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by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, July 5, 2014

... IN DEFENSE OF "THE FILMS OF M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN"

Writing the post on plagiarism was fun, not just because it distracted me from the business of Disney or comic books or strange coincidences between films, but because it reminded me of something I hadn't thought about in quite some time: the films of M. Night Shyamalan. No doubt you recognize the name; there was a time not long ago, in fact, when audiences could barely bring themselves to think about anyone else. From The Sixth Sense (1999) to Unbreakable (2000) to Signs (2002) and, yes, even The Village (2004), the man could do no wrong, at least in the eyes of box office pundits. Then came the accusations of ripping off other people's work, the big-screen debacle that was Lady In The Water (2006), and worse, The Happening (2008), and suddenly, the one-time wunderkind was reduced to a fake and a fraud, a Hollywood hack whose luck - not to mention his talent - had definitely run out. (And don't get me started on After Earth or The Last Airbender, big-budget studio extravaganzas which clearly showed Shyamalan out of his element.)

Still, for a while there, Shyamalan was rightly regarded as one of the defining voices of the 90s/early Noughties. Like Tarantino, Fincher, Anderson (Wes or P.T.) or Jonze, you went to see a Shyamalan movie to experience the shock of the new, for the mood he created, and for the many ways he toyed with the language of film. Everyone remembers the twist to The Sixth Sense (and to a lesser extent, Unbreakable and The Village), yet there is so much more to his earlier films than initially meets the eye. His long, languishing camera takes, for one - as opposed to the staccato style of editing so common to the contemporaries of his day (here's looking at you, Michael Bay). Or the way he used specific colors to key us in on important plot points. By the time he was 32, people were calling him "the next Spielberg," or, better still, "the next Hitchcock." With praise like that, it's no wonder all the acclaim and attention seemed to go to his head.


The Long Shot


Born in Pondicherry, India, but raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia (the "M." in his name stands for Manoj), Shyamalan became infatuated with movie making at a very early age, shooting over 40 films with his Super 8 camera by the time he turned 16. He wrote and directed his first film in 1992, a coming-of-age drama titled Praying With Anger, starring himself in the lead. His first studio feature, Wide Awake (for Miramax, 1998), was plagued with behind-the-scenes politics and post-production tinkering; the experience left him angry and embittered. He wrote The Sixth Sense out of desperation, determined never to let anyone interfere with his creative vision again. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Even from its opening frames, of a light bulb sloooooooowly coming into focus, you can feel The Sixth Sense striving for a different kind of tone than most Hollywood blockbusters. Shyamalan's signature camera shots last so long they tend to call attention to themselves; indeed, at a time when most films' average shot length (or ASL) runs three to six seconds, The Sixth Sense's ASL runs 8.7 seconds. (By comparison, The Phantom Menace, 1999's top money earner, averages 3.6 seconds a shot.) Shyamalan doesn't feel the need to rush his scenes, or push our emotional buttons by cutting them too quickly. Yet even when he does, he does so judiciously.

That slow fade-in on the light bulb, for example, eats up approximately 21.1 seconds of screen time - an inordinate amount, at least by today's standards. Your brain might even work overtime to figure out what it is you're supposed to be looking at. (Shyamalan's entire oeuvre is like that - drawing out our expectations, keeping us deliberately off balance, as if daring us to see something that isn't really there.) We then cut from the light bulb to a whopping 36.4-second shot, of Anna Crowe (Olivia Williams) coming down the stairs to select a bottle of wine:


It takes her a moment, then suddenly she feels a chill on the back of her neck, and turns, at which point we get a quick 3.4-second shot of Anna's unnerved reaction:


Now she rushes up the stairs (7.6 seconds), clearly frightened, as we watch from the opposite side of the room (from a ghost's POV maybe? or does she finally feel a draft from the broken upstairs window?).


And so the tone is set for the rest of the movie: elongated, lugubrious camera takes alternating with much shorter ones, just when the characters feel panicked or threatened. We share that sensation in the audience too.

Shyamalan's meticulousness extends to his film sets as well. He shoots sparingly, often refusing to shoot coverage - alternate angles of actors' faces, say, or closeups of important objects during a scene. This means his signature camera angles have to be thought out and choreographed methodically beforehand. Like this opening shot from Unbreakable, lasting two full minutes, and aimed almost exclusively at characters reflected in a mirror (reflections, as a matter of fact, play an integral part in all of Shyamalan's films, Unbreakable in particular):


It's Unbreakable's second lengthy camera shot, however, that marks Shyamalan as a master of his craft. Clocking in at 3 minutes and 49 seconds (!), the setup couldn't be simpler: a man (Bruce Willis) awkwardly trying to pick up a woman (Leslie Stefanson) on a passenger train. Yet even here there is more going on than you probably think. The shot is bookended by two closeups of a little girl's face, who is presumably eavesdropping on the characters' conversation:

video

Rather than resort to cutaways or static over-the-shoulder shots within the scene, Shyamalan lets the conversation play out in real time, so the awkwardness between the characters is deeply felt. Eduardo Serra's camera is there to capture the scene's most intimate moments - David's removal of his wedding ring, for one, or Kelly's obvious embarrassment at revealing hers. But did you also happen to catch the little snippets of dialogue that will come back to haunt him later in the film? For anyone who remembers, Kelly's question "Are you alone?" will have particular resonance (loneliness, in fact, becomes the theme of the movie). David's joke about water will also turn out to be fairly important (when it's discovered to be his Kryptonite). Shyamalan not only proves himself a remarkable visual strategist but a meticulous storyteller as well, telegraphing his plot points well in advance.

Critics complained that the movie's pacing bordered on the soporific - which, at 19.5 seconds ASL, ain't too far from the truth. (I've always felt the tone mimicked the characters' plight, trapped in a hell of their own making.) Signs, on the other hand, has a much shorter ASL, at 10.1 seconds a shot. But for Shyamalan, this is less a case of kowtowing to critics than a modulation of his own personal style.

More than Unbreakable, more than The Sixth Sense, Signs is the antithesis of the Hollywood blockbuster in almost every way - i.e., zero explosions, an almost total disregard for CG special effects, a script based solely around human interaction and emotion. It also functions essentially as a chamber drama, in which a small group of characters interact in a limited environment. Roughly 15% of the film takes place off of the Hess farm at all, when Graham (Mel Gibson), his children (Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin) and brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) take a trip to town to get "their mind on everyday things," or during flashbacks to the death of Graham's wife.





Hitchcockian/Spielbergian Touches


A third sequence, in which Graham visits the home of Ray Reddy (played by Shyamalan himself), is a prime illustration of Alfred Hitchcock's definition of "suspense" versus "surprise": 

   "Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath
   this table between us. Nothing happens, and then
   all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion.
   The public is surprised, but prior to this
   surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary
   scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us
   take a suspense situation. The bomb is
   underneath the table and the public knows it,
   probably because they have seen the anarchist
   place it there. The public is aware that the
   bomb is going to explode at one o'clock, and
   there is a clock in the decor. The public can
   see that it is a quarter to one.... [They are]
   longing to warn the characters on the screen:
   'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial
   matters. There's a bomb beneath you and it's
   about to explode!"

After Graham's emotional confrontation with Ray outside, we cut back to Merrill at the farm, watching an amateur video (from Brazil) of an alien creature supposedly caught on camera:

video

Chilling, no? I've always thought the climactic shot, of the creature stepping out from behind the bushes, evoked this famous photograph, taken by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin in October '67. Brilliantly, though, Shyamalan immediately cuts to this shot, of Graham going to investigate Ray's kitchen pantry:


Cue the suspense, perfectly deployed: We know what's been trapped inside that pantry, while our protagonist does not. Poor, unsuspecting Graham even grabs a butcher knife from the kitchen counter, so he can peer under the door and see the reflection (mirrors again) of whatever's banging around on the other side. And the audience is now officially pinned to the edge of its seat:


Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan also has a tendency to appear personally in each and every one of his films. Unlike Hitchcock, who kept his cameos to walk-ons, Shyamalan often makes the mistake of giving himself actual lines of dialogue to speak. Here he is in The Sixth Sense, playing a doctor:


And in Unbreakable, as a football patron who may or may not be up to any good:


His cameo in Signs makes the most thematic sense. As writer-director of the film, of course he'd be the one to take Graham's wife away from him, both literally and figuratively:


In The Village, Shyamalan plays a park ranger (reflected only in glass, natch) whose job, apparently, is to over-explain the movie's biggest plot twist:


But that's nothing compared to Lady In The Water, where he co-stars as an author who will one day write the single most important piece of literature in the history of humanity:


Talk about falling for your own hype! Actually, I believe that Shyamalan's slow and steady descent into self-absorption began long before he cast himself as the savior of the world, when Newsweek magazine touted him as "The Next Spielberg" during the pre-release buildup to Signs.

At the time, at least, the comparison made sense. Like Jaws, Close Encounters or Jurassic Park, Shyamalan's films center around average, middle-class joes caught up in fantastical situations. Shyamalan, too, seems to have some of Spielberg's visual trademarks downpat - including characters staring in awe and amazement at some off-screen wonder:




And let's not forget Spielberg's patented flashlight-shines-through-the-mist-into-the-darkness shot:


Also like Spielberg, Shyamalan infuses his films with a touch of the autobiographical. Graham's attempt at calming his kids during the alien attack (by telling them each about the events of their birth) is doubly affecting once you realize that Shyamalan is actually describing his own daughters' births: 

   "Did I ever tell you what everyone said when you
   were born, Bo? You came out of your mama, and
   you didn't even cry. You just opened your eyes
   and you looked around the room at everybody.
   Your eyes were so big and gorgeous. All the
   ladies in the room just gasped. I mean, they
   literally gasped. And they go, 'Oh, she's like
   an angel.' And they said, 'We've never seen a
   baby so beautiful.' And then... you know what
   happened? They put you on the table to clean you
   up, and you looked up at me and you smiled. They
   say babies that young can't smile. You smiled." 

   "Do you know what happened when you were born,
   Morgan? You came out, and your mama kept
   bleeding. So the doctors rushed you out of the
   room before I even had time to see you.... While
   they were fixing her up, all she kept asking
   about was you.... I wanted your mama to see you
   first because she had dreamed about you her
   whole life. Then she got feeling better, they
   brought you in, and they placed you in her arms.
   And she looked at you, and you looked at her,
   and you just stared at each other for the
   longest time. And then she said, real soft,
   'Hello, Morgan, I'm your mama. You look just how
   I dreamed.'"

Shyamalan's themes of loss, identity and redemption, however, are very much his own. Tragedy hangs about his characters like a noose. It's there in The Sixth Sense, about a boy with an extraordinary gift, and the child psychologist, estranged from his wife, who guides him to use it. It's there in Unbreakable, about a lowly security guard, stuck in a rut, who claims his rightful mantle as superhero. And it's there in Signs, the story of a former priest, overcome by grief, who learns through unexpected circumstances to rediscover his Faith. Identity and redemption can even be found in The Village and Lady In The Water, though you have to look harder to find them. (LITW's failure to catch on with audiences might actually account for this, since it spends so much time bludgeoning us with nonsense words like "narf" and "Tartutic" and doesn't bring its protagonist front and center until the end of the film.)


Color Is Key


Another trick of Shyamalan's, not as celebrated as his twist endings but no less important, is his use of color to punch up major story points. Most famous is the color red in The Sixth Sense, which makes an appearance every time we're in the presence of ghosts (benevolent or otherwise). How many people went back to the movie again and again to to catch all the subtle clues Shyamalan had layered throughout the film?



The characters in Unbreakable are similarly color coded, just as they are in the comic books. David's clothing, for example, is always tinted a shade of green, while the constant color choice for Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is a more flamboyant purple:


Late in the film (once he begins accepting his powers), David enters a crowded railway station, where physical contact with strangers allows him to "see" their past (or present) crimes. We can tell which people have been particularly naughty by the bright, vibrant colors they wear (in a movie virtually devoid of any color at all, you'd think such vivid oranges and yellows would be welcome, but then I digress):





The recurring color motif in Signs is a bit tougher to detect. Look closely, though, and you'll see that Graham's wife, Colleen, has a stronger presence in the movie than is initially felt:




I am particularly intrigued by the shot of her unfinished dress, especially since it comes right on the heels of Ray Reddy's frantic call to Graham's home. Why is the dress still there? Who left the door to that room open? Could Colleen's spirit, in fact, be guiding her husband from beyond the grave?

Red makes a memorable return in The Village, as "the bad color" which attracts Those We Don't Speak Of:



Inexplicably, however, the characters are able to counter this with a color of their own:


The choices here are interesting. Could The Village be an allegory of our terror-stricken, post-9/11 times? Shyamalan isn't saying, which is the sign of any good director - letting his audience puzzle out the answers for themselves.


The Twist Isn't Everything


Twist endings, of course, were nothing new to motion pictures by the time The Sixth Sense rolled around. They were, however, uncommon to say the least. Which is why the movie came as such a welcome surprise: audiences were simply too wrapped up in the story of a man trying to heal the relationship between a boy and his mother (and, by extension, himself) to expect such a thing from a relatively unknown director. It was only afterwards, in the wake of the movie's success, that the words "twist" and "Shyamalan" became synonymous with each other, and hurt his box office chances because of it.


That's certainly true of Unbreakable, which grossed a paltry $95 million in the U.S. compared to The Sixth Sense's $293 million. Audiences were wise to Shyamalan's tricks this time, and also failed to jibe with the movie's hangdog, melancholy tone. (A Comic Book movie with very little action and a hero in desperate need of some Prozac? Gimme a break!) For my money, though, Unbreakable's heartbreaking final twist is far sadder and more tragic than anything in The Sixth Sense, when it's revealed that Elijah's quest to show David his destiny comes at the cost of his own happiness. Like The Sixth Sense, the movie isn't "about" what it's "about"; if anything, Shyamalan became our reigning champion of subverting expectations, turning "high concept" thrillers into deeply personal stories about man's struggle within himself.


The same goes for Signs (gross: $227 million), in which the "twist" is not so much the aliens' aversion to water, as so many people are quick to point out (that particular plot point, by the way, owes more to H.G. Wells than anything else). Instead, it's that God really is in the details, and all the little things - a strategically-placed drinking glass here, a disastrously-timed asthma attack there - that help guide our protagonist back to the Cloth. (On a personal note, the movie's final epiphany - "Did someone save me?" "Yes, baby, I think someone did" - never fails to reduce me to tears.)


If The Village marked the beginning of the end for Shyamalan, that's because he started losing faith in his audience. Essentially, The Twist (in this case, Twists) becomes the point of the movie. Allegations of plagiarism aside, the idea of a small band of people forced by suffering and grief to revert to a simpler, more innocent way of life is undeniably a powerful one. Yet Shyamalan, miraculously, manages to bungle his own concept.

The script's biggest weakness, of course, are Those We Don't Speak Of. So you finally reveal the mysterious creatures that patrol the forbidden woods as a hoax. Fine. But why, minutes later, would you try to convince us of the opposite, only to pull the rug out from underneath us again? (It's one thing to pull a fast one over on your characters, and another to insult your audience's intelligence - especially those who consider themselves your fans.) Then, as if adding insult to injury, Shyamalan botches his second Big Reveal, ladling on the exposition when, in fact, some judicious cutting might have worked in his favor. (Imagine how much nimbler and less on-the-nose the film might have felt with Shyamalan's entire "Don't get into conversations" monologue excised.) Nevertheless, The Village marks the last time "An M. Night Shyamalan Film" became a critical and cultural success, earning $256.7 million at the box office worldwide.

Thus began his steep decline into virtual obscurity. Following his less-than-acrimonious (and much-publicized) split from Disney, Shyamalan jumped to Warner Bros to make Lady In The Water, which grossed a meager $72.8 million. The Happening, for Twentieth Century Fox? $163 million. He bounced back a bit with Paramount/Nickelodeon's The Last Airbender, though its $319.7 million cume is probably more a testament to the brand than its director's particular talents. By the time After Earth opened in theaters (starring Will and Jaden Smith), Shyamalan's name barely featured in the marketing materials at all.

Which begs the question, what do you do when you're all washed up and people have just about written you off completely? For Shyamalan, that means going back to basics. In March of 2014, he completed principle photography on Sundowning, a micro-budget thriller with supernatural undertones. And this September, he's set to reteam with Bruce Willis for Labor Of Love, a romantic drama he initially wrote and sold to Fox in 1993. Now that he's been humbled a bit, and after relying on his same old bag of tricks for so long, it's exciting to see Shyamalan try his hand at something so different from what we're used to seeing. Hollywood is nothing if not a sucker for second chances. Wouldn't that be a twist worth telling?

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