Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The Cinematic Incompetence of ‘The Last Airbender’

By  · Published on July 6th, 2010

I argued in a Culture Warrior article last year that bad films give audiences a degree of power and authority over the enormous and intricate machinations of filmmaking ‐ in other words, that in an industry so large, with so many levels of production and with such a complex process from inception to completion, for a work of incompetence to somehow arise is an instance of seemingly impossible serendipity. Bad films are more believably possible ‐ and come about, arguably, more often ‐ through the process of independent filmmaking, a venue where resources may be limited but accountability may be absent altogether. Thus, a masterpiece of incompetence like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is likely if not inevitable when there are significant sources of funding provided by a first-time feature director who doesn’t know the first thing about narrative storytelling, much less the difference between 35mm and HD cameras ‐ or Troll 2, in which a language barrier also provided a barrier to competent filmmaking.

But the incompetence of writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is shocking because it took place within all the checks and balances of big-budget, franchise-centered studio filmmaking. While a lack of synergy in creative vision between a filmmaker and a studio can itself manifest incompetence (re: Jonah Hex), by most accounts there were few comparable troubles on-set or in post-production of Airbender, and thus we can assume ‐ especially in Shyamalan’s continued vocal defense of the film ‐ that this was indeed the intended result of a filmmaker’s vision coupled with major studio resources. That all such steps intrinsic to major studio filmmaking actually resulted in a massive work of spectacular incompetence (one would think any director, much less one who has displayed so many past skills at the helm, would have to work incredibly hard to birth such a comprehensive dud of a film) is an incredible, even unbelievable, feat in of itself.

From the cynical whitewashing of the no-name cast to the awful direction of young actors by a filmmaker who had once guided Haley Joel Osment toward an Oscar nom barely more than a decade ago, from the decision to transfer the film to 3-D in post-production to the audience’s inability to register the geography of action or story (in any dimension) throughout the murky cinematography and exposition-crippled narrative, Shyamalan has championed his own work all along as he delivered a film met, seemingly, to the satisfaction of nobody (critics hate it, fans hate it, and, as A. O. Scott attests, even the most undiscerning audience of all ‐ children ‐ hate it). In an effort to understand how such a product of industry is even possible, I went looking to sources of how incompetence itself is made possible:

The Anosognosic’s Dilemma

Celebrated nonfiction filmmaker Errol Morris has recently released a fascinating five-part series of articles on the New York Times Blog investigating the nature of incompetence and how it operates in social, historical, and individual cases. Morris starts the first part of his essay with an intriguing story of a rather hapless bank robber as told to him by social psychology professor David Dunning:

“Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight. What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise. The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest. There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money. Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving. ‘But I wore the juice,’ he said. Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras… As Dunning read through the article, a thought washed over him, an epiphany. If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber ‐ that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.”

Dunning compiled a set of psychological studies and psychological tests into a paper that identified (in his collaboration with a grad student, Justin Kruger) The Dunning-Kruger Effect: that is, that fact that, “our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” Dunning highlights three paths of knowledge in the human psyche: the known, the known unknown, and the unknown unknown. The first two categories comprise of the facts that we know what we know, and that we know that there are things we don’t know (I, for instance, know that I don’t know quantum physics). The true limitations of knowledge, and the true barriers of intelligence, are the ability to recognize ‐ much less admit ‐ our respective “unknown unknowns,” that there are things we don’t know that we don’t know; or, the ability to realize that our knowledge and expertise is imperfect and limited, rather than “filling in” what we presume to know in order to justify what we think we know for sure.

The bank robber in question did not know that he did not know that there was not a causal link between lemon juice and the feed of security cameras (like the ancient presumption of the world being flat, his certainty ultimately revealed itself as a lack of knowledge). The mark of intelligence, then, is not in giving the impression that you know all the answers, but in the ability to identify when one lacks knowledge and expertise, even if they do not know that they do not know the answer. Ignorance is not the lack certain knowledge, but not knowing that you don’t have that knowledge. Thus, questioning one’s present knowledge ‐ it must be inferred ‐ is essential to ever knowing whether you know or don’t know anything.

Ronell on Stupidity

As contemporary deconstructionist philosopher Avital Ronell states in her book Stupidity, stupidity is not opposed to knowledge. In fact, when coupled with Morris and Dunning’s research, it reveals itself to work in just the opposite fashion: “stupidity” (for the sake of convenience, is conflated here with “incompetence” and “ignorance”) operates under the presumption of possessed knowledge; that we think we know what we, in fact, don’t know:

“[Stupidity] does not stand in the way of wisdom, for the disguise of the wise is to avow unknowing. At this time I can say only that the question of stupidity is not satisfied with the discovery of the negative limit of knowledge; it consists, rather, in the absence of a relation to knowing.”

Incompetence, then, is possible through a “failure of cognition,” or, as Morris states, a lack of a realization that one is incompetent.

The Last Airbender

Adequate character introduction and development. A smooth succession between one scene and the next. A management and consistency of tone. Exposition that doesn’t last through the third act. A sense of tension or stakes at play. Motivated close-ups. Incorporating takes of actors delivering their dialogue without stumbling over their words or rushing through their lines. These are all signs of basic competence in terms of conventional narrative filmmaking ‐ i.e., what should be a known known for everyone who dares to point a camera at anything ‐ but these things you won’t find in The Last Airbender. And this is what’s so astonishing about it: it isn’t as much a disservice to the potential of its source material as it is a disservice to basic narrative filmmaking at large.

As confounding as it is, The Last Airbender is the nadir for the exponential nosedive that Shyamalan’s artistic merit has taken (and a side note: it doesn’t matter how much the movie’s made, it’s empirically evident that this is bad filmmaking). A major problem for the director has been that his films have operated under the assumption of known unkowns. The trick ending of The Sixth Sense proved so effective because it was unexpected by its initial audiences, but that each of his films promised similar mysterious twists and turns, what was once a signature storytelling trait quickly became a gimmicky and competitive game of one-upsmanship with an ever-discerning audience in which the audience usually came out the victor. Even as his films became more ludicrous as he rode on the decade-old fumes of Sixth Sense’s success, apologists credited Shyamalan as a skilled director in need of a good writer, but The Last Airbender puts that remaining apology to rest in its complete, aggressive lack of vision. The formula should have been simple, as Airbender being an existing property relieved it from the expectations that suffocated Shyamalan’s other work. All he had to do was apply his presumed directing prowess to an a story that lends itself to compelling visuals, but the presumption of Shyamalan’s directing skill proved itself to be as elusive, misleading, and vapid as the so-called tricks of his enigmatic narratives.

Shyamalan’s defense of the film is more than just studio-enforced solidarity with an expensive property ‐ a director with his clout certainly could have challenged the 3D conversion, and his assertion that Roger Ebert doesn’t understand the film due to “cultural differences” (as Shyamalan himself, ignorant to the paradox of his defense, permitted the whitewashing of his cast) suggests a filmmaker who has gone well beyond the monetarily-mandated bounds to defend a potential franchise. One must conclude, then, that in the face of disapproval by so many, Shyamalan actually thinks he has made a good film, thus revealing Shyamalan’s deadly unknown unknown ‐ the filmmaker does not know that he does not know competent filmmaking ‐ a defense shield fortified by money, ignorance, and ego. M. Night Shyamalan is, indeed, wearing the juice.

But perhaps this was not the only unknown unknown operating in Airbender’s stillborn entry into the world. If Airbender is this bad, then the known unknown is how in the hell a presumably good or skilled filmmaker (in the most basic sense) was able to birth it. But maybe the unknown unknown operating all along was the presumption that Shyamalan was ever, at any point, a good filmmaker: we are guilty for not knowing that we didn’t know he was this bad up until now. Even The Sixth Sense, his most celebrated work, is riddled with holes once closely interrogated (are we really to believe that Brice Willis’s character, who studies human behavior for a living, thinks for days on end that people are simply ignoring him?), and everything since can be read as a slow unveiling of what was really there all along: emptiness disguised by gimmick and the false impression of skill. After all, is one more likely to accidently make what looks like a good film rather than one of transparent incompetence? Is it possible that, in our own brand of audience incompetence, we worked in accordance all along to refuse to see the man behind the juice?

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

Related Topics: