Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Invisible Connections

The Happening


My case for The Happening - my case for M. Night Shyamalan's movies in general - begins with the suggestion that we should look at it as a contemporary version of the kind of films that Val Lewton made with Jacques Tourneur and not as the kind of large scale thrillers made by Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Poltergeist, War of the Worlds). I bring this up, because a lot of the criticism of The Happening seems to be based on the idea that it is a failed Spielberg movie. Signs, The Village, and The Lady in the Water were subject to the same misapprehension.

A better comparison might be with Brain De Palma, in that De Palma : Hitchcock :: Shyamalan : Lewton and Tourneur, but the differences are more illuminating than the similarities. (a) Shyamalan's movies don't feature direct homages or allusions to other movies; (b) they have a grandeur and solemnity without any distancing irony, in spite of their pulpy, Twilight Zone origins*; (c) where De Palma's project is partly in "updating" Hitchcock - adding in what is "left out" of Hitchcock's movies - Shyamalan's aesthetic and thematic vision centers on what is "left out" - the "fruitful void" (to borrow a term from Ron Edwards that could be used to describe the source of power of the Lewton/Tourneur movies).

Each of these differences ties into larger problems critics (and audiences) have had with his movies, although I'd like to frame them not as problems within the movies but rather as challenges posed by the movies.


I decided I needed to reassess M. Night Shyamalan's career after seeing The Village for a second time after I had been underwhelmed by it when I first saw it in the theaters. I realized that part of what kept me from appreciating it was that I had been expecting it to be something it wasn't. Watching it again - already knowing what it was and able to watch it on its own terms - was a revelation, in a way. Its ambition and audacity - the way it cut across the grain of contemporary big-budget Hollywood filmmaking both in terms of how it was made and how it was presented - struck me as something to be celebrated, not mocked.

But I made the mistake of paying too much attention to the critics' take on his next movie - The Lady in the Water - and missed out on seeing it on a big screen. When I finally caught up with it (spurred on by some comments from David Bordwell), I decided to write about it, but I made another mistake: instead of writing about the movie's strengths, I focused - facetiously - on the three things that had made it a target of critical scorn. I wasn't trying to mount a defense of these "obnoxious" aspects, but rather, by bringing them up, to defuse them. The problem, though, is that because no one was taking this movie seriously to begin with, writing about these choices as "flaws" - instead of, say, defending them on aesthetic/thematic grounds - wasn't a strong way of arguing that we should take the movie seriously. Rather, I think my post would actually have the opposite effect from what I had intended: it gave people more and/or stronger reasons to dismiss the movie. (Because only twelve people read my blog, this might not seem like a big deal - it might even seem like I'm taking myself too seriously - but eleven of them are Shyamalan haters).


But it is important to talk about why critics don't like his movies. I'm not trying to second guess anyone or suggest that they are "wrong" for having a negative reaction to The Village or The Happening. However, I do think that his movies which are anti-critic or rather anti-"film criticism as practiced by American film critics". This is made explicit in The Lady in the Warer, but it is implicit in his other movies.

To start, let's go back to Difference with De Palma (a) - "Lack of homage or allusion". This poses a challenge to critics, because noticing and explaining homages and allusions is central to the practice of film criticism (i.e., is There Will Be Blood more a Kubrick movie or a Malick movie?). I'd argue that it is "more central" when it comes to criticism of "post-classical" Hollywood cinema, where one of the major ways a director working in genre fare can signal that he/she should be taken seriously is by using homage/allusion.

While The Happening has elements that are reminiscent of other movies (Romero's apocalyptic movies come to mind), Shyamalan doesn't deploy these references for in-the-know audience members to pick out.

This brings us - skipping over (b) for a moment - to Difference (c): "What's important is what's left out". Shyamlan's movies place themselves not so much through homage/allusion, but by adopting the strategies of the Lewton/Tourneur chillers where meaning is made by leaving things out - by what is left unseen.

The problem is that you almost need to have this in mind before you see his movies because it goes completely against the way most contemporary Hollywood movies work - even the ones I really like, like Speed Racer or Rambo (to pick the other two movies I liked this year that did not get much support from critics).

The Happening is a great illustration of "what's left out": there are no "fantastical" uses of CGI, no thrill ride sequences, menace is suggested by shots of the wind blowing through the trees - which may be the movie's ultimate Lewtonian motif.

Val Lewton developed his distinctive style because of outside constraints: it was a question of working within limited budgets and disreputable genres. Shyamalan's approach is to work within self-imposed constraints.

Looking at some of his other movies in terms of constraints - which also means in terms of what's left out:

Unbreakable is a super-hero movie without any of the adventure movie trappings of contemporary super-hero movies.

Signs is an alien invasion movie that keeps the alien invasion hidden.

The Lady in the Water restricts itself to one location.

Watching a movie for "what's left out" in an age where so much emphasis is placed on showing new things in new ways takes practice (I'm certainly still working at it). Writing about movies in these terms also takes practice (ditto). For a number of reasons, film critics are generally better at it when dealing with art films, but the important reason here is this is not how we expect to have to watch a Blockbuster.

And that brings us to Difference (b): "Solemnity and grandeur - yes; irony - no."

When I wrote about Speed Racer, I didn't want to spend too much time on the negative critical reaction, but my suspicion was that the Wachowski Brothers daring to be as ambitious as they were with a summer popcorn movie made them a target for scorn. My "evidence" was the much more favorable critical reaction to Transformers. Now - I'm not necessarily suggesting that the Transformers-liking, Speed Racer-loating critics were being dishonest about their tastes and I'm not necessarily suggesting that liking Transformers and loathing Speed Racer is a sign of bad taste. I'm actually not sure that taste has anything to do with it. The judgment on these movies seemed to be a moral one: Transformers was a dumb movie that did nothing new and was fairly sloppily made but it knew its place, whereas Speed Racer - much more carefully made, with a genuine aesthetic and thematic vision behind it - was too ambitious.

The critics have gone after Shyamalan and The Happening in a similar manner: there's always been a fairly popular idea floating around American film criticism that movies with fantasy elements shouldn't take themselves "too seriously" and Shyamalan is definitely a serious filmmaker - though most of his movies, The Happening included, have their own off-beat sense of humor.

Shyamalan certainly takes himself seriously and it shows in his movies. But I'm not convinced that this is a bad thing. He tackles serious subjects, even if he does so in fantastical genres: why not take a serious approach?

I think that a lot of the case against Shyamalan is based on the idea that his movies are not like other Summer Blockbusters. He does his own thing, (mostly) unapologetically. As Roger Ebert and David Bordwell (two of his fans) have pointed out: his filmmaking is somewhat "old fashioned" in its use of long takes and reliance on visuals to carry the movie. He also writes very stylized dialogue - something that is accepted when it comes from the Coen Brothers but, again, not something that we expect from a Blockbuster. (I don't think Shyamalan has a "tin ear", but I do think that he sometimes overestimates his audience's tolerance for stylization.)

Personally, I think his iconoclasm is something to be celebrated and suspect that because it threatens "the way the business works", critics see him as a safe target.

Again - I'm not suggesting that critics should say they like his movies if they actually don't or they should ignore what they see on the screen because of his ambitions. However, the glee some of them seem to be taking in charting his "fall from grace" is pretty sickening. They are approaching The Happening completely unsympathetically and with blinding cynicism. And this is not the kind of "muscularly" directed movie that's likely to win fans through displays of bravura filmmaking (like No Country for Old Men, for example).


(This section technically contains a spoiler, but it isn't too drastic. And I'm vague enough that you can probably read it without actually spoiling anything).

My favorite scene (at this moment, at least) in The Happening comes towards the end of the movie. The guy in the farmhouse and the girl in the spring house, separated from each other physically, but able to hear each other - magically - through the speaking tube (a "gimmick" that would be right at home in an Edgard G. Ulmer movie). What I love about the scene is the way it brings the movie's thematic and visual ideas together: physical separation, invisible connections; the need to be part of something bigger than yourself, the danger of being part of something bigger than yourself.

If I were doing a long close-reading of the movie, this is the scene I would build towards, as almost every scene - almost every shot - points to it.


All that said, I think The Happening is a step back from The Village and The Lady in the Water. Not a retreat, but a re-grouping. Up until this one, I think Shyamlan's movies got better as they went along, although I can't really choose between The Village and The Lady in the Water. The Lady in the Water in many ways is the "inside-out" version of The Village, where so much that was implied in the earlier movie is brought to the surface and made explicit (i.e., the anti-film criticism element). So, The Village is perhaps more skillfully and subtly crafted, but The Lady in the Water is more daring, taking a bigger risk by putting everything out in the open. And it's a kind of personal risk - in Shyamalan's casting himself in the pivotal, symbol-laden role - that I don't think I've ever seen in a Blockbuster before and have even rarely seen in "art house movies".

With The Happening Shyamalan hedges his bets a little, although he's very far from playing it safe. This is as personal a movie as any he made up until The Lady in the Water and resolutely refuses to provide apocalyptic thrills à la Spielberg's War of the Worlds (a movie which I like, but is working in a far more conventional - if still very effective and virtuosic - manner). However, it's a smaller, more focused movie than his last two. In some ways it is a return to Unbreakable in that it shows Shyamalan applying his "touch" to an established genre.

Despite it's qualified box office success and despite the multiple sold-out showings at the multiplex I saw it in over the weekend, I got the sense that it wasn't winning over any audiences. There was a puzzled response to most of the humorous moments and I heard a few people say things along the lines of "Is that it?" on their way out.


(More spoilers and this time I'm talking about the endings to all of his movies).

Watching The Village for the second time, I got the idea that Shyamalan had become a victim of his success. The Sixth Sense established him as "the trick ending" guy and he played this up in Unbreakable. In both cases, we learn something at the very end of the movie that changes our understanding of everything that preceded it.

Signs worked somewhat differently, though: in that movie various elements that don't quite make sense during the movie, come together in an unexpected way during the ending. And though it does change our understanding of what came before, that change is really on a metaphysical level.

However, with The Village the notion of the trick ending becomes a burden of sorts as its not quite as effective as a trick or puzzle as those of his earlier movies. For once thing, it has a more obvious solution, but it also doesn't have the same kind of "pulpy" kick. I don't think this hurts the movie, but it does, perhaps, set up false expectations for the audience. So, with The Happening, the other people in the audience seemed to be bummed out that the movie didn't really have a trick ending. "Where's the twist?" a guy behind me yelled out as the credits started to roll. Had he seen The Lady in the Water, which also didn't really have a trick ending, he might not have been as surprised, but I have to wonder to what extent Shyamalan's ability to connect with a popular audience was tied up with the endings of his movies rather than their substance.

*Actually, you can make the case that the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone also had a grandeur and solemnity without any distancing irony.


James said...

As someone who enjoyed Shyamalan's earlier movies, but has generally stayed away since, I think the problem is that the guy's core competency simply doesn't appeal to me very much.

You're right that Shyamalan isn't making the conventional blockbuster: he's sort of like the Mirror Universe version of Michael Bay. But I think "Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," while pretty low-key, weren't irritating. And that kind of 'ectomorphic' directing is a pleasant change of pace, a throwback to an earlier, less manic, more self-assured era.

My trouble with Shyamalan is that it seems like all of his movies are escapist dramatizations of marital reconciliations. This was absurd in Independence Day, and it's been a summer staple ever since. (I cannot express how much I dislike this plot. It's always told from the man's point of view, and never has any nuance or understanding of actual relationships.)

With most summer movies, though, at least there's a lot of other nonsense going on to distract me from this horribly dull plot. With Shyamalan's style of moviemaking, however, I never get 50' tall alien death machines or killer mutants to reconcile me to the fact that I spent $11 to sit in an uncomfortable room in order to watch a syrupy, hackneyed reconciliation story with wooden characters and lame dialogue.

(I have nothing against the reconciliation drama per se: Juno is partially one of these, but actually brings something new to the table. But if you're going to put it in a sci-fi movie, either have some SFX or make the emotional action more interesting.)

The other problem I have with Shyamalan is that many of his escapist conceits break down with a moment's thought. Which makes me wonder why he used the conceit at all. If you want to make a movie about human connections, make that movie straight if you can't "sci-fi it up" plausibly within the imaginary reality.

I agree that the anti-Shyamalan glee is kind of repulsive. But I will be extremely unhappy if he ends up directing Avatar: the Last Airbender as currently planned.

Jon Hastings said...

Hi James -

I'm guessing that you gave up after Signs and skipped The Village and The Lady in the Water? Neither of these movies has much of a marital reconcilation element (although The Happening does). I'd recommend The Village to you, specifically, because I think, along with its other virtues, it has a political allegory angle that you'd dig.

I think it's fair to point out that his movies all come from a male p.o.v., but it is a failing he shares with (unfortunately) many, many other filmmakers. (And, on the score of treatment of women characters in general, I'd say he's ahead of the Coen Brothers, Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, just to name the first three other "name" writer-directors that come to mind).

However, I think this -

If you want to make a movie about human connections, make that movie straight if you can't "sci-fi it up" plausibly within the imaginary reality.

- is unfair (IMO - haha).

First, I don't think that the family of fantasy to which Shyamalan's movies belong make "plausibility", in the sci-fi sense, a big priority. I'm thinking: Twilight Zone, Ray Bradbury, James P. Blaylock, Stephen King. This is especially true with his last three movies, where everything is as stylized as The Wizard of Oz or Play Time.

Second, I think the fantasy elements aren't simply "window dressing" on the "real story". The fantasy elements are part of Shyamalan's specific realization of his aesthetic, thematic, and narrative concerns. The importance is in how they mean. The fantasy elements "make it different" - they allow us to see the "straight story" in a new way.

This gets into an area that I think is pretty complicated or at least too complicated for me to deal with as fully as I'd like right now. It gets right to the heart of my idea of fiction and art in general - a pretty big subject! But since it also happens to be of central concern to Shyamalan's two best (IMO) movies - explicitly so with The Lady in the Water, implicitly with The Village - I'll try to pull my thoughts together.

I think we tell stories not for what they mean - their moral, paraphrased, if you will - but because of how they mean - because the process of making meaning is fascinating and important. Note, though: I'm not trying to say that "meaning" is unimportant, but that what's great about art is always going to be tied up as much with the "making" as the "meaning".

(A sidenote: this ties in with my take on story-games. For me, the important thing is not so much that the game creates a unique story full of original meaning, but rather that, because the story is being created by and for the group right there at the table, the way that the story means has special resonance - even if a paraphrase (or the "moral") of the game transcript is familar ("power corrupts", say).)

So, in the case of fantasy, I think stories that deal with "real issues" but use "fantasy elements" are able to do things that the same story told straight wouldn't be able to do - even if the moral (the paraphrase of "what's it really about") is the same.

(The Lady in the Water is really all about this: overlapping attempts to make meaning - myths and their interpretations and the interpretation of the interpretations and the way that stories make meaning ties into how we make meaning in our own lives - how we tell our own stories, if you will.)

A basic example from Shyamalan is the ending of The Sixth Sense, which gains its impact because of the movie's fantasy elements. The same story "told straight" might mean the same thing, but it wouldn't mean in the same way.

I could give a more elaborate example by looking at The Village, in total, but I'll save that for later.

I'm big on Shyamalan, and completely willing to go to the wall for him, because I really think that there's no one else doing what he's doing right now (in terms of how he's making the kinds of movies he makes).

James_Nostack said...

Jon, I'm a little distracted right now, but I probably should have clarified something in my original post, because we may be miscommunicating.

Ursula K. LeGuin, in a foreword to "Left Hand of Darkness," points out that while her novel is a metaphor for gender issues, she's unable to express her point non-metaphorically. It's not that "Left Hand of Darkness" is a gussied up version of a dry, polemical Master's thesis. Rather, it is the Master's thesis, or at least, as close as LeGuin can truthfully come to it.

So that's not what I meant in saying Shyamalan should make his movies "straight."

What I meant was, the central conceit in "Signs" is non-sensical. Your'e space aliens: water can kill you: so you attack the planet that's 70% water, using hand-to-hand combat, while being totally naked.

The central attraction of Shyamalan's movies is this sort of dreamy immersiveness--this situation is eerie, and mystical, and I can groove on that. But when the director asks me to accept his premise, and then contradicts that premise is a really glaring way, it makes me question why he chose that premise at all.


Apparently the same thing happens in "The Happening," which I haven't seen: apparently there's a deadly pollen in the wind, so the characters drive around with the car windows down.

Stuff like this is the kind of thing that would normally be handled by some movie editor or continuity guy, and I have to assume its absence is intentional. But when it's on such a basic, fundamental level, I find that it completely destroys my ability to get lost in Shyamalan's dreamy world. (The stilted dialogue has the same effect on me.)

PS. You're right, I haven't seen "The Village" or "Lady in the Water".

Jon Hastings said...

Hi James -

Glad we are more or less on the same page re: fantasy.

re: Shyamalan, I think that sci-fi plausibility is not something his movies are concerned about and I agree with you that it is deliberate. IMO, that lack of concern isn't a strike against them, but that's because I think that (a) they have other virtues and (b) they're part of a "family" of fantasy stories that doesn't put too much stock in plausibility. (Still, with the aliens in Signs, why should it be so hard to believe that they made a big mistake when they were choosing a place to invade? Do we hold movies to a higher standard of plausibility than reality?)

The question of what happens when you or I, as viewers, are concerned with something that a movie isn't, and to what extent that disconnect hinders out ability to engage with it, is one that has interested me for a while now. In fact, I was working on a post kind of about that subject a few weeks ago, but it got back-burnered. I'll polish it off and put it up.

With The Happening my concerns and its concerns line up in the way it plays out cinematically groups vs. individuals, "unseen" vs. seen, in-group vs. out-of-group. I find it ultimately very moving. (I don't have time, unfortunately, to do the kind of close-reading I'd like to). But that has nothing to do with whether or not I think the scenario is worked out plausibly. Which is not to say I don't think plausibility is ever important. I really like Jeff Carlson's novel The Plague Year, which is gripping mainly because Carlson's adherence to "what would really happen" takes him in unexpected directions and gives the story a real edge.

How to determine whether or not to apply a given standard - say "sci-fi plausibility" - to a given movie/book/etc.? My philosophy (a work in progress) is to give the benefit of the doubt as much as possible - to try to get on the movie's wavelength. Part of this is looking at the movie/book/etc. in terms of its genre (per my definition of genre as a "dynamic conversation between authors and an audience (or audiences) over time"), in terms of its author's previous work, and in terms of its place in larger cultural/social structures (for instance, production-exhibition). But that's just part of it.

Steve said...

Just watched THE VILLAGE for the first time--but after it already had been "spoiled" for me. It was certainly an interesting experience, being privy to the "twist" while still approaching it with a fresh set of eyes, at it were. It made me appreciate Shyamalan's level of craftsmanship and the skillful allusiveness of his script. The movie certainly has an enveloping atmosphere. I loved his long takes and measured pacing, and the fact that everything was a little "off" in the village in suggestive ways.

Some random thoughts that contain SPOILERS:

1. Knowing the central twist in advance (but not knowing the details of things like the monsters in the woods), I wasn't expecting something scarier than what I got. So I wasn't disappointed in the more muted level of scariness. But I could understand the negative reaction of someone misled by the ad campaign. In his commentary in one of the docs at the end, Shyamalan himself commented on how scary the movie was going to be, which made me think that he too kind of bought into his reputation a little bit and perhaps misled himself a bit about the nature of the movie.

2. Knowing the twist in advance, I expected a big "shock" reveal--like Ivy being almost run down by a car or something. So the slower, more subtle reveal of William Hurt looking at the photograph came as a pleasant surprise. It was more an emotionally enveloping realization rather than a startling gotcha moment.

3. Shyamalan seemed to pay closer attention to the emotional lives and psychology of the characters than he did in the SIXTH SENSE. His treatment of the little boy in the SIXTH SENSE bugged me a bit--there were incidents that didn't really make sense in terms of the character or the narrative, such as when he got locked in that cabinet at the top of the stairs and the mothers just stood around while he was pounding on the door. In scenes like that, Shyamalan sacrificed plausibility and the emotional coherence of the characters for the sake of scare effects. By contrast, his treatment of the villagers was much more careful, consistent, and sympathetic.

4. The movie ends without following through on the implications of Ivy's journey. Her blindness obviously functions on several narrative levels, the most obvious being that it allows her to come back to the village none the wiser about the world outside (or only somewhat the wiser). So Shyamalan leaves all the implications of his big reveal hanging. The village can continue on as before. Her journey changed the perspective of the audience, but didn't really change anything for anyone in the movie itself. At that level it was a bit unsatisfying. You want some indication that she was transformed by what she experienced. It was as if Shyamalan himself didn’t want to rock the little world he created, or couldn’t quite figure out for himself how Ivy’s journey has changed things. As a result you come out feeling a bit like the movie didn’t “go anywhere.” There was no narrative/emotional journey for any of the characters. I think we needed at least one character to discover the truth (not counting the elders, who of course already know the truth).

I do look forward to any future post you might have on this movie.