Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thoughts On M. Night

All the advertisements for M. Night Shyamalan's latest, "The Happening", have been playing up the fact that it's his "first R rated movie". When the crux of your marketing campaign is singling out the fact that a reasonable portion of your regular summer movie-going audience (13-16) can't get into this thing, it sorta loses its luster no? Compounded with the idea of no screenings for critics yet, and that could be strike two. Perhaps 20th Century Fox and Shyamalan have crafted such a genuinely exciting film (complete with awe-inducing twist ending) that early word-of-mouth would ruin its chances of opening weekend buzz. Doubtful. But, as pessimistic as all this sounds, I am looking forward to "The Happening" just because it's the first film in two solid weeks I kinda care about- yep, no "Don't Mess With the Zohan" for me.

I suppose one could call me an inverted Shyamalan fan. My least liked films from the auteur seem to be the most revered by other film fans- "Signs" and "Unbreakable"- while my two favorite- "The Village" and "Lady In the Water"- always bring forth bile and disgust from so many people who felt cheated or disappointed. This, of course, is exempting his mainstream Hollywood calling card "The Sixth Sense", a film that exists as a near perfect exercise in modern Hitchcock-ian reflexivity, camera placement, timing and subliminal scares tied to a well rendered denouement. This was simply a film that came along at the right time and place, delivering the goods all around- and for better or for worse, a film that proved the atmosphere was ripe for twist endings... and financially plausible. It kept the audiences growing exponentially. "You've got to see how this thing ends". And in that sense, Shyamalan's career has been broken into two distinct sections- pre and post '99. Some directors would love to have this kind of dichotomy.

The largest criticism leveled against him after his success with "The Sixth Sense" was that he'd become egotistical and bloated in his self-important thrillers (as if thrillers can't be saying something while attempting to scare your socks off). He didn't play by the rules, but more importantly, his success allowed him the luxury of not playing by the rules. While "Signs" and "Unbreakable" certainly have their cult followings in science fiction and comic book realms respectively, I think Shyamalan's real triumphs have come in the form of his last two 'failures'. First, "The Village". Not only was this an engaging theater experience where the audience listened and gasped at every small scurry at the edge of the frame, but it's also where Shyamalan attempted to add his contributions and politicize the horror genre with an underlying theme. While it seems "The Village" was largely maligned because of the audience's unwillingness to accept a conclusion that's not attributed to anything other worldly or ghostly, I found its final 'twist' to be just as devastating and even more terrifying that anything conjured by boogie men. "The Village" stands as a greatly satisfying yet futile examination of our culture's mounting hysteria towards anything "different". The fact that it's wrapped up in a pseudo horror flick didn't help its cause. The people who might enjoy such an allegorical romp stayed away and the people who expected a good old fashioned scare ala "The Sixth Sense" showed up in droves and left wondering what the hell they'd just seen. The movie business is so fickle.

The outcries against "Lady In the Water" were just as loud... if not deafening. While there were semblances of his horror film aesthetic left, "Lady In the Water" seemed to be where Shyamalan had finally been given way too much creative control. Veering wildly in mood, tone and underhanded insults (at professional film critics no less), it's a film that deserves to be re-watched in a different frame of mind. Again, Shyamalan's past efforts probably influenced how the audience reacted against "Lady In the Water", and it certainly wasn't viewed as the light hearted modern fairy tale I took away from it... even though the film's subtitle references it! I overlooked a lot of the film's shortcomings due to Paul Giamatti's honest performance, Bryce Howard's penetrating innocence, and the film's overall ambition to say something quite epic in small gestures. And the scene where Giamatti's emotions finally come pouring out as the seven sisters put their hands on him is a shining example of just how good Shyamalan can be with framing, timing and the ability to draw something fundamental out of his actors. It deserves a second chance.

Back to "The Happening". I was talking to buddy and movie lover Chris from his Trashcan Odorous blog and he wondered about the ability of Mark Wahlburg to carry the film. I agree. His reading of the line about "there are forces in the universe that can't be explained" in that Wahlburg-Dirk Diggler lisp do come off as cringe-worthy. But, to some degree I trust in him as an actor (and Zooey Deschanel as an actress even more) and I also trust in Shyamalan to create a genuinely creepy and apocalyptic atmosphere that could push this film over the top as his return to form- although I really don't think he's lost it yet. "The Happening" could be that perfect melding of total creative control and story that once generated so much anticipation about his upcoming films. That's been lost the last few years. And with films like "Get Smart", "The Love Guru" and The Matri.... uhh "Wanted" on the horizon, I'm dying for some creativity from somewhere.


Chris Allen Gaubatz said...

One of the theatre employees that we spoke to when seeing, "Zohan", told us that this one blows. In his opinion, Wahlberg was indeed lame, as seen on the trailer. I guess we'll have to see for ourselves.

Evan Waters said...

I think if you liked LADY you might enjoy this. Shyamalan's style has become more theatrical- it reminds me of the original TWILIGHT ZONE, and the tradition of earnest fifties/sixties drama it embodied, with quirky characters and lots of big declarations, and I like the energy of that even if it's not really a mainstream thing.

Poor guy just seems to be working in a way that doesn't fit with what people want and expect.

Wahlberg is the weak link, though. His readings are just off- and I'm not sure if it's the aforementioned style or his own shortcoming as an actor.

Joseph B. said...

Chris.... you saw "Zohan"? God help you!

Evan, thanks for the recommendation. I don't know when I'll get out to see it, but its definitely the next flick on my list. I especially like your analogy of Shyamalan's similiarities to 50's/60's Twilight Zone. That nails his style perfectly.

Piper said...

Interesting take on this.

I think M. Night is a product of bad Hollywood - when someone's been told they're a genius one too many times and it's gone straight to his head. I found The Village entertaining, but to me it played like a long Twilight Zone episode. And I have yet to see Lady In The Water.

Unfortunately, I can't ignore all the stories that came out about his break-up with Disney and how arrogant he is with his scripts being sent to people's houses and if they don't flat out praise him, he questions their taste. He's just not that good.

In my opinion, he's kind of a "whatever happened to". Someone who showed great promise but never followed through on that promise. The truth is, M. Night will never live up to The Sixth Sense (didn't really care for it) and he will really never give anyone any reason not to want him to live up to it.