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At the MoviesAndrew O’Hagan

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Vol. 30 No. 14 · 17 July 2008
At the Movies

M. Night Shyamalan

Andrew O’Hagan

The Happening 
directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
June 2008
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There’s a certain sort of person who will take a flashlight and go into a field of corn in the dark, but they only exist in the movies. I always think of those characters when I think of movie people in general: even in what is called real life, where people tend to have opinions and heart conditions and mortgages, film directors are largely unreal people who behave in unnatural ways. Especially in the first years after a big success, film directors of a certain sort are given to acting like geniuses, partly because a lot of desperate people have called them geniuses, but the conditions of success can serve to push them further and further away from their talent.

If a bright young director survives this malarkey and makes a second great hit, in Hollywood he is no longer a genius but a prophet. His relationship with reality is then likely to be beyond talking about, and unlike the successful novelist, say, or the smart young painter, a director (owing to his relationship with millions of dollars and a prideful notion of the masses) will often disappear in a miasma of tasteless lunacy. There have been many such messianic disasters in the history of cinema and they each have two big movies to their name, followed either by silence, rehab, cameo appearances, adverts, jail or, if they’re lucky, B-movies. William Friedkin made The French Connection and The Exorcist and was nominated for several Oscars before climbing to the top of his personal godhead and leaping off. Last year he directed Episode 9 in the eighth season of the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

M. Night Shyamalan was born in Pondicherry in India. As a film director in the Hollywood system, he has come to prove that success in the movies is never any guarantee of success. He was born in 1970 (just as Peter Bogdanovich was shooting The Last Picture Show) and he is already, in 2008, gathering force as a cautionary tale. Putting careers and heartaches to one side, it is true that the anatomy of failure may be more culturally informative than the naming of triumphs. It must be rather shocking for Shyamalan, but his latest movie, The Happening, is one of the most interesting movies of the year, despite being one of the worst. It offers a study in what happens to the mind of a talented moviemaker when he is caught between commercial hysteria and his own engulfing ego. When books go nutty it’s all just prose – or the history of prose – but when it happens to films people start losing their jobs and their houses. That is why so many film directors behave unnaturally and why good films are very hard to make nowadays.

M. Night Shyamalan first sprang to attention in 1999 with a knotty and creepy supernatural thriller called The Sixth Sense, which was nominated for six Oscars and made more than $600 million. The little boy in the film, Cole Sear (played with audience-beguiling depth by Haley Joel Osment), sees dead people who don’t know they’re dead, and when the film came out it was not merely a success on every front, but, like every success of that sort, caused people to see it as establishing a new genre, the emotional supernatural thriller. It wasn’t just that weird stuff happened, but that weird stuff happened in a way that was weirdly connected to other stuff in your life that you weren’t quite facing up to.

Within three years (and with another perfectly effective weepie cum ghosty in between) Shyamalan had directed Signs (2002), starring Mel Gibson, which made $408 million worldwide. Signs typified a certain aspect of Shyamalan’s movies: you could say it was a thriller about extra-terrestrials, but it makes a strong argument for itself as a movie about belief. Gibson’s character, a former clergyman whose faith in God has been tested by his wife’s death, wakes up one morning to see crop circles out in the corn. Next minute there are lights in the sky and slowly he is called on to revise his disbelief. Each of Shyamalan’s famous films has, at its centre, a highly polished and always slightly bogus metaphysical gloss. Yet the plots are ingenious enough to fasten you down. After Signs, Shyamalan was given prophet status, all the more so because he sold himself, inside the movies and out, as a magical truth-teller, a big budget shaman who held the keys to several kingdoms. He then got a critical leathering for The Village (2004), a film which appeared to have extended all his certainties into paranoias. When this happens it is usual for a gifted director’s neediness to overcome his reason. Directors, if they are allowed to, can spend forty years making pictures answering their worst critics.

Movie producers are often but not always wrong. During Hollywood’s great period the good ones (Irving Thalberg, David Selznick, Darryl Zanuck) knew how to protect and indulge creative talent, but they also knew when to cut it off at the pass. One thing is well known to the modern producer: when a writer/director gets into his messianic period, a period born of popular formulae that contain a little philosophy, then at the first opportunity he will begin to surrender the formulae and raise the philosophical. In a sense, success gives him the licence to misread his own gifts, and so we end up with a crazy film like Lady in the Water (2006).

When Shyamalan took the script of Lady in the Water to his producers at Disney, they threw up their hands in bafflement. This maker of moving, intelligent thrillers now wanted to go mythological – it wasn’t enough to engage with human beings and their supernatural struggles. He wanted to create a fantasy film about a certain Cleveland Heep, superintendent of a block of flats, The Cove, who one night discovers a nymph in the complex’s swimming-pool. Set in the present day, the nymph or Narf (who is called Story) is from the Blue World, and has come to earth to awaken a human being who has the potential to change life on earth. It turns out that this particular human being, in the film, is a budding artist played by M. Night Shyamalan. Narfs, it turns out, are pursued by Scrunts, red-eyed wolf-like creatures with grass instead of hair, who are afraid of only one thing, three monkey-like creatures called Tartutic who hide in the trees near the pool. Story, the nymph or Narf, wants to find the genius and bless him before she is taken back to her own world by a giant eagle called the Great Eatlon. But before that can happen, a film critic who lives in the apartment block has to make a cynical speech about the movies and then be eaten alive by a grassy Scrunt. When the film came out, one critic, slightly more measured than the others, wrote that Shyamalan’s movie was ‘like someone pouring petrol over their heads and setting fire to themselves’. The Disney producers who hated the script had nevertheless been willing to let him make it, but Shyamalan, feeling stung, took the project to Warner Brothers. The whole cringe-making story is told in The Man Who Heard Voices by Michael Bamberger (Gotham, 2006). He describes a painful supper at which Shyamalan joins a group of Disney executives:

‘What are you saying, Nina? What are you saying the script needs? Three weeks? Three months?’

Nina said nothing. Her face said: Not three weeks, not three months, not ever.

‘You’re saying I’ve lost my mind.’

‘No, we’re not.’

‘Yes, yes, you are . . . Two of the four I made for Disney are among the largest-grossing movies of all time. But now – now I’ve written Lady in the Water, and I’ve lost my mind. Suddenly, I can’t write anymore. I’ve lost my touch, gone crazy.’

Shyamalan’s new movie, The Happening, opens on what seems like a placid day in New York. It is 8.33 a.m. and two girls sit on a bench in Central Park. Suddenly, one of the girls hears a scream in the distance and the other one goes into a sort of trance. The surrounding people in the busy park appear to freeze. We cut to a building site a few blocks away; it is 8.59, and bodies of workmen begin falling from the tall building to the ground. Then we move to a Philadelphia high school – all Shyamalan’s movies are set in or around Pennsylvania – where we find Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg), a science teacher wearing a blue tank-top (so he must be trustworthy), telling his pupils they must try to be in a state of respectful awe before the powers of science. Soon, the teachers are called out and told of an ‘airborne chemical toxin’ (more than a little reminiscent of Don DeLillo’s ‘airborne toxic event’ in White Noise) and the kids are taken away in their yellow buses.

America is under attack and the ‘toxic event’ is making people kill themselves. They shoot themselves or drive their cars into trees or throw themselves off buildings. ‘What kind of terrorists are these?’ asks a woman in a diner in Filbert, Pennsylvania, where a troop of would-be survivors – including the teacher and his wife – hole up. Soon they are on the run again, but must run faster than the wind, which is carrying the toxin from plants and trees who are angry at human beings. ‘Plants have the ability to communicate with other species of plants,’ says a botanist nutter who looks, as some people do in these kinds of movie, like he is sure to be dead before the end of his next sentence. He is.

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