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.


Adam said...

I began watching the Airbender series in preparation for this movie, which I realize (not having seen the movie but having read reviews) was a mistake. But such is my deep-seated affection for M. Night, which is fairly unquenchable, though The Happening was particularly damaging. I even found elements to love in Lady In The Water, because I tend to speak in like fashion to the characters myself, making them a little less wooden to me.
That being said, I can neither agree nor disagree with anything I've read here, entertaining as it was to read, but I did want to enter a point of order. Under your heading I See Dumb Images, you point out the futility of imprisoning earthbenders in a pen made of earth, which is sensible. But here's the thing - in the original series, they were imprisoned just as you suggest - in a jail made wholly of metal, on an island. Your instincts are correct, and I'm extremely surprised that the source material would be altered into nonsense when it had provided a plausible bedrock.
Hmm. I still need to go see this - maybe the low expectations will help.

Daniel said...

You, sir, are almost singlehandedly making me want to subject myself to Airbender. I've made the case on my own blog that Shyamalan's films should be seen for historical purposes, but in this case I really just want to be able to join the conversation.

Nevertheless, I recently read an article where he explained his casting process as such: "My secret to all casting, and specifically kids, is cast good human beings. ... I'm not casting a chameleon who can become a million different things. I just want them to be them. And I want them to put themselves in these circumstances but I want their humanity to come out."

In other words, his "secret" is that he specifically does NOT look for "actors" (chameleons), but just good kids. Huh.

Noomi - completely agree about the casting, though I have not seen Fire and don't intend to, and for that matter was so unimpressed by Tattoo that it will take someone like Fincher for me to justify seeing the American version. Nice call about flipping cars!

And Nolan, well I see that he has officially reached rabid blogathon-worthy fandom from people after TDK, but personally I'll take something like The Prestige over another Batman installment. That's why I'm so excited for Inception, and why, thank the Lord, I have so far successfully avoided every trailer and almost every still image and poster from this film. I don't exactly know who's in it and I have only the faintest, probably inaccurate clue as to what it's about. Perfect!

Craig said...

I just saw "The Happening" again, on Steven's (tongue-in-cheek) recommendation that it rewards repeat viewings, and I'll go further and say that Night's dialogue is beyond nonsensical. Two examples with poor Zooey illustrate the point. In the first, which Shyamalan underlines with the gravitas of an Ingmar Bergman chamber piece, she confesses to her husband that she had an illicit "dessert" with a co-worker. Not dinner, mind you, which would at least suggest something more intimate; dessert. In the second, near the end, she tells her newly adopted daughter to hurry or she'll be late "for the first day schools open." Why not just say, "for the first day of school", like a sentient human being? It's downright inexplicable.

I think I liked "Dragon Tattoo" a little more than you did. Not a great thriller, but it held me for most of its overlong running time -- and Rapace, as you mentioned, is a big reason why. I agree that it's a fairly accessible movie for American audiences. Yet it also has a distinctive Scandinavian moodiness that I'm a sucker for (cf., "Smilla's Sense of Snow," "Let the Right One In"). Fincher or another capable American director might give the thriller elements more verve, but I'm having a hard time envisioning anyone replicating the atmosphere.

Christopher Nolan... I like most of his movies; even "The Prestige," which ultimately left me cold, was undeniably interesting. Still, I can't detect any thematic thoroughfare in his work that's worth exploring, nor a singular style beyond a certain esoteric detachment. For this, I'm surprised he's earned so much emotional investment from fans.

Bryce Wilson said...

Hey Jason, thanks for the plug.

@ Daniel I assure you, I was on the Nolan train long before TDK.

@ Craig: There are three thematic threads that I believe run through all of Nolan's films. 1) A protagonist defined by his inability to move on from a central trauma. 2) An antagonist who serves not just as a foil for the "hero" but the social contract as a whole. 3) A complete codependency between the two. Each defining themselves by the other.

As for his style, he's one of the last formalists in the wild which alone makes him worth examining.

Jason Bellamy said...

Adam: Wow! Thanks for that report on the cartoon series. I've seen exactly none of it, so I had no idea. I'd pat myself on the back for being so smart, except that, yeah, it's pretty friggin' obvious how the earthbenders would need to be imprisoned. What is Shyamalan thinking? Or, perhaps more accurate, is he?

Daniel: Believe it or not, I think Shyamalan is on to something with his approach to casting kids. Usually the kids who are chameleons come off too stage-y. Shyamalan is trying to keep it simple. I can respect that. His real problem is that the lines he's giving these kids are so atrocious that they need to be Brando to pull them off. Simply put, the director and talent scout named Shyamalan should fire the writer named Shyamalan.

Craig: Those moments you highlighted from The Happening are additional examples of the way Shyamalan gets locked in to his narratives and never bothers to think about whether the words coming out of his characters' mouths make any sense whatsoever. I won't be rushing to watch The Happening anytime soon. But if I ever do a comprehensive examination, I'll have to suffer (or laugh) through it once more.

Bryce: My pleasure. I hope it goes well. Gotta say, that potential throughline that you've identified in Nolan's work makes me eager to read your posts!

Daniel said...

Bryce, allow me to retract/clarify my comment. Certainly Nolan is worthy of a blogathon (as if I could make a case that someone is not) and I'm sure you've been a fan of him for years. I didn't mean to direct that you to in particular, but I think it was some frustration still lingering from TDK and those who only know Nolan as "the guy who made the Batman movies". As it is I think I'm just taken aback by the 9 months or so of hype leading into this week's release (I myself contributed to it earlier this year) compared with The Prestige or Insomnia. It's almost like he has two career identities - Batman and not Batman. Thanks to you I'm sure people will discover the non-Batman Nolan. I've already enjoyed the Bowie/Tesla analysis drawn out by your blogathon.

Jason, I think we can agree that pretty much everyone comes off as too stage-y in Shyamalan's films, so yeah, the casting really doesn't end up mattering anyway. Maybe that's what all of the protesters should have been asking. Not did he cast the wrong actors for the roles, but does he even know how to direct the actors in the first place.

Bryce Wilson said...

Daniel; Thanks for the kind words. I think the hype for Inception has really been because of just how dire alot of this Summer has been.

It took the excitement level from "Wow I this new movie from "The Dark Knight" guy looks interesting to "Here's one movie that might not make me hate movies."

As for the whole Shamalyan thing, it makes me sad. I mean sure, I can respect that he's having a one of a kind meltdown that's coming in a kind of perfect storm. I liked Drew McWeeney's analogy of a Shamalyan's last two films being like talking to someone drunk at a party, whose trying to tell you a story he can't remember. Unaware that they have pissed themselves and has their dick is hanging out.

Then again he also compared The Lady In The Water to that footage of the monks burning themselves in Vietnam. Which is also pretty spot on.

But man I really did like Unbreakable the Sixth Sense, and yes even most of Signs.

Sadly I have been able to convince myself walking into The Village, Lady In The Water (Words cannot describe the almost existential horror I expirienced watching that film and realizing how badly my faith had been misplaced) and The Happening, that despite what I heard this would be the one that brought Shymalan back.

And I just can't do it anymore. The Last Airbender is like that car coming up the drive in Saving Private Ryan, telling you that all hope is gone.

I think the scene that encapsulated what I loved about Shymalyan was that scene where Gibson (who coicedently bottomed out the same week) stops right before the invasion proper began, and told his children the story of their birth.

Any filmmaker who could fit a moment that idiosyncratic, personal, warm and yes more then a little awkward is one to be mourned.

Bryce Wilson said...
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Bryce Wilson said...
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Richard Bellamy said...

Jason - I like your notes here on Shyamalan's establishment of mood and his once-talented use of cinematography. As I commented to your post on Airbender, I re-watched Signs after defending and praising it. I followed that viewing with a re-watch of The Village. I love the world he creates here; I am engrossed in that world from the beginning to the very last frames in which we see townspeople through the doorway responding to Ivy's return. Then Ivy walks in the door and up to Lucius's bed and says she has returned. And Shyamalan creates another gripping world as well - Covington Woods - chilly, icy, dripping, muddy, choked with vines. Visually alone, The Village is an excellent film.

The Film Doctor said...

Having recently finally gotten around to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was struck by how much of it was conventional (torture scenes, fireballs, evil rich people) except for the Lisbeth character. She's the only one who has the capacity to do the unsuspected, and her Aspergers-like affect makes her hard to read. Noomi even seems scornful of the film's cheesy plot devices.