Because fans should be critical, too

The Shyamalan Interview That We All Like to Pretend Never Happened

(Thanks to school and personal problems, I have not been in a reviewing mood lately, and it would be unfair to continue my thoughts on the finale without: 1) giving it another viewing; and 2) being in the right frame-of-mind to give my thoughts on it. In the meantime, to get back in the groove, here are my thoughts on this video interview, The Last Airbender, and the aftermath.)

Re-watching this interview between creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and film director M. Night Shyamalan, you’d think this was the most awkward photographed instance of an artist being in such close and friendly proximity with someone who can rightfully be classified as a “murderous monster.”

It’s not.

It’s hard nowadays to recall a time when everyone was actually excited by the prospect of a live-action Avatar: the Last Airbender adaptation, even one directed by a post-Happening Shyamalan. Hell, even I was excited. Back around that time, I was finally starting to like the show, but felt that it being a television production limited its cinematic scope. A live-action version would provide just what was needed to truly bring the amazing Avatar universe to life.

Of course, we all know how that turned out. Shyamalan, in his ever-increasing detachment from reality, transformed one of the best American animated children’s television programs into one of the worst films of all-time. That much is certain. What’s not so certain is whether this universally acknowledged travesty actually prevented the original show from gaining a bigger audience. In these days of Internet reviews and our morbid fascination with cinematic failures, I’d say the original show couldn’t have gotten better advertising. If The Last Airbender had just been OK/mediocre, easily forgettable, that would have been a shame. But all-time worst film? What inspired that piece of shit? Ideally, this curiosity would lead these people to the original show, probably hoping for an equally horrific viewing experience, only so they can be disappointed with just how good it actually is. Perhaps DiMartino and Konietzko owe half their outstanding viewership of Avatar and even The Legend of Korra to Shyamalan!

That’s just a playful thought. Who knows what they’d think of that idea. In fact, we don’t know what they thought of the film at all. I’ve yet to see them address the film in any direct way. It’s entirely possible that, because they still function under the control at Viacom and Paramount and Nickelodeon, they simply can’t say anything bad about a project that not only was produced by the higher-ups, but had their names attached to it as well. If that’s true, I don’t know who it reflects poorly on. Viacom for having such tight control over what its artists express in the media (which isn’t very uncommon, mind you), or that DiMartino and Konietzko are such wimps that they won’t come clean about their feelings on the film. I mean, like it or like not, The Last Airbender was a gross misrepresentation of what the show was all about. If DiMartino and Konietzko weren’t going to rectify the situation, then who was?

Then again, maybe that was one of the drives behind The Legend of Korra: to reclaim their artistic credibility—remember, they wrote all the episodes themselves—and even broaden their audience with a show much more daring and more in-your-face about their morals and politics. This would be their ultimate statement to the world, the real magnum opus. Their In Utero to the previous show and The Last Airbender‘s Nevermind.

And there in lies the problem: no matter what “true” Nirvana fans will tell you, In Utero is not as good—let alone better than—than Nevermind, nor is Korra as good as Avatar. In both cases, it seems the creators were trying way too hard to make their new works darker and edgier than what came before, but instead end up exposing their weaknesses by toning down their strengths. In Kurt Cobain’s case, it was his gift for melody made Nevermind a masterpiece of grunge; naturally, the worst tracks on In Utero are those without a clear, disternable melody. Kurt was a brilliant songwriter, but atmosphere and song arrangement were not his strong points.

In DiMartino and Konietzko’s case, their wonderful ideas and concepts are not always taken to a satisfying conclusion. They work much better in creative collaboration with other writers like Avatar‘s head writer Aaron Ehasz. On their own, too many things can get out of hand.

Keep in mind that this is all simply speculation and opinion. Who knows what the actual thought process and motivation behind these actions were. Maybe one day DiMartino and Konietzko will come clean with us and tell us what they really thought about The Last Airbender, the success of their shows, and things of that nature (because I’m never under the impression that they are completely sincere in their interviews). Maybe. In the meantime, facts are facts. The Last Airbender happened. This interview happened. What the fuck happened?

Minute Observations On the Interview Itself

00:00 – First of all, whose dumb idea was it to have the three men switch seats between every frame as a transition between interview questions? It’s annoying and pointless. This is a very minor quibble, but come on! They don’t even do anything creative with it, not to mention poetic; it’s just random.

01:24 – Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time Shyamalan made a film based on his interactions with one of his daughters. Lady in the Water was allegedly based on a bedtime story he used to tell them, the details of which constantly changed and evolved to a point that would seem nonsensical if it weren’t a bedtime story. Hopefully, they’ve learned by now what not to share with their father.

02:00 – Why did they laugh? Was there a funny somewhere in there? I didn’t catch one. Did you? (That said, it reminded me of that bizarre exchange between filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg regarding the quality of Episode I.)

02:16 – In every interview I’ve seen him in, Bryan Konietzko just strikes me as a very unhappy person. He’s smiling, but it seems forced. Maybe he’s just introverted.

03:08 – “…it’s gonna be great seeing the characters taken to their fullest visual potential.” Uh huh. As I said earlier, I always felt that Avatar would benefit greatly from a more cinematic and technically intricate treatment. Then again, as Shyamalan and DiMartino and Konietzko have proven (the latter two with Korra), such a treatment a great work does not make.

03:27 – At this point, citing Hayao Miyazaki as your favorite anime creator is like citing the Beatles as your favorite band: it says almost nothing about you. This is not to say that Miyazaki and the Beatles aren’t great, but that their influence and exposure is so overreaching nowadays that it’s almost always more interesting to find someone who doesn’t like them. I love Miyazaki, too, but he’s not the only person who makes good anime (and I say this as a person who’s generally not an anime fan). Baccano!, Alien Nine, Cat Soup, Akira, and the works of Satoshi Kon, to name a few, are all worthy masterpieces of the art form in my book.

04:30 – As easy as it is to just blame Shyamalan for The Last Airbender, this simply proves that DiMartino and Konietzko were very much involved in the writing process, which is the most important stage of filmmaking. Either Shyamalan made some drastic last minute changes after DiMartino and Konietzko left to work on Korra, or those two are just as responsible for scenes like this as Shyamalan is.

05:27 – Shyamalan’s certainly right about Zuko being the most interesting character, I’ll give him that.

On that note, I might as well come out and say this: as far as form is our strict concern, Shyamalan is a cinematic genius. Yes, a genius. I honestly believe it takes a special sort of talent to make something as bad as The Happening and have it still be more entertaining and more resonant than many recent and decent films in the past few years. Just last night, a few friends and I just happened to catch part of The Happening on television. I’d only seen the film twice, but I still get a kick out of hearing Mark “Markie Mark” Wahlberg sing the Doobie Brothers, of all things. (I fully attribute Wahlberg’s current success in comedy to his goofy miscasting in Shyamalan’s film.)

Of course, therein lies the problem: Shyamalan has too many bad ideas. No matter how much you polish a turd, it’s still a turd. Unless the guy is on some weird ego-fueled trollfest, it’s amazing he hasn’t even considered hiring a screenwriter. Even Alfred Hitchcock worked with many screenwriters. (And wasn’t Shyamalan called “The New Hitchcock” after The Sixth Sense was released?)

06:06 – With the exception of the kid who played Aang, that was totally not the case.

06:20 – Well…we certainly know where much of the “wit” in Avatar came from.

07:18 – Good Lord, Konietzko never looks happy and DiMartino always looks too happy. It’s like watching a staring contest between Lou Reed and Keith Richards.

07:30 – “…on this movie, I’ve got you guys [DiMartino and Konietzko] to be depressed with me.” That’s about the most genuine statement I’ve heard in this entire video.

08:43 – Did Konietzko droop his head because of his lame joke, or because Shyamalan said he could only say “cut” once? Either one works for me.

08:48 – WHY?!

09:13 – Why?

09:24 – “Anything you want to say to [the fans]?” There’s only one thing the fans want to hear, and Shyamalan is never going to say it.

09:59 “…[this film] may be the biggest thing that I’ll ever do.” He’s actually right. The Happening may have been the “better” film, but The Last Airbender permanently cemented his place in history as one of the worst directors of all-time. That’s definitely an accomplish of sorts.

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One response

  1. a-variable

    Ha ha, this was great. Looking back on that interview, in light of the optimism many fans and the irrationally poor quality of the movie, it is like watching a terrible decision unfold. You just want to shout “stop!” but nobody can hear you, lol. What made The Last Airbender is painfully obvious and well understood. That video you posted is just one in many examples of the shallow, emotionless acting throughout the movie. In fact, I would describe the experience of watching the movie as totally uncomfortable and frustrating. Uncomfortable because the actors performances are so lifeless, frustrating because you just know that is not how people would act. I do not mean to sound like a fork-tongued critic, but amateurs acting for the first time have more life than the “Sokka” and “Katara” in that scene.

    I suspect we will hear Mikes and Bryans’ true thoughts on The Last Airbender, as well as the long theorized “corporate meddling” throughout the production of ATLA, a long time from now when they are no longer dependent on a single corporation. Personally, I hold Shyamalan totally responsible for the failure because the cinematography in the movie resembles his style. He should have been able to come up with a better script himself if he had any deeper understanding of the show.

    Maybe someday Bryke will recapture the magic of the original series (the backdrop of Korra did not have enough depth to feel mysterious; if watching Avatar: The Last Airbender was like Aang standing on top of that mountain looking into a region covered by clouds with only parts showing through, Korra did not emphasize the backdrop and any depth beyond in which it took place). Maybe the next Korra series will bring back that sense of scope. I respect the talents of Mike and Bryan. If ATLA was a collaborative effort, then by all means, that is where their strength lies.

    October 15, 2012 at 12:10 am

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