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||Further Thoughts on “Lady in the Water”
by John Mark Reynolds [author,
The following post is by Josh Sikora, who determines film excellence in our house. A winner of the Saint Anne’s Award as outstanding THI student of his year, he is also a producer and soon (I predict) will be a leader in bringing new content (beyond Diet Coke bottles exploding) to new media.
We are team teaching a class and he has changed my mind about the film “Lady in the Water.” Here is his persuasive take:
John Mark Reynolds
Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of
the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor
of Philosophy, at Biola University. His
personal website can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.com and
his blog can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.info.
[go to Reynolds index]
Lady in the Water: A Story Worth Saving
by Joshua Sikora
When my wife and I saw “Lady in the Water,” we came out of the dark theater simply loving it. Imagine our surprise when we found ourselves in an unusual minority of opinion on this vastly under-appreciated and misunderstood work of genius. M. Night Shyamlan has—I dare say—crafted one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and satisfying films of 2006. You just have to know what to look for. After all, the movie warns us in its prologue that we’ve all forgotten how to listen.
Now, I’d read all the criticism, and while there was more of it this time around, I’ve read it all before with each of Shyamalan’s previous films, post-"Sixth Sense" (especially “Unbreakable” and “The Village”). The critics don’t get M. Night, and he knows it, which is perhaps why he chose to ridicule them and then eat them alive with this film. Literally.
“Lady in the Water” is clever and unique in its construction. It strives to be original and meaningful, sometimes at the expense of being “interesting.” But just because it’s not as entertaining or suspenseful as his prior efforts , doesn’t mean we should dismiss the film as lacking all merit. Put simply, I think “Lady in the Water” is not meant to be a story—at least not how we typically think of them. Rather, I suspect it is a film about THE Story. And the power of that Story. And I’m not talking about the character’s name when I say that.
What’s up with all of this self-aware filmmaking? This so-called “narf”—this lady in the water has the oddest name, and yet no one ever wonders why? And what are we to make of M. Night’s prolonged cameo as a struggling writer/martyr? Is this the move of a self-obssessed filmmaker who wants more attention for himself? Or is the filmmaker doing something else by placing himself so prominently in his own work? The film critic serves many purposes in the film, but again figures into the plot in such a self-aware fashion that we have to wonder his purpose.
His purpose…. One of the key questions of the film.
But about the self-awareness of the film. The innovative French filmmaker Godard would use this technique throughout his career to remind his audience that they were watching his own philosophical diatribe on film rather than some sort of immersive story-oriented experience. Godard pioneered the technique, but now it’s commonplace, employed by many European, art-house, and indie filmmakers. This self-aware tone forces the viewer to engage mentally, as well as viscerally.
M. Night Shyamalan is a religious man, drawing inspiration from his upbringing as an American Hindu who attended attended Catholic and Episcopalian schools. The importance of faith to this man is most prominent in his earliest and most personal work, “Wide Awake,” but shows up time and again, especially in his greatest film, “Signs.” We also know that this filmmaker is drawn to philosophy, whether it be of the comic book sort seen in “Unbreakable” or the more Platonic ideas found in “The Village”—this man is a thinker and obviously well-read.
So, what do we make of a film about Story? What is the purpose of Story (read: Myth, or maybe more loosely, Word)? In this film, a very special, royal Story comes from another place, taking on the flesh of a human and dwelling among us. Not everyone can recognize Story for what she really is—it takes an understanding and knowledge of old prophecies handed down through the generations in order for anyone to decipher who or what her purpose is. Story also requires a number of followers, disciples if you will. And of course, there’s the writer—a future martyr—who will take the Truth that Story brings and spread it to the rest of the world. There are other roles and other elements, all that remind us of Jesus Christ and his ministry on Earth, but I think the relationship of Shyamalan’s Story to the familiar Christ-story is a loose one—not meant to be a direct parallel…even if there is a nice death, resurrection, and ascension.
But no—I think this philosophical film reminds me more of Plato’s Republic. In that great work, Plato demonstrates the power of Story, using it as the final method of persuasion as his character of Socrates tries desperately to save the lost and confused Glaucon.
In the most oft-remembered (although not most important) part of The Republic, we all recall the famous “Cave Analogy” where Socrates describes those lost people, imprisoned in a cave, and fed lies about their existence. The whole of The Republic is the image of an enlightened individual coming down into this cave and rescuing—no, saving—these prisoners from their purposeless existence. Shyamalan’s characters also live in a dark place, isolated from the real world. A place called “the Cove”—although the ornate sign above the apartment complex almost looks like another familiar word.
Much of The Republic is focused on this question of purpose. We cannot escape, if we don’t know our purpose. Socrates seeks out the meaning of Justice throughout much of The Republic, but seems to conclude that people are Just when they do what they’re meant to do. He says that guardians should be guardians and healers should be healers. Or was that something from the movie—see, I get them so confused now. Cleveland Heap asks at one point in the film, “Where’s the justice?” wondering why those tree monkey hadn’t done their job yet, not understanding that justice was already being accomplished as those in the Cove found their place, their role, their purpose, in their grand story.
And Cleveland (his very name—meaning “of the cliffs”—demonstrates his separation from the water, which brings healing, rebirth, and salvation in the film) is a man who needs saving and yet the community and dialogue have failed him—even as he has failed to relate back to them. After all, how do you converse with a man who’s stutter prevents him from talking back? After the dialectic fails to save Glaucon in The Republic, Socrates ends his conversation by saying that all that’s left to save a lost man, like Glaucon or Cleveland, is a Story—and that if we believe in that, we might be saved. In the film, as Story is about to ascend into the heavens, Cleveland’s last words to her—indeed, the last words of the film—are simply “you saved me.” And she has.
“Lady in the Water” has its weaknesses. Perhaps it was a bit rushed or perhaps Shyamalan’s experiment—to create not a story but a film about Story, is simply a fatally flawed goal. Nevertheless, by now we should know that this filmmaker is worthy of our trust. Even the lesser of his films merit discussion and thought. To dismiss it quickly, because of critics, boredom, or lack of understanding, is to miss something potentially great beyond. Shyamalan is no Plato, yet my first readings of that great philosopher left me thinking that he was simply making things up as he went along, telegraphing key points and avoiding plot and plot twists altogether. But the written word had more to offer me than the conventional Michael Crichton novel, just as we all know that motion pictures can offer us so much more than just thrills and chills.
“Lady in the Water” is a bold attempt by a popular filmmaker to create a marketable, and entertaining film that says something about the role of stories and storytellers in our society. How does Shyamalan view his role?
If we’re to take his part in the film as any sign, he’s received the Truth already, from another Story, and now his purpose is simply to pass that Truth on, through his own stories, to whoever will listen. He knows his work is not always good, but if he fulfills his purpose, the powers-that-be might just use him as part of that divine plan, which is the grand story of this lost world. CRO
2007 John Mark Reynolds