A Visit with M. Night Shyamalan

Introduction

For 61 Days of Halloween, as well as for my posts categorized as Shyamalan Week (these usually lead up to, or surround, one of his new releases), I usually do some posts that are formatted a bit differently.

It’s with that I commence discussing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. As per usual with Shyamalan, I go in depth and may reveal plot details you’d rather not know, so spoiler alert. Forewarned is forearmed.

The Visit (2015)

The Visit (2015, Universal)

The Visit has a simple set-up: two kids, aspiring filmmaker, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), and her irreverent younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are going to spend a week with their grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deana Dunagan) to get to know them as they are long estranged from their mother (Kathryn Hahn). It’s a scenario that allows for a stripped-down, character-driven relatively shoestring take from M. Night Shyamalan, and it’s also a perfect vehicle for found footage.

As do a lot of other found footage premises, so what makes this one work?

Auteur Theory

M. Night Shyamalan (2015, All Rights Reserved)

Knowing a director’s work can be a double-edged sword, to Shyamalan for me; I feel it always works as a benefit. Here what ends up occurring is that you’re put in the mindset of a Hansel and Gretel (Not the witch-hunters) tale immediately through the set-up that’s reinforced by the marketing but it ends up being the first of the film’s misdirections.

Shyamalan works some of his common touches better in this film than in many of his others including the ones with the most similar occurrences.

In no particular order they are:

  • Mom’s full story about the fight that lead to her leaving home, along with the fact that she is a single mom is reminiscent of The Sixth Sense.
  • In this film the tale of sports-related trauma is more organically folded in and involved the climax than in Signs.
  • When Grandma is stalling to tell the truth about her relationship with her daughter the tale she tells in its place, that sounds like lunacy, is not unlike The Lady in the Water.
  • The inclusion of Sundown Syndrome, a strange and fairly rare affliction, is also a recurrent theme most notably employed previously in Unbreakable.
  • Lastly, Pop Pop’s tale of the white creature with yellow eyes he saw at the factory reminds me of the creature in The Village.
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Way back when, I forget if this was on At the Movies or in an article, Roger Ebert exclaimed that M. Night Shyamalan’s Pennsylvania was beginning to be a cinematic analog of Stephen King’s Maine. Here Shyamalan goes to Masonville, PA. Even as someone who lived in the state for four years it’s still a marvel to me how vast and expansive to me. It’s certainly a larger in-state playground than King has.

There are all touches that delighted me, and there’s a sort of active engagement, what-next urgency to my viewings of his films (most of them) that have me rapt regardless, like a kid listening to campfire story.

So far as his dovetailing he’s not only filmmaker who does so, and that’s also like a King story. With regards to the moviegoing public there seems to be a strange phenomenon with Shyamalan where certain people keep going to see his movies though they may not necessarily want to. It’s like sports fandom: you believe your team hasn’t been good in years, and maybe never will be again, but you still won’t give up your season tickets.

Performance, Tonality and Character

The Visit  (2015, Universal)

It manages to successfully shift tones and close-out all aspects of its narrative appropriately. It’s unquestionably both comedy and horror (the inclusion of Hahn and Oxenbould was a hint even beforehand). However, unlike many horror/comedies it does not struggle in either aspect and it does find equilibrium.

It excels mostly because Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould are both inordinately exceptional and achieve the unique tricks of appearing natural as if the camera is just rolling, being believably awkward when the moment demands it, and also entirely inhabiting their characters.

They have many memorable moments: the companion coerced confessions, freestyle rapping, and Oxenbould when snapping out of freezing in a rage are dream takes for an actor and director both.

The Visit (2015, Universal)

DeJonge’s interpretation of Becca is that of clearly intelligent girl without a note of falsity or petulance, heartbreaking in her embittered memories of her father. These two are really the glue that holds the film together.

This is not to discount Peter McRobbie and Deana Dunagan. They provide some of the needed laughs as well, all the necessary scares which are very effectively delivered, and even one heart-rending moment. Their feat is also not limited as their physicality is a triumph for both.

With a cabin fever aspect to the story, and a lack of a supernatural element, character is at a premium and remains so. The characters are explored even more than the plot is built but both are slowly revealing themselves sometimes it’s even subsumed in seeming temporary nonsense.

The Visit (2015, Universal)

Even in the conclusion where Tyler is allowed to do his closing freestyle rap (Shania Twain, bitches!) and Becca is looking into the mirror, her former aversion to such and the trauma that started that behavior were previously established. We see the growth and progression of both.

Newfound Footage

The Visit (2015, Universal)

This film takes a few tired found footage tropes and injects some life into them, as well working a few tried-and-purported-to-be-true ones better than prior acclaimed films of the technique.

Incessant documentation is a new reality that is becoming more accepted by society with less and less backlash with each passing day, therefore one of the past requirements of this technique is already passé.

In differentiating itself from the newer brood of the found footage approach it both doesn’t ignore the cameras to its detriment nor does it obsess over the “Why Are We Filming This?” Conundrum.

With regards to the past it does at times it seem to echo The Blair Witch Project with dramatic moments in corners. It also takes what was the entire basis of at least two Paranormal Activity films, distills it into one chilling scene; and thus condemns the former to the purgatorial state of anti-cinema wherein it belongs for all eternity.

Conclusion: The Visit Twists

The Visit (2015, Universal)

The Visit is a film that deals with creatures both real and imagined, the real being people, the ghosts of this tale being figurative. It’s a film where I was not waiting for a twist but rather reveals, but this one is successful because it was just sitting there waiting to be discovered like some others, but is highly organic and intrinsic to the plot. Furthermore, little morsels of prior information that seemed meaningless before ring true after it.

Another way for a viewer to ruin their potential enjoyment of a film is to be expecting a twist and constantly trying to ferret out what it is. What would happen if there was none? It’s like going to see an adaptation of a book and constantly be referring to your mental checklist about which favorite parts were included and which were edited out. It occludes you from focusing fully on what’s before you because you’re worried about parallel problems.

How many given endings can a story really have in cinematic terms? In most movies, especially Hollywood releases, you know how things will go. You’re there for the journey.

The Visit (2015, Universal)

Previously I discussed how at least Shyamalan is consistently giving us something to talk about, something a lot of people can’t even claim, which is noteworthy at the very least. I still want to discuss, and watch, and I wanted this visit to continue and enjoyed it greatly.

Shyamalan Week: Redux Review – The Last Airbender

Introduction

When this review was first posted on The Site That Shall Not Be Named, I spent far too many words on reacting to the reviews of others. Of all the reviews I’ve written it’s one of two I lamented most. The other does not bear rewriting here because the less thought spared to that film the better. However, with this film seeing as how I was trying to write a minority, albeit not staunch defense of it; I failed that aim by trying to counter arguments. Unless, entirely relevant I dislike comparative analysis of films as a shortcut to writing a review. If that’s the aim it should be a separate piece. Argumentative points or analysis of mass reaction are made for op-ed pieces not an appraisal of the film itself. Therefore, I present to you now an edited version of that review which internalizes, and distills it all to what I thought of the film and nothing else.

The Last Airbender (2010)

The Last Airbender (2010, Paramount)

This isn’t a complicated movie and moves briskly. A film can have a slow pace if that is the appropriate pace for the narrative being told, this film works with the pace it has and does not seem to be extraordinarily quick-moving and there are peaks and valleys in the emotional ebb.

I never saw the TV show. I don’t care if I do but I liked this. One can have a preference for one or another but ultimately a film is its own work. How much it used or discarded of the original is ultimately a debate that’s academic, and ought not affect one’s interpretation of what is presented. On that note there was a flashback I was begging Shayamalan for early on the film and it was delivered at the climax and it was better and more well-placed where he put it and quite emotional. So sometimes he does know best.

One of the more enjoyable elements of the film was that it was a essentially a simple through-line which was not burdened by unnecessary complications just necessary information.

The Last Airbender (2010, Paramount)

As for the dialogue, it does slip into the unforgivable zone on the rare occasion. It serves a function and moves the story along. This is no worse than Mr. Lucas, who himself has referred to his dialogue as “wooden,” and I always referred to as “functional” as it did what it needed to
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The effect of the performances on the film overall, as is the case with most motion pictures, is nominal. It’s true Jackson Rathbone is better in Twilight than here but there are some cornerstones here like Dev Patel and Shaun Toub. Meanwhile, the protagonist, Noah Ringer, isn’t asked to carry too much of the load. Most of the time he is “bending” (performing martial arts) as opposed to speaking. Should the series continue he will be able to develop his acting skills not unlike the Harry Potter cast who were very raw and unpolished when they started.

As for the 3-D, it wasn’t shot in 3-D, so don’t watch it in 3-D. I saw it in 2-D and it looked fantastic. All you really need is good cinematography, which this has and the production design is absolutely out of this world in its splendor and brilliance. Philip Messina deserves special recognition for his work here (Note: in December I will likely cover some BAM Awards oddities through the years. This was one of my more lamentable snubs). The same goes for Judianna Makovsky’s costumes. The score, as is typical for James Newton Howard, is wonderful.

The Last Airbender (2010, Paramount)

What I liked here is that you saw M. Night Shyamalan go to a different place. I first became an admirer of his after seeing the vastly underrated Wide Awake, which was actually his second feature. After he did the The Sixth Sense and it was one of the biggest sleeper hits of all-time the burden of expectation fell on him. While he enjoyed(s) making “feature-length Twilight Zone episodes” it became kind of a game. “What’s the twist?” or “What did you think of the twist?” as opposed to “What did you think of the movie?” About the only thing I did appreciate about The Happening was the fact that he tried to monkeywrench his own formula and deliver a tale with no easy answer. As is the case with many works of fiction like that it’s hit-or-miss. Here he finally bit the bullet and went on a full on departure and for the most part lost himself in the story and didn’t make it your standard Shyamalan aside from the expected cameo, which is a lot less subtle and welcome than the “Find Hitch” appearances he is referencing.

Overall, though flawed, I thought it was a successful step in a different direction for the director (Note: mind you this was his first feature after The Happening.

7/10

Shyamalan Week: Devil

Introduction

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Devil (2010)

As for this film it’s the first of what is (was) being referred to as the Night Chronicles Trilogy. His impact on this film is a story credit alone so mention of him will be minimal, aside from saying that his stamp can definitely be felt on this story regardless of the level of involvement he actually had. This is a thriller which hearkens back to some of his earlier films and oddly one where you’re not necessarily waiting for a twist but you get it anyway and it does not color the whole film.

The film starts with inverted shots of the Philadelphia skyline. They are shots whose significance is not immediately made known and not overtly explained. They set the tone for a film where something is slightly amiss throughout.
 
The film does well to keep its tale confined to the elevator as much as it possibly can. Granted to investigate and to try to get to the bottom of the mystery it is necessary to go outside on occasion the fact that so much of the film is contained to that cramped space definitely is a boon to the narrative and aids its effectiveness.

When dealing with a film that is so confined such that its part-absurdist chamber drama it is crucial that your cast be capable of carrying the film and this cast is definitely capable. The core of the cast being: Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend and Bojana Novakovic. What is most compelling about not only the story but also their respective portrayals is that at one moment or another they all lead you to believe that they, in fact, are the devil in the elevator car.

Devil (2010, Relativity Media)

The film also employs a narrator, who acts as storyteller. A technique it seems that is a bit on the rebound in film. However, in this case this narrator does not get into the fray too much but merely fills in a few blanks and acts, essentially as the glue binding this tale together. It is this voice that gives a little reason to the tale. Whereas without this narrator it might just send a chill or two up your spine with the narrator there is a point made and something to reflect upon.

With the combination of the opening montage and the narrator setting the stage the tension level in this film is ratcheted up pretty early and rarely if ever dissipates throughout out. There is a consistent feeling of dread which is pounced upon at opportune times and while there are peaks and valleys the highs are high enough to sustain a significant level of interest.

The only things that can be questioned are very minor points which could’ve been addressed by more judicious editing of the footage and story itself. One concern is that while most believe the elevator is malfunctioning due to possibilities that are terrestrial we follow around a janitor. He vanishes from the story for too long. Pieces of his journey to the roof and basement could’ve been spliced in real quick so he wouldn’t disappear for so long after having been a significant player in the early going. The characters also don’t think to use their cell phones as flashlights during the temporary blackouts for far too long.  The introduction of the religious element of the film is a bit clumsy and lastly our protagonist, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) does a Sherlock Holmes impersonation in deducing the circumstances surrounding a suicide early on that is not only a bit extraneous but also a little hard to swallow.

Devil (2010, Relativity Media)

However, Devil is still a highly effective and well-crafted tale that is an edge-of-your-seat kind of film that is well worth your time.

8/10

Shyamalan Week: Things Worth Discussing

What I had wanted to do with this series of posts initially was dust off some old posts that had not yet seen their moment on this blog. That’s easy enough to do when your topic is immutable and not really on a current event. A fictitious conversation among myself, Hitchcock and Truffaut that I created after having read their series of interviews or my interpretation on the role Catholicism plays in Fellini’s 8 1/2 aren’t going to become less relevant in a few years time. A post I wrote, however, calling out a question M. Night Shyamalan was asked when doing press in Mexico for The Last Airbender kind of does.

If you want you can look for it, but my point in a nutshell is the phrasing of the question was leading, trying to get headlines and it received a much better response than it deserved. I wrote it mostly because the reporter seemed to be getting a pass and nothing said on that end was questioned. While perspective may have strengthened or weakened some of my points, it’s all past now.

The one line of the piece that really stuck out, in part because I had just read something similar, was a thought I didn’t think had occurred to me:

The bottom line is: We love movies. We write about them, we watch them and make them. If there weren’t M. Nights around making things at least worth discussing what would the there be? Nothing. So regardless of your opinion of his films as a whole, especially the more recent ones, let us not trash the man in all he does…

After Earth (2013, Sony)

I then finish speaking very specifically about the reporter incident so this is the only part of the conversation pertinent today. However, it is a significant one. The point I allude to is beyond a good/bad subjective interpretation. The fact of the matter is very rarely these days will you go to the multiplex and be shown something that causes any kind of discussion, much less debate. I kind of skirted around this when discussing post-movie conversations. However, what I didn’t address is that few of the movies we see even give you reason to talk at any length about them.

I also don’t think this is entirely the fault of the news cycle in film, which usually has little tolerance for the movie out this weekend but glorifies the teaser of the full trailer that’s going to drop next Tuesday. More often than not Shyamalan, whether you be a devotee, someone longing for him to do something amazing again or a skeptic; has left you with something to talk about. Even if he did break from his twisting ways there’s still a bit of “Wait, what?” to most of his films. Which is saying something because far too often we not only know too much going into a film but we also don’t get the unexpected nearly enough.

You can get milquetoast anywhere. You can get it in at least one major release 52 weeks a year. Whether it hits or misses, I’d much prefer a brash attempt to do something. Many people didn’t bother to see Cloud Atlas. It wasn’t in my Top 25 but one thing I could not get over was how much I loved the audacity of that movie. It was a hard sell but it seemed to be exactly what people always seem to say they want: something different. However, then different comes knocking and where are they all?

With so much cinema being use-once-and-destroy anyone who can consistently refuse to be ignored is worth taking note of. I haven’t seen much in the After Earth trailers and teasers that make it look as if it’s unlike anything I’ve seen. However, the fact that there were no advance screenings until the night before the soft open Thursday night shows, and as of this evening Rotten Tomatoes had no registered opinions on either side give me some hope that there’s something they’re sitting on that’s pretty good fodder at the very least, that stands out, even if it doesn’t quite hit as well as it wants to.

Shyamalan Week: Village Building

Introduction

With After Earth being released this week it struck me that the timing was good to revisit not only some of M. Night Shyamalan‘s films but also some old pieces I wrote about him or his works that have not yet made their way over to this site.

This piece, however, is new and the thoughts occurred to me upon revisiting The Village.

Note: If you have not seen The Village or Shutter Island you are advised not to read on as there are spoilers.

Pre-Life

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

There are times when I truly wish films could be viewed in a vacuum of information. This is why, aside from ambience and picture size, at times, finding something on television can be one of the purest film-watching experiences on a narrative level. You come around to something, it catches your eye, you watch it; and if it’s in the middle, you figure out what it’s about as you go. Granted, that was far more possible before onscreen program guides and DVRs.

I say this to add a different perspective to my frequently discussed notion of films having a pre-life. You invariably learn what they purport to be about and are influenced in your decision-making process by the synopsis, the trailer and other writings you may see. In a way taking a film-only approach is an exercise in re-training your thinking.

More often than not I too am watching films at the multiplex and I will see the trailers, often many times, so I try not to focus too much on what I see there because it’s marketing. Things will be cut together a certain way to sell it but they have no bearing on the film itself.

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

That’s a very roundabout introduction to The Village because I will admit I was not an early adopter. I was not one who was immediately upon seeing it going to scribble a comment somewhere saying how much I enjoyed it and cap it off with an emphatic “FIRST!”

What immediately occurred to me was that I likely needed to see it again to see how well it did what it attempted, but for whatever reason I never did. Wanting to re-view something is always a good thing. It doesn’t always make a film better or worse, but it is a boon to that film that it compelled you to do so.

However, perhaps more so than The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, this one needed re-examination because it subverted expectations in a few ways, and when I say expectations I mean those instilled by the way the narrative is constructed rather than those of the advertisements. It’s hard in a trailer to convey the sense of the outre with which the villagers treat the outside, the pain they bear, the fact that you always think there’s something looming. What is tangible is the creature, so that was oversold, but once the credits roll it has no bearing on the film.

Village Building

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

The film begins in a slightly unorthodox manner in as much as the opening montage comprised of shots that go around town introduce us to certain characters, but not necessarily who we expect to see first. Typically, you’re hard-pressed to avoid starting with your protagonist as it can be disorienting. However, the film is called The Village and to figure out what’s behind the veil, you have to have an understanding of how this cloistered society works. That actually slowly unravels throughout as needed, but the basics are gotten out of the way as we begin to get a better sense of who the key figures are.

So we as audience members start off not only a little disoriented, but what is key is that throughout the telling of the film (for a great majority of it, in fact) we see the world as they do. We never seem to know something that they do not until the very end. So we view the creature like they do much of the time, as a tangible threat.

Even the way the creature is removed as a threat is done in a slightly unorthodox way. At a few late stages we come across things that don’t make sense to us or to the character confronted with it, we frame around with what lead to said falsity being introduced, and then work our way back to the present.

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

A few axioms come to mind when thinking of these decisions that do support it as being a bit closer to the norm: first, start your story as late as possible. “A group of people so scarred by traumatic experiences in their life that they decide to form their own secretive utopian society” doesn’t quite gel as a story, unless, in the attempt to form the society something goes awry. That something would likely serve as commentary on society in general. However, pushing that narrative later in the game this film presumes that these people succeeded and then asks instead: “What if such a society was already in place? What would they do to keep themselves isolated, to shield themselves; and assuming they successfully isolated themselves, how would they handle the possibility that they might one day need to leave their safe zone?” The film has interesting and creative answers to all these things. It does require suspension of disbelief, but given that this is the only world their children have ever known I find it easy enough to accept, especially considering the elders are secret-keepers who know the entire truth and for all we know may have surreptitiously left prior, if necessary.

The second axiom is one I actually thought of with regard to chronology. Sometimes when you get close too something a simple question can stump you. I recall my father complained about a film not being in chronological order. He asked something to the extent of “Why would you do that?” With so simply posed a question can be hard to articulate an answer. When you think about it the rule could read: “Narratives should be told in chronological order unless there is an imperative that necessitates the rearranging of chronology.” In other words, the revelations in The Village (this applies mainly to the three biggest ones) are elevated by the fact that when something that doesn’t make sense is seen the film does an about face to demystify what we just saw, and allows it to sink in a bit.

Another instance that can be troubling for some, and it was for me at first also, is the very end. Now, the first time I saw The Sixth Sense I honestly fell for it hook, line and sinker such that it was about midway through the credits before I realized “Yes, it probably did work without any cheats.” It was upon re-viewing it that I noticed things like the lack of responses in supposed conversations between Malcolm and his wife, or the fact that Malcolm and Cole’s mother never looked at each other, and she never reacts to him, even though they are sometimes in the same room. In The Village there is no oomph right at the very end there is a settling in to a new reality and new possibilities; all the reveals are through.

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

However, what Shyamalan does here is again playing with perception quite well. We accept the reality we are presented with onscreen almost without question such that when we see this film with its wide shots of a rustic village nestled in the woods, peasant attire of a bygone era, kerosene lanterns and torches; we think “period piece,” though nothing ever stated it was. People speak in antiquated fashion, but it seems a bit forced to the elders. When you come back to it you hear more clues than you ever saw and the visual indicators early on, namely the mysterious downward pans, are fairly apparent. In one of the first lines of the film, for example, the very carefully chosen words spoken by William Hurt’s character are “we settled here.” Settling has a colonial invocation, or at the latest hearkens back to the frontier days when new areas of the country really were being settled. Subtle things like that throughout sell you on the fact that the setting is not in modern times, yet just as many things that aren’t as quickly caught, like the way certain stories are told, indicate otherwise.

Kingian Location

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

I cannot take credit for this notion but comparisons started popping up early in this era between Shyamalan and the works of Stephen King, namely the early works. They could be seen as broad: suspense, mystery and fright found in the mundane, but there’s also a world-building deeply entrenched in location. That is why I think the comparison gets made. Many of Stephen King’s stories don’t even happen if he’s not born and raised in Maine. I know in the foreword of one of his books he discusses the genesis of ideas. Sometimes you remember them, sometimes you don’t. It was a vivid one from him from taking walks on a rickety, wooden bridge. Similarly, I’m not sure M. Night Shyamalan ever has an idea about an insular community that shuns the outside world if he’s not from Pennsylavania and riffing on what already exists nearby, namely the Amish and Mennonite communities. Within the framework of the story the state they are in is never mentioned. However, those communities are known the nation over so I connected that fact before I even migrated it to thinking about Shyamalan creating the story.

This location-based storytelling of his early career combined with a propensity for tales that go to darker places, if not necessarily in the horror genre, make the comparison somewhat apt indeed.

Conclusion

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

The misdirection isn’t completely impeccable and some things need to be taken on faith, but I think the reason Night’s other “twist” films never had the resonance The Sixth Sense did has nothing to do with his ability to cloak what’s really going on. I think quite a bit of it has to do with the nature of the reversal. The twist in The Sixth Sense takes one character from one state of being to another. The power of the reveal in Unbreakable is that that you could either laugh off Elijah’s theory as nonsense or you can agree with it. That is what makes the prospect of a sequel to that film so tantalizing.

While here we went from thinking we were dealing with some kind of period piece with a creature involved to realizing that what we had were deeply hurt people who couldn’t cope with the outside world and created elaborate ruses and arrangements to keep themselves tucked away. We not only discover there is no creature, but the twist (one of them) deals with the setting, with when the story is taking place, which makes it a gutsy move whether you like it or not. It is a very jarring reversal, which is why it left a little ambivalent at first. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it’s gutsy move.

Twists, really big reversals of perception and plot, are hard to deal with consistently. More than most things it seems to go on a case-by-case basis. I’ve argued on some that didn’t work for me about the story hinging on the twist, but that’s a little vague. Twists a dangerous game, but one thing The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs (to an extent) and The Village did was build to them. The shocking thing about The Village is that it does blindside you, Unbreakable does to an extent. So it is one of those that hinges on the twist, however, builds from there and has a series of reveals. So it may seem it has it all riding on one trick like say Shutter Island, but it doesn’t alter reality just the audience’s perception of it. It doesn’t play something like the schizophrenia card, which is hit-or-miss.

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

Moreover, the fact that this is a cloistered community in modern times, that there is no monster, and how they set this place up (to an extent) are dealt with prior to the last scene. The last scene leaves one question unanswered: Will these people continue living this way? They have their cover story should they choose to, whether they do or not remains to be seen. And whether they do or not marks the beginning of another movie. This one is over. It may feel like an off-balance ending after all the other times the equilibrium of things was messed with, but it does work for the tale that preceded it.

Shyamalan Week: The Spiritual Trilogy

Introduction

With After Earth being released this week it struck me that the timing was good to revisit not only some of M. Night Shyamalan‘s films but also some old pieces I wrote about him or his works that have not yet made their way over to this site.

This particular piece is brand new, however, and the thought occurred to me after having revisited Wide Awake/em>.

Wide Awake and The Spiritual Trilogy

Wide Awake (1998, Miramax)

Wide Awake was released in in 1998, and was a film I was looking forward to seeing at the time. This was based on both the trailer and the fact that I was a fan of Rosie O’Donnell’s at the time (Granted her involvement was slightly oversold, but that’s marketing). Indie films, even ones distributed by Miramax, were not as easy for me to get a hold of so it had to wait until its home video release, but I recall being very taken with the film then. I had not revisited it many times since but still had fond memories of it.

Wide Awake garnered 7 BAM Award nominations, which are my personal year-end picks. Mind you that M. Night Shyamalan would not be a director I knew anything about, or someone most people knew, until The Sixth Sense took off; it was just a reaction to what I saw, no hype, nothing.

Wide Awake is about a grade school boy (Joseph Cross) not only coping with the loss of his grandfather but dealing with very big questions because of it. He is concerned for the fate of this grandfather’s immortal soul, questions his own religion, the existence of God and more things that are not usually the purview of one so young.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

With The Sixth Sense Shyamalan takes a turn towards the supernatural but many of the same answers are being searched for by the young protagonist. Cole Sear, played by Haley Joel Osment, the protagonist of The Sixth Sense has this unique ability to see the dead, he doesn’t know what they want, why they come to him, why they won’t leave him be and what it all means. All he knows for sure is that he’s terrified and trying to understand what the meaning of death is and by inference the meaning of life.

Moving Forward

Praying with Anger (1992, Cinevista)

For many who seek to trace the career of Shyamalan they erroneously trace it back just to The Sixth Sense. However, even my analysis will only go so far. I can assert through an educated guess that The Sixth Sense closes out a thematic trilogy, a period of work Shyamalan had not unlike a painter. His first feature Praying with Anger was filmed in India while he was still an undergraduate.

According to the synopsis it tells the tale of an “Alienated, Americanized teenager of East Indian heritage sent back to India where he discovers not only his roots but a lot about himself.” Praying with Anger has never been readily available on video in the US, or at least it hasn’t been for some time, though it does seem it had one week in one theater in 1992. Myself and many others have been unable to see it, and that is probably by design, it seems rather clear that there was a spiritual, soul-searching phase that kicked off Shyamalan’s career.

The next phase wherein he discussed wanting to make what amounted to feature-length Twilight Zone episodes, would spin-off from The Sixth Sense, but the that film stands a bit apart from the others. Interestingly, while it caps the first theme it also acts as a transitional film to the titles that come. If one is to look at the next three films (Unbreakable, Signs and The Village) there are certainly more commonalities in those three films when removing The Sixth Sense from that grouping.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

This phase notion is one I never really considered, but what I do know is that it can get you pegged. It turns out that the similarities that The Sixth Sense did bear with the next three set some people up. However, I recently mentioned that one of the pitfalls of auteur criticism is just that. You expect things too readily and I never even thought of grouping his first three films. Steven Spielberg tried to dodge pidgeonholes people tried to keep him in for as long as he could. He attempted to avoid films too similar to one another back-to-back until later on in his career with two straight dramas (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun) or his dark futures (A.I. and Minority Report). Yet, even he had associations dog him. Aliens, for example.

I’m not comparing the two filmmakers, but rather finding one point of comparison: both broke through with a massive hit at a young age that put them under the microscope. Both Shyamalan and Spielberg have had their missteps and their big early hits, and both have had to contend with people attempting to define them. One of the things that Spielberg benefitted from is that he was at the vanguard of director-as-star. With Shyamalan it was an accepted notion that he was lumped into due to his being the creative force behind a worldwide box office smash.

Conclusion

Wide Awake (1998, Miramax)

Essentially, what I am seeking in this series of writings is to merely examine the works more closely. I am not writing a persuasive essay. His films don’t work for some and that’s fine, but I am also not coming from an over-rationalizing fanboy’s perspective either. I later on connected Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense. All I knew about The Sixth Sense as it was looming was that it looked good and I wanted to see it. After I had I recognized that name in the credits, and checked the IMDb. So in some ways I was a lot like other people discovering who he was and what his voice at the time was. I just already had a track record with his work is all.

Essentially, if you’re going to look at the trajectory of his career his first three films, the actual first three films and I believe have to be looked at as one unit. Call it a cinematic coming-of-age if you will. In the next three he’s exploring a particular milieu and genre. From that point on he’s been branching out and we will get to those in due course.