M. Night Shyamalan completist Stevi Costa puts her lit degrees and close-reading skills to good use and calls bullshit on the confused posturing of Lady in the Water.
I review all of the M. Night Shyamalan films that pop up on Ten Years Ago. I’m a Shyamalan completeist, and I’ve got to see everything he does. Not because these things are especially good, but because when they crash and burn, they do so in spectacularly awful ways. I appreciate things that are both very good, and very bad. I don’t appreciate mediocrity, and with Shyamalan, you either love a thing or you hate it. There is no in-between. And I fucking hate Lady in the Water.
Shyamalan’s previous films trade in mystery, but there’s no mystery here because the narrative is spelled out for us at the beginning in the terrible animated pictograms. We know everything that’s going to happen, and there is nothing about Lady in the Water that purports to upend, rework, or challenge the genre conventions it spends so much of its time laboriously spelling out for the audience. The signature Shyamalan “twist” in this film is that when Cleveland is tasked with finding a Symbolist (a person who can interpret signs), a Healer (self-explanatory), a Guild (a group of people with many hands who work together), and a Guardian (Story’s protector, presumed to be himself), he initially chooses the “wrong” people, and then must return to the pool of residents in his building to find the “right” people in order to make Story’s story work. Cleveland blames his misinterpretation on the advice given to him by the film critic, but we all know that a hero has to face a set of trials on a journey because we’re all familiar with Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Heep’s misinterpretation of the archetypical roles in Story’s tale is par for the course.
But the characters in this film, who seem to simultaneously know so much and so little about stories themselves, don’t understand the mistake as part of the story they’re in. “Who would be so arrogant as to presume to know the intention of another human being?” Mr. Dury queries when Cleveland explains that he was following someone else’s advice. The film answers this question by cutting to Bob Balaban’s critic character — the person to whom Cleveland has been deferring to understand narrative tropes for the entire film. Clearly, Shyamalan’s choice to insert the critic as the answer to this question is an unsubtle critique of the role of criticism. Or perhaps I, too, am being arrogant in that assumption. But I don’t think I am, because Shyamalan’s next move for the critic character is to dispose of him. He is the only character in this family-friendly, totally non-scary “horror” movie that dies at the hand of one of Shyamalan’s stupid grassy-backed Scrunts. Before Balaban’s character is dispatched, however, he delivers the following monologue:
But the Scrunt is not too late, and the critic dies, effectively punished for “misinterpreting” the story. (Even though it’s actually Cleveland who misapplies the critic’s perfectly valid genre analysis.) The metaphor, like everything else in this fucking film, is blatant: critics are arrogant because they think they know better than authors, and therefore they have no place in storytelling.
My job is reading and “interpreting” narratives — both literary and cultural. My training as a close reader enables me to search through stories not for some kind of singular, frunifying meaning, but for possibilities. I am less concerned with figuring out what the writer is trying to do (which makes no sense when you’re tracking broader cultural narratives with multiple authors, sources, or origins), than I am with how narratives shape or are shaped by ideologies. To suggest that there is a prescriptive, “correct” way to read any given literary or cultural text is wildly limiting. Shyamalan’s deference to the author in his critic-killing move is an expressivist point of view, one which places stock in the work’s relationship to the author and his genius, imagination, and emotion. I’m intentionally making my author masculine in that sentence not only to link this back to the ways in which Shyamalan thinks of himself, but also because expressivist ways of reading emerged during the Romantic period, where these imaginative, emotional geniuses were mostly men. I think expressivist criticism, which tends to focus on reading the ways in which texts were influenced by an author’s life, can be at times illuminating. (Consider reading Frankenstein again, knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother died giving birth to her, and that Shelley herself suffered several miscarriages.) But more often than not, I find that reading through an expressivist lens closes down the possibilities of a text. When we read thinking only about how the “genius” of the creator influenced the text, that story becomes the official narrative. (e.g. Tennessee Williams’s sister Rose was the model for Laura in The Glass Menagerie. While this is objectively true and Williams’s memoirs confirm it, focusing on this fact prevents us from thinking about mental health as a larger idea at the time Williams was writing, or any other far more interesting insight.) It’s as though Shyamalan didn’t get Roland Barthes’ memo that the author was dead, that once you create an artistic product and release it into the world, you, as creator, no longer have control over what anyone does to your story.
But, of course, Lady in the Water is entirely about having control over Story herself, as the community of readers/interpreters she encounters in the apartment complex ultimately do shape her narrative in order for her to return home. They don’t do this, however, according to their own will, but to the symbolic constraints placed on them by the proto-narrative — the creative/creation myth we are forced to sit through in shitty animated pictograms before the actual film narrative even starts. Shyamalan’s narrative wants to have it both ways: it purports an expressivist perspective on the author, but also seems to suggest that stories (and the literal Story) exist prior to being “authored.” Story is being authored by a group of people, but also by her proto-narrative. And that story, the proto-narrative, itself has no author. The film admits in its very structure, then, that there are multiple ways of reading, and yet it goes out of its way to suggest that critical reading is invalid, and that non-authorial interpretations are incorrect, that they don’t make the story work. The reading community of this apartment complex all must agree on an interpretation of the generic tropes of Story’s story in order to get her home.
That may seem harsh, given that I took the time to think about how this particular text positioned its understanding of the author-text-reader meaning-making triad. Frankly, I think I’m being generous by bothering to do the critical work of looking beyond the film’s eye-rolling superficiality. For as much as I think the narrative and its strict adherence to storytelling tropes might be working against its author by affording some agency to certain types of readers and to the text itself, there’s one perspective that seems to devour all others, and that’s the role of the author himself. Not only is Shyamalan the writer/director of this film, but he has also continued to misunderstand the Hitchcockian cameo by giving himself yet another part far larger than his acting abilities deserve. Shyamalan casts himself as Vick, the writer who needs to be inspired by Story in order to write a book that will change humanity. This reinforces the idea that meaning is located in the author’s intent, and, frankly, smacks of Shyamalan’s own ego.
This film isn’t doing anything revolutionary. His other films aren’t either. They are not changing filmmaking, and they contain no ideas that might shake up the status quo. Yet the writer/director casts himself in this role, and that suggests that Shyamalan believes his work is doing more than it actually is. He seems to think he has important things to say about storytelling, but everything about Story and her telling is rote.
One thing worth crediting Lady in the Water for is the diversity of its cast. While the two bankable leads of the film are white, the supporting cast is far more diverse than one would expect for a film made in 2006. The apartment complex Cleveland manages houses Latino families, Korean families, erudite Black families, South Asian families, and some lonely old white people. A young Korean woman and a thirtysomething South Asian woman have very large speaking roles. In fact, Young-Soon, our young Korean college student, carries the burden of narration in this film. While on the one hand it sucks that all of her lines exist to explain something to a middle-aged white dude, the content of her explanations depict her as a repository for knowledge in a way that is refreshingly unstereotypical. Hers the is the voice we hear most frequently as we learn more about Story’s world; she becomes the voice of authority, even as she is burdened with the role of translator for a white man. The emphasis on Jeffrey Wright’s crossword-obsessed Mr. Dury and his son are also striking. They are always shown working out puzzles, and always together. Rarely do we see Black characters depicted as intellectuals in mainstream cinema, and the Durys both fulfill that role in the film, as each is given a turn at being the “Symbolist” in Story’s homeward narrative. They, too, become voices of authority, and other characters in the film crowd around them to actively listen to the narratives they derive from their puzzles and cereal boxes.
I think the only truly universal observation Lady in the Water makes about writing is that a writer will do anything to get out of writing. Instead of working on my dissertation, I watched Lady in the Water. See? We’ll do anything.