This week my home viewing has been concentrated on the work of M. Night Shyamalan, whose first four major movies (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village) were some of the first reasons why I began really loving movies in the first place. To be honest, I find it difficult to defend his latter work, and for many people this begins with The Village-–for them a convoluted period monster flic that slowly bleeds out what little believability it begins with until it limps, dying and confused, into its closing credits. But I am here today to proclaim that not only is it my favorite of Shyamalan's films, but it might be his best work altogether.
Reason #1: Dat Music, Tho
The films mentioned above all have superior music gifted to us by James Newton Howard. But the jewel in the collection is the beautifully melancholic suite he composed for violinist Hilary Hahn on The Village. Each note is full of sorrow and hope and loss, and the score is one of the greatest meditations on those themes in music. As a soundtrack it is risky, because it runs the possibility of overrunning the screen image it is meant to support, but it never overplays its hand or becomes pedantic. Indeed the music is the perfect accompaniment to the photography, and the mood which it carefully creates and maintains. Speaking of which...
Reason #2: Roger
I know, praising the work of master cinematographer Roger Deakins is like saying bacon is tasty, but that doesn't mean it can't be done genuinely. Of Shyamalan's films this is by far the best looking (although Eduardo Serra does some cool stuff in Unbreakable.) I mean, tell me that just the still frame of that chair on the porch doesn't make you want to cry. Tell me (if you've seen the movie, of course) that it doesn't infinitesimally increase your understanding of and sympathy for the characters. Tell me his use of color (while often brought to our attention by the dialog) never feels immaturely attention-seeking in itself. Indeed, it is the images Deakins captures, together with Howard's music, that floats the picture when the rest of it is shaky. This brings me to...
Reason #3: The Reason Most People Don't Like It
*This section gets spoilery.* While it is a solid aesthetic achievement, what really gets me (in a good way) about this film is how poorly its internal logic works out. And this is why most people don't like it. "Gee," they say, "it sure seems flimsy that they could live indefinitely in a wildlife refuge and no one would know." "Wouldn't Ivy immediately figure out that it was Noah and not a creature that she killed?" "Why do the elders speak in the weird 1890's speak even when they are alone?" "Couldn't they have brought modern medical supplies with them? No one born there would know the difference. Actually, why did they pretend to be homesteaders in the first place?" And so on.
The point is, I think that this flimsy logic is the point. Misreading it (and therefore being disappointed with the movie) comes out of misunderstanding what the movie is about. It is a love story above everything else. It is also an exploration of fear and guilt, and how those intersect with love. And to me, the fact that a story that they invented to preserve love from the corrosion of fear and guilt makes no sense at all, but that they desperately cling to it anyway, only adds to the poignancy of the whole thing. It is a kind of tragedy the sibling of which I cannot think of. Brendan Gleeson's character says of Ivy, after she has gone, to let her run toward hope. The beauty of the place is that she is free to do it, and if it is worthy, she will be successful. The tragedy is that the place is not worthy, but she will come back anyway and think, for a moment, that it is.
So I take for subtlety what others take for poor plotting. The film manages to tell a very sobering and melancholy tale without ever being despairing. It preaches earnestly and sincerely about love, its powers and wonders. And it turns around and mourns over the false hopes that love can inspire. I cannot think of another movie that makes me feel the way that it does. In doing so it reaches a tonal ambiguity that isn't found in the rest of Shyamalan's work. In that regard it is his most artistically satisfying piece for me, and the one that I can come back to most often. Finally...
Reason #4: Just Because
I know that the film is not without its faults. The dialect is sometimes clunky and distracting and the editing near the end cannot decide whether it is brilliant or just confusing. And I have tried to elucidate real reasons why I love this movie. But I think it comes down to the fact that I love it, just because I love it. Maybe it's because it came at just the right moment in my life: earlier and I would have ignored it, later and I would have scorned it. Maybe it's because it was the first movie that I ever sat through the credits of, thinking that I didn't know what I was feeling. Maybe it's because everyone has to have a terrible movie that they love, and this is mine. I don't know. But I hope you have at least one that you love and you cannot explain why, even when IMDb tells you that it is worse than that last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Seriously. Look it up.
And here's a selection from the score, in case you didn't believe me earlier.
Well, loyal readers, I'm back after something of a hiatus. However, I'm back in something of a different context, being in what might be something of a cinematic sequester for a few months, for timely theatrical viewing, at any rate. So for these next couple of months I am going to indulge in some more studied and intentional home viewing, and all seven of you get to be on the receiving end of that.
First up will be a discussion of the two great mythology-beatifying westerns: How the West Was Won, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Both films are stunningly beautiful examples of the totally disparate schools that produced them and obvious high-water marks in the genre. In comparing the two, I want to look at individual merit as well as overall impact on the genre, especially since we live in a largely post-"western" world. First up will be the first of the films to be released, 1963's How the West Was Won.
The film is almost equal parts hubristic passion project and insane National Parks PR campaign, and indeed, the film is almost as large as its subject matter: the West. ALL OF IT. From early expansion in Ohio through the gold rush, Civil War, Indian conflicts and railroad encroachment up to glorious Boomer-era capitalist triumph. It boasts an impressive cast featuring anyone who had ever been in a western, and was co-directed by 3 giants of the genre. It was shot and originally presented using the new panoramic "Cinerama" technology, which used three cameras and three projectors launching three synchronized images onto a huge concave screen for a more enveloping experience. It was a mammoth picture.
And, looking back at it with a few days' insulation, it is the picture's mammoth-ness that most sticks with this writer more than anything else. The photography is a little overwhelming. Of course it is beautiful (as evidenced above) but it is not a film that can really be transferred for home viewing. Because of the original panoramic nature of the projection, when this is seen on a flat screen it is a little dizzying. Sometimes there are two points of focus on the horizon, and almost always more than the human eye normally takes in. After a while one wishes (for the only time ever) for some kind of reduction in presentation ratio.
As a landmark in the western canon, the film functions as more of a toast and tribute than anything else. It celebrates the triumph of good old wholesome American-ness, in an era when such was being questioned and criticized more than ever. And, really, what else could it have been? The western up to that point was never anything less than that, from Stagecoach to High Noon to The Searchers. The film is the culminating statement in the decades-long treatise chronicling the subjugation of all nature and people by the righteous white man. And few films make that statement less ambiguously than How the West Was Won.
Contrast that with Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. (Yes, it's even better, maybe, than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Maybe.) It is an operatic fairy tale, incorporating Wagnerian leitmotifs perfectly with Leone's quintessential grit. It is a film of stark beauty and deep melancholy: a eulogy where How the West Was Won was a celebration.
The image that ties the two films together is the subduing of landscape by the railroad. This was the only "spaghetti" western to shoot outside of Europe, and there is some spectacular photography of Monument Valley. Here, the railroad brings corruption, greed, and an end to what innocence the West had notwithstanding its inherent violence. It brings new life as well, embodied by the film's heroine Jill, but she is hardly the kind of Eve found in How the West Was Won. In that film, the railroad was only ever a good thing, bringing together all good and hardy people for the last great colonization of the last frontier. That film ends with a showcase of the railroad's modern technological descendants; Once Upon a Time closes with the departure of the last man of his kind as the train pulls into the station, no longer welcome in his only environment.
But the film, notwithstanding its melancholy and occasional mourning, is not cynical. It canonizes rugged individualism of a different kind than its more patriotic cousin. That film is clean and bloodless in its conflict; this uses grit and dust and blood as its medium to paint a final portrait of the kind of American that no longer is.
So I say that Once Upon a Time in the West is probably the better film, although they are both worthy of viewing. But its artistry is more lasting and resonant, and its impact more appropriate given the landscape of our American west today.
As a bonus, here's an excerpt from Ennio Morricone's overwhelming score for Once Upon a Time in the West. I put it easily in the top 10 film scores of all time. In case you don't believe how seriously beautiful of a movie this is.
by Chase Harrison