Friday, February 29, 2008

Lady in the Water (review by Robert Augustus Masters)

Movie critics generally panned The Fountain," but really trashed Lady in the Water,” M. Night Shyamalan’s latest effort. And they didn’t just trash it, but also castigated Shyamalan for the role he played (a character who is apparently destined to have an enormous impact on humanity) in the film. Perhaps what incensed them the most was that the movie critic in the film was not only a desiccated pedant, but also met an untimely death, scripted of course by Shyamalan, who had received some pretty rough treatment from said critics for his earlier films (other than The Sixth Sense).

If I were to take “Lady in the Water” literally — as the children’s fable it supposedly is — then I’d perhaps be irritated by it, grumbling that Paul Giamatti’s virtuoso performance as the central character, Cleveland Heep, was largely wasted. But the very fact that Shyamalan lays out the tale the way he does — after all, he is a very skilled director — is a clue that more is going on than meets the viewer’s eye. (Hint: It’s more than a fable.) In fact, we are being invited not just to look, but also to look inside our looking. And how many movie critics are inclined to do that? Certainly not the majority.

To me, the entire film is about Cleveland’s interiority — and interiority in general, on both personal and collective (and maybe even transpersonal) scales. His is a badly fragmented psyche, compartmentalized without any awareness that it is compartmentalized. An apart-ment complex that he barely manages to manage.

He is us in our usual state (suffering a case of mistaken identity), made worse by the trauma (his wife and children all murdered) he has suffered and is determined to keep secret. The various elements, mostly disconnected or only superficially linked, that constitute him — as personified by the characters in the film — are not let in on his secret. Only the sea nymph, Story, knows, once she has surfaced and entered his life.

Her surfacing — his surfacing, projected onto her — stirs him up, reacquainting him with his pain and his longing to take care of what is naked and vulnerable in him. Her presence forces him to more deeply encounter those who live in the apartment building which he caretakes — that is, those who live in him. Each has a role to play in helping Story, and Cleveland works hard to pull it all together, trying to clearly identify what each person — each part or piece of him — is meant to do in this endeavor. The fragments of his psyche are not so scattered now, as the first signs of a coming together (and perhaps even an integration) appear, orchestrated by Cleveland. Although he is not particularly skillful, he has the advantage now of an increasing single-mindedness.

The common goal is to serve the needs of Story — the needs of his purity, innocence, and depths — but to effectively do so, he has to leave his comfort zone, dive deep, and meet what opposes the purpose with which he is aligning himself. Several encounters with dark, red-eyed, bristling monsters called scrunts shake him up badly, but still he persists. An unlikely hero, perhaps, but a hero nonetheless, aimed toward wholeness.

He goes for advice to the movie critic — his (and, of course, our) inner critic — and takes it in too uncritically. Only when the critic meets a scrunt and is killed by it (after dryly concluding that he will, no doubt, escape from it just in time, because that’s how these movies go) — and is therefore silenced — does Cleveland really start pulling it all together. Now he can finally hear what he needs to hear.

Nevertheless, Story is dying, and the person supposed to heal her cannot. Cleveland finally realizes that it is his role to heal her, to bring her back to life, so he lays his hands upon her wounds, and lets himself go into the heart of the trauma he has been carrying and hiding in the darker places in the apartment building. He weeps and grieves (and Giamatti does an astonishing job here) with abandon, crying for his loss without any self-consciousness. As he does so, Story is revived. And so is he.

Now Cleveland is no longer so apart from his myriad selves. They all go outside — stepping out of the complex that ordinarily contains (or overcontains) them — and align themselves with what must be done with minimal fuss and maximal cooperation.

As was conveyed earlier, each character can be viewed as part of Cleveland’s psyche. Before Story arrived (or was invited forth, however unwittingly, by him), he took superficial care of each character, keeping them in their place (and role), no matter how odd their behavior. However, once Story entered the scene, he took a deeper look at the residents of his building — thereby getting a better look at his interiority. The characters therein are colorfully varied, mundanely archetypal, all stuck in their identities, mostly disconnected from each other until Cleveland, now truly in touch with Story, brings them more and more together in a common and life-enhancing cause.

Think of your sleep-dreams, and how bizarre, odd, surreal, elusive, or disconnected they can be, and remember that everything in them is literally part of you — and not just the people or the role you play, but also the animals, furniture, plants, things, and even the space in which they all arise. Pretty amazing this is, but not so amazing as our tendency to take it all to be real, instead of recognizing it for what it really is.

Cleveland plays himself in the film, but he is also playing everyone and everything else, just like our dreaming consciousness. The more varied and colorful and bizarre the characters are, the less likely Cleveland is to recognize them as himself in disguise. But when he gets close to his depths and innocence and fragility, he begins to awaken, not enough to fully recognize what is going on, but enough to take fitting action, much like someone who, when being pursued by something in a nightmare, wills himself to turn around and face it, even though he doesn’t know he’s dreaming.

To heal is to make whole. “Lady in the Water” puts this across at a level rarely touched in film, and for this it deserves another, deeper watching. Curl up with the fable, yes, and get cozy beneath your blankets as you would for any good bedtime story (which, naturally, needs a few scary parts), but also keep your eyes open for what underlies the fable, existing between its lines and beyond its metaphors. You won’t be disappointed.

- Contributed by Robert Augustus Masters; originally posted on his blog (May 2007)

see also More Than Entertainment: The Fountain

The Integral News and Views blog aims to explore accessible and practical integral perspectives for people who are interested in getting beyond fragmented worldviews, who desire intimacy with all that they are, and who wish to help the world, themselves, and others evolve and thrive in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.

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