Notes from Underground


What's "Happening" to M. Night Shyamalan?



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The impulse to kick a man when he is down is a very human one. What can be safer? And at the same time, what can be more satisfying? It enables one to take out his frustrations on another without fear of reprisal. After all, one's target is bloodied and defenseless, and he is getting kicked by many others at the same time. He is in little position to fight back. Of course, if one is honest with himself, he may admit that it's a little cowardly and dishonorable; but, hey, why be honest with oneself, anyway? Few people are, and they still get along fine in the world, for the most part.

Director M. Night Shyamalan is down right now, and he's getting kicked by just about everyone. Don't feel too sorry for him; he is rich and famous, after all, and what's more he's not asking for your pity. But do take a moment and ask yourself exactly what the man has done to earn this wide-ranging hostility, so astonishing in scope and breathtaking in intensity. I'm not sure that even Mel Gibson has been attacked as ferociously in recent years.

Gibson's current pariah status is Hollywood, of course, stems from the uproar surrounding his "Passion of the Christ" and his subsequent drunken run-in with a Jewish policeman. The movie was loudly denounced as anti-Semitic by all the usual suspects who routinely make such accusations against society's designated thought-criminals, and both his film and his own reckless behavior convicted Gibson, in the eyes of the media, as a thoroughly reprehensible bigot. His status as an ultramontane Catholic with a Holocaust-denying father, as well as his previously professed insensitivity toward sodomites, sealed his fate. But Gibson has always retained support from hoi polloi, so much so that even "Apocalypto," his supremely odd post-"Passion" flick, became a minor hit. Through all of Gibson's troubles, his fan base hasn't abandoned him; indeed, "Braveheart" remains as popular a macho historical war movie as ever. The public still views Gibson as a matinee idol, despite the bad press he's gotten lately, some of it deserved.

The derision that is now greeting Shyamalan, on the other hand, is in some ways more extreme. Granted, he's not the household name that Gibson is. He's also not regarded as a bigot; after all, he isn't of the Caucasian persuasion, and most of the chattering class is too infused with knee-jerk white guilt ever to think such a thing about a non-white. But Shyamalan appears to have become the whipping boy, not only of the opinion-shapers and their allies (who also hate Gibson, to be sure) but also of the moviegoing public. To draw a (semi-blasphemous but still apt) metaphor from the Christ story, Gibson is loathed by the Pharisees but still a hero to the commoners, and therefore unfit for crucifixion. Shyamalan, by contrast, is now hated by the mob as well as the temple priests; they would have the robber Barabbas released instead of him.

It's amazing to see how far Shyamalan's star has fallen in a relatively short period of time. Nearly a decade ago, he was the toast of Hollywood, almost universally praised. His creepy ghost story with a "twist" ending, "The Sixth Sense" (1999), was a major hit. Critics and audiences both loved it. "I see dead people," Haley Joel Osment's line, entered the vernacular alongside "Show me the money," "Hasta la vista, baby," and "Go ahead, make my day." Shyamalan's follow-up, "Unbreakable" (2001), didn't make as much of a dent at the box office but still won the allegiance of most critics. Then came "Signs" in 2003, which teamed Shyamalan up with Gibson and told a memorable story about one man's losing, then regaining, his faith during a terrifying alien invasion. Critics were split, but the film made a pile of money. There seemed to be no stopping the Shyamalan momentum.

It was at this point, at the height of his glory, that Shyamalan apparently decided to start taking some major chances, artistically speaking. With "The Village" (2004), he succeeded in alienating both horror-movie fans and critics. The fans just wanted to see monsters and mayhem, and instead he gave them a complex political allegory, which made them howl with anger, like carnivores denied their red meat in favor of spinach and tofu. The critics, for their part, couldn't stomach Shyamalan's deeply reactionary message, which sympathetically portrayed an all-white separatist group escaping a crime- and corruption-filled modern world.

Then with 2006's "Lady in the Water," Shyamalan further offended his detractors by casting himself as an obscure writer whose work will one day usher in a golden age, and, on the other hand, portraying a movie critic (played by Bob Balaban) as humorless and spiteful, and richly deserving of the comeuppance he receives in the film's climax. Many saw in those depictions the worst kind of self-congratulation; it apparently occurred to no one that Shyamalan himself may have been winking playfully at his haters by including those characters in the story. Then again, true haters are by definition not sensitive to subtlety or irony; having to stop and think, after all, might interfere with their capacity to go on hating.

Now Shyamalan has released "The Happening," which may prove to be the most misunderstood of all his films. Read just about any movie blog and nearly every movie review on record, and you will witness an all-out bloodletting. It's not pretty. A bizarre apocalyptic thriller in the vein of "The Birds" or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" — with vegetation as the perceived enemy instead of alien or avian wildlife — the movie seems to have the fascinating capacity to become anyone's ready-made scapegoat. Various critics read their various pet peeves into the plot, finding various rationalizations for their anger. Those sick of global warming/environmentalist propaganda think the movie is an effort to push a Green agenda down their throat. Those with a bee in their bonnet about religion suspect that (horror of horrors) Shyamalan wants to endorse faith and family. Once again, horror and sci-fi fans are disappointed with the film's lack of "rock 'em sock 'em" moments. They want more blood, more action, more special effects. "The Happening" is a monster movie in which the monsters are never seen, their identity never really known, and their motives for attacking humans left largely unexplained. In other words, it's a thinking man's horror movie. And who wants to think, especially during the summer?

The conventional wisdom, now more than ever, is that M. Night Shyamalan is nothing but a hack — an overblown, overrated, talentless, egotistical sham who has the gall to think of himself as the next Hitchcock or Spielberg. What's extraordinary is the way in which he seems to have knowingly cultivated that image. His last three films have frustrated audience expectations in ways that attest to their director's brilliance; in the process, he appears to have lost much of his fan base, among both the high of brow and hoi polloi. It takes guts to alienate everyone on purpose, to bite the hand that feeds you, all for the sake of following your muse.

Cheers to you, M. Night, for shunning the easy path to applause and acclaim. Your contemporaries may disdain your bold and eclectic artistic choices, but I have a feeling that in the long run you will be vindicated.

June 30, 2008

© 2008 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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