In Defense of M. Night Shyamalan: Last Airbender and the Disappearing Art of Storytelling
People love or hate M. Night Shyamalan. Could it be that many of the haters are just experiencing a lack of comprehension of Shyamalan’s storytelling style? Shyamalan thinks soâ€”and so do I.
In a recent interview, Philadelphia area’s M. Night Shyamalan revealed his feelings to â€œVultureâ€ regarding negative reviews. â€œIt 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.â€
I couldn’t agree more. After all, I’m one of the few proud fans of The Village. Each time I watch it, I learn or experience something newâ€”or find that I feel differently towards a certain character. Sometimes this is because I have changed; other times I simply observed and appreciated a detail that I missed on previous viewings. To me, this is the hallmark of an effective story, whether told in person, through music or on film.Others call The Village weird, slow-paced or confusing. I see it as a love story; a way in which love can transform us to think selflessly and purely in desperate times. This isn’t just about the main characters, eitherâ€”but their parents and the village’s ability to face or turn away from fears. â€œThe Last Airbenderâ€ touches on this theme as well. I almost feel like people that don’t understand the treatment of love in â€œThe Villageâ€ might never understand how I feel love, making it an intensely personal experience instead of something universal.
Many naysayers of â€œThe Last Airbenderâ€ are fans of the original animated series. They dislike changes made or the pace of the plot (this time â€œtoo fastâ€ instead of â€œtoo slowâ€). Admittedly, I dislike the animated series. I feel like I understand the symbolism of the elements in the show, but some of the seemingly random cultural elements and associations presented confuse and distract me. With his cultural understanding of Eastern and Western worlds, Shyamalan has done a service to the original concept by presenting universally-understandable symbolism and themes.
That’s the other thing about Shyamalanâ€”his storytelling method is very deliberate. â€œLady in the Waterâ€ is another frequently-trashed Night flick. When I hear someone trash-talking it, I find it to be a primary indication that the person is a) not a writer; b) not a decent storyteller and c) may lack comforting memories of fairy tales and childhood storytelling sessions.
I was so intrigued by â€œLadyâ€ that I watched it twice immediately, quickly realizing that the movie isn’t about its own plot, but the construction and completion of the story itself. After all, the protagonist’s name is â€œStoryâ€ and she is endangered in our world. Bad things happen to movie critics in the film. If you can’t interpret that symbolism (in addition to the multiple layers of subtext in the film), you should probably go back to watching high-school potty humor movies made by Michael Bay.
I respect that people have differences of opinion when it comes to entertainment. Since â€œAirbenderâ€ was so frequently panned, I was expecting ridiculous wire-fu and a slow-paced action movie. Instead, I found relatable concepts and immersion. While the 3-D didn’t add much to the film, the film itself lacked any major problems. I got the messageâ€”but everyone else must be so hung up on the anime-to-feature-film-conversion errors that they missed the spirit of the film.
Shyamalan fixed many things that irked me in the cartoon. I mean, if I met a new person flying a large flying-otter-mammoth-thing, I’d have a pretty big WTF moment, especially if that species was presumed extinct. In the cartoon, many characters don’t noticeâ€¦as if they see large flying-otter-mammoth-things every day. In the film, one of the characters actually has a WTF moment over the strange creature. I appreciated that enough to suspend my disbelief about the more fantastic elements of the story.
Maybe Shyamalan’s storytelling style reminds me of my childhood. One of the elementary school librarians I remember would bring old Irish folk tales to life by adding her own details and answering questions about leprechauns and brownies with precision. Sure, I knew that leprechauns weren’t real, but the level of the storyteller’s involvement made it permissible to be lost in the story despite my age and experience.
As an adult, Shyamalan’s style does the same thing for me. I enjoy plot-heavy epics like â€œLord of the Rings,â€ but shorter folk tale flicks are weaving and representing the storytelling fabric of our present society. Sometimes people put that storytelling style down or ignore it just as they might to folk music or fairytales. That might be fine for you, but as someone who wants to be the best possible global citizen (and a decent parent someday), I’ll treasure these stories.
A lot of people in my near thirty-something age range and below also don’t care for or appreciate The Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” They hate The Beatles, and they’re entitled to–even though practically every musician they listen to from Green Day to Lady Gaga and P. Diddy is undoubtedly influenced by them. The point is this–“Abbey Road” is a concept album. If you focus on each song, you’ll find that some are quick and dirty or feature stylistic elements that The Beatles employed previously. As an album, it’s a masterpiece, and with that big picture, it’s easier to enjoy the music and understand the meaning behind each song. Such is the art of enjoying an M. Night Shyamalan movie–if you focus on one piece, you risk missing the big picture.
For an alternate viewpoint on The Last Airbender, see An Obiturary for M. Night Shymalan â€“ Demise Comes at Release of The Last Airbender