Thursday, November 21, 2013

Re-assessing Shyamalan (or, What's up with the water?)

Now that you've had a chance to listen to the Trial of Shyamalan, I want to share a few observations from the Shyamalanathon I undertook to prepare for it. I wasn't able to find a copy of his first film - the semi-autobiographical Pray with Anger - on short notice, so I started my viewing with his second movie. Keep in mind that the podcast was about him as a director so I didn't include films like Stuart Little and Devil.

Wide Awake (1998)

This was my first time seeing this one, what most people think of as "the Rosie O'Donnell one." She's not in it much though and this was from the period when I still found her funny, so she's not the problem. In hindsight, the problem may have been me. Or at least my attitude about Shyamalan.

I went into this project with a bad taste for Shyamalan's work. I defended him longer than most of my friends, but he lost me with The Happening and then The Last Airbender and I didn't even have the tiniest bit of desire to see After Earth. I wondered if my negative opinion of him would change my thoughts on his early stuff so that I'd see flaws in them that I hadn't before. It didn't, but I think it may have colored my perception of Wide Awake.

On first viewing, I thought the script was really hammy and that the film explored the same territory as Signs, but in a less interesting - and as ultimately unsatisfying - way. It's about a kid who's on a literal search for God, which I saw as an on-the-nose metaphor for the development of faith. I got frustrated with the journey, but looking back on it now with the perspective of Shyamalan's better films, I can see more clearly what he was trying to do.

One of Shyamalan's favorite themes is characters' being saved by reaching out and reconnecting to other people. In Wide Awake, the boy's main connection, his grandfather, has died and that sends the kid into a spiral. His year-long quest to find God (in order to make sure his grandfather is in good hands) leads him to adventures that wake him up and bring him to rejoin the world. It's clunky, but I love the general idea that we find God by helping people. I mean, Victor Hugo said it so much better when he wrote, "To love another person is to see the face of God," but it's still interesting to watch Shyamalan try to find his legs.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

I was kind of afraid to watch this one again and possibly not like it anymore. No worries, though. Whatever else happened to Shyamalan's career, no one can take this movie from him. It's such a great film. Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette break my heart every time I watch it; especially Osment who's so great as this unbelievably brave, tragic kid who's cut himself off from his mom and the rest of the world. Through helping other people (dead though they may be), he's able to reconnect and save himself. This theme is all through Shyamalan's stuff.

Unbreakable (2000)

One of my problems with Shyamalan started when I noticed how low-energy the performances are in his films. It's a tick that I found really distracting once I noticed it, but that was sometime after Unbreakable. Like with The Sixth Sense, I was afraid I wouldn't like Unbreakable as much this time as I did when I discovered while watching it that it was a superhero movie. The thing is though that the low energy in Unbreakable (and The Sixth Sense) works because it helps convey the disconnectedness of the main character. When Shyamalan's directing a film without that major theme, the tone doesn't work as well.

Something I'd totally forgotten about Unbreakable was that the superhero's kryptonite is water. That struck me hard, knowing that it's also the weakness of the aliens in Signs. And as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, there was that whole Shyamalan-afraid-of-water hoax on the SyFy Channel around the time of The Village. And then there's a whole movie about a Lady in the Water. And then of course there's water-bending Aang (which I thought was a funny coincidence, but didn't truly see as part of the trend).

What was hard to figure was just what water represented to Shyamalan. It seemed to be force of evil in Unbreakable, but a force for good in Signs. I hoped that Lady in the Water might help me figure it out, but in the meantime I started thinking about common uses for water as a symbol: change, life, death. It's such a fluid (ahem) symbol that that line of thinking wasn't helpful to me.

My wife unlocked it for me by suggesting that it could be about cleansing. In Unbreakable, it's a weakness for the hero, but what that does is create a situation in which he's forced to accept the help of others, in this case, the two kids he's just rescued. By helping them, he's helped himself, and the deadly water of the pool becomes a sort of baptism for him, marking the point at which he's reconnected to the world. He comes out of the pool a new man.

Signs (2002)

I had mixed feelings about Signs when I first saw it. Shyamalan does a fantastic job of creating tension, and the theme of disconnectedness is there again. In this case, Mel Gibson's character has disconnected himself from his community and from God. That's all really great until the resolution, which doesn't do service to what's come before.

My problem with the climax isn't the revelation that the aliens are harmed by water. I know that's a huge sticking point for a lot of people and Signs is when a lot of folks started turning on Shyamalan. It's a big flaw in the plot that the aliens attack a planet filled with an element that's so harmful to them, so I'm not going to defend it except to point out that Shyamalan does at least take a swing (ahem again) at filling that hole. The dialogue makes it clear that the aliens aren't on Earth to stay; they're a strike force trying to abduct as many humans as possible and then get the heck off the planet. They're also specifically targeting areas away from large bodies of water.

Yes, there's still moisture in the air and dew on the ground, and I get why people are bothered by it, but it doesn't bother me. I don't see Signs as a science fiction film, but a fable. Like in Unbreakable, Shyamalan's more interested in water as symbol than science. And like in Unbreakable, it's a symbol of cleansing; in this case, cleansing Earth of the alien invaders.

The Village (2004)

This is the one where most of society threw up its hands and gave up on Shyamalan, but I honestly don't understand why. I think it has to do with the twist ending being lame - and yeah, it's not one of Shyamalan's best twists - but the movie's about so much more than that.

For one thing, it's superbly acted, including one of the highest energy performances of William Hurt's career, which is ironic considering this is a Shyamalan film. Bryce Dallas Howard is amazing, as is Adrien Brody. And though Joaquin Phoenix has a lot of scenes where he's withdrawn and repressed, that's exactly the point of his character and it all pays off when he finally blurts out to Howard how he feels about her.

Water plays an important part in The Village too. To save her true love - by reconnecting to the outside world - Ivy has to follow the river. Water always accompanies cleansing and transformation in Shyamalan's films.

That said, the ending of The Village is more ambiguous than Shyamalan's other films. The community stays disconnected from the rest of the world, which is something that didn't happen in the previous stories. However, they stay disconnected as a community, which I think is important. Lots to think about and discuss with this one, and that only makes it a stronger movie, in my opinion. Probably Shyamalan's strongest after The Sixth Sense. I just do not get the hate for it.

Lady in the Water (2006)

I enjoyed Lady in the Water when it came out and I still do, though it's much less defensible than the ones that preceded it. This was where I started doubting Shyamalan back in the day.

One of the things I enjoyed this time was the water theme still being around. It's even more overt though with the idea of an entire race of water-people who are trying to save humanity. And Shyamalan actually spells out the symbolism in a line of dialogue, that water represents "purification and starting anew." Though I got a kick out of getting it right, that lack of subtlety makes Lady in the Water a weaker film.

The whole movie is very meta, with Shyamalan's talking directly to his critics. I found that funny the first time I saw it, but it creates problems on later viewings. He also didn't do himself any favors by casting himself in the story as a world-changing writer. He's good in the role (I always like Shyamalan's appearances in his movies), but it comes across as arrogant and it's off-putting, even to defenders like me.

The Happening (2008)

I don't have a lot to say about this one. Shyamalan all but abandons the themes I like about his earlier films in favor of a dark, hopeless movie. His wry sense of humor helps liven the serious tone of his early stuff, but it's out of place in The Happening and none of the actors seem to know what kind of a film they're in.

There's some stuff about Zooey Deschanel's character learning to reconnect by looking out for John Leguizamo's daughter, but it's a minor subplot and leads to stunning lines like "We're so much the same, Jess. I don't like to show my emotions either." Dialogue has never been Shyamalan's strongest thing, but he's way better than that. I seriously don't know what happened with this movie, no pun intended.

The Last Airbender (2010)

Condensing a whole season of Avatar: The Last Airbender into a feature-length film sounds like a losing proposition from the get-go, regardless of who wrote and directed it. But before it sounds like I'm letting Shyamalan off the hook even a little bit, I want to point out that a) like CT said in the trial, Shyamalan took the gig and bears some responsibility if only for that, and b) I came up with a way that could'a made it work.

As I see it, the script's biggest problem is that it tries to hit certain story beats from the TV series without earning any of the moments. Aang's rescue by the Blue Spirit is one of the coolest things in that first season, but only because we've spent so much time getting to know Zuko and learning how conflicted he is. The movie doesn't have enough time to do that properly, so I argue that it doesn't really have time for the any of the Blue Spirit stuff. The script would've been much better had it simply tried to develop the characters in its own, meaningful ways. There are other ways to show Zuko's conflict, even if Shyamalan would've had to create them from scratch. That may have disappointed some fans who wanted to see favorite events played out onscreen, but it would've been a much stronger movie.

For all that, I love the last twenty minutes of The Last Airbender. I wish that the rest of the movie would have led into that finale better, but I contend that it's a powerful ending with great action, beautiful shots, and a showcase for my favorite Shyamalan themes. "Go," the Dragon Spirit tells Aang, "and show them the power of water." I dismissed it earlier as a coincidence, but Shyamalan actually does use water as a powerful symbol of cleansing and rebirth as Aang uses it to chase away the Fire Nation and save his world. Even better, I love what Uncle Iroh says to General Zhao in their final confrontation: "You stand alone. And that has always been your great mistake." That's the Shyamalan I love.

But for whatever positive touches he put on The Last Airbender, Shyamalan's fingerprints left some nasty smudges, too. He tried to make Aang's journey one about reconnection with the world, which completely destroys the charming, vital, already deeply connected character from the TV series. TV Aang has a journey, but it's different from the one that Shyamalan's drawn to and he screwed it up by forcing his onto that character.

After Earth (2013)

As messed up as the last couple of Shyamalan's films had been, he wasn't done any favors by teaming up with Will Smith and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli) to write After Earth. I don't know who's responsible for what except that Smith came up with the story while Shyamalan and Whitta wrote the screenplay. What I do know is that the story didn't start with Shyamalan, and it has none of his traditional hallmarks.

In fact, it's in direct opposition to Shyamalan's usual themes. Conquering fear is a great subject for a movie, and I would have loved to see Classic Shyamalan do it, but After Earth has nothing interesting to say about it. If it's true - as I've heard suggested - that the approach to fear in After Earth is based on Scientologist teaching, and if it's true that the movie presents an accurate representation of that teaching, I find it really sad.

Conquering fear by creating a box of isolation around yourself sounds empowering, but it creates the very disconnectedness that Shyamalan's films typically battle. I mean, does anyone look at Cypher Raige, Will Smith's character in After Earth, and see him as someone to emulate? He's miserable! According to Shyamalan's best stories, fear is conquered through compassion and connecting with people.

And we do seem to see some of Shyamalan fighting against the ideas in Smith's story. It's impossible to know for sure, but I do think it's interesting that Cypher Raige admits that his life is crap and ends the film wanting to give it up and reconnect with his family. The character arc doesn't follow the movie's major theme, which is a huge problem, but it makes me smile a little to see some pushback on After Earth's handling of fear and to imagine that Shyamalan is responsible.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

Your identification of the ongoing "cleansing water" is quite thought provoking and actually lead to thinking about some other director trademarks. The baptism reference in "Unbreakable" got be thinking about the Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" and its theme of anonymity and identity with how the character is reborn with a completely new identity after he is "shot" and has a change of costume.

Michael May said...

Oh man, now I want to watch North by Northwest again. (Though that describes almost every waking minute for me anyway.)

Kal said...

Great analysis. I have such a great love for Unbreakable that I can't be objective about it. You are right about the low energy performances but I think that works in this world of banality that David has created around himself. Then Mr Glass comes into his I need to watch that again.

Michael May said...

Thanks, man. You're absolutely right and Samuel Jackson is the perfect opposite-of-low-energy actor to bring into David's world to shake him up.

Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

Unbreakable also has some of the best editing I've seen in a movie period.

When David is told by the doctor about his survival, there is a body in the foreground that David is starring at. As the monologue continues, the body begins to pool red with blood. As nurses rush in to aid, the camera slows zooms in on David. This visually confirms the death of the man and isolated David as the sole survivor.

After leaving the hospital his son tries to hold his hand, but David pulls it away. He cannot connect.

Later when he has a conversation with his wife, he is standing in the middle of stairs, unable to move forward.

Michael May said...

Yeah! I don't think I mentioned it in the article, but Shyamalan's eye is excellent and I love the way he sets up shots and communicates ideas, even in the worst of his films.

NoelCT said...

As fun as the podcast was to listen to (and it really was a fun show, and I'll definitely be checking out more from the Nerd-Lunch gang), I was surprised how little actual discussion of the films came up in the episode. So thanks for your thoughts in more detail here. As I mentioned on Twitter, I largely agree with everything you say here, and find the analysis of water themes compelling. The low-energy performances is something that always stands out in his work, too, and I definitely think it's a stylistic approach that works at times, but only with the right stories, and he needs to stop trying to jam it onto tales where it doesn't fit. I think it, among other things pointed out, shows that while he does have skills as a filmmaker and storyteller, his range is more limited than he seems willing to admit.

As a tangent, he was originally signed on to do Life of Pi, and if you've seen the movie, I wonder what you think his themes of water and disconnect could have been like when applied to that story.

Michael May said...

I learned about his brief association with Life of Pi while I was preparing for the podcast and thought, "How appropriate!" In additon to the water and disconnectedness, there's India, and I think I'm remembering correctly that Shyamalan actually comes from the town that Pi is named after.

It even has the twist ending, which is apparently what led him to turn it down, because he knew people would be looking for it and that would lessen the story's impact.


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