If you want your movie to fail, be sure to have an independent
journalist publish a day-by-day account of its making. History is on your side.
In Picture (1952),
the founding entry in the genre, Lillian Ross followed the making of Huston’s Red
Badge of Courage; the movie sank. Theodore Gershunny’s Soon
to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980) expended 340 pages on Rosebud,
one of Preminger’s biggest embarrassments. In The Devil’s Candy (1991),
Julie Salamon chronicled the fiasco that was The Bonfire
of the Vanities. Clearly, an outsider’s making-of book portends a flop.
Just as bad, the author’s conclusion will be foregone. No matter how accommodating the filmmakers try to be, they will emerge as fools and knaves. The author will skip over most technical and financial aspects of filmmaking in order to present a rogues’ gallery. In a 2002 reflection on Picture, Ross confessed: “I happen to like forthright, up-front crooks and villains, and I gloried in finding some of them in Hollywood” (p. x). But the writer doesn’t attack frontally. The urbane journalist, usually from the East Coast, drops in on this curious world and calmly records words and deeds, never intervening in the conversation or passing an overt judgment. Seen from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, the world-class dopes, vulgarians, egomaniacs, phonies, and backstabbers will convict themselves. Here is Ross, New Yorker writer, sitting in Chasen’s in 1950 and watching director David Miller thrust himself on producer Dore Schary:
He held onto Schary’s hand, giving him an incredulous, admiring stare. “You look wonderful, Dore! You look wonderful!”
“Sweetie, how are ya?” Schary said amiably.
The young man continued to stare at Schary; he seemed to be waiting for confirmation of something. Then he said, “You remember me, Dory! Dave Miller!”
“Of course, doll,” Schary said.
“R.K.O.!” Miller announced, as though he was calling out a railroad stop (p. 29).
Four decades later, Salamon, from the Wall Street Journal, recounts how Melanie Griffith greeted the Bonfire screenwriter, after climbing off Tom Hanks’ lap:
She leaned over, holding a smoldering cigarette in one hand.
“Hiiii,” she said. “What a thrill….”
Cristofer looked pleased at the recognition. He started to say something. Griffith, however, had taken on a businesslike tone. “When Boris pours the champagne, do I have to say, ‘Eat your ass?’ ” she said. “It’s so crude.”
The screenwriter looked nervous. He glanced over at De Palma, who wasn’t looking his way. “It’s supposed to be crude,” he said quietly.
“Couldn’t I be crude without being so gross?” Griffith’s voice was sliding into a whine (p. 277).
In these books the dream factory becomes a gargoyle funhouse, and nobody escapes. At best, a few participants gain stature by patiently bearing up under the daily compromises and corruptions of a corrosive business.
Still, you have to wonder what a book laying bare decision-making at Microsoft or Enron or the Oval Office would look and sound like. Would you meet epitomes of mature, moral, thoughtful behavior? Would you witness activity bereft of any hubris or self-regard? It’s doubtful, but anyhow we’ll never find out. No executives or politicians in their right minds would let an outsider into the suites when the deals are done. They know that uncontrolled publicity is bad publicity. By comparison, our moviemakers’ egotism seems touchingly naïve. Confronted with the opportunity to have a name journalist track a production, they must think: If people could only understand the process, they’d really appreciate what we do. Anyhow, how could the publicity hurt? (Answer: See previous paragraphs.) Insiders regularly forget that middlebrow journalism will always highlight every act of show-business venality it can find. Peter Biskind has made a career out of treating contemporary American cinema as a circus of lunacy and petty spite.
Media journalists are so accustomed to the acid-etched
portrait of a film in production that they were taken aback at Michael Bamberger’s The Man
Who Heard Voices; or, How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale (New
York: Gotham, 2006). In chronicling the making of Lady
in the Water, he tries to capture the cast’s and crews aspirations
and energies, while also plumbing the director’s creative process. Naturally
he also notes some excesses, mostly provided by the drunken clowning of cinematographer
Chris Doyle. But Doyle, for all his nuttiness, nonetheless turns in gorgeous
footage. (For technical details, and an account omitting Doyle’s Heineken
consumption, see Benjamin B’s article, “A Nymph in Our
Midst,” American Cinematographer, 87, 8 August 2005,
38–51.) On the whole, Bamberger treats participants with a fair-mindedness
that is rare in the genre.
Accordingly, the book has been castigated as “adoring” and “gushing” (Variety), “carrying water” for its subject (Los Angeles Times), and “genuflecting” (New York Times). Since Bamberger declined to do a hatchet job on Shyamalan, the reviewers have stepped in. They focus on the lifestyle details he itemizes, from the director’s penchant for exposing his chest hair to his favoring chicken breasts with “perfect grill lines.” The reviews ignore Bamberger’s account of Shyamalan’s ideas about filmmaking, of his sincere, if spacy, search for a story that will thrill his audience, or of his directorial technique, which is probably the most fussily precise in Hollywood cinema today. All of these aspects of the creative process directly affect what shows up on the screen, and what we viewers respond to. But media journalists are largely uninterested how a movie gets its unique look and feel. They’re convinced that the stories that grab readers are about people, preferably people at their naughtiest. Every anecdote, every brand name and glimpse of celeb behavior should whisper Gotcha again. (Again, the gold standard is Biskind, whose books provide several jabs per page.)
Who are the villains here? Shyamalan offered his script to Disney, for which his previous four films, from The Sixth Sense (1999) to The Village (2004), had grossed a total of $1.6 billion dollars worldwide. This is not a man you want to brush off. According to Bamberger, however, at a dinner meeting Buena Vista president Nina Jacobson was frank in stating her doubts about the screenplay. Shyamalan reacted badly. He felt betrayed and humiliated by “conformist executives” (p. 50). This stretch of the book, told from Shyamalan’s viewpoint, has roused reviewers’ scorn, as if Bamberger were siding with a narcissistic director carried away by his own legend. But just before this scene, Bamberger establishes Jacobson’s initial response to the script. She worried that the film would be too wordy, too reliant on an obscure mythology, and too scary for the Disney audience. (The previous films had been released under the adult-oriented Touchstone banner). Jacobson consulted with a colleague, then told Shyamalan’s agent, “We don’t get it. We don’t think it works.” So the dinner meeting was the Disney suits’ efforts to lay everything out for the director. More striking, and unmentioned in the most hostile reviews, is the coda to the dinner, in which one exec says to Shyamalan as they depart: “Just make the movie for us. We’ll give you the sixty million and say, ‘Do what you want with it.’ We won’t touch it. We’ll see you at the premiere” (p. 52). Shyamalan, shattered, refuses and sinks into self-absorption, muttering about story points and hearing a “screaming” chorus of voices inside. His agent warns him that his career is taking a precipitous turn, but Shyamalan pays no heed. “That was the beginning of the madness,” notes Bamberger (p. 52). Melodramatic this portrait surely is, but it isn’t fawning.
As a followup, Bamberger visits Jacobson after shooting is finished. Granted, he can’t resist gotcha pinpricks. She is wearing “a chic suit of fine wool” along with “leather work boots that could have stomped anything,” and her voice is “intense, scratchy, somewhat whiny “ (p. 249). But she emerges as a calm person who had hoped that Shyamalan would accept Disney’s offer and continue to work with her. Bamberger spends several pages balancing her viewpoint against Shyamalan’s, and he finds hers no less reasonable. “In a way, what she did was brave. The easy thing to do would have been to say yes to a director who always made you money” (p. 254). What we get is not genuflecting but a fairly nuanced picture of two agendas, both somewhat justifiable, that fail to mesh.
Just as Bamberger could have painted the Disney people as wolves, he could have presented a more unblemished portrait of his subject. We see an anxiety-ridden Shyamalan, swinging from self-infatuation to self-doubt. His “voices” drive him to desperation. He seeks criticism in order to make the film better, but he curls up defensively when he gets it. He comes off as fairly vain, but also generous with his time and money. In other words, he seems about as contrary, self-absorbed, and contradictory as, say, most people.
The book’s yarn-spinning strategies deserve as much attention as its central player, and on this front as well reviewers haven’t been entirely fair. We need to recognize that the on-set exposé is built almost wholly out of artifice. How, after all, can a writer armed with no more than a pad (3×5 inches was Ross’s favorite) supply verbatim conversations involving several people, complete with intonations, gestures, and eye movements? Who will pipe up that Melanie Griffith didn’t start to whine or David Miller’s voice doesn’t sound like a train conductor’s? We accept these fine-grained accounts as more or less accurate because we expect that these scenes have been amplified in a novelistic mode, by the writer’s creative license. We give a blank check to the reporter, and it can be filled in only by literary conventions. Before Capote’s In Cold Blood invented the “nonfiction novel,” Ross’s Picture openly borrowed from fiction. She told her editor William Shawn that her article on Red Badge would be “a fact piece in novel form, or maybe a novel in fact form” (p. ix).
The novelist’s supreme artifice is revealing minds
at work, and this raises the problem of the Voices, a gimmick that Bamberger
uses to dramatize Shyamalan’s creative turmoil. I grant that this is a
bit hokey, but reviewers have reacted too strongly to Bamberger’s psychic
probings. The LA Times critic felt that “There’s something
smarmy about the author’s seeming access to his solipsistic subject’s
brain.” Yet mindreading is a convention of the genre. Mostly the reporter
sticks to externals, the telling comment or brand name that betrays base motives
and shallow minds, but he or she can’t resist occasionally channeling somebody.
Literary techniques like stream of consciousness and free indirect discourse
slip in. Salamon begins a section of The Devil’s Candy:
De Palma felt weak as he rode back into Manhattan, just as the sun was rising. His boys—he thought of Karl Slovin and Doug Rushkoff as a unit, whose name he couldn’t remember—had forgotten to stock his trailer with his diet drink. He was determined to keep his weight down; after 6:00 p.m. he ate nothing except his Dutch chocolate diet drink…. He was annoyed at Monica Goldstein… (p. 210).
How does Julie Salamon know all this? She tells us in her epilogue that “when I presume to say what someone was thinking at a given moment, I am reporting what that person later told me he or she was thinking” (p. 421). This can lead to Robbe-Grilletian twists, as in the passage above: she reports De Palma’s thoughts about two people, naming them, but at the same time she says that he can’t recall their names.
So it may not be such a stretch for Bamberger to give us the cacophony of his protagonist’s voices. Shyamalan confided his thoughts to his chronicler, and his inner monologues are usually about something more important than diet drinks. At the fateful dinner meeting with the Disney team, Shyamalan resists their compromises:
Night knew he could not do that. Spend a year of his life trying to prove them wrong? No. What a waste of energy. He could not make a movie for these three people. Their lack of faith in Lady in the Water would infect the whole project (p. 51).
This reads as something that Shyamalan could plausibly have told Bamberger later, in more or less the same words. More interestingly, Bamberger breaks the rules by signaling the gap between Shyamalan’s perspective and other possibilities. When star Paul Giamatti seems to be pulling away from the project, Bamberger provides some distance.
Night couldn’t see the reality, that Paul Giamatti was an actor in demand with a lot going on. Night wasn’t accustomed to dealing with real-world intrusions. You were supposed to get sucked up into Night’s world and to hell with everything else. But that wasn’t happening (p. 88).
At still other points, Bamberger acknowledges that his inferences are his own. Shyamalan casually diagnoses a flight attendant as desperate and lacking in faith, to which Bamberger responds: “The whole time, it seemed to me, Night had been talking about himself: He was hanging on by a thread” (p. 66).
Still, other clichés of the New Journalism work against Bamberger’s project. The obligatory lifestyle details can invite us to find volumes in trivia. When he reports that Jacobson offered Shyamalan’s assistant “low-carb soup from the refrigerator,” Janet Maslin of the New York Times concludes that Bamberger is putting Jacobson down. “The implications are clear: It may have come from a can.” This slight went over my head, but maybe I’m just not sensitive to the “deep fault lines of privilege, power, and class” that Maslin detects in the book. Still, I do notice such fault lines in the Times Sunday magazine, when a story about inner-city violence is sandwiched between voluptuous fur and perfume ads; but there it’s more obvious.
The Man Who Heard Voices isn’t above
snobbery. Bamberger meets “Night” at a party in a tony Philadelphia
suburb. The driveway is vast, a child rides by on a pony, and “what we
thought was the house was really the guest house” (p. 2). The party
features millionaires and a tennis star. The rich-folks motif recurs throughout
the book, especially when we visit Shyamalan’s farmhouse and see those
striped chicken breasts. Again, however, mixed feelings about crass moguls are
a convention of the genre. In Picture, even as Ross puts down producers’ wives,
she admires their elegant dresses.
Yet if Bamberger were merely star-struck by Shyamalan, how to explain the author’s reaction to the finished product? Lady in the Water disappoints him, really only engaging him in the last fifteen minutes. Shyamalan asks, “Where did it lose you?” and Bamberger reports a lengthy conversation in which he lays out all his objections. “It felt good to be able to speak to somebody who felt he needed to hear what he didn’t want to hear” (p. 270). Bamberger’s critics, expecting a string of gotchas, have taken sympathy for sycophancy.
Bamberger points up some faults, but overall he likes Shyamalan. Is that really breaking the rules? Lillian Ross gazes almost worshipfully at Huston, devoting several sentences to the way he lights a cigarette or mounts a horse. Surrounded by pretentious phonies, he does the best job he can on Red Badge and lopes off to direct The African Queen. He was Ross’s friend at the start of her project and remained one until his death. Bamberger offers nothing in The Man Who Heard Voices so calculated to ally us with the filmmaker as Ross’s early anecdote of heading out to a Manhattan dinner with Huston and pals. She tells us that Huston loves New York in the summer, he wants to go out among the common folk, and he appreciates Modigliani. If all that doesn’t endear him to New Yorker readers, the party comes upon a derelict sprawled on the sidewalk. Huston takes charge. He bends over, takes the man’s pulse, and waits a theatrically long time before announcing, “He’s—just—fine!” “He tapped his hat forward with satisfaction and jauntily led us away. It was a scene from a Huston movie” (p. 20). Not from Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though; there the lanky gringo played by Huston staked a fellow American to a meal.
The curse of the on-set chronicle was fulfilled again. Lady in the Water was mocked by reviewers and lured virtually no one into theaters. The film seems to be trying for the sort of spiritual sublimity that Spielberg sought in Close Encounters. But it’s hurt by a rather static situation, names that are easy to make fun of (narfs, scrunts, etc.), some outright silliness (Cleveland curling up like a toddler to hear the folktale), and a rushed finale. As a thriller, it fails; the scrunts are scary, but that stems largely from the spikes on the soundtrack. It was bold of Shyamalan to confine the film to the apartment complex, creating a closed milieu consisting of fairy-tale types, but often they come across as forced (most notably, the film critic Farber). And it’s easy to hate a movie that has its characters omit contractions: “I do not understand.” “Where is the justice?”
For all that, the film displays stylistic ambitions that
we almost never see on American screens. Critics have made fun of the plot’s
clumsiness, but as usual, they’re oblivious to anything about visual texture
that isn’t in the press release. (Who would have commented on the look
of Miami Vice if the publicity hadn’t spotlighted its cutting-edge
HD technique?) It’s a pity that Bamberger’s book doesn’t go
into such matters either, but as a sportswriter at least he has an excuse.
So let me point out that Lady in the Water is
rather daringly directed. Shyamalan is a genuine filmmaker; he thinks in shots.
Unlike the filmmakers who believe in interrupting every shot by another one,
Shyamalan tries for a natural curve of interest as the image unfolds to its point
of maximal interest. In this film, his characteristic longish takes—on average,
twelve seconds—are allied to his most oblique visual design
yet. The first dozen minutes are engagingly elliptical, quite unlike anything
in normal American cinema. The partial framings, offscreen characters, incomplete
shot/ reverse-shots, to-camera address, and teasing layers of focus throughout
the film echo late Godard and create a pervasive unease reminiscent of the domestic
passages in Unbreakable (for me,
the director’s best film). In his commentary on deleted scenes in the DVD
version of The Village, Shyamalan explains that a shot that decapitated
Bryce Howard was too “aggressive” for the naturalistic tone
he wanted, but Lady makes fragmentary framings, often sustained for
many seconds, more prominent. Some compositions, especially that showing the
Smokers and others split up by the shower curtains in Cleveland’s bathroom,
are quite inventive.
As Cleveland Heep, Giamatti carries the principal
burden of interest, and his conviction saves a good deal of the film from feyness.
Shyamalan’s technique sustains the actor’s portrayal. Full shots
acknowledge the tentative moves of this awkward, lumpy body (Giamatti’s
performance includes the placement of his feet), cropped mid-shots don’t
hide the paunch, and prolonged close-ups carry the climax. “I should’ve
been there to protect you,” he murmurs, not just to Story but to his dead
wife and children, while the hands of his witnesses clutch his shoulders. Here
as elsewhere, Cleveland is in focus while other characters dissolve into blobs
of light. In the film’s final image, though, he is similarly decomposed,
as he’s seen standing on the pool’s edge, watched from below—the
point of view of a submerged narf, but also the image of a man redeemed by water.
Who has conversations in the rain? Farber asks. Only characters in movies, he
answers. It’s left for Cleveland to suggest that maybe it’s a metaphor
If Lady in the Water had been made
by an obscure East European director, reviewers might have praised it as magical
realism and tolerated its fuzzy message of multicultural hope. (The constant
playing of TV battle footage from Iraq would doubtless have earned points too.)
It was Shyamalan’s misfortune to make a somewhat goofy fantasy at a moment when critics were poised to puncture his reputation. Let’s remember, though, that many respected directors have spawned “personal” projects that come off looking strained, eccentric, even suicidal. Brewster McCloud, New YorkNew York, 1941, and Radioland Murders all come to mind. I hope that once the chatter fades away, people will appreciate the virtues of Bamberger’s book and of Shyamalan’s film.