M. Night Shyamalan - One Trick Pony?
We were talking about the new trailer for Lady in the Water when the discussion turned to M. Night Shyamalan and his writing and directing capabilities. Out of that came a number of quite interesting comments.
"Another pointless cameo" and the one I've seen repeated elsewhere, "One trick pony".
The question is does he deserve the criticism? Is he holding onto the big twist that is so associated with his name, and is that association a justified one? In this studio world of light films and constant remakes are we unfairly bashing someone who is trying to give us films which are a bit more thought provoking?
Let me first say that this discussion may well provoke possible spoilers. There's no doubt that the Shyamalan movies have surprises in them, so these may pop out in the comments. There, that's the warning over.
The main criticism seems to be that his films are all about a big twist, and in his recent movies the twist hasn't lived up to the big surprise that Sixth Sense provided. So is that because Shyamalan can't reproduce it or are we, the audience, the ones to blame for expecting nothing but the big twist? After all isn't there more to his films that the twist?
Definitely for me Unbreakable and Signs had much more to them than a well written build up to a single twist. Even Sixth Sense, which really concentrated us onto the surprise ending, provided much more than that. We had great performances, visually rich cinematography, wonderfully strong atmospheric feeling and an extremely strong script, and all this without talking about the twist.
The twist is, of course though, part of the film, but is it everything? There's no question that the importance of the twist in his films has dropped with each movie. In recent films it's been there, but it's just not been as important, for example Unbreakable was a much stronger story but relied less on the big ending. It was a big ending, of that there is no doubt, but that's not all there was to the movie and the whole story was strong from beginning to end.
Village though did seem to return a large twist to the film, but there were a couple of surprises near the end, and for me the main twist didn't stand above the others as being any more important. Saying that though you can see where the potential was for a huge surprise with Village, and it just didn't hide the ending well enough and divert attention away from it to give that big shock moment.
The audiences were surprised by Sixth Sense, and then that's what we were told to expect with Shyamalan's next films. From here on Shyamalan was linked with the surprise ending and this may have indeed proven a curse. The marketing tore into this concept and highlighted this and throughout all the trailers and promotions kept repeating the big twist idea. This may actually reflect studio pressure to provide that same style again, and perhaps we're seeing Shyamalan try to pull himself away with that, building stronger stories and weaker twists.
So is he all about the twists in his films? Not at all, he's really making the rest of the films stronger and stronger, and in his latest film we saw multiple surprises with the main twist seeming slightly secondary to the rest of the tale. Perhaps we'll see this diversification even further in his next films?
Yet with all the remakes, eighties TV series, and sequels being churned out one after the other from Hollywood, can we really have the gall to stand up and criticise Shyamalan's films? In a sea of mediocrity he's bringing us some well written, beautifully visualised and deeply crafted tales.
Another comment that arose was his appearance in his own movies, and indeed now in the trailer for his new film. Well let's look at the trailer first. Trailers, and I have no idea what has happened in this case, are usually made by a company different to that creating the movie. If not that you'll often see it created by a second unit team. I would suspect that Shyamalan would want and have control over the trailers for his films, but there's always that point to consider.
Cameos from the Directors of films, no matter if they're in the trailers or not, are not uncommon. Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, Danny De Vito, Sam Raimi, Kevin Smith, Clint Eastwood even the Zuckers(?!). That's quite a list of names there, and quite a breadth of quality and ability. So picking out Shyamalan for appearing in his films isn't that fair, but there's a larger question. Should Directors appear in their own films? Is the Director cameo a bad thing?
I would think that the answer is quite clearly no if the appearance matches a few criteria, mainly that it doesn't stick out from the rest of the film and is relevant to the movie. You don't want a character appearing waving his arms screaming "look, I'm the Director", that just takes you straight out of the film and back into reality. Also, you clearly don't want to see a bad actor up there when the rest of the cast is at least decent.
So is it fair to say that Shyamalan shouldn't be in his own films? I'm not so sure. There are plenty of Directors doing it, and his appearances are hardly distracting from the point of the movie, in fact sometimes they are integral to the plot. Can we say he's bad actor? Well he's certainly no Sir Ian McKellen, but he's not stinking up a scene with cheese. How about a comparison to Tarantino's performances and appearances?
For me, while Hollywood turns out more of the same, the movies of Shyamalan are a welcome viewing and the criticism he receives is quite unfair. His short cameos are hardly intrusive and his roles always serve some purpose. As for the appearance in the trailer, well that might not have even been down to being his choice. However, a one trick pony is definitely not the way to describe this writer\director who gave us one of the biggest twists we've seen; an adult look at how Superheros and Supervillains could exist; a totally different look at an alien invasion through personal faith, and a considered look at fear and control.
What are your thoughts on Shyamalan and his movies? Are you pulled into looking for the big twist all the time? Have you found more from his films than just that, and where do you stand on the Directors cameos?