By: Eugene Novikov (original publish date: June 9, 2008)
(With the Cine-staff off on a late-July mini-vacation, we thought it'd be fun to bring you some of our favorite pieces from months past. Enjoy!)
When it comes to seeing M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening early, the best that Fox publicists can offer me (and other non-daily-newspaper press in Philadelphia) is a 9 pm screening at an inconvenient theater the night before release. I'm going to politely decline, and it's probably just as well. It's become so hip to hate and sneer at Shyamalan and his films that I'm not sure I could handle the pre- and post-screening small talk. I'll see the film on Friday afternoon, alone, or with a friend who's not privy to the buzz and the gossip.
Those who've read my stuff, here and elsewhere, know that I'm one of the more persistent Shyamalan apologists on the intertubes. I won't launch into a defense of specific films here; that's too formidable a task for a Fan Rant. Instead, I want to briefly discuss why I think it's wrong to make the filmmaker into either a laughingstock or public enemy #1, even if you're not enamored of his recent efforts.
I'll make a couple of concessions at the beginning, to show I'm reasonable. Concession the first: I admit that Lady in the Water was a failure. An interesting failure, and one I was able to enjoy on second viewing when I was no longer blinded by disappointment, but a failure nonetheless. Concession the second: when Shyamalan's worldview wrests center stage away from his storytelling chops, the results can be cringe-worthy (e.g. the ending of the otherwise-excellent Signs; most of Lady). Certain things in the advertising for The Happening make me nervous about this.
So, as with most filmmakers who take risks, there are problems. But that's the thing: Shyamalan takes risks, consistently. How many staunchly mainstream filmmakers can say that? Every movie he's made has offered something interesting: A clever conceptual twist on a familiar plot (Signs), a deconstruction of an entire genre (Unbreakable), a political allegory buried under thriller trappings (The Village), a statement on destiny and meaning (Lady in the Water), and of course the mind-blowing surprise ending that got him his career (The Sixth Sense). I think The Village is head-spinningly brilliant, and Unbreakable is one of my favorite movies of the decade, but you don't have to agree with that -- as I say, even I think that Lady in the Water ultimately doesn't work. What I'm trying to say is this: Is a guy who is constantly trying to make personal and unique movies within the studio system really the filmmaker who deserves your scorn?
Yes, I know that he has a zeppelin-sized ego. He's still young, it'll pass; the fact that The Happening is 90 minutes long seems like a step in the right direction. (And who says a little arrogance is a bad thing, anyway?) I know some people think he's a one-trick pony, with the one trick being the twist ending; those people are simply wrong, as evidenced by Signs, Lady, and even The Village, where the "twist" isn't particularly surprising, and isn't supposed to be. Most viewers think Unbreakable has a "twist ending," but the twist there is more thematic than narrative. Shyamalan is a writer and director who understands that good stories should be able to surprise you, but he has a sizable arsenal of ways in which to do it.
I realize it's a little disingenuous for me to imply that I'd be thinking and writing the same thing were I not a fan of the man's work; I probably wouldn't be. But I do think that the recent Shyamalan "backlash" (thanks to Scott Weinberg for pointing me to this thoughtless nonsense (my words, not Scott's) from the New York Post, for example) has served to punish ambition. His undeniable technical chops should be enough to dispel any notion that Shyamalan is a "hack," but there's more: he makes movies that try to offer us something. He doesn't always succeed; I hear you. But does he really deserve the recent treatment he's received in the press? Why aren't we saving any of it for the Rob Cohens and Michael Bays of the world?