Monday, August 09, 2004

The Shyamalan Redemption

Fear can hold you prisoner...

I liked The Village much more than I thought I would, though I could easily see how people would hate it, which is why I’m reluctant to recommend it to anybody.

To put my reaction into perspective – I liked both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable a lot, though I could see the beginnings of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmic masturbation at work in the latter, with its long, uninterrupted takes. Then came Signs, a movie I really wanted to like – and I went along with it for about an hour or so – but then it got to that scene where he himself took center stage, and it went downhill from there. Needless to say, I hated it, and sharpened my knives for its writer/director/star. It didn’t help that Time Magazine idiotically declared Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg,” which I took as a personal affront and yet another sign of Night’s out-of-control hubris, even if he never claimed to be the successor to the director’s chair himself.

To me, The Village is a response to all that (though I could be reading too much into it). The twist in this film (don’t worry, I won’t divulge any spoilers here, even if my review is already over a week late) is on his own mythology, which may explain the nearly universal disappointment in it. It reminded me of that April Fool’s stunt Trey Parker & Matt Stone pulled way back in the early days of South Park – like that twist, this one is the perfect embodiment of what its creator stands for, and yet in being that, it totally pisses off the audience. I love it! I only hope that I read it correctly in that it was Shyamalan putting the “twist” phase of his oeuvre to sleep.

But as with his other good movies, there’s more to The Village than just the twist. I like the way he raises some serious sociological issues in the film, specifically concerning “fear,”, and I kept flashing to Bowling For Columbine in my head throughout (when the DVD comes out, I’ll have to do a double feature). It also brought to mind a college course I took on monsters that focused on the creation of “Us vs. Them” binaries. The Village would be an interesting text to study in that context. The main thing tempering my appreciation for the movie (aside from the often stilted dialogue – though still less stilted than the “contemporary” dialogue of She Hate Me) was the unclear message Night was sending with two choices. First, making Adrien Brody’s character “retarded” (there’s no other word for his portrayal, or for his decision to accept this role, which may be explained by this quote from Entertainment Weekly: ''My agents weren't even allowed to read the script,'' says Brody. ''To this day, they haven't read it.'') really confuses things for me and I think dilutes the power of what it seems he wanted to say – to go into more depth, I’d have to get into spoilers. The second issue is the Bryce Dallas Howard’s (who by the way is a beautiful revelation here) character’s decision at the very end of the movie. I’m curious to see if Shyamalan addresses any of this on the DVD.

So I still think it’s cinematic blasphemy to call Shyamalan the next Spielberg. At this point in the latter’s career, he’d already made masterpieces as diverse as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark (okay, and 1941 was somewhere in there, too, but I’ll take that over Signs any day). Jaws vs. The Sixth Sense? Close Encounters vs. Unbreakable? Raiders vs. The Village? Even dated by twenty years, Spielberg wins hands down every time. But Shyamalan shouldn’t feel bad. I personally don’t believe there’s a single filmmaker in the hundred years of the medium that’s comparable to Spielberg, but that’s an article for another day.

And what of Shyamalan’s unbreakable ego? It’s still there, but he seems to be having fun with it. His Hitchcockian pseudo-cameo in The Village is equal parts mea culpa and “fuck you” to critics, like me, of his star turn in Signs. “You don’t want to see me in this movie, fine, you won’t.” “Oh, you don’t think I could find a way to fit an Indian-American in a lily-white, bucolic, nineteenth century village? I’ll show you!” The kid’s got some piss and vinegar in him!

Then there’s The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, the controversial Sci-Fi exposé, which was exposed to be a crock-umentary. Yeah, it was cheesy in parts and there was no need for it to be three hours long and it sort of tries to elevate its subject to god-status, but other than that, it was surprisingly well-made and entertaining. It was also a very creative marketing tool for a movie that the director wanted to keep totally hidden before its release. And it too showed that Night has a sense of humor about himself, turning in a pretty convincing portrayal of an egotistical diva who won’t let visitors to his set make eye contact. The biggest shock of all, however, was that they got Johnny Depp to do a cameo – how, I don’t know, although Michael Eisner must have some pretty good blackmail on the guy.

Oh, and by the way, I’m dead. Turns out, I was allergic to water.


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