Good Night, Shyamalan

A review of The Happening (produced and distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox and UTV Motion Pictures; written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan)

The star of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, The Happening, demonstrates once more how unaccountably loathe producers are to give their boom microphones top billing.

During the showing I attended last night, the boom mike kept playfully piercing the top edge of the screen. After ten minutes, I left the auditorium to talk to the theater manager. “We tried lowering the screen’s top mask line,” she explained, “but it cut off most of the actors’ heads.” I returned to my seat resigned to put up with this assault on my always willing suspension of disbelief. Still, I took heart, reasoning that the nuisance would surely disappear as the film went on. Directors constantly review their films as they shoot them to correct just such problems. But no. The microphone or, to be more accurate, microphones, kept bouncing into one scene after another. One was muffled in furry fabric for outdoor recording. Another had turned red perhaps from embarrassment. If the scene had dialog, a boom mike appeared. This would have been intolerable but for one thing. Mr. Bouncing Mike was giving the liveliest performance in the film. Indeed, I would later discover that BM had become a celebrity on the internet. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were posting notices about its performance. One observer recorded that, in the theater he had attended, rowdy adolescents took to calling out, “Where’s the mike?” whenever it didn’t drop into a scene.

I don’t want to make this a star-is-born column. Suffice it to say that Shya­ma­lan’s carelessness with his boom suggests he harbors a self-destructive arrogance as well-developed as that possessed by any other swell in his industry.

With all of Shyamalan’s films, one thing stands true: Each has been more disappointing than the one before. I reviewed The Sixth Sense nine years ago with great enthusiasm. It further confirmed my opinion that films are worth writing about, that at their best they can afford the kind of pleasure and provocation that other arts do, and I looked forward to seeing him fulfill his early promise. He never has. I did not write about his most recent works, The Village and The Lady in the Water, on principle. It’s unsporting to shoot caged foxes. So why am I taking aim at The Happening? I suppose out of an odd combination of wonder and regret. I cannot understand how so talented a young man can have persisted in such folly. And, unless by some marketing miracle or public craze The Happening makes money, Shyamalan will not likely be able to raise the capital to make another film.

From the first, Shyamalan has been enamored of the Big Idea, an infatuation fatal to narrative art. In The Happening, the Big Idea is that Mother Nature has become fed up with mankind—a notion that has some provenance, I believe. Anyway, the rhododendrons, aspidistras, and arborvitae have conspired to exhale toxins into the air that invade human neurotransmitters and block whatever it is that keeps us from sinking knitting needles into our necks or walking off girders 20 stories above Manhattan. You would be amazed at how the bodies pile up when this whatever-it-is is blocked. When grade-school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his buddy, Julian (John Leguizamo), discover what’s happening on the streets outside their classrooms, they grab their families and head west, assuming Manhattan is under a terrorist attack. But everywhere they go, they come upon people killing themselves. At last, Elliot finds a farm owned by a paranoid recluse (a wonderfully over-the-top Betty Buckley). Having no other recourse, Elliot and his wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel working her terrified baby blues overtime), hunker down, despite Ms. Buckley’s harangues on the poisoned state of modern America.

Nothing is wrong with this premise, but Shyamalan handles its elaboration with a laughable disregard for human plausibility and artistic finesse, especially with Mr. BM butting in every few minutes. While people all around them are cutting their throats and throwing themselves under tractors, Elliot and Alma keep arguing over whether they are really committed to each other. She feels compelled to tell him she went out for dessert with a coworker, and he confesses to making goo-goo eyes at a woman in the pharmacy. I half expected they would stop to confer with a marriage counselor on their mad dash just ahead of those bad-breath flowers across rural Pennsylvania.

Shyamalan cavalierly abandons his allegory whenever he feels it’s time to thump one of his thematic points. Here we are to understand that lack of commitment is toxic to marriages. OK, I’ll buy this, but jeepers, let’s first get out of the way of that ill wind blowing from the East!

Shyamalan, too, needs to step aside from the mighty draft of his hubris and decide whether he wants to tell stories or give sermons. They are not the same thing.

George McCartney is Chronicles’ film editor.

This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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