Monday, July 12, 2010
Notebook: Night, Noomi and Nolan
As depressing as it is to observe M. Night Shyamalan’s once promising career hemorrhaging like a narf that’s been mauled by a scrunt, I enjoyed the thoughtful (and often funny) analyses of fellow bloggers in the comments of my review of The Last Airbender. My interest in the best of worst of Shyamalan is so severe that I’ve come to realize it is my calling to at some point analyze Shyamalan’s career in more comprehensive detail, perhaps with a video essay (or two). Alas, with various other commitments (including that darn day job), I won’t be getting to that anytime soon. So, while they’re still fresh, here are a few leftover thoughts about Shyamalan in general and The Last Airbender specifically.
M. is for Moodless: The most shocking failure of Shyamalan’s past two films (in a three-film slump) has been his inability to create or sustain a visceral or convincing mood. This is especially shocking because over his first four films Shyamalan seemed able to create mood just by falling out of bed.
For just one example, think of the early minutes of The Village: After the somewhat awkward funeral scene, William Hurt’s Edward Walker stands before his fellow villagers, who are gathered for a communal feast, and gives his “We are grateful for the time we have been given” speech. There’s a moment of silence, and then the villagers reach for their food.
As soon as they do, a vague, eerie howling noise emanates from the woods. The villagers freeze.
Shyamalan employs a slow zoom past the startled villagers (including a young Jesse Eisenberg) toward the ominous woods.
Cut to a shot of Adrien Brody doing his insane routine; it would alienate many viewers by the end of the film, but never mind – in this moment his laughter adds to the villagers’ nervousness.
From that scene, Shyamalan goes to what might be the film’s greatest strength: Hilary Hahn’s violin, which accompanies shots of the village in its daily peaceful routine. The haunting score suggests it’s a tenuous peace, but it’s peace just the same.
Shyamalan underlines the fragility of this haven with the next shot, which shows a hooded man standing guard in a watchtower at night, a line of torches burning on the ground below him.
You can take issue with where The Village winds up, but you can’t deny that it begins in a living, breathing place inhabited by people whose varied emotions are instantly understood without words. This is terrific mood-setting. In his next film, Lady in the Water, Shyamalan also created a compelling visual mood, but this time his cinematography was repeatedly undone by his second biggest failing: poorly written dialogue.
Poison Pen: As Jake pointed out in his excellent Airbender review, Shyamalan’s dialogue is often purely functional (there to advance or otherwise explain the narrative, usually as literally as possible) or purely nonsensical (putting words in the mouths of characters that don’t align with their established motivations or emotions). Sometimes it’s both at the same time. For example, there’s a scene in Airbender in which Nicola Peltz’s Katara looks at Aang and says: “I always knew you would return!” This sounds great out of context, evoking the suffering of a people waiting for their savoir. Trouble is, about five minutes ago we learned that Katara and her brother Sokka are mostly ignorant about the history of the Avatar. In his recent films, Shyamalan has had an annoying habit of giving “crucial” dialogue (we could argue whether it’s actually as vital as Shyamalan belives) to any character who happens to be nearby. This begs the question: How did Shyamalan regress as a writer? Well, with the understanding that his three recent films are especially sloppy, maybe he didn’t.
The Importance of Context: Let’s look back: The two main characters in The Sixth Sense are a child and a child psychologist who must communicate with one another in an equally understood vocabulary. Unbreakable is a comic book brought to life, evoking the straight-arrow purity of Clark Kent/Superman. Signs has a significant focus on children. The Village (spoiler warning) is about a modern people playacting an ancient lifestyle, in custom, dress and, yep, speech. What these films have in common is that they exist in worlds in which simple, straightforward, naked, earnest dialogue seems not only acceptable but perfectly appropriate. This masked, or at least justified, Shyamalan’s clunky sentence construction up until Lady in the Water, when the dialogue went from clunky to obscene and we couldn’t forgive it or explain it away. (It didn’t hurt, by the way, that Shyamalan’s first four films put his dialogue in the mouths of Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix – guys with enough experience and talent to give expository or ridiculous dialogue some heart and plausibility.) The other problem with Shyamalan’s recent films is that he’s become overly reliant upon the verbal, moving away from the visual.
It’s Cinematography, Stupid: How long does it take you to tie your shoes? Two seconds? OK, well, how long would it take you to verbally describe how to tie a pair of shoes? Much longer, obviously. Ever since Lady in the Water, with its intricate fantasyland, Shyamalan has been telling stories that are difficult to visualize. (Hello, the menace in The Happening was the wind! The sitcom Mad About You had an entire episode where Paul went loony trying to figure out how to film the wind.) Shyamalan's characters do a lot of explaining, because short of that we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing. Or maybe we would understand, but not with the level of detail that Shyamalan hopes to provide. Very little in Shyamalan’s last three films could be entirely conveyed by the cinematography alone, the way he sets the mood in that early wordless sequence from The Village. Frightening as this will sound, given Shyamalan’s noxious dialogue, his past three films would work better as audiobooks than films.
I See Dumb Images: Shyamalan’s recent tendency to obey the word over the image is perfectly encapsulated in a scene in Airbender in which Aang and his friends come across an internment camp for earthbenders. According to the narration and dialogue, the earthbenders were imprisoned by the firebenders as part their evil plot to rule the world, or whatever. So let’s think about this for a second: Earthbenders are only a threat to firebenders in the presence of earth. Thus the best way to imprison earthbenders would be to confine them inside metal boxes or ship them off to an Alcatraz-like island compound where water impedes their ability take arms against their oppressors. Pretty simple, right? So where are the earthbenders actually imprisoned? On the other side of a big wall, in an area full of earth. This is equivalent to jailing MacGyver in a Swiss Army knife factory. If the earthbenders were a threat on one side of the wall, they are an equal threat on the other side of the wall. In fact, you could argue they’re a greater threat, because now they’re unified. This isn’t an error of narrative logic, let’s be clear. It’s an error of cinematic logic. It just doesn’t look right. Shyamalan’s visual interpretation asks us to believe that the earthbenders simply accepted their imprisonment, almost as if they didn’t realize they could fight back … until Aang inspires them, of course.
Unthinkable: As I continue to come to terms with Shyamalan’s recent ineptitude, I’m haunted by an image of Bruce Willis crying. I’m not being metaphorical. If you happen to own Unbreakable on DVD, go right now and find the deleted scenes. Unbreakable has a few unusually impressive deleted scenes, but none of them is more affecting than the one of Willis, as David Dunn, crying in the shower. I’ve only seen that scene once, years ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. I’m amazed it didn’t make the final film, not just because it’s a well-staged scene (it works in the vacuum of the deleted scenes category) but also because of the balls it must have taken for Shyamalan, making his second signature film, to cut a scene in which his A-list actor bared himself both physically and emotionally. I can’t imagine most directors would have the nerve to cut the kind of scene that gets an actor put on Oscar-watch lists. There’s no fault whatsoever in the scene itself. Shyamalan cut it simply because his film functioned better without it. It was a brave choice, and probably the right one. And it suggests instincts that Shyamalan hasn’t demonstrated in his three recent flops.
Having watched The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, I have no idea how Hollywood is going to Americanize this successful Swedish series. See, it’s Americanized already. Affinity for violence? Check. Unbelievable plot twists? Check. Overstaying its welcome? Check. Sure, I suppose we could add some additional Hollywood flourishes: some flipping cars, some shots of the film’s heroine strutting away from explosions and, of course, more product placement. An American version could also mute the girl-on-girl sex. But, more or less, the only thing keeping these Swedish films from running in any multiplex in the country right now is the fact that they require audiences to read subtitles. So, rest easy, fans, because there aren’t too many ways an American adaptation can screw it up. I mean, other than the most important one …
Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth Salander, the computer-hacking, kickboxing, bisexual vigilante. Another actress might be able to do justice to the character, but it’s almost impossible to imagine another actress rivaling Rapace’s interpretation. For starters, Rapace has “the look,” in more ways than one. She has the figure, scowl and strut that Lisbeth should have. She also has the stare. By nature of the plot, these films spend a lot of time watching Lisbeth looking at things – staring into her computer screen, or watching someone from the darkness. It’s incredible how compelling this can be, and it’s largely due to Rapace. There's something about her face, her eyes, her intensity. Rapace’s Lisbeth is the only element of the Swedish films that will not be easily duplicated. Much of the rest could be easily improved upon (particularly if David Fincher directs!).
Just a quick note to remind people that Bryce Wilson is conducting the Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon all week over at Things That Don’t Suck. I was hoping to take part but probably won’t be able to. I hope you’ll contribute, or at least stop by and leave some comments.