Friday, September 17, 2004

Night in tarnished armour

Watched Manoj Night Shyamalan’s The Village last night. Now ordinarily I do my best to look for something good in a film, however deeply buried it might be under layers of terribleness. Further, I’ve always had a lot of time for Shyamalan -- even when I find his movies less than satisfying. I think 1) he has some very interesting things going on in his head -- I’m talking ideas, themes, concepts -- and 2) he has a sense of the effective moment; he knows a thing or two about how camera movements can be used to unnerve viewers. At his best, he’s a master of audience manipulation in a way few directors have been since ol’ Hitch.

At his worst, he makes something as self-consciously, ludicrously confused as The Village. As I write this, around 20 hours after I shuffled weeping out of the hall, I can think of not a single good thing to say about this film, which is not often my reaction to a movie; maybe time will temper my feelings a bit. [Well, not a single good thing if you don’t count the movie’s eerily effective opening shot -- with the camera tracking forward slowly from behind the backs of a group of people, to reveal a grieving father hunched over the coffin of his recently deceased son. It’s a strange, beautiful little moment -- it lasts all of 20 seconds -- and it shows what Shyamalan can do when he isn’t preoccupied with his self-important ‘messages’.]

There’s no way I’m going to bother about spoiler warnings on this blog , so here goes: the obligatory Shyamalan twist in this film is that it’s NOT set in the 19th century. The village is just a facade -- a retreat that was established by a group of unhappy urbanites a few decades earlier, when they tired of the horrors of modern life and decided to return to a more innocent time; to live in an idyllic world of their own making. The original migrants are now the Village Elders; they are played by actors of the stature of William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver; and they go to ridiculous lengths to keep the inquisitive youngsters from the outside world. A myth is established: the woods bordering the village are inhabited by fearsome creatures with whom the villagers have established an uneasy truce. You don’t come into our territory, we won’t go into yours. (The creatures are ponderously referred to as They Who We Do Not Speak Of, never mind that they are all the villagers ever speak of.) Naturally, at the point that we come in, the younger generation’s curiosity is getting the better of their fear, and thus the plot moves forth.

I’ve always found it hard to write about Shyamalan, so conflicted are my responses to his movies, so undecided am I between laughing at his weaknesses and marvelling at his strengths. But now, having finally seen a film of his that I have a definite opinion about (that it’s plain terrible), I think I might be able to articulate what his central problem is: He takes himself far, far too seriously. He has interesting ideas, to be sure, but he’s just too conscious of them and invariably rubs them in his audience’s face in the manner of a stern schoolteacher. Worst of all, he does this at the expense of his natural filmmaking gifts. If he has to choose between getting across a serious message and displaying cinematic sense, you can be sure the former will always win. Take, as just one example, a frisson-creating scene towards the end, where the viewer first realises that the world outside the village is very 21st century (assuming he hasn’t already guessed). The scene has two of the Elders taking an old photo out from a trunk and looking sorrowfully at it. The photo shows the various members of the elder community as they were before they decided to hide themselves away from the world -- they are dressed in modern clothing, and as the camera pans from one face in the photo to the next, we get voiceovers of each of them explaining (in classic Alcoholics Anonymous style) what was so unbearable about the modern world and why he/she had to get away. (At this point, I leant across to a friend and intoned: “I was made to watch a Manoj Night Shyamalan film and so I had to return to the 19th century, before cinema was invented.”)

The problem is, in this scene, Shyamalan is so intent on capsuling the individual stories that he neglects cinematic rhythm altogether. The scene goes on interminably, defying all pacing logic, as the camera cuts repeatedly from the photo to the people who are looking at it -- with the ultra-serious expressions on their face that are so typical of his protagonists throughout his movies. [Related quibble: Why, why, why, WHY does no one in a Shyamalan movie know how to s-m-i-l-e????? Even Ingmar Bergman allows that!!]

And oh, I can’t possibly end this blog without making some reference to the allegory that, in many critics’ views, lifts The Village to the status of great cinema: it’s a metaphor, you see, for American insularity towards the rest of the world. I’m certain the positive reception this film has got in some quarters in the US comes from a natural tendency in that country to self-flagellate. “Here’s a movie made by someone originally from the Third World, showing us what is wrong with our attitude to the rest of humanity.”

More Cinema please, Mr Night, and less Message. If you really have something important to say, it will shine through somehow; you don’t have to beat us over the head with it. Concentrate on making a watchable film first. Most importantly, RELAX, as Frankie said.

(I see myself posting more Shyamalan blogs. The man is fascinating to write about, even if you’re lambasting him. And I still believe the sorely underrated Unbreakable is among the most interesting movies of the last three to four years.)

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