Love him or hate him (and most critics these days seem to hate him), M. Night Shyamalan is making movies that are unlike anyone else’s, and very entertaining. His breakout film, The Sixth Sense, was a parlor trick, but a damn good one. He followed that with Unbreakable, a commercial failure but a cult hit — still his best movie, in my book. He had a commercial comeback with Signs, an alien-invasion movie that was actually a parable of faith. It had a lot of great scenes, but the plot was too conveniently arranged for my tastes. Next, The Village, which was a modern-day fable that seemed to hint at the dark side of faith, and whose clumsy reveal of Night’s patented plot surprises turned off many.
Now Night returns to Signs territory with Lady in the Water, another parable of faith, this time presented with the mechanics of a fairy tale.
Continue reading about Lady in the Water (minor spoilers)…The script was out-there enough that it ruined Night’s relationship with Disney, according to a new book about the troubled making-of Lady in the Water. The Disney executives who didn’t understand what Night was attempting would do well to read a different book: The Uses of Enchantment.
Written by second-rate Freudian psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, this short book breaks down fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella”, theorizing that fairy tales are a way of talking about adult subjects to children. Before Disney scrubbed fairy-land clean, the stories were full of horrific and gruesome deaths and orphan children left to fend for themselves. As M. Night well knows, people will pay good money to be scared in a way that induces catharsis. Lady in the Water isn’t afraid of a good scare, or a good cathartic moment.
Lucky for Night, and the rest of us, Warner Bros. swooped in to fund Lady in the Water. Though many of his movies’ previous short-comings are on display — unnecessary voice-over explanations, mawkish speeches (the worst one Night, who acts in the movie, puts in his own mouth), a plot too carefully arranged — nonetheless, it is an entertaining and wonderful fairy tale.
Uriah Cleveland Heep, a depressed building Super at The Cove apartments, encounters a sea nymph with the unfortunate name of ‘Story.’ While protecting her from her people’s mortal enemy, a dog that grows up out of the grass, he learns from some Korean (?) tenants that the purpose of the nymph (or “narf”) is to impart wisdom to a “vessel,” then be flown back to the sea by a giant eagle. Oh, and did I mention there are invisible tree monkeys called Tartutic? From an adult perspective, this is ridiculous. So I recommend adopting a kid’s perspective of unquestioning belief. Night wisely molds his characters this way, wasting no time having them disbelieve the fairy tale. His message about faith is the new-age kind, where being able to help others means believing in yourself. Those who have seen Signs will not be surprised that the quirky behaviors of the tenants are exactly what’s needed to save Story. Nor will those who have seen The Village be shocked by a message that says what evil there is in the outside world must be faced with unity by humanity. One imagines this is also the message of the book being written by the “vessel” — played with no realization of narcissism by Night himself — whose destiny is to inspire a future President of the United States who will bring an end to war on earth.
And what would Bettleheim say about the story of Story? Since the main characters are not children, Night’s wisdom is clearly meant for us. Beyond the platitudes of faith in one’s self and humanity united against evil, he would probably give a Freudian analysis of Night himself. Casting himself as prophet who will be martyred is cleary manifestation of a Messiah complex. Such a large ego is a defense mechanism in Hollywood, though, and got Night through his battle with Disney. What saves Night’s stories from the villain critics (the character played by Bob Balaban, a man whose faith in himself is misplaced, ballast to the central theme) is all the simple ethnic types that live in Philadelphia apartment complexes. Together they can save his stories by paying money and making them soar with the eagle of the box office. A less-cynical analysis would begin with the unconscious, clearly the Blue World. A story emerges naked from the unconscious, and must be guided by an author (note the prominent display of Heep’s typewriter) to meet people of all backgrounds. If the author is pure of heart, the story will heal him in some way. A good story will inspire other writers (M. Night’s character), be threatened by critics (Balaban’s character) but ultimately achieve a sort of superconscious level, a cultural touchstone symbolized by its acceptance into the Olympian heavens on the wings of an eagle. (The Tartutic tree monkeys is one uninterpretable and perhaps extraneous element. Maybe its an anagram for ‘tacit rut.’)
Though they are syrupy as pop music, Night’s movies are deep. He reaches into mythical and symbolic depths, especially in his choice of colors. Legendary curmudgeon cinematographer Christopher Doyle collaborates with Night for a grittier look than you would expect from watching either man’s previous work. Still, it’s a beautifully otherworldly look for a wonderfully otherworldly movie.