M. Night Shyamalan has had one of the more — interesting? controversial? — trajectories of any filmmaker in recent memory. While no one remembers his first two movies (“Wide Awake,” “Praying With Anger“), it was 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” that made him a sensation, with many calling him the next Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. While that hasn’t held up, Shyamalan continued to mine the supernatural twist genre to increasingly diminishing returns, wearing out his audience’s taste for third act reveals by the time “The Happening” and its sinister trees arrived. Lately, he’s dove into full blown tentpole land with the nearly unwatchable “The Last Airbender” and this summer’s “After Earth,” but is Shyamalan secretly an arthouse filmmaker lost in the blockbuster world?
The filmmaker recently sat down to chat with DGA Quarterly and the entire conversation took place as Shyamalan watched “The Last Picture Show,” a movie he unabashedly loves. “I think Peter Bogdanovich’s mastery of tone in this film is the holy grail of filmmaking,” he enthused, watching the Criterion Blu-ray. “I’m voraciously after that as both an audience member and a filmmaker.”
Moreover, the director openly admits to lifting shots — consciously or not — in his other movies, naming the kissing scene between Sonny and Charlene as one of them he borrowed for “Signs.” “You know, it’s funny, I see a bunch of stuff from ‘Signs’ in here that I must have ripped off. I also did a thing with a dolly shot where it seems like it stops and the shot is done, then it’s not. I loved that. I’m such a thief!”
It’s a coming-of-tale that features neither CGI, twists nor even color film stock is one of the early, great 1970s American films, that is as much about capturing a mood than anything to do with telling a point A to point B story. And curiously, it’s this kind of thing that Shyamalan claims to truly admire, citing two particularly important filmmakers. “I want to make tonal movies [like this], where plot is almost obscene,” he shared. “In fact, I think I get in trouble because my movies are presented as plot driven vehicles, so I’m perceived more for that characteristic when in reality my tastes are more here, more like [Stanley] Kubrick and [Michaelangelo Antonioni’s] ‘Blow-Up.’ ”
“What’s fascinating about the film is that you can’t tell where you are in it,” Shyamalan reflects about ‘Last Picture Show.’ “If somebody came in now, they couldn’t tell. It’s unusual. The plots come and go irrelevantly as side affairs, and little storylines pop up; Jacy manipulating Sonny to get married, or going to the pool party. It feels like plot, so you’re thinking, ‘Oh, our two main characters are finally getting together,’ but then it doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s all textural.”
And in the end, the filmmaker is truly taken with how much Bogdanovich accomplishes with seemingly so little. “It isn’t indulgent. It’s just naked in the very best way. Any more words would’ve spoiled it,” he explains. “I love just sitting in a moment, but I know that hurts plot. You lose momentum. So to see a movie that relies solely on tone, and relegates plot to its rightful place in the second position, is thrilling.”
Of course, the obvious thing to say at this point is, “Hey M., why don’t you actually go make one of those movies?” But in today’s climate, you can’t feed yourself or your family on ennui and existentialism, but man, we’d kinda like to see Shyamalan give that a whirl. As much as his works have take a sharp nosedive, at his best, he really does know how to shoot a picture and evoke an atmosphere and we’d be curious to see him get arthouse on us. Until then, we have Will and Jaden Smith saving the Earth with explosions.