Monday, July 17, 2006

Winning is Everything

Not to toot my own horn, but I have won a contest over at Tbogg's place. The challenge? To predict the ending to M. Night Shyamabamahamalan's latest opus, Lady in the Water. You can check out my suggestion, which thankfully met Mr. Bogg's strict standards for snark, right here.

(And might I also add, welcome Tbogg readers joining us here for the first time. Make yourselves at home.)

While we're on the subject of one M. Night, there's a few things I'd like to discuss.

(1) This "tell-all" book in which the guy complains that Disney executives didn't believe in his creative vision

This book comes out next week, written by a Sports Illustrated writer with Night's full blessing, talking about how those fools at the Mouse House didn't sufficiently worship his genius, forcing him to leave the studio for Warner Brothers. It's called, get this, The Man Who Heard Voices: Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. Oh, Christ.

Disney production President Nina Jacobson gets the worst drubbing. Jacobson and Shyamalan enjoyed a close, albeit sometimes combative, relationship. Over six years, she shepherded his four Disney films including "Unbreakable," "Signs" and "The Village."

On what would have been their fifth collaboration, their bond so eroded that the two didn't speak for more than a year. At a disastrous dinner in Philadelphia last year, Jacobson delivered a frank critique of the "Lady in the Water" script. When she told him that she and her boss, studio Chairman Dick Cook, didn't "get" the idea, Shyamalan was heartbroken. Things got only worse when she lambasted his inclusion of a mauling of a film critic in the story line and told Shyamalan his decision to cast himself as a visionary writer out to change the world bordered on self-serving. But Shyamalan gets his revenge on Jacobson in the book, in which he says he had felt for some time that he "had witnessed the decay of her creative vision right before his own wide-open eyes. She didn't want iconoclastic directors. She wanted directors who made money."

But wait...there's more. He's not just a whiny egomaniac. I think he may have some kind of full-blown mental illness.

"Sometimes Night would close his eyes and see little oval black and white head shots of Nina Jacobson and Oren Aviv and Dick Cook floating around in his head, unwanted houseguests that would not leave," Bamberger writes. "The Disney people had gotten deep inside his head, interfering with the good work the voices were supposed to do and it would be hell to get them out."

Hearing...voices...I thought he meant that metaphorically. Like, "the voices that inspire me to create tepid, overbearing allegories like The Village!" But, no, he means actual voices. In his head. Nice...

Here's the best/worst part:

The book's most revealing scene is the tense dinner of Feb. 15, 2005, and its aftermath รข€” referred to by Shyamalan's colleagues as "The Valentine's Day Massacre." The setting was a fancy Philadelphia restaurant, Lacroix, not far from the farmhouse where Shyamalan, his wife and two daughters live. But from the start, the book says, the dinner seemed doomed. The tables were too close together, and "Night felt that other diners could hear their conversation." Seated next to Shyamalan, Jacobson aired her problems with the script. Criticisms "came spewing out of her without a filter," Bamberger writes.

"You said it was funny; I didn't laugh," the book quotes her as saying. "You're going to let a critic get attacked? They'll kill you for that! Your part's too big; you'll get killed again! What's with the names? Scrunt? Narf? Tartutic? Not working. Don't get it. Not buying it. Not getting it. Not working."

Her words went over like spoiled fish. "She went on and on and on," the book says. "Night was waiting for her to say she didn't like the font" his assistant had printed the script in. After way too many courses, Disney executives walked Shyamalan and his agent to the elevator, and Cook asked to speak to the director alone. "Just make the movie for us," Cook said, hoping to keep Disney's most important director in the fold. "We'll give you $60 million and say, 'Do what you want with it.' We won't touch it. We'll see you at the premiere." Shyamalan said he couldn't do that. He couldn't work with those who doubted him. As Cook and his team left the hotel, Shyamalan broke down and cried.

They offer him $60 million to make a movie from a script no one at the studio believes in. His response? Not an effusive "thank you!" Not appreciation for the vote of confidence. He starts to cry.

What a massive sense of entitlement. It's not enough these people are willing to risk that kind of scratch on you based solely on your past performance. They also have to give proper deference and respect to any fool screenplay you come up with, no matter if they think it's stupid and includes a character named Narf?

Anyway, I already wasn't too hyped for Lady in the Water. But after reading this article, I'm not sure I can ever take this guy seriously again.

(2) The declining quality of his filmmaking

I like Sixth Sense a lot. It's good. Well-made. Tight. Many people have told me that they predicted the ending. I caught on before the actual reveal in the film, but only by a few scenes. It works well the first time you see it, terrifically the second time, when you notice all the small, clever details he worked in there...and then you pretty much never need to watch the thing again.

I love Unbreakable. Love it, love it, love it. I know Tbogg over there has complained about the film, calling it implausible and silly. Well, yes, it's implausible. Mainly, I don't think a guy could reach Bruce Willis' age without detecting that his body's impervious to damage. I mean, everyone (everyone!) hurts themselves at some point during their lives. If you get to 40 and you've never had a cold or injury...you might want to look into that.

I still think it's a superior film, however, for two reasons. Technically, the thing is a goddamn marvel. It's beautifully shot and rendered with tremendous attention to detail and care. This is the sort of film that should be nominated for Best Costume Design around award season, because the designs actually enhance the film's central themes and aren't just pretty or ornate. It's also told with patience. There's a calm, a stillness to Night's direction here, in one of the rare modern American films that doesn't aspire to give the viewer a wicked head rush.

Signs is again well-shot and expressive, and has a few scenes I enjoy, but the entire second half is irredeemably stupid. I don't mind if a movie wants to argue in favor of belief in God - plenty of films have in the past - but it should at least try to make a real argument. "You should believe in God because he makes little girls leave glasses of water around that eventually repel foolish aliens for just long enough so that Joaquin Phoenix can smash the shit out of them with a spare baseball bat" isn't working for me.

And as I said above, I found The Village insulting. Night breaks one of the essential, "unbreakable" cinematic rules...Once you've revealed the big twist to your movie, you can't just keep pretending the audience doesn't know what's going on. We're told there are monsters in the forest, then we're told there aren't really monsters in the forest and then, finally, we're supposed to be afraid of...more monsters. Um...what? There aren't really monsters in the forest, dumbass! Remember? You made the goddamn thing...

(3) His obnoxious American Express commercial

You know these commercials, with popular directors shilling for a credit card company? I hate the M. Night one, in which he sits in a restaurant imagining all kinds of "Twilight Zone"-esque creepy situations, and then pays with an American Express card. But not as much as I hate the Wes Anderson "I'm-a-charming-goofball-whose-movies-are-spontaneous-gems-of-whimsy" entry.

The whole vibe of these spots strikes me as pretty much the exact opposite of what you want from advertising. "Hey, look at us, we just walk around all day and create magic in exchange for millions of dollars! Doesn't that sound like fun? Why not get our same credit card? You won't get paid to just sit around and think up shit, because you're not a genius like me, but at least you'll have a credit card. Now, get out of here! I'm conjuring up some more brain gold!"

(4) The twist ending thing has become a curse

He needs to stop. Clearly, the twists no longer work because we know there's going to be a twist. It's a Shyamalan movie, there's going to be some sort of Big Reveal in the final few scenes. Kind of kills a lot of the initial shock value, which is what makes twists work in the first place.

I predicted it at Tbogg's and I'll repeat it here: I think I've figured out Lady in the Water just from the marketing. It's about a guy who works at an apartment building who finds a mermaid named Story, right? And then there's a wolf that comes through the same other-worldly portal as the mermaid and starts terrorizing people. And the tagline on the poster for the film is: "Some bedtime stories are real."

I think it will turn out that the janitor, played by Paul Giamatti, is telling this bedtime story about a mermaid to someone. Think about it...there's a big bad wolf, water imagery, innocent villagers...All the makings of a classic fairy tale. (It's even in the title of his new tell-all book!) If this is true, and for Night's sake I hope I'm way way off, then clearly the Disney folks were right all along. Such an ending would be shallow and manipulative. Kind of like Signs and The Village!

1 comment:

Cory said...

I can't lie, I actually didn't hate THE VILLAGE. I agree that his reliance on big reveals is tedious, and that in the Village it doesn't work well at all, but the movie, for the majority of its length, is still suspenseful, amazing to look at, and incredibly scored. Is it a great film? Fuck no, but it's not a horrendous one either.

I pretty much completely agree with you on SIGNS. Such a great setup that is completely compromised by a lackluster third act.