Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Dead But Not Yet Buried

I found this article while trying to locate reviews of the latest M. Night Shyamalan movie, After Earth, that didn't originate from an English speaking source.  I thought the argument was quite interesting, so, with the aid of an online translator and my own efforts to clean up the text (hopefully not losing too much of the article's original intent), I'm re-posting it here.  The article was interesting to me because it seems to suggests that outside of the Anglophone blogosphere there are others who find something genuinely quite unsettling about the way English-language journalists are approaching Shyamalan's work, or more appropriately, approaching Shyamalan the filmmaker.  The legitimate fury that the writer/director has inspired has long since gone beyond constructive criticism; it's no longer about evaluating the work with as much reverence and respect as you might afford the work of an another human being, but an effort to actively (and gleefully) destroy Shyamalan and his professional reputation.  The journalists (if we can even call them such; the majority have no journalistic training and no education in film) are backed and encouraged by a culture of ever increasingly vitriolic audience members who likewise have little knowledge of the cinema and its histories and are attacking these films from an entirely consumerist perspective.  That a great number of genuine movie fans aren't outraged by this (regardless of their feelings for Shyamalan and his work) is both a surprise and a disgrace, since this issue seems to have passed well beyond what we might call valid film criticism into a kind of censorship by consensus, which is unacceptable. 

This article by Hendy Bicaise gets to the core of this issue, citing several critics who, for me, have crossed the line into something quite destructive and actually prejudicial; no longer striving for objectivity or respect for those of us who see Shyamalan as a relevant and imaginative filmmaker, but really just trashing the films without analysis or interpretation.  However, his article is not just a defence of Shyamalan, but an attempt to look at After Earth as an actual film and not just as a product of this strange burlesque of opinion.  Bicaise actually engages with the material, wittily interpreting it; it's not just about standing in judgement over the film but attempting to place the film into a proper 'auteurist' context within the parameters of Shyamalan's work.  As an approach, it's refreshing to see, and reminds me of something the Toronto based film critic David Davidson said recently in his article about Shyamalan's relationship with the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.  Davidson writes: "Even though Night is a championed director at Cahiers they acknowledge the flaws in some of his films, when they deserve it. What is the big difference between Cahiers and how most other critics view Shyamalan's work is that Cahiers approach his films with a generosity instead of condescension."  In highlighting the Cahiers reception of Shyamalan's work, Davidson is providing a wider context on the director and his reputation outside of the U.S., but is also highlighting the disparity in the way these films are written about and received.  The serious, analytical, academic study of film (all film) as genuine objets d'art - and not just as 'product' to be gossiped about or griped about or slapped with some flimsy numerical reward - seems beyond the grasp of the majority of Anglophone critics, who look to approach the medium with an absolute indifference and contempt.
Reflections of Lady in the Water [Zak Forsman & Kevin K. Shah, 2006]:
The translation below is in no way definitive.  It's full of mistakes and may even lose the quality and the intention of the original piece.  Nonetheless, I wanted to highlight this particular consideration because it communicated something that I've tried to express myself, but was unable to find the right words.  Rather than re-post the promotional images used for the original article I've added several images of my own choice, to provide illustration.  Final apologies to Hendy Bicaise if the translation is so far off from his original article that it becomes a completely different work, but regardless, the thoughts and insights that this text provides, not just in regards to the critical judgement of Shyamalan the filmmaker, but as a critical study of his latest film After Earth, is for me invaluable.

After Earth
N'enterrons pas trop vite M. Night Shyamalan
By Hendy Bicaise
Vodkaster, June 5th, 2013
Is the haste proportional to the hype?  M. Night Shyamalan is now hated, especially in the United States, and especially in the American press; but is this in proportion to the enthusiasm he once aroused with The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000)?  Since Lady in the Water (2006), the director seems to pay for "betraying" a number of his admirers.  As if, in retrospect, they felt guilty for having so loved his early films.  The icy reception of After Earth - his new film, in theatres this June - brought down sharply by critics and shunned by the American public, seems to confirm this: Shyamalan has become the scapegoat for Hollywood.  This is an opportunity to return to this critical determination, incidentally to argue that it is unfair, and to see how Shyamalan has found the best person to defend his position, chiefly, himself.
After Earth [M. Night Shyamalan, 2013]:
A decade ago, Newsweek magazine devoted its cover to M. Night Shyamalan.  It read, in full, in bold, without a question mark, "The Next Spielberg ".  For several years, and again with the release of After Earth (2013), the American press cannot help referring to this statement.  For Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, the film is "an unintentionally funny sci-fi thriller made without imagination by a director once considered the new Spielberg."  It is amusing to note that the stronger the rejection of this later work, the more enthusiastic their response to his earlier success appears.  Before sticking the knife in, they recall their affection for his early films and voila, the dismissal becomes easy.  A recent video by 'Screen Junkies' (a group responsible for the web-series "Honest Trailers") operates on the same principle.  The three columnists have fun electing the "worst film by M. Night Shyamalan."  To do this, they go through his films chronologically, from the "masterpiece" The Sixth Sense to the "nadir" of The Last Airbender, tracking the reception to Shyamalan's work as it becomes more severe.
In the video, the 'Screen Junkies' conform to another constant in bashing Shyamalan by maintaining that the latest film is always worse than the last.  The most striking example of this so far was the infamous chart taken from the aggregate ratings site, Rotten Tomatoes, in which the films were each ranked from a system of binary ratings assigned by a panel of American critics, presenting a programmed devaluation.  With the release of After Earth, his fiercest critics will begin to move-in, asking themselves, how do we lower the perception of a filmmaker even further when one is already at the lowest?  If American journalists had the ambition to continue to belittle Shyamalan's work for as long as possible, they should have made their rejection less swift.  Even with the release of Lady in the Water (2006), the reaction was already very violent.  In Time Out, Trevor Johnson announces "[the film] isn't just duff, it's career-threateningly catastrophic."  Shyamalan, the director who openly teased reviewers when he wrote the character of Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban) - a heartless film critic eventually eaten alive by a monster - has clearly sought the ire of Johnson and his cronies.
Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]:

The French press is more divided.  If some say "it's just ego", others defend it more than ever.  For Cahiers du Cinema, Lady in the Water is a great movie and is even found in their Top 10 of 2006.  A distinction shared by The Village (2004) two years earlier, also elected in the top ten films of the year by the magazine, in second place behind Tropical Malady (2004) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul .  For a while, this fact was merely anecdotal, at least until 2010 when the Thai director, having just won the Palme d'Or for Uncle Boonmee, said in an interview with Les Inrockuptibles that Shyamalan is one of his favourite contemporary filmmakers.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010]:
Reflections of Lady in the Water [Zak Forsman & Kevin K. Shah, 2006]:

However, does the defence of his films by some of his peers and only a handful of scattered critics make it difficult to hope for a comeback?  Should we instead listen to sceptics and expect nothing more of Shyamalan, or follow those who despise, unreasonably, and throw out everything in retrospect, including his first film?  As most negative critics are often the loudest, it's better to try and find peace and reason.  Like the rule of survival instilled by Will Smith to his son in After Earth ("Take a knee"), do the work and try to point to the origin of the hatred.
The anti-Shyamalan cabal sometimes looks like a competition.  Recently, in the Metro Times , Jeff Meyers began his review with these words: "Is there a more satisfying career implosion than that of M. Night Shyamalan?" before adding, not without a certain cowardice: "Far be it for me to wish ruin upon anyone, but the filmmaker all but invited derision from those in my field when he spoke long and loud of his genius and then in The Lady in the Water brutally murders an arrogant film critic and casts himself as a writer whose work brings about world peace."  It always comes back Lady in the Water; the origin of evil.  After he offered them the screenplay in 2004, the bosses at Disney were the first to suggest the consequences that such a film would have: "You attacked the film critic? They'll kill you for that..."  Since then, the struggle with each new work to find the harshest word against Shyamalan has become a kind of national, journalistic sport.  This year's game is sandwiched between the poisoned Jason Gorber of, who calls the film "apocalyptically bad" and Richard Roeper, who anticipates it to be "one of the worst movies of 2013", while the Wall Street Journal wonders if it is "the worst movie of all time" (before answering "no", though it is nice to be asked the question).  But for the prize "WTF" comment we have to turn to the blogger Mike McGranaghan who says that 'After Earth is "the cinematic equivalent of the video Friday by Rebecca Black. "
The most amazing thing about all of this is the fact that so many - whether they're critics, bloggers or moviegoers who respond to their articles - speak without knowledge of Shyamalan's cinema.  In itself, this is not a problem: all the critics and their followers cannot know, by heart, the work of each auteur.  The problem is, they claim their ignorance with pride.  The first person to respond to the Roeper article on the newspaper's website makes it clear: "I admit his movies fell down from Lady in the water, which was the last one I saw."  A declaration that therefore has no real merit, but nevertheless reflects a general feeling.  The consideration of his filmography as ramshackle since 2006 is almost a given, obvious, no need to see the films to attest.  Moreover, Jason Gorber of Twitch begins his review with a similar confession: "I purposely missed out on Signs, and The Village, and The Lady in the Water, each film with progressively lower IMDb ratings."  They're free to avoid the films, if they wish to, but why not be more discreet?  What does the critic hope to achieve by boasting, publically, that he shunned the previous films of a director in the same column in which he discusses his latest work?  This is a clasping confession.  So naturally, in comparison, the viewer who loves After Earth, who has not ignored its author and, in fact, believes it more natural to defend his latest film, inevitably ends up in a position of force.  For it is only by summoning all of these previous films that M. Night Shyamalan's' After Earth becomes vast.
Far from thinking, Scott Foundas in Variety describes the investment of the filmmaker on this project as "clearly a director-for-hire, his disinterest palpable from first frame to last."  The director here is more than a simple yes man, for the film is clearly placed within the continuity of his work and, more importantly, adds to its general discourse.  The future, as described in After Earth, is not our future, but the future of the characters of Shyamalan's previous films.  The people of Nova Prime - the planet where Cypher and Kitai Raige (Will and Jaden Smith ) live at the beginning of the film - are the descendants of the heroes of Signs (2002), The Village and Lady in the Water, etc..  Shyamalan recites details, references and self-citations to support this suggestion.  The baby monitor of Signs, a primitive means of extraterrestrial communication, turned into a standardized object, is here used by Kitai Raige for extraterrestrial communication.  As captured by the film's signal, it is now audible, tenfold, a millennium later in After Earth, on the edges of space.  Even the "Great Eatlon", mythical eagle and benefactor of the Lady in the Water, is back in a sequence of this latest film, again to save a teenager's mission.  And when Kitai gets rid of an enemy by dropping it into a hidden crevasse - like Ivy Walker in The Village - he invites the possibility that the boy has been raised and educated on the exploits of the other heroine, blindly traversing kilometres to save a loved one.
Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]:

After Earth [M. Night Shyamalan, 2013]:

The Village [M. Night Shyamalan, 2004]:

After Earth [M. Night Shyamalan, 2013]:

On Earth, as now on Nova Prime, Shyamalan's tales seem to have been told for a thousand years.  We also look back to the character of the prophet in Lady in the water, where Vick Ran played some small role in the changing world of the last millennium.  One thinks of nature, and its rebellion against humanity in The Happening (2008), as the first warning that the earth is to be taken seriously, and which would eventually lead to our inevitable departure from this "blue world."  Alone, abandoned by almost everyone, M. Night Shyamalan has come to save himself.  Rather than wait, time gives him reason; he jumped a thousand years in the future to talk about a world where his films were finally appreciated at their true value, and even became words of the Gospel.  It must be remembered, the sentence that would have pronounced Beethoven to the end of his life, facing the chilly reception of one of his last compositions: "It might please them... some day."  Critics and fans of the film can at least agree on this point: this is a statement that would also be well suited to M. Night Shyamalan.

Original text published by, © Vodkaster & Hendy Bicaise, 2013
You can read the full article, in French, with original illustrations, hereI would also highly recommend Davidson's blog and his translations of several articles on Shyamalan's work, as published in Cahiers du Cinéma, and contrast it to the lazy, repulsive way English-speaking reviewers approach these films.