Saturday, September 05, 2015
In “The Sacred Idol,” the Shrinkies (Ted Eccles, Susan Lawrence and Jeff Mackay), take a raft downstream in the jungle and encounter a primitive tribe dwelling there. The tribe worships a stone idol and statue.
Unfortunately, Dr. Shrinker (Jay Robinson) now controls the stone statue, and makes the natives do his evil bidding by pretending to be a God. His control is actually accomplished by Hugo (Billy Barty), who operates a remote control machine some distance from the village.
The Villagers come to believe that Gordy (Mackay) is a benevolent God, but to prove his worth, he must gain control of the same statue.
And then, he must fulfill an ancient prophecy about retrieving an emerald from a serpent’s lair.
“The Sacred Idol” is the weakest Dr. Shrinker (1976) episode of the three I’ve watched so far. The ideas in the episode are incredibly hackneyed, not to mention culturally insensitive. To wit: an indigenous population in the jungle is so superstitious that it can be manipulated by a super-villain with a remote control, and only three other white people can set things right for them.
Ah, the white man’s burden…
Now -- it’s true -- I teach Intercultural Communications at a college level, so perhaps I’m hyper-aware of this kind of thing (though I don't think so...), but the assumptions that underline this episode's narrative (about the inferiority, both mental and religious, of non-western cultures) are really pretty amazing and backwards.
It’s hard to believe stories this hackneyed and culture-centric were still being produced in the 1970s. That was, after all, the great age of tolerance, before the push-back of the 1980s.
Next week, we move on to a different Saturday morning series.
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters (1975): "The Vampire's Apprentice" (November 8, 1975)
Just a few years after the highly-rated Night Stalker movies premiered to high ratings and one year after the Kolchak (1974-1975) TV series, Lou Scheimer’s Filmation created a kind of comedy variation on the premise for Saturday mornings.
The live-action series The Ghost Busters (1975) follows the unusual adventures of three down-on-their-luck paranormal investigators: Spencer (Larry Storch), Kong (Forest Tucker) and the gorilla, Tracy (played, or rather “trained” by Bob Burns.)
The series ran for fifteen episodes, and is most famous, today, because it landed in the pop-culture nearly a full-decade before the similarly-named blockbuster Ivan Reitman movie of 1984.
Also, The Ghost Busters features a similar concept: a small group of bumbling investigators battling the supernatural with highly-advanced ghost-catching technology.
After 1984, the two versions of the material duked it out in Saturday morning cartons, one based on the 1970s Filmation program, the other one based on the popular movie.
In the original series, Spencer, Kong, and Tracy receive assignments, Mission: Impossible-style from self-destructing tapes, and then go after various monsters or legends, including the Mummy, the Frankenstein Monster, evil witches, and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In this episode, “The Vampire’s Apprentice,” the triumvirate challenges Countess Dracula (Dena Dietrich) and Count Dracula (Billy Holmes). In this case, Dracula is portrayed as a senile old bat. At one point in the episode, his fangs even get corked.
This evil duo masquerades as the Count and Countess of Luxembourg, but the Ghost Busters see through the façade, and confront them at their castle, which is conveniently located next to a creepy (cardboard) grave yard.
The humor in this episode of The Ghost Busters, as in all episodes, feels as antique as Old Dracula himself.
This story labors on the obvious, like “stake (as in wooden…) vs. “steak” (as in to eat) misunderstandings. At one point, the Countess of Dracula (Dena Deitrich) quips “be subtle.” Unfortunately, that’s advice the episode and the series never take.
Some of the oddities featured in this episode:
Nobody questions the presence of a gorilla in polite society. Not in town, not in the castle, and not in the office.
It is never clear how the Ghost Busters' unseen task master (or masters) figures out that there's trouble in town. We see Dracula and his countess materialize in the grave-yard, and go to their castle. But how does anyone outside the two of them know of their arrival?
Finally, one bite by a vampire makes you undead, according to this episode. A second bite, however, returns you to a human state.
That’s confusing, even to vampires, no? Now let me see, did I bite you three times or four?
Many folks of my age feel a certain nostalgia for The Ghost Busters, and that’s great. But the series is damn weird, right down to the theme song, agonizingly sung by Tucker and Storch.
Friday, September 04, 2015
The Village (2004) might be viewed as the essential turning point -- or even point of no return -- for the genre films of M. Night Shyamalan.
Although the film was a huge box office hit, grossing over 256 million dollars worldwide against a 50 million dollar budget, it also made significantly less than Signs (2002) did. That film had a global take of 408 million dollars.
Similarly, the reviewers at this point had traveled from mostly positive notices (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs) to strongly-mixed ones in their responses. From here -- with films such as Lady in the Water (2007), The Happening (2008) and After Earth (2013) -- the trend turned fully, catastrophically negative.
To put it another way, a critical darling soon turned critical punching bag, and The Village stands at ground zero for that tragic process. On that front, and according to some film-goers, it’s all downhill from here for M. Night Shyamalan.
I don’t feel that way.
In terms of theme and sensitivity of approach, The Village has much in common with the previous films by this director. Specifically, it concerns a main character who finds her purpose in life, and simultaneously involves the nature of sight. By the same token, the film involves another Shyamalan obsession: storytelling. It seems to ask, in some canny way, if it is ever okay for a storyteller to lie.
Is there a greater responsibility for a storyteller than to tell the truth?
That point roils underenath the film’s structure and characters, and may change how you perceive certain characters, or even the film’s story.
The main protagonist in The Village is also one of my all-time favorite Shyamalan characters: Ivy Walker, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Unlike Malcolm Crowe, David Dunn, Elijah Price, Graham Hess or Mr. Heep, Ivy is not at all blind to her purpose in life.
She is actually -- literally -- blind in fact, but not so to what she wants, or how life should be. Specifically, Ivy is in love with mild-mannered blacksmith Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) and understands that they are supposed to share their lives together. Dark forces rear their head during the narrative and attempt to destroy that destiny, and Ivy faces incredible peril to preserve what she knows is the right path; to stay on course despite the duplicity and “storytelling” of the Elders in her community, including her father.
But more than anything else, Ivy is a point of significant light.
I love how the film expresses visually Ivy Walker’s sense of indomitable courage. She can’t face the world with her eyes because of her handicap. Instead, she reaches out to inteface with the world with a remarkable geture: an up-turned palm. There’s an expectation in that motion; in that action. Ivy knows not what will touch her palm, but she holds her hand out to encounter it nonetheless.
It’s a beautiful view of optimism and hope; of meeting the world on its own terms without fear or even, really expectation.
I admire The Village primarily as a character study, and to a high degree as her love story. Ivy is a beautiful person through and through, optimistic in the face of defeat, and tenacious before any challenge. She is truly, wondrously alive, and I could watch Howard play this character in a variety of stories. She is quite simply delightful. Ivy’s love of dance; her attaching of “color” to those in her life, and other affecting character traits make her, in my opinion, an unforgettable and worthwhile protagonist.
Similarly, the repartee between the loquacious Ivy and the taciturn Lucius is funny and touching. This duo shares a great scene in which they get directly at their noticeable personality differences in a lover's quarrel.
“Why can you not say what is in your head?” asks Ivy, flustered. “Why can you not stop saying what is in your head?” Lucius replies with exasperation. The film features many moments like this one; moments that seem to understand how no one can annoy or irritate us as much as the people we love. They've got our number. And we have theirs.
So largely on the basis of Ivy’s story, and her journey to achieve her purpose, I count The Village as a strong film.
Some of the mechanics of the plot don’t work nearly as well for me this time around, and I’ll engage with those deficits in the body of the review. But suffice it to say that The Village is wholly engaging -- immersive, even -- on a human level first, and so I recommend it on that basis.
Different movies boast different gifts; different virtues. The Village gives us a remarkable, joyous character in Ivy Walker. It is an unforgettable experience following her on her journey, even if aspects of that specific journey, perhaps, raise questions about storyteller "honesty" and matters of structure.
“We may question our decisions.”
In a remote, rural village governed by a group of Elders (William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, etc.), these leaders rebuff the efforts of young Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) to visit the towns beyond, and bring back medicines and tools for the agrarian community.
Soon after Lucius’s entreaties, an old enemy -- monstrous creatures known as “Those We Don’t Speak Of” --- breach the town border, killing live-stock and marking the denizens' houses with the evil color, red.
Meanwhile, a developmentally-arrested young man, Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) stabs Lucius, badly wounding him, when he learns of the blacksmith's engagement to a friend, the blind Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Lucius will die soon without medicine from the towns, and Ivy loves him desperately. A town Elder and founder of the town, Walker (Hurt) -- Ivy's father -- confides in her about the Village’s true nature, as well as the monsters.
Now, Ivy must venture, alone and afraid, to the towns if she hopes to save the life of her intended husband.
“I see the world, just not as you see it.”
My biggest concern with The Village is the way that it "cheats." I never felt in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, or Signs that Shyamalan overtly or blatantly cheated to maintain one of his trademark false realities.
His films work, as you may recall, in the following fashion: A main character goes through life “blinded” by his or her perceptual sets, only to have those blinders removed in the last act. He or she then sees life how it really is. Some see this reckoning as a “twist ending.” I prefer to see the new angle of sight as the character’s recognition of his or her previous selective exposure.
In other words, this charcters suddenly sees the world in a new and more truthful away. All barriers to accurate sight dissipate. The character drops his or her previous perceptual baggage.
But early in The Village, there is a funeral for a child who has died, Danny Nicholson. We see his gravestone and it reads, on screen -- in close-up no less: 1890 - 1897.
These dates apparently tell us precisely when the action is occurring (Shortly before the twentieth century), and so we attune ourselves to that context. We are shown these dates deliberately.
And of course, they are a lie.
The year is not 1897, but likely 2003 or 2004. The people of “the village” have shunned the modern age and its violence (and technology), and have set back the clock over a hundred years. The details of this story bear this out, but the grave-stone is, for me, remains a problem. It answers a question we want answered regarding our orientation as an audience. It knowingly fools us. This date is not something nebulous that can be interpreted two ways (like Abby Crowe crying on her bed with a box of Kleenex), but something that is tangible and defined. And again, it’s a lie.
Now, one might note that it is possible that the families that established the isolated village chose a date, and set the clock and calendar back a hundred years. But why would they do that in an isolated society? If there is no outer world worth visiting the Village, why begin it in 1870, say, instead of 1970? What benefit would that hundred year difference give them? I can’t frankly, see one. The people born and raised in the village would have no idea what “1970” means in terms of context, it’s just a number. So it seems unnecessary to turn back the clock.
In other words, the date on the gravestone smells to me of a bread crumb left to lead us in the wrong direction, and nothing else. There aren’t two possible readings of it, and indeed the gravestone is not mentioned at the end of the film, when the truth is learned about the villagers being people displaced from violent modernity
However -- and it seems to me there’s always a “however” with the films of this talented artist -- it is also true that The Village involves implicitly, at least on some level, lies. Or more aptly, lies as they relate to stories and storytellers.
Walker and the other Elders maintain many lies every day. They maintain the lie of “Those Who Shall Not Be Spoken About.” They maintain the lie of the evil color (red). They maintain the lie of the calendar date. Walker must eventually explain such lies to Ivy, and she must then choose -- with this knowledge -- what to do. Does knowledge of the lie make her life better or worse? Or is the lie, ultimately inconsequential to her happiness?
We can assume that Ivy decides that she still wants the future she had with Lucius before she knew the truth. We cannot blame her for this. We all want what is familiar and safe. Offscreen, she decides that the lie is worth maintaining, because she can still find happiness within its confines.
We must now apply this idea to the film’s storyteller, M. Night Shyamalan. The presence of the grave-stone date pretty much qualifies as a lie. In this case, Shyamalan is showing us an untruth so he can tell this particular story; weave this particular narrative.
How can we judge if that is right?
Well what is the narrative? Is our enjoyment of it worth a lie?
Well, some might view The Village as a narrative about optimism and courage and hope in the young. The world may not be what they want it to be, but they can make it better. The Elders made a choice, and to quote the film “we may question our decisions” -- but their intentions were honorable. They wanted to make a world free of violence and crime; a world that was secure and safe, and free from modernity. They banished the color red (symbolic of blood) and sought to start over. So the film asks us explicitly to consider the idea that it may be okay to lie, if the cause is just.
But is it really right to lie for a good cause (like an entertaining cinematic experience?)
Perhaps Shyamalan felt he had to feature that visual lie -- the gravestone -- because his story of hope and courage, and of generations too, was worth telling. And perhaps, structurally speaking, he felt he needed that date on screen. Perhaps because he didn’t want audiences wondering constantly “when is this taking place?” instead of focusing on the characters and their journey.
I’m not an apologist, however, because I think the artist might have told the same story and subtracted that shot. I think we all would have been okay with that, and indeed that the film would have been improved. But I can see how the idea of “liars” is woven into the actions of the characters (namely the Elders) and reflected, actually, in the structure of the plot.
My other criticism of the film’s structure involves timing. The Village is structured in such a way that Ivy (and therefore the audience) learns the secret of the monsters before she is menaced by one (really Noah Percy dressed in the suit). I submit the movie would be a lot scarier if somehow it were possible to alter the order of things in the third act. So that when Ivy is ensconced in that field of red and menaced by the beast, the audience is still wondering what the hell that thing is. As it stands in the film, we know it’s Noah, and so we feel less fear and uncertainty than we should. We should be gripped with terror, wondering what the hell that thing is.
Similarly, I feel that this is the first film the director's made in which Shyamalan doesn’t demonstrate full faith and trust in the audience. We are probably told one or two too many times by the Elders about people in their families who died. The first time, we go right by it. The second time we understand that it is important information because we have heard it twice. The third time, it plays as obvious that we should be paying attention and anticipating the pay-off. We get that this is Very Important Information.
Were I to re-edit The Village, I would take out the grave-stone shot, remove one reference to a relative being killed in “the Towns” and try to figure out some way to change the timing of when we know the monster is simply Noah. That last one is the tallest order. But I feel the film would be completely rebuilt, and devoid of cognitive noise if those edits were made. Of course, having seen Lady in the Water, I also know exactly what Shymalan thinks of second-guessing movie critics!
So why do I still love The Village and count it as a good film?
Beyond featuring a wonderful central character, Ivy, in some way The Village speaks to the context of the time, 2004. Take out the specific details and you’re looking at a country (the village) which arranges a false flag operation so as to scare its people into compliance and maintain the secrets of its government.
In 2003, of course, our government exaggerated us into the Iraq War. Saddam would use nukes on us, and if we didn’t wage war, the result would be nuclear mushrooms over our cities. How many times did we hear that nonsense?
Well, Saddam neither had nukes, nor the delivery system to launch them into the United States. Yet somehow he became an existential threat that require a very expensive invasion. Never mind that he was a secular bulwark between theocratic nations, preserving the fragile stability of the Middle East...
The point I’m making involves lies (or again, exaggerations). They can be used to get people to do things a government desires. If you drill down the details of The Village even further, a certain color -- red – denotes fear and danger.
And of course, in 2004, Americans were getting used to the new color-coded graph of terrorism, freshly minted by the Department of Homeland Security. And red -- as it is in the film -- was the color of greatest jeopardy. Do colors denote meaning? No, of course not. (Consider, in 1927 Time Magazine was advocating that boys wear pink and girls wear blue...), but colors are often assigned meaning by social engineers in an effect to reinforce cultural norms, or achieve a social end (like validating the choice to go to war).
Overall, The Village appears to suggest that people can be controlled by lies, but simultaneously – in a weird way -- that one needn’t throw away the baby with the bathwater. Walker and the Elders have lied and manipulated the people, and Ivy is sad for them because they have transgressed morally. Walker begs her to forgive his “silly lies.” And to all available evidence, she does. Life is not so bad that it is worth destroying this village to save it.
I think very few film directors could write such lines as “The world moves for love. It kneels before it. In awe,” and get away with it. But William Hurt delivers Shyamalan’s dialogue well, and the focus there is right where it should be: on two people separated by fate, joined at heart. The movie may have some structural problems, but its heart is in the right place.
Sometimes, people we love to silly things, or try to make life perfect, forgetting that “heartache is a part of life.” They stumble in their pursuits. But The Village suggests that their mistakes were made out of love, and that the progeny of those foolhardy people might make a silly dream into a better version of reality.
That’s the social contract, isn’t it? The first generation makes a decision and tries to get things right, failing egregiously along the way. But the next generation starts, inch by inch, to perfect those advances. Watching The Village, and contemplating the lying, pathetic Elders, all I could think was: the future belongs to Ivy Walker, a blind woman who can see better and more clearly than her sighted father. She will address the wrongs of her father, surely.
The Village is, perhaps, the first Shyamalan film that I have considerable reservations about; that I feel isn’t constructed like the steel trap it should be (and like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs really are). It does have some miscues and some faults. But as a love story, and a story of generations, I find it quite beautiful, and quite rewarding. So I forgive the filmmaker the "silly lies" he utilizes to bring us this story and make it all hang together.
I try not to use the term guilty pleasure anymore -- because I don’t generally feel guilty for liking or enjoying films -- but I must confess that The Village is a film I love, and one that I don’t love entirely for rational or cerebral reasons. Making the intellectual case for it has been more difficult than it was, for instance, with Signs.
But the heart wants what it wants, right? I may rationally question my decision to love The Village, but love it I do.
Next up in The Shyamalan Series: Lady in the Water (2007).
Thursday, September 03, 2015
M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) is a science-fiction movie that concerns a very human, very grounded subject: perceptual sets.
That’s a fancy way of describing sight, you might say.
We all choose, based on our perceptual baggage or sets, how we interpret events in life, and then we see and comprehend life according to the limits or boundaries of that particular perceptual set.
At times, we actually erect perceptual barriers that preclude us from clear vision, either out of fear, suspicion, or even grief. In some cases, that perceptual set is dictated by selective exposure, the common tendency to expose one’s self to information that merely reaffirms existing attitudes, even if the data contradicts the facts.
Accordingly, a key moment in the Shyamalan film involves a lengthy monologue by the protagonist, who describes two kind of people in this world, and their particular perceptual sets. One brand of people doesn’t have faith, and believes he is alone in the world…that there is no help when danger arrives.
The other sort of people have faith, and view their lives through that perceptual set. These folks believe that when push comes to shove, they are not alone. They are loved and looked after. Someone stands beside them; perhaps God.
The key protagonist in Signs is Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), and he is a typical M. Night Shyamalan protagonist in the sense that -- much like Malcolm Crowe, David Dunn, Elijah Price or Mr. Heep -- he has fallen off the intended trajectory of his life. He is off-course from his true destiny. Because of this, he is both sad and rudderless. He faces each day with despair and emptiness instead of hope and promise.
Specifically, Hess is a man who has lost his faith because of the tragic death of his wife in a meaningless car accident.. He can no longer bring himself to believe in a kind, loving, shepherd-like God. All he sees is a universe that rolls the dice. The film’s narrative drags Hess from this starting point of despair and nihilism -- because he can’t see his purpose anymore -- to a point where he can, finally, “see” a form of universal order again.
Thus Graham overcomes, at great difficulty, the perceptual barriers that he has erected. But he does so only when he recognizes the “signs” that a greater force is looking out for him; only when aliens arrive on Earth to threaten the human race, not to mention his family. At this juncture, Graham finally sees the world beyond the barriers he has created; when he chooses to acknowledge a perceptual set, a way of seeing that changes his mind (and restores his faith) about God.
Signs features a number of images that reinforce the notion of perceptual sets or baggage, and the barriers they can create for the percipient. In short, those barriers prevent us from seeing important things. For example, the film features a preponderance of shots involving windows on the Hess farmhouse.
The book-end visuals of the film feature a window too (facing the backyard and corn field). The inaugural shot of the film focuses on this portal, specifically. It is a barrier of wavy glass; distorting the imagery beyond. The picnic table, hearth (a symbol of family) and other objects appear wrinkled, unreal, untrue to what they should be when viewed through this pane. This portal is a direct metaphor for Graham's sight at this point in the film. He is seeing the world, but in a twisted way.
Then, at the end of the film -- after Graham’s awakening -- that same window is seen once more.
This time, however, it is broken, meaning that life can be seen accurately “through” without distortion. The waviness is gone. Notice also the darkness/light differences of these book-end shots. Early on, Graham is aimless in gloomy night. By the film's end, it's a new day.
Another way to put it: Hess has metaphorically punched through that window pane, overcome his perceptual baggage, and found his true meaning or destiny once more. The windows and other barriers in the film serve as our “tell” that this story concerns the distance Graham has created from his true self, and the impediments he, himself, has created to seeing things in the way that, perhaps, he should.
As I’ve written before, I generally find critics unduly harsh to M. Night Shyamalan and his films. Why? They tend to nitpick every little thing in each story. And even the best storytellers are hard-pressed to explain everything that occurs in their stories. Many critics, then, you might say, have erected their own perceptual barriers when it comes to a film like Signs.
They ask questions about the nature of the aliens and their invasion, instead of focusing on M. Night Shyamalan’s visual expression of his theme; that our “truth” is dictated, in large part, by our perceptual sets and barriers; by what we select to see and acknowledge. We all look out on the world through windows, both invisible and not, and they don’t show us the truth; they show us our interpretation of it; what we have already chosen to “see.”
I won’t mince words about Signs, or the high regard I carry for the film. I believe the highest aesthetic in film is to match a good theme (like the one noted above), with a trenchant, reinforcing visualization of it. That’s my own perceptual baggage, you can conclude. A film’s imagery or symbolism must reflect or augment that which the story tells us. Signs absolutely achieves this apotheosis, and more than that, is a beautiful and arresting film -- visually and narratively -- about opening oneself up to a new or different way of seeing.
Now, some viewers might see the film as something else: a story explicitly re-affirming the mystery of faith. That’s fine too, if that's how you lean. Yet I view Signs primarily as a film about finding your purpose, and overcoming the perceptual luggage you haul around with you on a daily basis. It’s not so much that you must have“faith,” it’s that you open your eyes to the “signs” the universe is putting out. If you're closed down, shut-off, lost in your own anguish, you are not open to such signs.
In my reviews of the films of M. Night Shyamalan, I have focused largely on two ideas.
The first involves protagonists bereft of purpose; seeking their place in an unsettled or disordered universe. The second quality is some commentary on the art of storytelling itself. Although the latter factor is less pronounced here than in other Shyamalan films, Signs makes a point about it too.
At various points in the story, the Reverend Graham stops to tell his beloved children stories about how they were born; their origin stories, as it were. “Tell me the story of when I was born,” Morgan says at the height of the movie’s alien invasion.
Why does he ask for this?
Because there is predictability and comfort in a story you know well; in a story you’ve been told many times. We may see the world through a set of perceptual baggage, but sometimes that baggage also fulfills a purpose. It grounds us. It humbles us. It tells us who we are, or who we can be. And Graham, certainly, must undertake the task of remembering who he really is, in the course of the film. He remembers Morgan's story, but he has forgotten his own.
In his stories, Graham contextualizes the children -- Bo and Morgan -- in terms of their beginnings on this mortal coil. Stories are another way that we, as human beings, get to know people, or, oppositely, pigeonhole them.
Stories tell people where they come from, and who they are; or who we think they are. So our perceptual sets include the stories we have heard all our lives, and Signs plays delicately with this idea. At one point in the film, we even see a drawing of a farmhouse much like Graham’s in a UFO book…as it comes under attack from alien ships in that illustration. This drawing suggests another important “sign” to interpret, a story of “truth” outside the selective exposure (self-reinforcing ideas) I mentioned above in regards to Graham’s world view. He comes out of his bubble of longenough to realize, "gee, that looks a lot like our house..."
Dazzling, scary and affecting on a pure human level, Signs is the third straight Shyamalan cinematic home run in my book, and mostly because it pinpoints a symbolic way to help us experience and understand Reverend Hess’s journey. We all peer through our individual windows and judge life in our own way.
What if that way is wrong? What if we're missing signs all around us?
“We should keep all possibilities available.”
In Pennsylvania, an ex-reverend, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) mourns the death of his wife in a meaningless accident.
Six months have passed, and he feels alone, and confused, much to the sadness of his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and children, Bo (Abigail Breslin) and Morgan (Rory Culkin).
Soon, however, Hess must attempt to shake off his pain, because something strange occurs. In the corn field behind his farmhouse, a strange crop-circle has been carved by unknown and possibly malevolent forces.
As TV news reports soon indicate, such crop circles -- navigational aids, seen from space? -- are being detected all over the planet. Before long, a fleet of strange lights are detect in the sky over Mexico City.
Is Earth being invaded by aliens?
And if so, how can a despondent Graham summon the inspiration and strength to save his family when he can't even save himself?
“There’s no one watching out for us, Merrill. We are all alone.”
When I consider Signs, I think of two things: windows and the television sets.
In a way, they’re the same thing; they're connected. A TV set is actually a window of sorts, isn’t it? Much of Signs involves the idea of seeing through distorted lens, and that’s what the aforementioned “wavy” window to the backyard represents.
But that’s what the TV is too.
Throughout the film, we see the family’s TV set in close-up, insert shots as news breaks of strange crop circles, lights in the sky, aliens, and alien invasion. In the post-9/11 world, how we relate to images on TV is a significant idea.
Are the aliens a hoax? Can we trust our eyes? That’s a key question in the film, because Graham clearly does not trust his eyes. He knows of Bo’s obsession with water glasses, for example, but doesn’t see how it is relevant. He also knows of Merrill’s success in baseball, but doesn’t understand his wife’s comment to “see” and for Merrill to “swing away.”
These are, in a way, perceptual clues like those featured on the TV; ones that can initially be dismissed or judged a hoax, or even unimportant. To put it another way, Graham has some evidence of signs throughout the film (like the familiar farmhouse in the UFO Book…) that there is a kind of synchronicity occurring in his life, but he writes it off as unimportant, or as fake. He has selected the idea that life is meaningless, so he omits from his view anything that could be meaningful. He selects not to believe. It’s a very complex equation, and yet consistently applied throughout the film.
Even when the alien first invades Graham’s house, the being is first seen as a reflection on a television, as a view through a portal or window of sorts. I suspect this visualization occurs because of the film’s ultimate viewpoint that we all “see” the world through windows, accurate or false (like the wavy bedroom window pane). Before we face the alien -- who has chameleon-like qualities and thus deceive sight -- we see him on the TV...the box through which we look out to see the whole, wide world.
Why introduce the alien in the house in this way? Perhaps because this image is a reflection of how we see everything, through a particular lens. And perhaps to remind audiences that TV is not an honest narrator. We think what we see on TV is real, but news programs don't always have all the facts, or have all the facts right.
In some way, Graham’s journeyin Signs is about acknowledging the interconnection of his family, too. He has retreated into isolation and despair, and isn’t really “present” for his children when they need him. There are many shots included in the film where wein witness this separation in terms of visualization.
At one point, Graham sits on a staircase, separated from his brother and children and neaby the bannisters. They might as well be prison bars. They visually acknowledge the distance he feels from his loved ones, and that they feel from him.
Oppositely, Graham and his family get closer to the truth, it appears, when they are close; when they are connected and work together towards common cause. '
There’s an immensely creepy scene in the film early on during which Graham, Merrill, Bo, and Morgan form a human chain -- touching hands and arms -- and it is only then, when they are as one, that they get a clear signal on the baby monitor of the alien speaking.
Again, the visuals enhance the film’s story in a remarkably deep way here. Graham thinks he’s alone, and wallows in despair, and when he is separated from his family, they feel it too. But when the family works together -- when it toils towards common goals -- pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place.
Critics who dismiss Signs outright are simply not acknowledging or reading the visuals, not understanding how this story of overcoming perceptual baggage or barriers is imagined in terms of how Shymalan sees, and asks us to see.
Everything we need to know about Graham’s heroic journey is encompassed in the pictures, in the visuals of the film. We see his distorted vision. We register his separation. And we see our resolution, his rejoining with his family.
I know why people complain about Signs. I do. I hear it and read it from sources I respect and like all the time. Apparently, these good folks are disturbed by the fact that the aliens don’t have technology, are stopped by wooden barricades and doors, and choose to attack a planet rich with water.
Most of this criticism is hooey.
We never truly get into an examination of the alien culture in the film. Indeed, that would be a different story all together. We do know that the aliens want to take humans, and preserve the planet itself so its resources are available to them. These points of exposition explain the simple reason they attack us without technology, or even wearing armor. They land on Earth and use only “ground tactics,” according to the film’s dialogue, fearing a nuclear reprisal. Is it so hard to believe that aliens would be blocked by the same conventions that block us, another form of biped? We also can’t break through wooden doors and locks, right?
The silliest complaint about the film involves water. Why would the aliens come to Earth, a planet rich in water, if it is harmful to them?
Well, again, the answer is the same: they’ve come to take humans. Humans live on Earth, both far and near water. One might similarly ask of War of the Worlds, why would aliens invade a planet with so many germs that might kill them? Why didn't the Martians pick a different planet, either?
Well, in both cases Earth is available and valuable. It possesses life and resources. That is why it is a point of ambush and siege in both stories.
Similarly, we never see the aliens invade near bodies of water in the film. A graphic on television actually reveals the opposite, actually. We see a map of India, and the crop-circle locations are pinpointed. Notice that the marking are all inland, miles from water. It’s true that India is surrounded by water on three sides, but those pinpointed locations have no bodies of water near them.
So the aliens know that water harms them, but that they can still attack humans in place not near bodies of water, especially population centers. Why didn’t they factor running water into their equation?
Again, tell me why the Martians didn’t count on germs in War of the Worlds? Aliens are from a different place, and understand us, perhaps, as well as we understand them. Why do all movie aliens have to be omnipotent? Where is it written that this must be the case?
These criticisms represent the kind of selective elitism that infects so much science fiction fandom and film criticism. We instnatly accept the idea of vulnerable invaders in War of the Worlds who succumb to germs, but in Signs? Suddenly it’s death by a thousand nitpicks.
Signs succeeds as a work of art in another significant way as well. It builds suspense efficiently and relentlessly.
Some folks will tell you the moment of highest suspense fails because of the whole aliens-getting-killed-by-water idea is a no-bo, but few will state that the film doesn’t flawlessly, brilliantly build suspense towards that finale. This movie is scary, and tense to the extreme.
Signs also features two of the greatest jump scares of the early 2000s.
In one (the first) Graham looks out Bo’s window at night, and is surprised to see a monster of some sort staring back at him. The sudden appearance of that thing will send cold shivers down your back. But the view is so quick and startling that it fits in well with the movie's theme of sight. Suddenly, we're not so sure of our eyes. Did we really see that?
The second scene is truly terrifying too, though in a more overt way. We watch news footage on TV, captured at a birthday party in Mexico City, of an alien stepping out into plain view. This shot that is beautifully set-up and executed. Shyamalan films it found-footage style, meaning it feels immediate and real. Yet the effects also hold up incredibly well.
There is a malevolence and character in the stride of that monstrous thing as it comes into view, and lingers there. I swear I see disdain on its features as it pauses to acknowledge it has been seen.
It just doesn't care.
In an under-cover way, the alien appearance and personal also fits in with the fallible alien theory I stated above. Overconfidence and superiority-- hubris -- might be a quality of these beings, at least based on the way they attack the Earth, and venture into populated territories.
Regardless, I get an electric jolt of terror every time I watch these two scenes. They work on me every time.
Moments such as these are orchestrated with an eye towards maximum impact, and prove -- again -- that if M. Night Shymalan wanted to operate on the simple basis of jump scares or rollercoaster ride-style horror storytelling, he could easily choose to do so.
But pretty clearly, that kind of superficial terror doesn’t interest him.
What does interest him?
People who have wandered off the path, and can’t find their way back. These poor wretches are trapped in the metaphorical woods by their perceptual baggage, and that’s the key point to understand. They can’t see beyond a narrow viewpoint to realize they can achieve their destiny. The assumptions they carry with them are wrong, and they don't find out this fact until the denouement and the pieces come together.
Signs doesn’t have a trick ending in my book, either. For the duration of the picture, Graham Hess sees through a barrier of wavy glass. He can’t see the whole picture. Then, when the signs are acknowledged, he punches through that window, that perception of reality, and in floods the sunlight of belonging and meaning and hope.
So Signs is really the story of a man stepping into a larger world than the one he believed he existed in, told in unimpeachable visual style.
There are two kinds of people, as Graham would tell us at this juncture.
You can be the person who sees this movie, and decides that it's simply about aliens who can't open doors, and get hurt by water.
Or you can be the kind of person who opens himself up to the storytelling and symbolic imagery. You can register the movie as a deep and often profound look at the way humans see and don't see the important things around them
As always, it's your choice. But I'm in the second group.
Tomorrow: The Village (2004).