You know how in The West Wing they always had the speechwriters be working on Two Drafts at once - the "he won" and "he didn't win," "he was/not convicted," "the X blew up/didn't blow up," etc.?
I kinda wanna write my review of Shyamalan's Lady in the Water right now, even though I'm not likely to have actually seen the movie for several more weeks.
There was a time when on Friday nights I went to the movies. Then, The Return to Grad School happened. Now, I look forward mostly to reading movie reviews on Fridays. And this past weekend was no disappointment.
First - flashback to Christmastime and my sister's kids and she are telling me how they and everyone in a packed theatre laughed and/or scoffed at previews for "that new movie with Paul Giamatti in it." It looked stupid and maybe a little scary, but mostly ridiculous. This was on their first viewing of The Lion, et al. Within days, I tagged along for their second viewing and was exposed to the preview myself. It was what I'd come to expect in a Shyamalan movie. (Attempt at explanation to follow.)
Flash forward to this weekend. Thursday afternoon I catch an interview with Shyamalan on NPR, and the major focus seemed to be on his hate-hate relationship with The Critics. A caller asked if it bothered him that critics always trash his films, and he said, well, yes. He said he didn't understand what they had against him, but it did hurt, and yet, they (the films, but also sometimes the critics) always seemed to bounce back in the general public reception. He said he'd gotten one of the best audience responses ever to a pre-screeing of Lady a week or so before. Critics dissed The Sixth Sense, which ended up breaking all kinds of records (it's still in the top 25 $-making movies in the US all-time, and these days it also gets a positive spin as critics hold his later works up to it and call him a one-hit-wonder). Then, generally, critics dissed Unbreakable, Signs (top 50 $ all-time), and The Village (top 300).
Now, they're walking out of Lady.
While I was mulling over why he gets such a terrible, and too often mean-spirited (what kind of call is there for reviewers to be mean-spirited? some unprofessional blog-posters ridicule the fact that all his movies are set in Philadelphia, as if loyalty to a particular place - outside of LA and NY - is somehow small-minded) reviews, I remembered three or four summers ago when I had a similar response to the critical response to Signs. This was a movie which, imperfect as all our human creations seem to be, typifies the issues with/characteristics of Shyamalan's work. It's an odd mixture of genres (if one's looking for an alien movie in all its showy special effects, shock-and-awe, it's going to disappoint); it has a cameo by the director; it foregrounds religious characters and language; and it is ultimately hopeful about both faith (a difficult concept to treat respectfully in a movie without the storyline getting weird, because faith is by nature a different-from-what-the-human-mind-can-neatly-articulate perspective) and about familial (parent-child and sibling) relationships. I could say the same things about Shyamalan's Unbreakable and The Village, and oh-by-the-way - minus the director's physical cameo and the Philly setting - ET, Indiana Jones, and every other Spielberg movie.
So, I haven't seen Lady yet, and maybe I'll be proved wrong. But here's what I think is going on. Shyamalan is a pro-spiritual-seeking/believing, quirky-story-telling, pro-redeemable-in-process-family-relationships, great visualizer, concept-driven director who sometimes gets all twisted up in the actual narrative execution. Compared to The Sixth Sense, which is arguably about a narrative gimmick as much as it is a human-nature concept revelation, Shyamalan's later films have been, to me, much more worthy of attention, discussion, on-going mental and spiritual wrestling. They're films which can be frustrating when looking for generic and narrative precision or finesse. They don't leave me with adrenaline pumping from the shock-and-awe aesthetics. (I'd rather not have seen the stupid aliens.) But they're conceptually wrestling with what it means to be finite-yet-something-more humans in finite-yet-something-more-and-less worlds.
And, what better way to get at that then through the question of if/how we are all part of a story ourselves (which is what I understand the basic conceptual premise of Lady to be), or if we're somehow more "real" (smart, self-congratulatingly self-aware - like a professional critic). In a media-and-story-saturated world, we have to do some meta-story-telling/questioning in order to keep our lives from freezing this way (dictated by the official narrators of the world, those who manipulate the power of the word/image while covering their own tracks, without mutual participation).
Conclusion A: Shyamalan's concept was all I needed. Shouldn't have bothered watching the movie since the execution was... (what? boring, too clever, confusing? implausible?)...
Conclusion B: Provocative. Everything I expected. Unnerving, imperfect, and way more interesting than cleverly-worded reviews (not unlike mine).
For a positive review, along the lines of what I've been anticipating as far as appreciating the imagination and spiritual and theological interests (but remember, I haven't seen the film!), I recommend this one.