Thursday, March 04, 2010

Shyamalan Notes

In my head the template for Shyamalan's career is George A. Romero's masterpiece Knightriders: a film, a genre film, that is baldly ludicrous on its face ... and yet taken so seriously that it arrives at a certain admirable, mesmerizing intensity. But wait—can't zealous, solemn, deliberately meaningful genre films be a buzzkill (to say the least)!? Of course, of course. Obviously. But I'd say there are two broad kinds of elevating seriousness open to the mere genre entertainment. One is externalizing, communicative: communicating above and around the trappings of "genre" or "entertainment" to impart a series of messages or postures. (The sort of genre film that tends to win awards & critical hosannas.) Another is internalizing, an invitation down a rabbit hole.

Shyamalan often works on both registers, I think it should be admitted. The most ferocious critics of Signs, for instance, focused on the cheapness of its New Age nondenominationalism, the gracelessness (or unconvincingness) with which it peddled its "signs" and coincidences. Quite guilty! At the same time, the singlemindedness with which Shyamalan pursues his themes and expresses his stylistic tics also has its virtues. I don't know that I'm very interested in making (or reading) a case for Shyamalan as "auteur" that identifies his consistent themes, as these are, in his case, merely obvious, repetitious. But the way Shyamalan (consistently) constructs timing, line delivery, perspectival planes, the "weight" of the image (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, in one of the very best commentaries on MNS I know, says "When the camera is stationary, it isn’t resting, it’s bolted down.") ... these things are fascinating, and possessed of an integrity of their own.

I can understand why someone would say Shyamalan's cinema is ultimately bad. I wouldn't even necessarily disagree with them. But I can't understand anyone saying they can't see anything of authentic and rare interest in Shyamalan's cinema. None of Shyamalan's work is as good as Knightriders; but aspects of it are far above 90-95% of what else is getting made in Hollywood. There's the intensity of focus, the sheer glee in working with 'restricted' elements (e.g., color palette), the willingness to create nonsensical stories and premises with ordinary heroes (Shyamalan's people aren't ubermenschen or anything of the kind, whereas a Bruckheimeresque blockbuster is populated by gifted experts of mind & flesh).


Jon Hastings said...

I like his work quite a bit (here's a post I did on The Happening).

I'm not sure that his themes are so obvious, though. Or at least no more or less obvious than many other contempo American auteurs working in and/or around genre - the Coens, Tarantino, DePalma, for example. I'm not sure that what his movies have to "say" about how we use and interpret stories is profound, exactly, but I think his exploration of that territory has been pretty interesting.-

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

...the willingness to create nonsensical stories and premises with ordinary heroes...

Yeah, one think I really like about Shyamalan is his very specific sense of economic place. There's an element of early Demme there (beyond the presence of Tak Fujimoto as DP), and it's interesting that Shyamalan's the only American director who consistently writes lower-middle-class characters, people who have to worry about money and don't live in spacious, ideal homes.

ZC said...

Jon, that's a very fine post - I hope that I can get back to some of the things it touches upon, and in detail, in the near future. I agree about Shyamalan and the self-reflexivity about narrative: I don't know that it's special or deep, but his command of tone is such, and so singular, that I want to pay attention.

Ignatiy, yes - Shyamalan's heroes might live in 'movie-ish' interiors, i.e. streamlined or idealized in some way, but they are places which do suggest a socioeconomic stratum often just ignored in cinema. Minor details help. Signs takes place in a pure mythic Americana farmhouse but little things, like Joaquin Pheonix taking the TV set into the closet below the staircase, are vital for establishing and maintaining a certain conception of familial space.

Alex said...

The problem is that while Shyamalan has an obsession about a serious topic, he has a very trivial understanding of that (admittedly important) topic. I would agree that he's no more trivial than the Coens, Tarantino, DePalma..... but that isn't saying very much at all. We don't really care that he is admittedly better than the vast majority of other Hollywood product, anymore that we would care about one Mark Kostabi painting being "better" than another Kostabi painting.

Jon Hastings said...

Alex - I'm not sure that The Village shows a trivial understanding of its topic. Shyamalan is an allegorical fabulist in the mode of Val Lewton, Ray Bradbury, and Rod Serling. The value of these kinds of stories is not in their complexity, but rather in the aptness and singularity of how they organize and shape their themes/concerns. In that sense, whether or not The Village's take on how communities use stories as a form of control is less complex than some other movie's (blanking on a good example of more complex treatment of the theme) is not as important to me as whether or not the "fantastic" elements that Shyamalan arranges have a clarity/poetry to them. (Although Metropolis is obviously a much greater film than any of Shyamalan's, I think it works in the same way: the "ideas" in it are rather simple - what makes it great is in how they are realized into indelible, fantastic images.)

I also feel that it's important to keep some space open for this kind of personal filmmaking that still seeks a large, popular audience.

Alex said...

"In that sense, whether or not The Village's take on how communities use stories as a form of control is less complex than some other movie's (blanking on a good example of more complex treatment of the theme) is not as important to me as whether or not the "fantastic" elements that Shyamalan arranges have a clarity/poetry to them."

I'm not making a complexity argument: I'm making a shallow versus deep argument. I haven't seen The Village - I have of course heard of it's plot. Since you mentioned Metropolis, I think it's reasonable to say that Lang's M or The Testament of Doctor Mabuse also address the same theme. Now, I can't argue that the Village is shallow as I haven't seen the film.

I have, however, seen Signs (as well as other Shyamalan movies). First, I don't think Zach's claim that Shyamalan has a very distinct visual style is supported by the look of Signs - it's not that different from other movies. I further don't think that Shyamalan brought any notably deep understanding of his characters to the movie. I simply am not convinced by the movie's claim that Graham Hess' faith would be restored because of completely vague things his wife had said. (i.e. Graham is pretty gullible and too easily convinced, and he gets convinced by what he sees as a miracle. Of course you're convinced by miracles!)

Further, that the movie seems to believe we WILL be convinced by this plot device tells us how trivially Shyamalan understands faith.

ZC said...

Just caught this last exchange between Jon & Alex - don't know how long it's been here. I agree with both in a lot of ways.

Alex, I don't know that I said, or would say, that Shyamalan has a "very distinct visual style." I think he has a moderately distinct and coherent visual style, about on the same level as a number of other intriguing filmmakers in the system (say, Tony Scott). If you look at what I wrote, you'll see it's not the distinction or even the value of Shyamalan and his style that mesmerize me (I'd agree with you that his understanding of something like religious faith is pretty shallow) - but it's his singleminded intensity in tackling his projects that I find so compelling.

Alex said...


I suppose there is some truth in that Shyamalan does have several obsessions which he clearly pursues and that makes him more interesting than most other highly commercial directors currently. But that's barely praise at all.