Friday, June 20, 2008

More on intentions...

I thought Jim Emerson's post on The Happening was interesting and valuable: Emerson goes into detail about Shyamalan's filmmaking choices - his compositions and staging and editing - which is something critics rarely bother to do anymore. (I don't do it either, but I'm not a professional). I still think that he's talking about the movie as a failed attempt at doing something it's not trying to do. Jim's comments seem to be about how he would have filmed the same kind of material and what he needs from that kind of movie. Fair enough - but I think he gives short shrift to the way Shyamalan is consciously going against the grain of how scenes should be filmed (per the conventions of contemporary filmmaking) in order to work out his own visual ideas. For instance: the first classroom scene is constructed to set up the groups vs. individuals motif that runs throughout the movie.

Keith at The House Next Door seems to like The Happening more than anyone else but me and Roger Ebert, but his take is very mixed. Keith's points are interesting because he's definitely a Shyamalan partisan. Like me, he has a lot of admiration for The Lady in the Water. He sees The Happening as a movie partly done in by the compromises Shyamalan makes between his own personal way of making movies and his attempts to appeal to a popular audience. I agree that The Happening is a step back from The Lady in the Water and The Village to something that tries to be more "audience friendly" - like Unbreakable - but, for me, this is kind of relative. After the drubbing he took over The Lady in the Water, it's understandable that he'd do this, but he doesn't pull back too much. The Happening is still very much against the grain.

On the level of interpretation, I don't think the various theories the different characters come up with about the event in The Happening represent an attempt to spell things out to the audience. Rather, I think this plays into Shyamalan's concern with interpretation (a kind of storytelling) in general. I think Signs and The Lady in the Water develop this theme in a more interesting manner, but I don't think the way it is played out here is "preschool".

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Five Cases:

(a) My wife and I watched Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958) the other night. She mentioned afterwards that, though she liked the movie, she was unable to completely get into it because Ingrid Bergman's Swedish accent sticks out because Phyllis Calvert, who plays her sister, has an upper-class-ish British accent, and the discrepancy doesn't seem to have been explained (i.e., a line in the script telling us that Bergman was adopted or something else along those lines). But she said this wasn't nearly as bad as Dangerous Liasons (Stephen Frears, 1988) - a movie she was unable to take seriously at all because of the American actors, playing French characters, all speaking with different "affected" accents.

(b) During a discussion about standards of realism on an RPG blog's comment thread, Meg Baker brought up the case of an electrician friend of hers who watched Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005) and was bothered by the fact that "a phone that figures prominently has a wire jack" which would have been "utterly impossible for the era."

(c) A film critic friend (and former teacher) of mine was unable to get into The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999) because he couldn't buy Terrence Stamp as a guy who just got out of jail. "He looked more like he just got back from a Caribbean vacation."

(d) The first time I watched In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan, 1993), I had no trouble responding to/engaging with the movie on its own terms. However, I saw it again after having read more about the historical case and the liberties Sheridan and Terry George takes with Gerry Conlon's story, and the movie no longer "worked" for me. While I was still sympathetic to its politics and its overall p.o.v., the fact that the central event - Conlon being imprisoned with his father - had been almost completely fabricated seemed like a betrayal of the audience's trust.

Now: though I think I'm justified, in case (d), I can't help feeling that the people in (a), (b), and (c) are not quite playing fair with the movie. I mean, even though this is subjective, a dislike for incongruous accents, props, or suntans seems, to a certain extent, like something to get over. At least/especially if the movie is coherent in some way: that is, if there are organizing principles at work.

But I can even play devil's advocate against myself, too. Here's another case:

(e) On a message board discussion about how the makers of The King of Kong had not only kept things out of their movie that would complicate the story they were trying to tell but actually manipulated events to get the story they wanted, Luke Crane wrote that these simplifications, omissions, and manipulations did not matter because of the movie's overall truth:

I thought it was great. I was poignantly aware of the artifice of it as I watched, but I couldn't get past the characterizations. Why? Because I know those people! Not personally, but I meet people like that every day in my gamer life. And those on screen portraits were incredibly accurate to what I experience in my day to day.
I'm bringing all this up not to say that anyone was actually right or wrong, but rather to suggest that there is a gray area between approaching a movie as a "generous viewer" - one who engages with it on its own terms - and "discerning viewer" - one who measures the movie against his or her own values/sensibility etc.

Sometimes I get the feeling that unsympathetic viewers will bring in a concept like "historical accuracy" to make their argument against a movie stronger: it gives the impression that they are holding the movie up to an objective standard. This is a suspect maneuver, IMO, because most viewers (general audience members, film critics, and film buffs alike) are not at all consistent in terms of which movies they hold to that standard. "Historical accuracy" is like a club they pick up when they feel the need to beat on movies they don't like. On the other hand, there's something about the way that movies like In the Name of the Father or The King of Kong play around with the facts that definitely bugs me. So, like I said, a gray area.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Talking About The Happening

The Happening is one of only two movies I've seen so far this year about which I feel evangelical (the other one was Boarding Gate).

I went into the theater knowing almost nothing about the movie: I had avoided watching the trailers and hadn't read anything about it. I didn't want to get caught up in the continuing anti-Shyamlan backlash (which seems to have been gorwing ever since Unbreakable). I had wanted to recommend the other people see the movie in the same way - going in clean, if you will - but I also wanted to make sure they were on the right wavelength, so I started bringing up Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur in all my conversations about Shyamalan and the movie. I'm not sure that is "strong" enough, though, so my new suggestion is that people who are watching it make the leap of faith that it is, on its own terms, a complete success. In other words: everything in it is the way it is because that's how it's supposed to be, not because Shyamalan was trying to do something else but failed.

For instance, I don't think Shyamalan was trying to write "realistic" dialogue and somehow screwed up. I don't think he was trying to direct his actors to give gritty, naturalistic performances à la 28 Weeks Later, but couldn't get that across. I don't think he was trying for a thrill-a-minute feel and stumbled into making a movie that was more creepy/dreamy than thrilling/intense.

This isn't to say that because I think it is a success on its own terms, everyone has to like it. Taste and all that is certainly still important: you might not like the way he uses stylized dialogue, you might not respond to the performances, you might think that the creepiness isn't realized as effectively as it could be.

Invisible Connections

The Happening


My case for The Happening - my case for M. Night Shyamalan's movies in general - begins with the suggestion that we should look at it as a contemporary version of the kind of films that Val Lewton made with Jacques Tourneur and not as the kind of large scale thrillers made by Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Poltergeist, War of the Worlds). I bring this up, because a lot of the criticism of The Happening seems to be based on the idea that it is a failed Spielberg movie. Signs, The Village, and The Lady in the Water were subject to the same misapprehension.

A better comparison might be with Brain De Palma, in that De Palma : Hitchcock :: Shyamalan : Lewton and Tourneur, but the differences are more illuminating than the similarities. (a) Shyamalan's movies don't feature direct homages or allusions to other movies; (b) they have a grandeur and solemnity without any distancing irony, in spite of their pulpy, Twilight Zone origins*; (c) where De Palma's project is partly in "updating" Hitchcock - adding in what is "left out" of Hitchcock's movies - Shyamalan's aesthetic and thematic vision centers on what is "left out" - the "fruitful void" (to borrow a term from Ron Edwards that could be used to describe the source of power of the Lewton/Tourneur movies).

Each of these differences ties into larger problems critics (and audiences) have had with his movies, although I'd like to frame them not as problems within the movies but rather as challenges posed by the movies.


I decided I needed to reassess M. Night Shyamalan's career after seeing The Village for a second time after I had been underwhelmed by it when I first saw it in the theaters. I realized that part of what kept me from appreciating it was that I had been expecting it to be something it wasn't. Watching it again - already knowing what it was and able to watch it on its own terms - was a revelation, in a way. Its ambition and audacity - the way it cut across the grain of contemporary big-budget Hollywood filmmaking both in terms of how it was made and how it was presented - struck me as something to be celebrated, not mocked.

But I made the mistake of paying too much attention to the critics' take on his next movie - The Lady in the Water - and missed out on seeing it on a big screen. When I finally caught up with it (spurred on by some comments from David Bordwell), I decided to write about it, but I made another mistake: instead of writing about the movie's strengths, I focused - facetiously - on the three things that had made it a target of critical scorn. I wasn't trying to mount a defense of these "obnoxious" aspects, but rather, by bringing them up, to defuse them. The problem, though, is that because no one was taking this movie seriously to begin with, writing about these choices as "flaws" - instead of, say, defending them on aesthetic/thematic grounds - wasn't a strong way of arguing that we should take the movie seriously. Rather, I think my post would actually have the opposite effect from what I had intended: it gave people more and/or stronger reasons to dismiss the movie. (Because only twelve people read my blog, this might not seem like a big deal - it might even seem like I'm taking myself too seriously - but eleven of them are Shyamalan haters).


But it is important to talk about why critics don't like his movies. I'm not trying to second guess anyone or suggest that they are "wrong" for having a negative reaction to The Village or The Happening. However, I do think that his movies which are anti-critic or rather anti-"film criticism as practiced by American film critics". This is made explicit in The Lady in the Warer, but it is implicit in his other movies.

To start, let's go back to Difference with De Palma (a) - "Lack of homage or allusion". This poses a challenge to critics, because noticing and explaining homages and allusions is central to the practice of film criticism (i.e., is There Will Be Blood more a Kubrick movie or a Malick movie?). I'd argue that it is "more central" when it comes to criticism of "post-classical" Hollywood cinema, where one of the major ways a director working in genre fare can signal that he/she should be taken seriously is by using homage/allusion.

While The Happening has elements that are reminiscent of other movies (Romero's apocalyptic movies come to mind), Shyamalan doesn't deploy these references for in-the-know audience members to pick out.

This brings us - skipping over (b) for a moment - to Difference (c): "What's important is what's left out". Shyamlan's movies place themselves not so much through homage/allusion, but by adopting the strategies of the Lewton/Tourneur chillers where meaning is made by leaving things out - by what is left unseen.

The problem is that you almost need to have this in mind before you see his movies because it goes completely against the way most contemporary Hollywood movies work - even the ones I really like, like Speed Racer or Rambo (to pick the other two movies I liked this year that did not get much support from critics).

The Happening is a great illustration of "what's left out": there are no "fantastical" uses of CGI, no thrill ride sequences, menace is suggested by shots of the wind blowing through the trees - which may be the movie's ultimate Lewtonian motif.

Val Lewton developed his distinctive style because of outside constraints: it was a question of working within limited budgets and disreputable genres. Shyamalan's approach is to work within self-imposed constraints.

Looking at some of his other movies in terms of constraints - which also means in terms of what's left out:

Unbreakable is a super-hero movie without any of the adventure movie trappings of contemporary super-hero movies.

Signs is an alien invasion movie that keeps the alien invasion hidden.

The Lady in the Water restricts itself to one location.

Watching a movie for "what's left out" in an age where so much emphasis is placed on showing new things in new ways takes practice (I'm certainly still working at it). Writing about movies in these terms also takes practice (ditto). For a number of reasons, film critics are generally better at it when dealing with art films, but the important reason here is this is not how we expect to have to watch a Blockbuster.

And that brings us to Difference (b): "Solemnity and grandeur - yes; irony - no."

When I wrote about Speed Racer, I didn't want to spend too much time on the negative critical reaction, but my suspicion was that the Wachowski Brothers daring to be as ambitious as they were with a summer popcorn movie made them a target for scorn. My "evidence" was the much more favorable critical reaction to Transformers. Now - I'm not necessarily suggesting that the Transformers-liking, Speed Racer-loating critics were being dishonest about their tastes and I'm not necessarily suggesting that liking Transformers and loathing Speed Racer is a sign of bad taste. I'm actually not sure that taste has anything to do with it. The judgment on these movies seemed to be a moral one: Transformers was a dumb movie that did nothing new and was fairly sloppily made but it knew its place, whereas Speed Racer - much more carefully made, with a genuine aesthetic and thematic vision behind it - was too ambitious.

The critics have gone after Shyamalan and The Happening in a similar manner: there's always been a fairly popular idea floating around American film criticism that movies with fantasy elements shouldn't take themselves "too seriously" and Shyamalan is definitely a serious filmmaker - though most of his movies, The Happening included, have their own off-beat sense of humor.

Shyamalan certainly takes himself seriously and it shows in his movies. But I'm not convinced that this is a bad thing. He tackles serious subjects, even if he does so in fantastical genres: why not take a serious approach?

I think that a lot of the case against Shyamalan is based on the idea that his movies are not like other Summer Blockbusters. He does his own thing, (mostly) unapologetically. As Roger Ebert and David Bordwell (two of his fans) have pointed out: his filmmaking is somewhat "old fashioned" in its use of long takes and reliance on visuals to carry the movie. He also writes very stylized dialogue - something that is accepted when it comes from the Coen Brothers but, again, not something that we expect from a Blockbuster. (I don't think Shyamalan has a "tin ear", but I do think that he sometimes overestimates his audience's tolerance for stylization.)

Personally, I think his iconoclasm is something to be celebrated and suspect that because it threatens "the way the business works", critics see him as a safe target.

Again - I'm not suggesting that critics should say they like his movies if they actually don't or they should ignore what they see on the screen because of his ambitions. However, the glee some of them seem to be taking in charting his "fall from grace" is pretty sickening. They are approaching The Happening completely unsympathetically and with blinding cynicism. And this is not the kind of "muscularly" directed movie that's likely to win fans through displays of bravura filmmaking (like No Country for Old Men, for example).


(This section technically contains a spoiler, but it isn't too drastic. And I'm vague enough that you can probably read it without actually spoiling anything).

My favorite scene (at this moment, at least) in The Happening comes towards the end of the movie. The guy in the farmhouse and the girl in the spring house, separated from each other physically, but able to hear each other - magically - through the speaking tube (a "gimmick" that would be right at home in an Edgard G. Ulmer movie). What I love about the scene is the way it brings the movie's thematic and visual ideas together: physical separation, invisible connections; the need to be part of something bigger than yourself, the danger of being part of something bigger than yourself.

If I were doing a long close-reading of the movie, this is the scene I would build towards, as almost every scene - almost every shot - points to it.


All that said, I think The Happening is a step back from The Village and The Lady in the Water. Not a retreat, but a re-grouping. Up until this one, I think Shyamlan's movies got better as they went along, although I can't really choose between The Village and The Lady in the Water. The Lady in the Water in many ways is the "inside-out" version of The Village, where so much that was implied in the earlier movie is brought to the surface and made explicit (i.e., the anti-film criticism element). So, The Village is perhaps more skillfully and subtly crafted, but The Lady in the Water is more daring, taking a bigger risk by putting everything out in the open. And it's a kind of personal risk - in Shyamalan's casting himself in the pivotal, symbol-laden role - that I don't think I've ever seen in a Blockbuster before and have even rarely seen in "art house movies".

With The Happening Shyamalan hedges his bets a little, although he's very far from playing it safe. This is as personal a movie as any he made up until The Lady in the Water and resolutely refuses to provide apocalyptic thrills à la Spielberg's War of the Worlds (a movie which I like, but is working in a far more conventional - if still very effective and virtuosic - manner). However, it's a smaller, more focused movie than his last two. In some ways it is a return to Unbreakable in that it shows Shyamalan applying his "touch" to an established genre.

Despite it's qualified box office success and despite the multiple sold-out showings at the multiplex I saw it in over the weekend, I got the sense that it wasn't winning over any audiences. There was a puzzled response to most of the humorous moments and I heard a few people say things along the lines of "Is that it?" on their way out.


(More spoilers and this time I'm talking about the endings to all of his movies).

Watching The Village for the second time, I got the idea that Shyamalan had become a victim of his success. The Sixth Sense established him as "the trick ending" guy and he played this up in Unbreakable. In both cases, we learn something at the very end of the movie that changes our understanding of everything that preceded it.

Signs worked somewhat differently, though: in that movie various elements that don't quite make sense during the movie, come together in an unexpected way during the ending. And though it does change our understanding of what came before, that change is really on a metaphysical level.

However, with The Village the notion of the trick ending becomes a burden of sorts as its not quite as effective as a trick or puzzle as those of his earlier movies. For once thing, it has a more obvious solution, but it also doesn't have the same kind of "pulpy" kick. I don't think this hurts the movie, but it does, perhaps, set up false expectations for the audience. So, with The Happening, the other people in the audience seemed to be bummed out that the movie didn't really have a trick ending. "Where's the twist?" a guy behind me yelled out as the credits started to roll. Had he seen The Lady in the Water, which also didn't really have a trick ending, he might not have been as surprised, but I have to wonder to what extent Shyamalan's ability to connect with a popular audience was tied up with the endings of his movies rather than their substance.

*Actually, you can make the case that the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone also had a grandeur and solemnity without any distancing irony.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Happening

It's probably too late for you, but...

Don't read anything about it.

Don't watch the trailers.

Just go see it.

As soon as possible.

But if you need some kind of encouragement or are the kind of person who doesn't like to go into
a movie cold, here are two words to keep in mind: Lewton, Tourneur.

But, like I said, it's probably already too late.