Film: A Preemptive Word About M. Night Shyamalan

Ten days from the eve of the release of Master M. Shyamalan’s latest magus opus The Happening, a speculative gesture toward the universe of individualistic profundity that inhabits his films. I feel uniquely suited to The Task, having seen every major film he’s made since The Sixth Sense, easily the worst of M.’s progressively brilliant catalogue.

At the time of The Sixth, M.’s problem was a distinct lack of commitment to the personal nature of his plot twists. “Alive” to “dead” has a certain mythic stature, but lacks M.-based dimension. Surely he saw the problem at once, and moved to correct it in the subsequent Unbreakable, giving witness to The Cinema’s first (to my knowledge) and heretofore only whip smart ending involving naturalistic comic book heroism. Fantasy and salt-of-the-earth reality coalesce to form a striking indictment of purple-clad men, but M. shot into The Stratosphere of personal filmmaking three years later with the jolting psychological revelation in Signs – psychology of otherworldly proportions.

Not content with the earthly sideshow melodrama of Mel Gibson’s religious fanaticism, the wearing of foil hats, and the crushed-car death of his wife, M. posits a race of aliens who would consciously travel potentially light years through space and certainly time to make art in cornfields – on a planet overwhelmingly irradiated with a toxic liquid. Nevermind the artistic drive of these sentients; the psychosis compelling them to risk life and scaly limb for the sake of creation alone inspires a complex mix of anxiety, awe and, really, personal introspection. Would I do the same? Would I support a friend doing the same? Alone with my thoughts at night, the question still Haunts me.

The quandary frightened us, upending the illusion of self-willed destiny we maintain as a matter of necessity. M. graciously scaled back a bit in his next outing, confining his great paradoxes to this, our own, mortal coil – and answered the fears of The Many. Conjuring a pod of intellectuals going out of their way to force their own destiny, of The Village M. fashioned a blazing blood-red beacon of hope for those of us jangled to the bone by insecurity, by the untidy, discomforting rigors of programmatic modern life, by Bush and his scare-mongering control tactics. The albino savior, raceless and more or less sexless, leads us to freedom from the arch confines of intellectual oppression. And we are redeemed.

Abject irresponsibility undoubtedly led most of the studios – and here I am talking about Disney – to pass on M.’s next project. They saw The Truth layered throughout, and yielded shamefully. Lady in the Water, a searing, scathing, rapacious diatribe against evil itself, shocked and disturbed in ways M.’s previous work could only think about, lightly. Expansively addressed to both The Everyman and the giant cat-wolf monsters of Wolfgang Petersen’s inimitable The Neverending Story, M. adds a touch of class and grass to the proceedings with the sensitive casting of Paul Giamatti, and with grass, but he does not stop there. Conscious of the thematic limitations of his prior work, M. addresses himself, as Himself, the god and creator of the rapidly strengthening M. Night Shyamalan universe. The boundless Storyteller. The Prophet. The Lord of Redemption, attacked and belittled by those of no faith and less intellectual and aesthetic authority. The Power of the Story Denied. Thought Denied. Belief Denied. Life Denied. Consciousness Itself Denied.

We are drained. It may be impossible for M. to top himself here, although the title The Happening suggests a keen awareness of the perils of excessive directness. His latest may have to be an entirely black screen with a silent soundtrack to completely destroy our blown minds.

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