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Monday, February 21, 2011

In Defense of M. Night Shyamalan

Recently in the Chicago Sun Times website, a letter was published by Roger Ebert - the letter was open and to M. Night Shyamalan from one of the Times' foreign correspondents Omer Mozaffar. In the open letter, Mozaffar explains himself as a student of theology, and a film lover, as well as "a fellow Desi" from the same generation as M. Night. He refers, and defers (in a way) to their shared ethnicity as some sort of common ground and an excuse to open this dialog. 

Thanks for the tip, Jack.

I'm sure M. Night will write him back. Just as I'm sure Omer will read this post and follow my blog.

It is critical to understand something about criticism - it's all subjective. If there is any ounce of objectivity to a film review, it's that we can all agree on the name of the film, the basic plot, and the people responsible for it. 

More after the cut --

There are bits of validity to what Omer is preaching - yes, he and Shyamalan are unique part of a unique culture and generation. I'm certain there are elements to Shyamalan's films that are heavily influenced by his culture that I don't understand and that Omer picked up in no time. I envy that knowledge, truly. I was driven to learn from his letter, so for that I thank him. Past that odd sense of familiarity he imparts on to his reader(s), we're left reading a filmography critique from a Desi who teaches theology. 

Well, I'm a white boy who writes about movies for a two websites, one of which is my own creation.

I'll start with saying that, as the title of this post states, this letter is in opposition to most of what Omer Mozaffar said in his. He and I agree that Shyamalan makes good movies (though, I haven't yet seen The Last Airbender - I might finally see that this weekend) and that he hasn't made another like The Sixth Sense. What he ignores, though, is the rest of Shyamalan's filmography. 

"To the considerable Omer Mozaffer -  
M's career didn't begin in 1999. And it's disrespectful to him to assume it did. His career began in 1992 with the devastatingly personal Praying With Anger, a film about an East Indian in American who is sent back to his home country to recover parts of himself long lost. Again, another film released before The Sixth Sense, directed by Shyamalan, is the Rosie O'Donnell film Wide Awake. Shyamalan's filmic love affair with Philadelphia is cemented, and Rosie O'Donnell gives a (that makes two, now) genuinely excellent performance. Followed by the screenplay for Stuart Little, and then The Sixth Sense.  
Since we're caught up now... 
I won't begin to describe your letter as patronizing, as others have done in comments, nor will I describe your letter as something that Shyamalan might consider revelatory in his career. It is, merely, a letter to a man you admire. I respect you, so I'm writing this. I expect that you won't find this letter patronizing, nor will you find this revelatory in your career. Again, we're caught up.  
To assume that M Night Shyamalan, even for the sake of subjectivity, has been steadily declining is insulting to a man who has achieved something great - he gets paid to make art. A lot of people might not consider it art, but no one I know is qualified to discredit an artist's work as anything but. Some might not even call him an artist, but again, no one I know would dare not call a filmmaker an artist. A spade is a spade.  
You admit that you enjoy his films, yes? But, from what I could gather in your letter, your only gripe is that he isn't making films you emotionally connect with anymore. The only question I could consider when reading your letter, Omer, is "... So?" Yes, film is the emotion delivery business. I've heard it called that, and I agree. And while his films may have trouble connecting emotionally with broad American audiences, the majority of his films since The Sixth Sense have been misrepresented in marketing as something they are not, too much emphasis has been put on his "trademark endings" so much so to the point where the twist or revelation becomes merely a punchline, and even at that, most American audiences are comfortable with just another The Stepfather. Of course, recent box office numbers show a shift in vision for the group, but that's for another letter.  
If you take a film like The Village and strip it down to what it really is, it's a cautionary tale. The film, as marketed, however, is apparently a horror movie with a shocking twist ending. I didn't see a twist, really - yes, the film winds up being set in modern day, and winds up being less about predatory figures in the woods and more about predatory figures within the village itself. But, that's not how the film was advertised - thus, people were let down and the film's box office suffered. Again, The Happening was the same thing - a satire about social paranoia and American class systems advertised as a horror movie about an airborne virus. Its box office and critical reception suffered direly. The lack of emotional connection isn't Shyamalan's fault; he was put in a box by the general movie going audience. They won't let him out until another The Sixth Sense comes out. How is that his fault? 
Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender - all names that the American public know, in addition to your favorite The Sixth Sense. The last three didn't do too well, mainly because of the marketing; at least from the conversations I've had with disgruntled viewers. Lady in the Water is incredibly divisive, but it reached quite a few people. The Village has become more favored over time, and will continue to do so, I believe. So, my problem with your letter isn't the fact that you've saddled yourself with the common complaint of the average Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen fan. It's that you seem to think that the general movie goers' and the studios' symptom is the cure for whatever disease you believe Night to have.  
It isn't fair to him, nor is it fair to assume that just because people don't connect with his films the way they did with The Sixth Sense. That doesn't mean his film's don't have an emotional core. That just means that Bruce Willis isn't dead at the end of every one of them.  
But, what do I know? I liked Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It's all subjective anyway. 

I hope this finds you well."