Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Continuing "Happening" Discussion

I have an interesting discussion going on in the Comments section about M. Night Shyamalan's "The End of My Career," AKA The Happening. So rather than continue writing my long-winded thoughts within the Comments area, I will air them here in the prime time section. All your comments are continually welcome, of course, and I will probably still pop up in there, too. But what I am writing is getting to be too unwieldy for a simple "comment." Have at it...

Loyal reader the Wizard, fkap mentioned an interesting parallel between The Happening and Hitchcock's The Birds, and wondered why he hadn't heard it mentioned in many reviews.

The Birds parallel was noted on the syndicated Ebert & Roeper show, which now actually barely comes close to resembling the show the great Roger Ebert used to appear on. Now it is Richard Roeper and the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips each week...Phillips is quite good, much better than the non-critic Roeper, but anyway...

Anyway, Roeper liked the film, Phillips agreed with me, and he also brought up the similarity to Hitchcock's classic film. And yeah, I guess I could understand that, but in something like The Birds, one of Wizard's points is dead on: Hitch was right not to explain it because the concept was so beautifully, tangibly absurd that it didn't even need explaining. Now, if Shyamalan wanted to do something similar here, I might have been on board. Or on the other hand, if he wanted to make a similar-themed film to the one that now plays in theaters and explain it the way he does, I wanted to be able to feel that dread and feel that "science" a little more. Since this is bordering on revealing too much, let me do this...


...okay. The notion of humans abusing nature and nature turning against us is actually fascinating. But because M. Night is so stuck on doing the film "his way" (therefore resting on his ego, as I referenced in my review), he wants it to seem like a shock. It's not. It is about as lame a "reveal" as I've ever seen, and is handled as badly as a film can handle such a delicate plot point.

What if he actually focused on characters who were actively contributing to the planet's destruction? Instead of the mealy-mouthed Wahlberg character, who doesn't seem to learn anything in the film since he's essentially saintly, and Deschanel, whose biggest flaw is flirting with a guy, maybe this couple could have real problems, character flaws that make sense both for their relationship and the film's eco-subtext. And PLEASE, make the damn horror aspect much more interesting...increase the dread. Wind isn't scary. Audiences need (maybe not Wizard, but I think even he would be effected more by the film if...) something more tangible  at the center of the film's horror. It can be wacky and ridiculous...sort of like The Birds...but can still be eerie and tangible. When the Betty Buckley character becomes scary and suspicious, that is tangible. But when the characters are constantly running away from wind and grass and we have nothing more to get scared about other than the blowing reeds, it is just ludicrous to me. Most of the time, the only way blowing reeds aren't ludicrous is in a Terrence Malick film.

*****SPOILER END******

To the performances...Mark Wahlberg is just awful, though I usually love him. He is lost reciting words from a very mannered script, and taking direction from a guy who likes his shit done a certain way. Interesting that Shyamalan used to favor subtlety in his actors--the work in The Sixth Sense and even Unbreakable was wonderful. But, as I referred to before, when he made Signs (a film I actually really like), Shyamalan transitioned into a director of heightened oddity rather than subtle, dreadful suspense. I'm not sure what the reason for that is. Maybe since it worked as a novelty in Signs he just stuck with it. But his stubborn decision to stick to his over-the-top guns ruins the Wahlberg performance, and for me, the Zooey Deschanel performance as well. The Wizard wrote in his positive take on the film, "I simply love Zooey Deschanel and she could star in the New York Telephone Directory and I'd probably give it five stars."

I used to agree, but this material is so misconceived that Deschanel ends up looking like one of the worst actresses to star in a 2008 film. There are occasional moments when her natural quirks briefly shine through, and in those moments I was reminded that the "bad performance" was not Deschanel's fault: it was Shyamalan's. Ditto that for Wahlberg and John Leguizamo.

The conversation could go on and on with this film. And according to the film's estimated $30.8 million opening weekend, enough people saw it (way more than saw the much better Lady in the Water) to keep talking about it. So let's keep talking...

...if only EVERY one of my reviews spurred as much discussion...


the WIZARD, fkap said...

This is a great discussion.....

Some extremely random thoughts (most of which seem on the surface to have nothing to do with The Happening):

* I cannot even see John Leguizamo's name in the credits of a movie (let alone see his face on the screen) without thinking of Super Mario Brothers. The man is forever branded in my mind by that movie.

* One of my favorite science fiction movies of all time (and I genuinely believe it is one of the greatest) is the nearly unknown Strange Invaders which starred Paul LeMat and Nancy Allen. The movie is directed at such a leasurely pace by Michael Laughlin that, by comparison, The Happening is nearly frantic.

Every character in Strange Invaders seems to be sleep walking through their roles. Unlike invisible spores in the wind (or whatever the hell The Happening was), the danger in Strange Invaders was people reduced to bubbles and more immediate and tangible. Yet fear never really registered with either the characters of the audience.

I mention this classic in a defense of M. Night's stylistic pacing and use (or non-use) of suspense. Roger Ebert seems almost dead on right in saying that people might well react exactly this way when faced with danger.

I bought into the Wahlberg/Deschanel relationship and its resolution. This would have been totally impossible if Wahlberg turned into a Tom Cruise style superhero and, through his keen insight and feats of strength, skill and stamina, singlehandedly saved humanity.

Instead we simply have two very ordinary people caught up in events beyond their control or understanding..... just like Hitchcock's The Birds.

They don't even react with bravery. The just do the best they can. A "hero" might well have gone back over the hill to save his comrades. Wahlberg instead holds back and "guesses" his group needs to walk away in order to save themselves.

Like the Diana Scarwid character in Strange Invaders who ultimately made the choice to give up her daughter (I apologize if you've never seen the movie), Wahlberg and Deschanel accept their role as adoptive parents simply because events force them to do the right thing. In today's blockbuster driven cinema, Shyamalan did a rather remarkable thing, he simply had ordinary people do the things they would do in real life.

In summary, 24 hours after viewing, I like the movie even better.

* Finally, if you really want to get me started (and I'm sure you don't), let's have an in depth discussion of the four amazing different interpretations of the most remade science fiction movie of all time: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

K McKiernan said...

As far as I am concerned, I "get" the connection to The Birds, yet its so not a fair comparison. I would be so afraid of an animal before plant-life.

I mean... I believed the hords of birds could peck Tippi Hedren to death, but uh, the wind.... all its gonna do is make my hair whip around. Not that scary. And M. Night knows scary.... The Sixth Sense still scares me years later.

J McKiernan said...

Here are my random thoughts...and for those who haven't seen "The Happening," there are spoilers ahead...

*Let me be clear: when I speak of M. Night doing it "his way" and being stubborn about his style, it has nothing to do with pacing. I love leisurely pacing, and have loved in all of M. Night's more effective films. I'm not taking issue with that. I am referring to his tendency to let his suspense drip not in real human behavior at all, but in this arch otherworldliness. He is so determined to set his style apart as being off-kilter that he is, at this point, sacrificing not only the realism you and Ebert speak of, but also his own credibility as a unique voice. What was once starkly, effectively odd is now just laughable and, honestly, incompetent.

*On the subject of "arch," Shyamalan's ridiculous, self-indulgent decision to throw in gratuitous, completely unnecessary bursts of gruesome gore seems in direct conflict with the "restraint" you speak of...a restraint I have admired in Shyamalan's past work and wish was at play here. In contrast, "The Happening" strikes me as the director's least restrained film, for he seems so pleased with himself to throw in just enough out-of-place gore shots to get an R rating. It is a stunt that does nothing to enhance the story or even entertain on any level.

*I never wanted the Wahlberg character or any other character to become a hero, be it super or normal. And I certainly didn't want anyone to save humanity...because why should they? At least Shyamalan didn't jump the shark and let that happen. I just want believable conflicts. I understand your point about the adoptive parents plot point...I got that, too. But that seems weirdly divergent and not the real force that should be defining and changing these characters, at least not as they are drawn in the set-up of this story. I think if they were more flawed and even less heroic, that would make the film even more interesting.

*I like your references to past films, and would certainly welcome your "Body Snatchers" thoughts.

I'll be honest: part of me recoils at the thought of your unabashed praising of "The Happening." But hell, if someone can take away something positive from *this* film, I suppose there is hope for this world after all...

the WIZARD, fkap said...

I finally got to see the Ebert and Roeper discusssion you mentioned. It was TiVo'd for me when I got home. I had been in Birmingham for the City Stages Music Festival. 150 Bands on 6 stages over 2 1/2 days. What an absolutely delightful weekend.

Back to Roeper. That was the most heated discussion I've ever seen on that show! Obviously I'm on the Richard Roeper side of this discussion and you're Michael Phillips (the real critic).

Phllips really did hate that movie!

By now you certainly have noticed I don't take any of this too seriously. It's just a movie. I certainly have my opinion, but easily recognize other will disagree with me AND that their opinions are totally valid.

I just sit back and enjoy the show!

As a result I'm generally less "critical." The movie either entertained (or enlightened) me or it didn't.

This raises an interesting question I've been meaning to ask you. You don't seem to use any rating contrivance (like three and 1/2 stars, etc). How do you feel about these rating systems?

I think we've beat the dead Happening horse to death. I'll continue reading and enjoying your (and K.'s) work. Your blog is a treasure for a movie buff like me.

J McKiernan said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. We have sort of discussed every last corner of the film...pretty impressive of us, I think. :)

Do you regularly watch "Ebert & Roeper"? I've been addicted since the show had the name that meant something real: "Siskel & Ebert." And even though I have my issues with The Roeper, I still value the only serious film criticism program on television.

I am sitting here after a 2-mile jog and I need to get back to reality for a sec. I have plenty to say on star ratings, though, so stay tuned.

AND...your discussion of being "critical" versus "enjoying the show" reminds me of a post I have wanted to write for a couple weeks now, ever since one commentor wrote simply to call me out for writing criticism, using a John Updike quote to put me in my place.

In the works is my "What is Criticism?" post, which will hopefully explain where I'm coming from.

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