Roundtable: M. Night Shyamalan

In the following exchange, Otie Wheeler, Jonathan Hastings, John Lehtonen, CJ Roy, and Christopher Small try to make sense of the work of this mysterious filmmaker and his most recent film, After EarthPrior to publishing, Jonathan’s brother, journalist Michael Hastings, died in a car crash in Southern California. He was 33. All of us here at TVC were great admirers of Michael’s work. Our deepest condolences go out to Jonathan and his family.


WHEELER: M. Night Shyamalan has a new movie out and it’s getting hammered by critics. Shyamalan’s been an easy target ever since he made three hugely successful films in a row that all featured twist endings (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) but personally, I think the one-two punch of The Village and Lady in the Water, two of the most uncommercial films ever released by major Hollywood studios, is what really brought out the hate.

I love Shyamalan’s films, even the bad ones. He’s a risk-taker with real emotional conviction and total trust in his imagination; something about the way he lays it all on the line makes me forgive even his lesser works. His pictures often feature long takes and average shot lengths of over ten seconds, making him one of the more classical of contemporary filmmakers.

Shyamalan has made two family films, both of which feel like rehearsals for the films that would immediately follow. Wide Awake, his first non-student feature, runs through many of the themes of its follow-up, The Sixth Sense, while The Last Airbender, despite being more ambitious than After Earth, could be seen as Shyamalan practicing at making a blockbuster. I don’t think After Earth (or the blockbuster format in general) plays to Shyamalan’s strengths as a filmmaker, and it seems clear that his films are stronger when they’re based on both original screenplays and stories by Shyamalan himself, but it struck me as a special film just the same.

LEHTONEN: Special indeed! Interesting and apt that you call The Last Airbender practice for this film (or blockbusters in general). The former film feels more rigorously dominated by CGI. After Earth, however, seems to have muted the bombast of digital technology (apart from some first act space action), regaining the serene, or breathing, quality of his work. Of course there’s the matter of old Smith’s overblown, hacky concept, and young Smith’s truly abysmal performance. These are distinctly, damagingly not-Shyamalan-esque. In, say, The Happening or Lady in the Water, the performances and tones were deeply felt. It’s interesting, if a bit saddening, to watch Shyamalan work around the visions of others. I suppose it goes without saying that I completely agree that his films are stronger when they’re thoroughly his.

But damn if this film didn’t feature some prime staples of his work. The strange pauses, the deep quiet, a sense of pastoral reverence. It seems Shyamalan nearly always roots his films in, or retreats them to, the wilderness or near-wilderness, at least from Signs on. Even Lady in the Water‘s urban apartment complex is bordered by a dark and mysterious wood. The Happening‘s heroes retreat through ever shrinking levels of civilization until they’re standing in the tall grass. It’s hard to articulate what Shyamalan finds here; one senses a viewpoint, a philosophy from a century before ours, before even the 20th century, but which? Is he really a (very) old fashioned artist? Or is he truly, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky stated, an original?

ROY: I’m probably the least familiar with his work as I’ve only seen After Earth, Unbreakable and The Happening recently enough to comment on but I can’t believe how much I’ve turned around on him since my youth. I’m glad you brought up performances, one of my favourite things about Shyamalan is his ability to dance around an actors limitations and focus on their unique traits. Sure, Zooey Deschanel’s gigantic eyes lend themselves easily to terror but it’s the comedic uncertainty of her darting eyes that really works. Jaden Smith certainly has no dramatic chops but he moves with a grace and fluidity that means more than any botched accent.

I also can’t think of many other directors who have the ability to shoot something like nature with two drastically different philosophies. The Happening focuses on the fear of the unknown, using wind and movement to bring a sense of menace to simple scenery. After Earth on the other hand becomes a spiritual journey where nothing is more important than the touch of a fallen tree, the navigation of its paths and the connection we have with life all around us.

HASTINGS: He’s one of the greatest American filmmakers of the last ten years. He just happens to be working in a style and idiom that goes against the grain of contemporary Hollywood conventions of technique and tone. Like Val Lewton or Jacques Tourneur, Shyamalan makes movies where what’s important is what’s left out. What’s important is what game designer Ron Edwards calls the fruitful void: where everything that’s explicit in a game—or a movie—works to slowly but surely draw our attention to a central, implicit theme.

Shyamalan builds his movies around self-imposed constraints: Unbreakable is a super-hero movie without any action or adventure; Signs is an alien movie that spends most of its running time refusing to show any aliens; The Lady in the Water is a fantasy movie that never leaves the setting of a kind-of-run-down housing complex. Whereas most contemporary movies – especially fantasy/action/adventure movies – are about showing us novel things, Shyamalan’s movies stress the importance of what’s left unseen. Having said that, he’s also a true master of mise-en-scène and the long take: when he’s at his best, a single shot in a Shyamalan movie will go through more tonal shifts than you’re likely to see in the entirety of a conventional Hollywood movie. And, though he’s definitely an “idea guy”, he’s also a real filmmaker: the ideas are all worked out through images (i.e., The Happening works out its major themes through the staging of contrasting group shots and shots of individuals).

Shyamalan also gets attacked because he’s sincere. His movies aren’t cloaked in irony: they’re open about their ambitions (a dirty word/concept in Hollywood) and they aren’t afraid to go for strange, off-beat tones.

SMALL: Well, though the expression used to be somewhat ambiguous, I think “old-fashioned” has become a very specific descriptor for a very specific kind of film in the contemporary critical climate. It’s on the tip of every critic’s tongue in the case of Shyamalan, and I’m not sure it’s simply his sincerity that brings it out of people. “Old-fashioned”, now, is really synonymous with sincere and consistent depictions of romance in cinema. Case in point, can you think of a contemporary filmmaker with a body of work as romantic as Johnnie To’s? He’s so often described as old-fashioned, and maybe that’s because almost everybody I know emerges from his films working either “Hawks”, “Sirk”, or “Minnelli” into their vocabulary.

Though I’ve not seen a Shyamalan film that could be described as a romance in conventional terms, I do think that they’re all very romantic, if not for the literal relationships in the stories, then for the classical notion of, say, the construction of suspense through mise-en-scène, or of off-beat humour, or indeed of aesthetic risk-taking (within the framework of a suspense narrative, usually—as with much Hitchcock and some Lang). Romance can be in the director’s obsession with an image of the past. Where many of To’s films centre on a meet-cute or reconciliation of some kind, and expand outward from there, Shyamalan’s films combine narrative mechanics with a variety of human emotions and relationships, sometimes romantic, sometimes filial and tender. The father and son’s relationship in After Earth develops subtly, when you consider that it is so clearly a device to drive the narrative—it’s one of the first times that I’ve fully embraced the wooden quality of Shyamalan’s models; the elder Smith’s attempts to reach out to his son are stifled by regimentation as he struggles to express pride.

In the article John alluded to, Ignatiy once described Shyamalan as “believing in his heart in his deeply personal faith.” I think that is pretty apt in the case of every film he’s made since Signs: they are all a commitment to fading ideals of classical composition, editing, camera movement, acting, directing, etc. … “I think only a person with some sort of faith could’ve made The Happening, but anyone could’ve made Signs.”

LEHTONEN: Agreed, although I feel Signs is very much in that mold. It takes a narrative about faith and renders it not as subtext, but as text. The faith narrative is plain. What is really occurring is a film about uncertainty, about simple, agrarian men afflicted by unknown horrors. It is telling that the extraterrestrials of the film appear almost solely on human media, a fitting metaphor for the television horrors of 21st century America. Jonathan points out the most crucial aspect of Shyamalan: the unseen, the unknown. The Happening is defined, put into motion, by shots of trees and tall grass swaying in the wind. This is extremely simple, evocative cinema, almost hearkening back to the silent era.

WHEELER: A focus on what’s left out makes Shyamalan’s suspense different, but in the end, he’s foremost a storyteller, and like Stewart Brand said and as the inhabitants of The Village discover, if the story gets in the way of doing what’s right, there’s something wrong with the story. Like all great directors, Shyamalan’s films echo one another in a way that adds richness in retrospect. After Earth might take place 1,000 years after The Happening; that tall grass swaying in the wind is now ferns in a forest of greens, browns, and ornamental deadwood. The world without us teems with life; all seasons seem to occur everywhere, in the span of a single day.

Will Smith’s emotion-denying hero-villain, Cypher Raige, dominates After Earth even in absentia; Kitai (Jaden Smith) becomes self-actualized not by denying the emotions his father refuses but by disobeying his father, invalidating Cypher’s authoritarian Space Opera Scientology baloney with one giant leap off the falls, one moment of true emotion. “He’s a feeling boy,” Katai’s mother says of him, and like Aang in The Last Airbender, he reaches his full potential by letting his feelings flow like water; only by letting them out can he control them.

Kitai—whose journey to the ship’s tail functions as a rite of passage, as a step towards manhood, out of the past and into the here and now (“root yourself in this present moment”)—is not the first Shyamalan protagonist to undertake such a journey. Wide Awake is about a young boy in search of God who instead finds salvation in the natural world. “I spent this year looking for something, and wound up seeing everything around me,” he says. Like many Shyamalan characters, his interior life is informed by spirits; Cole in The Sixth Sense is of course haunted by them; Lady in the Water’s Cleveland Heep lives amongst them.

How to reconcile the human community with the natural world? ‘Us’ with ‘them’? How to integrate ones interior life with physical reality? To have faith in oneself when depression distorts one’s psyche? How to be present when so much of life is in the past? M. Night Shyamalan poses questions movies ought to try to answer.