Much has been made of Michael Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices, the M. Night Shyamalan exposé cum apparent handjob, even before its release—slated for July 20, one day before the director’s kamikaze bedtime story Lady in the Water hits theaters. As the book’s subhead, Or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, promises, the book is, as evidenced in the excerpt published this week in Entertainment Weekly, a “full-length, unintentionally riotous puff book.” ( Janet Maslin in Monday’s Times.)
Certainly, Voices, designed to make us all Shyamalan acolytes, has conversely provided more than enough ammunition for Shyamalan detractors, as well as maybe even the ability to convert some of his more ardent supporters into shamed haters. The main thrust of the book seems to be that the India-born, Philadelphia-bred director, he of the cinema in which creepy crawly monsters fight for narrative supremacy with overdetermined religious allegory, is one of filmdom’s great visionaries; what the media has glommed onto is specifically the Bamberger’s reportage of the dissolution of Shyamalan’s relationship with Disney president Nina Jacobson, resulting in his leaving the studio that had fostered his wildly successful career over four hit films.
Yet the conflict, as delineated in the book, brings up more than just a director’s ego, and, especially once one has seen the film, it raises a lot of the gnarliest issues concerning “artistic compromise” and “studio interference.” As much as one would like to champion the individualistic agency of the artist in the face of studio domination, the truth is that Shyamalan’s brattish severing of ties was based on Jacobson’s rather constructive criticism of his Lady in the Water script, over a dinner, which, sadly, Shyamalan just couldn’t eat because of his poor frayed nerves and hurt feelings. How dare she recommend that Shyamalan not a) cast himself in a sizable supporting role as a VISIONARY writer who will literally CHANGE THE WORLD through the power of his words, and b) choose to embody the bane of human existence a weaselly, introverted film critic who deserves to, and actually DOES, meet a rather sticky end at the jaws of a snarling beast. (Sidenote: the critic’s name is…Mr….FARBER!!! Oh no, Night, you wouldn’t wish death on poor old frail Manny Farber, would you?!?)
Jacobson’s queries—which also extended to the film’s rather vague storybook narrative, predicated as it is on the great faith of the viewer—were valid to a movie studio (a business) that might not be willing to shell out 80 million dollars on a likely flop. In prime misunderstood-genius fashion, Night stormed out of the restaurant, and finally took Lady to Warner Bros.
Then again, the conflict points to the central contradiction of Shyalaman himself as a self-made auteur—he’s always perched the line between utterly idiosyncratic and profoundly audience courting. The resulting film is indeed incredibly strange, off-putting, and likely not going to reap huge box office. Yet it’s also admirably personal, uncompromised, and dazzlingly filmed. All the eccentric hallmarks are there (contained settings, scenes filmed exclusively in single master shots, compressed timeframe, offscreen lurkers), even if, unlike in the gorgeous, severely underrated The Village, they don’t quite “function.” Jacobson was right; yet had he listened to her would Lady in the Water be as ineluctably, maddeningly, memorably bizarre, and thus unlike anything else you’re going to see at the assembly-line cinema this summer?
And, of course, as many will mention, there’s the demonizing of the critic, which is indeed a whiny, practically Solondz-esque form of self-defense cum self-defeat, a backlash to his Village critics that will nevertheless only create more bad will towards him. It’s a brazen shot-in-the-foot, to be sure, but emblematic of a director who has no qualms about putting his neck on the chopping block.
Bob Balaban as the critic who cried wolf