Thursday, June 30, 2011

The risible fall of M. Night Shyamalan

I used to be the head of the pack; I coulda been a contender. The Guardian's Guide, their Saturday listings magazine, has a regular internet page with all things new and quirky on the web. At the bottom is a column called 'What we learned on the web this week', listing interesting sites or blogs. Far be it from me to blow my own horn, so to speak, but in the space of a few weeks (some time ago) they mentioned several blogs/websites that featured topics I'd written about previously (sometimes just a week or so previously, making me imagine that people were poaching my ideas), such as:

The Dorset village that "died for England" in 1943 (but I got there first); The hidden wonder inside Battersea Power Station [go to Hidden London] (but I got there first); They love watching movies in movies (but I got there first).

Admittedly, the posts are more comprehensive and, okay, better than mine, but, you know, a bit of acknowledgement once in a while wouldn't go amiss. Anyway, a few weeks ago there was a link in The Guide to an article similar to one I'd meant to have written ages ago but never got around to doing: the dramatic decline of M Night Shyamalan. The media loves championing someone almost as much as it relishes their downfall, and when it's the same person, so much the better. There are actually lots of articles about the steady decline of Shyamalan's films, as well as charts and graphs graphically illustrating his fall from grace.

There's a prevailing myth that the films of M. Night Shyamalan have gone from being really good (even esteemed film critic David Thomson was hoodwinked for a while) to really, really bad. I'd like to buck that myth and say they're all really, really bad. But let's start with his stupid, pretentious 'professional' (second) name (adopted whilst at art college): Night. His real name is Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan. Okay, it's not exactly catchy but couldn't he just call himself Simon or Sam instead if he wanted to change his name? No, because he takes himself very seriously indeed. He thinks he's an artist and an auteur, and doesn't listen to criticism. When gleefully cataloguing his downfall, writers like to use the word 'hubris'.

The Sixth Sense, his third film and the one that bought him international attention, is ranked #128 on IMBb's top 250 movies of all time (it wouldn't even be in my top 2,500), a list I don't attach much credence to, what with Leon and Toy Story 3 being in the top 50 and, at #51, The Pianist, perhaps the last Polanski film (except Oliver Twist) I'd have on the list. Likewise with Inglourious Basterds at #92, bizarrely Tarantino's highest rating. People have such short memories.

As I've boasted previously, it took me all of ten minutes to guess what the 'surprise' ending of The Sixth Sense was going to be. Likewise with The Village I sort of guessed that the film wasn't necessarily set in the past (though perhaps I guessed that as I was expecting some kind of twist). The surprise twist at the end of his films became something of a trademark for Shyamalan, so much so that he was able to ignore other cinematic conventions such as plot and character. His films steadily became more and more implausible and ridiculous; the acting hollow and wooden; his once famous surprise twists more like cop-outs. Early, optimistic comparisons to Hitchcock and Spielberg now seemed somewhat premature, though, like Hitchcock, Shyamalan does like to put in a cameo appearance in most of his films.

His last few films I hadn't even heard of, but I could guess that a film called The Last Airbender wasn't going to be great. American critics have descended like vultures on it: "A form of Chinese water torture in which tin-ear line-readings take the place of drips" say The Wall Street Journal; "The current national priorities should be as follows, reduce carbon emissions and stop funding the films of M. Night Shyamalan" writes the Chicago Reader.

Yet his films apparently still make a lot of money. So he's allowed to make more. His next film, a 'dream project' apparently, is a sci-fi adventure starring Will Smith and son. Look out, it's Battlefield Earth Part 2!, one Guardian commentator quipped.

• The M. Night School is a website with a noble aim: to raise enough money to send M. Night back to film school. It states on its homepage: 'Certainly there must be 150,000 of us film lovers out there who are tired of his schlocky plot twists, canned dialogue, and over commercialised image as an "auteur". If we all donate just one dollar, we can send M. Night back to NYU so he gets the help we all so desperately need.' Amazingly, they've raised $693.49 so far. I probably won't donate, seeing as I'd rather he make no more films again.

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