Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

Fear death by water

It's pronounced "SHAH-ma-lawn", but I won't hold it against you if you forget. In fact, I rarely even remember how to spell it, which is pretty shameful considering M. Night Shyamalan (had to check imdb for that) is possibly, nay, probably my favourite director of all time ever. Yes, I have occasional dalliances with Tarantino, Leone and Gilliam, but while they make damn fine movies...well, at the end of the day they're only movies.

According to an author whose name I've forgotten, a good book should "add something to the human condition". Whatever that means. It's an opinion I theoretically disagree with; theoretically, because today's post is a love letter to a canon of work which is all about making the mundane world wonderful.

Of course, wherever there be great love, others develop great and bitter hate if they don't understand what others see (you may at this point nudge my grumblings about Hitchcock...) Two minutes on imdb turns up "Worst Director........... .....Of ALL TIME?", "M Night sucks ass. The man has no talent, his movies are so predictable" AND "He has a gift. read between the lines and you will find the true beauty and passion in his films." and "i think he is awsome. I like how he tells a story." And a lot of people plain miss the point - too cynical to accept what he's trying say. Some of his films have mass appeal, but they’re not really aimed at the popcorn demographic. “Pearls before swine”, as Friend 2 says on a totally different topic. They get the plot, but not the point. Watch, enjoy, then look deeper.

For the purpose of this post, "all his films" means all the ones I've watched - Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and Lady in the Water. I've seen Stuart Little too, but y'know, it doesn't quite fit into the canon so well. I want to see Praying with Anger and Wide Awake, so I can say I've seen them all, but unfortunately, my parents get suspicious of ordering stuff off the web. This post is spoiler-free, so don't comment and point out that I've got my facts wrong in places. And I apologise in advance if I tip over from critical analysis into gushing worship at times.

Firstly, what makes him great? His films manage to be stylish and original, while still being commercially succesful. He balances great characterisation with a great plot - in general, most films manage one or the other, but MNS combines them perfectly. And he makes actors act really well. Bruce Willis can act (Twelve Monkeys), but then you watch Unbreakable and 6th Sense and you realise he can act. His scripts are really emotional. Does anybody really talk like that? No…but it means the characters get a chance to articulate their beautiful truths about life. In fact, beauty is a world I use as sparingly as Ricky in American Beauty, but all his films are truly lovely - take a bow James Newton Howard, musical collaborater, who's ace. He makes tiny movies (though he began his career with Disney, his earlier films could easily have been shot independant, with few locations and characters) about big themes. The ole' guilt-hope-despair-redemption circle.

The auteur theory reminds us that directors have a certain, personal style - and this shines through his films, especially as he not only directs but writes, produces and acts as well. So what makes an MNS film and, more importantly, what's gone wrong recently? I love The Village, and Lady in the Water is better than most people give it credit for. Naturally I'm biased, but even I can see a definite shift in quality between those two and the other three.

One day we'll all be dead people, and if M Night is remembered at all, it'll be for The Sixth Sense. Admit it. You didn't see it coming. The twist or the success of this little film. The whole world suddenly sat up and took notice - as proved by the fact it was spoofed everywhere.

It's also a legacy he's been running to escape ever since. This film's terrifying reputation, and some ill-judged trailers, initially pidgonholed him as a horror director, provoking betrayed wails that The Village wasn't scary (which it isn't, although it does contain the biggest jump of his career). No wonder he insisted "director of the Sixth Sense" to be removed from advertising campaigns for Signs.

And then there's that twist, which completely overshadowed the rest of the film, and
enfuriated audiences, who expected something similarly mindblowing in his subsequent flicks. In truth, while they all have a reversal of sorts (set up well enough that you'll notice different things next time round, and heralded by a mini-montage of clips), Sixth Sense is the only one where it's big news.

The others aren't so much about changing the film you've just seen, but enhancing it. You can only see Sixth Sense for the first time once. Unbreakable is significant, haunting and scary, but not world shattering. Signs is perhaps the only one which wouldn't work without its punchline - but knowing the end doesn't significantly shift your perspective on what's gone before.

Unbreakable came next. Again, assuming he's remembered, I've got a sneaking feeling that while Sixth Sense was the noisy phenomenon, this is the one which will be regarded as the eventual classic. My personal favourite is Signs, but I'll admit that possibly this one's the best. Like Sixth Sense, it takes the ordinary world, adds something extraordinary, and then treats it like it's all real again. While all his films carry a deep undercurrent of sadness, this is possibly the most downbeat. It's reflected in the colour scheme - all cold blues, and subdued and muted browns. It’s a really chilly movie, suggesting the mindset of the protagonists. (spoiler for Unbreakable There is only one warm scene throughout. After David starts doing hero-stuff, and he carries his wife upstairs. Everything gets glowy and nice.)

M Night always pays attention to his colours - The Village is rustic and golden, Lady is very very blue, Sixth Sense too is dusty brown, with the odd flash of red to draw attention to things. Unbreakable takes this to the next level (perhaps reflecting its comic book origins, where characters always wear the same outfit) - David blends into the background in greeny blue; Elijah is purple (as is his mother, and more significantly, the wrapping of his first comic book) - and this time, it's the oranges who're up to no good. This film is by far his most adult - the more you think about it, the darker it gets.

Signs is my favorite of the canon. Taking his cue from The Birds, Night of the Living Dead and War of the Worlds (basement, anyone?), it's another beautifully constructed masterpiece about fractured families and dealing with grief. Though not as scary as Sixth Sense, it takes terror back to the home and showcases his skills at building atmosphere, and coaxing convincing performances from his child actors. The suspense and spine-tingling wonder, not to mention all the emotions dragged up in the final ten minutes, accompanied by James Newton Howard's final tune that ties together all the musical themes so far into one fantastic whole.

At the same time, I'd say this is probably the hardest to love. You've got to buy into the central concept behind the whole plot. I did 100%, which is why I lavished another three pages on it last time I discussed it:

It definitely contains some of the best set pieces in his career - though it's hard to pick one segment from a script that flows so seamlessly, the whole sequence in the basement is fantastic.

M Night himself said after making Signs that he felt like it was the end of that sequence of films, and he didn't know where he was going next. What we got was The Village, and it's a radical departure. Out with moody colours and a world where people are searching for beauty and meaning - in with sunshine, and a pre-packaged paradise. I'm very fond of it - the soundtrack is stunning, and there are some lovely moments. But compared to the previous three, perfectly constructed films, something just doesn't gel...

Though the plot is most reminicent of Signs (invasion of the home by outsiders), it's a period drama, while the others take place in modern Philadelphia. The significance in the city is that's where M. Night lives. For him, Philadelphia is "the normal world", it's neutral and typical. So when ghosts and aliens move in, the idea of the extraordinary invading the real world, is reenforced because it's personal. This may be just me, but sometimes I even forget the films aren't set in England (which is "normal" for me). Not so The Village - set in the past, and menaced by creatures who we have know knowledge of. The action is removed from us by a degree.

Where did the normality go? Even Signs (which I adore, so knock-ye-not) is in a different zone of reality from the first two, which are pretty grounded. Praps this is where it went wrong? It's not set in our real world. It's harder to sympathise with a distant utopia than the cities of the present, however many monsters he fills it with.

And then it jumps protagonist, which distances the audience even further- primarily, you think it's Kitty, then Lucius, then it turns out to be Ivy, and finally you realise you should have been paying more attention to some of the supporting cast. And it jumps plot - when Ivy has to leave to find medicines, it feels too late. The structure feels end heavy.

Or the twist(s)? There are queues to pour scorn on each of his twists, mostly because people have a hard time accepting the logic of his films and agreeing to follow wherever he may lead. But with the Village, perhaps they have a point.

My definition of a good twist is one you should have seen coming. You should watch it a second time and groan, not scream "where the hell did that come from?" at the screen.

But if the filmmakers have cheated - if they've lied, or deliberately decieved the audience, or (worse) thrown in a twist-for-twist's-sake, it feels tacked on, instead of a natural part of the movie. A massive sinner is the classic The Usual Suspects. It's a fairly good crime film, but that's not why it's remembered. Without going into details, I felt cheated at the end, because it was a twist that could be tacked onto any film.

The Village commits this sin - there's absolutely no clues - and worse, the twist's trivial. It doesn't add anything to the film's message, and it feels insignificant while being presented as a massive lifechanging event. (you can argue the same for Unbreakable *spoilers for it*- no warning, and incidental to the film - but I disagree. The knowledge is the final link that makes the story whole. It gives it another layer of meaning and significance. Throughout, the tale has been shown as equally Elijah's and David's.)

It's not that The Village is a bad film. I love it. It's just nowhere near as great as his other three, all of which I'd give 5/5 without flinching. It's the same formula, but somehow it doesn't work. Little problems, like William Hurt's presence (can't stand him), or being annoyed by all those tiny plot kinks in the middle which make Sixth Sense look like a Roman road.

It's built with the usual precision and care, with tidy clue-scattering and a gift for character introduction - but it misses many of his usual themes, which makes it feel souless.

There's more to movies than "deep meaning" (Pulp Fiction, anyone?), but there should be something to make up for a lack of meaning (i.e. a scene with a guy delivering a monologue to screen about hiding a watch up his behind. Surely that makes up for any lack of Freudian subtext? But seriously...perhaps Pulp Fiction's meaninglessness is its meaning, about the randomness and banality of life?)

There is nothing wrong with Ivy and Lucius' lives - they're perfectly happy. There's no conflict, in a Todorov sense. They don't learn anything, or change as people. There's not that search for purpose which drives his other films - it's entirely missing disatisfaction with the world (although SPOILER for Village - the idea's there in the way the Village elders move away from the town to establish a paradise, as you only learn this at the end it doesn't influence the whole film) It almost feels like there's a good M Night movie struggling to get out, but one centering around the elders and their horror of the world which has lead them to hide away.

One theme it does address is people's reactions to the supernatural. Naturally, I don't ask for him to hang around the same themes forever, but if that's what inspires him then...without this, it's just a good story - it misses the depth his other films. Donnie Darko is told everything comes down to two basic human emotions - love, and fear. And those two little words sum the Village right up. And that's tragic...

...especially as there is a good film in there - the people's fear needed to be made our fear, and that twist is horrifying if you think about it. The film just had to hammer the point harder, and make the betrayal deeper. That would have justified the entire lack of conflict.

Incidentally, I heartily recommend The Village. Friend 5 thinks it's the best film ever (*smugs* I knew she'd like it when I leant it to her...), and the soundtrack is wonderful.

After that, we had Lady in the Water. Now I think of it, the critical backlash after The Village sent him scurrying back into his comfort zone. He returns to water, to Philadelphia, to moody blue colour schemes and a depressed male protagonist. He puts a crucial child back on the cast list. He even returns to the good ole themes - "What is my place in life?" and "I need to believe".
Lady in the Water is Unbreakable without the moral ambiguity. So what the hell went wrong?!

Because even though I cried in the usual way, and left the theatre (well, switched the airplane seatback TV off. Left the theatre metaphorically...) with a warm, gooey feeling about how wonderful the world is, again something crucial was missing.

Because it visually resembles his more successful films, it's harder to spot the difference. But I think it's probably because it didn't actually make sense.

Or rather, it plays by their own rules. In The First Three, we understand the conventions of ghosts, aliens and comic books. But those-we-don't-speak-of? Narfs? Scrunts? Hang a moment. WTH?! Take Unbreakable - the rules of David's world are explained to him gradually, but it's ok because subconsciously, we already knew them. The rules unfold in exactly the same way in Lady - but here we feel cheated, because it's coming from nowhere. He throws a fantasy at us which seems like it merely exists to serve a good plot. Which, of course, it does.

So what have we learnt? Nothing, really. The Village is a worse film than I thought when starting the post. Writing about Lady didn't make me love it any more. I need to get Unbreakable on DVD, preferably the two-disc edition. Abd when discussing the films of MNS, you can never use the words "significant", "significance" or "significantly" enough.

And the title? From TS Eliot's "The Wasteland". We're studying it, so it's on my mind.

I'll end with a quote from the man himself, evidently spouted when promoting The Village. But if you think about it, it says a fair amount about his other films too:

"When you say fear of the unknown, that is the definition of fear; fear is the unknown, fear is what you do not know, and it's genetically within us so that we feel safe. We feel scared of the woods because we're not familiar with it, and that keeps you safe."


Catherine said...

Interesting read. I'll confess, I'm not a huge fan of M. Night Shamialiadingdong but I loved Unbreakable. And I love reading people talking about films they love, enthusiasm is catching. Even if I don't necessarily agree.

Funny timing, though. I'm currently writing a post about MY fave director . Weird.

Oh! I also rented Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead. I'm expecting good things..

Ninquelosse said...

Yay yay! I hope you like it *fingers crossed*

I'm looking forward to whateveryouhavetosay about your favourite director too.

Catherine said...

Well, happy to say I lovedlovedloved Rosencrantz & Guidenstern! Might write a review if I can bring myself to complete my English homework first. Question - do you know of any program that allows you to capture screenshots from dvds?

Ninquelosse said...

Yes! Brilliant! If you have time, I'd love to read your write really well, and I always enjoy reading about things I adore.

As for dvd screenshotting,

For a while, I used:

It's free to download, but the pictures always streched weirdly. The freeness is balanced out by having to resize the pictures afterwards. It does work though.

Recently I discovered the latest version of PowerDVD in our house - that's not free, but it's perfect.

I'm currently diving about on google to see if I can find a better free one, but I've looked several times in the past months and the outlook isn't good.

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