The Price of Wonder
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By Marc Porter Zasada
It's summer, and the urban man has gone to the movies in search of childlike wonder. Tonight, I've chosen Lady in the Water, even though friends said they hated it; even though critics wailed and bloggers laughed. You see, I heard that Paul Giamatti plays a middle-aged shlub who rediscovers his inner child, and I wanted some of that action for myself. Besides, director M. Night Shyamalan looks so young I figure he's still pretty close to his subject.
I take along my 18 year-old son, and as the lights dim, I hope for the best.
If there's one thing that unites modern humans, it's our belief that adult wisdom has failed, and only childlike wonder can save the planet. This belief has become so strong that it provides by far the most reliable Hollywood premise. It seems only kids can relate to friendly aliens, find beauty in the ordinary and speak awkward truths.
By now, childlike wonder has become the closest thing we have to a shared religion. And in order to maintain our own inner child, we buy it unlimited toys and write it many fairy tales. We purchase year-long passes to amusement parks, and offer our plasma screens to Pixar.
Indeed, demand continues to outstrip supply, so that despite an endless flood of robed wizards and Tolkien action figures, the price of wonder continues to rise. Wunderkind directors get paid millions to conjure it for us... if only briefly, and only in darkened rooms. They tell us that just like in Peter Pan, if we would clap our hands and really believe, Tinker Bell would revive, and everything would be... okay.
Sure enough, up on the screen, a water sprite arrives in a swimming pool, and all the adults begin acting like children. Mysterious beasts prowl. Giamatti must drink a glass of milk and sprawl childlike on a couch before he can hear an important new mythology. Shyamalan himself plays a writer who, inspired by the innocent sprite named "Story," just might save the world. And ultimately, everything depends on a boy who reads messages on the backs of cereal boxes.
Sadly, my own inner child does not respond. He lies dormant in my soul, and agrees with critics who called the exposition clunky and the dialogue pretentious. Indeed, I begin to worry that childlike wonder may not be enough to save us, in the fictional or the real world--and in the end, just as adults had to write the dialogue, adults may have to set things right.
But as the lights come up, I'm shocked to hear two or three people applaud. And I'm even more shocked to learn that my own son has enjoyed the fable: "If only the prologue had been more convincing," he says, "I might have bought the whole thing."
At eighteen, my son has reached the age when mystery begins to drain from the universe, and the prose of adulthood threatens darkly. He's suspicious of our unwinnable wars and long commutes, our WalMarts and monthly payments. In response, he has spent the last three years writing a fantasy novel which yes, concerns a young elf and a threatened world.
As we leave the theater, I begin to explain to him why he should not have liked Lady in the Water. I question the film's premise that adult logic is a waste of time. And I want to say, "Shyamalan must think we are so desperate for fairy tales that we will believe anything and look for hope anywhere."But then I recall that the director has made a very good living from fantasy, and maybe it's okay that my son enjoyed the film. I mean, the demand for childlike wonder is certain to remain high, and if my son really wants a share in the market, he probably does have to keep on believing.
Copyright -- 2006 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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