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.