Alas, Poor Lady of the Waters

Posted in Side Topics at 8:00 am by Sam

Way back in Episode 4, Stephen assured us all that not even I could possibly like M. Night Shyamalan’s latest dark fantasy, Lady In the Water, released this past summer and hitting DVD just recently. I cannot tell a lie. Stephen was wrong. I liked Lady In the Water.

Let me qualify my statement. I think Shyamalan is still in his downward spiral. I was one of a few to like The Village, but I thought it was a far cry from The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Lady In the Water is another big step down. The film doesn’t work as the thriller it was sold as, that’s for sure — I enjoyed it from a totally different angle. But I wouldn’t argue with anybody that hated it, which is why I decided to post about it, rather than bickering with Stephen on the show.

So what was that totally different angle? I’m completely befuddled as to why I haven’t seen reviews mention it, why the ads for the film tried to hide it, why all the criticisms I’ve read miss it — even the IMDb’s genre listings don’t categorize the film correctly. This is a comedy! It’s a parody of myths and fairy tales and all their arbitrary rules about who is what and how things have to be and how crazily complicated things must get. I’ve read a lot of negative reviews of the film complain that the story doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t, but I think that’s the point. I’m not making up excuses for it. The film is very active and deliberate and conspicuous about making fun of its own story.

Consider a scene where the motel owner (Paul Giamatti) consults with the mother of one of the maids for details of a bedtime story that seems to be actually happening. She doesn’t speak English, or at least doesn’t choose to, and so he’s on the cell phone with the maid, who asks to have the phone passed back and forth as she plays mediator. It’s a pretty funny scene, played out in a comic rhythm. More of these types of scenes ensue, and with each one, the picture is complicated further. There isn’t just a Chosen One (prophecies naming a “Chosen One” — that exact term — is a pet peeve of a cliche for me, and I rolled my eyes when I heard it until I realized the movie was using it in jest), there is also a Guardian, a Protector, a Guild, and all kinds of other preordained roles, and in the time-honored tradition of such things, the heroes are ordinary people — virtually all of which are quirky comic sidekicks of some kind — who are unaware of their own importance in the cosmic scheme of things. And obviously there is an arbitrary but crucial element of time — the arbitrary but crucial important thing can only happen at an arbitrary but crucial point in time, provided that arbitrary but crucial circumstantial requirements can be met. There’s an arbitrary but crucial villain, all the more dangerous for breaking an arbitrary but crucial rule.

The film both celebrates and parodies the “arbitrary but crucial.” Myths are rife with them. You can’t look Medusa in the eyes, because you’ll turn to stone. Have you ever really thought about that? The legend is old enough that it gets respect it would never, ever, ever have gotten if it had shown up for the first time in a recent movie. Sleeping Beauty can only be woken by the kiss of true love. Huh?? Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies, but he can become a real boy if he learns to be good. Yeah, right! Tell me another, pal!

Lady In the Water makes fun of those kinds of thing, inasmuch as it celebrates how cool and compelling they can be. It’s more successful with the former than the latter. It’s a tough balancing act, trying to make fun of something and pay tribute to it at the same time, although certainly there are great movies that do just that. But Lady In the Water made me laugh, and that ain’t bad.

I mentioned before that while I liked the film, I wouldn’t argue its merit too hard. There is one aspect, though, that I think is absolutely brilliant, and that’s Paul Giamatti’s performance in the lead role. Giamatti is utterly fantastic. He gives this role his all, and I think he strikes exactly the right notes for every scene, even when the film itself misses the mark. And the film asks him to do a surprising amount with his role — because it’s not all that much of a role, and yet he’s called upon to play both dramatic and comedic notes, to be utterly sincere about preposterous material, to bear the scars of a tragic past and yet not play the role too heavily. He nails it all. I think if this exact same performance appeared in a better movie, we’d be talking about Giamatti in the Oscar race. I certainly think he should be in the running, but of course nobody nominates a great performance from a poorly received film, no matter how deserving.

I also liked Bryce Dallas Howard, as the sea nymph that shows up unexpectedly in the motel swimming pool. Unlike Giamatti, she’s not asked to do very much at all, but she does right by what she’s given, and she has a pale, exotic beauty in her face that’s just perfect for this character.

Most of the other characters are one-dimensionally comic. The best of these is the absolutely hilarious character played to a tee by Bob Balaban. I absolutely loved his comic delivery of pretty much all his lines, and his scenes were my favorites.

Which leads me to the next big subject I want to talk about, which is the not-so-subtle parallel with Shyamalan and the critical reception to The Village. As usual, Shyamalan plays a small role in this film. This time, he plays a writer, who is destined to write some great work of art and inspire a global reawakening that will save the world. The aforementioned Bob Balaban plays a critic…who is always wrong!

Critics and entertainment journalists had a field day with that last summer. We heard a lot about how unbelievably arrogant Shyamalan must be, portraying critics of his writing as stodgy nincompoops interfering with an important world-changing artistic process. Certainly his preexisting reputation as an egomaniac did not help matters.

Shyamalan is far from the first director to lambast critics in a movie. Caricatures of Siskel and Ebert, as a recent example, showed up as corrupt politicians in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (though, inexplicably, they were not eaten). The difference here is that Shyamalan isn’t just taking down the critics; he’s also building up himself. But I dunno. Maybe Shyamalan is an egomaniac and really believes what he’s written, but if we take the movie on its own terms, apart from any real life reputation the man has justly or unjustly accrued for himself, this is all so absurdly over-the-top that it feels very tongue-in-cheek to me. Right or wrong, it’s fun. And, honestly, if I were a director and could include something fun in a movie that would set critics off on frothy tirades, I’d probably be tempted. I got nothing against critics. I just think frothy tirades are pretty funny.

Anyway, the bottom line for me is that I didn’t think Lady In the Water was a great movie, but I did enjoy it. It’s not focused at all, but Giamatti’s performance tenuously holds it together, and it pokes enough fun at itself that I was amused and found the film a pleasant diversion.

This is, I suspect, the furthest Shyamalan can go before he loses me, though. One more step down that downward spiral, and that’ll be a negative from me. I think at this point, he needs to do something radically different (Lady In the Water is pretty different, but it looks the same), and/or direct somebody else’s screenplay. He’s great with story ideas, and he’s a great director, but I don’t think he’s nearly as good at writing screenplays. If he hooked up with the right collaborator, threw a story idea at him, and directed the screenplay that came back, the potential is enormous.


  1. Stephen (221) said,

    December 27, 2006 at 10:11 am

    The reason nobody has mentioned it being a comedy is because it’s not. There are comic bits — surely all the terrible characters are meant to be funny — but the movie is serious about its myth, because Shyamalan thinks it’s a good story.

    I have not ever heard Shyamalan discuss the movie in anything other than seriousness, and the crazy improvisational nature of the film’s story seems to come from its source: it’s a bedtime story he made up over a period of time as he told it to his kids. Sadly he has not seemed to have edited it much.

    You’re laughing at it for the same reason we laugh at Sinbad’s “plot.” It’s funny because it’s so stupid.

  2. Sam (405) said,

    December 27, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    I considered that possibility, and I anticipated the counterargument. Certainly Shyamalan in interviews seems to be taking the mythology seriously, which is preposterous. But I also don’t think that’s a fair criticism.

    If you take the movie on its own terms, it is a comedy. If you watch Giamatti react to the increasing complications of the mythology, it can’t be anything but. Giamatti’s performance is comedic, and he makes the movie a comedy. I thought it was absolutely hilarious, every time the old woman told him something more about the whacked convolutions. Giamatti’s reactions are just priceless.

    Now, here’s something I could very well accept: Shyamalan was directing a serious thriller, while Giamatti was acting in a comedy. That makes total sense to me, and it’s a great example of why you can’t rely on an interview with a director to interpret a movie for you. Movies are collaborative efforts, and the director, while maybe the biggest piece, is still just one piece of the puzzle.

    Then again, I dunno: the Lady is pretty much the ONLY character in the film who is not comedic, and she’s more of a MacGuffin than an active character. You could also make an argument for Shyamalan’s cameo, but as I said in my post, I read that as tongue-in-cheek anyhow. Everybody else is intentionally comic in some way. Giamatti plays his character comedically, and all the other characters are very much written that way by Shyamalan himself.

    Like I said, I don’t feel strongly about defending the movie, but I’d rather you settled for calling me wrong than reinterpreting my defense. I know the difference between laughing at a movie and laughing with a movie. I genuinely got the sense that “the movie” was in on the joke, and I’ve explained why. If I were laughing *at* the movie, I’d have been laughing hardest at the points when the film takes its plot seriously, instead of calling those moments the reason the film is only ok rather than great.

  3. Grishny (156) said,

    December 27, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    I went and saw Lady in the Water last summer, and I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t have told you why until now. I liked it for the same reason Sam did, and I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with every point he made in this post. Just about every memorable scene from the movie that I can still call to mind was comedic and made me grin or laugh.

    Sam, remember the bit with the milk and cookies? Hilarious.

  4. Dave (130) said,

    December 27, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    I’m very much of two minds about the idea of directorial or authorial intention in works of art such as movies and books. On the one hand, being something of an author, I know that a lot of thought and work (ideally, anyway) goes into the creation of books or movies, and at its heart art is all about communication–the artist using a medium to communicate a thought or an idea or a concept to the viewer or the reader. Usually when a work of art fails to convey a coherent vision, we call it a failure and blame the artist. Similarly, when it is too heavy-handed about its communication (such that it bludgeons you over the head with its message) we generally (although not quite as universally) consider that a failure as well.

    On the other hand, my “training” as an English Lit major drummed into me a distinctly anti-authorial intention bent. The meaning of a work of art is all about *you*, and has nothing at all to do with what the creator intended. You interpret it the way you like, and that’s the right way. For you. I guess. I was never quite sure about that line of thinking, because it sure seems to ME like the author should matter at least SOME.

    So clearly, as in most things, some middle ground is needed. Art is communication, so the intent of the artist is important. But art is also open to interpretation, so the viewer is free to interpret something in a way other than how the artist “intended”.

    The situation we seem to have here, though, is an artist who seems emphatically sure of his vision and what he was trying to communicate, and the fact that that vision was crap and communicated terribly. That’s usually a failure. But Sam argues that the movie actually has a completely opposite thing to communicate to the viewer than the artist apparently intended (comedy instead of drama) and thus it works on that level.

    I’m not sure what I think about that. Part of me just wants to say “if you set out to make a drama and somehow accidentally made a comedy, you failed.” If the comedy is actually pretty funny, though, and it works on that level, then I don’t know what to think.

    Since movies are a much more collaborative medium than novels or paiting or other artforms, though, I can at least see how this could happen. Shyamalan was making a drama. But all the actors decided his script was crap as a drama, and played up the comedy angle. So the director may still think he made a drama, when really he made a comedy. It seems like it’d take a pretty thick director not to notice that nobody in his “drama” was playing their part straight, though.

    Dammit. Stop making me want to see this movie. I was scarred by The Village, I thought I was DONE with Shyamalan.

  5. Darien (88) said,

    December 27, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    I was lukewarm on The Sixth Sense and haven’t seen anything else by Shyamalan, so I won’t get into the slump/not slump or genius/not genius angles at all.

    What I will do is say that, as an artist, nothing pisses me off more than people who ask me what my art means. I can’t help but think that the kind of people who would ask the artist for the meaning of the art are the same sort of people who have confused art with allegory. Sometimes one does set out to create art for art’s sake and not to make any sort of statement at all.

  6. Ferrick (140) said,

    December 27, 2006 at 7:20 pm

    Dave and Darien bring up some great points about the meaning or lack thereof in art. I took a rhetorical criticism class in college that focused primarily on monuments and public memorials (MLK, FDR, Vietnam, etc.) but also got into movies some. For most people, it was a class full of concepts that were very difficult to grasp and even harder to write about. One thing that came up several times was an artists intention when creating a piece of art. What I took from that class was that for most artists, they care more about *my* reaction to their art and a lot less about whether or not I understood their motivation. Artists did not want to reveal the meaning because it would taint other people’s reactions. So, either the artists motivation didn’t matter or there is no one (or any) “meaning” for the artist.

    Dave mentions writing and I don’t think I had every thought about the written word in the same way that I think about visual art, at least since I took that class. If something confuses me in a book and I think it is important, I will try and figure out what it means, through various means and to differing degrees. But if something doesn’t affect me, even if there is a hidden meaning, then either it isn’t important, isn’t effective, or I’m just missing out.

    I watch movies and some TV shows the same way. I don’t need to know every little piece of symbolism to enjoy a show like Lost and if I won’t get something unless I go to the Internet to look up some obscure quote, then the show’s producers will lose me. But if looking it up enhances my enjoyment of the show/book/whatever, then great.

    I’ve had enough books and poems ruined by teachers forcing me to explicate and compare and contrast to death.

  7. Sam (405) said,

    December 27, 2006 at 8:31 pm

    For me (and I suspect Dave, as we’ve discussed this before), the big question concerning authorial intent isn’t so much “Can I benefit from this without knowing the author’s intent?” as “If I devise an interpretation of the work that the author didn’t intend, is it valid?”

    For example, if — real example here — someone comes up with a long critical essay explaining how Lord of the Rings is an allegory for Nazis and World War II, and then Tolkien subsequently comes along — as I understand he did — and say that’s total bunk, that he never intended anything of the kind, and Lord of the Rings was simply supposed to be a rousing adventure story, then is this “WWII allegory” interpretation valid or invalid?

    Some of the English professors Dave and I know would argue that Tolkien’s opinion is entirely beside the point. If it means, to a reader, an allegory for WWII, then by golly it’s an allegory for WWII. I, on the other hand, would argue that it’s total bunk.

    Which is not to say that an essay comparing Lord of the Rings to Nazis is an inherently flawed undertaking. On the contrary, I can imagine a number of interesting and insightful and productive things to say in such an essay. Just don’t say that’s what Lord of the Rings *means*.

    I don’t fall entirely on the side of “authorial intent,” however. I’m trying to figure out where I draw the lines, and I don’t think I can come up with a definitive answer. I do think art can contain a number of insights and meanings that the author didn’t “intend” to put there. They can get there subconsciously, or even by accident. A storyteller with an intuitive understanding of human nature, for example, might create fleshed-out characters that feel and behave authentically, and because of that, there may be some great observations about human nature that a reader might divine that the author didn’t purposely put there to be discovered. But that’s a far cry from making specific declarations about what elements in a story symbolize.

    The other issue is this: just because an interpretation is “consistent” with a work doesn’t mean it’s “supported” by the work. I think it’s ok to talk about interpretations that are “consistent,” but it’s important not to label those interpretations with any sort of definitive status.

    An example of each. The movie “Crash,” I believe, illustrates the message that racism isn’t as one-sided as we like to think it is, that in fact people who (perhaps unwittingly) oppress with racism may very well also be (perhaps unwittingly) victimized by it. I think the film actively supports that interpretation…pretty obviously, in fact.

    Contrast this with the recent discussion we had about Minority Report. A possible interpretation of the film is that everything that happens after a key point toward the end is a hallucination. If you subscribe to that interpretation, it completely changes the message of the film from what you’d get if you took a more literal interpretation. Both interpretations are “consistent” with the film, but I don’t think the hallucination interpretation can be shown to be supported by the film, only consistent with it. Furthermore, I think the literal interpretation is, at minimum, “more supported” by the film, if only by the keep-it-simple-stupid razor. That doesn’t make it invalid to discuss the hallucination interpretation — far from it; it’s an interesting thing to speculate upon — but a claim that this is the “correct” interpretation is unfounded.

    The more outrageous a consistent-but-unsupported interpretation, the more dubious it is. I’m sure that with a moment’s thought, I could reinterpret Star Wars and make Yoda out to be the secret villain behind it all, a spy posing as a Jedi master but secretly manipulating the goodguys into a series of traps. I could come up all kinds of convoluted explanations to explain away every scene that seems to contradict the theory, and if I were good enough at piecing together my argument, it would be unassailable by the movies, because, hey, it would be consistent with them. You’d know intuitively that my theory was all bunk, but how would you demonstrate that? Maybe “keep it simple, stupid” would do, but I think our old friend “authorial intent” would be a valid counterargument as well.

    So, uh, I have no easy segue into my conclusion.

    To conclude, does “authorial intent” have a voice in the validity of an interpretation of a work of art? While many scholars argue no, I would very emphatically argue yes, inasmuch as I think it’s not entirely a black-and-white argument, and ultimately it all depends on what you do with an interpretation that doesn’t align with the author’s intent.

    Bringing this back to Lady, is it possible that Shyamalan thought he was making a good drama, and what resulted was a good comedy? Unlikely, but sure. Genre classification is, more or less by definition, an assessment of the effect art has on its readers, not what effect it’s *supposed* to have. And it doesn’t touch on the meaning of the work at all, which is primarily where authorial intent comes into play.

    But for Lady, the question is moot. Because as Dave suggested toward the end of his post, movies are collaborative works. Lady In the Water was not solely authored by M. Night Shyamalan. If he was trying to make a drama, and the actors were trying to make a comedy, there’s nothing that says he was the one that got his way.

  8. Dave (130) said,

    December 27, 2006 at 8:43 pm

    I think there’s definitely a difference between a completely visual art like painting, sculpting, or I guess monument design and writing. There’s definitely a difference between both of those categories and a mixed-medium artform like film, where you have not just visual images, but also sound and sometimes even writing all mixed together.

    This is a film site, but I’m not really a film buff. The medium I’m most familiar with is writing, so that’s the only one I feel even remotely qualified to talk about. But when I say something like “art is communication” what I really mean is that art should convey something to the viewer or reader. This may or may not be anything that the artist intended, or anything that the artist was thinking about while creating the art. The “communication” may actually be between different parts of the viewer–an inner dialogue on a subject you’d never given much thought to before, for instance. Art should, in some way, make you think. About something.

    Certainly some art is all about conveying a particular message. Propaganda can be considered an art form, and it’s clearly all about making you think a certain way. Advertising is really nothing but a slightly less sinister form of propaganda–graphic artists who work on print ads are trying desperately to convey a message to you: “You *want* this product.”

    But even more conventional forms of art often are meant to convey messages from the artist. Think, for example, of pretty much any Oliver Stone movie. He’s got a message, and he’s trying to tell it to you, in the form of this entertaining movie. You could argue this is a form of propaganda I guess, but let’s not bog the argument down in semantics too much.

    On a more basic level, though, art, especially novels and movies, are trying to make you feel something in every scene. It might be tension, it might be fear, it might be joy, it might be revulsion. But generally, every scene is trying to convey something to you, the audience. This is really where the idea of art as communication is useful (at least to me) and where I get most of my interest in thinking *about* writing or filmmaking. I like to think about how these things work on the small level–how did that scene make me feel, and why did it succeed (or not) in making me feel that way? Was how I felt how the artist *intended* me to feel? If I laughed during what was clearly supposed to be a sad scene, that’s probably an indication that the artist failed on some level (or maybe I’m just a sadist…) All of these pieces fit together to make a whole, and sometimes the work as a whole has “something to say” as well–and sometimes, maybe it doesn’t.

    I know a lot of artists like to not tell people what their art “means”. I can understand that to a certain extent, but part of me always wonders if that’s not just a cop-out to hide the fact that they themselves have no idea what it “means” and are just trying to hide that fact. A lot of people have the idea that art is just something that happens, and an artist is just a medium between whatever mystical muse you believe in and the canvas/page/screen. I think that’s bunk, personally. Art is primarily hard work. Art is what is created by the astute application of a craft by a master craftsman. Art takes practice, discipline, and hard work to get right. A writer might agonize over a single word for minutes or hours, trying to find just the right word to use to convey just the emotion he wishes to convey. A painter might spend a week just assembling the brushes and paints for his next project, deciding which to use and which not to use to accomplish whatever it is he is setting out to accomplish. And a director like Kubrick might notoriously demand take after take after endless take from his exhausted actors, demanding that they do it again and again until he sees the scene on film exactly as he saw it in his head. Sometimes art is easy. Sometimes the words just flow, the painting seems to paint itself, the actors get it right in just one take. But more often than not, those seemingly “easy” results are the result of long hours of practice to know exactly how to get the results you want. The more you work at the craft, the easier the “art” gets.

    I guess I’m getting off the subject. By now I’ve entirely forgotton what the subject *was*. Oh well. Babbling is fun.

  9. Darien (88) said,

    December 28, 2006 at 12:22 am

    I have a problem with your Tolkien example, Sam, in that you specifically use the term “allegory.” I *don’t* think it’s defensible to claim that Tolkien’s work was an allegory for World War II if Tolkien himself denies it just because, as near as I can tell, allegory *requires* that the authour wrote a specific meaning into it. So if you declare it an allegory, you’re not just finding your own meaning, you’re stating that the authour himself intended this meaning. Bit of a difference.

    As for Dave’s comment as regards not telling people what art means being a “cop out,” I don’t see this at all. I don’t as an artist frankly see why it even *matters* what I think my art means. To my mind, value in art is as perceived, not as imbued. It would be one thing, of course, to have a friend-to-friend “what do you think it means?” sort of conversation, and I think that’s a good thing. But when you get the artist involved, it’s almost like invoking authourity - I don’t want to comment not because of any fear of inadequacy on my part, but simply because I know that, as the artist, *my* interpretation will be given more weight than yours, if not by you then at least by others. That’s not what I want. Trust me, if I want you to get a certain “message” from my work, you’ll get it. It won’t be subtle. Otherwise, hey, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So too with significance.

  10. Stephen (221) said,

    December 28, 2006 at 1:27 am

    I don’t want to get into a debate about authorial intent, but I fear have to.

    I still don’t buy the assertion that LitW is a comedy. Maybe for you, Sam, but I don’t see it that way. I won’t deny that there are a lot of comedic elements. Certainly characters like the Ridiculous Asian Stereotypes or the Half-Muscled Man were supposed to be funny, but I think the mythology itself is presented seriously.

    The constant escalation of the myth and the overall arbitrariness of it never struck me as intentionally funny (I certainly laughed at the movie on these points). You say you know the difference between laughing at and with a movie; I say you’re being too generous and giving the movie the benefit of the doubt. Obviously you have to take the film on its own terms to some extent, but to figure out if something is being intentionally funny or not requires us to really examine intent (by definition).

    Again, if we ignore the intent of the filmmakers, then I can argue Sinbad is a 5-star comedy that hilariously skewers fantasy movies, and it’s all the funnier because it almost never winks at the audience. Without referring to the intent of the filmmakers, how can you debunk this argument?

    Anyway, even as a comedy, I think the movie mostly fails. Giamatti gives a strong performance (I don’t think Oscar worthy, but definitely the highlight of the film), and Balaban does a lot with a poorly written character, but everyone else is playing such ridiculous, broad characters that I didn’t find them funny.

    Nothing in the film is believable because none of these characters (except Giamatti’s) seem at all like real people, and the constant switching between silly and dramatic tones presents an awkward contrast that prevents the movie from building any comic momentum. Maybe this would work in a more outrageous parody in the vein of Mel Brooks or the good ZAZ spoofs, but no scene in the movie ever approaches that kind of comic payoff. If we’re supposed to care about the characters — which we must if any of the tense scenes are going to work — they have to be more than parodies.

    I could maybe get behind the movie a little more if there were anything in it that you could point to that showed the arbitrary nature of the mythology was supposed to be funny — that it’s revealed in funny scenes doesn’t strike me as the same. Going back to Shyamalan, this arbitrariness of his mythology is a real hallmark of his (see his hydrophobic aliens or the last minute revelation in Unbreakable), and I don’t see at all how he’s mocking it here.

    And Grishny, I think the milk and cookies scene is the single worst in the movie, if we don’t count the bits where it’s revealed that Shyamalan is going to save the world through his woefully misunderstood writing. How insane does Ridiculous Asian Stereotype Mother have to be for that scene to be believable?

  11. Dave (130) said,

    December 28, 2006 at 1:36 am

    Darien: I see your point, but I still feel in some instances the response is a cop out. Mostly because I feel that many artists subscribe to the “ART IS MAGIC” school of thought, and I simply don’t. Art isn’t something that just happens. Yes, some of the people who subscribe to the “ART IS MAGIC” school of thought actually end up making good art. But most of them don’t understand what they did or why after they’ve made it. And that almost stikes me as a lower for of art. This is purely a personal opinion here, but to me, a real artists knows exactly what he’s doing when he sets out to create his art. He knows what he’s trying to achieve, he knows how he wants to achieve it, and he works and works at it until he does it to his satisfaction. This may seem to take all the “magic” out of art, but that’s really the point. I don’t think art *is* magic. It’s just a craft performed really well by a master craftsman.

    I don’t mean that an artist sits down with an agenda of something he wants to “say to you” and then does it. A great poet probably wouldn’t sit down and say “I want to write a really happy poem. I’m gonna write the happiest poem EVER and make everybody really happy like me!” He’d be more likely to sit down and say “I’m going to explore the emotion of happiness in this poem.” The poem may end up being about an old bicycle the poet had when he was nine that made him happy. It may not make a lick of sense to some people. But if anybody asks him “What does the poem about the red bike mean?” the poet can say “I was exploring happiness in that poem” because he knows exactly what he was doing. And I feel a lot of artists *don’t* ultimately know what they’re doing, because they subscribe to the “ART IS MAGIC” school of thought and therefore think it’s somehow wrong to think too much about these kinds of things–they should just sit back and let the muse strike them or whatever.

    And I say nerf that. Art is hard. Work at it and understand it.

  12. Sam (405) said,

    December 28, 2006 at 10:56 am

    I *don’t* think it’s defensible to claim that Tolkien’s work was an allegory for World War II if Tolkien himself denies it…

    Well hey, I’m on your side. My point is that there are a lot of literary scholars out there that would disagree with both of us, and my point is that these so-called scholars are pompous windbags. But it’s a huge school of thought: interpreting and assigning meaning to a work depends ONLY upon the work. If you can make a sound and convincing argument correlating LotR to WWII, then by golly that’s what it means, unless you can produce a counterargument that ONLY uses the work. Appeals to authorial intent are inherently invalid. Like I said, I think this is bunk.

    Stephen: I agreed with pretty much 95% of what you say there. I just want to note again that I’m not ignoring the intent of “the filmmakers.” Again, if Giamatti was acting a comedy and Shyamalan was directing a drama, and I say the movie works (kind of) as a comedy but not at all as a drama, that’s really only acknowledging one of the filmmakers over the other. And certainly I also concede that even that is not especially defensible, or, more to the point, worth defending.

    Dave: You know this story, but maybe it’ll be an interesting addition to this discussion about the “ART IS MAGIC” fallacy.

    As a word of forewarning, the rest of this post contains not one shred of discussion about movies.

    Years ago, Dave and I were members of an online writers’ workshop called Critters. The idea was, there’s this queue of manuscripts, and every week 20 manuscripts become available, and members pick one or two and critique them. Meanwhile, they submit their own stories into the queue, and when they come up, they get critiqued by a number of other members. I put maybe four or so short stories through this system, one of which was called “The Mine.”

    “The Mine” was sort of an experiment about authorial intent. It was stream-of-consciousness writing that took the form of an arty short story. I cut back and forth between two different timelines, one about a group of kids exploring this abandoned mine, and one about an old man exploring it. The kids find an unnamed horror and run screaming from it. The old man finds wistful memories. There was no conflict, no character development, and I had no idea what I would write from one paragraph to the next.

    Afterward, I invented an interpretation for the work that frankly shocked me by how convincing it was to me. I wrote up an essay analyzing how it explores the erratic intensity of youth, how drama is exaggerated in young minds, and how age tempers old souls. I assure you, not the tiniest fraction of this retroactive analysis was in my head at the time I wrote the piece. I suppose one could argue that my subconscious was aware, and there’s no logical rebuttal to that argument, but I really, really, really do not believe it.

    I peddled this story around, submitting it to Critters, turning it in for an assignment in my English class in college, and so on, all for the purpose of observing the responses I got back from it. Unfortunately, I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I definitely got back a lot of utter confusion, no attempts at all to divine meaning in the work. In other cases, though, I got back some seemingly sound analyses. Nobody hit upon my own exact “interpretation,” but some of them got pretty close, approaching the same idea without quite reducing the “theme” down to a succinct “study of youth and age.” But they got close, approaching the general idea from intriguingly different perspectives. Maddeningly, nobody tried to assign any kind of authority to their interpretations. Nobody said, “This is what the story means.”

    The experiment was a ton of fun, and I look back on it with fondness. Frustratingly, I don’t think it ultimately proved anything. Is “The Mine” a complete failure as art because the “artist” was just pouring out words and purposely not trying to communicate anything with it? Or is it valid art, because at least some people divined meaning from it? Does the fact that the artist retroactively divined meaning from it impact the experiment at all? These questions tread perilously close to the question, “What is art?” and I would rather gouge my eyes out with a spoon than steer this thread of discussion in that direction.

    What interests me more is, is my own retroactive analysis of what the story “means” valid? I just don’t know. Maybe it’s valid, but dishonest for me as the author to say so, because clearly *I* didn’t purposely put that meaning there. But I’m somewhat inclined to say that it’s not valid in the first place.

    Suppose somebody picked five random letters out of a bag of Scrabble tiles, threw them up in the air, and they landed on the ground arranged such that they spell the word “IDIOT.” I ask two questions: (1) Is there meaning there? (2) Is there communication there?

  13. Darien (88) said,

    December 29, 2006 at 12:20 am

    1) Yes there is. It means “idiot.” Just because it was produced randomly instead of intentionally doesn’t mean that it says “idiot” any less.

    2) Since communication by design requires at minimum a sender and a receiver, and the situation has only one entity operating in it, no there is not.

    That said, I would say your analysis of the story is completely valid, simply due to the fact that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. As I more-or-less said in my previous post, meaning is derived *from* art, not placed *into* art. For example, imagine the artist who creates a work he really treasures, with deep significance to him. It’s a painting (say) of the woman he loves. He treasures this because it reminds him of what means the most to him.

    Now go forward five years. The artist looks at this painting, and still treasures it, but things are different now. The woman was sick, and she died two years ago. Now when he looks at the painting, he sees what he once had, and thinks about what could have been.

    Thirty years later. The artist is now an old man, has married, had a family, had a career. A life. He looks at this painting now, and it reminds him not of love or of loss but of his younger days. It’s now a reminiscence. Neither this nor the “five years” meaning was in his head when he created it, nor did he think of them when he was younger. Does that mean they’re “false” or “invalid” meanings? I would say clearly not.

  14. Darien (88) said,

    December 29, 2006 at 12:23 am

    Dave: Okay, I’ll cop to that. Quite likely in some cases it *is* some type of cop out, but I wouldn’t say that’s even frequent. When I was in school, I was part of a writers’ group (also a member of Critters, but this is a different story). Every time someone presented a story or a poem or whatever, the very first thing anybody would say is “so what does it mean?” That got on my nerves eventually, let me tell you. I’d just say “well, what do *you* think it means?”

    Nobody ever wanted to think about it, though. :-P

  15. Sam (405) said,

    December 29, 2006 at 9:26 am

    Darien, maybe we mostly agree. I don’t have any sort of instinctive problem with your painting example, which is an interesting situation. Maybe the problem I have is when art critics say, “This is what the painting is about,” and go on to describe one of those three different reactions someone might have, or something different altogether. In that case, I think the artist has the right and authority to say that’s nonsense.

    On the other hand, “This [piece of art] is about…” is not at all a buzzword phrase that’s always wrong, either. Sometimes art *is* definitively about something. Probably not so much paintings and sculptures as narrative art, but I dunno. Anyway, sometimes that purpose is obvious, and I think authorial intent is pretty much the final arbiter. But yeah, certainly there is room for art to inspire meaning that wasn’t what the author set out to do.

    I think I’m possibly more confused than I was when I started out on this discussion, and I personally blame you.

  16. Darien (88) said,

    December 30, 2006 at 12:21 am

    Hey, if I’ve confused just one person, that makes it all worthwhile.

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