(Alas, I also wrote these notes long ago and am only now rewriting and publishing them.)
Lady in the Water should have been welcomed by Christians, not to mention the rest of the population. Those who were dissuaded because they heard or read that the message is watery and “New Age” were sadly misdirected. The kind of bar for a Christian film set by such criticism, the kind implied by the Washington Times‘ reviewer, only seems like a viable threshhold because it is not ever defined. Does the reviewer really expect a Christian director (Shyamalan, though of east Indian descent, is a Roman Catholic) to come out saying only by faith in JC may ye be saved? But that kind of preaching would not belong in a movie; it belongs in a sermon; film is too different a medium. Audiences smell preaching a mile away and they only like it if they agreed with it before they walked into the theater. Such a film would probably not be released, much less seen, unless otherwise tailored for the Christian market from the outset, ala Left Behind.
There are messages, ideas, concepts in the movie which, if not explicitly Christian, and if they could just as well be “New Age,” are nevertheless true, uplifting, inspiring, and represent what the best art is all about and what it should do. Mainly, the film’s theme is this: Ordinary, everyday, imperfect people can yet take part in a mythic story. This is an idea that John Eldredge has greatly succeeded in popularizing, but which as been elucidated by the likes of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and other Christian writers, in telling us that Christians can take this one step further to say we are participating in a mythic story whether we know it or not.
It is amazing that Christian critics have not been able to see the Christian faith that is subterranean in Shyamalan’s movies. The Sixth Sense was a horror story that turned out to be a story of redemption (and in quite a Catholic sense, in that this redemption could be experienced after death and before Judgment Day). Unbreakable seems to have relied on a comic book reality invading our own—again, the mythic breaking into the everyday. Signs had quite an upfront affirmation of Christianity, esp. in how the priest had his faith renewed (don’t forget the heavy conversation on the couch with his younger brother) as indicated in the final scene where he is putting on his clerical collar. The Village largely failed on a popular level because it ultimately dealt with a question that only Christians and few others could identify with: Do we take our children and community out of the world to avoid being ruined by its evil, or do we stay in and try to redeem it? The understanding that this issue is more important than werewolves on two legs striding about to attack people, is something only Christian believers and few others could agree with. To others it seems unreal, too abstract, too minor. But after all, they are the world.
In Lady in the Water, Shyamalan gives us many redemptions:
- The life of the main character, Cleveland Heep, is redeemed. Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the property manager of an apartment complex that towers over a swimming pool. In fact Heep baldly tells “Story” at the end, “You saved my life,” referencing renewal not mortality. Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a beautiful, naked, non-human who turns up in his apartment, dripping wet. She is from another race, a naiad type of people called narfs, and she is being pursued by her people’s enemy, a race of werewolve-type creatures called scrunts, because she is destined to be queen. In a crucial climactic scene, he sobs from deep in his guts as a group of women lay hands on him, as he gets in touch with the pain of having his wife and children murdered many years earlier, and his guilt over that, because he was not there to protect them. He confesses it, I daresay, as well as confessing his love for them (he says, in that scene, “seeing your faces was like seeing God.” Now how is that for some nice, Biblical, family theology?).
- Story is redeemed as she is set free to rejoin her people (though I missed why she was flying on an eagle and where she was going).
- The Writer is redeemed as he finds the power to live out his calling.
- Story’s world of the sea people is redeemed by her, the Madam, coming into her own.
- And our entire world is to be saved indirectly by the book the Writer is writing. In addition, the Writer perseveres with writing this book even when he learns it will cost him his life—he will be murdered because of it.
There’s 5. Now, name me one successful, high quality “Christian” movie or New Age movie that has dramatically portrayed that much redemption in one film, not including movies about the life of Christ Himself?
There are clear hints that something besides New Age-Joseph Campbell mythologizing is going on here.
In the beginning of the film, Heep is falling asleep in front of the TV but before he does so we hear a gospel song about “Going Down into the River.” Baptism. We don’t see the TV (it is in the background and out of focus) but the announcer breaks in to tell us we are at a church service, for Marines about to go off to war. This similarly plays into the plot, for it tells us what exactly there is about this world that seems doomed and needs redemption.
Not long after that, the character who is expert at crossword puzzles is trying to figure out a word—the first time in the movie we seem him doing so, before we know anything about it. “What’s a 9-letter word for ‘in human form’? he asks his son and then answers out loud: ‘Incarnate’”.
At one point the Indian sister says about the crossword puzzle character, “God is speaking to him through a crossword puzzle!” It is a funny line and deserves the laughs it gets. It also melts the tension incipient in most of the audience: Isn’t it ridiculous for a revelation to come through something as mundane and apparently irrelevant as a crossword puzzle? Certainly this plays into New Agers’ hands, who ala the Tenth Insight or whatever it was called, and Jung I guess, love finding meaning in the patterns of the world and their lives (though Christians in and since the NT can and do too.) But my point here is that she says “God,” not something else.
At another point Heep tells the life-denying, rather hostile film critic that in a film rain could be a symbol for cleansing and newness of life, or something like that. The critic (who as many have pointed out probably stands in for the critics that have hounded Shyamalan since his break-out movie) rudely dismisses the notion without supplying reasons, but for this and other sins he gets his comeuppance later. My point is that the film ends when Story is carried off by the great eagle and the characters are all outside on the lawn around the swimming pool getting rained on by both man-made sprinklers and heaven. Newness of life. Redemption for all.
Along with such an intensity of redemption in the plot, the film has many messages that could be considered “New Age” as equally as Christian, but they are nonetheless a welcome alternative to the secular, Nitzschean, Libertarian, atheist, do-it-all-yourself, we-are-all-alone theme of the modernist and postmodernist culture:
- the idea that some “stories” (i.e., fairy tales, myths) are true;
- that we can live these myths out;
- in them each person has a purpose;
- that discovering your purpose is a profound thing;
- that “miracles” such as physical healing are possible.
For Christians to be wary of films like this because they are also susceptible to a New Age interpretation would be a profound mistake.
Shyamalan has succeeded in creating a mythic, fairy tale that is entirely believable. Almost. I was a bit incredulous that the residents were willing to believe in Story (note if you haven’t yet the import of her name) and her story. But I suppose that is part of the message too, as you may have guessed from that last sentence. Some stories are hard to believe. For most of the world today, stories with a supernatural element, such as the incarnation of God and one man redeeming all humanity, are very hard to believe. In this film, to believe in Story means finding your role in the redemption of the world—and perhaps for all we know, of other worlds.
Yet there is one more crucial element to the plot that takes us away from New Age and solidly into Christian territory. “Say something that will bring out your energy,” Heep is told in the aforementioned scene as he cradles Story and attempts to heal her (for he has discovered that Healer is his role). But what he comes up with, the suppressed memory and pain over his wife and children, is not strength and does not seem like energy. He talks to Story, who by all appearances is dead, and apologizes to her, says he should have been there with her, begins sobbing–and in the next sentence is no longer talking to Story but to his departed family: “I should have been there, I should have protected you…Seeing your faces was like seeing God.” He is actually bringing out his weakness, not his strength. What religion apart from Christianity could have a person doing that as a mode of “finding your energy” and healing another? Portraying, as Henri Nouwen expressed it, a Wounded Healer? For it is Christ destroyed on the cross, suffering in agony, for the world’s sins that have become his, that is at the heart of Christian faith. And in that scene Heep also tells his dear, departed family about Story, that “I think she’s an angel.”
The critical derision heaped upon the film after its release is astounding. It won Razzies for Worst Director and Worst Film. As summarized in the film’s wikipedia article, no one understood what S. was trying to do or was able to enjoy it.
Because S. cast himself as the Writer whose book would change the world, the critics committed the puzzlingly immature fallacy known as the biographical fallacy (have I got that right?) reading the author into his script. Are we really supposed to think S. thinks of himself as the world’s savior? Clearly, there is a bit of intentional irony there, in his casting, for S. is the writer of this film, a film that has self-reflexive aspects throughout. And S’s casting choice is also fitting because, as most serious writers and artists know, we would like to create something that would help save the entire world—-and dream and put effort into doing so—-even if, short of schizophrenia, we know this is almost impossible. I just can’t put S. into that category of unreflective narcissism that would belong to someone taking himself so seriously. Remember, also, that ala Hitchcock and other directors, S. gives himself a small role in every film he makes.
And film critics seemed to have taken personally the film-critic character who is nasty, petty, uncharitable, and–central to the plot–wrong about who the correct Roles are–which leads to disaster–and who in the end is (the only character) killed by the scrunt. The critics seem to have taken this as a serious, personal attack. Obviously, they cannot laugh at themselves. Who is it that has the swollen ego?
Critics also were befuddled because they did not know how to categorize this film. Psychological drama? Horror? Fantasy? As if categories rather than artists create films, artists who almost by definition aim for originality. The critics failed at the very point in which they are supposed to excel: Understanding something completely original and being able to elucidate it for others.
This a finely crafted film, as good as anything coming out of Hollywood. It is telling that the critics faulted nothing in the craft. There is no bad or inappropriate acting, no scenes that don’t work, no failures in the dramatic structure, no jokes that fall flat, no lame dialog. The only thing the critics could criticize, apart from their aforementioned touchiness concerning writer and critic, was the genre itself, what the film was trying to be and do. They were not able to suspend disbelief. They could not abide this new genre, neither sword & sorcery fantasy nor magic realism (as in Like Water for Chocolate) . They just didn’t get it.
This was not one of the worst films of 2006. It was one of the best. In fact, I cannot think of another that attempted anything like it, in its peculiar mix of fantasy/myth and realism, and it succeeded with joyful intensity.