Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Own Sixth Sense -- Why Shyamalan is Not Serling and Never Was

-- Rod Serling
First let me say that I debated with myself about writing this post because I’m not particularly interested in singling out Mr. Shyamalan in such a public forum. Let me just say that there is a kind of bravery that all artists have to have because they put their work out there to be judged by just about anyone.

I have learned that few people have that kind of bravery.
So I only use Shyamalan as an exemplar of the kinds of mistakes I see made—often—by other writers and filmmakers these days.

I love movies. I know we all do, but because I haven’t liked many films since marketing took over the business in the ’80s, I get accused of being negative about film for the sake of being negative. There have been some great films in the last couple of decades but, in my opinion, the frequency of the truly great is far less than it was before. I would like nothing better than to have the feeling I had when I went to the movies as a kid in the 1970s and early ’80s. But that almost never happens anymore.

Many of my students know that I was one of the few dissenting voices when The Sixth Sense came out. I didn’t think it was that good. And please, I have heard all of the arguments for the film’s appeal. If you enjoy the film, I wish I was there with you, but I am not. This is not to say that I wasn’t sometimes entertained by the film, but I didn’t think it was very well written. In fact, there were times when I thought it was even amateurish.

I said, after I saw The Sixth Sense, that Shyamalan would probably never make a film people liked as much. That’s because all the flaws people are seeing in his work now are the flaws I saw in his early work. I was simply a canary in a coal mine.

How did I know? How did I have a sixth sense about Shyamalan’s future? Craft. I could see a lack of story craft. People who are not practitioners of something are often impressed with the obvious. People who don’t act, for instance, think that crying on demand is good acting. Or that being able to do accents or memorize lines is good acting. Trained actors know different. A lot of work that people don’t notice as easily goes into great acting.

In writing, the twist ending is one of the things that people are very impressed with. Since my first big writing influence was Rod Serling, all of my very early writing were stories with twist endings. It was one of the first things I learned to do writing-wise. So I ain’t impressed.

Rod Serling is often cited for his twist endings on his classic television show The Twilight Zone and so Shyamalan is often compared to him. Never mind that Serling had several Emmys for straight drama before he ever wrote the Twilight Zone.

But the thing that bothers me the most about this comparison is that Serling stories were driven by strong themes. Shyamalan’s are not.

Serling’s endings were linked to the story’s theme—not some theme that the viewer makes up in his head because the story was so vague and unfocused, but a real theme that was the reason to tell the story in the first place.

Let’s look at the original Planet of the Apes co-written by Rod Serling. It is very much like a feature-length Twilight Zone. (By the way, I used to tell people that Planet of the Apes was just a long Twilight Zone, that it had all the same structure, but people said that I was crazy. Then some guy cut a short version of the film and made it into a Twilight Zone and people were surprised how well it worked.)

Okay, back to the monkey movie. Planet of the Apes was a film where the twist blew people away. I was a very young kid when the film came out, but I remember my father and other people talking about it. The ending became quite famous.

In the opening of film an astronaut on a starship tapes a log. In it he talks about how long he’s been away from Earth and that much time would have passed on Earth because he and his fellow astronaut have been traveling a light speed. Then he says:

“I wonder if Man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who has sent me to the unknown...still makes war against his brother, and lets his neighbor's children starve.”

This is the theme that the entire films explores—are human beings essentially war-like, self-destructive creatures? The story never loses track of this.

So, Taylor, the astronaut, and his fellow travelers crash land on an unknown planet. At one point, as they walk through a desert looking for food and such, they have this exchange:

LANDON (heatedly): You thought life on Earth was meaningless. You despised people. So what did you do? You ran away.

TAYLOR: No, not quite, Landon. I'm a bit of a seeker myself. But my dreams are a lot emptier than yours. (pause) I can't get rid of the idea that somewhere in the Universe there must be a creature superior to man.

There it is again. Human beings are not so great.

Later Taylor is captured by intelligent apes with the power of speech. On this planet, human beings are primitive brutes that cannot speak (Taylor was injured during his capture and cannot talk). One of the apes, Dr. Zaius, talks to another in front of Taylor’s cage:

Zaius: Men are a nuisance. They outgrow their own food supply in the forest and migrate to our green belts and ravage our crops. The sooner they're exterminated, the better.

Here it is again. Humans are self-destructive. But this time out of the mouth of someone other than Taylor. Now Taylor finds himself trying to argue on the side of humanity.

This point of view is consistently stated throughout the film.

At the end of the film, Taylor escapes the apes and this strange planet only to discover the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. He has been on Earth the entire time. Humans have destroyed the Earth. This “twist” is right in line with what the film has been saying the whole time. We brought about our own destruction by way of a nuclear war.

If the three acts can be defined: Proposal, Argument, and Conclusion, then we can look at the tape log at the beginning of the film as a proposal. And the second act as the argument when the opening statement or proposal debated. So the conclusion of the film is proof positive of what the film has been saying all along.

This is not just a trick—it is storycraft.

But Shyamalan’s twist is a trick. It was clear to me from the start. Don’t take my word for it; listen to the way he talks about his film. He was only concerned about the trick of the film. The ending of the film was surprising and explained why things happened they way they happened in the story. But there was no thematic reason for that ending. None.

You may argue with this, but if he knew what he was doing why can’t he repeat it? Rod Serling was able to.

What I saw with The Sixth Sense has become visible to most people by now. When I saw the trailer for The Happening people were intrigued until M. Night Shyamalan’s name came up and then they groaned. I have been told by several people who have seen the trailer for Devil, a film he produced, that when Shyamalan’s name comes on the screen the audience laughs.

I have to say that within the first few moments of The Sixth Sense, I had to stifle a laugh because I thought the exposition was so clumsy. Now at least I am not laughing alone.


Unknown said...

Thanks for a great post Brian. While, I still like the Sixth Sense, I want to thank you for the clip of Rod Serling. As a younger writer, I was unfamiliar with him, but after reading your post, decided to look up more.
I have now spent a good deal of time watching any and all YouTube videos with him in it. What an insightful man with timeless wisdom.

Unknown said...

Hi Brian, I've quickly fallen in love with your blog and am anxiously awaiting delivery of your book. You mentioned earlier that you haven't liked any of Shyamalan's films. I agree with you completely, save Unbreakable. I'd like to know how you feel about this film. To me, this felt like his only honest twist ending. Sure, it doesn't address a question or statement posed at the start of the film, but it helped define Mr Glass' character and fulfill our hero's destiny. While surprising, it didn't come as a complete shock, nor did it feel unbelievable.


Brian McD said...

I’m really happy that you dig the blog. Thanks so much for reading it and for getting the book.

As for your question about Unbreakable… Here’s the thing I recently promised myself that I was done debating films and getting in the same arguments all the time. It’s bad for my blood pressure. That sounds like a joke, but it really isn’t.

Two really great friends of mine (Derek Thompson and Brian O’Connell) did all of the comic book art for that film. In fact some of Samuel L. Jackson’s character’s original comic book pages is from he comics I wrote. I really wanted to like this film. I didn’t.

When I saw the film I said that is was just one long first act. If you listen to Shalala talk about the film he says the same thing. Well, that’s not how stories work. That’s not my rule it is a basic rule of human communication. And has always been part of dramatic storytelling.

To not use this form Shyamalan would have to believe he knows more than Aristotle about what makes a story work. Is there much evidence that Shyamalan knows what makes a story work?

I am not saying that there weren’t some interesting things in the film. I am saying it does not work as a complete story.

Congratulations you are the one- millionth customer! This is the last time I do this. I just can’t talk about specific films anymore because people have an emotional attachment to them. And well they should, but then they want to like what they like and there is no real point in my trying to convince them otherwise.

I will say this; one knows s/he is growing when s/he can see flaws in the things s/he likes. And when a person can say that they used to like something, but have learned to look at things differently then they are really on their way to seeing thing objectively. This is a really hard skill for some. So hard they can’t imagine that it can be done. It can never be done entirely, but one can get pretty close.

Thanks for understanding that I can now talk in general terms, but won’t get into specific films anymore.

I hope the book helps you in some way.

-- Brian

Unknown said...


Thanks so much for your quick and articulate response. I didn't intend to put you in an awkward position, nor was I hoping to spark a debate or challenge your opinion. Like I said, Unbreakable is the only Shyamalan film I've enjoyed, but it is by no means one of my favourite films, and I definitely do not have any strong emotional attachments to it. Actually, upon reflection, I think, aside from the comic book theme which is close to my heart, what struck me the most about the film was the visible filmmaking. The noticeable stuff. I would find myself saying "That's cool how the character who's talking has their back to the camera or is mostly out of frame." and I thought making a movie out of a story's first act was interesting. These obvious things probably impress lay people and amateurs because we miss the hidden craft of the masters. I'm learning (I hope). Now I identify filmmaking techniques that are interesting but I try to recognize their failure as storytelling devices. I've been watching a few Godard films, and while I think they are full of interesting, original, and quirky techniques and tricks, rarely do I enjoy them as films.

I look forward to reading about the films you choose to discuss on this blog. I recently purchased and watched The Apartment. I loved it right off the bat, but I will be re-watching it again soon with a more analytical eye.

Thanks again!

Brian McD said...

Hello Hallis,

Sorry if my respones made you feel like I thought you were challenging me. I did not mean to do that.

It’s just that I have had literally hundreds of conversations over the years that all end up the same way. My passion for this sometimes gets the best of me and I get too worked up. As more people are starting to know me I find myself in many more of these situations and it just doesn’t work for me.

I’m sorry that my jack-assiness made you feel like I was blaming you for my personality quirks.

They are mine alone.

-- Brian

Unknown said...

Hi Brian,

No apology necessary. You did not come off as rude or even curt. Being Canadian, I perhaps apologize too often.

I'll leave it at that with the hope of having future discussions on more stimulating films and filmmakers in the comments sections of other entries.


Unknown said...

there is a scene in the early part of the movie where the mother sits and looks straight at the Bruce willis character.. leads one to believe that
they both exist in the same plain.. this makes the ending flawed. she looks to acknowledge him and the scene is misleading and should have been removed from the movie...
just my 2cents

Brian McD said...

Hello Sandy,

Yeah, I remember that. Good point. I felt like there were lots of things like that in the film. Strange inconsistencies. But I could overlook those things if I thought that everything was there to support the theme.

Logic problems are more visible to an audience if they are not in support of the theme.

Thank you for the comment. And thanks for reading.

-- Brian

Walter V said...

"If the three acts can be defined: Proposal, Argument, and Conclusion"

I know it's an old ass blog post, but this summary of three act structure is incredibly clarifying. I've read both "Invisible Ink" (multiple times), and "The Golden Theme", but putting it in terms of "proposal - argument - conclusion" clears away so much mental clutter for me. Combined that with the concept of an armature, and the idea of the "argument" being a sort of blood right where the proposal is debated in terms of the highest stakes possible... this is all incredibly useful stuff for story-telling.

Teleri said...

I certainly agree that Shyamalan is no Rod Sterling. However, I liked The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, unashamedly. I had no idea about the ending of the first - it surprised me. But that's not the reason I enjoyed the film. I liked the idea of the child who saw ghosts, and instead of going nuts learned how to cope & even help. For me this seems an important idea, taking something most see as misfortune, & turning it into a positive.
Same with Unbreakable - it looked at superheros from a realistic perspective, in a quite different way than most of us learned to see them from years of comic books. I quite liked that treatment.
I do think Shyamalan relies wayyyy too much on twist endings, to the detriment of his storytelling, however. I don't entirely hate his stuff, but I certainly don't go out of my way to see the films either.

Paul said...

Eurodites said to have a story unfold while telling it is the sign of a bloody fool. Yrs I was fooled, but am not a fool twice.