Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan, 2006)
The complete dismissal of Lady in the Water by critics and audiences seems not merely tangential to what we see on the screen. I have written in the past about films which foreground the act of storytelling, but Shyamalan’s film takes this to an extreme and, in the process, virtually taunts viewers to embrace or reject it. This is, after all, a film featuring a character called Story and a film critic who gets killed. But if Shyamalan’s film, based on a screenplay written by the director, seems too poorly constructed, at times rickety in its dialogue and at other times cloying in its emotional presentation, surely there’s something of a point to all this. This is not a case where “secretly” all of the films flaws are actually not flaws at all but aesthetic assets; instead, those same flaws seem not only daring, muscularly so, but part of a program to investigate, in the 21st century, our relationship to narrative. We now live in a time where many can no longer “buy into” narrative the way we used to, so mistrusting are we of any narrative because of the way the medium has been perverted through ideology and capitalism. So when Chris Fujiwara writes about how differently American audience react to Douglas Sirk as compared to Japanese audiences, he exposes, tragically, the way we might be losing our ability to believe in narrative art as we did during its aesthetic pinnacle. Though this has certainly affected filmmaking as well, I’m more interested in how it has shaped and transformed our attitudes towards and evaluation of films. For some time, audiences have extended greater and greater tolerance and admiration towards films that are increasingly cynical and contemptuous of conventions. Some of these films are great, necessary, and important, but the overwhelming trend has been non-stop deconstruction to the point where narratives succeed only by disguising themselves as something different, hence the proliferation of “gritty” realism, documentaries, films based on true stories, etc. At the core of this shift is the extent to which we can or cannot believe in narratives and, by extension, the world portrayed by narratives (i.e. the world we live in, whether or not it is presented as such).
About the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, Paola Marrati wrote, “The task of thought, in philosophy, cinema, or elsewhere, becomes the task of a conversion of faith. We ‘moderns’ need to believe in the world; our problem is not the absence of a God but instead our absence from this world. What we lack is belief in the possibility of creating new forms of existence, of experimenting with new forms of life” (“‘The Catholicism of Cinema’: Gilles Deleuze on Image and Belief”). Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water foregrounds this theme by constructing a narrative about believing in stories. A mysterious woman, named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), appears and seeks help from Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the handyman at an apartment complex. Cleveland eventually comes to believe that Story is a creature called a Narf and that she comes from another world, to which she is trying to return but is prevented from doing so by a wolf-like, grass-covered creature called a Scrunt. Cleveland is perhaps inclined to believe in all this because he is a damaged man, having lost his family years ago; his self-effacing, sincere, and curious demeanor embodies the ideal way for us to approach art and storytelling. In one scene, he must even act like a little boy in order to hear more about the tale of the Narfs from an older Asian woman, who says that the story is intended for children. This scene is a silly interlude, sure, but how much of its silliness derives from our own inability to assume the childlike perspective being called for here? As Cleveland learns more, he discovers he must find and gather together various people in the apartment complex who will play iconic roles (e.g. “Healer,” “Interpreter,” “Guardian”) to help Story fulfill her quest to return home. As Marrati quotes Deleuze’s response to the question of what to do about the intolerable state of the world, “To believe, not in a different world, but in a link between man and the world, in love or life, to believe in this as in the impossible, the unthinkable, which nonetheless cannot but be thought.” Story’s appearance in this apartment complex gives meaning to the group of people Cleveland assembles, restores to them a link between them and the world, and it is Cleveland’s openness to storytelling/narrative (to a story and to Story) that allows him to believe in this link.
The theme of belief is omnipresent in Lady in the Water. To find the people who will help Story, Cleveland seeks help from a film critic (Bob Balaban) who recently moved into the apartment complex. Given that the film critic is knowledgeable about narratives, Cleveland believes that he will know who would likely be the “Healer,” the “Interpreter,” and so on. The film critic character is presented as horribly jaded but incredibly self-confident in his absolute knowledge of cinema and storytelling. After the critic responds promptly with clues that point to characters we have been introduced to already, Shyamalan depicts the following sequence, in which Cleveland uses the clues to locate the correct individuals, with a sense of excitement, of pieces falling into place. But we later find out that the critic was incorrect, leading Cleveland astray and exposing our own eagerness to possess this “superior” knowledge. This relates to Deleuze’s notion of “a great turning-point in philosophy, from Pascal to Nietzsche: to replace the model of knowledge with belief.” The critic’s bloated reserves of knowledge relating to narrative patterns and conventions—knowledge which, in the film, prevents him from enjoying the experience of actually watching films—incorrectly guided Cleveland because it lacked belief, which the critic has clearly lost after years of becoming deadened to art. Some observers have complained about the film critic character, especially because Shyamalan has him killed off, but it would be practically impossible for Shyamalan to discuss these themes without taking into account the role cynicism plays today, of which the critic is an embodiment. The character is less an attack on critics and more an investigation on how this cynicism affects our ability to believe in narratives. Truly, as the saying goes, “everyone’s a critic,” and so when this character gets killed off, it is an enactment of the eradication of those parts of ourselves that, for a multitude of reasons, refuse to believe. It goes without saying that some critics are less like this than many audience members can be, so the actual profession of the character should not distract from the message here.
The cynicism of Lady in the Water’s film critic proves to be contagious, and after the story Cleveland hears doesn’t play out as expected, Cleveland’s companions begin to lose hope. But they eventually figure out, by throwing out the film critic’s advice, the true identities of the individuals needed to help Story. Shyamalan’s manner of constructing these characters is somewhat ingenious, but this genius is exactly what could turn many audiences off. As Deleuze writes, “We need an ethic or a faith, which makes fools laugh; it is not a need to believe in something else, but a need to believe in this world, of which fools are a part.” Cleveland enlists the help of a variety of misfits, the most important of which, the Guardian, turns out to be something of a fool, a man who is exercising only one half of his body (Freddy Rodriguez). These “foolish” aspects of Shyamalan’s story, such as the way the Interpreter turns out to be a boy who reads messages off of cereal boxes, are important because they construct an egalitarian environment where all aspects of “this world,” most importantly the people in it, are embraced and accepted; one of the most important aspects of what Shyamalan is doing here, which dovetails quite nicely with Deleuze’s philosophy of belief, is creating a world in which everyone is present and integral, a world in which we can all believe. Shyamalan picks the least likely individuals to play important roles in this world, and in this way, he truly challenges us to shift away from our knowledge of this world—knowledge that, like the film critic’s, tells us who is and is not important—and towards belief in a narrative that can comprise misfits and rejects. The “awkwardness” for which this film has been criticized seems less a flaw and more an honest and humble attitude expressed sincerely. If we abandon our cynicism and our fear of being contaminated by “mere” stories with ridiculous characters, this is a film that we can believe in, and that alone makes it a powerful work of art. The narrative of Lady in the Water puts this very belief to the test and places us in a position to discover belief alongside the characters.