Tuesday, October 21, 2008

~ m night shyamalan

I have a such a thing for M Night Shyamalan. It flies in the face of the critics – and there seem to be a whole lot of them – who have canned every movie he’s done since The Sixth Sense. I can see where they’re coming from – or, rather, It doesn’t surprise me that people miss the point, or fail to react to the magic at the heart of his films.

I’ve just finished watching The Happening on video. I saw it in the cinemas and loved it - but with reservations, as it had that slightly flawed feel that a lot of his films do. On second viewing, I was surprised that I enjoyed it nearly as much. I managed to suppress my annoyance that – in the face of a microscopic airborne threat – too few people were masking their faces. I think, if you stumble on details like that, you will never enjoy his films. I don’t think Shyamalan is unaware of these things; I suspect he deliberately lets them fly loose, as a reminder that we are expected to suspend our disbelief, that we are to look elsewhere for the meaning of the work ...

Sure, it’s a kind of artistic vanity; the same as his inevitable Hitchcock-style cameos, but I find it very easy to forgive him, as, along with Guillermo del Toro, he sits very high among the leading exponents of the horror/fantasy film genre. Even at his most indulgent – and I guess Lady in The Water stands accused – what he creates is both fascinating and moving. Lady in The Water – the story of a fantastical water nymph who appears in the swimming pool of a routine apartment block – is one of my favourite films. It’s one of those works which explore the meaning of narrative and are sometimes called post-modern. Think of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. Lady in The Water is unique, beautiful, sweet, inspiring and, inevitably, flawed. It puts on display Shyamalan’s flair for showing what it might really be like for something incontestably magical to blossom in the everyday banality of our lives. It’s pure Magic Realism.

I think this talent, more than anything else, is the reason his films work so well. Sure, he’s a past master of the long con; his twists are very good, (though The Happening was lacking in this respect), but in the end these are plot devices; they’re in with the nuts and bolts he uses to construct his films.

Then why, as the ring bounced in The Sixth Sense, and the film slowed - allowing time for the viewer to process what he was seeing - did I, like so many others, feel not only a shiver but an emotional charge. What made it more than just an ‘uh-huh-moment’?

Because Shyamalan knows that we have to care about characters if we are to really travel with them. The people in his films are nearly always sympathetic; we understand the way they behave and feel - so that when the queer shit starts, it’s as if we are there ourselves ... Mel Gibson’s priest in Signs ... Mark Wahlberg and the gorgeous Zooey Deschanel in the Happening ...

Indeed, the human element of his plots is almost strong enough to support the film in itself, magic or no. It is never secondary to the special effects, and often the mundane and the eldritch are inextricably entwined. Think of the extraneous drama in a porn flick – well, this is the diametric opposite. Shyamalan has a real knack in this regard. I think it’s the core of his talent. It’s what really raises his work above the quagmire of bad horror that lines the shelves of our video stores. That and the novelty of his scenarios.

That news flash in Signs: the home video of the children’s birthday party in which the world gets its first glimpse of the alien menace. The abyssal horror emerges in the most pleasant, comfortable surroundings we can imagine, where our precious children are happy and protected. I found it profoundly creepy. I went cold all over. Not like the fright I got from the hand in Carrie, nor the sickening fear of Alien. Something a lot closer to home.

The Happening is replete with similar incidents. In fact, it’s an orgy of them. Again and again, the unspeakable tears apart the contented illusion of day to day life - and to watch is horrifying. Repeatedly, characters seek to kill themselves as expeditiously as they can, as if the act is no more unusual than tying a shoelace ...

So, now that I’ve consumed a couple of valuable hours ruminating on this random topic, know this: the next time you read one of those negative reviews on a new M Night Shyamalan film, claiming that he reached his peak with the Sixth Sense, be warned. The critic probably didn’t get it.

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Sam Sejavka said...

Just a note for Edgar. I published your comment, but forgot to check which post it was connected with. Very interested in hearing the thoughts of a fellow Mt Waverleyan.

NickH said...

Hi Sam

I know what you mean about Shyamalan’s films, although I haven’t seen The Happening yet. When I first saw Signs I thought it was okay but I was left with a sense of that slightly flawed quality you mention. However, the aesthetics and ambience of the film stayed with me and I watched it again quite some time later to re-experience those elements and got a pleasant surprise: I really enjoyed the film and for other reasons beyond the aesthetics.

I think this is due to the fact I had gotten past the plot and was now free to focus on other aspects of the movie which I may have overlooked first time ‘round, such as the dry humour and the loving relationship between the family members, and the poignancy of Mel’s inner struggle.

The human element gives the film more emotional depth and the viewer is invited to sympathise with their struggle (s) beyond the formidable alien invasion scenario – for example, the humiliation Joaquin Phoenix’s character has to endure in town as the once-promising baseball batsman, or Rory Culkin’s asthma.

After one or two more viewings, I now love the film. I still think it’s quite odd but there’s a lot of dry humour in the movie which is a counterweight to the alien fantasy.

Funny you mention the scene featuring the alien’s appearance in the home video of the children’s party, that too was what first came to mind when I was thinking about the film. It’s a definite point of high-impact in the movie.