A tale of two directors

Spoiler alert: the big twist ending is that they are both M. Night Shyamalan.


It’s become fashionable (well, internet-fashionable) of late to bash M. Night Shyamalan.  Actually I don’t think “bash” is a strong enough word for what the online community is doing to Night.  This is more like we all showed up at his house like those creepy masked fuckers in the trailer for “The Strangers” and announced that we were going to torture him to death, just because he was home.  (Note to self: do not go see “The Strangers.”)  This is an epic gang-rape like that disturbing scene with Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”  This is the end of “Requiem For a Dream” plus the beginning of “Irreversible” times any random “Bum Fights” DVD.  This is “Free Willy”‘s alternate ending, where Willy leaps into a colossal meatgrinder and the closing shots show a chain of Willyburger franchises filled with happy, bloody-faced customers chowing down.*

What I’m trying to say is, we are fucking M. Night, and we are fucking him hard and against his will.  And I feel really, really bad for the guy.  But not so bad that it’s going to stop me from being honest.

Shyamalan had the misfortune of bursting on to the scene with a confident, well-realized smash hit with one of those great word-of-mouth-building twists at the end.  “The Sixth Sense” was a good picture, not really a great one; but “Bruce is actually a ghost!” was better for business than both the revelation of Keyser Soze’s identity and the free-swinging penis in “The Crying Game.”  It was eloquent and logical in that “Twilight Zone” way, and the movie leading up to the twist was somber, creepy, and effective.  It did huge numbers without alienating the geek community and it gave them A New Hope (the great brown hope?) to cling to.  He was, in many quarters, The Next Spielberg.

Er… yeah.  That didn’t work out, so much.

“Unbreakable” was – for me at least – the point where it became clear that something was up, that the man didn’t quite have it.  Considered in isolation, it’s a bold idea: a superhero movie with nothing exploding and no brightly-colored tights; a comic book flick that is actually a drama and a mystery thriller.  Interesting, right?  And it sort of was, but it also sort of felt like Night was trying to clone the DNA from his successful first model, and just graft some other parts on so we’d think it was a different animal.  But a mouse with an ear on its back is still a mouse.  (Or maybe it’s a mouseketear.  Ba-dump, kssshhh!)  The strain didn’t really show until the ending, when Night tried to wrap things up in basically the “Sixth Sense” fashion – big twist, quick cut to black.  Only in the context of a superhero story, that felt completely unsatisfying.  Walking out of the theater, I felt like they had cancelled the movie after it was 90% done and made do with a freeze frame and explanatory title card in the editing room.  “Samuel L. Jackson is the villain, aren’t you surprised?  And uh – he goes to jail!  The End!”  Shyamalan was quick to announce that this was the first installment in a planned trilogy, which sort of alleviated the dismay but begged another question – namely, should this young pup really be planning to leap straight from his first surprise hit into a trilogy based on a sorta-cool idea and the goodwill of geekdom?  “Unbreakable” didn’t do “trilogy” business though, so those plans were scrapped, and we were left with a curio piece that a few people swear by, but most of us find to be a noble failure.

And then… and then.  Hoo boy.  “Signs” is a divisive movie; I felt divided even as I was watching it.  The direction was very sure-handed (probably his best effort) and certain scenes really pulled you in, in that “next Spielberg” way.  My favorite was probably the scene with them listening to the alien sounds coming from the baby monitor – it’s simple, yet spellbinding; the kind of thing Spielberg is so great at and so few others can do at all.  “Signs” was loaded with such suspense.  It was the missteps in the plot that let it down: the cornball obviousness of the Joaquin Phoenix sub-plot, and the much-whined-about “water kills them, surprise!” twist at the end.  When you both rip off the ending of “War of the Worlds” and also dumb it down about 5000 times, you may need a script doctor.

The less said about “The Village,” the better.  For many this was the first “bad” Shyamalan movie, the one where the bloom was truly off the rose.  For me it was merely more disappointing by a factor of two or three than its predecessors.  The performances were worse and more wooden (in most cases) or just worse in general (in the case of Adrien Brody, who I usually like), and the twist was both obvious and stupid – not a good combination when the twist is what you built your reputation on.  “The Village” felt like Shyamalan running in place and tripping over his own feet at the same time.  “Lady in the Water,” which I did not see, was by all accounts a bigger failure – an epic mistake from a guy flailing around for some cred.  An embarrassment, it was generally held.  It was so hard to find a good review of that movie that I lost any desire to see it.

Now Shyalaman has “The Happening” coming out, and the knives are rasping against each other all ’round the internet.  Rotten Tomatoes has it at 22%, an atrocious rating for a generally critically-acclaimed director (it even beats “Lady in the Water”‘s low mark by two points).  This review posted on Ain’t It Cool News today is the kind of blood-spraying, entrails-hanging evisceration that Shyamalan just can’t afford.  His career and his reputation as an artist are on life support; he needs people to keep the machines plugged in, soothe his fevered brow, maybe drive him to physical therapy once a week.  Instead they’re sitting at his bedside and murmuring about what might be in the will.  Not a good situation.

It’s hard not to notice the disturbing aspects of what is happening to Shyamalan.  Every internet forum has fifty mouthbreathers on it who insist on calling the man “Shyamalamadingdong.”  It’s a racist and xenophobic joke, and it’s also tired as hell – can we at least come up with another way to say “I have no idea how to pronounce the names of people from other countries or ethnic backgrounds”?  The persistence of this bacteria of a joke carries with it a shadowy reflection of Stormfront.org.  We don’t necessarily want to kill the darkies, but if the most arrogant ones can be publicly pilloried, that would be A-OK, wouldn’t it?  I shudder a little every time it pops up (which means my visits to Fark.com involve me vibrating like an epileptic about half the time).  And from another angle, it looks an awful lot like our general fixation on success stories that turn into hymns of failure.  We love our celebs, and we love it even more when they trip over a heroin syringe and fall face-first into a vat of child porn and homemade sex tapes.  We love to see these people get their comeuppance for being better and more ambitious than us.  It’s completely fucked up.

So maybe we’re crucifying Shyamalan for some really sick and wrong reasons.  But then again, maybe we’re crucifying him because his movies have started sucking out loud.  It would sure be nice if Shyamalan would make something halfway decent and clear the picture up for me.

* Not an actual alternate ending to “Free Willy.”  In my happiest dreams, however, this is the alternate ending to any movie starring Bill Pullman.  Pullmanburger – service with a sneer!



8 Responses to A tale of two directors

  1. Ryan says:

    Damn you for bringing up the beginning of “Irreversable.”

    Also, it’d be interesting to see a comparison of Uwe Boll’s treatment vs. MNS.

  2. Noteworthy comments on “The Happening”:

    “Let it not be said that M. Night Shyamalan can’t inspire dread. Nine years after ‘The Sixth Sense,’ he may in fact be more chilling than ever. By the time his name appears under the words ‘Written, Directed and Produced by’ in the final credits of a movie, his audience has experienced a profound déjà vu, followed by the horrifying realization that two precious hours have vanished from their lives … Forever.” – Salon.com

    “M. Night Shyamalan used to have a vast army of fans. Now he has a dwindling network of apologists. The former frightmaster’s descent from wunderkind to embarrassment has been unusually dramatic and public… Shyamalan should be glad he makes movies primarily in Pennsylvania instead of Hollywood, because under California’s ‘three strikes’ law, he’d be facing hard time in movie jail thanks to his third consecutive disaster, ‘The Happening.'” – The Onion

    “M. Night Shyamalan has morphed from ‘the next Spielberg’ to a punching bag for critics and audiences alike. ‘The Happening’ reminds us why.” – Washington Times

  3. JimPanzee says:

    I thought the Lady in the Water was fine. Not great, but not awful. Part of its…er….success?…was that the infamous “Shymalan Twist” was basically broadcast well before its arrival so it didn’t have the pretense of cleverness that would have doomed it. Anybody who thought the movie was awful because the twist was “obvious” is a victim of their own egotism, thinking they “figured out” what was basically handed to them.

    I never saw Signs but thank god, cuz, the “water kills them” biz is mind numbingly stupid. It makes me want to pay to send Night to a basic earth sciences class so that he can understand what “x% Humidity” means.

    By all accounts The Happening is not only the worst Night movie of all, but perhaps the worst movie of the year so far. I heard that Marky Mark can outrun the wind. The Wind. As in that thing to which we all aspire to run like. Oh well, I’ll probably see it eventually.

  4. That’s interesting (about “The Lady in the Water”). I thought I had heard that it really didn’t have a twist as his previous movies did – perhaps because it was so telegraphed? I also don’t recall now why seemingly everybody hated the movie, only that every review I read was rife with typos because the reviewer was so busy teabagging Shyamalan and singing Eazy-E’s “Nutz on Ya Chin” while writing it.

  5. beetqueen says:

    I tried to watch “Lady in the Water” and just couldn’t get through it. It bored me. And I like Paul Giamatto. The only good movie he made was “The Sixth Sense.” I understand the idea of having a trademark, but his twists (which was awesome in “Sixth”) has become a joke. Not imaginative, just hackneyed and annoying.

    I saw his first two movies in the theater and after that it was video. I only even attempted to watch “Lady” because it was on cable and I was bored. Forget “The Happening.” I want no part of it.

    “Signs” is still the one that pisses me off most. I agree that the directing was decent, but the ending just angered me. I know some like to claim it was an homage, but I disagree. It was a cheap knock-off of a much better story.

    I have no desire to see the man fail. I would much rather he make good movies like “Sixth” so I have something I want to see in the theaters. However, I fear he is a one hit wonder who just doesn’t realize it and will keep making crap until no one is buying and the studios all dump him.

  6. alex r says:

    I have mixed feelings about Shyamalan. I liked Sixth Sense, thought Unbreakable was ok, liked Signs despite the silly ending, thought Village was weak and Lady in the Water bizarrely compelling in a train-wreck kinda of way. But the Happening is something else altogether. It is, without a doubt, one of the funniest films I have ever seen. Like, honestly gut busting, roll on the floor hilarious.

  7. alex r says:

    I did not regret seeing it one bit.

  8. alex r says:

    I mean it’s hard to hate a movie where the protagonists are running away from wind. Or where a guy casually feeds himself to lions.

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