Monday, February 18, 2008
I recently watched three films by M. Night Shyamalan: Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water. Several things stuck out to me about these movies, in particular were the nature of the story involved and the open "moral narrative" contained therein. Each of them definitely had an agenda that was openly expressed even in the dialogue of the movie. Also, each of them was completely unbelievable; it is obvious that the events in each did never, will never, and could never actually happen. The weirdness of the movies was at first a turn off to me as I felt that the story was nothing more than a buildup to an ending that was ultimately disappointing and felt "cut short." It was then, that I realized what was happening. Each of the movies was never about characters, was never about places or events... each movie was about an idea. In essence, what Shyamalan has done is revive the fairy tale in modern times. Rather than simply dredging up old stories and slapping new names on them along with thin modern guises, he has instead revived the genre itself--writing his own fairy tales and putting them on film. These stories need no hidden meaning, require no elaborate plot to catch people's attention in order to present their ideas; rather, the movie IS the idea, the film simply a venue for its expression.
Each of Shyamalan's movies has been advertised as either a sort of horror or thriller flick, however none of them conform to this genre, though they each contain large amounts of suspenseful buildup. It seems to me that this is due to the simple misinterpretation of his intents in storytelling and a misrepresentation through advertising of his ideal. Once the movie is analyzed as a venue for the expression of an idea, the points of the plot are very easy to identify. As the idea is forming itself through the actions of the characters, the plot builds, and the suspense that we feel is created by the unknown details--what has yet to be figured out (which Shyamalan often embodies directly through some creature which is never fully understood by the characters in the movie until the end). The turning point comes when the idea is finally grasped, and the end comes abruptly afterwards. Once the idea is complete, it has no need to stay around for long, and so the characters' part ends abruptly as well, as the focus was never on them, it was on the idea all along. Once the moral is learned, then everyone can go on to "live happily ever after," how they do so is completely unnecessary and irrelevant.
It seems though that we've lost sight of this sort of storytelling in our modern American culture, for our movies and stories are always very ego-centric, they're about the men, and oftentimes character development comes before even the plot. What we see here is the result of a culture that has lost first its wisdom, and as a result its knowledge. In a world so filled with the "tolerance" of the "politically correct," people are compelled not to even believe in such thing as an absolute truth anymore; the concept of reality itself has nearly vanished. People are no longer fascinated by the flights of the imagination because they have lost their grasp on what real even is. "Reality" and "believability" have overtaken our culture completely. People are utterly fascinated by what "real" is, because they don't know anymore. Reality, we are taught, is what we make it to be, however in all that we try we find that we can never alter the things around us. No matter what we do, life is still hard; no matter how we try, we still struggle and fail in our endeavors. The concept of "life is what you make it" has confounded us, we are living it even though we do not understand it, and so begins man's quest for what truly is real... and so begins his obsession.
This is where Shyamalan takes perhaps his most emboldened steps, in his films he dispenses with the patronizing "your ideas are as good and valid as mine," and simply seeks to say "this is how the world works." He establishes what reality is, and taking a step past it openly into the realm of the imagination, past the believable and the realistic, he uses the tools of unreality in ways that more openly explain the workings of the real world. He has moved past teaching to illustrate into the realm of illustrating to teach. His example, even if his movies are not the most favored, is one to be held in high regards, for it is men like him who truly have wisdom and insight into life. Until we come to the realization that there is an order of things, a way that the world ultimately works, then we will remain unable to touch the starlit skies of the imaginary and the fantastic and we will remain totally incredulous of even the simple dirt upon which we stand.