Thursday, July 03, 2008


To everyone who lambasted M. Night Shyamalan for egomania and self-importance over 'Lady in the Water', I would say this:

Watch 'Signs'.

For all that Shyamalan wrote himself a role in which he functions as MacGuffin, messiah and hero by default in 'Lady in the Water' - or, as Tim at Antagony & Ecstacy puts it "cast himself as Christ" - a case can be made for that film as satirical comedy. My reading of 'Lady in the Water' has always tended to the film as anti-film, a deliberate subversion/parody of structure, narrative and film theory ... so why not go the whole hog and indulge/mock the egocentricity inherent in the auteur theory of film-making?

But this is a discussion for two posts in the future ... and can't you tell that I really can't be bothered to write about 'Signs'?

The more I think about it, I realise this Shyamalan-a-thon delineates, like Jacobean tragedy, into three acts:

Act One: Shyamalan as the next big thing ('The Sixth Sense', 'Unbreakable')

Act Two: in which a sense of disappointment emerges ('Signs', 'The Village')

Act Three: the torch-bearing mob demand our beleagured hero's head on a film canister ('Lady in the Water', 'The Happening')

It's almost scary, how cleanly - clinically, even - a six-film career bends to the three downward points of this critical arc. But having said that, I'm quite looking forward to my role as Ye Olde Critick in Act Three, mainly because I don't believe that one of these particular films quite deserves the hate while the other isn't quite hated enough.

And yes, I'm prevaricating again. Because I don't want to write about 'Signs'. Even 'The Village' is freighted with a certain significance, given that it prompted my earliest efforts in blogging. But that's a story for the next post. Right now I'm going to get 'Signs' out of the way. Over and done with. Filed, archived, boxed up and -

Oh, for fuck's sake, Neil, just write about the movie already!

Okay: 'Signs' is about a preacher, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), who loses his faith after his wife is killed in a car crash (driver: M. Night in his obligatory cameo role ... makes his Christ-like role in 'Lady in the Water' even more ironic, given that he's pretty much playing the devil, or at least one of his minions, here); and about how God gets said preacher back on the home team by having aliens invade earth, wreak havoc and almost kill his son.

Now, a drama about the loss of faith or the reaffirmation thereof is one thing (even though I'm an atheist, I don't deny the dramatic potential of such material); but not when it's a flashback to the agonisingly slow and lachrymose death of Hess's wife that gives him the clue he needs to defeat the alien*; not when the means to defeat the alien is laboriously set up in any number of earlier scenes and is as arbitrary as the invaders' death by the common cold in H.G. Wells's 'War of the Worlds' ... shit, if you're going to come up with patently stupid ways to kill martians, at least go wild like Tim Burton did in 'Mars Attacks' and have their heads explode at the sound of Slim Whitman records - at least be funny!

And in some of its earlier scenes, 'Signs' almost succeeds in becoming (an intended) comedy: Joaquin Phoenix in particular, as Hess's brother Merrill, a could-have-been baseball star now merrily idling his life away, provides some fantastic moments. And speaking of Phoenix's performance, 'Signs' again demonstrates Shyamalan's facility with actors: Gibson does probably his best work, while Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are a million miles away from the standard annoyingly-cute-kids-who-you-secretly-wish-would-die-horribly so beloved of Hollywood. Breslin already shines, four years before her astounding portrayal of the beauty paegant obsessed young girl in 'Little Miss Sunshine'.

Too, the film looks good. DoP Tak Fujimoto exploits the rural setting to impressive visual effect. In the director's chair, Shyamalan crafts several tense set-pieces (his Hitchcockian ability to create suspense has yet to be deployed to its fullest: I'd love to see what he'd make of a thriller or a murder mystery). His decision to keep the aliens offscreen as much as possible pays dividends: early glimpses come courtesy of shaky hand-held camcorder footage; even the final, full appearance of the vengeful alien is staged so that it is mostly seen in reflection.

'Signs' had a lot of potential to be a bloody good film. It damn near makes it in several places.

And yet ... and yet ...

The humour dries up and is replaced with hushed, "meaningful" dialogue; the uber-talky mid-section locks away all the carefully orchestrated tension from earlier in the film and concentrates, instead, on a cinematic equivalent of navel-gazing; the self-important reverence of the finale - and specifically of the final shot - leaves me feeling that the film-makers have purposefully denied the audience enough emotional or cerebral room to engage with this film should they, like me, be of the opinion that there is no god.

*I use the singular because the vanguard of the alien invasion has buggered off back wherever they came from at this point and just one grey-skinned Roswell-boy remains - this renegade is out for revenge given that the preacher chopped his fingers off in an earlier scene (I guess it says "forgive thy neighbour" not "forgive thy cosmic visitor", but still: such behaviour from a former man of the cloth!)

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