Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water

27 10 2009

Shyamalan casts himself as a literary messiah whose work will change the world. Meanwhile, a film critic gives advice to the main character by referencing movie cliches. The advice ends up nearly ruining the main character’s hopes of saving a really pretty sea nymph. As the main character basically says: “What do the critics know?!” It’s a bit much to take. We could ignore the issue if the film were not so dependent on its meta-narrative gamesmanship, but if we take away the meta-narrative, we’re left with a not-very-exciting fairy tale about a little kid who saves a spiritual creature by reading hidden messages on cereal boxes. And this happens after a failed attempt by his dad to read hidden messages in crossword puzzles. The only way for all this silliness to work is if we view the film as it was likely intended to be viewed: a whimsical fiction about common people finding transcendence through storytelling. Evidence to support such a reading abounds. The pretty sea nymph is called Story. A philosopher wants to believe in fiction in order to escape his dreary life. An annoying Korean woman helps the main character by recalling old legends. A varied assortment of apartment-complex inhabitants readily accept the wild fantasy presented to them regarding the sea nymph and her precarious fate. The sea nymph looks appropriately alien, I suppose, and for some reason, the camera is obsessed with her legs. I admit, they are great legs, but the obsession borders on creepy fetish. It’s fine at first, when our main character first meets the sea nymph and struggles with the resulting sexual tension: not being human, she does not understand human sex drives and finds nothing noteworthy about presenting herself naked to a lonely middle-aged man. Later on, however, when she is battling for her life, predicting the future, and generally behaving magically, she continues showing off her legs, or rather, the camera keeps staring at them. There is even an erotically charged pan that has nothing to do with the mood that is supposed to be operating at the time.

That aside, what we have is a story about the power of stories to enrich our daily boredom. All of the action is set in an apartment-complex ostentatiously called The Cove, even though there are no coves to be found and the locale is the opposite of exotic: it is drab, dull, and unremarkable. Christopher Doyle adds some fanciness with chiaroscuro lighting and a couple of bravura shots, including an underwater final shot that parallels the viewpoint of the titular Lady, although she is not underwater at that particular junction. Nevertheless, Doyle cannot conceal the ordinariness of the apartment-complex, nor is he supposed to. The Cove is what the characters have to escape through imagination. Seen like this, the film becomes charming, despite the unnecessarily highlighted eccentricities of certain characters (an uber-depressed philosopher, a couple of uppity Asians, a bodybuilder who concentrates only on one side of his body, etc). We can say that the eccentricities work as slight self-parody: they are fictional characters made all the more “fake” thanks to their eccentricities. These characters encounter fiction, communicate fiction, and are fiction themselves, absolutely blatant fiction. Of course, any potential self-parodic strain has to somehow mingle with Shyamalan’s appearance as the messianic writer, unless we also consider this messianic turn to be parody, a position I find little evidence to validate. In fact, the whole thing is probably in earnest. Shyamalan is the artist-creator inspired by legend, fiction, and magic. The director-playing-writer finds his muse in the sea nymph. Following their first encounter, the former goes on to finish his masterpiece, the one that will immortalize him even as it will kill him. If we want to take this as far as conceptually possible, Shyamalan is claiming that he shall willfully die for his art. He also wants to kill his critics. The film critic, whose words are almost responsible for the sea nymph’s death, gets eaten alive while spouting typical critic-speak about what should happen in a movie and, thus, to himself. If we remember that the sea nymph serves as inspiration for the artist-creator, then Shyamalan wants the critics to die for almost killing his mojo.

Lady in the Water is Shyamalan in near-confessional mode, dramatizing his relationship to the storytelling that dominates his mind. Like Sabato in Abaddon, el exterminador, the author walks inside his own work and dabbles with his own creations. Unfortunately for Shyamalan, he’s not a very intriguing confessor. His film has few visual wonders and a sloppy sense of rhythm. His existence within the text also fails to yield the kind of intimate, beautiful, tortuous results that Sabato grabs from his own experiment. We have little to discover besides a source for the artist-creator’s inspiration. Shyamalan points at his muse and subsequently considers his probing finished. Even his portrayal of common people interacting with storytelling is hollow. The ultimate transcendence has little joy to it. Compare it to Celine and Julie altering their Soap Opera. With Lady in the Water, the transcendence of storytelling is conflated with the excitement of popcorn flicks. All that monster-movie suspense partly conceals the basic narrative about people finding meaning and purpose through fiction. Rivette constantly foregrounds the meta-narrative through composition and staging reminiscent of the television dreck that the heroines are so intent on upsetting. Shyamalan certainly works out the meta-narrative in his script, but his filming mostly consists of conventional thriller-tactics. The meta-narrative is always both there and not there. The characters are supposedly interacting with fiction, but at times it’s as if they were not aware of their interaction. I believe that’s where the film breaks: the constant transitions from earnest drama, to ridiculous humor, to satire, back to earnest drama, and finally to run-and-gun suspense, means that we never settle on any specific tone or mood, which is not bad in and of itself, but here it’s just scattershot nothingness, resulting in the meta-narrative hiding behind the mess. Lady in the Water has an adventurous soul. It wants to be an ode to yarn-spinning, and it is, warts and all, but its bi-polar personality undermines its intentions.

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