Saturday, June 14, 2008


A funny thing happened on the way to the theater... I gave M. Night Shyamalan the benefit of the doubt.

Now, it wasn't as if he had a place in that suitcase of directors that I admire. I'm in the zone of pure indifference when it comes to Shyamalan. He is one of those film makers that simply "exists"... a Robert Aldrich, Ridley Scott, John Frankenheimer, Alan Parker, Steven Soderbergh. Reliable entertainers whose careers are intriguing enough to follow, yet are assuredly determined to never create anything great.

Frankly, I never understood the cultural excitement behind The Sixth Sense. It was magical to viewers under the age of seventeen or adults who had seen less than a total of three hundred movies. Shyamalan's punchline ending was mistaken as a qualifier for a quality film. (Movie goers just don't take films as seriously as they should.) This was proven when audiences - and critics - rejected the artistically superior The Village and Lady In The Water. It was as if they were seeking absolvement for the false praise lapped upon previous films. Their penance was to renounce from here on out.

Which was unfortunate, because Lady In The Water was Shyamalan at his peak. Unchained & uninhibited, he turned away from crowd and studio expectations (demands?) and was resigned to appear silly in the eyes of others for the sake of his vision. A personal - and yes, selfish - vision (the film was made for his daughters), but it was Shyamalan at his most singular and honest, like the Paul Thomas Anderson of Punch Drunk Love. But like Anderson, that stint with inspiration ended quickly. Both directors couldn't resist reclaiming the adoration they once received from critics and viewers. There Will Be Blood sold out ingenuity in order to put Anderson back on that comfortable critic approval list... while it's too soon to see whether The Happening will return Shyamalan to the status of audience darling.

What happens in The Happening is an environmental counter-attack on humans. We've been pissing in her rivers, riding tree swings, clearing land, and leaving carbon footprints up and down her back... and dammit, she's not gonna take it anymore! Momma nature has instructed her army of foliage to unleash toxins that first debilitates, then forces people them to commit suicide.

What's most appalling about The Happening is Shyamalan's new found uncharacteristic violent streak. The self-inflicted/murderous deaths are delivered in a ghoulish manner that brings nothing but nastiness to the plot. One particularly tasteless moment comes when Shyamalan cuts from the murder of two children to an image of two biddies crocheting and rocking in their chairs with gas masks on. What's pitiful is that Shyamalan intends this as comic relief, but with shock still in our minds, it's nothing more than cheap gallows humor. The film's only cinematic moment comes when a gun is used as a device in a string of suicides filmed in one short tracking shot. Is Mother Nature really that cruel? Why doesn't she just unleash a flood or roll out a fleet or tornadoes. Forced suicide is so... deliberate! What a bitch!

Shyamalan is clearly lost. He's either gripping hard to deliver another movie that will stir up lobby discussions, or, continuing his I-don't-care-what-anyone-thinks streak. Either way, he's hit bottom, and by allowing himself to be seduced by pop-politic ideology he's alienated himself from the imagination and instincts that once made his movies at least entertaining.

People used to buzz about Shyamalan as being "the next Spielberg". That was precocious as hell, not to mention insulting to Spielberg (it's like the inanity - and insanity! - behind calling Paul Thomas Anderson "the next Robert Altman"...), but if a more accurate analogy is needed to place his current state, M. Night Shyamalan is looking like the next George Lucas.


Marilyn said...

I've actually only seen one M. Night film, The Sixth Sense, which I thought was entertaining and perhaps signaled the arrival of a new commercial director. The reviews of all of his subsequent films have been so dismal, I was discouraged from seeing them. I have to take your word for it about his career - and I find your word particularly persuasive and elegantly written.

Thanks for a very interesting post!

Fox said...

Thanks for the kind words Marilyn.

I haven't made the effort to see if M. Night has any interviews out there for this film, but I would be very interested to read them.

The most telling quote from him recently in a NY Times article was this:

“The problem is the assumption that if I am selling the movie — because I’m selling me — that I’m being egotistical. If Will Smith did the same thing, it would be perceived very differently,” he said. “You’re supposed to be hidden if you’re a director. That’s a rule that who said in the movie business?”

This is so off. M. Night's perception of why people think he's egotistical is wrong. Director's are not hidden. Many people - mostly film heads, true - will go see a movie b/c of the director's name attached to it. From Spielberg & Eastwood TO Stephen Chow & Harmony Korine.

People think he's egotistical because he gives off the impression that he lives in a bubble where everything he does is genius. That, and he seems to have no sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

The thing about movie critics such as yourself is that you happen to think that your reviews matter. You always come across as so self important when really your reviews are as meaningful and important as a fly in your soup. Just like music, people either hate film or love them, thats what makes us all so important. Just because you dont like a movie it doesnt make it a bad movie. Many other people may like it. I have never understood why there is employment in your type of work. Who listens to critics? Your comment about people under 17 and adults who have seen less that 300 films is ridiculous. Are you trying to say that if somebody who has seen less than 300 films like a film then it is put down to lack of movie experience. What an idiotic remark. Films are judged on how much they entertain people not if it contains "cheap gallows humour" Continue the pointless work.

Fox said...

My pointless work has at least generated a fevered opinion from you. That's something. Thanks for sharing.

Just like you, I have an opinion. My opinion is that *The Happening* is a bad movie. If you disagree, cool. And bless you for thinking this is "employment" or "work". If only it were so!

I do think that younger people and people who have seen less than a handful of films in their lives tend to have a more casual or shallow perspective on movies and movie culture. That's not a put down, it just seems logical to me. I see the same inadequacies in myself when it comes to appreciating theater, literature, painting etc.

Which brings us to the major reason you and I disagree. I don't see film or movies as just "entertainment" or a passing of time. It means so much more to me.

Again, thanks for sharing, and I hope you continue to come here.

Mandy said...

I love that "anonymous" thought you were a professional movie critic! Perhaps it's time for a career change?

P.S. Nice "anonymous" comment.

Fox said...

I think that might have been M. Night's momma checkin' in.

Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WaywardJam said...

The Happening was bad, wasn't it?! I enjoyed Lady in the Water mostly but I'm a Village hater through and through. I think Unbreakable was his strongest film, and since I'm ranking, The Happening rests firmly at the bottom of the outhouse.

Great write-up btw. I especially loved:
"We've been pissing in her rivers, riding tree swings, clearing land, and leaving carbon footprints up and down her back... and dammit, she's not gonna take it anymore!"

Fox said...

And the thing is, I was pulling for him with *The Happening*. I thought the trailer was great, and I was coming off a movie of his that I liked.

After thinking about it some more, I really think his problem is when he tries to make his movies "matter". As if the twist/ending is revealing a social dysfunction we were unaware of. It feels like condescension.

I've already heard that M. Night is defending *The Happening* as a B-Movie, but I see that as damage control. Usually B-movies and B-movie directors don't take themselves so serious.

Although, I can kinda see that in *Lady In The Water*...

Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
debbie said...

Comment Deleted. Ohhh. I wanna read!

Death to censorship!

Fox said...

Ha ha!!! It was just my comment posted twice!

NO CENSORSHIP HERE BABY! (unless you're a spammer...)

WaywardJam said...

I agree. Lady in the Water has definite B movie appeal.

I was pulling for The Happening to be a winner too. I told my wife the film came off as if he was addressing children, concerning given its R rating. Glad someone else picked up on that vibe.

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