Saturday, July 31, 2004

I just got back from the execrable "The Village" just now and I can safely say that M. Night Shyamalan has probably created his silliest plot twist ever. Which, I guess, was bound to happen some day or the other. How can a man create an entire story around a plot twist? Yet that is exactly what Shyamalan does. It helps, of course, that he is the master of the medium. There are a few scary sequences in "The Village" that are, well, exquisite. Its just that Shyamalan is never content to make just a good old-fashioned scare picture. He needs to put something else in there as well and as far as it goes, his pseudo-philosophy is just not as interesting as his direction. Take Signs, for instance. What could have been a standard alien-scare picture (and boy, was it scary!!) is instead some kind of fable for proving that God exists and whats more, that miracles are possible. To say that this is hokum isn't quite right but as David Edelstein has pointed out, a director utterly in control of his story and his characters is almost God.

In "The Village", Shyamalan tries to spin up a political allegory. It is never very clear when exactly the movie takes place but we do hear something at the end about combat casualties. The idea seems to be that creating a money-less insular society away from all "evil" might be the best way for us, considering the decadence we've fallen into. But Shyamalan, not surprisingly, (his movies are inevitably about ghosts and gods) injects religious overtones into the movie - the idea peddled is that the village is a holy place, full of love and innocence, a veritable paradise, in fact. Michael Agger has noted in Slate that Signs became a hit only when it was adopted by Christians as a movie about the power of faith. The same could work for The Village, despite that fact that God, in all of Shyamalan's movies, is a non-denominational entity.

There is nothing wrong with a film-maker working with different themes in a thriller. Hitchcock, on whom Shyamalan clearly models himself (the point-of-view shots, the total control over the camera and the music, even the cameo appearance), clearly grappled with love, obsession and desire, even though, on the surface his films are all routine thrillers. But Shyamalan's thinking is sloppy and his pseudo-religosity borders on the exploitative. Can an insular world - a closed ecosystem - really be that "holy"? This is an idea that seems to possess everyone - from woolly-headed Gandhians to even more woolly-headed globalization-protestors. Hell, before the British came to India and started their whole-scale exploitation, villages in India were mostly self-sufficient, closed-off ecosystems. But were they really such "ideal" societies? We see reports of atrocities and hate-crimes everyday and most of these take place in small towns and villages. An insular system is a sure recipe for stagnation - human progress comes from an inter-play of ideas and resources. But Shyamalan, of course, will have none of that. Instead, he combines his ideas with his religious fervor so well that such logical objections must necessarily be cast aside. It helps of course, that he does not have the mentality of a raving street-prophet, that his movies combine nerve-jangling sequences with a stately, glacial pace, qualities that could be easily mistaken for profundity.

Shyamalan's great talent is directing young actors with spooky looks in their eyes. Haley Joel Osment in the Sixth Sense, Rory Culkin in Signs, and now Bryce Howard in The Village. I was impressed with Howard who makes her debut here. I loved Joaquin Phoenix's acting in Quills and although, his performance here is sub-par, the man still manages to be interesting. As for The Village, go see it for the scares - but please, Mr Shyamalan, lets stop all this pseudo-profundity.

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