My content edit on All Paths Lead Home is finished, which means I have to lock myself in my room to get to work re-shaping- a massive undertaking. I don’t think I’ll be coming out for a while. But before I go, I wanted to share something that I’ve been intending to actually vlog about for over a year now, and just haven’t gotten around to: the genius of M. Night Shyamalan.
In my vlog I was going to review some of Shyamalan’s movies, talk a bit about screenwriting, and a bigger bit about the various deeper issues that Shyamalan addresses in his projects. But the other day I stumbled across Robert McKee giving a rather snide and demeaning nod to “bad writers”, and specifically to “M. Night Sugarman, or whatever his name is.” McKee bluntly states that ‘these types’ write for profit, and not for creative process, and accuses them of being “imitators.” He goes on to distinguish this along the line of exposition.
But screenwriting is just one aspect of movie-making. People generally don’t read screenplays- but they do watch movies. So translating a screenplay into a movie is perhaps as crucial as the story arc itself. McKee talks about Spielberg being a good director, but “having nothing to say” as a writer, and then lumps Shyamalan in the same category of “bad writers.” By the way- congratulations, Mr. Shyamalan- you’re in good company! Shyamalan not only writes his movies, he produces and directs them too. McKee does admit that Shyamalan has good craftsmanship in terms of “lighting the scene”, but then accuses him of having a “cartoon/comic book mind”, and as with Spielberg, having nothing to say.
I think what McKee is really trying to suggest is that he believes Shyamalan has nothing valuable to say. But is McKee really listening?
The first Shyamalan movie I watched was The Sixth Sense. It was brilliantly layered with so much Kubrick’esque ‘hidden in plain sight’ backdrop that I really believe it was Shyamalan’s giant slap to get us to wake up. It was riveting, had me on the edge of my seat, and was very reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (based on the novel by Stephen King). So, if this is what McKee meant by “imitation”, then why not imitate a master? And it really did set the precedent for his following movies. While The Sixth Sense got good reviews, nearly all of his subsequent movies got a lot of criticism and weren’t necessarily box office hits. Over and over I have read snarky comments and heard scathing reviews of the pointless, Hollywood-ized grandeur of his movies. And I have to admit, at first pass, I sort of felt the same way.
The second movie of Shyamalan’s I saw was The Village. While like The Sixth Sense it maintained an air of supernatural horror that had me riveted, I felt cheated at the end, and then I didn’t know how to feel about it. I watched it again about a year later and decided I liked it after all, having gained just a tiny bit of insight into a deeper meaning. And then every subsequent viewing it became more and more compelling to me. (I think I’ve seen it about six times now, and it remains the one movie of his I am most drawn to watch, perhaps because of the visual elements). So often in a context of culture, and class, and particularly communal living (as these are issues I frequently explore and discuss in conversation), I reflect back on the lessons of The Village. I think about whether I would want to start a communal living project if I was wealthy. Aren’t all communal living projects based on the same goals- to join together with like-minded individuals who are also desiring to escape the evils of the over-culture to find some level of independence, trust, and peace? And how do we separate ‘them’ from ‘us’, when in the end we are all human beings? There is so much about this movie- from the red color signifying life, the root chakra, the yellow “protective” color signifying the solar plexus, the sense of self, to Ivy’s blindness, to Noah’s childlike innocence and then murderous jealousy, both magnified through his retardation, to the specific cameo role Shyamalan plays in the movie- all aspects lending themselves to deeper truths.
I distinctly remember seeing the trailer for The Happening, and being mortified. I was so repulsed, I refused to watch it. I haven’t been a horror movie fan since the days of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. About a year after it came out I finally decided to stomach it, just to see what all that weirdness was about- people seemingly falling off of buildings and all. Again, I felt cheated. All blood and no meat. I found myself agreeing with most of the criticism- “stupid” and “shallow”, with no meaningful story line.
But then around 2010 something started happening to me. Not only was I taking my writing more serious as a profession, I was also thawing out after a several year span of feeling stuck. I went through a period of very rapid spiritual growth and the gridlock in my reality started to come undone. I watched The Village again and ended it with giddy excitement- it wasn’t just a vague grasp on some sort of social commentary, but every detail became brilliantly woven to provide a remarkable message about us as human beings, where we’ve been, where we are trying to go, and the pitfalls to look out for. I followed that up by watching other Shyamalan movies I hadn’t seen, specifically Wide Awake and Unbreakable– both equally worthwhile movies with deeper messages than one might consciously understand if just viewing on the basis of entertainment or “good writing”, whatever that even means. Indeed, his movies seem to beg us to ask the questions, and it’s only through asking and perhaps seeking ourselves for the answers that we begin to understand the true depth of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. I’ve since seen all of Shyamalan’s movies, and find them all worthwhile in some way. But The Happening is the most memorable Shyamalan movie for me. I reflect back on it so often that I’ve probably recreated the entire movie in my head.
What makes a 5/10 rated movie so memorable? The message of the story and all the intricate signs that reveal deeper and profound truths. It seems so obvious, but we do seem to be a zombified nation, the walking dead, so unconscious even in our waking state that we miss the most obvious. Which is:
– All the bees are missing. There are no more bees. What do bees do? They pollinate. Pollination is a form of reproduction. It is necessary for the survival of plants, and many flowering plants rely on bees to act as the transfer agents in the pollination process. What happened to all the bees? And it is interesting that when The Happening was released in 2008 we didn’t have nearly the alarmingly low numbers of bees that we have in 2015.
– The plants are releasing a neurotoxin that causes people to suffer some sort of mental breakdown which ends in them committing suicide. We are undoubtedly influenced by our environment, by what goes into our body. Psychotropic medications are prescribed with the goal of altering our thoughts and behaviors. Those same psychotropic medications can have negative side effects, such as increased thoughts of suicide. So a little pill can potentially cause someone to be suicidal, and also eliminate suicidal thoughts.
But before you dismiss the idea that plants can become defensive murderers, consider again (this is long- you might want to come back to it- but it is so worth it):
Fascinating stuff. But is Shyamalan’s message in The Happening entirely environmental- a warning to us about how we are caring for our planet? That seems too obvious. The more subtle messages perhaps say something to us about suicide, depression, isolation, how we’re living and caring for one another. And like with The Village, the colors yellow, blue, and red are used by Shyamalan in The Happening to say something to his audience. There are so many theories about the messages Shyamalan was trying to convey, and because my intention here is not to pick apart a specific movie, but just provide insight into why I believe Shyamalan is intelligent and intentional in his writing, I’m not going to go over them all. I encourage you to peruse the Internet for some lively discussion and postulations, if you’re intrigued.
* A really great review with technical insight into the message of The Happening can be found here. A summary of the movie can be found here. A much longer synopsis can be read here. And the screenplay might be found here.
It’s so fascinating that Shyamalan’s works after Unbreakable took a nose-dive in ratings and he has attracted so much disdain and criticism. It’s also a shame we measure a writer/director’s success and worth on box office sales. Quentin Tarantino called Unbreakable “one of the masterpieces of our time.” Yet many others, such as McKee, seemed to have missed the boat entirely in understanding Shyamalan and what he is about.
What do we know about Shyamalan?
His website is outdated, but it holds a dark, spooky paranormal, occult feeling, complete with a spooky old house, a dark grey, almost foggy back scene, and a prominent black crow, sitting on a fence in the foreground. It seems Shyamalan likes to project this sort of paranormal, dark forces persona. And perhaps like in all things paranormal, his movies ask more questions than they answer. This doesn’t make Shyamalan a master of macabre as much as it makes him a master of illusion. To me the foggy backdrop speaks of the subconscious mind, and subliminal messaging seems to be Shyamalan’s preferred method of communicating. And the crow- Shyamalan himself has stated that his message in The Happening has elements representative of the Native American relationship with nature, and his beliefs that this is a correct relationship. So if we look at crow medicine, we see crow is an archetype for illusion, change in consciousness, and the keeper of the Higher Laws.
We know Shyamalan likes to have cameo appearances, playing small roles in all his movies.
We know Shyamalan is very intentional in his movies, meticulous with detail, that nothing is wasted.
We know he likes to use color in particular.
We know he likes to trick us, and use subliminal types of clues.
We know his movies, if we truly contemplate them, leave us with more questions than answers, have many layers and facets, invite ongoing discussion, and offer many plausible theories.
We know the arching themes of Shyamalan’s work speak to faith, belief, and the intersection with science, math, and empiricism, and that they convey messages to us as individuals, but also to the larger community, and even to the human species.
So if this has caught your interest and you’re not familiar with Shyamalan’s movies, or have a vague opinion based on a first view that left you unimpressed, and you’d like to go back in with a discerning eye, I’ll summarize some tips on what to look for (the list doesn’t come close to being exhaustive, but it’s a good start).
Tips For the Uninitiated:
-Pay particular attention to the roles/characters Shyamalan plays in his cameos, and even his specific lines or actions in the movies, because I am quite certain they reveal something. In Unbreakable he plays the drug dealer- the guy who offers a means to alter experience, alter reality. And what is his interaction with the main character? In The Village he plays the guard- what is Shyamalan trying to guard? In The Sixth Sense he plays the doctor. And the lines- let them stand alone, but also within the wider context of the movie. Don’t just assume the lines speak only to that moment in the scene or even to the particular character they’re being spoken too. I believe the roles he chooses and the lines he chooses say something about how he sees himself in relation to his movie.
-Pay attention to props, backgrounds, signs. As with Kubrick, almost everything is an intentional clue. Shyamalan uses color, but also small details like paintings on walls, pieces of candy on the table, butterflies floating across the scene.
-Pay close attention to all the character’s lines. As trivial, misplaced, or silly as they seem, they are intentional, and not necessarily solely intended to inform the obvious story. There is likely to be a more hidden story, one that calls to the subconscious. And some of the lines are just solid life philosophy, being driven by a higher spiritual dynamic:
“People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I’m sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?” – M. Night Shyamalan / SIGNS
-Watch the movie more than once. Just have a casual first watch, and then watch again, but take notes. And then watch again, and again. I know, it seems a bit fanatical. But really, you can’t watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie just once and form any real, true idea about it. You have to let it tug at your subconscious, and slowly tease it out into your conscious mind.
-Research. Spend the time to explore the themes and ideas the movie brings up. See what other people are saying about the movie. You’ll find lots of different theories, but that’s the whole point.
McKee was dead wrong, because Shyamalan isn’t just making Hollywood movies (ironically he’s from Pennsylvania and most of his movies are set and filmed there). Shyamalan’s movies raise dialog about very important issues, and I wouldn’t call that “having nothing to say.” In fact, it’s better than just saying something- it’s inviting others into the conversation.
- Praying With Anger, 1992
- Wide Awake, 1998
- The Sixth Sense, 1999
- Unbreakable, 2000
- Signs, 2002
- The Village, 2004
- Lady in the Water, 2006
- The Happening, 2008
- The Last Airbender, 2010
- After Earth, 2013
- The Visit, 2015
I have worked hard and learnt that I have to make a decision – whether I am going to conform and protect myself or not. I chose not to. – M. Night Shyamalan
Shyamalan offers some inspiring thoughts here on creating and staying true to oneself.