Manoj Shyamalan‘s latest film, The Last Airbender, is being shredded by negative reviews. Roger Ebert emphatically calls it an “agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. Mel Valentin, from Cinematical.com takes his criticism one step further, arguing that “The Last Airbender” fails without reservation or qualification in every conceivable category: story, characters, dialogue, and performances.” So imagine my surprise when my friend and colleague, Jonathan McGough, decided to go watch it anyway. When I asked him why, he gave me the following response:
Sometimes rather than learning how to do things from great examples, you can truly learn how not to do something.
Taking his advice, I did some research on Shyamalan’s career, which really took off after The Sixth Sense. Most note-worthy is the rare degree of latitude he was given following that film’s success. He has written, produced, and directed most of his films – to mixed results, and by mixed I mean steadily declining in quality. With the exception of Signs, each of his films have fared worse than the last. His story reminded me of George Lucas.
The original Star Wars was a troubled production. Lucas had a grand vision, but technology and creative differences prevented him from seeing it through. Stories about the conflict and tension on set abound, resulting in a film that was in many respects an artistic compromise. Flash-forward to 1991’s The Phantom Menace. No longer a director, Lucas was a tour de’ force, and with technology having finally caught up to his imagination, he was free to write and direct the trilogy he always wanted to make.
I leave you to judge the results of these examples of creative freedom gone unchecked.
If The Dead Don’t Cry ever becomes a literary sensation, I would sooner give up writing than insulate future projects from objective criticism. I am a high concept writer. I am also prone to bad jokes, diversions in absurdity, and emotionally handicapped writing. And that’s OK, because I make it a point to surround myself with people who will call me out in an instant. Great writing is born out of conflict. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you stand to improve.
Then again, you could always write one great book and hope it establishes a strong enough brand to carry a string of mediocrity.