The Strange and Mysterious Case of M. Night Shyamalan

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Can we admit that there is far more to the films of M. Night Shyamalan than surprise endings? We can still argue about whether or not his films are actually good—and believe me, I intend to.

For a long time, it’s seemed like there were two M. Night Shyamalans. The most famous is the director who burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense (1999), followed it up with the less startling Unbreakable (2000), and then declined into arithmetically lower and lower TomatoMeter scores, losing his credibility by 2008’s The Happening if not 2006’s Lady in the Water before bottoming out circa 2010. This is the M. Night Shyamalan known for plot twists above all else, and teased endlessly on the internet for everything that’s awkward or nonsensical about his films. (The Happening is still the only movie where I’ve ever walked out into the lobby and asked for my money back, and the theater manager told me—I swear this is true—that I should have known it would suck because it was M. Night Shyamalan).

So it may surprise a lot of my coworkers, friends, and casual bystanders to hear that there’s a certain subset of cinephile culture—the kind that wishes the TomatoMeter would die a slow, agonizing death—that never stopped taking Shyamalan seriously. The Cahiers du Cinema voted The Village one of ten best films of 2004. Ditto for Lady in the Water in 2006, where Shyamalan’s film placed slightly ahead of films by Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a star critic for the A.V. Club, is an on-the-record fan, as is the Palme d’Or-winning Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whom many cinephiles (including myself) consider one of the most important filmmakers of the 21st century.

His defenders have a point that he deserves a much more careful consideration. Gigantic, rug-out-from-under-you twists play a relatively small part in his filmography considering his reputation as “the twist guy”. It would be more accurate, or at least more inclusive, to focus on his other trademarks. His heroes are scarred by trauma, regret, doubt, and loss. Spiritual dilemmas often come into play: in his films, characters use the word “god” with a capital G and no irony. He incorporates natural elements (particularly water) with a sense of reverence at how overwhelming they can be. He uses color in a way that makes certain objects pop with teasing significance. He often focuses on vulnerable children—not just the old saw of putting some helpless kid in mortal peril (to get the audience to, ya know, feel something), but creating child characters who live with a physical or psychological wound that makes them ache painfully with their own sense of smallness. High-concept though he may be, he doesn’t set out to make a movie without a firm sense of character.

All of which marks him as a director who aspires to soulful multiplex cinema. As much as it became a cultural archetype for surprise endings, don’t forget that The Sixth Sense doesn’t end on its big reveal (the way that The Usual Suspects [1996] does) but continues on to a quiet, character-driven monolog in which Bruce Willis bares his emotions and bids farewell. There’s a shot in Unbreakable where Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are framed on all sides by both comic book pop art and religious icons. And that, more or less, is the balance Shyamalan tries to strike: a tonal equilibrium between outlandish pulp and making sure that even his superheroes follow the introspective contemplation of a pilgrim’s path.

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So he is, in film-crit terms, undeniably an “auteur”. And perhaps no principle of auteur theory has caused more headaches than Francois Truffaut’s infamous claim that “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors.” Shyamalan strikes me as an exception: a talented director who’s spent years at a time making misfires back to back to back. And I have to admit that I’ve thrown up my hands, at a loss for spotting a method to the madness, or for reconciling Shyamalan at his best with Shyamalan at his worst.

For instance, Unbreakable looks better and better these days, especially now that “Superheroes are People Too” has become not only a common subgenre, but a subgenre that rarely does better than the superhero Shyamalan invented fifteen years ago. But how could the man who directed the opening scenes of Unbreakable with such atmosphere and subtlety fail to notice that, say, Adrien Brody’s hammy caricature of an autistic man in The Village kills the tension of so many scenes? How could he stage that scene in The Happening where Mark Wahlberg yells “Nooo!” and dives forward while a kid gets shotgunned in the chest in a display rank cinematic cliche? (To get the audience to, ya know, feel something). I thought that Lady in the Water, in which Shyamalan literally cast himself as a Christ-like savior of mankind and imagined a straw-man film critic getting ripped to shreds, was as misbegotten and mind-boggling as its detractors maintain. The only remotely viable defense I’ve heard for The Happening is that the people who laugh at it assume that it was meant to be more serious than it is—a claim of B-movie goofiness that makes sense given how Mark Wahlberg seems to be giving a comedy performance, but a claim I can’t buy given how so much of the movie’s aspirations for aghast R-rated horror and topical preachiness are filmed without guile.

It would be too simplistic to say that Shyamalan has to pick one or the other, to argue that he does better with seriousness than humor or vice-versa. Lady in the Water is a film that takes itself far too seriously, but serious scenes make up its best moments, while its stabs at comedy are cringe-inducing. Meanwhile, comic relief works nicely in Signs (2002), and self-aware monster movie humor is still The Happening‘s last possible path out of the wilderness of moviegoer scorn. Perhaps the only explanation to the enigma of M. Night Shyamalan, who went from an unknown to the Next Big Thing to a pariah within the span of ten years, is that you can’t accuse him of not having good ideas, only of not filtering out the bad ones.

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Then, in 2015, something happened. With the low-budget found-footage thriller The Visit, the TomatoMeter lit up Fresh again, and suddenly Shyamalan, now working on a modest scale, was no longer just for apologists. Part of this surely has to do with collaboration: while still holding the reins, Shyamalan had partnered with producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity), who like Val Lewton or John Carpenter before him grasped that the necessary elements of a successful horror film are cheap so long as they’re in the hands of someone with the imagination to use them. I attended The Visit with curiosity. No grand claims can be made for it, but its twist caught me genuinely off-guard, and as the film reached its climax, I thought that Shyamalan had pulled off a trick that would make Val Lewton proud: he’d made a film that, without ever shedding the appeal of cheapo B-horror, had managed to infuse its genre with creativity, humor, and a surprisingly graceful emotional catharsis. And then, after accomplishing all that, The Visit suddenly tacked on a coda of a twelve-year-old white kid rapping about poop that’s so bad and so utterly wrong for the tone of what came before it that I’m amazed no one involved pulled the plug. Again, I threw up my hands. The method is a mystery.

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But a degree of hype was in the air for his follow-up Split (2017). The curiosity, for me, was even greater than with The Visit, especially since the studio was giving Split such a confident advertising push. The trailer focused on a) the brand of a director who’d just spent a decade as a punchline, and b) the played-out and inevitably ridiculous cliche of a horror movie villain with split personality disorder—so if you’d checked out after The Happening, the concept sounded like a joke. And yet here it was, and for audiences, it worked: when it opened in January, Split spent three weeks as the top box office hit in the US, ultimately pulling in blockbuster bank on a production budget of less than $10 million.

The film’s starting point is simple enough. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, three teenaged girls are kidnapped by a stranger (James McAvoy) and held captive underground. McAvoy suffers from an extremely cinematic version of dissociative identity disorder—even by Psycho‘s standards—which compels him to affect wildly different accents and costume changes, sometimes in drag and always sinister. The girls play a cat-and-mouse game with their captor, attempting different strategies for each personality, while supernatural elements start to come into play. Most of the praise has gone to McAvoy, who shows remarkable dexterity and commitment with a character—or rather, a set of characters—who at different times has to be intimidating, pitiable, or a looney tune for carefree horror audiences looking to get their rocks off. But special mention is also deserved for Anya Taylor-Joy as the misfit loner among the captives, whose own connection to McAvoy, spiritual or otherwise, is teased out beautifully.

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So Split is solid, emotionally satisfying entertainment, well told and prepared to dive in unexpected but not arbitrary directions. At times, it certainly bends towards conventions of the genre—teen girls in danger wearing nothing but their bras, say. But as the film went on, it occurred to me that bottoming out could be a blessing for Shyamalan, for reasons not entirely to do with the quality of his films, but with his audience’s perception of them. Walk into The Village knowing that it’s from the serious, prestigious, Oscar-nominated director of The Sixth Sense, and you may roll your eyes (as many critics did) when it gets preposterous. But walk into Split knowing only what you saw in the trailer—that it’s a goofy split personality B-movie thriller where James McAvoy wears a dress—and you’ll be surprised at the serious and effective places it goes.

Speaking of surprises, there is one awaiting at the very end of Split. If you somehow haven’t had it spoiled for you yet, like it was for me, I’ll try to be vague. Suffice it to say that it twists Hollywood’s new trend of extended universes. To which I throw up my hands again, only this time to say “Why not?” So many extended universes are in theaters already, with committees deciding the fates of Marvel, DC, King Kong, and now Universal Horror. So why can’t Shyamalan have one of his own? At the very least, and even when he’s at his worst, his films never felt like they were decided on by committee.

So I’m intrigued by the promise of a “new Shyamalan film” again for the first time in years. But I disapprove of the use of the phrase “return to form” that keeps popping up in reviews, not only because I still don’t think he’s made another movie on par with The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, but because his latest two films away from the A-list don’t strike me as an attempt to “return” so much as to try out different territory. But keep your eyes on him. He may surprise you.

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Split is now available on home video. See it before it becomes important.

“It is Happening Again”: TWIN PEAKS and Meditations on Four Weird Hours of Television

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Preceded by a week where my social media feed was filled with in-jokes, excitement, and callbacks, “The Return” of Twin Peaks dropped last weekend on Showtime. There is already a lot of great writing about Lynch and his spiritual noir mini-verse out there, including this thoughtful plunge through the complexities of the original show by Matt Zoller Seitz and the excellent recaps on my old stomping ground, the MUBI Notebook.

But now that the first four episodes that Showtime has made available are still bouncing around in my mind, and since I can’t go anywhere in LA without seeing a Twin Peaks billboard announcing that “It Is Happening Again”—a line from the original show, warning our hero Special Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) about a murder—here are a few disparate thoughts on a disparate series.

First and foremost, if you’re looking for a recommendation on whether or not you should watch it—the most widely used and least interesting part of a critic’s job—I hereby abdicate my responsibility. At the risk of useless tautology, the people who should watch the new Twin Peaks are the sort of people who’d like the new Twin Peaks. To watch it is to follow Lynch down a rabbit-hole on a journey that may filter out all but the most dedicated, with any payoff still very much up in the air. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not fascinated by where it can go.

It is Happening Again. A good tagline, particularly when it’s superimposed on the iconic face of Laura Palmer hovering above Santa Monica Boulevard every six blocks. But it’s worth parsing what “it” and “again” mean in regards to the original show. The reason I’d heartily encourage just about everyone to give season 1 of Twin Peaks a try is that the strictures of network television forced David Lynch’s aesthetic and metaphysical obsessions into an accessible form without ditching his essence.

We carry a certain number of preconceptions about how serialized television works. TV—that great destroyer of attention spans—is about flow. It should prioritize forward motion. It should have one main event that becomes the axel of the show, with subplots forming the spokes of a wheel. It should have an interconnected group of regular characters who relate to one another in different ways. Most episodes should end on a reveal, a twist, a cliffhanger, or some tease to get you to tune in next week. The episodes should have an A-storyline and a B-storyline that arc in tandem. There may be soap opera-ish subplots, like romances or intrigue that don’t really effect the main story, but which we invest in anyway because we care about the characters. And so on.

For the most part, the original Twin Peaks worked within that system. It was direct when it needed to be, bizarre when it could get away with it, and it combined its weirdness with tantalizing showmanship. It had a sneaky sense of humor. It moved at a loopy rhythm, but not outside the bounds of the speed of TV drama. And while doing so, it carved out an aesthetic and a mythology of its own, in which a cozy smalltown held innumerable sordid secrets, the FBI solved cases by interpreting dreams, and the material world was haunted by a spiritual embodiment of pure evil named Bob.

It is also something of an infamous cautionary tale about how far you can string your audience along before they start to turn on you. In the second season, it solved the central murder in one of the most potent TV episodes I’ve ever seen. After that, it fell into a diffuse camp-fest that I haven’t heard any fan defend. Then it ended on a Lynch-directed grand finale, which is possibly the single most abstract thing to ever air on primetime network television. (I know baby boomer Peaks viewers who still feel cheated by it). For a coda, Lynch and most of the cast returned for a theatrical film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a messy, cathartic, often frighteningly emotional prequel that scrambled expectations from the show and flopped with audiences, but now has Lynch fans pushing hard to get it recognized as an underrated masterpiece.

So it should surprise no one that the youthful and now-nostalgized 1990s Twin Peaks, with its coffee and pie, poodle skirts, soap opera parodies, revamped 50s teen melodrama, and jazzy soundtrack, isn’t exactly “happening again.” Lynch recently said that cable has become “the new arthouse”, which implies not only a breakdown between the prestige of television and the prestige of movies, but a breakdown of conventional TV itself. The new Twin Peaks is if nothing else a ballsy rejection of the norms that even the best Golden Age of Television shows play by. Yes, a lot of your favorite characters are back (sort of). But as much as it’s a continuation of Twin Peaks, it strikes me as a continuation of David Lynch, a new sandbox for the director who drifted into semi-retirement ten years ago, focusing on avant-garde video shorts instead of feature films. And now he has 18 hours with which to play.

Despite any claims to the contrary, the new Twin Peaks does have a clearly defined plot, though at this point, the most honest way to synopsize it would be to just make a list of its currently disconnected elements. It is, in a literal sense, all over the place, jumping from New York to South Dakota to Las Vegas to, only infrequently, the town of Twin Peaks itself. There’s a grizzly murder in the midwest. There are three (or at least two and a half) Kyle MacLachlans running around. There’s a mysterious sealed chamber in Manhattan where a hapless college student is paid by a mysterious billionaire to watch an empty glass box for hours on end just in case something—we don’t know what—happens to appear in it. (It’s the most tantalizing part of the premiere, and as Keith Uhlich points out on the MUBI Notebook, a pretty handy metaphor for the show itself). The Log Lady warns that something is missing. And then there are stray oddities filling out the edges, like a scene in Part 4 where Michael Cera shows up to do what I gather is an extended Marlon Brando impression.

In short, Twin Peaks has doubled down (and then some) on a strictly-for-cultists appeal. It is not simply best appreciated, but perhaps only appreciated, by those with memories of the first two seasons and the prequel film burnt fresh into their minds. (They’re the only ones for whom a mention of a “blue rose” or a stray owl flying overhead are likely to signify). Yet it is so different in tone and feel from the original show that it would be laughable to call it fan service. Or if it is fan service, it’s for cultists not of Twin Peaks but of Lynch as a whole, where fandom has meant an abiding, patient, nerve-shredding curiosity to see what he’ll do with each new vessel he sets his eye on—the latest being the freedom of very R-rated cable in an age where all the context a viewer needs is just a convenient binge-watch away.

Some observations:

  • The pacing and structural choices defy explanation. Consider that this is a season of television where you can watch the first hour and still not be entirely sure what the new mini-series is actually about. Compared to what your average commercial-free cable drama would pack into an episode, Lynch is utterly unconcerned with taking advantage of just how far a story can move in 60 minutes of screen time. Even the episode endings are eccentric; the credits start to roll on moments or musical numbers that can seem like arbitrary places to put a “To Be Continued…”
  • The near absence of music is striking. Only rarely, and when pushed, does it replay its famous musical score.
  • I’ve found the new show to be almost completely humorless, though not for lack of trying. Many scenes are clearly written as comedy, but play out on screen without much attention for energetic, quick-witted chemistry. The over-riding atmosphere is that of a sleepwalker.
  • Like any film or show that revisits the same cast so many years ahead, it becomes—whether it wants to be or not—a story about aging. There is something inherently melancholy about each creased and weathered familiar face, and the show seems well aware of that. Glimpses of old footage, seen at the beginning of the series, are phantasms that melt away.
  • It contains some of Lynch’s most extended and purely abstract setpieces since he debuted with Eraserhead, and I’m not sure that animating his dreamscapes on a computer does Lynch any favors. In fact, it robs his world of tactility. (Who’d have thought that, thirty-something years after Lynch turned down directing Return of the Jedi, he and George Lucas would have hit the same wall?)
  • Many scenes that check in on the old cast seem strangely placed and dislocated from the plot. Are they nostalgic throwbacks for the fans? Will they become important later? Or are they merely their own discrete vignettes, spinning outward in the Lynch-verse? None would surprise me.
  • The subtlest, most controlled performance belongs to Matthew Lillard, which is something I never thought I’d say about anything.

This sense of narrative diffusion is hardly new to Lynch. Mulholland Drive also spends its much of its first half introducing characters and narrative directions that either disappear or get flipped on their head by the end, and yet the whole picture still arrives at a satisfying and coherent conclusion.

It’s entirely possible that the new Twin Peaks is doing something similar on a more drawn out timescale. I’d say “time will tell” if Lynch ties it all together, but I strongly suspect that time won’t; being confounded will become a feature, a bug, or at least an inevitability. Still, one advantage of TV being the “new arthouse” is that, in an age when it’s harder and harder to get audiences to care about either an old-fashioned or a radical ideal of cinema, the most brilliant work on television is much more capable of getting millennials abuzz. (When the numbers came in, the broadcast ratings were disappointingly low, but the number of people who signed up to watch it on the internet broke Showtime’s records). I expect our new Twin Peaks is something we’ll be debating for quite a while to come.

Short Cuts: THE LOST CITY OF Z

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Is there any Hollywood director working today with a bigger gap between cinephile regard and general public indifference? The films of James Gray aren’t often given a wide release, don’t get a push for Oscar season, and have shockingly low IMDb scores considering their caliber. But there are many cinephiles who will swear up and down that he’s one of American cinema’s greatest assets, with films like We Own the Night (2007) and Two Lovers (2008) as treasures too subtle for proper recognition.

The idea of classicism tends to figure into discussions of Gray’s work, and just for fun, I did a search of how often the word “old-fashioned” appeared in articles about his latest film, The Lost City of Z, in theaters now. I found results from the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Slate, IGN, IndieWire, and AllMovie before I decided I’d better get on with writing an article of my own. The use of the word is not wrong. But it raises the question of why the old-fashioned nature of Gray’s cinema seems to be a barrier for modern audiences, while movies like, say, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) or La La Land (2016), which are much more explicitly built from the pieces of old art, manage to catch a kind of zeitgeist. The best answer I can give is that what’s old-fashioned in Gray is not so much an aesthetic but a philosophy, and one that’s devoid of pretensions towards self-conscious hipness or modern irony. So it’s satisfying that, when approaching The Lost City of Z, which is indeed old-fashioned, I can’t cleanly peg the movie as an emulation of another director. There’s a bit of Cimino, certainly—The Deer Hunter (1978) and the good parts of Heaven’s Gate (1980). Coppola, maybe? David Lean? The ghost of Michael Powell? But in the end, the film feels most of all like his, and his alone.

Any short plot summary of The Lost City of Z will tell you that it’s about an early 20th century explorer—Percy Fawcett, a real historical figure—on an obsessive upriver quest to find a rumored ancient city in the Amazon rainforest. This elevator pitch is only about 40% true, but it’s also the only specific information you should have when you enter the movie, so the film can slowly dawn on you as a carefully layered story about the passage of time, where moments from the beginning rhyme at the end, and where a wife you first thought might be a stock character turns out to have an arc of her own. The film is devoted to filling a CinemaScope frame and getting the proper effect from an epic runtime. It offers itself for comparison to Werner Herzog’s two trips to Amazonia, Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The difference is that Gray’s hero doesn’t want to conquer the world but merely to understand it, which is an idea simultaneously less grand and more universal. Like Zodiac (2007), it is a case study in how to tell a “true story” when no one knows the ending. And there’s no better solution than to take that uncertainty into the real of symbolism and dreams.

So at the risk of angering Gray’s fans and confusing everyone else, I think it’s no insult to say that Gray’s strong suit here, as with his last film The Immigrant (2013), is not plot. Does he get his characters from A to B seamlessly? Does The Lost City of Z, for instance, truly sell the scene where Charlie Hunnam’s explorer goes instantly from being a cynic to a true believer in cities of gold after finding a broken pot next to a tree? Storytelling is by nature at least partly an act of salesmanship. But salesmanship is not an idea we associate with purity, and purity is Gray’s most old-fashioned aspiration. The most satisfying arcs in his films are thematic, emotional, and metaphorical—in other words, appreciating them requires a certain earnest belief that a film can arrive at simple moment, or a gorgeous image, or a look on a character’s face and still carry such a meaningful catharsis. And that’s an idea that, I fear, much of today’s moviegoing culture would be happy to roll its eyes at. (I remember once going with a friend to The 400 Blows (1959), and he didn’t see why the ending was anything more than a young boy standing on a beach). There are purely mechanical problems with The Lost City of Z. The dialogue often merely tells you its plot points or its character’s emotions without coming to life with the wit or vitality of a good wordsmith. A slightly thin set-piece on the battlefields of World War I shows that Gray’s skill set is not the same as Spielberg’s or, er, Mel Gibson’s. But it’s been 48 hours, and I keep thinking of how many different things The Lost City of Z is about. Its final shot still hasn’t left my mind.

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