Why write so much about a movie that probably doesn’t deserve it, because lessons can be learned more from a film that’s lacking that something than by one that’s got everything. Jim Emerson has an interesting write up at his blog Scanners, with a lot of nice comments in return. This was my comment to him, and my own way of continuing to work out what worked and didn’t work in Shyamalan’s new film The Happening. If you want to read my original post, here. And a later post that’s about the boldness of directors like Shyamalan and further talks about why this film may not completely work.
I kind of completely agree that there is no logical reason for this movie to have been made like this.
Because I also agree that he’s attempting things that other filmmakers would not and in ways they probably would not approach it. The idea of the film alone would have been scoffed at by most people. It’s almost an experiment unto itself and took true cahones to even attempt to pull off. That doesn’t mean Shyamalan does pull it off. Or that he successfully pulls off his attempts to stage things differently.
For instance, I don’t think these suicide scenes you describe are supposed to have an emotional pull to them. The one you talk about with people jumping off the building lacking that one shot to truly make it disturbing. I think what Shyamalan is going for is far more casual. These are casual suicides we’re witnessing. And I think that in his mind it’s supposed to make it more unsettling to witness. There’s no additional dramatic tension necessary – a close up of a person or wide shot showing the distance to the ground would have added a dramatic layer that from the way he consistently shoots scenes in the film – I pull notice to the word consistently – would have defeated his purpose. The long shot of the mower rolling over the man is so casually laid out, you cringe long before it happens because you see it coming. And in turn that casual feeling is supposed to make the audience feel more unsettled than afraid. That feeling that something is amiss is supposed to add, not distract. This is all speculation of course, but again I draw this argument back to the word consistently, he’s not shooting these sequences like this by accident. He’s not making these decisions without reason. Does his vision make you feel the way he wants you too? Or does it make the movie great? I say, not horrible, but not great. And to say he doesn’t know what he’s doing is just as speculative as saying he does know what he’s doing, but it still doesn’t work (these are two very different things.) I still don’t think it works, in fact I find it ignorantly corny.
He’s always tried to visually stage scenes in a way a person doesn’t expect – the scene in “Unbreakable” when Bruce Willis is hitting on the lady in the train is seen from the perspective of a child looking back and forth, for instance.
He’s also always tried to write dialogue in a somewhat stilted manner to convey characters not being able to communicate what they want. In “Signs” this style of dialogue worked pretty well.
But here though…he attempts to use many of those same tools…but you’re right, something is just off. And it doesn’t make sense (and maybe that’s what he was going for…something is just off in this film, nobody in the film knows what it is, no body in the audience knows what it is, does that mean it works?) Nothing in the film really connects, logic is used and then discarded when he wants it to be (the definition of the word happening is interesting)…I’ve never seen a movie in which the mise en scene of the film was the antagonist!!! Look out everyone, the atmosphere is attacking us!!! Or in which a radio appears on a fence post when needed or a house miraculously appears behind a group of people…
The only time that that weird uncertain confusing feeling went away and I felt a hint of terror was with the old lady in the house. You talk about the scene with the doll and the scene at the dinner table. These to me were the most unsettling scenes in the film, because of how they were visually constructed, and the strangeness in which the dialogue was approached. This isn’t just another scene in another movie in which people are having dinner, so why should it be constructed so? Just as in “Rosemary’s Baby” when they are enjoying a snack with their elderly neighbors and the old man is in a single shot separated from the group, half covered in shadows, it draws attention to itself, rightfully so and meaningfully so. You want him to stand up and go sit down next to someone else. Or when you want to peer around the corner of the room to see what she’s saying on the phone. It draws attention to itself without distracting. It’s supposed to be off putting. There is something off in this dinner scene, with this old lady. Just as with the doll. Freaked the hell out of me!
The problem with these sequences — they had nothing…absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie!!! And the style in which they were shot was so far removed from everything else it’s no wonder that you were put off by them Jim. I sat there afraid for my life around this old woman and at the same time strangely befuddled. And then before you can try to make any connection to the rest of the movie Shyamalan picks up his pencil and moves on to the rest of the story we were following before. There’s nothing logical about it the inclusion of this lady and then deletion of her from the story doesn’t sit. And I don’t know if that is supposed to make it better or just makes it worse…I DON’T KNOW! I’m so frustrated by this film and what it’s attempting to do. If the whole film had taken place in this house, with this old woman, so they feared what was happening on the outside and couldn’t control what was happening on the inside…a movie in which everyone has to control the level of their emotions or be killed off by the mise en scene, no the wind is blowing, run away (ha!)…I think I’ve just come up with an idea for my next film (minus the attacking mise en scene)! A room full of Hulks!
“The Happening” is a great premise looking for a way in which to be told. I think that’s why I’m so frustrated by the film. Mark Twain I think talks about the importance of finding the right way to tell a story – Shyamalan needs to listen and take some script notes. He’s a fine director, but has to polish, polish, polish and then completely rewrite from the ground up if needs be. You can only get lucky as a demigod writer so many times.
I’ve written my reactions at my blog but I find this film to lie somewhere between a joke Shyamalan is pulling on everyone (how could it not be, right?) and someone tripping in a field where there’s nothing to trip on.