Monday, January 16, 2012

M. Night Shyamalan's exploration of closure

Artists explore themes. Whether song writers, book writers, painters, sculptors, people dig down into the depths of their being to find whatever is inside, and they put it out into the open as it were to share the process of self-discovery with their audience.

Picasso had a "blue period", and a "black period." Pat Metheny Group did a lot of latin jazz while Pat Metheny Trio did bop...

When it comes to actors:
  • Tom Cruise has revisited the "father issue" theme (both Top Gun and A Few Good Men have the main protagonist ending up in the same career as his dead father, and chasing his legacy hoping to prove himself worthy); 
  • Sharon Stone has revisited the "parents' death avenging" theme, avenging the murder of her father/parents which she witnessed as a little girl, with the help of a mysterious stranger whose shadowy past is linked to the person responsible for her father/parents' murder in The Quick and the Dead (Russell Crowe vs. Gene Hackman) as well as The Specialist (Sylvester Stone vs Eric Roberts/RodSteiger)...
  • Will Smith wants to be a hero/save the world (Independence Day; I, Robot; Men in Black; I Am Legend, Hancock...)
It's taken me a while to find some context for M. Night Shyamalan movies, but it hit me while The Sixth Sense played in the background on TV tonight. Shyamalan has revisited the theme of closure through many of his movies, and the supernatural is the device through which his protagonists are able to find closure. Or, in other words, closure requires supernatural interjection. 

In a 2008 interview for The Independent, Shyamalan himself asserted that "all my movies are spiritual and have an emotional perspective."

Now that I understand this, I would like to cut the guy some slack. Exploring emotional closure is a noble pursuit. However, he'd have to stop letting the promotions for his movies focus on the sci-fi/spooky angles, because they create an expectation of the angles as the end, rather than just a means to a (higher?) end.

When I first heard of Stephen King's The Stand, I was interested in reading a depiction of the end of the world and what that might be like. I was slightly disappointed when, in reading the story, it went from a sci-fi story about viral annihilation of the human race towards a spiritual story about the final battle between good and evil. Not that I'm not interested in stories about "Armageddon", but because I felt hoodwinked - it wasn't advertised as a story about Armageddon, it was advertised as a story about a virus that escapes a military facility and wipes out humanity. Of course, on reading through to the end, it was a story of breathtaking scope as King tends to write.

So, it's not an uncommon approach. And, employing this approach still requires that it's done right, which is to say, in a way that conveys the message above and beyond the medium. Of course, doing it right is not measured by whether people enjoy it or not, but whether his message(s) is/are getting across.

One thing I think he has not been able to do, in his movies, is take the story across the plane from within the sci-fi metaphor being employed to the emergence of the real message; at the point when the message is finally emerging through, the world created to support the metaphor loses its structure, and the viewer is left distracted by the breakdown of internal logic to give attention to the emerging point. 

As an example, in Signs, we're faced with beholding aliens that were intelligent enough to get to earth from wherever they came from...yet not smart enough to avoid a planet that is 75% water when they have a fundamental problem with water (of course, if he's wrong for asking us to believe that, he's not the first to commit this absurdity - the aliens in War of the Worlds evidently didn't consider that common earthly bacteria could pose a fatal problem for them).

In his first breakthrough movie The Sixth Sense, the dead people that the little fellow saw all showed bodily damage related to their cause of death, all except...the one character we see most often. For those who watched his interview on the DVD special features, his smarmy bemusement that people should have "gotten it" due to screenplay clues and cues turned me off as it made him look like a smug, cocky idiot, in part because, while he was stitching clues into the movie, he missed the more obvious challenges to the logic of his story that offset whatever clues he thought should have made the truth obvious.

So, he hasn't made it easy for people to want to grant him the benefit of the doubt. The disappointment come ridicule he has endured in his later movies is, ironically, a compliment - the bitterness for so many movies that just could not live up to the impact of The Sixth Sense is a testament to just how influencial The Sixth Sense was.

However, I've already said that his latest film, Devil, was good. And now, seeing in it yet another installment of his exploration of closure, it's even better. After so many attempts, Shyamalan has gotten it right and, perhaps, if he himself has found closure in his pursuit of telling stories of closure, he might now be able to move on to some new themes.


  1. Hmmm I suppose I should too give him some slack...but that the same time he did ruin the Live version of one of my favorite series The Last, I can't fully forgive least not yet...

  2. My guess here is, in taking over someone else's idea, he wasn't able to bend it (sorry about that) quite far enough into his "closure theme." Maybe that's a lame excuse, but I tried :-)


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