Monday, April 14, 2008

Strained Seriousness - M. Night Shyamalan (1970- )

FILMS: 1992—Praying with Anger. 1998—Wide Awake. 1999—The Sixth Sense. 2000—Unbreakable. 2002—Signs. 2004-The Village. 2006—Lady in the Water. 2008—The Happening.

The Shyamalan universe, with writer/director/producer/actor Shyamalan at the center, is rapidly contracting with each passing film. Two low-key, earnest efforts preceded his commercial breakthrough, The Sixth Sense, but even then aims of cultural and spiritual redemption appeared that far exceeded his technical and artistic grasps. Those stories of a disaffected Indian teen and a spiritually jaded young boy were marred by, among other things, narrative shortcutting and simple inexperience. What made Sense such a success was an able blending of pop mysticism, calculated moodiness, and advantageous casting at the service of a genuinely affecting conceit. One would be hard-pressed to claim that each film’s “twist ending” is not its raison d'être, no matter what other virtues it may have; the difference with Sense is the wholeness it gains from Shyamalan’s off-balance, ambient spookiness and the still revelatory naturalism of Haley Joel Osment. Compared to this film, M. Night’s two follow-ups contain equally taut handling of continually more schematic narratives, and Sense remains his only film that rewards multiple viewings because of its ending.

A Shyamalan film refers to nothing outside itself yet strives higher. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs start from narrative foundations of collective pulp memory: ghost story, comic book, and alien invasion, respectively. To his major credit, Shyamalan then elides most of the traditional genre thrills, leaving us only glimpses of vengeful spirits, superheroics, or UFO landings. The fact that audiences responded so well to such resolutely melancholy, unexciting genre fare proved that Shyamalan’s was a distinctly new pleasure in the multiplex landscape at the turn of the millennium. Underpinned by vaguely religious themes ranging from transcendence to sacrifice to Manichean duality, Shyamalan’s first three successes (even the explicitly faith-centric Signs) balance moderate artistic aspirations and overriding commercial considerations. His stab at social relevance, The Village, despite effective work from Bryce Dallas Howard and cinematographer Roger Deakins, thwarted an interesting utopian plot with unnecessary contrivances and the almighty twist, never mind the absurd studio advertising. This relative failure led to the unfortunate fiasco-cocoon of Lady in the Water, an amalgam of Shyamalan’s most solipsistic auteurist quirks: his biggest on-screen role since Praying with Anger, the barest of generic frameworks (this time a "bedtime story”), and the conveniently rushed acceptance of the fantastic by the average person. What began as a successful genre entertainment/spirituality hybrid, with only touches of over-ambition, has reduced itself to egotistical, Shyamalan-as-savior shtick. The swallowing of his own hype grew steadily more evident post-Signs, and audiences and critics seem to have caught on. The three successes, however, still carry considerable cachet, and whether Shyamalan can parlay that residual good will with another crackerjack plot remains to be seen.

1 comment:

patrick said...

from "Lady in the Water" i got the feeling that M. Night Shyamalan was getting to the point that he is trying too hard

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