Monday, May 25, 2015

I Want to See Dead People

"M. Night Shyamalan."

I'm ashamed that my first reaction to those words are to wince. I hear this guy's name, and these are my first thoughts:
  • "The Village" based itself around a surprise that surprised no one.
  • "The Lady in the Water" was one of fewer than two dozen movies I stopped before it was over.
  • "After Earth"... well, c'mon. I mean, just "After. Earth."
I wonder if M. Night will leave a film legacy the sports equivalent of Tom Brady or Pete Rose, where we'll one day get past the distractions of their failures -- not forget them, necessarily -- and smile at their achievements.

We can, as a cultural collective, see past Roman Polanski and Woody Allen as deeply flawed -- nay, arguably criminal -- characters to the creative genius that paints masterpieces on the movie screen. But can we see past a guy whose worst movies are as bad as his best movies are great?

I hope so. We've done it for Michael Caine, so why not M. Night?

Wrestling with a virus over the weekend and caged in my bedroom, "The Sixth Sense" called out to me on Netflix. Every year or so, I ask myself if M. Night's masterful trilogy of "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," and "Signs" holds up a decade later, or if they get flimsier over time. His stinkers ain't improving, but are these three regressing to the mean?

[NOTE: Many critics and fans didn't like Shaymalan's movies from the get-go, but all three were box office hits and earned 70% or higher "approval ratings" on Rotten Tomatoes.]

It seems like even those who think fondly of Saymalan's three movies think mostly of his gift with the Gotcha factor, his ability in those three movies to keep a plot-essential secret from the average viewer more often than not. Unfortunately, that overshadows other strengths.

The families at the center of these films are broken. By divorce, by separation, by death. Shaymalan's films look unflinchingly at a cruel world that, worse than indifference, often pushes against us. There's a dark, Stephen King-esque attempt to show the troubles of this world through the supernatural. And struggling against these forces is a family unit that is always breaking or broken. It's sort of an us-against-the-world, against-the-odds sort of thing going on, but the ghosts and arch-enemies and aliens are the fun wrinkle in the timeless tale.

What I most love about Shaymalan's trilogy is that, while Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson are the stars and, technically speaking, the protagonists, the children in the movies are the heart. They are the reasons the movies were written, the reasons the movies are so moving.

Struggles with belief are central to all the films, but it's not the belief in ghosts, or in superpowers, or in aliens. It's the struggle to believe in parents. If you wish to connect that to the supernatural, you could add it's about a heavenly father (or some variant), but even that distracts from the flesh and blood, parent and child internal war to remain connected, to believe in one another, to cling to that relationship above all other things.

When Cole confesses to his mother that he's been in communication with his grandmother's ghost, as they all wrestle to accept that there are complexities to love they will never fully grasp.

When Joseph points the loaded pistol at his father, desperate to believe his father is more than he seems, as the mother stands horrified and beyond awareness of the dramatic irony that her husband might well survive the shot.

When Rev. Hess, disconnected from his heavenly father, attempts to enjoy a "last supper" with his trapped family who are likewise disconnected from him, who need nothing from him so much as to know he believes enough in them to protect them, to help them survive.

Or when his son lies gasping for air in his arms, asthma stealing his lungs , as his father is powerless but for the soothe in his voice and the stroking of his son's hair.

These scenes, and these themes, are commonly mined, but rarely with the kind of genuine and deep optimism Shaymalan manages, a hope that requires trial, tribulation, doubt, and ugliness. His is an optimism that reminds us that the darkness shall not overcome it.

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