Thursday, June 12, 2008

Scott on M. Night Shyamalan as Family Film Maker

[Scott discusses Shyamalan, and raised a questions about his new movie -- which in spite of myself, I am interested in. I respond below. ]

M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, The Happening, is being marketed as "his first 'R' rated" movie. I suppose this is supposed to imply that this will be "Shyamalan Unleashed" and it is interesting because a lot of people have seen his films as very adult and may be surprised at the fact that this is the first to cary an 'R' rating.

I was flipping through channels when I noticed that The Sixth Sense was playing on, of all things, ABC family. At first, I was surprised because I thought, "is this really appropriate for a 'family' network?" However, once I had considered it for a moment, it kind of made sense. While some of the scenes may be a bit intense for younger children, it's just the right amount of scary for older children (maybe 10 or 12 and up). Also, once I thought about it a bit more, it occurred to me that most of Shyamalan's films are oddly appropriate as family films. They're relatively free of scenes of explicit sex, violence and bad language, they're also usually centered around a small child, a family or, in the case of Lady In the Water, a surrogate family. In fact, his first major film, Wide Awake (That's right, The Sixth Sense was actually his second film) is pretty much a straight up family film. Additionally, look at the subject matter of his films: Ghosts (Sixth Sense), Superheroes (Unbreakable), Aliens (Signs), Monsters (The Village) and Fairy Tales (Lady In The Water). These are all topics that appeal to the child within (I'm reminded of being in elementary school and repeatedly checking out the same three books from a series out of the school library: UFOs, Ghost, and Monsters). Shyamalan's films approach these topics with a certain innocence and perhaps that is why a child or a childlike figure is always somewhere at the center of the story. As adults, we go to see movies with this kind of subject matter for a bit of fun but as children we see them as being truly magical and, in a way, this is what he has always tried to capture in his films. He has often been accused of being overly serious but I think that's just because he approaches these topics with the wide-eyed reverence of a child.

So, will this 'R' rated Shyamalan be a change for the better or the worse?

[Shyamalan is very much in the shadow of Spielberg -- that "classic" storytelling in which family genre stories are so well told, and so imbued with real world concerns -- see again Abrams on Jaws, or thing about how dreary suburbia is portrayed in ET. ET was on television not long ago, and I was surprised to the degree to which, even now, I could not turn away or fail to get choked up at the final scene. Also, Unbreakable seems to be particularly telling, as the superhero genre, more than anything else, is the genre designed for kids, but marketed to adults -- that seems to be very much what he is up to in all of his movies (at least the ones I've seen).

As for the R rating, one analogy comes to mind. When the restrictions on violence were lifted on Hitchcock, as the decades passed, he made some really bad films -- Frenzy especially, and I think the removal of the constraints was in part to blame.

I have not seen The Village or Lady in the Water, but I don't think Shyamalan is really on the level with even a young Spielberg or Hitchcock. But you can see that he really really wants to be. The Sixth Sense is deservedly praised; but Unbreakable is only praised by comics fans, who cut it some slack because they are so excited to see the material on screen in a serious form; Signs was better than I thought it would be, but it is not a movie that really stays with me, but this might be due to the insane-i-fication of Mel Gibson. ]

23 comments:

Geoff Klock said...

I should say I know the twists in the Village and Lady in the Water so feel free to spoil away.

Geoff Klock said...

Even if I did not, you should still feel free to spoil away, as I had my chance to see those films unspoiled when they were in the theater.

hcduvall said...

I saw the Village at the Ziegfeld, a theater that generally attracts a forgiving crowd wanting to be entertained, and we ended up heckling it and leaving the theater debating whether or not to warn the people in line for the next showing. I think Shyamalan has a great deal of talent, a great eye, and something of a enjoyable tin ear for dialogue. Sadly, what little I know of the man seems to make him insufferable: the expanding of his own cameos into actual roles when he's absolutely terrible as an actor, the formulaic plots, the apparent homer aspirations...

I guess my thought is that graphic intensity of subject manner isn't the flawed part of his work, so I don't imagine it matters much if he gets an R rating or not. Until it seems like he's tackling his work with an editor, say, on the basic plot and thematic level, I don't have much interest, talented as he is. He's made six movies now, that's plenty of big chances, and it's not as if he didn't succeed some of the time. But there are other talented directors out there who deserve the chance .

Marc Caputo said...

I saw Unbreakable at a time when I wasn't reading comics, and I loved it. Obviously, I was drawing on my memories of comics - but it put me a frame of mind to come back.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan seems to have taken the film's poor reception to heart. Where I found Unbreakable to be respectful of my ability to think for myself, I found Signs to telegraph everything, as if Shyamalan was apologizing for making us think and fill in the blanks for ourselves.

And it was only downhill from there. The Village had some plot problems, but the movie fell apart at the "reveal". And I don't even want to talk about The Lady in the Water ever again.

Oddly, though, I find myself giving him another chance with this new one and am more excited for it than other movies this summer.

Jason said...

I know at least one person who loved Unbreakable but didn't have the tiniest interest in comics. Probably the exception, but -- it'd be a great world if it *weren't* the exception, wouldn't it?

I personally really enjoy the Shyamalan films I've seen (though I didn't see "Signs" or "Water"). I thought "The Village" was fun -- it was like a kind of baroque, Victorian funhouse-mirror image of "Dark City" (which also featured William Hurt).

pla said...

First off, I don't know what your problem is with Frenzy, aside from the fact that Hitchcock, to put it mildly, has some issues with women.

What I've found interesting with Shyamalan is his approach to and critique of narrative structure in his films. Unbreakable is a one act film - I think he mentioned somewhere that he wrote the rest of the film, but really only liked the first act, so just stretched it out to fill the film. I'm not sure it really works, but it's at least it's an interesting formal experiment.

Lady in the Water is even more confrontational in regards to traditional film narrative. He goes to significant length to have Bob Balaban's character explain how the plot should be working (on the assumption that this is a normal movie), then have things go horribly wrong when the characters follow his advice (since this is a fairy tale, not a movie). The level of hostility he has toward the Balaban character seems somewhat disproportionate. It's like he sees the forms and structures as enemies instead of things to be played with.

I can certainly understand feeling confined, but I think the flatness of a lot of his films comes from their failure to deliver the beats when we're conditioned to expect them (or, if you buy into McKee wholeheartedly, that films don't work unless they follow the traditional structure).

hcduvall said...

Known as a comic book fan with friends, I was recommended Unbreakable (which I liked), and that was the first one I saw. I saw Sixth Sense after and I liked it, but I knew the end was coming (that's not the filmmaker's fault though). Signs I liked the best because, despite of playing the very important supporting role himself like a dead fish, he played with established expectations and pulled it off. Marc's right, I think it was pretty blatant, but the audience I was with didn't just go with the cues from the movie, they went with knowing it was a "Shyamalan movie", and manipulating that (possibly unintentionally) worked.

The Village I sadly guessed everything literally at the first shot of the movie. Some cute couple scenes though. He bit off more than he was ready for, going big with cultural critique and being all clumsy with it,. It's a nice Twilight Zone episode, I guess. But after that, and I admit judging the maker instead of the product is a flawed approach to criticize his work (but works wonders in possibly saving me time and money), when the run up to Lady in the Water seed to show him indignant rather than having learned or adapted to any criticism...well, I admit I wrote him off then.

scott91777 said...

For the record, I have seen all of Shyamalan's film's and, while none have approached the first viewing of Sixth Sense, I love Unbreakable and have found the rest to be quite... I dunno... charming. Not a good word, but I find it appropriate.

In spite of the flaws or disapointments with the plot or reveal (a better word than 'twist' I think) of the films... I've always felt that they were finely crafted and I always love to see how all the pieces fall in to place in the final act of the film.

Troy Wilson said...

Loved Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

I liked the man-on-the-street (or, rather man-on-the-farm) view of the invasion in Signs, but the stupidity and incompetence of the aliens hindered my enjoyment a lot.

Spoiler alert: I just didn't want to buy that they'd be dumb enought to attack a planet that is mostly made up of their big weakness. Is it possible? Sure. Maybe they'd never encountered water before. But, I dunno, it just made them seem a bit too stoopid. Plus, they're supposed to be able to take over the globe and they can't even bust down some wooden door to get at our heroes. Lame.

Marc Caputo said...

As I was watching Battlestar Galactica on SciFi today, each commercial break had the trailer for The Happening.

I love how the title cards had words linking to his earlier movies, but only the "successful" ones - "First, you get a SENSE...", "then you see the SIGNS..."

Totally ham-handed but clever, nonetheless.

Marc Caputo said...

Troy: I heard a good piece of defense about the "stoopid" aliens at the time of the movie's release. Basically, it said that not all the aliens had the same level of intelligence.

You know, not everyone who works at Con Edison is an engineer.

But I have to say one thing about the film; the part where Joaquin Phoenix' character is watching the video and sees the alien creeps the living daylights out of me.

scott91777 said...

"But I have to say one thing about the film; the part where Joaquin Phoenix' character is watching the video and sees the alien creeps the living daylights out of me."

The moment when Bryce Howard is in the woods in The Village and the 'creature' appears behind her, even though we know that they're supposed to be fake, still gave me chills.

These are either testaments to Shyamalan's talents as a film maker or to mine and Marc's chickenshittedness :)

Jason said...

Scott, I agree with you. That moment in the woods really shook me. (It helped that Shyamalan did that same trick he always does, with the intensely percussive music cue just as the creature -- or ghost, or alien, depending on the movie -- comes into the frame.)

Thinking about the film later, I decided that's the moment that makes me a fan of the movie, because -- for whatever its flaws might be -- I was obviously sucked in enough at that point to have been freaked out.

Marc Caputo said...

Chickenshittedness all the way, brother.

Seriously, though, if I think about it, the things that do scare me the most are the little things like that.

Off the top of my head - the kid in the corner at the end of Blair Witch, the Big Wheel scene in the Shining...

I'll think of more but am going to call my mom now...

scott91777 said...

Actually, this reminds me of something that occurred to me about the Exorcist a while back. This movie still scares me more than any other and the scenes early on in the film of the girl undergoing test and being in the hospital are perhaps even more unsettling than the full on demon possession. Anyway, I remember seeing a documentary that mentioned that Friedken's background before the movie was as a documentary film maker. That's why, you'll notice, there's almost no use of a score for the first hour or so of the film. He taks a very naturalistic approach to the story so that when the freaky shit starts happenning you're like "Holy Shit! This is really happenning!"

on a side note... when I was in my office in the middle of the day searching for the scene that I wanted to use in class from the Exorcist DVD, I started to get a bit nervous... now THAT is a scary movie.

Or I'm just a chickenshit :)

Troy Wilson said...

Marc: The differing levels of intelligence is a good point, but some - or at least one - of the commanders/generals should have known better. And from a storytelling standpoint, having the baddies make one of the biggest military blunders in the universe just isn't a very effective way to make them seem threatening.

Casey McMahon said...

Shyamalan Is doing a live action trilogy of the avatar the last airbender cartoon. Hows that for family orientated? Also I don't know how I feel about his being a massive fan of the show.

Streebo said...

I am very much looking forward to seeing Shyamalan's new film as soon as possible. The moment in the trailer with the people falling off buildings is one of the most horrifying images I've seen on film all year.

Streebo said...

Did anyone actually go to see Unbreakable in the theaters - having no idea that it was going to be about superheroes?

I did go to see Unbreakable during it's theatrical run and was unaware of the subject matter of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed it - but it does have some pacing issues. Lifting weights for fifteen minutes the middle of the film is not what a young Alfred Hitchcock would describe as visually exciting.

Geoff Klock said...

Streebo -- I did. Sara turned to me in the theater and accused me of tricking her into seeing it when the superhero fact prologue thing started.

by the way, the happening is getting really bad reviews, and now I am not going near it.

THE REVIEW (NOT SPOILERS)

THE BIG SPOILER REVIEW: DO NOT CLICK UNLESS YOU WANT TO KNOW THE TWIST

Christian said...

Lady of the Lake is quite possibly one of the worst movies I've ever seen in a theatre. It gets retroactively worse, the more I think about it.

I liked Sixth Sense and Unbreakable though.

scott91777 said...

Guess it's a good thing I opted for The Incredible Hulk movie this weekend.

Jason said...

Scott, me too! What did you think?

(I posted my thoughts here: livejournal.com/users/oceandoot)