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    Tuesday, July 25, 2006

    Book: The Man Who Heard Voices, by Michael Bamberger (2006)

    Bamberger clearly ended up with more than he bargained for when writer/director M. Night Shyamalan gave him complete access during the making of Lady in the Water. The resulting book has generated an avalanche of publicity, much of it negative and focusing on Shyamalan’s break-up with Disney, the studio that had nurtured him. Today’s L.A. Times weighs in with yet another piece that coins a new phrase.

    Shyamalanfreude, n., Hollywood’s desire to see its latest golden boy go down in flames.

    Which is part of the problem. Feelings about MNS’s behavior are so intense that critics tend to review him instead of the book. I’m going to try to keep the two separate.

    I didn’t care for Bamberger’s book. I also think it’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the movie business. In spite of its flaws, which are legion.

    I almost didn’t make it past the opening paragraph, in which Bamberger gasses on about how he likes but doesn’t love movies and still isn’t sure if Ingmar Bergman is a man or a woman. Anyone who quotes dialogue from Mrs. Doubtfire need not worry about being mistaken for a cineaste. The title’s conceit – that MNS is guided by intense internal conversations – falls flat. The book reads like a magazine piece stretched out over two hundred pages.

    The biggest problem is that Bamberger buys completely into the MNS myth: the filmmaker as visionary amongst Philistines, alone in fighting for his vision. Bamberger never delves into what that vision is, and pays scant attention to the far more interesting and equally valid proposition that MNS is simply a different kind of businessman building a different kind of brand – one who may be using Bamberger’s efforts as part of his campaign.

    To his credit, Bamberger acknowledges his lack of objectivity, admitting his admiration of Shyamalan in the closing pages. And having no knowledge of filmmaking helps when recounting Lady in the Water’s production, in that Bamberger is willing to look to the crew for drama. In fact, that section of the book is quite compelling, providing a detailed look at the massive effort required to make what’s seen as a mid-size studio movie.

    Now I have to talk about Shyamalan. There’s simply no avoiding it.

    Yes, his attempts to build a cult of personality can verge on self-indulgence. But as someone who bemoans the confusion of exhibitionism with showmanship, I found myself applauding his flair for the dramatic. Yes, he does have grandiose expectations. But I have always maintained that in order to accomplish anything of value in this life, you have to make demands of yourself and others. You have to be a bit of a jerk. That was even true of Mother Teresa, according to Christopher Hitchens. And Hitchens is a bit of a jerk in his own right.

    Some in Hollywood blame MNS’s “self-imposed cocoon” in Philadelphia for his woes, saying he’s cut off from the world. As if living in West L.A. isn’t a different kind of isolation. To me, MNS’s true talent is for living his life, deftly balancing artistic aspirations with duties as husband and father.

    Shyamalan obviously loves actors, works like a demon, and was open to the warts-and-all experience of having his world documented. I ended up liking the guy. I may not have liked the book about him, but I devoured it in a single sitting. And it worked in this regard: it took a movie that I planned on skipping and made it a must-see. More on that to come.


    I thought MNS made well-crafted films filled with stars and having an obligatory twist. That doesn't seem particularly outside the system to me.

    I realise that being able to tell a story is something of a lost art among directors who were schooled in making pop-videos -- for example, Constantine seems to work for 3 minutes at a time but makes no sense overall --, but since when has it become visionary?

    The worst of it, for me, is that Sixth Sense showed that he was actually quite timid as a film-maker. The ending didn't need to replay all the clues, but he gave in to the studio or the popcorn-munchers in the cheap seats or, perhaps, just his own sensibility and showed them anyway.


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