Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Admittedly, I'm otherwise an easy mark for offbeat genre films that look like they're trying to do something interesting. I'll give M. Night Shyamalan plenty of room to stretch. I like, at least on some level, all of his films that I've seen, even the one that I think is still largely beyond redemption on most rational bases (The Lady in the Water). He has bad taste, true, but I don't even feel the urge to hold it against him. I do wonder though if he's reached the point where, between his vocal, loyal fans, and his snap-judgment detractors, there is no longer any room for constructive criticism.

I was the only person in the theater for The Last Airbender - it was a Monday, noon showing and I was killing time because my car was in the shop. So I can't say a sociological word about how it played to "the audience." But I'm curious if my experience seeing this film is how most people feel when they have seen the last few (heavily, heavily criticized) Shyamalan titles. And I do think that here Shyamalan has strayed from believing, himself, in the travails of his characters (thus conveying this conviction to the filmmaking) to assuming that the audience was already on board, so he wouldn't need to do any work at getting them on board. Maybe it's because this wasn't an original screenplay, and that Shyamalan was handling a franchise; I don't know. The film is oriented toward children, and it does presumably have some global market ... so one can almost overlook the simplistic dialogue. Yet ... this movie takes no risks! No risks in trying to show us (e.g.) the chemistry between the pony-tailed fellow and the Northern Water Princess ... yet, at the same time, Shyamalan apparently feels it is necessary to have characters introducing other characters in order to say things like, "The avatar has something he has to say to you." Honestly!? (Regarding belief and risks, see Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's letter to Abel Ferrara...)

I suspect that if one watched The Last Airbender with some Pink Floyd album (or two) substituting for the soundtrack, things would be far more bearable. Even then, the imagery itself is so ridiculous that I was reminded of something I had previously (and charitably) forgotten, the whitewashing of the cast, so that the three heroes are caucasian but the "tribes" they represent are suitably "ethnic." The mismatch is so obvious in the film itself that it's distracting. I'd be more willing to temporarily overlook "whitewashing" as just your everyday Hollywood racism if The Last Airbender didn't make most of its supporting characters and background players "ethnic." But this, and Shyamalan's on-the-record profession of love for vague concepts like 'Hinduism,' or 'Japan,' just makes this film even worse.

My personal bone to pick with a lot of commercial historical, sci-fi, or fantasy stories is that, in trying to imagine a very different world, the film (or whatever) in question almost inevitably makes a few broad-brush changes to our own world, and then sutures up the gaps by making characters behave in utterly recognizable (and often comfortingly stupid) ways. Vocal intonations (and vocabulary/phraseology), gestures, hairstyles, characters' morality and mores, it all seems like such trifling coin to throw in the big fountain of Imagination. What I'd give for a for more movies & miniseries that were actually invested in probing differences, in imagining differences. It speaks to another problem at the heart of realism, and while this post isn't quite about that, it does help further set the stage for more to come here at EL ...

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