Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jonestown, Pennsylvania

There be spoilers here, though I daresay you have better movies to see....

Two years ago I razed M. Night Shyamalan's filmic stalks to the ground. The vision and humor of his previous films, (even, yes by God The Village, with all its terrific imagery, albeit at odds with failure) had been abandoned entirely. A film of immense inanity, quixotism, arrogance, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard character choices, unbearably awful cadences, shrieking, straining and all around badly shot hokum was released.

The director of Signs made me very angry with The Film We Do Not Speak Of. When I say angry, I mean livid. I was up a damn tree (bitch-slapping Michael Pitt for doing Funny Games). How in the world did the man who brought us one of the most moving mainstream pieces on fate and spirituality lose it this badly? And how the scrunt could he be so blind to his own fall? Has he not watched his previous film and seen himself cast up there as a prophet screenwriter writing works too difficult for the current age to comprehend, and wondered if maybe he'd literally lost the plot somewhere? His new film is almost as nutty. Not completely nutty like that two hours of slowly roasted idiocy, but a slew of unhinged sadism committed on the audience all the same.

The Happening starts out awkwardly enough, but it does prove without a doubt that Shyamalan learned something from the hubris of his last film. We start right in on the business of dying, setting the creepy tone, and move on to a fairly articulate and humorous scene setting up Wahlberg's sciencey chops. The scene's playful. Not long after, the movie becomes batshit. Coherent batshit, but sanity guano all the same.

At one point, our protagonists try to outrun some wind. They're chased by the monster, and ladies and gentlemen, that monster is WIND.

M. Night Shyamalan has not lost his talent. I believe he's lost his mind. The film is not poorly made, but it is poorly written. The characters are not characters at all, and they behave in no way whatsoever close to how any human being would ever ever ever ever ever act. EVER. Which in and of itself might not necessarily be a failing, but unbelievable behavior has to be structurally and aesthetically justified. You have to do it in such a way that we accept and embrace unrealistic acting. For that, you'll want to see Tarsem's The Fall.

These creatures speak as though they're talking out of a chick tract, emoting virtually nothing, telling us instead of showing us what they're feeling. The major conflict between the two main characters literally boils down to "I don't like to show my feelings." She shows her feelings at the end. Great. Just the kind of detailed character back-story and resolution of previous action I crave at the movies.

There isn't a moment of tension or terror. Just sadistic images, adjacent to dead air (deadly air, but still boring). The sadistic images alternate between uncomfortable and hilarious. The iPhone makes its film debut here, and what you'll see on its screen may alarm you if instead you close your eyes and pretend you're watching the R-Kelly sex-video on it. Then again, don't do that, you'll be robbing yourself of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of the summer.

There is one image involving trees and ladders which reminded me I was watching the work of an artist. A trapped artist, was my immediate thought following the subsequent death scene.

Why am I laying this all out? Why am I rattling off a list, instead of just calling it a day and deciding that he peaked with Signs? Because I think he's a little kali-ma-shuck-tee-day. He's ohm do she bai-ing quite a bit. And I think this film is a sign that the artist is about to break free again. He came close to making a decent "b-movie".

When he thinks he's being an artist with a capital A we get Lady in the Water. When we get him shooting for "the Denny's crowd", we get Signs, a masterful, suspenseful, simple, beautiful piece of storytelling. The Happening is somewhere inbetween Signs and Lady.

Mark Wahlberg has virtually the only lines of any real invention. These are the few comic moments (totally absent in Lady, unless you like shrieking Korean caricatures) alleviating the badness in this movie, that suggest to me there's a more carefree, weightless talent trying to escape from underneath that two-ton pile of hubris he bought in crazy town.

What it must be like to be such a young filmmaker and to have made two of the highest grossing movies of the past decade, to seal yourself away in your Pennsylvania compound and devote your time to converting actors into cult members for the brief period you have them under your purview, and to hate the critics that hated The Village so bad that you keep making bad movies to piss 'em off more, I can't imagine. If you want us to like your movies again, make them good again.

But seriously, you need to get off the compound, and while it is healthier to channel your cult-leader urges into sacrificing people in a fictional suicide march for two hours, you showed a great deal more sadism and arbitrary cruelty to your audience by violently offing two young boys halfway through your film. Again, you're not castrating them or marrying them to forty year olds at your Amish-style mansion, but that's still pretty out there. By the way, nobody says "get me out of this nightmare" after you blow holes into Abigail Breslin's brother right before shooting the black kid in the head, unless they mean "get me out of this nasty movie right the fuck now."

Scientology can be less weird and unsettling than your crazy-lemonade-lady-busting-her-head-through-the-window, the plants are making us commit suicide nonsense that your crackpot ass has come up with.

This film is marginally better than the last one, and I was more fascinated than angry this time, at times almost compelled, and I could see the possibility that your genius could rise Phoenix from the Ashes out of the fiery abyss you've unknowingly sunk into. Success can be an artist's bulwark. But the first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem. This almost felt like a step towards that admission, here and there, though obviously it's not enough, and what's unanimous around the country (and has been for some time) ought to be instructive to you.

There's misunderstood like Nostradamus and misunderstood like Jim Jones. Which do you honestly think you are? Auteur David Koresh, is that it? As for the boy soprano you're squelching, kindly let him sing again. You were in our hearts as we were filling your wallet. It would be stupid of you to want otherwise, claiming a line from Hitchcock and Speilberg to yourself. They made movies that made money and were also artistically successful. What you got? Oh, Nutjob Happening in the Water? Let's just stay home and masturbate instead.