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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Manoj Night Shyamalan

I have wanted to write about him for a seriously long time, in fact ever since I saw The Village. Now that his next film is on its way, I thought it would be a very good time to do just that. And this is because I feel that Shyamalan is one of the best contemporary American filmmaking minds around.

While talking about Shyamalan and his films, it is all too easy to make the Hitchcock comparison; but simply because the comparison is so obvious, I am not going to disregard it.

Hitchcock's rather stylish artificiality was seen to perfectly fit the notion of the American pot-boiler, and that was until a bunch of French New-Wavers decided to study his storytelling, and extol his skills as a master of the medium. Take the kind of stories he told, it takes a lot of intelligence and virtuosity to pull all them contrivances off anyway. So, while Hitchcock's 'genre' is easy to pastiche, his individual work is very difficult to understand and emulate. Now, Shyamalan for most parts works with the same genre: Thriller/Horror/Mystery, and also in a lot of cases deals with plots with extreme contrivances. But the comparison to Mr. H does not end there, it merely begins.

Any film genre has a set of conventions, that are usually exploited to extreme levels of predictability. Likewise, every filmmaker is attributed a set of typical stylistic devices, character traits, narrative knots, etc, that recur in their films, that are also done to death. This means that for any one filmmaker to work on the same genre over and over again, and yet make successful films, requires a certain level of genius—starting with a very good understanding of the medium.

Hitchcock had a definite notion of what makes for suspense and surprise, tension and release, and information supply. That made him fairly prolific as a filmmaker, but his best films involved the use of these techniques to not only to tell an interesting story, but also to come up with wonderful character essays with strong psychological conflicts. His greatest successes are when while remaining well within the genre, he flirts outside of it. Vertigo is acknowledged as probably his best work. Obviously enough, it was not really well received when first released, as people were probably expecting something a little more predictably Hitchcockian. Yet, it is a quintessentially Hitchcock film, as much as Notorious and Rear Window were. His later films like Psycho, The Birds and Marnie explored the genre a little more, and with varying levels of success. While the first two achieved cult status, the last, was a commercial failure.

Shyamalan has pretty much the same kind of understanding of the medium and the genre. And he even attempts to consciously go beyond both their limits; and go beyond Hitchcock.

Genre, and what is perceived as a director's predilection and strength, usually precedes him.The Sixth Sense, to most of us defines Shyamalan's oeuvre, and unfortunately so. It is a superb film in its own right. But every film of Shyamalan's we watch, and we want that same twist in the end. We actively seek that, and in the case of a film like The Village, find ourselves very disappointed.

Here I'd like to get a little flippant and make direct comparisons between the two directors' films. Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense resembles Psycho and was even publicised as that, getting as much of a cult status. A huge mistake made about the film was attributing its success to the 'unexpected twist' in the end. But the genius of the film is that it is as exciting on repeat viewing, when you already know the whole story, including the 'twist'. This is where Hitchcock comes in. He was one to believe that surprise was never as effective as suspense, where the audience is actually already supplied with all the information necessary. So the ability to maintain tension lies in both knowing how to use pictures and sounds, but also in understanding the peculiarities of the human mind that make that kind of storytelling possible. A keen filmmaker understands that.

Unbreakable was one film that I was not very impressed with on first viewing, but unfortunately, never got to see it again to come to any measured understanding. Signs and The Birds have thematic similarities, and stylistically match as well. But my favourite Shyamalan film to date is The Village, which, much like its Hitchcockian dead-ringer Vertigo is less about thrills, and is more a moody love story.

So for all those who did not like The Village on first viewing, now that you know the 'story' and the 'mystery' for whatever it is worth, watch the film again, and look at it as a character essay. Watch the film for the wonderful use of the medium. The best way to understand Shyamalan's grasp of which, is to watch and listen to the scene where the creatures stalk the village and people are locking up and hiding underground. It would be good to discuss it shot by shot. But unfortunately I do not have a DVD on me to be able to do that right now. But if you do have it, please watch the film again and forget that Shyamalan ever made The Sixth Sense or Signs. I know that is making an unnatural demand, but look at it this way: years down the line, when The Village is as ancient a film as any of its predecessors, what a difference that would make.

Now, I've always held that a film's success is in how much money it makes and how many people watch it. So in the past, it was easy to attribute the commercial failure during the theatrical-release of a good film to bad publicity, and to marketing to a wrong audience. But, that was in the days when most money was thought to be made in the original theatrical release. That is certainly not the reality though, and this is where Shyamalan most resembles Hitchcock the businessman. Hitchcock was prolific, and went and even did a bit of television in just the right time. He knew his films and therefore tried his best to market them as suitably as possible. He knew that his films were classics, and as and when they stand the test of time, would be veritable cash-cows to be milked for years to come. Since his passing, his already wealthy estate continues to make a lot of money from re-releases and DVD's of masterpieces like Vertigo.

Shyamalan is no less a marketing man. His pre-release publicity is immaculate. And, even if his films do not fare well in the cinemas, he knows they need a little more time to be better understood, and therefore spends a lot of time and care on the video release. I had already argued that The Village is his best work so far, and the DVD is making the money to prove that.

The Lady in the Water is being touted as a children's fairytale. What image does that create in you? Bright colours and merry music, with only mild perils? That is what adults understand children's tastes to comprise of. But what did we really like when we were children? Cartoons were fairly violent, and the Grimm Brothers seriously gave me the kicks. Everybody knows how Tolkien started writing The Lord of The Rings! Well, whatever is to be expected from Shyamalan's newest tale, I would like to know if he is going to push the limits of the genre and the medium. If he does, I would certainly like to see it, as I think, of all the American directors today, he's the one most capable of doing such a thing.


10:40 pm

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Comments to Manoj Night Shyamalan

A fantastic piece of analysis, mate!

I have also wondered the same about David Fincher and his understanding of business.

posted by Blogger Nilu 

1:36 pm, July 22, 2006
 

great analysis. you have a talent for writing about film. i agree completely about 'the village', of all his movies thats the one which really got stuck in my mind. everbody that i have met pans it saying 'huh...was that the twist....?' - but, it was never really about the twist.

i saw the 'lady in the water', and unfortunately i think this time he has *actually* delivered a turkey. it was truly dreadful. watch it, and give us a review!

posted by Anonymous ashok 

3:53 pm, August 14, 2006
 

mindblowing analysis! i thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Yet to watch Lady in Water. Did you get to read the story done on him in Time in July 2006?

Miss talking to you and hearing you talk about movies ...and just about everything. mail when time permits. subashinimahesh@gmail.com.

cheers mate!

posted by Blogger Subashini 

9:28 pm, October 05, 2006
 

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