Thursday, August 6, 2015

Birthday Take: M. Night Shyamalan in "The Sixth Sense" (1999)

Scene from The Sixth Sense
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: M. Night Shyamalan
Born: August 6, 1970 (45 years old)
Nomination: Best Director (nominated) for The Sixth Sense

The Take

A lot of press has focused on M. Night Shyamalan over the past 15 years. It does seem inevitable, largely because he was something special. He was a director that you had strong hope for. It is hard for modern audiences to fully understand what that something special is, especially with his most recent films being The Last Airbender and After Earth. His work isn't reflective of an auteur who 15 years ago won over our hearts and was penned to be the next Steven Spielberg. Did Shyamalan fall into the hype, or was he always a one trick pony to begin with? It is a debate that will forever haunt him - especially as majority of his work is original properties that take on his love of supernatural culture in very unique ways. They may be grating, but you can rarely accuse Shyamalan of being as hacky as his peers - in theory.

Some would suggest that he made one good movie. Others would claim that this is a more recent trend, often with the verdict being somewhere past his 2004 film The Village. However, one must understand why Shyamalan was a big deal initially. In 1999, he released The Sixth Sense, which racked up Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture and Best Director. These are insane prospects that rarely are given to directors of thriller films such as The Sixth Sense. His story itself was a fantastic example of suspense, even showing how things slowly unraveled to reveal the final clue - which has been unfortunately ruined by countless pop culture references. 

Before you claim that this was all solely the credit of the script, just consider the direction behind the film. If one takes a quick visit and researches the technique to make the film, it will begin to make sense why the film works so well. Certain characters aren't seen walking through a door to indicate something deeper about their colors. Others have specific color patterns to indicate something else. The film is rich with symbolism that reflects a filmmaker who at very least paid attention to his details. The Sixth Sense is a film that doesn't immediately make you forget it. Even if you don't like it, you may come away appreciating the technique and understanding why a thriller film managed to even make it into the Best Picture category, especially by a relatively unknown talent like Shyamalan.

To some extent, this may be the biggest deceit in his later career. Where The Sixth Sense is intricately plotted out, his later films feel more like twisted scripts than direction that adds layers to the image. True, Unbreakable and Signs are generally fun films that showed the director's growth. Some would even debate The Village, though it hung on a very dull gimmick that loses its appeal on second watch. In the case of The Sixth Sense, the gimmick isn't there for just immediate shock. It was also there to allow you to unravel how the director got there. By comparison, his other films are lazy. Entertaining, but lazy. Unfortunately, his last few films have been among his least revered, so it is hard to write this without thinking of just calling him wasted potential. 

But Shyamalan keeps working. He may not be the best like he used to, but he does continue to make films that are unique and suspenseful to varying degrees. Contrary to popular belief, I do think that he is still a good writer. The only issue is that this is usually in the hands of other people. For instance, see Devil, which pits his script against confined spaces to an effective degree. He may not be the best and even a new masterpiece may be hard to accept from him, but The Sixth Sense is a great example of what a director with ambition and hope can do, and how it can inevitably lead to a downfall as well.

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