I always have time for M. Night Shyamalan. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I like all of his films, but I do think of several points when I think of him. One is the reminder that perhaps one shouldn’t come out of the blocks with all guns blazing. Though ‘The Sixth Sense’ was a success, it is almost impossible to follow up that effort with one that could stand on its own. And so it proved: none of his films were considered as successful or as good as ‘Sense’. Quite frankly, he became trapped within his own genius, a man whose talents surely deserved more than that eternal chain around his neck. After all, I thought that his movies were generally well-made films that is generally enjoyable.
Enjoyable though they may be, but they are also markers to his own independence as a filmmaker. Film experts often term him as an auteur, as someone capable of coming up with their own, original material. Comparisons with Hitchcock, on this level, can be found easily. Certainly, the tendency to want to shock, scare and draw the audience in by use of their names is there. On one level, I can see why that would be the case. On another…I don’t agree that M. Night Shyamalan is any more of an auteur than Steven Spielberg, Kevin Smith, or even Yasmin Ahmad is.
This idea has to be discussed in relation to Roland Barthes’s notion that the auteur, someone who has the ability to come up with their own original idea, is dead. He argued that since we all derive our ideas, inspirations and such from our own lives and the lives of others, these ideas can’t therefore be considered as original. There’s a bit more to this, of course, but without wanting to relive my ‘Authorship’ class from my Monash days, that’s basically the long and short of it.
Having mulled it over for a long while, I have to say that I don’t think that is the case. The auteur is most certainly not dead, for in bringing together existing ideas, new ideas and concepts are created. Thus, the creator of these ideas, though it may be borrowed or remade from before, can also be considered as auteurs, in my opinion. This is why I don’t believe that M. Night Shyamalan deserves that title above all other filmmakers, though I do understand why some would call him that.
This can be shed more light on when you watch ‘The Happening’. As the film opens, the winds started to blow, moving the trees to motion, and bringing almost everyone to a stop. Slowly, but surely, they all start to kill themselves. Initially, it was thought that terrorists were causing the incidents, with the news channels terming it as a biological attack. Caught up in all this is a New York teacher, Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), who try to escape to the countryside along with their friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez). However, they are not the only ones trying to escape the big city, as scores of others are trying to do the same. Nevertheless, they find that even in the countryside, the danger is there.
What, though, is the danger? What is prompting people to suddenly, and calmly, drive a stake into their own neck? Or to take a policeman’s gun and shoot themselves with it? Quite frankly, nobody knows for sure. M. Night Shyamalan did try to put forth an explanation, of sorts, by the end of the film, but the nature of the attack is that it remains a mystery. I can see (and have read of) many people hating the film because of this, as it fails to conclusively conclude the events in the film. Though I understand it, I do think that the film works just as well without such conclusions. If anything, not knowing the reason why adds more to the chilling tension of the scenes.
And it is this tension that is the crux of the film (and the crux of his comparisons with Hitchcock). I love how even the slightest horror can be drawn out of absolutely nothing. A key example of this can be seen when the train conductors, driving the train out of New York, decided to stop at a small town in the middle of nowhere. “Why did you stop?” asked Elliot. “We’ve lost contact, sir,” came the reply. “With who?” The conductor looked at Elliot’s face, and said softly, “Everyone.” Within the bigger picture, there’s a fair amount of holes in that logic, but as I watch the film, it did spike my interest a little bit more. It is these moments that drives the film forward.
It’s a good thing that the director knows how to shock and scare (with the help of an effective soundtrack by James Newton Howard), because beyond that, there’s little else that kept my interest long enough. I was pleasantly surprised by John Leguizamo, though it has to be said that I kept thinking of him as that dwarf from ‘Moulin Rouge’. Against that backdrop, you could say that his performance here is a world apart, but even so, I am struck by his sincerity in his acting. I believe in him when he is scared, and I believe in him when he feels that he has to make difficult decisions. That should probably be the only standard used when it comes to judging acting performances. The rest of the cast were less convincing, somehow. Perhaps Mark Wahlberg was already busy thinking of his upcoming ‘Max Payne’ movie (to be buzzed here soon enough).
In conclusion, then, ‘The Happening’ does not suck. It is not the worst movie of all time. That should be left only to the domains of those who believe that movies can only be reviewed as ‘superfun’ or ‘supersuck’. I guess it is also with this point of view that M. Night Shyamalan is considered an auteur rather than as a very good storyteller. I can see what he is trying to do here, and did enjoy the chilling ride that the tension of the scenes offered. After all, how on earth do you fight back against something you don’t know? How can you cure something that you can’t diagnose? It is a fear against the unknown that is the main essence of the story, and that fear is well told.
Unfortunately, I can also see this unknown (and its conclusion) being disliked by many. And when this is the case, not even the most original of auteurs can save their film.
Fikri is actually in love with Zooey Deschanel’s sister, Emily. It’s her eyes, really… 🙂