Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Night Writers: E-mails on M Night Shyamalan

Friday, the sixth major film from writer/director M Night Shyamalan will debut nationwide. The Happening stars Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in a story about ... well, I’m not quite sure what it’s about. I’ve tried to avoid the trailer and advanced publicity, but I’ll be there Friday night, for whatever is in store, hoping to be taken away like I was by Unbreakable and like I wasn’t by Lady In The Water.

Friend of the blog and frequent Cooler commenter Hokahey will be there, too – in town this weekend for a visit. In anticipation of the opening-night event, I traded e-mails with Hokahey, discussing the highs and lows of the Shyamalan oeuvre. A transcript follows.

If you’re expecting to find two guys who love The Sixth Sense and detest The Village, think again. This is what it looks like when two Shyamalan fans try to assure one another and themselves that The Happening won’t be another Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.

(This probably goes without saying, but beware: super-duper spoilers ahead for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and Lady In The Water! There are NO SPOILERS for The Happening.)

Jason Bellamy: There are only a few days left until M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening debuts and I’m starting to find the title ironic. There was a time not too long ago when Shyamalan was the hot thing – Newsweek called him “the next Spielberg” – and his movies were highly anticipated. They were happenings. But this summer I feel like we’re the only two people on the planet counting down the days until the movie comes out. Maybe I’m doing too good a job of avoiding the advanced publicity and rumor (because if there’s a surprise twist at the end, or if there isn’t, I don’t want to know). Certainly, though, it seems like there’s considerably less hype for this film than there is for The Dark Knight or than there was for the release of Indiana Jones or Sex And The City. Heck, the new Hulk movie is getting more play.

Am I alone here? Are we alone in our excitement? And, you’ve seen the trailer, is “excited” the right word? We’re just days away. What are your emotions about The Happening right now?

Hokahey: When I walked into the local multiplex this winter and saw the huge cardboard stand-up display of the poster – the highway diminishing into the distant dark city, cars overturned or simply stopped, doors open – and I looked up at the top of the poster and saw the name of M Night Shyamalan, I uttered an audible, “All right!” Seeing Shyamalan’s name gave me that warm burst of excitement you feel in anticipation of a cinematic experience that seems made just for you. Really, despite Lady In The Water, I felt as much excitement as if the name at the top of the poster had been Terrence Malick, which would make me jump for joy.

As for the title, it’s nicely terse and in keeping with M Night’s previous titles, but it may be a little tongue-in-cheek – as much as to say, yeah, Lady In The Water bombed, but watch me now. And watch I will (on June 13) because, for me, Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker. I saw the initial preview long enough ago that my memory of it is fuzzy (and I haven’t let myself watch the recent extended preview), but I am very excited – as excited as I was when I saw the name Spielberg on the poster for War Of The Worlds. And whereas the preview for Lady In The Water made me think, “Uh, oh. I’m nervous about this one,” the preview for The Happening seems to display the same mood, tightness of story and focus on strange, unrelated elements (that will all be drawn together in the end) that made M Night’s first four films so satisfying.

JB: It’s interesting that you mention the trailer for Lady In The Water. In anticipation for The Happening, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Michael Bamberger’s The Man Who Heard Voices, about Shyamalan’s trials and tribulations making Lady. In the sixth chapter, there’s a scene where Shyamalan shows a rough cut of Lady’s teaser (to be released during the film’s shooting, months prior to the first real trailer). As the book puts it there’s a “moody piercing violin solo” and “a tenor singing a snippet of a modern opera in Italian.” There are shots of Paul Giamatti’s Cleveland Heep writing in his journal at The Cove, and then the words: “Cleveland Heep’s life is about to change. Forever.” We’ll get to the specifics of Lady later, but reading that passage reminded me of how enticing that teaser was. It had me pumped. And then the trailer came out, which showed more of what was in the end a discombobulated film. And, like you, it made me nervous. Rightfully, it turned out.

Which brings us to The Happening: I had the same reaction you did over the poster, but the trailer has me feeling uneasy. I’ve only seen parts of it, and just once. Since then, I’ve closed my eyes whenever it has come on, and that might be part of the problem. Mark Wahlberg, who I’ve liked in Boogie Nights and Traveller, sounds flat. And there’s some shot of people listening to a radio in a field that looks right out of Signs, and a shot of people on a train that reminded me of Unbreakable. And this is coming off of Lady, which was a disaster. So I guess I can sum it up by saying that I’m nervous. Very nervous. But like a character in a Shyamalan movie, I want to believe.

H: I’m nervous too. But I trust Shyamalan. He knows how to tell a story. He proved that in his first four films. I forgive him for Lady. He incorporated intriguing elements – he just incorporated way too many silly ones. As for the elements in the trailer for The Happening that echo other films: that's M Night's style and that's part of what I like about his films. He likes to tie his films together thematically. For example, his first three films include the father figure who has lost faith in himself who must renew that faith by saving others. If anything makes me nervous about The Happening, it's Mark Wahlberg, so I agree with you there. He's just not an actor with much presence; he's not even a Dennis Quaid – who isn’t a great actor but at least succeeds in exuding some passionate presence.

But back to the trailer: it seemed to throw out a bunch of random weird things going on that intrigued me and that gave me the hope of their coming together in a meaningful and suspenseful or surprising ending, which I don't even want to speculate on right now.

JB: Ah, yes, the patented Shyamalan Surprise Ending. That’s the perfect segue to begin discussing his films, starting with the ultimate surprise-ender The Sixth Sense. First of all, how did you come to that movie? Did you see some movie called The Sixth Sense about a kid who sees dead people, or did you see The Must-See Movie With A Surprise Ending That Everyone Is Talking About?

H: My experience with The Sixth Sense was this: I had seen the preview and it looked intriguing. I went opening night – before the buzz and later the hype. The surprise ending was one of those pure, emotional, thrilling cinematic experiences that only happen when they happen by surprise, like the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet Of The Apes. Again, I was totally taken by surprise, but it wasn't just the surprise ending that thrilled me, it was the great filmmaking, the tight storytelling, Bruce Willis' performance, and that new name I didn't know how to pronounce (Shyamalan), and the promise of more films by this new and thrilling writer/director.

JB: That had to be a cool experience, to be so completely stunned by the movie. My experience was that I almost passed on The Sixth Sense. I’ve always liked Bruce Willis, but the whole “I see dead people” thing wasn’t a turn-on. Eventually though, more and more people were talking about it, and some friends wanted to see it. One of my friends told me there was “some surprise ending.” So we go and I’m watching the movie, and I’m digging it, and it occurs to me as we’re nearing the end that there was some sort of surprise in store.

When the scene happens late between Cole (Haley Joel Osment) and his mom (Toni Collette), when he tells her that he can see his dead grandmother, I think I convinced myself that was it, that was the big surprise. I remember thinking, “Well, I don’t know that I’d call that a ‘surprise ending,’ but it’s a nice touch. Good movie.” And then The Surprise happened. And I was blown away. Here I’d gone into the movie expecting a surprise and it still surprised me. That’s impressive.

Like you, I admire the tight storytelling and Willis’ performance, and the surprise offered that extra wrinkle that made the movie extra-special. Still, I thought the Oscar nomination for Best Picture was nonsense. It’s a fun movie, a heartfelt movie and the surprise makes it narrowly unforgettable, but without the surprise it’s simply a very good movie, not great.

H: Yes, in this case the integrity of the surprise isn’t ruined by knowing to expect a surprise. When Malcolm's wedding ring rolls onto floor that's a chilling, memorable moment. Yet, I like the fact that Shyamalan gives us satisfying climaxes in addition to The Surprise. We have Cole helping the little murdered girl show her father how she was killed – also a very enthralling moment – and, as you said, we have Cole's revelations to his mother during the traffic jam – also very chilling. The Surprise, then, is the frosting on the cake and the mark of a clever storyteller.

The Oscar nomination for Best Picture came from the hype, and I agree it was silly. It's a well-made film, but it resorts to trite, graphic shockers (the bloody bicyclist; the boy with the back of his head shot off; the hanging corpses) that were unnecessary in the midst of such a gripping, well-developed tone.

JB: I agree, and maybe that’s why I never feel the urge to go back to The Sixth Sense. As I think about it, Willis’ surprising performance (not cocky or tough like his famous Die Hard persona) was the biggest thrill for me as the movie was unfolding. It’s a performance that would have brought me back to The Sixth Sense. But then Shyamalan made Unbreakable, featuring what I think is an even stronger Willis performance in an even stronger film.

H: Right. I enjoyed The Sixth Sense. Then along came Unbreakable, starring Willis once again, and I felt I had viewed a much more significant contribution from M Night. In Sense, Willis goes for the deliberately subtle, quiet delivery so that he comes off as the antithesis of his action movie persona, but in Unbreakable a touching sensitivity and sincerity come through. We feel him struggle inside with his turmoil. "You're not doing what you're supposed to be doing," says Elijah (Samuel L Jackson), a statement that might haunt many audience members unsatisfied with their lot.

One of Willis' best moments comes during the breakfast sequence after his first experience as the Guardian: Joseph sits down with his orange juice. Ever notice the exaggerated sounds of unscrewing the cap, pouring the juice, screwing the cap back on – as though drawing our attention to what comes next? Without a word, David slides the newspaper over to his son so that Joseph can read the article. We see a minimalist still life of the juice glass, the edge of a plate, just the corner of the newspaper. When Joseph looks up from the paper, David says softly, “You were right.” It is a very quiet sequence, but powerfully touching.

What's your favorite Bruce Willis moment in this film?

JB: It has to be the weight-lifting scene. It’s a marvelous bit of simple, visual storytelling (something Shyamalan would get away from in Lady In The Water), and it’s magical. In an otherwise subdued yet nuanced performance (even when he becomes the Guardian he’s restrained), it’s the only time that a flash of Willis’ spunk shines through. In the scene, David first scolds his son for putting on too much weight, but then they start adding weight until David has successfully pressed it all. “What else can we use?” David says, just a hint of a glimmer in his eye.

Otherwise, Willis is so soft and inward, often uncomfortable. On the surface, it’s a bit of misdirection by Shyamalan: making David Dunn look like anything but a hero. But to watch the movie again, knowing David’s fate, is to see the sadness that he mentions, the emptiness, the result of him not doing what “he’s supposed to be doing,” an assessment that we don’t appreciate the gravity of until the end. Willis also shines early on in that uncomfortable scene on the train when he hits on a woman and it goes badly. And I adore the vulnerability he brings to the scenes with a terrific Robin Wright Penn as his estranged wife; you can really feel the distance that has grown between them as well as the love that’s there underneath it all.

Put it all together and Unbreakable is my favorite Shyamalan picture. It’s a movie that works better, or at least on a deeper level, the second time you see it, because you can appreciate all the allusions to the excessive do-gooderness of comic book heroes (little things, like David warning his son to step back during the weight-lifting scene so he doesn’t get hurt).

Also, it’s worth noting that what was arguably Willis’ finest moment as David didn’t make the finished film. Most of the time the deleted scenes you find on DVDs are a predictable waste, but Unbreakable has two deleted scenes that are powerful: one of Elijah as a child at a carnival, another of David crying in the shower. I’m not arguing with Shyamalan’s decision to cut either scene, because leaner is usually better. But I’m surprised at the latter cut: I can’t imagine there are too many directors brave enough to ask a tough-guy A-list actor to go to that place and then not use the footage.

Anyway, in Unbreakable Shyamalan takes the superhero origin story, which is always the best element, and spreads it out over an entire film (without us realizing what we’re watching) and makes it a very human story. When you think about it, David is a Christ figure, not as a martyr, obviously, but as an uncomfortable savior. He doesn’t want to shirk his responsibility and yet he’s doubtful that he could be so important. His destiny is a burden. As terrifying as it is for him to believe that he has this power, it’s just as terrifying to imagine giving himself up to that belief and finding out it isn’t true, that he’s just ordinary after all.

H: I love the Willis moments you mentioned. As a matter of fact, re-watching Unbreakable recently I was surprised that the film doesn’t begin with the train sequence. It begins with Elijah's birth – which is appropriate, but for me the film begins on the train, when we learn so much about David in a fairly silent sequence. We see his loneliness. We see that he likes kids. We see that he is considering being unfaithful to his wife, but then, when it doesn't work out, he puts the ring back on his finger. Ah, interesting – the ring – an important symbol in The Sixth Sense.

As far as considering the film as a whole, I think Unbreakable is M Night's best film. As you say, the whole superhero story is played out so originally. Forget Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, Iron ManUnbreakable is my favorite superhero movie because it's about a real man with real vulnerabilities, yet with convincing super powers played out in the real world. David testing out his telepathic powers in the train station and then saving the two girls only to be thrown down onto the pool cover – his battle with the water, and then his confrontation with the killer, holding onto him with his Herculean strength and enduring a pounding against the wall – what wonderfully gripping sequences those are!

Without a doubt, Unbreakable is Shyamalan's best film. My favorite? The Village, for many reasons, but mostly because of the world that M Night creates that we are convinced is an isolated village in the 1800s surrounded by a monster-infested wood.

JB: Well, you were convinced that it was an isolated village in the 1800s. Supposedly many people saw through that farce a little too soon. But we’ll get to The Village and the backlash against the Shyamalan surprise endings in a bit. First we need to discuss Signs.

For me, coming off Unbreakable, Signs was a letdown. I liked aspects of it, scenes, but on the whole it didn’t give me much to sink my teeth into. I detested the ending with the awkward alien and I thought the “surprise,” to the degree there was one, seemed forced and wasn’t fulfilling. But you’re a fan of Signs. Defend it.

H: Yes, I'm a fan. It's Shyamalan's most gripping film. (It's my third favorite after The Village and Unbreakable.) I appreciate it for its take on the alien invasion genre from a single family's point of view, as well as for two very memorable moments:

1. Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) is watching the television in a closet. The news channel shows a video clip that captures a glimpse of an alien. The scene is a birthday party in Brazil. The children in the foreground shriek hysterically as they point to the dense palmettos outside in the courtyard. The video captures typically shaky images. The kids shift to another window. With a jolt from the musical score, the alien emerges from the foliage, looks toward the camera and then passes out of sight. Merrill jolts in shock. This fleeting view of the alien is masterfully edited – not too long a glimpse, not too brief – just what is needed to create the effect. This is a totally convincing, fleeting image from another realm, one of the best moments in all of M Night's films.

2. The family has survived the harrowing appearance of the alien in the coal chute in the cellar. Back upstairs the next morning it seems like the aliens have gone. Then Graham wheels the TV into the living room and we see the alien reflected in the screen – and the stage is set for the surprise, which involves all the pieces coming together: Bo’s glasses of water; Merrill’s strength as a batter; Morgan’s asthma; and, during all this, the sudden cut to the flashback of Graham's wife’s last words: “Tell Graham to see… and tell Merrill to swing away.” Yes, indeed, Merrill, swing away! And there’s a tone of joyous triumph to the musical score and the slow-motion breaking of the glasses and splashing of the water that makes this the most emotional of Shyamalan's first three Surprise Endings.

JB: I have to disagree with you there. The most emotional ending is from The Sixth Sense, when Willis’ Malcolm finds out he’s been dead all this time – which also puts his wife’s actions into tragic perspective. For me, Signs is the Shyamalan screenplay that’s trying too hard plot-twist-wise. I completely agree with you that the initial alien sighting (via the news) is masterful, and I loved them boarding up the house and retreating to the cellar (though I wish the entire sequence would have played out with just the sounds of aliens, rather than the one reaching through the coal chute). Another scene I respect is the one of Mel Gibson’s Graham having his first encounter with the alien locked in the kitchen. And I’m always a fan of alien encounters near corn fields. That said, none of the scenes I just described make me want to see the film again. However, with the caveat that I haven’t seen this movie in years, I’ll throw Signs this bone: I think it includes my favorite (read: least annoying) Shyamalan cameo, with him playing that catatonic doctor ready to hightail it out of town.

H: Well, I guess it's just how the film hits you, or not. I find myself going back to Signs more than The Sixth Sense. Haley Joel irritates me after a while. But I do agree Sense is very well made. In re-watching the first four films over a period of four nights recently, I found myself gripped by Signs. The acting is good – M Night's cameo is creepy, especially when we see him fleetingly in the town – Phoenix as Merrill is an interesting character (wayward and purposeless, like David Dunn in Unbreakable). I enjoy the boarding up, siege sequences reminiscent of The Birds. And it's hard to describe, but the ending comes together in such a joyfully chilling way – with the flashback thrown in (a risky interruption but a successful one, I think).

As for Night's appearances in his films, his appearance in Signs is more of a role (integral to the plot) than a cameo. I like his appearance in Unbreakable as the drug pusher; it's brief. Then, in The Village, he is very irritating as the head of the conservation area security; he's hardly necessary and he's sitting there reading his newspaper while the guard goes into the refrigerator and picks out bottles of penicillin. Lucky thing he was so engrossed in his newspaper! Silly and needless. Of course, in Lady he plays too much of a role and he's not a great actor. He needs to stick to writing and directing.

JB: Silly and needless, that’s the perfect way to describe Shyamalan’s appearance at the end of The Village. Now, I happen to love that film: I saw it three times in the theater and I never tire of watching it ... until the final quarter. My problem with The Village’s conclusion isn’t the standard objection lobbed at the film (which I’ll get to in a second), it’s two scenes: the clumsy, slow-motion attack in the woods and every single second that Shyamalan is on screen.

The first complaint is minor: it’s a stylistic thing. In the forest attack Shyamalan is trying to play with us, trying to convince us that maybe monsters really do exist out there in the woods (after William Hurt’s character has already revealed the charade), and by altering speeds and moving the camera he brings an alien quality to what is a human in a costume. Fine. But like the shots of the green thing in Signs, it smacks of a director who is uncomfortable with his own visuals, as if he’s embarrassed that he’s trying to make This Thing scary. Yeah, I know, it’s what we don’t see that terrifies (The Village is all about the fear of the unseen and unknown), but at some point you’ve got to stand by your monsters, right?

As for the Shyamalan appearance: His acting in The Village is stiff and forced and the entire scene is, what were those words you used? Silly and needless. That’s exactly right. What a waste! The newspaper headlines of real-world horror are like Spielberg at his overly-overt worst. The only useful part of the scene is the line of dialogue explaining that planes aren’t allowed to fly over the compound, but along the way we get the worst, most unjustifiable dialogue in the film (“Don’t have conversations?” Conversations? Who talks like that?). Yet Shyamalan keeps the scene in all its misery because he’s in it, I guess. That’s the only justification.

Having said all that, you are one of the few people I know who love The Village like I do. In his 1-star review, Roger Ebert called it “a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent it would be laughable were the movie not so deadly solemn.” He was hardly alone. I know several people who watched the movie and found it both boring and, here’s the kicker, “obvious.” They determined quickly that the late-1800s setting was a hoax. What mystifies me, though, is this: even knowing the secret of The Village, I find it to be one of Shyamalan’s most engrossing pictures. I know you’re with me on this, so this won’t make for good debate, but what’s your take on The Village and its backlash?

H: My first viewing of The Village was on opening day in a suburban theater in California. When the end came, two beefy guys in wife-beaters got up and said, "That movie sucked." A poor boy who had seen the movie with his parents had to listen to his mother bitch all the way down the aisle as she exited, with things like, "That was so disappointing... I'll never go to the movies again." But the boy bravely said to his mom, "But don't you see..." and he went on to try to articulate some of the themes.

I think the big disappointment came because viewers were expecting monsters and blood. I was expecting monsters too. But when they didn't come – when I realized the monsters were us and our violent society that the villagers were hiding from – I loved it. Even without the Surprise or Not-So-Surprising Ending, I love this film.

There's so much to this film beyond its surprise. It's a touching story of true love's dedication. Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard give great performances. I love the very-removed otherworldly atmosphere of the village, complete with people speaking without contractions. I think the atmosphere is the film's triumph. I love Ivy's surrealistic journey through Covington Wood, with the memorable images of the rain turning to splinters of ice on the bushes; that overhead shot of the rain falling on the tarpaulin; the field of berries of "the bad color;" the trees entangled in briers; the muddy sink hole. And I love the musical score – the best of James Newton Howard's Shyamalan scores – with Hilary Hahn's haunting, melancholy violin strains.

For me, the ending isn’t disappointing. It's chilling. The voiceover explaining the loss of loved ones to violence. And then the final shot (there are many finely executed shots in this film) of Lucius lying in his bed, the door open to the outside, and then Ivy appears in the frame. "I am back, Lucius." Beautiful. Even the credits, with the music and the spooky old photographs, is wonderfully done.

As I said before, M Night is terrible in his cameo. As for the appearance of the "monster." That certainly could have been executed better. But the paradoxically colorful, almost artistic image of Noah lying amidst fur, feather, and bones at the bottom of the pit is memorable. For its acting, story, cinematography, musical score – despite its shortcomings here and there – The Village is a masterpiece.

JB: Wow. Masterpiece is a big word, and I hesitate to use it. But I will say this: those who say that The Village’s surprise isn’t a surprise at all are full of it. I don’t doubt that some folks deduced the secret in advance of its unveiling, and I’m sure their dissatisfaction is nothing short of sincere. But here’s the catch: the secret of The Village is obvious only to those looking for it. Reverse this film’s release with The Sixth Sense and no one would have seen The Village’s secret coming, and I bet quite a few people would have gotten to the bottom of The Sixth Sense, because they’d be looking for a riddle.

Now, let me be clear here: I think The Sixth Sense better executes its plot twist and that its twist is more rewarding. The Village wouldn’t have been the phenomenon that Sense was if Shyamalan made that his first film. However, Sense is also far more reliant on its surprise.

Thus the timing of this conversation is appropriate given all the attention swirling around Ken Tucker’s recent ‘I don’t care about spoilers’ comments in Entertainment Weekly (“I spoil if I must – and I sleep just fine”). As I see it, Tucker’s take is absurd. He thinks that it’s impossible to write thoughtful reviews while protecting spoilers and that he, as the critic, should be allowed to watch a TV show or a movie without having crucial plot points revealed ahead of time, though the average review-reading audience needs to “grow up” and accept their surprises-revealed fate. That’s bogus. If a film’s ending is so crucial that it must be detailed in a review – and sometimes it is – all that’s required is a simple parenthetical spoiler warning so people don’t stumble upon it accidentally. Then everybody wins. (An aside in favor of revealing spoilers: I remember all too well that Million Dollar Baby received heaps of disproportionate praise in large part because critics were so careful to protect its secrets that they didn’t dive into the truckload of faults in the movie’s latter half. But I digress.)

Here, though, is an area where I agree with Tucker: “The very fact that a plot twist becomes the most sacred bit of information, the key to enjoyment, doesn’t speak well for audiences’ appreciation of the performances, the direction, and other elements that make a show (or movie) worth pondering.”

Often, that’s quite right. People who went into The Village looking for the twist were cheating the movie and thus cheating themselves. Then again, Shyamalan is partly to blame for this. If his first three films informed audiences that his only worthwhile storytelling device was clever deception, moviegoers had every right to go into The Village hoping to be rewarded with a blow-your-socks-off finale, the same way people going into a Saw movie expect to see vile, bloody acts.

My view of Shyamalan echoes yours: the atmosphere or ambiance he creates is what entices me, not the twists, and I agree that The Village does the best job of that. As you said, the Hilary Hahn-powered score is a crucial ingredient (along with Richard Deakins’ lusciously muddy cinematography), and the interesting bit of trivia there is that Hahn wasn’t brought on until late in the process (according to the making-of extra on the DVD). I can’t imagine The Village without its score, nor can I imagine the score without Hahn.

Still, at the heart of this film is that terrific love story, with Howard’s Ivy and Phoenix’s Lucius. Some of the film’s acting is showy – I like Adrien Brody’s twitchy portrayal, but I have no argument for anyone who doesn’t – and that might be why this is about the only movie in which I can tolerate William Hurt: because Hurt, as the leader of the clan, a pompous college professor who masterminded the entire scheme, plays a character playing a character. That contraction-free dialogue isn’t meant to be an accurate representation of history but a reflection of the village elders’ ideas of what that era’s speech should sound like. It’s all an act. That’s why the tombstone at the beginning of the film with a late-1800s date on it isn’t a lie to the audience, as some have complained, it’s an element of the role-playing these characters have committed their lives to. Is it a cheat? Maybe a little. But no more than Cole failing to tell Malcolm that he’s dead right from the very start in The Sixth Sense.

Anyway, on top of the wonderful scenes or images you mentioned, I give you Ivy and Lucius on the porch; the two scenes where Lucius emerges from outside the frame to take Ivy’s hand; and, of course, “Do your very best not to scream.” What a straightforward and chilling line, bursting with suspense! I believe that The Village would be at least Shyamalan’s masterpiece if not for the flatness of the scenes on the other side of the wall.

H: Yes, Shyamalan ruined it by bringing himself into it. But, for me, I was so satisfied by what I had experienced before the wall that I forgive him this slip-up. Nevertheless, the film comes back to the village. Look at that closing shot: the elders in the room with Lucius, lying head to the bottom of the frame, with the door open. We can see this very believable world still going on outside. The news has spread: Ivy has returned. She killed a creature (Noah) and it leads to the elders reinstating their commitment to the village. Then Ivy walks in, and by that time I've forgotten all about M Night and his newspaper.

As you suggest, there is so much more to his films than the Surprise Endings. Look at each of the four movies we have discussed, and consider the suspenseful sequences that precede the endings, consider the acting, the framing of memorable images, the use of musical score. (The frantic score during the "Merrill, swing away" sequence in Signs is what helps capture the emotion for me and makes it my favorite ending.) As for spoilers, I simply won't read a review of a film until after I have seen the movie. I've had my experience spoiled too many times. Would a spoiler have changed my appreciation of M Night's first four films? Not much. I still would have been chilled by the ring rolling on the floor; shocked by the flashbacks elicited by Elijah's climactic line, "This is where we shake hands;" churned up emotionally by Merrill's bat-swinging triumph; touched by the voiceover, "My sister didn't live past her twenty-first birthday..."

Shyamalan has tried very hard to deliver the Surprise Ending to his fans, but, as Tucker suggests, they are unfaithful fans to be disappointed with the whole movie if the ending isn’t surprising. I'm going into The Happening not expecting a Surprise Ending. Who says M Night can't diverge from his formula? If there's a surprise I'll be happy, but if there isn't, there'll be a lot to enjoy as the story is told – that is, if he doesn't go wacky and wayward as he did in Lady In The Water.

JB: See, I don’t think that’s what Tucker is suggesting. Yes, he’s looking down his nose at people who only care about the plot twists, but even more he’s disparaging the art. He’s suggesting that if the TV show 24, to use his example, is only as good as its “I didn’t see that coming” twists, then it’s not very good. As someone who saw the first season of 24 and got nothing out of it, I’m in agreement with that argument. So, that being said, maybe Shyamalan’s following has only loved him for the Surprise Ending all along. Maybe none of the rest has really registered. Tucker would suggest that if The Sixth Sense is only a “great” film because of its conclusion then it ain’t great, and I agree.

But let’s move on and get to Lady, because that movie isn’t great in any respect. In my review at the time, I called it “a movie without grace, intrigue or common sense,” and I said it is “so muddled that it feels unplanned.” Having just read The Man Who Heard Voices, I can say with certainty that Lady was far from unplanned, but the book makes it clear that Lady was a muddled project from the very start. Shyamalan thought he was making his ET, inspired from a bedtime story he told his kids, but the result is something that feels like a mermaid version of “Dungeons & Dragons.” There are funny names and funny rules and talk, talk, talk, with no effect except to leave us tired of the characters.

At least once in the book, Shyamalan expresses that audiences don’t know what to expect from him anymore – and this was before Lady. That seems to be what Shyamalan thinks The Village did for him: he made a love story about people rather than a picture about the supernatural. The audience didn’t appreciate it. And then Lady came along and – wow – try as I might I find nothing to hold on to except for the setting (the eerie apartment complex called The Cove) and Paul Giamatti’s determined performance.

I know you liked this movie more than I did (which is to say somewhat), but here’s a question for you: Based on audience reaction to The Village (unfair though we think it was) and the rightful disaster that is Lady, should Shyamalan be returning to his supernatural roots (which appears to be the case in The Happening) or should he have gone even farther away from his comfort zone? There was a time when people thought Spielberg could only make popcorn movies, and for a while they were right (The Color Purple, surprisingly deep though it was for Spielberg at the time, isn’t all that mature in retrospect).

I guess what I’m asking you is this: Is Lady a sign that Shyamalan can only make films in his pigeonhole?

H: That's a good question. But what's his pigeonhole? The supernatural? What I like about Shyamalan’s first four films is that, yes, there is a supernatural base, but they are distinctly different in many ways: ghost story; superhero movie; alien invasion movie; fake monsters/real love story (to be followed by mermaid morass). These are the backdrops, but then you get stories that reflect significant topics: man struggling with loss of life, identity, faith; the endurance of love; the violence in our society.

I enjoy the films for the sci-fi sort of elements, but I don't label them that way. I think they are unique. I'm already seeing The Happening as a different contribution; it seems to be M Night's take on the disaster movie, or maybe another sort of genre – I have a hunch, but out of respect for not revealing spoilers, I won't say a word about it. So, except for trying to deliver the Big Surprise his audience now expects, I see his films as diverse. That's one of his big attractions for me.

As for Lady In The Water … You can do very fanciful things with mermaids and water – check out John Sayles' The Secret Of Roan Inish as an example. But there was no wonder in the water imagery (that scene in the underwater mermaid midden was a ridiculous borrowing from The Little Mermaid). One of M Night's many mistakes was taking Story out of the water. Keep her in the water! Keep her vulnerable! I was disappointed by this film. I feel Giamatti was doing his best but he's M Night's weakest lead. Yet I found things to like, including the echoes of his previous films: the main character suffering a loss; the different pieces of the puzzle that need to be solved in order to save Story; the creature in the tall grass. And I admire some of the images he captured. After Cleveland has made his emotional farewell to Story, we see the blurry image of the eagle swooping down and carrying her away from under the shimmering surface of the water. It’s a wonderful shot!

Does Lady In The Water prove that M Night can only do – or try to do – one sort of film? I don't think so. I know that he is fascinated by elements of horror and whimsy, and themes of love and the dark side of humanity, and he likes to revisit them. In Lady he just tried to fit in too many plot elements that didn't come together into a satisfying whole. With The Happening, I'm hoping for a tighter, more streamlined story. Could M Night go mainstream and make a love story or a character-driven story without the supernatural elements? I'm sure he could. Look at many of his well-staged sequences that could fit into movies that have nothing to do with the supernatural: Malcolm coming to the restaurant late; David lifting weights or having breakfast with his son; Graham overcoming his contempt for religion to embrace his children and brother; a girl setting out into a hostile wilderness in order to save the young man she loves.

JB: Good points. Going back to Ebert’s pan of The Village, one of the things he notes is that Shyamalan is “a director of considerable skill who evokes stories out of moods.” Maybe that’s Shyamalan’s pigeonhole, and so far it’s been rooted in the mysterious and fantastical. And that’s fine. Alfred Hitchcock made tremendous suspense pictures, and I don’t fault him for never making a war epic. (And it’s worth remembering that Hitch had quite a few misses scattered between his hits.) Still, every one of Shyamalan’s films so far has dealt in some way or another with belief and faith and the supernatural (even if it’s just the perception of the supernatural). I wonder how long he can keep that up, how many times he can tell that story with those repeated moods, before we start to feel like we’ve seen it all before.

We can be sure that The Happening will bring newness in at least one way: it’s Shyamalan’s first R-rated picture. There’s a voice in my head that wonders if that’s a sign of desperation rather than vision, as if Shyamalan is saying, “You think I can’t scare you? Watch this!” But if The Happening does well, Lady will seem like a misstep and maybe some people will start to look at The Village with fresh eyes (though I doubt it, because I’m not ready to bring fresh eyes to Signs). In any case, win or lose, I think his next film has to leave the supernatural in the garage if he wants to stay relevant and continue to draw Spielberg comparisons. Shyamalan needs his The Color Purple if for no other reason than to make people appreciate his future fantasies.

OK. So, we’ve looked over his films, and The Happening is about to happen. To wrap things up, complete these two sentences:

The Happening will succeed because ...

But it’ll be an uphill battle if ...

H: First, I agree with that quote by Ebert, but I feel each of M Night's first four films has a different mood. Interesting thing about Spielberg: he created his non-sci-fi masterpiece with Schindler's List, but I rate Jaws and War Of The Worlds among his tightest, best films. A lot of his ventures elsewhere have not been as memorable. But that's a debate for another time. So ...

The Happening will succeed because Shyamalan knows how to get touching performances out of his actors, he knows how to set a memorable mood, he knows how to frame stunning images, and he knows how to tell a meaningful story.

But it'll be an uphill battle if he appears in the film longer than 30 seconds (hey, stay behind the camera this time!) or if the film has anything to do with mermaids.

Here's hoping that Friday, June 13, brings M Night Shyamalan lots of good luck!

JB: I agree with you on the cameo and the mermaids.

I’ll go at my own questions this way:

The Happening will succeed because Shyamalan, after the impressive string of successes that was his first four films, needed to test his limits, like David Dunn, to figure out what they were. Lady In The Water was that test, and it proved that, like the Unbreakable hero, Shyamalan has limits (and should stay away from swimming pools). Having failed last time, he’ll bring his A-game.

But it’ll be an uphill battle if Mark Wahlberg’s performance is as flaccid as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights’ famous mirror scene. Truth be told: I’m secretly hoping that Wahlberg is actually going to be the first to go, ala Janet Leigh in Psycho. Now that would be a surprise!

See you Friday, Hokahey!

Cooler readers: What are your thoughts on M Night Shyamalan?


RC said...

How funny...

got to say i'm intrigued by The Happening, but the tag line alone, playing off of the other movies, that's lame.

I look forward to seeing how you feel about the film once you see it.

Fox said...

Good discussion guys. It was nice to read a back and forth between two fans instead of just abbreviated thoughts in the comment section.

Jason, I think this could work as a good running feature for you. It's very entertaining.

I feel the way about M. Night that I do about the Coens... meaning, I feel all over the map when it comes to deciding if I'm an overall fan or not. While I don't think M. Night has a made a 5 STAR film yet like the Coens have (*Raising Arizona* is it for me...), he has something that keeps me going back for the experience (I too will be seeing this tomorrow night...).

I agree that *Lady In The Lake* is a mess, but I like it. Even though I think the only reason M. Night made that movie was to get in a dig at critics. But that's fine with me. Bob Ballaban just LOOKS like your typical East Coast snoot.

Other things I liked about *Lady*: I think it looks really friggin good (thanks to Chris Doyle), and call me mushy, but I was charmed by the fact that he made a film for his daughters based on a fairy tale he told them.

Mark said...

Well, this is very old business by now, but we finally got around to viewing "The Village" last night, for the first time. It's a movie I probably never would have seen without this discussion -- especially after the massive disappointments of "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening" -- but when someone starts throwing around the word masterpiece I figure I ought to take a look.

Maybe it hurt my viewing experience that I'd already read your discussion and knew the "surprise." On the other hand, Jason says he sees the movie repeatedly and always enjoys it.

Me, I just don't get the love for this one. I found I didn't care much about the mystery or the characters, and even though I'd read this discussion I felt like the "surprise" was obvious and, even if it had been surprising, not all that rewarding.

I didn't hate it. And it's not M Night's worst film -- he's seen to that -- but I'm afraid I couldn't muster more than two halfhearted gliomas for "The Village."

Joey Sims said...

Happened upon this great blog and thought I'd chime in on the Village debate.

I saw The Village at a young age, and as a complete newcomer to Shamalayan. I hadn't seen any of his films, and was only faintly aware of his reputation. And I loved it. I was moved by the love story (a rarity for me), creeped out by the imagery and, overall, very pleasently surprised.

I don't believe I would have this reaction if I saw The Village now. Which is a shame. But I'm glad I saw it when I did, and I will defend it to this day. Especially now that I'm old enough to understand the underlying metaphor, which only heightens my affection for the film.

A couple of scenes from The Village stay with me to this day: Lucius and Ivy talking on the porch, which I think is just beautiful; and Noah stabbing Lucius, which horrifies me every time.

Given the far-fetched nature of the ending, I sometimes wonder why I hold such a place in my heart for this movie. But I just do. For reasons unexplainable, I like the ending as much as everything that came before it. I love it when a movie produces that kind of feeling.