Beyond Art And Ego

Saw this interview the other day, where the interviewer adjusts his particularly large balls and asks M. Night Shyamalan about the Last Airbender reviews. Here’s the critical snippets:

Vulture: Have you read the reviews for The Last Airbender?

M. Night Shyamalan: No, I haven’t.

Vulture: Well, are you aware of the reviews?

Shyamalan: No, actually.

Vulture: Well, for the most part, critics have not been kind. Are you just ignoring them? Will you read them this weekend? Have you just not had time?

Shyamalan: Are you saying that in general they didn’t dig it?

Vulture: In general, no. Roger Ebert, who liked The Happening, did not. The first line of his review is, “The Last Airbender is an agonizing experience in every category that I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.” How do you react to something like that?

Shyamalan: I don’t know what to say to that stuff. I bring as much integrity to the table as humanly possible. It must be a language thing, in terms of a particular accent, a storytelling accent. I can only see it this certain way and I don’t know how to think in another language. I think these are exactly the visions that are in my head, so I don’t know how to adjust it without being me. It would be like asking a painter to change to a completely different style. I don’t know.

Vulture: Critics haven’t been kind to your last couple of films. Do you still worry about reviews?

Shyamalan: I think of it as an art form. So it’s something I approach as sort of immovable integrity within each of the stages. So if you walk through the process with me, there’s not a moment where I won’t treat with great respect. So it’s sacred to me, the whole process of making a movie. I would hope that some people see that I approach this field with that kind of respect, and that it’s not a job.

Rest of the review is right here.

Believe it or not, I don’t know that humility is a necessary trait in terms of creating, or storytelling, or quote-unquote making art, because the very act of putting yourself and your work out there already demands a robust ego. You’re saying, “My story is worth telling among all the millions of stories,” and so you package it up and spray it down with sweet-smelling perfumes (or Febreze, if you’re cheap like me), and then you put it out into the world with the express understanding that, “This is good enough for people to want to read this.” Or see it. Or hear it. Or whatever it is that you’ve cobbled together: song, film, novel, poem, iPhone app, webcomic, recipe blog, porn.

What Manny is doing here, though, speaks to why I’m very leery of ever calling what I do “art.” Art — improperly, incorrectly — is ascribed this kind of indestructible quality, this (as he calls it) “immovable integrity.” Once you let that be your platform, once you allow that to be the place from which you start, you have little to no room to improve. Shyamalan here basically believe he’s speaking a different, and possibly better, language.

He believes he created the best film he could’ve created.

Okay, fine.

He believes that what he did was art.

That he respects it. His process. To change the process, it’s intimated, is to disrespect it.

This to him is not even a job. It’s something bigger. Stranger. Altogether more ethereal.

And that’s where it gets wonky.

As creators, and this is just one man honking into the void, attitudes of this ilk are why I encourage you to view what you do as craft and not art. Is it art? Yes, no, maybe so. Don’t even worry about it. Let someone else decide. But if you buy in too deep, if you start to excuse the smell of your own stink as something immovable, unchangeable…

…then you end up hiding in an impenetrable fortress built of your own Narcissism.

It’s okay to love your mistakes.

It’s not okay to be blind to them.

Always be open to learn. And change. And grow.

20 comments

  • I dunno, man. Honestly, I felt like Shamalamadingdang’s answers were kind of cop-outs. It’s easy to go “oh, I’m artist, look at me struggle” and harder to make craft a story that can stand up to scrutiny and still have the ability to awe and inspire the audience. I think this line:

    I would hope that some people see that I approach this field with that kind of respect, and that it’s not a job.

    …is really indicative of how he feels. He didn’t work at it, or at least, not to hard. He puts the onus to appreciate his baby off on us. He didn’t give it the spin or the connections that could make it relate to us, something that (to the best of my knowledge) the series did. And that is strange – if he has such respect for this IP, why is that missing?

    Now, I haven’t seen the Last Airbender, so I am not going to jump on some bandwagon against it. I don’t like Manny. I’ve liked two of his movies, but everything I have ever seen or read about him just gives me the impression that he is incredibly pompous. His response to how his recent movies have been received doesn’t surprise me, and his response about the Last AIrbender doesn’t either. He thinks he’s given the world a new Venus de Milo. You can’t argue or reason with that kind of stance, and there is only so much pissing in the wind I can justify before I need to wash my hands.

    • Thing is, I *do* like him — and, I think were he maybe to revise his opinion of his own current slate of work, he might once more be able to deliver something as suspenseful and sharp as the Sixth Sense (or Unbreakable, or Signs). But the more he gives us this, the more we’re forced to wonder if he was a hollow man all along, and his good films were larks.

      Right now, my feeling on him is that he’s a Great Director, and probably a Not-So-Great Writer.

      — c.

  • So basically, he’s turned into Tim Burton with his “fuck you, I’m an artiste” attitude. Woo, I’m so kooky and unique. What I do is art, and no one understands me.

    The true measure of a flick is how quickly it’s pirated. Wolverine was available in an almost-finished form weeks before theatrical release. The Last Airbender has been out for 4 days now. There is yet to be a copy listed anywhere that I can see.

    • @Maggie:

      Is that Burton’s attitude now? I appreciate Burton’s visual style, and he’s done some real gems — I won’t write him off completely, but I do wish he’d so something with substance again, and more importantly, something original. Curiously, his kooky and unique attitude is actually not so kooky, and not so unique. It’s a little pat, now.

      To be fair, I’ve not seen ALICE yet.

      — c.

  • Can I stand up and cheer now?

    Screw it. I’m doing it without permission.

    That was THE MOST ego wanking piece of crap answer I have ever read.

    I used to really like him. That was dreadful. What you said, Chuck. If he’s unwilling to admit that he might have veered off course with something that’s plain stupid.

    Even the Great God of “Pop” Fiction Stephen King can admit when he’s written a stinker.

    Holy cow.

  • Right now, my feeling on him is that he’s a Great Director, and probably a Not-So-Great Writer.

    Now, that I can get behind to an extent. I think along the way he lost his ability to tell a story with images. It’s like when someone comes up and says “I have an idea for a movie” and all they describe is a character, or maybe a scene, or just setting – they have a fragment. They don’t have a story and they don’t understand why it isn’t complete.

    Manny’s movies have been like that for sometime. I thought Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were fucking brilliant – he lost me at Signs, and actively repelled me with The Village, I think he needs to step back from his success and get his mind back where it was in those first two movies and approach his art with the same respect that he used to show it. If he did that, and worked at it, we’d have our badass back.

  • Re: Alice…..beautiful FX’s stunning really

    story…..weak and predictable and……not the Alice I remember.

    Shyamalan: I thought at one point he would be our generations Hitchcock…creating horror by assisting us in creating in our own mind to begin with…and Shyamalan did that well in his early works. I am going to cut him a break, he is at LEAST trying to be creative and different….I cannot fault the guy for that.

  • I like the guy’s movies too, until recently anyway, and I haven’t seen Airbender yet, nor do I plan to see it. I agree with what’s been said above. Seems like he’s lost his way. Maybe te ego is a defense mechanism and he really just doesn’t enjoy the process anymore, so he’s just phoning it in and then defending it as “art.” From what I’ve heard, this is a movie made for an audience of one, his kid.

  • What I can’t stand is that studios hire him to make money. His job, to a rather large extent, hinges on him making and writing things that people WANT to watch. Right now h’s failing miserably. If he wants to take the back-seat to this and create his own crap and love himself that’s great. Just stop asking me to shill out money to look at it…because I won’t.

    I’m not a writer in the least so my perspective is that of a regular ass-hole that simply wants to be entertained. I love how the critical press widely pans Michael Bay but he know how to get people in the fucking seats. I love his shit (exception: Pearl Harbor). I’m not looking to write a 15 paragraph essay on what the whole thing means, I just want to forget about my life for 2 hours and escape into something different. Then I’ll come home and get back into my life.

    Shamhisface can’t do that anymore, for me at least. I come out of his movies wanting to smash myself across the face with a baseball bat. Same goes for that pompous ass Tim Burton. His peak, for me, was Beetlejuice. I love his artwork, but I hate his movies. I warn you: Do not watch “Alice”. It was horrible. I’ll link one scene that sums up the whole damn experience here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HGGqHe4yIw

    I don’t even know if Shyamalen is a good director at this point. I thought “The Happening” and “Lady in the Water” were pretty average. “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” were pretty well directed…but “The Village” and “Signs” were awful as far as direction goes. There’s nothing wrong with developing an ego as long as you’re prepared to accept what your ego affords you. I don’t know if Shyamalan has developed an ego. That interview just shows that he’s completely out of touch with audiences and critics alike.

    • @Paul —

      Well, to walk the other side of it, AIRBENDER did pretty big bank on a weekend where TWILIGHT was its competition. Despite piss-poor reviews, TLA did $40+ million. That said, it may not hold up in subsequent weeks, but it’s too early to say whether or not this film fails to get butts in seats.

      — c.

  • No denying that, Chuck. Hovever, this was a heavily anticipated movie because of the franchise it represents…not because of Shyamalan. My question is: “How much longer will people go to a movie just because he directed and wrote it?” “The answer for me is easy: I will not go see his next film.” Five years ago my answer would have been completely different. He’s completely destroyed his image in my eyes and I have no faith in his work.

  • SIXTH SENSE was really his only home run. Ever since he’s been swinging for the fences and missing. Some close ones like UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS, the the latter was where signs were pointing to ‘no’ that he’d ever produce anything of lasting quality or overall entertainment.

    This is just my opinion, but I think he might have lucked out with SIXTH SENSE. That maybe he doesn’t understand what made that movie a success and successful. He got Bruce Willis for a dime (who is often under-rated as an actor), Haley Joel Osment (who was THE kid actor of the time) and had written a story that played to his skill set. Slow and stilted storytelling isn’t going to work for every movie. Drawn out introspection and carefully laid clues aren’t going to work for every movie. Every movie doesn’t need a twist.

    Several movies of the time launched careers with a twist endings and atmospheric brooding stories like THE USUAL SUSPECTS & MEMENTO. Neither Singer or Nolan tried to recapture those successes.

    So when I heard Manny was taking on the LAST AIR BENDER. I was hopeful. No twisting ending. Not entirely dark and brooding. And he had a template for a very good movie laying before him.

    My belief in him as a good director or writer is dwindling. He’s got to find that flash of brilliance that created THE SIXTH SENSE without trying to replicated THE SIXTH SENSE.

  • I think Shyamalan’s mistake isn’t that he takes his art too seriously, but that he takes himself too seriously.

    Good artists are also good craftsmen. And the only way to improve craft is to be open to letting it change and improve. Which means listening to feedback. Not the same as taking said feedback. Lots of asshats who know fuck all out there, after all.

    But you at least need to listen to them.

    I think the critical difference between something like the 6th Sense and a movie like Memento or The Usual Suspects is that the latter two make a promise to the viewer at the beginning and keep it.

    Both the Usual Suspects and Memento say, “Here, this is the kind of story you’re in for. There are dead people. Like, really dead people. And we’re going to show you how they got that way. Trust us. It’ll be fun.”

    And then they tell a compelling story to get there. They aren’t trying to mislead us, or lie to us. You don’t feel cheated at the end because they’ve kept their promise.

    The Sixth Sense doesn’t do that. The beginning, Bruce Willis being shot, has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie until the end when there’s the big reveal.

    It’s like Shyamalan’s saying, “Don’t pay attention to this. It’s not important, really. Look away.” and then jumps out and says, “Surprise! I lied to you. That’s actually important and I was just hoping you didn’t notice.”

    And the rest of his movies do the same thing. The Village drove me nuts for that reason. It’s a decent movie until the end and that ending destroys it. Instead of a mysterious beast killing Quakers in the 1800’s (or maybe some bizarre post-apocalyptic future – you really don’t know) it turns it into what would happen if a bunch of ren faire geeks got their hands on serious money.

    It set up a promise at the beginning and broke it at the end.

    To an audience it’s insulting, but he does it so well and makes it so pretty that a lot of people don’t quite notice.

    And I think that’s where his work falls apart. He’s trying to make art and he’s ignoring craft. He knows camera angles, and lighting, and has an eye for really good actors, but as a story-teller he blows goats.

  • This one is a toughie Chuck,

    I am big fan of the “my work is art” approach but not in this way. I don’t think being an artist precludes one from being terrible. I don’t think art is inherently good, it can be bad, good, great, awful.

    No matter how bad a movie or book is, if the creator was true to him or herself, and put every ounce of craft he or she possessed, then the process is sacred. The end result just might be Dick Cheney naked bad and the artist better recognize and accept that.

    Yes, I am a romantic…bite me.

  • I say respect and deify “the process” all you want. Just make sure “the process” has effing “revise to excise oozing putrescence” in there somewhere.

    Anybody who can’t do that is a poser, not an artist. Artists gotta have balls (figurative ones, I mean.)

  • @Stephen:

    Interesting. Y’know, I never looked at Sixth Sense like that before. You might be right — at least, as it is in The Village. Sixth Sense, though, the shooting in the beginning is tied story-wise and character-wise to the Osment character — another troubled boy, one who may (too) be thinking he’s seeing something that is or is not there.

    — c.

  • @KD:

    My worry over deifying process is that, once something is made sacred, it becomes very difficult to, ahhh, create a new covenant with your God, so to speak?

    — c.

  • This particular case seems pretty bad: he’s writing scripts for a second and third movie in this series and doesn’t seem to care what anyone thought about the first one? And oh boy, he really likes his first draft for the second movie? I like a lot of this guy’s films, but this series has “suck” written all over it.

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