story for his children and then morphed into an illustrated children's book before finally maturing as a screenplay), Shyamalan walked and took the thing to Warner Brothers. WB was only too happy to produce it, because the Philadelphia native's movies make lots of money. Plain and simple.

NPH is no film critic, so we'll not pick apart the merits of the thing. But we do deal in story on a fairly regular basis, so our disappointment can be located there, in the story. It's too intrusive. I mean, the beauty of Shyamalan's storytelling has heretofore been his ability to tell you a different story than the one you think you're being told. There is his trademark "surprise ending," in which the screen is pulled back to reveal something about the characters that changes the whole narrative. But "Lady in The Water" doesn't do that. Instead, the story you get is exactly the story you think you're getting. And that's because, from beginning to end, you're told about the story, you're reminded of the story, you're teased by the story--you look and look and look at the story. The Lady's name is actually "Story."

Shyamalan is trying to make a case for the reality of stories for real life. It's a beautiful case to make, and every one of his films makes it. The story is about ghosts or comic heroes or aliens or monsters in the woods or the Lady in The Water. No matter what the story's subject, its effect on reality is tangible and meaningful, and, above all, purposeful. It's only that, with "The Sixth Sense" and its successors, you're tantalized by the story so that its effect is accomplished before the viewer is aware what's happened. But with "The Lady in The Water," Shyamalan has made the story the subject of the story, so that you're never unaware of the effect that the story is supposed to have on you. Ultimately, you're in control of your relationship to the story, and that's not good.

There are things in this movie that Shyamalan fans will be well used to by now: the tragic and tortured protagonist who is an agent of redemption, the idiosyncratic supporting characters who turn out to be essential in their idiosyncracies, and, of course, the drumbeat of "purpose."

Shyamalan's quest for stories about purpose is, NPH believes, his greates virtue as a filmmaker and storyteller in these aimless times. All of his films grapple with the inconsequential and cooky, people and families trying to make meaning out of seemingly senseless circumstances. They are existential pep rallies for tortured souls (and those of us who love a good tale). It's just that, with this film, "purpose" appears from the very start and never lets up; you know what you're getting from the minute, in the opening credits, when you learn that the Lady has been "sent" to accomplish something. The thing's shot through with purpose, purpose, purpose. By the midpoint you almost want to scream, "What's the purpose behind all this purpose?!"

I love M. Night Shyamalan. I will always be the first in line to see his films. I just wonder if he's started to struggle, in this film, with his own purpose as a filmmaker and yarnspinner to the culture. He seems much more conscious of his image (note the American Express ads), even going back to the ill-conceived publicity stunt that preceded "The Village." Frankly, NPH is a little worried for him.

But, wander and experiment as he will, NPH will still be here, waiting, when his next film comes out.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:30 PM

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