Monday, 29 August 2016

Polishing Night's Stones - George Ttoouli and Simon Turner discuss, at length, M Night Shyamalan's The Village

ST: This is worth a gander. I genuinely thought we were the only two people left on the planet to give credence to any Shyamalan post-Signs (I've still yet to see The Lady in the Water: my misgivings haven't quite been overcome by your enthusiasm), but it's a nice surprise to read someone who's an enthusiast for The Village. I still stand by my assertion that it's his best movie.
GT: Yeah, I get it. But note how the article kicks off with the declaration of preference for his most genre-obvious films. And then tries to reappraise The Village from genre terms: genre films are 'for the love' / escapist, rather than political.
The author also makes some really crude assumptions about how some films 'mean something' and others don't. I stopped reading at: "It’s not just a cheap gotcha moment like the end of the recent The Visit, a film that, as enjoyable as it is, is about nothing at all." When is a film ever about nothing, ffs?

But your prompting me with the article sent me to Shyamalan's website, which, frankly is utterly typical of his work: an attempt at total immersion, which you have to squint at to hide the sellotape and string holding it together in places because either the studio/web company weren't given sufficient budget to execute that vision (The Happening) or the makers are tongue-in-cheek enough to know that a little bit of exposed architecture reminds us we have to sustain our inner child in order to enjoy life (Signs).
The website, if you haven't looked, uses a point-and-click house navigation system, with a crow guide, to interact with each of his films. Each room (on the first/ground floor) offers a template set of information about his films up to 2009: Night's favourite dialogue; his favourite scene (as video); how stressed he felt while making it; the 'theme'; the point he thought the film was a failure (!); and a couple of other details.
"Mmm . . . forbidden berries."
The picture you get is of a creative person who is both inspired by failure (I think it quotes him on this in one of the upstairs rooms) and also sent into periodic bouts of depression by public reception. And there's a couple of heartwarming moments where he claims he wants to stop making films for 'them' and 'me' and only make films for 'us'; and one where he self-portraits as an art house filmmaker, who turned to genre out of a sense of failure. But really, that's the problem: he's an arthouse writer/director who enjoys genre as much as he enjoys Hitchock's suspense thrillers, or whatever.
It's a weird insight, but chimed with the feeling I've had all along that the vast majority of critics have so far failed to engage with his films with a level head. The marmite approach - you either love or hate it - doesn't allow for careful appraisal, most of the time. The Village, for example, is not a genre film; on the website, he describes it as a romance. Yeah, that's what I dug - the monsters are just allegorical threats between the lovers. If your world is so unsafe, how can you love?
And Lady in the Water (website says he wanted to call it Story at one point - which would have been SO MUCH better) is wonderful, but it has some unfortunate moments: the critic is too indulgent for my tastes and breaks the spell completely. (Though he admits to ripping off Wallace Shawn's role in The Princess Bride for that scene, which is cute.)

And I was seriously disappointed that he selected that scene for his 'favourite' on the website, instead of the scene where Giamatti monologues about his family while trying to heal Story. Which is one of the most moving scenes in cinema I've ever sat through, without a doubt (it's making me tear up again just thinking about it).
Yes, they're all piecemeal. But that's part of the joy, part of the arthouse tendency. I feel like his films give me permission to interact, to make sense of the logic. Maybe that was a drawback in The Happening, though really I can't remember much of that film, it lacks the set pieces of earlier films.

Signs was the one I felt most successful at sustaining those rough edges. Sadly, again on his website, I found out he wasn't happy with the alien costumes (he wanted them to border on invisibility, like "lizard octopuses").

But for me, when the hand appears under the pantry door, with those silly fingers like a sewn together costume, I couldn't help feeling the whole thing was the product of Gibson and Phoenix's characters, a narrative they'd made up to try and explain something to the kids about asthma, about terrorism, about losing their mother. And then the story starts to take on its own meaning for the men, which is a mirror of the way meaning is supposed to work in an arthouse film.
As an aside, Lady in the... No, I'm going to call it Story, has a lot more faith in an external 'truth' - the characters get the interpretation wrong at times, collectively, and the critic is punished for it. That's perhaps a weakness in the films - that they don't consistently allow for doubt and multiple interpretations. And that's borne out by his website, where at one point I read something about his desire for everyone to agree on whether they like/dislike a film. That's perhaps the genre side of what he's doing conflicting with the arthouse side.
The parts of his films that stand out for me are set pieces primarily about family, not the jump scares of Sixth Sense, or The Village. The emotion in The Village is massively heightened when they open the box. Up to that point, the film is deceptive, sure. But that deception is a classic magic trick, there's nothing wrong with that - playing with expectations.
Anyway, that's a long enough rant for now. I still haven't seen The Visit. I want to, but I'm suspicious of its genre leanings, as with most of his films. Only this one wears its horror producer on the trailer and that kind of puts me off - I couldn't be bothered with the banality of Paranormal Activity and so on.
ST: I see your game: you're trying the lure me into a demi-intellectual conversation that we can bang up on Gists and Piths as a stop-gap until such time as we've written something people might actually want to read.  Dirty pull, old man!  (Addendum: it also feels indicative of our current anti-contemporary modus operandi - 18th century watercolourists? Books from the 60s?  Three year-old email chains?  Unsettling pictures of Patrick Swayze?  We got it! - that we're about to launch into a detailed symposium on a movie that's 12 years old, and which only a few people actually liked the first time around.  I can feel the theoretical click revenue just rolling in.) 

Anyway, to the meat of the matter: I shared your concern with the article - particularly with the 'some films don't mean anything' canard: in this context it's worth reading A O Scott's discussion of the criticism he received for a not-entirely favourable review he gave of The Avengers, in Better Living Through Criticism, which I've enjoyed a great deal recently - but in its defence, it is a feature on a horror-specialising website, so the genre elements were inevitably going to be given precedence, right? 

That said, I'm with you re: the ways in which Shyamalan's movies have been read (or misread, wilfully or not).  It struck me today that MNS is a sort of forerunner to Chris Nolan: they're both indie-esque film-makers who've found mainstream success, they both use genre as a means of expressing their particular obsessions and narrative strategies, they're both auteurs in a studio system, which is impressive in itself, and they're both clearly indebted to the art-populism that Spielberg does so well.  They're also both prone to a degree of narrative over-determination, a micromanagement of plot and atmosphere to such an extent that characterisation, or characterisation as we've commonly come to expect it, is denuded or underdeveloped.  Heavy exposition, a symptom of that hypertrophied narrative urge, is also a recurring vice for both. 

But where Nolan's films are pretty universally praised to the skies, MNS is (or was until very recently) persona non grata.  It's also worth noting that Nolan gets away with a lot of the same stuff that MNS has been panned for over the years.  If the twists in The Sixth Sense and The Village are a little creaky, Nolan's deployment of final act volte-faces owes just as much to the Scooby Doo / Twilight Zone tradition as MNS.  I'm going to keep these Nolan twists free of narrative context, as I'm not sure how much of the recent Nolan you've seen, but here are some prime examples:

"Ah, but it turns out his wife wasn't dead after all!"
"Ah, but it turns out that he was stuck behind the bookcase all along!"
"Ah, but it turns out, maybe, that he's been dreaming this whole time!"
"Ah, but it turns out his lover was the big bad all along!"
"Ah, but twins!  Ah, but quantum physics!"

Those are the big ones, and anyone who knows and loves Nolan's movies will accuse me of wildly traducing his corpus to make a point, which indeed I am.  But the point still stands, which is that if any of these twists were appended to a MNS movie, they'd be critically trounced.  (Indeed, the twists would be the springboard, the essential justification, for the trouncing).  Whether that trouncing is fair or not is a moot point: what matters is context.  In the context of a Nolan movie, The Village's ending would be fine, most likely, with no controversies, no suggestions that he'd egregiously dropped the ball and irrevocably scuppered his career (this is the gist of the Guardian review of The Village that came out at the time; Roger Ebert was even tougher, apparently).  You're right about the 'marmite' response eradicating nuance, but it interests me that the marmite response should be so prevalent here. 

A conjecture: boring art is never divisive, and favours consensus.  Best Movie Oscar syndrome: it's not usually the 'best' movie that wins - even though we can't really quantify something as qualitative and subjective as a value judgement - but rather the movie that's likely to cause the least upset: hence Kramer vs Kramer beats Apocalypse Now, Ordinary People beats Raging Bull AND The Elephant Man, Dances With Wolves beats Goodfellas, Forrest Gump beats Pulp Fiction, and more recently, The King's Pissing Speech won out in a field that also included Black Swan, Inception, The Social Network, True Grit and Toy Story 3.  'It's alright' is the death-knell of genuine creative production, and the fact that MNS used to elicit this marmite response (and continues to, if the critical response to The Visit is anything to go by) is a measure of his value as a director.  Discuss.

GT: Me trying to goad you?! I thought you were dangling the bait at me, knowing my weird soft spot for him. But yes, we need a more clickbait title than 'Polishing Night's Stones', which, frankly, sounds like some kind of vampire poetry porn. 'Everything you've secretly felt about MNS's films in 14 (un)easy bullet points?'
Yes, your point about Nolan and the weird unforgivable air MNS has attracted is very relevant. I noted, going through the wiki page, that the only fluff post-Sixth Sense is [Story], which still just about broke even. Generally speaking, he's a good investment, as long as he's not left with total control. I'd imagine Nolan also needs the reins on.
But I wonder if it's also to do with the familiarity of the narrative arcs. Nolan's films almost unequivocally tend to track the rise and fall and rise again of a male protagonist (even the 'twins' scenario). They have very often easy to follow focal points and conflicts. There's rarely a sense of you not being able to follow the central point.
Maybe the way MNS's films wear alternate between wolf/sheep costumes is troubling for some. Hence his slip ups, his risk-taking, appears less forgivable? I don't want to make this too much about the demands of 'genre fans' vs. 'normal fans' - that's crude and elitist leverage.

That is, however, a very real fear in MNS, by the accounts I can read from his website and elsewhere. It might be that the fans can smell his fear, or they can at least identify when he is pandering to what he perceives as their genre tastes, and that's just condescending. Perhaps it's a matter of confidence...
But that then leads me to a weird thought. Do any of Nolan's male protagonists make actual mistakes? I mean, like, make the wrong decisions? I don't mean wrong in the sense of the impossible decisions set up - like a memory-damaged tattoo canvas who can't make right decisions because of a disability; or the impossible decision of who Batman must save.

(Even that Pacino cop film in the ice (name escapes, can't be bothered to look it up [it's Insomnia, you lazy good-for-nothing: S]) is, from what I remember, set up so all the mistakes happened before the film - it's an atonement film.) When trouble besets them, those Nolan heroes respond with violence, with more muscle; with defter wit, intelligence, technology. They fight fire with nukes.
The characters in MNS are the opposite: they demonstrate weakness, they cry, they are humbled and show humility. Against violence, most often, there's a collective response, a sense of the need for community to help overcome obstacles and also to share in the grieving process. The powerful characters, when they exercise power, are dangerous, wrong, or unhinged.
I guess what I'm driving at here is that of the two directors you've picked, one expresses far more conventional ideas of masculinity and power than the other. And perhaps that exploration of weakness is what attracts me to films like Signs and [Story]. It's offering an alternative mode of being in the world to toxic masculine values.
So, yeah, excuse me, I'm off to play zombie games and burn ants with a magnifying glass for the rest of the afternoon, but I'm glad you get to air your Nolan fixation in public. It's been a while. Though I am a little surprised by your closing point: 'boring art is never divisive'. Which, against your earlier comment about Nolan's films being pretty much 'universally praised to the skies', suggest you've achieved some healthy distance?
Local council politics, Skeksis-style.
ST: Surely the prospect of vampire porn's always a vote winner, particularly among the cellar-dwelling nerds who make up the majority of our readership?  Anyway, I was sort of favouring 'The Skeksis come to Trumpton: Revisiting The Village', or something similarly confrontational, although that feels a little mean-spirited given how fondly I feel about the movie under discussion.  (This is particularly true having rewatched it, and finding myself surprised at the emotional heft it still has, which is something that happens again and again with MNS, much against my will and better judgement - it's certainly what leapt out at me most when I saw The Sixth Sense for the first time, for example: once the scares have abated, you're left with a surprisingly heartfelt story about damaged people finding solace and emotional recuperation through the narrative of post-traumatic therapy.)    

Onto your other points: I'd disagree on the notion that Nolan 'needs the reins on', as he's generally seen as very safe pair of hands, bringing movies in under budget, which is pretty unheard of when you're talking productions of that scale, and reeling in moolah to an almost unprecedented extent.  I'd say, too, that his two weakest films so far - Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, much as I love them - were problematic at least in part because the reins were on: TDKR because studio expectations were so immense, and Interstellar because it was a kind of inherited project (Spielberg was initially scheduled to direct), and the optimism of the film's premise was never an easy fit with Nolan's worldview, to my mind, which prior to it, seemed to be getting darker and more cynical with each passing film.  (I'd also disagree with the notion of his male characters not making mistakes: there's a strong case to be made that The Dark Knight Rises ought to be retitled The One Where Batman Fucks Up, Repeatedly, but I guess they couldn't get that past the Warner Bros. marketing department.)      

Anyway, back to Night, and the matter of narrative arcs.  I take your point about genre expectation maybe creating a false aura of betrayed hopes around his work, and it's certainly true that the marketing for The Village definitely played up the horror side of proceedings, rather than the slow, textural recreation of the 19th century that forms the backbone of the film; that is, indeed, its real subject.  But even without those expectations being played with and undermined, The Village is rather a tricky piece, never quite settling or allowing the viewer any kind of traction on proceedings.

Interestingly, in one of the special features on the DVD, MNS mentions the notion that he disguises the film's key protagonist until the final third of the narrative; that events unexpectedly clear a space for Ivy to step forward as the heroine, and we're suddenly in the midst of a narrative arc we didn't even know was being signalled until that moment.  Which is to say, that even before we've taken into account the monsters, the post-9/11 allegory of fear and ideology, the narrative rug-pulling, etc, etc, he's already dead-set on subverting expectations, camouflaging one mode of storytelling within the carapace of another.  That's probably one of the things that gets critical and popular hackles up, I'd imagine.

But it's a strange combination, isn't it, of narrative tricksiness and emotional sincerity?  That might also help situate some of the reaction to his work, particularly during / after The Village: that one can't be at the same time a serious artist with a capacity for emotional heft, and a fire-side storyteller who's more interested in wowing the audience with his box of tricks and keeping them dangling on the hook with the promise of 'what happens next?'.  I would contend that you can in fact do both, that there isn't a contradiction in those narrative modes in any way, and that The Village is the proof.  That may put me in a minority of one, or three at any rate, but I stand by it.   

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