Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Three Qualities of Filmmaking: M. Night Shyamalan
Three qualities that make a film outstanding for me are, visual design, the ability to surprise the viewer and the development of a situation that suggests what it is to be human. Visual design is ever present in a movie and it should make the movie you are watching unique. You need to be able to look at a character in a movie as a real person and not just as part of the movie. It is also important to surprise the viewer because if you don't the movie is more likely to feel stale.
[SPOILER WARNING for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water]
I believe that M. Night Shyamalan as a director does all these things. With M. Night Shyamalan he takes well used ideas as the back drop for the story of his movies and focuses on the people and how they deal with the conflict. In his ghost story the The Sixth Sense he focuses on a boy and his mother and the struggles they have because of his ability to see the dead. In Unbreakable he skillfully highlights the good intentions of a super hero who can save others but struggles to save his marriage from falling apart. In his movie entitled "Signs" he uses an alien invasion as the backdrop of a family’s struggle to accept to the seemingly senseless death of the wife and mother. Each movie is set in natural settings familiar to the average person: An apartment complex, the countryside, a farm. He takes the mundane and adds a unique dimension to it and he makes it feel perfectly natural. He takes chances with his movies that most directors would never even consider. Like Hitchcock, he shows you only what he wants you to see. For example, The Village is not about creatures living in the forest. Instead its about the fear that they represent. Therefore you never see the creatures clearly. He uses colors in his movies to signify different things, The color red was used in The Sixth Sense to signify death. A similar concept is used again in The Villiage where the color red is the color worn by the creatures. In "Lady in the Water" he uses the changing hair color of the mysterious woman Story to draw you into her emotions. For example, at one point in the middle of the film her hair color is dark red which signifies her growing fear and frailty. In Unbreakable after David Dunn realizes his purpose he goes to a subway station in order to find evil people. He has the ability to touch other people and see their past. The different people he touches have brightly colored clothing and the person that David Dunn confronts is wearing orange. Orange is a warning color. The character of Elijah wears purple through out most of the film. Purple signifies royalty and the main character has the name of a major prophet in the Bible. This is meant as a red herring in a sense because it makes you think that Elijah's character is good and was "chosen" to help David Dunn. This helps to create the surprised twist at the end when we discover that Elijah was responsible for the deaths of thousands. In "The Village" the people wear yellow. Yellow signifies cowardice. M. Night Shyamalan uses colors in his films as a method of subconscious story telling. He uses the associations that the different colors bring to mind as a form of unspoken exposition. He also uses them to get your attention in order for you to see what he wants you to see or not see.
M. Night Shyamalan tends to have in his movies mulitple subplots that don't seem to have any bearing on the main plot. Like in "Signs" he has a subplot for each family member, each one seemingly random. But in the end each one combines together to solve the conflict. He also does this in Lady in the Water with an even larger group of people. He tends to challenge traditional plot conventions or he re-invents them. "The Sixth Sense" starts out feeling like a horror film and with the ghosts as the villains. But in the end the only villain is fear. In Lady in the Water there is a certain point where the main character, Cleveland Heap, finds direction from a fairy tale. At the end of the movie the viewer realizes that the movie is the fairy tale.
"The Sixth Sense" gives a few examples of what it is to be human. For example, the character of Cole Searer is afraid of the unknown (the ability to see dead people). But when he comes to accept the unknown (that the dead people want to use him as a conduit to communicate to their family members) he's not as afraid as he was before. As humans we tend to fear the unknown but when we come to understand it we learn to accept it, though some fear remains. Another example is the character of Malcom Crowe. He's dead but he's not aware of it. He ignores all the signs that lead to that conclusion because he doesn’t want to accept it. As humans we tend to ignore warning signs and negative things to make ourselves feel like things are ok. In "Unbreakable" David Dunn is the sole survivor of a horrible accident. He can not understand why this happened to him, so he turns to the Church. He feels like he has a purpose, but he doesn't know what it is. As humans when we go through a life and death situation we tend to head towards God. We also generally feel a longing for something but we can't always figure out what it is. Then we feel that there must be a reason we are alive. This also carries over to "Lady and the Water".
M. Night Shamalan tells the stories of his films through his use of color, surprising plot development and through messages that the average person can relate to. Most of his movies have twist endings but they never feel false or added on. Many critics have tended to put him in a box , they claim he started out good with "the Sixth Sense" and got better with "Signs" . Then most critics hated the "Village" and a few even began to suggest that his earlier movies were not really as good as they had thought before. I personally think his movies take place on a very human level. They are about normal people who deal with unusual challenges. These people are flawed or damaged yet they make it through the hardship better off then they were before. He makes movies that challenge the viewer to reconsider their assumptions and he challenges story telling conventions.
[Note: This is actually a paper I wrote for an Art of Film class I took a few years ago.]