As part of the release of superhero thriller Glass (January 17, 2019), I’m portraying the life and work of its director M. Night Shyamalan, who proves that there is more cinema (in Hollywood) than just fast-paced cuts, action-packed plots and all the hammering music in the background.
“I see dead people.” This secret, which the frightened boy Cole Sear entrusted to his psychiatrist Dr. Crowe, was on everyone’s lips in autumn 1999 and went down in film history. Eleven-year-old Haley Joel Osment received an Oscar nomination for his performance as intimidated Cole, while Bruce Willis, actually known as a merciless action hero, received extensive critical acclaim for his calm, pathetic role as a psychiatrist. But who was behind this film? Who held the strings together? Who wrote this original story and directed it? “This Indian director with the unspeakable name” was the answer. This means no one else than Manoj Night Shyamalan. With The Sixth Sense he overcame his failed film career and became a celebrated prodigy overnight.
Indian Roots, Spiritual Education
Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan was born on August 6, 1970 as the son of Nelliate C. and Jayalakshmi Shyamalan in southwest India. Within a year, the family returned to the United States, where they had emigrated in the 1960s. There the family lived in Philadelphia. Both parents were active in the medical field and relatively respected, which made Shyamalan grow up well protected. He attended the private Catholic schools of Waldron Mercy Academy and Episcopal Academy, where he underwent a rigorous, disciplined educational process. Despite the Christian religion at school, Shyamalan was also confronted at home with the spiritual ideas of Hinduism. Bernd Zywietz writes in an article in film magazine Film-Dienst: “It seems that this religious interplay has turned Shyamalan into a wanderer between worlds: the search for destiny and higher knowledge are his themes.” And he is right about that, because these spiritual, metaphysical and existential motifs will later be important elements in his films.
Influenced by works by Spike Lee, Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, he began making short films at the tender age of twelve. Five years later, Shyamalan had already made 45 small in-house productions. After finishing school, he studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. During this time he met his future wife Bhavna, with whom he now has three daughters. After his studies he changed his name from Manoij Nelliyattu Shyamalan to M. Night Shyamalan.
The difficult entry into the film business
In 1992 Shyamalan made his first feature-length film during his studies. Praying with Anger was created primarily with his own savings and project funding from the American Film Institute. It tells the story of an Indian boy who grows up in the US and travels to India to study his homeland. The film received much praise and was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, but Shyamalan was to lose his chance with his next film: Wide Awake, which came to the cinemas in 1998, was torn apart by critics and a colossal flop at the box office. The comedy drama about a boy who is confronted with religion and then embarks on a search for God did not convince the audience and the critics. What now? Shyamalan must have thought: “Maybe I should just turn the tables: A boy confronted with religion but haunted by ghosts.” He started writing the screenplay entitled The Sixth Sense.
Between recognition and total rejection
Shyamalan’s script was bought for 3 million US dollars by the Walt Disney Company, which also hired him as a director. In the fall of 1999, the psycho-thriller unexpectedly stormed the cinema charts, convinced critics, earned 672 million US dollars worldwide and received 6 Oscar nominations: Shyamalan’s breakthrough was made. The Sixth Sense should go down in the history of horror film as a “gentle, subtle horror”. Bruce Willis, who played the psychologist in the film, got shortly afterwards an offer to take the leading role again in the next Shyamalan movie. He accepted and the shooting of Unbreakable could begin. The superhero thriller came into the cinemas in 2000 and was relatively well received, although not as pronounced as The Sixth Sense. In 2002, the science fiction thriller Signs with Mel Gibson in the leading role followed. The film was well received and flushed in over 400 million US dollars. But soon Shyamalan was accused of staging his films always in the same style – emphasized slowly with some shock effects.
In 2004 The Village split the critics too deeply. The mystery thriller about a community that lives outside civilization and is afflicted by monsters was commercially successful again, but some critics literally took the film apart: neglected dramaturgy, poor resolution. The only thing they agreed on was Shyamalan’s masterfully poetic staging. With Lady in the Water (2006) and the B-movie The Happening (2008) he literally went swimming. Torn apart by critics, the audience remained absent. The adaptation of the animated series Avatar with the title The Last Airbender (2010) also met with an iron wall of rejection in the US. The science fiction film After Earth (2013) was a little financially success but again torn apart by critics. After these flops Shyamalan returned to his roots: With the found footage film The Visit (2015) he succeeded in creating an ingeniously comic psycho-thriller and with the indirect Unbreakable sequel Split (2017) he again enthused critics and audience. Now, with Glass (2019) he closes his superhero trilogy, also called the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. The movie already grossed more than 240 million US dollar against a budget of 20 million US dollar…
One-Hit-Wonder or genius?
Critics of Shyamalan call him “One-Hit-Wonder”. For them, the director had only had one real success: The Sixth Sense. And the latter would be nothing more than a miracle because Shyamalan could not make films as we would like to see. The success of The Sixth Sense would therefore be nothing more than a coincidence.
In particular, he is advised to hire a scriptwriter who would help him write his stories for the screen and that he would be more successful. It is a paradox. If he hired a scriptwriter to write scripts for him, the story would no longer be his own. A second thing he is accused of is that he writes predictable scenarios. For example, in The Sixth Sense, the death of the character played by Bruce Willis seems obvious to some. The same goes for The Village: the final climax would be too predictable. It doesn’t matter that Shyamalan’s stories are predictable or unpredictable, but rather that they are good and interesting. These arguments are not justified, misused and are too much based on the commercial success of the films. But this contradicts itself because his four films The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village have grossed a total of about 1.6 billion dollars in the world. This is huge for films that are not based on a book or comic book known to the masses as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Spiderman or Batman. If you count all his movies (from Wide Awake to Glass) they grossed together 3 billion US-dollars (without DVD and Blu-ray sells).
But can we then talk about a genius who is ahead of his time? It is true that Shyamalan has his very own style that distinguishes him from the masses. He does not use exaggerated special effects and too much action like other directors, but works on a slow-rhythm editing, serving the narrative and the rise of suspense, with disturbing and fatal music and sound effects, using expressive images that take the audience under its spell. In addition, he does not use horror clichés but a lot subtler atmosphere. Similarly, his horror or fantasy films are not a meaningless butchery, but also deal with other more serious themes such as faith, the search for one’s own identity and happiness, politics, life and religion (for example in The Village, Signs or Lady in the Water). His films are therefore much more philosophical, intelligent than other films of the genre. It frightens us with new, more interesting and disturbing means, but at the same time it encourages us to reflect on the plot or some poetic metaphors behind which lies an important message that must be deciphered. And there again some people criticize him for not being more explicit in his metaphors. These people are really right. There is no pleasure in guessing them. You really should write on the cinema screen what they express. What the hell?!
Moreover, even if the critics destroyed Lady of The Water, the renowned French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma elected the fantastic tale in its list of the 10 best films of the year 2006. And David Bordwell, a film specialist, even wrote an article defending the film.
It is possible that we can talk about genius as we sometimes do about Woody Allen or David Lynch, but it would be more appropriate to talk about a master. As Woody Allen is a master in the description of human relations and David Lynch a master of Surrealism-Absurd-Dark, Shyamalan is a master of the subtle.
Reversal of genre conventions
What is certain is that Shyamalan stands out from the Hollywood norm and tries to establish his style that is far from that of American mass cinema. Shyamalan’s work belongs to the genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction films. But he then reverses the conventions of these different genres. Thus, Unbreakable and Split are referred to superhero films and Signs to a science fiction film. Certainly, Unbreakable and Split take up the effects and standards of superhero films by respecting the classic narrative opposing good and evil, but they clearly differ from films of the same genre such as Batman, X-Men or Spiderman by their slow pace editing. Rather, film specialists call Unbreakable a melodrama or a mystical thriller because of its harmful atmosphere. And Split as a psycho thriller. The same is true for Signs: The film is more a mixture of a thriller and a melodrama than a science fiction film. The Village is seen as a horror film with thriller elements, but it is a costume drama according to the Indian-born filmmaker.
The Happening is even interpreted as an “anti-disaster film” and The Last Airbender is Shyamalan’s very personal interpretation of a blockbuster. This distinction of norms and rules of a genre is specific to this director. That Shyamalan has found a very special style and technique to visualize the fantastic and horror also shows itself in the press. Hans-Georg Rodek from German newspaper Die Welt writes for example:
The Village confirms Mr. Night Shyamalan as an outsider in the mainstream, as someone who paints feelings with a fine brush instead of suffocating the screen with overloaded effects.
The Hollywood rebel
Shyamalan’s slow-paced style is directly contrary to the hasty editing and narrative of his contemporaries. Many scenes are shot with only one camera or simply do not have any cuts. Thus, The Sixth Sense has 686 different camera perspectives, Unbreakable 322 and Signs 574. If we compare these figures with other Hollywood films, which have two to three thousand different perspectives, we can see that Shyamalan is once again showing itself as someone who does not play by the rules. This slow rhythm allows the actors more freedom (a bit like in the theatre) and the spectator can quietly observe the characters’ inner conflicts.
Summer 2010: The Last Airbender and Inception are released in theaters. Both films are “effect films”, blockbuster. The first is staged slowly and creates depth, the second is lost in speed and overload. Shyamalan’s film works a lot with CGI effects without drowning its characters and conveys a spiritual message of rare peaceful intensity. Christopher Nolan’s film is based on a rather original idea: through people’s dreams it is possible to steal their ideas or implement them. This kind of story that we have known since Dark City and Blade Runner is then unfortunately suffocated by the speed of the editing, the hyper bombastic music and the non-time for emotion. The scenes of pursuit and destruction follow one another. This collage of action scenes is accompanied by the loudest and most undifferentiated music ever composed. The Last Airbender appears as a masterpiece next to Inception even if the dialogues and some of the actors sometimes still seem too clumsy.
Mr. Night Shyamalan is clearly different from Hollywood but still works there. It seems to be a paradox. But in truth Shyamalan wants to agitate Hollywood; he is its rebel. And Glass shows this clearly since January 18, 2019.
Until then keep watching Shyamalan movies!