When Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross reinvented the art of superhero comics with their MARVELS, something rather profound happened to me. For the first time in my life I looked at superheroes from the angle of imagining what it would be like to live in a world where the events that I’ve seen portrayed in issue after issue of a thousand comics would be thought of by the people living in that world that were… like me… normal and not super at all.
It wasn’t about the ‘hero’ shots anymore, where we stay on their plane of existence, but from the point of view of that guy down below looking up at gods, demigods and beings beyond imagination doing things one could not believe. It made me reflect upon fiction as though it were part of my world, it made me reexamine my own take on the medium that I had given so much of my active thought processes over to, and made me think… What if it were real?
Then with UNBREAKABLE - M. Night did something that was even more earth-shattering for my thought processes about comic books and super-heroes. What if you've been a super-hero all along, that your own marginal expectations and evaluation of your own abilities have kept you from discovering what you were truly capable of. What if you discovered you were a superhuman, not in the MARVEL UNIVERSE not in the D.C. UNIVERSE or any of those others... But what if you were a superhuman in our world... for real.
It is that WHAT IF quality that I love, cherish and adore about M Night Shyamalan.
When we were younger and Steven Spielberg could literally do no wrong, I believed in the magic he used to transport me. He took people living in the suburbs, blue-collar types and took them on adventures you couldn’t imagine. JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and E.T. were perhaps the most astonishing. The films he produced like POLTERGEIST, BACK TO THE FUTURE, GREMLINS and YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES captivated me with that same… this could be YOUR adventure quality. Even Steven’s television show I grew up with… AMAZING STORIES, all of his classic period work was about WHAT IF. From MUMMY DADDY to GHOST TRAIN to THE MISSION to that Alamo episode to the Sid Caesar magician bloke episode… The ideas that flowed from Steven’s head back then… all those STORY BY credits he used to have… It is just sad to see that well dry up. Now he’s an adaptation boy. Finding other people’s stories to tell, and really I miss his own. Perhaps he has no more stories to tell personally. If so, I’m glad that folks like M. Night Shyamalan and Richard Kelly and Charlie Kaufman are around to give the stories that are told on film that personal touch I miss from Steven’s films today.
For M. Night’s grasp of the WHAT IF, I can’t help but reflect upon a screening of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS at a Quentin Tarantino Film Festival, where he went into an amazing introduction in regards to the TOHO Universe, where he wished he could make a GODZILLA film that wasn’t about the military trying to get Godzilla out of the town, but rather a Woody Allen type of movie set in the Toho Universe Tokyo where… from time to time 300 Ft Tall Monsters could come and destroy everything you know and care about. How these creatures would come to have quasi-religious cults that would worship them, that you would have basic drills just like EARTHQUAKE scares and TORNADO warnings… The Giant Monster Updates on TV and Radio. How the whole of society would be conditioned to deal with the horror in the most normal and accepting manner there could be. Much like the people in George Pal’s TIME MACHINE did in regards to Nuclear War… Where it was simply a way of life that was adapted to.
There’s something wonderful about treating the incredible, in all seriousness, as though it is something that happens in our world and it is no longer a work of fiction and you… your neighbor… your pastors and doctors and law enforcement types have to deal with… FOR REAL. And play it serious, with everything having the weight of reality behind it. That this, for better or worse, is happening in our world, where people die, people get sick and it doesn’t necessarily work out for the best. OH… And life will never be the same for anyone after this point.
SIGNS is our story about THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. It isn’t about the world fighting the aliens and repelling the invaders ala WAR OF THE WORLDS, MARS ATTACKS! or INDEPENDENCE DAY… This is your story. The story of the little family that is caught up in this. They are not the key to it all. They don’t discover something profound that drives the aliens away. They are simply one of the millions of stories that would take place, the night the aliens came.
This would be like telling the story of Moses from the point of view of some anonymous stone carver that didn’t understand why flaming hail was falling from the sky, where the various plagues were coming from, but by the time the Angel of Death rumors start, you better believe he’s painting lambs blood over his door, because he’s seen shit that made him really believe.
See, to a large degree that’s what M. Night is doing. He’s making movies about characters that don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or Harvey, and he’s making them believe.
As an audience member, I find it my duty to simply let him take me with him on these stories. Just giving myself over to Shyamalan and letting the story take me wherever it may take me.
All I really knew about SIGNS was that there were Crop Circles and I think Aliens actually appear in the film… I think. I knew that Mel Gibson played a preacher that didn’t believe anymore, that he had a couple of kids and that Joaquin Phoenix played some sort of relative.
That’s the perfect way to go into this film, because M. Night, Tak Fujimoto, the actors, James Newton Howard and Barbara Tulliver are going to take you on an experience. And when it is all wrapped up at the end, well I just want to see it again. Not for any other reason than to watch possibly the most elegant old school filmmaker working today, tell a story to perfection. Knowing exactly when he wants you to know something, when to hand you a piece of information, what to put in front of our eyes, while giving our ears something else to do.
This is just perfect filmmaking for me. It really just feels perfect. Everything exactly the way I love it. There are some tiny things that might bother some folks, because they feel that Shyamalan is talking down to his audience, but I disagree. That moment towards the end of the film isn’t about the ‘audience’ realizing something, but for a character in the film. It is about that character’s blink thought – his OX-BOW INCIDENT reflection at the end of all things. Had we not seen his thoughts, for me, the moment would have lost its emotional resonance. It would have simply been… cute. As played, I felt it was perfect. It isn’t a huge twist, just a moment of realization, not unlike Chazz Palminteri’s character in THE USUAL SUSPECTS…except more subtle and a helluvalot less ‘earth-shattering’. Like I said, the scene in question, you’ll know it when you see it, isn’t about you realizing it, it is about that character realizing it. About it registering for him. Then – it is time to move forward, because that character can finally move forward with what he needs to do. No matter, I loved this scene.
Watching this trilogy of films from M. Night has been bliss. A trilogy about believing in the impossible. About dealing with the impossible. About living through the impossible. What a wonderful place to explore.
He’s done it with razor sharp humor, built out of the situations that the characters find themselves in. For example… the Baby monitor moment in the family car… how that scene evolves, where that scene goes, what that scene does… It feels organic, real and creepy as all hell. There are things to laugh at… nervously and hilariously… but it is grounded in reality.
The dog scenes are simple and utter perfection. Just hair on the back of the neck, clicked heels and standing at attention wonderful. Here there is no place for humor, and he knows it. It is so nice to see a filmmaker know exactly when to release tension and when to keep the lid on.
The way the television is used, the baby monitor, light, darkness, sounds – specifically the sound in a digitally wonderful surround sound auditorium. BTW – Yes, we’re all aware that this film is out there in the digital pirate world, if you fucking download and watch it this way for the first time… with only a couple of days left… DON’T DO THAT! This is an audience film. The nervous teetering laughter – the genuine shrieks of terror – the applause caused from the delight. This is a film that you let yourself get caught up in the minute to minute reality of the characters on screen and I couldn’t help but react emotionally at every turn.
The way he directs this family. The relationships between Father and Son. Brother and Sister. Father and daughter. Uncles and nephew and niece. Priest and community. Sheriff and Priest. Killer and Survivor. These relationships are so honestly told. So genuinely affecting and real that I was captivated and entranced. These are real relationships. Real affection, anger, frustration, delight and joy. Real fear. Real scares. Real nerves.
The skill and craftsmanship involved in this film is breathtaking. You feel a scene coming that you’ve seen in a dozen other films, at least, and he unfolds it in a way you’ve never seen before. When presented with choices he chooses the path less followed. It is very odd seeing this film after FULL FRONTAL, because Soderbergh was playing with some of the same ideas, to unfold a scene in a less obvious way, but when he did it, it felt like he was doing it, whereas here… for me, M. Night’s story telling is so consistently compelling and smart that it feels one hundred percent natural. He turns the soil, plants the seed, waters and fertilizes it, watches it grow and harvests the resulting fruit. Oh… and I chowed down like the happy hippo that I am.
I don’t feel him winking at me during the film. I don’t get any smugness or artificiality from his stories. Instead I feel that I’ve been given a log to sit on, a fire to watch and a story to hear. It feels intimate, genuine and wonderful.
M. Night has everything that I once loved to death about Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. He consummately is telling stories about real people in extraordinary situations. These people make choices that I can imagine making. I celebrate in their victories, mourn their losses and retell their stories.
After the film, for the first time in a long time, I went out to dinner with the local AICNers that were in attendance and we talked about the film. We had a dinner, we sat around that table and we talked about what we loved, our dreams about more from M. Night and what is to come from him. I’ve heard rumors that he is interested in doing the JOHN CARTER OF MARS film at Paramount, and I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Sort of like imagining what Baz Luhrmann’s ALEXANDER THE GREAT project is going to look like. Again… can you imagine?
Right now, M. Night is the one filmmaker, above all others, that I want to just transport me. Whom I absolutely trust to tell me a story exactly the way I would dream of having it told to me. Is he the best director working in films today? I think such ideas are ludicrous, that you can place one above all others, but for my sensibilities, my tastes, my way of watching films… Shyamalan is where Spielberg used to be for me. His stories are less IN YOUR FACE with the effects and the scores that he’s getting out of James Newton Howard are far more MiklÃ³s RÃ³zsa and Bernard Herrmann than they are John Williams. In the end though, for a boy that was brought up on Spielberg, the grown-up version of that boy loves Shyamalan and hopes that the well from which he is pouring from never goes dry.