Posts Tagged ‘Arts’

There are two types of people in the cinema-going world: those who like M. Night Shyamalan films, and those who don’t. It’s not an issue on which there’s much, if any, middle ground. With the possible exception of The¬†Sixth Sense, his films, while mainstream releases, have a tendency to polarise in the manner of arthouse flicks: either they’re revelations, or rot.

I used to be one of the unenlightened. Watching Signs on the big screen, I snorted with laughter. The Village left me irritable – what the hell kind of ending was that, anyway? I’d¬†been frightened out of my young life¬†when Haley Joel Osment¬†confessed to seeing dead people, but at that point, I didn’t even realise the films were by the same guy.¬†Had friends not taken me in hand, my opinion might never have changed, but after The Village, they sat me down and asked, in exacting tones, exactly why I was disappointed.

After twenty-odd minutes of flustered debating, we hit upon the crux of my frustrations, viz: the film had been marketed as horror. Although the first half of the narrative fit this pattern, the character relations, plot twist and conclusion took an entirely different turn, which lead me to believe that the whole was a botched attempt. So, my friends asked. Was the problem with the film, or just with what you thought it was meant to be?

I opened my mouth, closed it again, and thought back. I’d gone in expecting to see a horror film, and so had watched for narrative markers appropriate to the genre. They’d been there early on, but then vanished entirely, which left the possibility that I’d been actively misinterpreting the film, imposing my own assumptions on how it should work, and judging it wanting. It was a strange realisation, but the more I¬†considered it, the more¬†it made sense. Hadn’t I thought the same thing about Signs? It was as if I – and, for that matter, Hollywood – had been looking for The Sixth Sense in every subsequent Shyamalan film,¬†when they weren’t really horror at all.

With Lady in the Water, I made a conscious effort to¬†ignore the marketing and test my hypothesis: to watch with no expectations and an open mind.¬†Might I¬†see something I’d missed before?

I¬†could, and did. Near the end, I realised what should’ve been obvious all along: Shyamalan’s films are always about people. The pseudo-horror setting is simply his preferred vehicle for storytelling, a background mechanism designed to threaten, not the audience, but his characters. Thus menaced, the point of their reaction isn’t fright, but inter-development: how they draw together, and how they mend. Because healing, faith and self-acceptance are big themes in Shyamalan’s work. In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable,¬†supernaturally gifted¬†protagonists come to terms with their powers, not in order to save the world, but to help the people in it. Quietly and with inner strength, the heroes of Signs and Lady in the Water regain¬†their faith, two broken widowers made whole. And in The Village,¬†a community of emotionally¬†scarred people are forced to confront their injuries by the actions of three who are physically wounded: a dying man, a blind girl and her mad brother.

The subtlety of Shyamalan films simultaneously acts as their blessing and curse. Early scenes deliberately set up the false horror that, inevitably, constitutes their sales pitch, but the plots become introverted. It is as if the film is a train travelling towards a junction: the audience expects to travel one way, and instead is taken another. What we protest is a percieved error Рturn back, turn back! Рwhen, in fact, our course was planned from the outset.

Except for The Sixth Sense, which he didn’t produce,¬†and Wide Awake, which he neither produced nor appeared in, Shyamalan has, at 37, written, produced, directed and appeared in all his films. Given the excellent characterisation,¬†scripting, cinematography and production values, it’s hard not to be impressed. But more impressive still are the moments of beauty and revelation which¬†characterise his work: the idea that even though we are all flawed, we can¬†fix ourselves.

On¬†completing school, there was speculation among my nearest and dearest as to whether, given my interests,¬†I’d study Arts or Creative Writing. With almost zero hesitation, I opted for Arts, because while the idea of writing¬†stories¬†for three years¬†seemed superficially appealing, I couldn’t see what it would achieve. Creative writing degrees don’t guarantee publication; neither can they vouch for literary smarts, and they certainly don’t help in getting a day-job. By nature, their¬†effect is paradoxical: confident writers will find them unnecesary, while a degree can’t help the trully unskilled. This leaves a very slim margin for potential students – confident writers wanting to brush up their skills,¬†and general non-writers looking for a creative outlet. On both counts, the end qualification is largely redundant, which¬†makes¬†any benefit¬†ancillary¬†to the actual course structure.

I was unsurprised, therefore, to hear Hanif Kureishi’s views on the matter. Tell a lie – I was surprised by his¬†opinion that on-campus shooting incidents in America are¬†typically the work of creative writing students, but that was it.

It’s rare you’ll find an author who endorses creative writing degrees as a means to success (“rare” here¬†meaning “I’ve never heard one say so”). While workshops with established writers are undoubtably helpful, writing requires a base level of talent and enthusiasm that cannot be manufactured.¬†As with¬†art¬†or musical composition, one cannot simply rock up to a job agency and say, “I want a career as an author. Preferably crime fiction, but I’m willing to take biography or science.” Which is why the creative fields – journalism included – are so dog-eat-dog: formal qualifications are no means of gauging talent. You can have three degrees from leading universities, but that doesn’t mean you can tell a story, sculpt a statue, write a sizzling article or play the sax. In areas dominated by self-education, what matters is your ability to fight through the slew of equally determined, comparably talented hopefuls, not whether you got a B on your latest story.

Such¬†struggling, underdoggish, exclusionary battle-tactics exemplify both¬†the best and worst of the arts world. On the one hand, anyone with self-belief and a scrap of talent can have a shot at brilliance. On the other, luck, nepotism and soul-crushing tenacity have more to do with success than a fair comparison of applicants. This is the slushpile effect: without an inbuilt mechanism for sifting the worthwhile¬†from the awful, any Joe¬†Muck can submit a manuscript, clog up an audition or otherwise tread on a talented aspirant’s toes with impunity.

Pardon me. I think I feel an urge to run screaming into the night.