This week, I caught myself in an impassioned argument with an ardent movie buff about the movies of M. Night Shyamalan (I like movies but wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a buff. More like a late-night couch potato.)
My friend, I’ll call him T-Bone, insists that the only decent movie Shyamalan made was The Sixth Sense, and even that was overrated. He says Unbreakable and Signs were tolerable, but the rest were, and I quote, “utter crap.”
I was indignant. I thought Unbreakable was brilliant and Signs was subtly spooky. (Plus, I liked that part in Signs where Joaquin Phoenix had tinfoil on his head. That amused me.) I loved The Village. I had to admit that the movie’s “twist” wasn’t great (I figured it out within the first fifteen minutes of the film, and this from a person who is consistently and pleasantly surprised at the end of Scooby Doo episodes), but, again: Joaquin Phoenix! And Ron Howard’s daughter! What a charming and original love story! Despite its predictability, I thought The Village was a worthwhile film.
I concurred, however, that The Happening was, and I quote myself now, “utter crap.”
The awfulness that was The Happening, and now, the awfulness that apparently is The Last Airbender, has sent former Shyamalan fans over the edge. At previews for his upcoming film, Devil, there have been reports of jeering! And laughing! As someone who is fairly certain she sat next to M. Night Shyamalan in a NYC café, making us nearly best friends forever, I am horrified by this behavior!
T-Bone wants Shyamalan to stop writing movies. Forever. He thinks Shyamalan can perhaps direct movies, but feels audiences needn’t be subjected to any more illogical plot twists or imaginary beings called narfs.
“I’m disappointed,” T-Bone admits, “because there might have been something really great there.”
I wonder. Was The Sixth Sense the best he had in him? Do we all have a best within us, and when it comes out, nothing will ever remotely compare to it? Or does the success of a particular piece of work, whether or be a novel, a movie, a piece of art, make a person strive too hard when they work on their next project, so that their compositions feel forced or inauthentic?
Ernest Hemingway was an exception to this rule. After the war, as his life began to spiral out of control, Hemingway’s writing suffered. He became his own worst critic, dismissing entire manuscripts as rubbish.
Hemingway was in bad shape. His love life (lives) were rocky. He drank too much. His novel, Across the River and into the Trees, was poorly received. His critics jeered. His reputation soured. Gertrude Stein called him names. Times were bad.
Then, in 1952, Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea. Perhaps you read it in high school. In 1953, the book won a Pulitzer. A year later- the Nobel Peace Prize. And boom goes the dynamite. Papa was back on top. (Critically, at least. Soon after his greatest success, he was involved in two near-fatal plane crashes, each with left him with severe injuries that caused him extreme physical pain. His drinking worsened, he became clinically depressed, and he shot himself in 1961.)
I admire Hemingway for not discarding writing altogether. He worked, through chronic pain, through the jeering, perhaps just because he couldn’t not write. And something magnificent came out of it.
So, I for one, believe Shyamalan should keep making films- even writing films. (And no- I don’t think Shyamlan is a Hemingway.) Perhaps I’m a bit deluded. But some movies, some novels, some short stories, are more than just “good”. They leave an indelible imprint on culture and individual memories. Ingrid Bergman’s single tear in Casablanca. The yellow brick road that meanders through Oz. Those remarkable first lines: Call me Ishmael; He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish; The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Those closing lines that tug at your soul: Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
This isn’t really a post about M. Night Shyamalan. It’s about pursuing a dream of greatness- even when you feel you’re failing. Even when someone else tells you you’re failing. Even when Gertrude Stein calls you names.
And I hope, sincerely, that M. Night Shyamalan makes another great movie. And I’m pretty sure he will. The dead people I see told me so.