Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A Small Gesture

Thoughts on a film: Praying with Anger (1992)

A film of moments; not quite coalescing, as a cohesive narrative, but nonetheless expressive of the emotions of the film; its meditations on race, violence, cultural dislocation, anger, love, tradition.  A film that begins like something from Apocalypse Now (1979); all amber-lit scenes of ordinary life made exotic and fantastical by the slow-motion cinematography, the iridescent glow of the lighting, the richness of the colours, the fluidity of the compositions; our first glimpse of Shyamalan, the impressionist, which will flourish in later features, such as The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2006), even his weakest film, The Last Airbender (2010).

The voice on the soundtrack then establishes the central character as a visitor to this place; a young man with a troubled past trying to find himself in a world that seems beyond any understanding; more a fever-dream - shimmering and intoxicating - than a place to provide stability or the comfort of the everyday.  Throughout this opening montage and the early scenes, Shyamalan works hard to make the world of the film seem as strange and startling and enticing for the audience as it is for his own protagonist, so that even the recognizable - a middle-class family sitting down to get to know their new guest - is exaggerated through the inter-cutting of flat, objectifying wide-shots, with more intrusive close-ups; the tone of the scene, like that of an American sitcom, but again, somewhat off-key.

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:

From here the film settles into a more conventional narrative, as the central character, Dev Raman, bonds with his two cousins (the affable Sanjay in particular) and tries to conform to life at a new school.  The preoccupations here are the stuff of any daytime soap-opera, as the character tenaciously struggles to maintain his identity amid rumours of early hell-raising and a violent temper; both exaggerated by idle gossip and the rivalries of school bullies, who enforce the establishment's strict codes of honour and tradition with the eager brutality of hoodlums in an old Hollywood gangster movie.  The feeling of TV sentimentality is not helped by the faux-orchestral score of Edmund K. Choi, which - while serviceable enough for a low-budget film - tends to overwhelm scenes with a heavy melodrama; illustrating just how significant the influence of James Newton Howard has been on the growing development of Shyamalan's work.

However, the look and style of the film, the emotional sincerity and the intensity of certain scenes, more than compensates for this naiveté, or the film's rough-around-the-edges approach.  For instance, the way in which Shyamalan uses the camera, not just as a tool to tell the story, but as something that expresses the emotions of his characters, or the dilemmas they face, highlights a clear understanding of how the conventions of cinema work to bring the audience into the drama; allowing us to share moments of passion, fear, anger and confusion, subjectively, alongside the characters on-screen.

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:
The first instance of what will soon develop into an iconic image in Shyamalan's cinema; two hands 
meeting in an embrace; a show of commitment and solidarity...

The Village [M. Night Shyamalan, 2004]:
...it eventually becomes an unspoken promise between characters; a declaration of love and perseverance...

The Happening [M. Night Shyamalan, 2008]:
...until it transcends its humble origins, becoming a statement powerful enough to save the world.

Throughout the film, Shyamalan finds images that speak directly to the implicit yearnings and uncertainties of his central characters; communicating ideas, emotions and beliefs visually, through framing, colour, or the use of space.  In an early scene, as Dev approaches the beautiful Sabita - who will become his secret love during the course of the film - the young woman first turns in horror, appalled by the character's reputation and offended by his lack of respect for the generally accepted traditions of the way courtship in their culture should work.  As she retreats with friends, the camera draws back, isolating Dev in this moment of painful humiliation and cultural confusion; refining the presentation of the character as alone, as "different" and as such unable to understand the rules of this world; to assimilate, or to fit in.

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:
At first, Shyamalan uses the blocking of the actors to illustrate 
the rejection and alienation of Dev by the other students...

...but with the subsequent dolly-shot, it's as if even the camera 
is trying to distance itself from his social faux-pas.

Already we're beginning to see the formation of Shyamalan's approach.  The use of the camera as both objective and subjective spectator; the camera as something that records, as witness to an event, the resulting drama, or the journey of these characters on-screen, but in a way that it makes us conscious of their inner feelings, their moods and state of mind.  It's a lesson learned from Hitchcock; the use of the image as both the surface - the actions of the character; the way they move and perform - and the emotional subtext - their attitudes and the way they're perceived - and how the use of cutting, for instance, from a wide-shot into a close-up, isn't simply a method of relaying visual information in a narrative sense, but an attempt to draw our attention to the small details as the characters see them; bringing the audience not only into the head of this character, psychologically, but also into the heart of their culture; its practices and routines.

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:

Above, the seriousness of the man's prayer, the contemplation of it, is significant to the observations of the central character, both as an example of how the culture of India differs to his own culture - that of the United States - and as an act of physical and emotional expression; a way to make peace.  Shyamalan, as filmmaker, highlights the significance of the act by showing it in both a wide-shot and a close-up.  The wide-shot represents the objective, the observation of the event, as it occurs, while the close-up goes beyond the surface of the act, presenting the subjective gaze of the central character and how this moment, viewed from a distance, is made "closer" (emotionally, as well as physically) as it develops into an important part of Dev's own understanding and appreciation of his ability to overcome.

Throughout the film, it is in these smaller moments of human interaction and character observation that Praying with Anger works best.  Allowed to develop at a leisurely (some might say languorous) pace - as the action wavers between moments of comedy and melodrama, romance and excursions into a very real and very palpable social violence - the emphasis always remains on the central characters; their relationships and the journeys they take.

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:

In many ways, Praying with Anger is an obvious departure for Shyamalan, or at least in the context of his recent career.  For one, it lacks the emotional consistency of his breakout feature, The Sixth Sense (1999) - which wrapped its dual narratives of childhood isolation and the dissolution of a marriage in elements of conventional genre, but still maintained a tonality of sadness and grief - nor does it have the "high-concept" preoccupations that many have come to see as a detriment to the writer/director's work.  And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Beneath the elements of genre, the twists and the interest in conceptual experimentation/deconstruction (whether its superhero mythology or the machinations of the thriller), all of Shyamalan's films are ultimately about characters trying to reconcile a very sad and tragic loss.

The narrative of any Shyamalan film, whether obfuscated by ghosts, aliens, secret societies or fictional water creatures, is usually there to facilitate this reconciliation; becoming an almost metaphorical imagining of a real-world dilemma, transformed into something more elaborate, more fantastical; a task or obstacle that the characters must overcome in order to put their lives back into perspective.

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:
Dev finds purpose in his cousin, Rupal; offering guidance in her own tale of unrequited love and in the 
difficult relationship that she has with her strict, conservative mother.

Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]:
In nurturing (his) Story, Cleveland finds a new reason to live; shaking off the pain of his family's murder and 
embracing something that brings meaning into a (seemingly) meaningless world.

After Earth [M. Night Shyamalan, 2013]:
Kitai's journey is not simply one of survival and self-discovery, but a way to reconcile with his father, 
who blames himself for the death of his daughter, Senshi, almost as much as Kitai.

In this conception, the aliens in a film like Signs (2002) are less a genuine extra-terrestrial presence than a physical manifestation of the emotional pain - the bereavement and grief - that is literally tearing apart the family at the centre of the film.  Meanwhile, the hostile planet of the more recent After Earth (2013) is, on one level, a conventional setting, but also becomes an on-screen representation of the father and son relationship that dominates its central conflict.  Their emotional disconnection from one another, the "void" of their relationship, is visible in the isolation of the planet - of our planet - and in its self-propagated slide into contamination and disrepair.  A planet once vibrant and verdant - a place of life and feeling - now a place of emptiness, violence and resentment.

The appeal of Praying with Anger is to see these obfuscating elements removed; to see the drama for what it is, without the need to hide the emotions beneath layers of genre, metaphor or abstraction.  Dev is neither a ghost nor superhero; he's not in conflict with the world, as a physical force, nor trying to save some mythical creature from extinction.  He's just a kid struggling to make sense of his own identity.  The world of the film, as vivid and intoxicating, different and strange as it may appear, is still the reality as it exists.  It may be exaggerated in an effort to make the audience identify with Dev's position as an outsider or his feeling of being overwhelmed by the clash of cultures, but the dramas and dilemmas that play out in this world are not the stuff of horror movies, fairy tales or science-fiction, but of everyday life.

That the film ends with something approaching the supernatural materialization of the character's recently deceased father (and a single act of faith that will give this character the strength to realise his true potential) has little to do with the practicalities of mainstream American genre cinema.  It is instead an acknowledgement of the traditions and beliefs of the Indian culture, which Shyamalan documents, sincerely.  It is this sincerity that provides a greater understanding of the same cultural attitudes and ideologies as they appear in the author's following films.

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:

Lady in the Water [M. Night Shyamalan, 2006]:

To see Praying with Anger is to see the work of a young filmmaker, not yet fully in command of his talent, and yet seamlessly blending elements of autobiography with self-aware references to Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, alongside the further influence of filmmakers like Spike Lee and Wong Kar-Wai.

From Lee, Shyamalan takes the idea of a film about conflict (both cultural and generational) and gives it a more personal, if not semi-autobiographical twist.  Casting himself in a pivotal role (as Lee sometimes did), Shyamalan designs the narrative of Praying with Anger in a way that evokes the development of Lee's landmark film, Do the Right Thing (1989).  Not just in the combination of broad comedy with more serious concerns regarding social politics, but in the crescendo of violence that propels the third act.  From Wong, there is the emphasis on time and the suspension of time (moments that seem to linger in the heat and the haze as characters struggle to make sense of their emotions), as well as the more significant feeling of repressed romanticism, and the quest for identity (as an extension of the pursuit of "home"), which each bring to mind the filmmaker's first masterpiece, Days of Being Wild (1990).

Similarly, the friendship between Dev and Sanjay - and Dev's own journey of self-discovery (that pain and frustration of a character who can't seem to place himself, culturally, or even personally) - is equally redolent of the friendship between Zed and the troubled Yuddy in Wong's aforementioned film. There is also the aspect of unrequited love, or the need for love to provide stability and connection as it refers to the forbidden courtship of Rupal and her fiancé, as well in the burgeoning but awkward friendship between Sabita and Dev (which recalls aspects of the relationship between Wong's Policeman 6117 and the pivotal Su Li Zhen).

Days of Being Wild [Wong Kar-Wai, 1990]:

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:

Days of Being Wild [Wong Kar-Wai, 1990]:

Praying with Anger [M. Night Shyamalan, 1992]:

That the film never quite gels, as a cohesive work, is less a criticism of the narrative than a testament to the extraordinary power of its individual scenes.  It is only because these individual scenes are so strong - so vivid and unforgettable in their imagery and in their documentation of the culture and its beliefs - that they tend to overwhelm the more conventional or generic moments of the characters struggling with school and family, or the pangs of first love.

Scenes like the séance at the temple - enlivened, as it is, by early Soviet cinema techniques - possesses a genuine magic and mysticism; an intensity that pushes the scene towards that of the metaphysical; an actual happening, sans Marky Mark.  The wedding, full of wonder and amazement, speaks to the theme of love and (again) the need for love as it relates to the predicaments of both Dev and his cousin Rupal, but also provides a rough template for the markedly more beautiful wedding sequence that will occur in the director's subsequent work, his masterpiece, The Village.  The scenes of violence and brutality - which demonstrate how easily the young Shyamalan could have directed a film like The Proposition (2005) or even Drive (2011) (if only he'd been more willing to appease the tastes of the contemporary audience for scenes of designer nihilism) - acquire a feeling of genuine threat, precisely because we care about these characters and don't want to see them throw their lives away on something so reckless and ill-advised.

In each of these scenes, we see another side of M. Night Shyamalan, but one that gives a greater context to his subsequent career.  In this respect, the film provides a skeleton key to unlocking the various secrets and obsessions that define Shyamalan's work; introducing his themes of displacement and reconciliation, as well as his interest in mysticism, or symbolism in general, and also his deadpan sense of humour.  Rather than seeing each subsequent film as a continuation of a thematic narrative that began with The Sixth Sense (meaning that each film has to be seen, first and foremost, as a supernatural mystery that builds to a sombre, jack in the box style "twist") the reclamation of Praying with Anger, as Shyamalan's actual debut, moves the emphasis back to the personal.

It reminds us that films like Wide Awake (1998), The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (2000), Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender, while buried beneath layers of genre, or mainstream excess, are still part of the same semi-autobiographical narrative that begins with the film in question.  That these films are less an attempt to be "the next Spielberg" than to personify emotions through narrative; each film a new examination of Shyamalan's own thoughts, fears, concerns.